by Samuel D. Gruber
Jewish Heritage Europe reports on the progress for the restoration of the important modernist synagogue at Zilina, designed by German architect Peter Behrens. I wrote about this effort at length when the Jewish Community of Zilina first turned its thoughts to building restoration in 2009. At that time the Jewish Community had regained ownership of the building, which has been used for many years as a cinema and lecture hall, but was uncertain how to proceed with restoration - especially since funds were not available for the work, but meanwhile the building as it stood could provide a modest - but real - revenue stream.
In 2009, I wrote : "the best hope for the Behren's synagogue is to reach outside the normal (Jewish) funding circles and to involve groups dedicated to protecting and preserving the legacy of modernism." This is exactly what has happened (without any involvement by me.
In 2011, the Jewish community arranged to lease the building for a symbolic sum to a group of architects and cultural activists of the NGO Truc sphérique which would oversee the restoration of the building and develop it as a cultural center focusing on contemporary art. Similar solutions have been used in other former synagogues in Slovakia, especially at Samorin and Trencin, both of which function as art centers. Neither of those projects, however, is as ambitious as at Zilina where plans are to return the modernist icon back to its original form. The chief architect for the project is Martin Jančok. The total costs for the project are estimated a €1 million - one of the reasons the Jewish Community was reluctant to take on this task. The organizers have already raised and spent €100,000 in the first phases of work. Much of this has been raised online through social media and new fund-raising strategies.
This type of work shows that restoration projects - even when locally-based - can find a much larger audience of support. The fact that the project combines constituencies engaged in Jewish history, modern architecture and contemporary art is a big advantage as that swells the project audience and donor base and also reaches across nation, religious and generational lines. Truc sphérique is an artists' cooperative and has relied on volunteer labor for much of the work and has received in-kind contributions from local businesses to move the project forward.
Truc sphérique is non-governmental organization for contemporary arts and culture founded in 1998 in Zilina, and it has operated the building of Stanica since 2003 where it runs a gallery, workshop space, residency space for artists, cafe, waiting-room, and a multifunctional presentation venue for theater, dance, concerts, discussions and screenings. Stanica is member of various European networks, especially Trans Europe Halles.
In 2009 I wrote: "Today, most of the interior has been covered over with new walls, partitions and materials. Still, in the main hall – now used for films – one can see some of the original structure, though the dome is entirely obscured. It is hard to know what original elements are still hidden." Already in 2012 there has been great progress in removing later material additions to the building. Photos of the interior show the original domed ceiling and balconies, revealed for the first time in decades. According to the extensive and impressive project website which is reporting progress on a regular basis in reports and project Flickr streams, and also serves as collection point for money donations:
Our main reconstruction aim is to remove the architectonic interventions done during the communism era and bring back the building a look of the original Behrens’s architecture. The reconstruction began at the end of 2011 and will continue till end of 2014. We have been cooperating with the Regional Monuments Board in order to prepare the project documentation. [...]Recently, the restoration project was presented the 2013 Bauwelt Advancement Award from the German architectural magazine Bauwelt ta ceremony in Munich in January, 2013