Sparks fly and a hammer beats against the wall. People pass each other in the doorway, carrying out neon lights, a 200-pound radiator, and huge sacks full of dust. One of them is a designer, another an artist, the third one an advertising creative, and there are dozens more here all doing makeshift construction for free. Together they are building the new art and creative center, a 30,000-square-foot space in Bratislava — without an investor.
The story of the Cvernovka community, a group of like-minded people who live and work together, is an example of an increasingly prevalent artistic culture in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Twenty-seven years after the fall of Communism, the city's artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and makers are giving historical spaces a new function in order to make room for enduring cultural vibrancy and new ideas.
For tourists looking to experience this side of Bratislava, the five-star boutique hotel Albrecht is a good start. It is set in the space of a former restaurant owned by of the Albrechts, a family of Slovakian winemakers. The current owner restored the space to its original glory from more than a hundred years ago, and now provides high-end, modern accommodations. The reconstruction of the decayed interior was awarded a CE∙ZA∙AR, an important prize of the Slovak Chamber of Architects.
When night falls in Bratislava, people flock to the city center. This is where the founders of KC Dunaj set up a nightclub and music venue on the fourth floor of an unkempt shopping center with a beautiful view of the Bratislava Castle. Inspired by Budapest‘s ruin pubs - stylish bars set up in decaying buildings - the club owners were deliberately searching for an unused space with hidden potential. There is an allure to this temporary space that attracts huge crowds of young people for concerts and themed parties. Thanks to the demographics of its patrons, the club also offers a space for socio-political discussions. Same goes for the underground location of Fuga, which offers experimental and dark metal music acts; Subclub, located in a former fallout shelter and was the birthplace of the Slovak techno and electronic music scene; and A4 - Zero Space, which hosts experimental music as well as theatre acts.
"Beauty in Bratislava also emerges in the least probable places," says Jana Németh, the cultural editor of the Slovak daily, Denník N. "One can see the ability to create places full of energy behind the walls of buildings which were for years considered decayed, uninteresting, weird, or useless — buildings that often lost their original purpose and it seemed that they couldn't find a new one."
Perhaps the most vibrant examples of this rediscovered potential are the Bratislavan art museums thriving in repurposed spaces. Tourists should pay a visit to the Slovak National Gallery, with its starkly incongruous extension built in the Communist era by the world-famous architect Vladimír Dedeček. A hidden gem of Slovakian architecture and fine art is the Nedbalka Gallery, which was built in an old bank. In the end, the reconstruction from architectural relic to inviting gallery cost over 1.5 million Euro. Its circular interior resembles New York's Guggenheim Museum.
Nedbalka was established by Peter Paško, the founder of the world-renowned antivirus company ESET. "We were looking for a space where we could exhibit our paintings and some photographs from our travels," he says. "When we found the space of the former bank, the scale of the project shifted completely. The collection of paintings had to be expanded and, due to the unique space, it had to be exquisite." On every street, in so many historical buildings, there is that same sense of expansion and renewal of tradition in Bratislava.
If you walk down Laurinská Street, you will see beautiful design shops in decaying historic landmarks. On a Saturday, you can visit the farmers' market at the Old Town Hall, which bursts with people - just as it did a hundred years ago - thanks to the work of active young enthusiasts. You'll see the upside-down pyramid building of the Slovak National Radio, one of the most stylistically controversial buildings in the city. One thing is for sure: Bratislava hides its beauty in the most unexpected places.