Modernity and Tradition between Ideologies: The Pragmatic Architecture of Emil Bellus (1899-1979)

In discussing the work of an important Slovak architect of the 20th century, we would like to investigate how changes in ideological paradigms have influenced the character of architecture, how they have limited creative freedom, how they have not led to the manifestation of pragmatic results, and how the official architectural model has been rejected.

We would like to observe how the peripheral regional society deals with radical modernizing trends and how the national-romantic tendency is enforced at the same time.

We would like to demonstrate how a richly layered architectural heritage is created thanks to a non-priori opened periphery as well as how it becomes more structured by not drawing focus from the interest of art history.

We would like to concentrate on the relations between radical modernity and the ideological tendencies of the 20th century and on the process of how the small adaptive Slovak architectural scene responded to them without having a possibility to change them.

The Schools in Two Metropolises

In 1919 the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and the Czech Army was occupying Slovakia (former Upper Hungary). Emil Bellus, a first-year architecture student, left the Technical University in Budapest for the Technical University in Prague. The school in Budapest was based on tradition, connected with the search for a Hungarian national identity.

The disappointment and skepticism after the war did not favor any form of avant-garde, even when the town was rocked by the storms of radicalism. The radicalism of Prague had a different background. It was linked to the enthusiasm of the founders of the new Czechoslovak State.

Emil Bellus, nevertheless, studied in Prague at the relatively conservative University of Technology. His teacher, Antonín Engel, was one of the classicist followers of Otto Wagner. So Emil Bellus, even during his studies, met the ideological polarity between radical and conservative, modernizing and traditional.

After his studies, Bellus returned home to Slovakia. Immediately after his arrival, Bellus designed and built a compact complex of a hotel and theatre, Národnsdom (National House) in the city of Banská Bystrica. He composed this construction in accordance with the spirit of tradition and the principles he had adopted at school.

The first drafts reflected the then vivid “national” style of Czechoslovakia (Rondocubism).(See for the detailed genesis of RondocubismM. Benesová, Seská architektura v promenách dvou století /Czech Architecture in the Changes of Two Centuries (Praha: SPN, 1984), 479. For analyses of Rondocubism primarily see 291-314.) The heritage of cubist architecture during the first decades of the 20th century was projected into Rondocubism. At the same time, it was also the ambition of the young state to manifest its existence through the architecture of official buildings, thus influencing Rondocubist architecture.

E. Bellus, using this style, was then influenced by his classical schooling but also by the spirit of the age, which was by the construction of the National house connected with the state ideology of one Czechoslovak nation.

Functionalist Boom

After a short time, Bellus left Banská Bystrica for the capital town of Bratislava, situated only 60 km from Vienna. Vienna was a natural centre that affected life in Bratislava, despite the intentional refusal of Austrian- and German-orientated relations by the new state of Czechoslovakia.

In Bratislava, Bellus entered a structured, cultural environment. Several Slovak architects, together with domestic architects of German, Jewish, and Hungarian provenience, worked here, as well as a group of Czech architects who came to Slovakia after the creation of the new state.(The architectural scene of Bratislava was formed by various orientations and schools. There was a strong stream of conservative architecture, based on the traditional urban building, a modern functionalist influence brought by the Czech architects, and also a very interesting purist tendency, having its source in the classicism, mainly developed by the Jewish architects. The Arts and Crafts School was established in 1928 in Bratislava and played an important role in forming the artistic avant-garde in Slovakia. The launch of the school was an exceptional act and followed the role model of the German Bauhaus. Emil Bellus was also participating in this remarkable experiment for from 1928 he was a member of the school board. The beginning of the 1930s was a period when the most radical works of functionalist architecture were created in Slovakia. In October 1930, the construction of the City Savings Bank, designed by J. Tvarosek, began, featuring the first curtain facade in Slovakia. In Trensianske Teplice, the architect J. Krejcar constructed a sanatorium that represented one of the best works of the Avant-garde in Czechoslovakia. During this period, the architectural discussions in Slovakia were more and more focused on the issue of Modern architecture.For more details about the Slovak architecture between two wars see L. Foltyn, Slowakische Architektur und die Tschechische Avantgarde 1918-1939  (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1991), 235; lachta., K. Andrásiová, Pamätaj! Sidovskí architekti, obete holocaustu /Remember! Jewish Architects – Holocaust Victims (Bratislava: SAS, 1995).; H.H.Moravsíková, M. Dulla, “Modernos a konzervatívnos v nemecks ch vplyvoch na architektúru Slovenska v prvej polovici 20. storosia /Modernity and Conservativeness in German Influences in Slovak Architecture in the First Half of the 20th Century,” Architektúra & Urbanizmus 31 (1997): 4, 143-161; M. Dulla, H.H. Moravsíková, E. Stolisná, “Slovakia`s first curtain wall. City Savings Bank (Juraj Tvarosek, 1930),” DOCOMOMO Journal 15 (July 1996): 47-49.)

Despite the heavy impact of the crisis in the beginning of the 1930s, a revival appeared in Slovak architecture. It came mostly from Prague, but sensitive Slovak authors found it as well. Emil Bellus dominated among them. He quickly escaped Rondocubism and also the firm web of the local traditional values of architecture. Democracy allowed him to form his architectural orientation without a dictate from the outside.

The then call for innovations, modernity, together with convincing speeches about hygiene, sun, and air were considered to be (and indeed were) something that was perceived by architects as a voice of the spirit of the age. The plurality of the architectural scene was proven by the fact that works based on a deeply traditional concept were also created at the same time.

E. Bellus did not come to the architectural principles of Functionalism by only adopting the models of the Avant-garde from abroad. He rather gradually emphasized the tectonic side of traditional works. This approach was close to his technical and artisan capabilities.

His admiration for technology as a part of the realistic attitude of the modern man was based on his inner interest in the practical functioning of things. It was not a product of a gesture or fashionable stylization.

Bellus’ modernizing contribution to the environment in Slovakia was very expressive. For a long time, he was perceived as a creator who interrupted the direct tradition of past domestic works.

His monographer Martin Kuss states: “Bellus does not try to fasten on the preceding generation of older Slovak architects…It also would be difficult to find his contacts with the pre-war or post-war Modernity of the former Austro-Hungarian monarchy or in the works of Budapest or Vienna.

He fastens directly on the works of modern architecture through the Czech Avant-garde he became acquainted with during his studies.”(M. Kuss, Emil Bellus (Bratislava: Tatran, 1984), 142.)

In the beginning of 1930, Bellus started working on a design that represented the proudest type of Avant-garde constructions, involving architecture depicted as a transoceanic steamer, a ship, or at least a boat. This concept was far from the traditional parameters of classic constructions.

Bellus designed the building of the Slovak Rowing Club on the bank of the Danube River in Bratislava. That was a great challenge that Bellus could not and did not want to resist.

His colleagues from Prague drew such constructions as the symbols of Modernity during their studies, but they never had the chance to implement one. Emil Bellus, a modest student from “provincial” Slovakia, was given such an opportunity a few years later.

A skeleton construction with light fill-in bricks with a generous interior concept and its connection with the exterior, were the features used by Bellus in the building of the Rowing club.

He also utilized some “secondary” but significant signs of European Functionalism. He located pipe furniture in the clubroom on the first floor, as a symbol of a modern interior.

Windows were covered by white curtains, similar to the ones used by Le Corbusier in Savoy Villa or Mies van der Rohe in Tugendhat Villa (completed in the same year).

The Rowing Club, as well as two ship piers built a year later on the banks of the Danube River in Bratislava, featured several elements also used by the aforementioned Purists such as a pipe railing with a net-wire filling, strip windows, a terrace-shaped mass, roof terraces, and flagpoles.

Another remarkable construction of E. Bellus was the bridge over the Váh River in Piesany, called the Colonnade Bridge. An Austrian historian of architecture, Friedrich Achleitner, described it as a genial act of architecture of the 1920s.

He praised the way Bellus blended the structural aesthetics of reinforced concrete and the element of the river in a town.(F. Achleitner, “Mitteleuropa – auch kein architektonisches Thema?” WAS – Zieitschrift für Kultur und Politik no. 78 (December 1994): 5-25.) The bridge is a mature composition full of functionality, rationality, and the sense of a practical solution to construction problems using the poetry of aesthetic architecture.

Although a practical work of engineering, the bridge and its location in the spa had parameters that went beyond utility.

The author drew a series of preliminary variants of the bridge, analyzing the extent of architectural forming to the functional substance of the construction. The variants prove that the definite solution was not created by chance or routine.

It responded very well to the author’s attitude of the time. Le Corbusier located a sculpture of Ozenfant in front of his Pavilion L’Esprit Nouveau. Similarly, Bellus designed a place for a sculpture in front of his bridge. The realistic figure of a man breaking his crutch by Rudolf Kühmayer became the symbol of the spa.

If we want to sum up this period of the architect’s work, we have to mention that in the beginning of the 1930s E. Bellus followed the modern functionalist trend.

He did it in such an expressive way that even his connection with the domestic architectonic scene was called into question. However, the work of E. Bellus was not extremely radical. He kept a productive contact with the building industry and customers as well as successfully completing numerous architectural structures.

A Voice of Tradition: The Late 1930s

In the middle of the 1930s, the relatively young architect was given the important task of building three houses for the central office of the agricultural cooperatives in Slovakia. The buildings were to be built on the most important square of Bratislava; a kind of “Ring” that was then being rearranged to create a new urban vision.

The first two houses on the corner, Farmer House and the Central Cooperative, were completed in 1935. They are firmly based in the positions of Functionalism. The third building of the headquarters, in the middle, was completed in 1937 and indicated a shift towards a more classic-like approach.

Let us go back to the Central Cooperative building that is the purest among them in terms of the Avant-garde. The generous solution of the parterre as a continuous urban space, together with a roof terrace and large horizontal steel windows sliding along the facade, elegant roller blinds on the ground floor, and white curtains in windows, meets the Avant-garde concept of the “celebration of an occasional metropolitan avenue.”

If we compare the Cooperative Houses to the majority of the implementations by one of the most remarkable representatives of the Czechoslovak Avant-garde, Jaromír Krejcar, we have to say that the drawings of Krejcar were a pure manifestation, but their implementations mostly lost their charge of Avant-Garde. However, the pragmatic plans by Bellus resulted ina perfect, thorough, and almost manifest implementation.(This fact was also confirmed by its publication in France as the only Slovak example of Czechoslovak architecture of that time. See A. Persitz, “Tchecoslovaquie. Documents d´architecture contemporaine,” L´architecture d´aujourd´hui 9 (1938): 10, 30-35.)

However, the color ceramic siding of the Central Cooperative Building, together with the symmetric entrance, the granite portal, the framework, and a pillar-indicating structure in the parterre as well as the sculpture on the corner of the Farmer House, indicated the shift then typical for the top Czechoslovak Avant-garde and caused the end of the white architecture of Functionalism.(At the time of the completion of the building, a Slovak reviewer wrote: “The leading idea is expressed also by the style and equipment of the building. The style is modern but not thoughtlessly revolting as many post-monarchy constructions denying everything expensive, pleasant to eyes, decorative, or artistic, in order to be just cheap and modern. The style of our building is the style as a fruit penetrating in a new trend of construction, connecting the useful and the beautiful, the new with the old, based on the foundations and the development phases of the construction industry ever since the Classicism of Ancient Rome.” Hrdliska, “Ideové momenty paláca Ústredného drusstva /Ideological Moments of the Palace of the Central Cooperative,” Slovensk stavite 5 (1935): 342-344.)

Bellus’ direction toward traditional values can demonstrate that the popular opinion in Czechoslovakia of that time–that only the split of the republic initiated by superpowers in Munich in 1938 destroyed the promising Modernity of Czechoslovakia–was a mere simplification.(This is also the end of the book by L. Foltyn, Slowakische Architektur und die Tschechische Avantgarde 1918-1939 (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1991), 235.)

The work of Bellus shows that the historical development itself contained the germ of Traditionalism. However, Munich was indeed a severe destruction of democratic foundations, and thus it also destroyed the mechanism of the then functional architectural scene.

The architect sensitively perceived the pulse of the time. It is now difficult to distinguish to what extent the inclination to more traditional solutions was immanently his own and to what extent it reflected natural developments.

In the end of 1930s Bellus was given the opportunity to design an automatic mill. Even though he was already working with more traditional concepts, designing the mill he again inclined to functionalism.

He returned to the sources of modernism and creatively worked with the architecture focused on technology. That was Bellus’ answer to the ideological pressure that had already been developed within the architecture.

By designing the automatic mill and silo in Trnava (1936-1938),(The mill was one of his most published works, for example. See K. Teige, Moderná architektura vCSeskoslovensku /Modern Architecture in Czechoslovakia (Praha: Odeon, 1930) 240, or Ch. Ath. Sfaellos, Le Functionalisme dans l´architecture contemporaine (Paris: Editions Vincent, Fréal et comp, 1952), 319-323.) and later by a water cistern in the same town (1941), Bellus used simple, modern aesthetics of an industrial product.

However, it would be against his nature if he went down to the first-plane of beauty through naked utilitarian volumes. Both constructions demonstrate his ability to interpret simple engineering forms through architecture.

In the first half of the 20th century, Slovakia witnessed vehement transition from a backward agricultural community on the brink of destruction to a self-confident,self-constituting one.

The constructions by Bellus represent the symbols of this process in centers of several Slovak towns, where they substituted for an old, historical build-up and brought in a new, generous scale.

Two Totalities

At the end of the 1930s, the terrifying occupation by totalitarian regimes appeared on the horizon. In the year 1938, fatal to Czechoslovakia, the building of the National Bank by Bellus was completed in Bratislava. The building has complete travertine siding, but its vision is different from other works of Bellus.

Large faces of smooth stone siding, preferred by the architects, were here substituted for by raw, massive prisms of stone, demonstrating strength and power.

Is it just a result of the building’s mission, or does it have a role model in the sober constructions of Italian Fascism or the architecture of A. Speer? Only the interior remains the same, being compact, clear, and generous.

E. Bellus was able to react to the requirements of contemporary ideologies, being aware that there were no possibilities to end those trends, but finding out varieties in how to survive them.

The end of Bellus’ creative career involved one more-the last-construction. As a university professor, Bellus decided to quickly design a large dormitory in Bratislava (1953). At that time, the regime wanted to expel Bellus from Bratislava in the style of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Bellus was a circumspect idealist, and he did not manifest excessive enthusiasm for the collectivism of early Socialism. He did not even participate in the nationalization of architectural planning. As his monographer wrote laconically, “He stood aside.”

The dormitory Mladá Garda (named after a Soviet novel by Fadeev) is a curious end to Bellus’ career as a designer. The foundation of its ambiguous architecture consists of a modest, typified dormitory building.

By repeating this motif, the architect composed a four-wing ground plan structure. He complied with the Rustic Historicism of Socialist Realism of that time by locating a Renaissance-like bell tower with a clock in the center of the layout.

The whole complex was sided by graphite with the friezes featuring optimistic labour motifs. His antipathy to Soviet imports was later mentioned because he used only some motifs of ancient Slovak Renaissance.

The question is to what extent Bellus was under pressure and how was the character of such architecture congenial to his inclination to historicism and traditionalism?

The difficult work between several cultural centers and the late adaptation of two totalitarian ideologies shaped the works by Bellus as a phenomenon typical for Slovakia in the 20th century.

The works were special because of their effort to compare to central impulses that were clear, readable, and admired. They also inserted the local tradition of a periphery, and last, but not least, they typically adapted to contemporary political streams including the totalitarian ones.

Bellus was an internally conservative person. When he was young; he was inspired by the leftist visions of the Avant-garde. He pragmatically utilized the freedom of Czechoslovak democracy between two world wars, creating large constructions.

Surprisingly, on the brink of his creative career, he became involved in a contest for exclusively non-Jewish architects in Fascist Slovakia.

At the very end, he tried to identify himself with the enforced Historicism of Stalinist Social Realism. His inner tendency towards the traditional values of architecture met here with a manifesting need of the regime to demonstrate its power.

In this context, we have to say the pragmatic absorption of influences on a periphery (typical for Bellus(For details about the regional influences of a peripheral determination see M. DullaEd., Architect Emil Bellusš Regional modernism (Bratislava :SAS, 1992), 120.)) managed to calm down and de facto humanize the manifesting excesses of the Avant-garde, as well as totalitarian ideologies.

The National Bank by Bellus is a small construction in a series of normal residential and administrative buildings on the edge of the centre of Bratislava, and the dormitory Mladá Garda is today a popular housing facility.

Its inhabitants may not even notice the bell tower in the background of the main facade or the friezes on the highest floor.

The work of Bellus features Modernity in conjunction with a tradition formed by regional circumstances, the architect’s nature, and political and ideological determining factors: the individual moments cannot be separated because they were always interconnected.

One could ask if Bellus followed the epoch or if his inner development contemporarily anticipated the epoch to some extent. But it seems we also have to understand the specific periods in order to determine the relationship between the work of Bellusšand the styles of the time.

On Bellus’ work we can observe the way in which ideologies influence architectural production, as well as how specific ideologies react to them, or respectively avoid their influence.

Ideologies are, in this case, a part of a contemporary context. The peripheral scene suppresses the extremes and at the same time absorbs many influences, creating rich layers.

The creators, who reach over the local horizon, have to face the decision whether to serve specific ideologies, and accept only chosen stimuli, or to follow a creative vision, which might be misunderstood by the less developed environment. However, even by following their vision, creators could never be sure they were avoiding ideological pressures.