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What Lies Beneath: The Station


I was recently at the main Brno train station (hlavní nádraží). They are carrying out a minor renovation project, and I noticed remnants of an older structure exposed in a few places. It was a glimpse of a bit of Brno's cultural history. Under the (presumably) socialist realist renovations ("communist") of the late twentieth century were pieces of nineteenth century architecture ("German") and all this is soon to be supplanted by a new building ("democratic capitalism").

In 1839, Brno was the first city in the Czech lands to be connected to Vienna via rail. At this time Moravia belonged politically to the Austro-Hugarian empire, and so the train station presumably showed the area's connection with, as well as symbolized its allegiance to, German-speaking culture. As the provincial capital, Brno was at the administrative center of this connection as well. The current station was built in 1850 and underwent a secessionist-style renovation in 1902-1905. It has a wonderful sort of nineteenth-century look in the high-ceilinged ticket hall supported by marble pillars. The front facade is held up by filigreed pillars and on the roof nymphish statues are heralding the arrival of the railroad, as symbolized by the winged wheel.

Sometime during the 1970s or 1980s there must have been another renovation. This probably involved the creation of the current pedestrian underpass that provides access to the tram lines that go past the front of the building. The underpass houses many shops for cheap clothing, an Asian bistro, a calendar store, and a betting office. The general decor bears a striking resemblance to the Prague metro, and I like to think of it as the "Brno Underground." (The strange things in lower right corner of the picture are shelters for stairways that open onto the tram platforms.) This decor was also added to most of the station's public areas. In the process most of the original plaster decor was covered by gray "marble" panels.

Before seeing some of the panels removed I had never noticed how incongruent this all is. In the picture you just glimpse the wonderful tile that covered the lower walls. The gray marble, in contrast, usually looks dirty and somehow oppressive. Judging by my short glimpse underneath, I suspect the previous decor was more attractive and probably made the building seem more complete. (I know this is hard to see in the picture, but it does show the contrast. And note the graffiti.) Now when I go to the station, I look more closely and notice more of the old parts peeking out from behind this gray facade and under the dust and soot. I wonder how much of the older decorations may still be left.

Brno has recently approved a bid for inclusion in a high-speed rail system that will connect many major European cities. Brno would be a stop on the line between Vienna and Prague (see maps here, but in order to be included the city must build a new station that can accomodate the high-speed trains and tracks. Plans were recently publicized for the ultra-modern new station, and much of the current station will be restored and possibly turned into a hotel. This is a wonderful chance for the city to raise its local profile, regain its status as a regional hub, and re-establish connections with Vienna. And there is a chance that some of the old station will be restored. I hope that they don't use too much gray marble in the renovations so that in another half-century someone else won't walk by and notice that there is hidden beauty lying just below the surface.

(Photo source)

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