Creation of the equivocal Bratislava ring

The Bratislava Ambiguous Ring

The ring or ring boulevard – Ringstrasse, Körút, Vnútorný mestský okruh – respectively the outer boulevard, is an element of the urban structure that strongly determines the parameter of movements or flows. Movement in this sense can include various types, from pedestrian movement, vehicle movement, or movement in a more indirect sense of commercial and social activities, or even still further removed ideas of flow within infrastructures or the financial sphere. The growth in intensity of multiple movements directed into the city and outward from it formed in the 18th century the impulse to remove urban defensive walls and fortifications, and hence the first stimulus towards the creation of a spatial framing for the creation of an outer boulevard. The ring boulevard not only allowed for more rapid flows heading into and out of the city, but also for movement around its edge. The intensity and character of these flows, in turn, simultaneously determined the routing and the appearance of the boulevard.

In the case of the Bratislava ‘ring’, though, we are faced with an ambiguous spatial formation which in the course of history has been changed, depending on the intensity of the various types of flows yet also on which flows were given preference in a specific historical period and how this preference was reflected in regulatory guidelines and construction projects. The form of the Bratislava Ring is not the outcome of the planned realisation of a single aim, but the result of the partial realisation of several diverging plans, permanently challenged with unplanned construction generated through the ad hoc requirements of individual builders. And it is likely that not even the current form of Bratislava’s ring-road can be treated as necessarily final.

The Start of the Formation of the City Ring

The first condition for the creation of an outer boulevard was the regulation of construction on the site of the city’s fortifications in the later part of the 18th century. In 1774, Empress Maria Theresia ordered the demolition of the inner walls and the filling in of the city’s moat. In addition, she charged the head of the court building office in Vienna, the architect Franz Anton Hillebrand (1719 – 1797) with the preparation of the very first regulatory plan for the city. The stated goal was to unify the city centre with its suburbs, and to plot new streets and construction trajectories on the site of the former defensive walls and moats. Hillebrand proposed dividing most of the land originally occupied by defensive structures into separate building lots, with the construction height established from the extant structures. He took a similar approach as well for the eastern part of the fortifications, where the moat was by this time already partially built up. More ambitious was his plan for treatment of the construction in the area near St. Martin’s Cathedral and the Vydrica Gate (Vydrická brána), where Hillebrand proposed a radical widening of the street, Dlhá ulica (now Panská), where the cathedral would also be accessible from this street via an imposing formal staircase. Yet the most extensive plans from Hillebrand were reserved for the southern section of fortifications. To the east in the filled-in moat, he proposed two streets, András Gasse and Rosen Gasse (now respectively Gorkého and Jesenského ulica), which outlined the new block for construction. To the west in the former moat, in front of the theatre then under construction (Stavovské divadlo, Matej Walch, 1776), he defined a new square.

Demolition of the inner walls and filling of the moats was undertaken in the period from 1775 to 1778. However, the walls were only removed partially: a long section of the western rampart remained, along with the section around the St. Michael’s Gate and tower or even the section of fortifications to the east near the St. Lawrence Gate (Vavrinecká brána). However, as the map of the city from 1820 reveals, Hillebrand’s proposals were realised to a surprising extent. As a result, at the start of the 19th century Bratislava already had available the ideal spatial preconditions for creating an imposing urban ring boulevard. The outer circle of land at the edge of the former fortifications could, following the trends of the era, have been used for promenades, tree-lined alleys or public parks, or as in Paris could have been used as a space for realising imposing buildings representing the rising urban commercial classes or forming a site for economic (primarily retail) activity, yet in all instances as a space for multi-directional movement. Most notably, this potential made itself clear in the area of the filled-in southern moat, where from the 1770s on a series of large public as well as private structures had been built and (around 1780) an alley of trees had been planted, creating a pleasant place for walking – hence the later name of ‘Spazier Allee’. The decisive function that shaped this part of the city, though, was movement linked to social status: movement between the city centre and the Danube embankment with the suspension bridge, as well as the movement associated with the operation of the horse-drawn railway, which had its final station on the square. These factors were reflected in the later shift of the name of the space, in the city’s various languages, to Promenade Platz, Sétatér, Korso-út, Promenáda or simply the ‘corso’.

Since Hillebrand’s plan did not have the status of a binding legal document, in the next decades construction proceeded on the other spaces of the ring in a more evolutionary way. The result led to the formation of a dense block structure practically around the entire perimeter of the former moat and the narrowing of the space for the potential expansion of roadways. With the growing importance of rail and river transport and the vastly increasing turnover of goods within the city as a result of industrial development in the later 19th century, though, the demands for an outer ring road only increased. Construction of rail stations in the north and south suburbs, the building of the first steel bridge, dedicated to Emperor Franz Josef, across the Danube in 1891 and the link between this bridge leading from the outer ring to the historic roadway on the Danube banks all led to a natural widening of the perimeter of the original outer ring. New urban spaces with good transport access, created possibilities for new activities and new construction investments. At the end of the 19th century, therefore, once again the function of social representation began to manifest itself in the Bratislava ring. Imposing privately-owned palaces arose mostly along (today’s) Štúrova ulica and Hviezdoslavovo námestie, where on the site of the earlier theatre a new City Theatre was nearing completion (Ferdinand Fellner, Hermann Helmer, 1886). However, the limited accessibility of Židovská ulica, caused by surviving remnants of the city fortifications that had been used for unplanned construction, ensured that the role of part of this ‘ring’ was assumed in the later 19th century by today’s Michalská and Ventúrska ulica. Hence by the century’s end, the inner ring was formed by the roadway on the left bank of the Danube, today’s Štúrova ulica, Námestie SNP and Hurbanovo námestie, where the ring then passed through the St. Michael’s Gate into the historic inner city, continued further along Michalská and Ventúrska and through Rybné námestie (the ‘Fish Market) once again joined the embankment road. This formation placed enormous pressure on the historic street network, causing endless traffic problems when entering and exiting the historic core. Indeed, this unresolvable transport situation, along with the need to regulate new construction in the suburbs, formed one of the main reasons which led the City Council in1898 to commission the plan for regulation and enlargement of the city.

The First Attempts at a Bratislava Ringstrasse

In the surviving texts accompanying the preparation of the regulatory plan by the City Technical Department from the years between 1898 and 1906, the phrases ‘ring’ or ‘ring-road’ are never explicitly cited. The press of this era speaks exclusively of the transport problems afflicting the historic city centre. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that the authors of the plans discussed the question of a ring road or boulevard. In the plans, it is also possible to identify interventions into the extant urban structure, such as shifts in street lines and roadway widening, which indicate that an inner ring road was conceived leading on the west, north and northeast along the outline of the former city moats, while to the southeast it would follow the new street leading to the Franz Josef Bridge and, to the south, intersect with the embankment road. Concretely, the regulatory plan proposed widening Židovská ulica in the direction of the former ramparts and widening the embankment road along Batthyányho nábrežia (now Rázusovo nábrežie) and Justiho rad (now Vajanského nábrežie). Still more immediately, an idea for an outer boulevard was employed in the rival plan by Viktor Bernárdt. Here, Bernárdt proposed routing the ring-road as a 37-m-wide boulevard along the route of the present-day Štúrova ulica, Námestie SNP, Hurbanovo námestie and Staromestská ulica, where the ring would continue via a bridge (or at least a pedestrian walkway) across the Danube. This road would have been lined with open green spaces, while beside St. Martin’s Cathedral, the plan assumed the demolition of the surrounding buildings to create a square.

Antal Palóczi in his regulation plan also considered the planning of ring boulevards. His idea was to widen Batthyányho nábrežie (now Rázusovo nábrežie), demolish the city brewery and the water barracks, and shift the street line so that the embankment road would contain four traffic lanes and generous four-metre sidewalks for pedestrians. Meanwhile, all streets wider than 22 m would be planted with rows of trees. All that was to be retained from the brewery was the entrance ramp, to be used as the entranceway to a new bridge across the Danube, linking Batthyányho nábrežie to the river’s opposite bank. However, Palóczi did not plan for a Vienna-type Ringstrasse along the route of the old fortifications, but planned it instead as an open circular roadway leading “from the expanded terrain of the main rail station along 13 km back to the rail station”. “This circular roadway, similar to the inner streets adapted to it, will be planned following artistic principles, and this conception will not be abandoned even on the large, wide radials leading out from the city or on the connections planned for them”, Palóczi stated in his public lecture on the city regulation. The ring-road would also be connected via two new bridges to the western bank of the river; further plans included the possibility of another outer ring-road and yet another new bridge near the winter port.

None of these plans was ever approved by the city council. Though Palóczi’s idea of an inner ring did influence the regulation of new construction on the Danube embankment, it was never realised as a coherent whole. Above all, the reason was financial, since the city could not afford to purchase all the land necessary for the street-widening. By contrast, the importance of the existing fragments of the outer boulevard, in part thanks to the introduction of an electric tram line along its east and south sections, only continued to increase. In the area between Námestie SNP, Hviezdoslavovo námestie, Štúrova ulica and the Danube bank between the now-vanished landmarks of the Franz Josef Bridge and the Fishmarket (Rybné námestie) there arose at the start of the 20th century many significant public investments connected with different areas of social life. Public services and trade shaped the ‘Market Square’ (Trhové námestie, now Námestie SNP), with the construction of the city market hall (Námestie SNP 26, Gyula Laubner, Ferencz Nechyba, Jenő Dobisz, 1910) and the Postal and Telegraph Building (Námestie SNP 35, Gyula Pártos, 1912). In turn, the embankment road was shaped by state administration through the Metalworking Trade School (Fajnorovo nábrežie 5, Gyula Kolbenheyer, 1904) or the Military High Command (Fajnorovo nábrežie 1, Gondova 3, Josef Rittner, 1913).

At this time, the western section of the ring was itself close to realisation. After the fire below the Castle (Podhradie) in 1913, efforts were made to approach the regulation of Židovská ulica precisely following the intentions of Palóczi’s plan. The City Council approved this document in July 1914, and in the same year it was also confirmed by the Hungarian Interior Ministry. Yet the realisation of the street widening and the full opening of the inner ring never came to pass.

The idea of the city’s inner ring is still present in the city structure in the form of continuous urban spaces arranged on the perimeter of the historic city centre. Despite the fact that this urban space does not have a unified architectural character or the characteristic appearance of a Ringstrasse, it is a strong reminder of the period’s efforts to build a modern city.


Note: The text is based on the publication Moravčíková Henrieta, Szalay Peter, Haberlandová Katarína, Krišteková Laura, Bočková Monika: Bratislava (un) planned city. Slovart 2020.