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Report of the Second International Expert Seminar
on Building Non-Handicapping Environments:
Renewal of Inner Cities

Prague, October 15-17, 1987

Download the Prague proceedings as a PDF file (420 KB)

Renewal of the Inner City of Bratislava:
Creating Non-Handicapping Environments for Persons with Disabilities

Maria Samova, Slovak Technical University, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia

The architect as creator of the architectural environment is faced with the task of satisfying different interests, relationships and requirements that are frequently contradictory. He or she has to overcome not only architectural problems such as design, composition and fitting a project into the broader context of town planning but also problems which may hinder the work according to his or her own ideas. The problems may include questions of economy, usability, operations, supplies, etc. The architect is a representative of his or her profession, and at this interdisciplinary level is responsible for the work as irreplaceable author of the concept.

Developed societies have given humanization of the environment a high priority. In trying to comply with this principle and give it form in our architectural activities, we are faced with the question of how to create a barrier-free environment, from the architectural concept down to the architectural details.

As an architect affiliated with the Faculty of Architecture at the Slovak Technical University in Bratislava, I am responsible for teaching architectural creation, including typology, that allows for the needs of disabled persons. This involves primarily courses in Typology of Dwellings and Civic Buildings and studio work on the same subjects. Students meet the subject of architectural barriers in their first year of study, and teachers keep stressing this problem throughout the five years of their training. Our graduates should therefore be well prepared, with both knowledge and specific training, to create a barrier-free environment. How they will apply these principles depends on what kind of persons they are. Regulation No. 53/1985 issued by the State Board for Progress in Science, Technology and Capital Investment has established a legal basis for the planning, preparation and authorization of construction and the use of buildings by disabled persons. The future will show whether these guidelines will be universally respected.

Industrialization and technical progress in the 19th and particularly in the 20th century have led to rapid growth of urban areas, as documented by data published by the United Nations. In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population were living in towns; in 1900 the figure was 49% and in 1975 39%, and by the year 2000 50% of the world’s population is expected to be urban.

The development of urban areas in Czechoslovakia as well as the growth of Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Socialist Republic, follow this trend resulting not only in a growing urban population and new construction at the urban edge, but also in new demands on the city cores themselves. Urban cores determine the importance and the nature of towns, but their structure, functional arrangement and operational relations make it difficult for them to react to new and changing social demands. Inner city problems are urgent in Bratislava. The Board of the Chief Architect has therefore undertaken studies to analyze the central urban zone.

In town planning the urban core is seen as a variable urban formation able to respond to new, changing demands on land use, and giving the inhabitants optimum accessibility by turning the urban center into a point of convergence for the town’s communication systems. The space in the center should be designed on a human scale in order to create attractive pedestrian zones and to meet human demands for an optimum environment. These requirements also include a barrier-free architectural environment.

People visit the urban center for cultural and educational activities, entertainment, shopping, and visits to offices and service facilities. Each urban center has a specific atmosphere that attracts people. Yet in Bratislava, persons with physical disabilities cannot participate in cultural events. They cannot visit any of the 5 theaters, attend concerts at the concert hall or go to exhibitions and movie theaters, since these buildings offer considerable difficulty of access. A similar situation is encountered when people with disabilities seek education, medical care, go shopping or visit offices. To improve the situation, the usual architectural approach to renewal of urban centers should be corrected at three levels:

At the town planning level, by creating adequate urban interiors and pedestrian zones with barrier-free access to buildings, parking, etc.

In reconstructing historical buildings and extending existing buildings. All entrances, corridors, lobbies, rest rooms and other main spaces in buildings should be reconsidered in the light of the widely known principles of barrier-free design.

At the level of architectural detail. Attention should be given not only to design and function, but also to interior details, since these vitally affect the success or failure of the architect’s work.

Since my sphere of interest is primarily architectural typology of civic buildings, most of this presentation will concern the new construction projects planned for the Bratislava inner city.

The first project is the new Slovak National Theater. In designing the entrance, the architects have used the overall concept of ’welcoming hands’ symbolized by two symmetrical ramps providing access to persons with disabilities. This element has been deliberately employed to make the design architecturally effective. All public spaces are accessible to persons with disabilities through a series of ramps, elevators and links between spaces and functions. It is possible to drive into the building by car and park close to the elevators. All the foyer levels are interlinked by elevators. Social facilities are dimensioned for wheelchair use and will be equipped with the necessary technical aids. Controls will be located at suitable height. The theater auditoria have reserved places for persons with disabilities. The staff sector also has spaces where persons with disabilities can move freely and perform some activities. The building is now under construction. Hopefully, the result will meet our expectations for use of the building by persons with disabilities.

Another project under preparation in central Bratislava is unique for its extent and the new use of a historical building. It concerns the reconstruction and the new function of the former Market Hall. Bratislava needs revitalization with activities of cultural and social importance. The capacity of the new facility is 768 seats, planned for up to 1,000 visitors per hour. The around-the-clock use multiplies the capacity of the spaces.

The basement of the building will contain cinema, poetry/coffee house, studio and exposition hall. The ground floor will be a central courtyard with a basilica-like illumination from a high nave decorated by the original steel lattice structure which becomes an organizing element in the interior. It fulfills the function of central communication and rest space. Greenery, water and light create conditions for a new urban space consisting of a roofed mall with small boutiques, pubs and confectioneries. The first floor continues the original concept of an open gallery around the central hall. It will contain playrooms, reading rooms, lecture and meeting halls.

Upon closer inspection, however, we can see that persons with disabilities will have difficulties in utilizing this leisure-time facility. Vertical movement within the building should not present problems, since there are elevators. However, no places have been reserved for wheelchair users in the cinema nor are the restrooms designed for the needs of this group. The project should be made barrier-free so that the facilities of our town are not extended by attractive but undemocratic work.

A similar situation can be observed in the reconstruction of Reduta, a traditional gathering place for music lovers. Concerts and other performances are the object of lively public interest. The architecture alone will determine whether the performing arts can also be enjoyed by persons with disabilities. All levels of the project should be completed with this in mind.

When an urban center is to be renovated, it must also contain housing. The Board of the Chief Architect required housing to be included in the building complex. Unfortunately, apartments, shops, and restaurants in this building have not been designed barrier-free. The same applies for apartment buildings in several other central streets. Is this perhaps a reflection of subconscious efforts on the part of architects to establish antiquated and unwanted segregation? Perhaps only the rehabilitation and renewal of architects may bring about complete accessibility in Bratislava.

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