The future used to be more vibrant and luminous than it feels today. The futuristic buildings and monuments of the 1960s and ’70s prove it. But much of what was designed by architects like Verner Panton or the young Hans Hollein has since fallen victim to the tides of economization. Many have been modified or torn down altogether. Only in Eastern Europe do proliferations of structures still protrude into the skyline, as witnesses to the period’s erstwhile hopes and dreams. There, the corresponding utopic phase lasted longer. While in Western Europe, the unabated optimism about the future was halted by the 1973 oil crisis, in the former states of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, arresting symbols of universal, modernist progress were still being constructed right up to the late 1980s.
In recent years, artists such as Marko Lulić and David Maljković have hauled some of these monuments out of the Yugoslavian back catalogue and into public consciousness. In Jasenovac (2010), Lulić got dancers on the stage to ‘re-enact’ Bogdan Bogdanović’s 1966 antifascist memorial in Jasenovac, Croatia. Maljković , for his part, reanimated the Vojin Bakić-designed 1982 memorial for the victims of the Second World War in Petrova Gora as a spacey backdrop for his video trilogy Scene for New Heritage (2004–06).
The annals of Czechoslovakian architecture, on the other hand, had long remained undiscovered. Architectural historians carried out the initial research, and in 2007 the book Eastmodern: Architecture and Design of the 1960s and 1970s in Slovakia was published. Only now, eight years later, is the equivalent attention being roused in the field of art. Interestingly, the renewal is not occurring in a performative manner – an artistic tradition which can be traced back to Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque (1972) – but rather in the form of ‘classical’ architectural photography. To date, Margherita Spiluttini had been considered Austria’s only photographer working across both the architectural as well as fine art fields. Now though, Hertha Hurnaus has entered the frame.
Hurnaus’s exhibition Dedeček, at Galerie Krobath in Vienna, is entirely dedicated to the Slovak architect Vladimír Dedeček (Hurnaus had previously documented some of his works for the Eastmodern book). Dedeček’s oeuvre includes such distinctive buildings as the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava (1967–69) and the Slovak University of Agriculture in Nitra (1961–66, together with Rudolf Miňovsky). However only façade details or individual interior spaces can be seen in the photos of these buildings on show. The structures emerge, then, as if excavated from their surroundings: tidied up and devoid of people. The images were shot on an analogue six by six Hasselblad camera. The resultant square format gives rise to a conspicuous composure and calm, aided by restrained, soft colours. Pigment printed onto matt fine art paper, the images are mounted without passe-partout in light gray, wooden frames. All together this results in a languid, timeless feel. In the images (all Untitled, 2004–14) it genuinely seemed as if life and futurity had literally drained out of these once futuristic scenes.
Hurnaus’s approach is at once resolute and discrete. In their entirety, her images do not just open up a melancholic view onto an abandoned future, but also point to a far-flung discourse that is not so easy to intuit. Despite the differences in political systems and the language of their forms, these icons of Slovak architecture bear a stunning resemblance to those of Arne Jacobsen, Verner Panton, Alvar Aalto or Oscar Niemeyer in Scandinavia or South America. Dedeček’s bridge construction for the Slovak National Gallery, for example, resembles Lina Bo Bardi’s Museu de Arte in São Paolo (1968), his wide, arched passageway in the inner courtyard of the Institute for Mathematics and Physics in Bratislava could just as easily be located in Brasília. Evidently spatial distances carry less weight than temporal ones. Temporally-speaking, this modernity couldn’t seem further away.
Translated by Joel Scott