CENTRAL EUROPE AS CITY.

I’m a sucker for writers reminiscing about cities they know and love, and this issue of Eurozine feeds that craving. Levente Polyák in “Coherent fragmentation” provides a good summary of what’s special about Central Europe:

If a city is text, then the Central European city is hypertext. Street names and even parts of cities have no choice but to bear the names of other parts of the region – think of the Krakovo district of Ljubljana or the Praga district of Warsaw. It is the Central European mix of languages, words, signs and melodies which crystallizes in urban space, with the theatres scattered over the territory of the Monarchy in the style of the Fellner and Hellmer workshop, or the startling buildings of Joze Plecnik. Perhaps it’s the notion of “radical eclecticism”, which the architect László Rajk used to try to put into words Budapest’s architectural traditions and sources of inspiration, refers to these temporal and spatial wanderings of symbols. An alternative city guide describes Warsaw as an “eclectic cocktail”.

I particularly recommend Jirí Trávnícek’s article on “Brno and its literary image,” which suggests that Brno has poetry but not much else in the way of literature (the two stories that native son Milan Kundera devoted to it were removed from his collected works), and Juraj Spitzer’s “Castle, cathedral and river: The soul of Bratislava,” which laments the destruction of much of the old multicultural Prespork and describes the author’s astonishment on coming to the city from mountainous central Slovakia some sixty years ago. (If you can’t stand urban nostalgia, please ignore this post!)

Comments

  1. Spitzer’s article is 10 years old and a lot has changed since then – Suché mýto, for example, has undergone serious revitalization and while it never again will look like this, it certainly isn’t a concrete jungle anymore. Which, by the way, is a strange usage of the term – it’s usually reserved for communist-era apartment buildings like the ones in Petržalka. Café Štefánka (where I had the most amazing apple pie ever) still stands or at least the building does. Last time I checked, it was closed and apparently there were some property disputes going on, but that was a year ago, time to check in again.
    As for the nostalgia for the old multicultural multilingual Prešporok, I find it difficult to get behind and not just because I’m a recent transplant from Eastern Slovakia who doesn’t get it. Most old Prešpuráci who talk and write books about old Prešporok were not there – it was pretty much gone by late 1930s – and their nostalgia rings hollow. Also, I’m not sure it ever really existed – until the early years of the Czechoslovak republic, Bratislava was a predominantly German city and the multilingual population was confined to a portion of the higher classes. It’s that class undertone I hear every time someone speaks of old Bratislava, i.e. Bratislava before all those dirty villagers/Czechs/Easterners fucked it all up. But hey, I’m a cynical pinko bastard, so take that with a truckload of salt.
    What remains irrevocably true is that there have been many barbaric deeds done to the face of “our scarred city” as one pundit called it during a recent episode of the never-ending debate on the urban design of Bratislava. Item 1 on the indictment will definitely be the tearing down of the Jewish quarter and the fisherman villages (collectively referred to as Podhradie) to make place for that monstrosity of a bridge. And one small barbaric deed follows another, like the glass palaces of the nouveau riche towering over the city or high-rise building in historic quarters where the going rate in bribes is apparently 10.000 € for each additional storey. My favorite of the new ones is the redesign of a section of Hviezdoslavovo námestie ordered by our servile right-wing politicians solely for the purpose of increasing security (by adding a goddamn checkpoint) for the US embassy. “Our contribution to the fight against terrorism,” one right-wing nutjob pundit called it. With assholes like this one and the former mayor who approved the works, I don’t expect the face of this city to heal any time soon.

  2. Trond Engen says:

    Your Wikilink says that the Nový Most (I thought that name by international conventon was reserved for the oldest bridge in town) “[...] is the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge to have one pylon and one cable-stayed plane. [...] It is an asymmetrical cable-stayed bridge with a main span length of 303 metres. [...] The total length of the bridge is 430.8 metres [...]“. But my local single-pylon cable-stayed bridge, Grenlandsbrua, is 608 m long with a main span of 305 m.

  3. I’m not an expert (and our resident architect is out of the office today), but I think the difference is in the “one cable-stayed plane” bit: Grenlandsbrua has cables coming out of each support tower which connect to the respective sides of the bridge, whereas on Nový Most, the all the cable are connected to the center of the bridge.

  4. Trond Engen says:

    Ah, thanks, that makes sense. I read it as refering to a one-piece bridge deck (not that that made any sense either). That’s what I get for not knowing terminology.

  5. That’s what I like about Language Hat, the discussion may include European structural engineering trends. One further question: single-tower suspension bridges are so common nowadays; are they cheaper to build than an equivalent span with two towers or is it a fashion statement started by Calatrava, or both? (Or neither?)

  6. Trond Engen says:

    I may not be the best source for the cutting edge of current trends. At least not according to my daughter.
    Single-tower bridges, at least the asymmetric ones, are usually cable-stayed, not suspension bridges. They are definitely more expensive (unless there are geological reasons to concentrate the foundations in one spot). In the case of Grenlandsbrua, the reason was the winning architectural design of Lund + Slaatto and Lunde og Løvseth, capturing the different shapes of the landmass on both sides. I don’t remember the exact factor of increase of estimated costs, but I think it was around 2, having to do with both the need for a higher tower and more complicated building of the deck.

  7. Someone I once knew defended the engineering of a particular, single tower, cable-stayed bridge by saying it overcame a problem of poor ground conditions (for foundations) on one side of the river. The bridge, he said, was held by the cables so that it barely touched the soft ground on the side without the tower.
    While this is plausible, it might also be a smoke-screen rationalisation concealing an aesthetic judgement.
    When form is obliged to follow function, in my view, sometimes the function is recast until it leads, apparently inevitably, to the preferred form.

  8. pk: When form is obliged to follow function, in my view, sometimes the function is recast until it leads, apparently inevitably, to the preferred form.
    That’s right, and it’s a good thing – what do you want: function rules, the garbage cans right by the entry because it’s more convenient for the truck? It’s called “interpreting the program”.

  9. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, the cable-stayed bridge is very good for poor ground, and I think this is the main reason for the renaissance of the design from 1990 or so. With towers in the first and third quarterpoints, each half-deck is suspended in perfect balance. Sure, this goes for a suspension bridge too, but while the suspension bridge needs a massive anchor on each side for the cable force, the cable-stayed bridge can be self-anchored (except for wind). (Strictly speaking a suspension bridge can be self-anchored too, but it’s harder to achieve.)

  10. Trond Engen says:

    Let me also say that my badly hidden love for bridges is orthogonal to Bulbul’s lament for the old quarters that were wiped out. I’m perfectly capable of harbouring both loves, and one should be able ro plan society accordingly.

  11. On the subject of Central Europe and architects, this is an amusing little vignette (short version; Chinese property developers hire German architects to design a typical German town for a suburb of Shanghai, and the architects came up with typical post-war Neubauten that no-one in China wants to live in). I don’t imagine those architects will get much more business from that part of the world.

  12. AJP… That’s right, and it’s a good thing…
    I don’t necessarily disagree except when there is a kind of intellectual fraud going in which mangled rationales are used to support an otherwise respectable subjective choice.
    I was at a client meeting where the eminent architect was being berated by the client about blue glazed bricks. ‘Why do we have to have them imported from Belgium?’ he fumed.
    ‘Because I like them!’ said the architect.
    Bravo! No twisting in the air looking for a dubious justification here (and it silenced the client.)
    I am an engineet but I wouldn’t want to live in a world where the perfect drainage layout set the geometry of the city. Engineering should serve the higher ambitions. But let’s not make the enginneering perjure itself in defining those ambitions.

  13. I’m perfectly capable of harbouring both loves
    So am I. Alas, the planners of the 1960s were not.
    BTW, here is a set of pictures and maps that’ll give you a better idea of what was lost.

  14. J. W. Brewer says:

    I think bulbul is right that too much nostalgia for Hapsburg-era multiculturalism/urbanity skips over the various illiberal aspects of Habsburg rule which were causally implicated in those nice surface features. (And, in general, too many people who think that Multilingual Societies Are Way Cool are reluctant to consider that they tend to do better in highly illiberal political environments.) Juraj Spitzer (1919-95) was old enough to remember the old Bratislava architecturally speaking but born just a little bit too late to have had direct experience of Hapsburg rule. But on the other hand he had considerable experience of the varied even-worse alternatives the denizens of both Pressburg and rural Slovakia subsequently managed to stumble upon and/or have foisted upon them.

  15. Frankfurter Architektenbüro Albert Speer & Partner did zer masterplan. I love the idea of opening a German-Austrian restaurant in China.

  16. Multilingual societies tend to do better in highly illiberal political environments
    San Francisco, New York, London…?

  17. Trond Engen says:

    pk: Oh, a fellow engineer! So I probably explained the obvious up there.
    If only Siganus came along, we could try to crowd out the architects.
    bulbul: That’s all gone? What a loss.
    I didn’t notice before now that the bridge was finished in 1972. That was at the culmination of the age of demolition. And I mean everywhere, not only in Communist Europe. In Bergen the Hanseatic quarter of Bryggen (Hat’s filter has a grudge on Unesco, so copy the link and add the naughtylooking letter in http://whc.unesc.org/en/list/59) was almost demolished for an upgrade of the road along the waterfront. In Oslo the tide turned after the demolition of the old worker’s quarter of Enerhaugen in the sixties, saving neighbouring quarters like Kampen. In my town it lasted a little longer — thiswas torn down and replaced by this in the seventies and early eighties.

  18. J. W. Brewer says:

    AJPC: sustainably multilingual over time w/o constant new immigration. Works best when the boundaries between social groups speaking different languages are comparatively impermeable because you can’t easily marry across them and you can’t easily have access to different economic/political/social opportunities than your ancestors in your particular group did. A government with no interest in educating you or concern about how you might vote is also a plus here. Ottoman-era Salonika is a nice example: how did Greek/Macedonian/Turkish/Ladino (with Albanians and Vlachs passing through as well . . .) all coexist for so long?

  19. If a city is text, then the Central European city is hypertext. Street names and even parts of cities have no choice but to bear the names of other parts of the region – think of the Krakovo district of Ljubljana or the Praga district of Warsaw.
    That is surely not unique to Central Europe, but something true of almost all cities. To take London, you could probably tick off most of a British gazetteer from its street names, and include a considerable part of the rest of the world as well.

  20. pk, (sorry, I missed seeing your reply) ‘Because I like them!’ said the architect. Bravo!
    See, I tried that once when I was a student and this very eminent guy on the jury said “Well, but then I just have to say ‘I don’t like them’, it’s no argument, no way to convince anyone else”. He was right, I think. I haven’t done it since.

  21. Trond, it’s amazing that they considered putting a road through Bryggen in Bergen, especially when you look at what had happened to it during the war. From Norwegian Wikipedia, my translation (you need to know that Bergen was part of the Hanseatic League, and that Bryggen was the wharf area):

    After an accidental explosion on 20 April 1944, plans were made to demolish Bryggen, and Terboven [Nazi Governor of Norway] received support from experts on Bergen City Council to level the area. Terboven saw it as a labyrinth of courtyards, ideal for hiding resistance members, such as the Theta group and its radio transmitter. Despite this, powerful members of the local population [who opposed the destruction] succeeded in gaining support, not least from Professor Hermann Phleps at the technical University in Danzig (Gdansk), who undertook a thorough inspection of the devastated buildings and concluded that “the German Quarter” could easily be saved. The rescue was accomplished utilising the war material “Domus discs”, that quickly became soaked through in the rain and easily crumbled away, but nevertheless protected 8,000 square meters of roof surface temporarily. The roofs were not the only problem. The explosion had also raised Bryggen into the air and let it fall back down on the ground, so that jacks were needed to make the houses more or less square again. But the area was saved, much to the satisfaction of Halvor Vreim, architect for the national historic preservation department, who had already written off Bryggen.

  22. Man, I never know what posts are going to develop such interesting discussions (though I did intend this as bulbul-bait). Kudos to all; my architectural education is continuing apace!

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Yes, I too like the free architecture education. I am a little confused about modern bridge architecture, but I guess I should just consult wikipedia.

  24. Boston has the widest cable-stayed bridge.

  25. The Triune Monarchy of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania was also multilingual:

    Where the posters would have been were bills in Gothic, Avar, Glagolitic (Slovatchko), Romanou, and even — despite the old proverb, “There are a hundred ways of wasting paint, and the first way is to paint a sign in Vlox” — Vlox.

    –Avram Davidson, “Polly Charms, the Sleeping Woman”
    There is evidence that Gothic was spoken mostly in Scythia, Avar mostly in Pannonia, and Vlox mostly in Vlox-Majore and Vlox-Minore aka The Mud. This last name is apparently not a variant of Vlach, but a mispronunciation of the endonym Veloshchii. Next to the Triune Monarchy are Ruritania and Graustark, where German is spoken (or was until all these countries collapsed after WWI), though their onomastics clearly show a substratum of non-Germanic languages in both.

  26. AJP: Now that I think of it, the Bryggen story looks a bit suspect, so I guess I should do some research. In my youth in Beregn it was told as a scary tale of the bad old fifties and sixties, and I never questioned it, but it may have been just a proposition from some chamber-of-commerce-like group, not an official plan with political backing. But I do remember a TV clip of an angry man in the street being asked about Bryggen and saying Riv hele skiten! “Tear down the whole shit!”. Part of it was — paradoxically in light of your wartime story — its percieved connection to Germany. An important part of the conservation effort was to have it renamed from Tyskebryggen “The German Wharf”. Another story I might research.

  27. I didn’t know you were from Bergen – a beautiful city, my favourite in Norway (except for the rain), I love its cobbled street paving with fan patterns and non-slip ramps (for horses to be able to climb when they pulled heavy loads) on the hills. This article says cobbles (brostein) are at least four times more expensive to lay than asphalt, but on the other hand, they last six times longer. Also they slow traffic (a good thing in the middle of a city).
    It says on the Norwegian wikipedia that it’s also known as Hansabryggen, which seems to me a better name than Tyskebryggen.
    The English wikipedia has better Bryggen pictures, as well as a tiny video.

  28. Avram Davidson was a wonderful and sadly underappreciated writer, and I recommend his Doctor Esterhazy stories (about the Triune Monarchy of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania) to all and sundry.

  29. Of course, that sentence John Cowan quoted is a better advertisement for Davidson than anything I could write; I still remember it many years after reading the story.

  30. Trond Engen says:

    My family moved a couple of times, but I had my teens in Bergen. Too late to pick up the language but early enough to pick up the football team.
    I do love the city and the old quarters clinging to the hillsides. Sadly, half of Nordnes was destroyed in the Vågen explosion of 1944.
    The idea of demolishing Bryggen to upgrade the road should be understood in the context of the clogged traffic of the narrow old streets. Bergen’s problems weren’t solved until they built the “roadtoll ring”, innovative of its time, in 1985 or so. Now there are bridges and tunnels everywhere, and the current project is a light rail line to the airport.

  31. Trond Engen says:

    For some value of “solved”, of course.

  32. Trond,
    That’s all gone?
    All gone.
    That was at the culmination of the age of demolition.
    It started in the early sixties over here and one of these days I’d love to see a detailed study of the decision making process, because this is modern Slovakia in a nutshell: modernity vs. conservativism, christian nationalism vs. communism, technocrats (communist ones at that) vs. traditionalists and the requisite foreign influence.

  33. hat,
    though I did intend this as bulbul-bait
    I know, I know…
    I recommend his Doctor Esterhazy stories
    Ordered!

  34. Ooh, I do want to hear what an actual Central European thinks of the Doctor Eszterhazy tales. Please blog them!

  35. Seconded!

  36. marie-lucie says:

    their onomastics clearly show a substratum of non-Germanic languages in both.
    I don’t want to spoil the fun, but this reminds me that I would like to find a good source about the non-Indo-European element in Germanic (not recent borrowings of course).

  37. I’ll try. Can’t promise more than that, seeing as while shit remains fucked up, I barely have time for reading…

  38. Marie-Lucie: in answer to your question, I can tell you that, as a non-Indo-Europeanist, the most impressive article (sober and informative) on the topic I have ever read is Eric P. Hamp’s “The Pre-Indo-European Language of Northern Europe”, in John Greppin and T.L. Markey (Eds) WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE: INDO-EUROPEANS AND PRE-INDO-EUROPEANS (Karoma, 1990). You might also want to take a look at the work of Theo Vennemann: while his work on early language contact involving Germanic is controversial (to say the least), scholars whose judgment I trust have assured me that his bibliography on the topic is exemplary in its thoroughness.

  39. …and bulbul, if you have any thoughts on the Slovakian reaction to the Euro crisis I’d be very interested to hear them.

  40. AJP,
    my initial reaction can be found on FB. In short, I think this is nothing but posturing by a bunch of populist clowns trying to fire up their base.

  41. Trond Engen says:

    In short, I think this is nothing but posturing by a bunch of populist clowns trying to fire up their base.
    I think that goes a long way to explain the whole damn’ economic meltdown. And as the meltdown progresses, so does the posturing and the populism. 1933, here we come!
    (With the caveat that populism may be a dangerous word to use, with very different connotations in different countries.)

  42. With the caveat that populism may be a dangerous word to use
    Absolutely. In fact, I paused just after posting it because where I come from, the usual definition of populism is “saying whatever gets the most people on your side” and that is not what the d-bag in question is doing. He is just using a popular, but by no means majority, sentinment to play to his base.

  43. I think this is nothing but posturing by a bunch of populist clowns trying to fire up their base.
    Ok, but €10 billion here and €10 billion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money.

  44. Trond Engen says:

    There’s one good thing to say about the handling of this crisis: It gives a lot of mediocrats, on both sides of the Atlantic, their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pose as masters of the universe.

  45. J. W. Brewer says:

    I was inspired by this thread to pick up “The Avram Davidson Treasury” from a local public library. Not sure how much Esterhazy it will have in it, but the intro to a story featuring other made-up Mitteleuropaische ethnicities (the Slovos and the Huzzaks, who apparently did not get on particularly well as neighbors in the old country and are now slowly assimilating into American-ness in a town called Parlour’s Ferry) gives a quote from a letter from Davidson discussing real ethnic groups from bulbul’s neck of the woods:
    “Local attitudes in Yonkers [where AD grew up before WW2] went like this: ‘What about the Czechs?’ ‘The Czechs . . . The Czechs are all right. They have funny names but basically they are all right.’ ‘And the Slovacks [sic]?’ ‘Well . . . the Slovacks . . . they work hard . . .. but on Saturday night they get drunk and beat up their wives and kids, the Slovacks . . . they don’t wear hats . . . they wear _caps_!’ ‘And the Carpatho-Ruthenians?’ Answer: ‘Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!’ I never heard anybody mention them without laughing. To this day I don’t know what is or is supposed to be so damned funny about the Carpath-Russian-Ruthenians. NO idea.”

  46. the Slovacks . . . they don’t wear hats . . . they wear _caps_!
    I vehemently object to this vicious slander. Of course we wear hats.

  47. But do you wear hats in Yonkers? That’s the question.

  48. Where are Yonkers, anyway?

  49. Way over yonder, I presume…

  50. Over the Bronx, actually, rather than over Yonder.

  51. Surely a cap is a kind of hat. And no doubt a Yonk is a kind of Bronk, too.

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