The idea to build the SNG (Slovak National Gallery) came about after the Second World War. An emerging society, art historians and architects were all making efforts. Each group had its own conception, and took its own small steps. Society passed legislation, and provided space in the former military Vodné kasárne (Water Barracks). The SNG director Karol Vaculík desired expansion of collections, and therefore of the Gallery's space. Architects tried out various sites and forms for the Gallery. These steps led to the decision to form the new SNG site by remodelling and adding to the Baroque Water Barracks, and linking the public spaces of the city square adjacent.
The new site, and its individual architectural components, came about in several stages through the 1960s and 1970s. The architect Vladimír Dedeček found a phased solution, both bold and unusual for its time. The building of a fourth and front-facing side to the Water Barracks, along with the opening up of the square as public space, inspired Dedeček to employ a bridge construction, which connected the two wings of the existing historical structure. He made this bridging into exhibition space for modern and contemporary art. In this he abandoned the classical structure of storeys, creating three levels of floors that formed a total space and three progressive unenclosed storeys. He shifted self-contained forms like the office building, the library and the originally-planned outdoor sculpture gallery in different directions. This made possible clusters of contemporary new architecture and abstracted classical forms of agoras, amphitheatres, odeón halls and stoas. For a decade, he laboured to push through a complex building/area site, but never succeeded in winning others over, even in terms of proposed materials and technologies. The ultimate result was imposing, but has from the first even until now been misunderstood by the public, and many of Slovakia's architects. After 1989 there were thoughts to level the whole site and build a new gallery structure. Public surveys and discussions ensured, and from these there emerged a competition for a renovation and addition.
The SNG building/area has long been seen as a nexus of multiple front lines: A) The struggle with prejudice and custom: generations of citizens are unable to overcome pseudo-historical beliefs in shaping the city, and hanker for conservation and restoration. B) Political disputes: after 1989's Velvet Revolution, the site including the bridge was put forward as the embodiment of the monstrosities of the former (socialist/communist) regime and its aspirational megalomania. The political elite, with iconoclastic ambitions and rush to swap old models for new, wavered over what to do with the site. Only the next generation of architects, from here and abroad, proved able to de-politicize the issue of the SNG site, grasping it as a cultural and architectural challenge and opportunity. Then even the political elite saw it as an undertaking to be fostered. C) Developer power play: after 1989, building contractors and real estate developers in the new capitalism of post-socialistic countries came up with an ideological and pseudo-expert mask, intended to win commissions in favour of demolition. There is only one way that architects can contend with the combined forces of politicians and developers, and it is not in front-line words or even metaphors; rather they must do a verbal and metaphorical dance, in which no one is pushed and everyone voluntarily engages enjoyably in pursuing a common rhythm. D) Struggles among architects and pseudo-experts: architects and preservationists found themselves in mutually-incompatible discussions; in them, rather than looking for a project, they nitpicked at flaws in construction, technology and urban design, and suggested clearing the area and building a new SNG. On the other side were those who advocated in favour of the area as it is, who came to believe it could be saved only if they toned down the boldness of the problem. In the end it emerged that there were some who understood the SNG could only live through a renewal of Dedeček's invitation to dance. Two architectural competitions for renovation came out of these discussions, for a refurbishment and an addition to the area, which would reflect the state of architectural thought in Slovakia.
Competitions on renovation, refurbishment and addition to the SNG have opened new thinking processes on the Gallery's spatial form. These processes are among the most significant architectural tasks being undertaken in Central Europe, comparable to solving the social and ecological issues of those living in our globalized world's baser conditions and environs. We can never attain bold projects unless we understand the diversity of cultures. When the SNG site originated, it expanded the horizons of architectural awareness; now the competition designs for renovation have brought with them many questions and answers. Now as then, there are no universal solutions that can function in the absence of awareness of the cultural particulars of each society and environment – and particularly unless there is a dance, shared by architects, theoreticians and historians, and aficionados, who have the courage to take on public opinion.
The construction associated with the SNG is not a battle over a single piece of architecture, though our history has many such stories. Here we have what is above all the meeting of two ways of thinking and building: fighting and dancing. Although the language of fighting remains common, we hope the language of dancing still has a chance. Therefore this is not just some chronicle of a building, or an appeal or complaint, or a record of the meticulous attention of preservationists and those devoted to historical replicas and unprocessed concern; rather the issue should be to imagine architecture's potential. It is an awakening of hope, of care for architecture, which hopefully will be rid of the timidity manifested in pedestrian, generalized and participative pseudo-solutions, in order to once more find the courage to put forward intrepid cultural projects, countless invitations by arché to architecture to dance. This would make possible the reemergence of gaia architectura [joyful architecture].