Trnava enchanted her, she says it is surreal. Architect Suha Hasan talks about her stay in Malý Berlín

The Malý Berlin cultural centre invites architects from all over the world for three-month residencies. After Yuramia, whom we introduced earlier, the architect Suha Hasan, originally from Bahrain, visited the cultural centre. Before leaving, the architect, a former lecturer and editor, shared her impressions and feelings about her stay in Trnava.

Suha, can you please introduce yourself a little bit?

This is a difficult question. How does one fully know who they are? I want to invoke Édouard Glissant’s right to opacity to emphasise the impossibility of making oneself legible to everyone. More recently, in a conversation with a curator, I learned that this right to opacity extends even to ourselves, meaning that we are also illegible to ourselves and have the right to accept our opaque existence. Knowing the self is a lifelong journey, so how can I summarise a journey that is ongoing?

Can you please tell more about your career in architecture?

I started my career as an architect after the usual university training while also pursuing my passion for writing as a journalist and later as a reporter for various cultural outlets.

It took me some time to figure out how to combine these two practices. During my Master’s programme, I engaged in critical readings of space, mainly through French and German philosophers. Although I did not necessarily agree with all their ideas, or with their sometimes reductive approach to philosophy, it was the first time I felt I could integrate my writing and my architectural practice.  This integration was further enhanced by my curatorial work.

Curating slowly led me to engage with artists who have significantly shaped and influenced my practice. Working between academia, architectural practice, and curation provides me with different perspectives.

Academia tends to be more reflective and critical but slow in absorbing new ideas and translating them into actions.

Meanwhile, the pace in practice is fast, connected to deadlines and clients, and usually requires instant solutions.Curation has enabled me to engage and converse with different people and entities, allowing me to connect with allies who share a similar value system.

My architectural practice has now evolved into investigating and working with historical contexts, which I find fascinating. These contexts often come with constraints that require creative thinking, and I find dealing creatively with constraints to be enjoyable.

You came to Malý Berlín for three months. What goals did you have during your residency?

When I initially applied, I wanted to explore brutalist architecture in relation to climate change and exchanges between Eastern Europe and the Arab-speaking region. Recently, many publications have focused on both Brutalism and the conversations around these exchanges, connected to independence movements and decolonization in the so-called “global south.” I had some ideas about what I wanted to explore at Malý Berlín before I arrived and the archives I wanted to visit and consult while I was there.

Once I knew I would start my residency, I tried to understand the context through artistic practices because they present a more personal and independent narrative. I became even more invested in understanding these artistic practices because I found close connections to architecture and how they are, collectively, an expression of the self and the state. It was thought-provoking to see how many artists chose to produce their art over the years and under different circumstances. This evolving condition has resulted in a fascinating art and architecture scene.

Once I arrived and started talking to people, visiting archives, and attending ongoing exhibitions, I discovered many things that were far more interesting and deserved attention. My understanding of the Brutalist legacy shifted as I realized the complexity of this heritage, which is both a disturbing legacy and a legacy linked to the independence and formation of Slovakia as a nation. I became interested in the moment of change and transition that occurred in the 90s and how this has affected the built environment.

I was also amazed by the abundance of factories and cultural houses in every city I visited. This indicated a connection between the means of production, industry, and the means of reshaping the intellect and behaviour of the workers through culture. I understood that culture here was something communicated to everyone, without discrimination or the creation of a class system. There is something beautiful and egalitarian about that.

I also became invested in learning about a group of poets based in Trnava because of their name: “Koncretists.” It was a very poignant name for various reasons. Of course, they do not write about concrete, but about what seemed to be “concrete encounters and memories” with people and space in their everyday lives. It reflects how I started to experience Trnava through various senses and my concrete yet subjective experiences.

Why did you choose to try this experience here, in Trnava?

I applied for the residency because it was specifically announced for architects, and residencies for architects are often framed as art residencies. This motivated me to apply, and a mentor encouraged me to seek out and apply for residencies in order to have space and time to reflect on my practice. I did not know much then about the city or the country besides what I knew through a close friend of mine in Sweden who is from Slovakia.

Did You meet some interesting architects here?

Yes, absolutely. I met a lot of interesting people, including architects. The first architects I met were members of Docomomo Slovakia (Henrieta Moravčíková, Peter Szalay, Katarína Haberlandová, Laura Pastoreková Krišteková, Monika Bočková, and Gabriela Smetanová), who also teach at the Institute of History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. They generously shared their collective and independent work with me, inspiring me with their dedication, passion, and the manner in which they organised their archives and disseminated knowledge among specialists and the wider public. Their commitment resonated with me personally and professionally, and I hope to continue the dialogue we have begun. They were instrumental in introducing me to the history of architecture in Slovakia, and their names appeared in various publications that they recommended to me.

Later, I discovered the work of Čierne Diery and found out that one of its founders, Miroslav Beňák, resides in Trnava. I reached out to him and he provided me with numerous resources on architecture across the country, including industrial buildings and the history of the built environment in Trnava. Our conversations extended beyond architecture, touching on thought-provoking aspects of society. Through our discussions, I realised the similarities in challenges and dynamics within the architecture profession, regardless of the context.

One of the most unexpected encounters led me into tunnels, revealing the existence of an underground city. I met a family who owned a hotel originally built during the Hungarian Empire. The father, an engineer who participated in the construction of the Cultural House in Trnava in the 1980s, bought the remains of a building that had been converted into a hotel after the “liberation of the market” in the 1990s. He has been renovating it ever since, with the help of his children, one of whom is an architect. They shared with me the challenges of preservation and the strict regulations imposed by the city. The family was intriguing, with personal connections to various countries, from Syria to Kenya, and an art collection that spans the hotel and reflects their international outreach.

I also had the opportunity to meet a group of architects from Sweden, including Martin Arfalk and his team at Mandaworks: Lara Abi Saber, Emeline Lex, and Gabriela Smetanová. They were surprised to meet someone who spoke Swedish in Trnava, and it turned out to be a coincidence that their firm had won the competition for the urban design of the new district. I met them at the ceremony announcing the competition results, and it was rewarding to witness the outcome of the process, especially after reading about the workshops that led to the design of the competition brief, with the involvement of Malý Berlín. It was inspiring to observe the diverse stakeholders involved in the process.

You told me you found Trnava impressive, inspirational and beautiful. Can You please tell me more?

I did find Trnava to be all that and more. There’s something surreal about a city surrounded by walls, seemingly isolated from the outside world and yet protected, like a bubble preserving its essence. What struck me most was the profound love everyone I met had for the city and their collective desire to enhance it. Whether it was the founding of Malý Berlín, the broader development of Nadvorie where it is situated, or the various individuals working on different projects, there was a palpable grassroots approach that has evolved into something greater than its origins. Trnava seems to foster this growth organically, which is truly inspirational.

There’s a pervasive sense of peace here, attributed by a friend of mine to the resonating bells, reminiscent of a gong bath in yoga. Initially, my limited ability to communicate in Slovak posed a barrier, but it soon transformed into an opportunity. The language barrier heightened my senses, allowing me to become more attuned to the sensory experiences of everyday life in the city, often translating these experiences into written texts. While not poetry per se, this heightened awareness resonated with the work of the Trnava poets. I was particularly intrigued by the sonic landscape of the city, shaped by the repetitive tolling of bells and the unfamiliarity of the language to my ears, transforming all sounds, including speech, into a kind of musical composition.

What did You learn here, during your stay in Slovakia?

As for the lessons learned during my stay in Slovakia, Trnava offers invaluable insights into how a city grapples with its past through heritage preservation while planning for its future. I came to realize that because Trnava’s evolution is intertwined with other imperial centers, many of which do not communicate in English, information wasn’t readily accessible to me. It’s a place I could only truly understand by being physically present. The country’s rich and layered history resonated with me, shaping conversations, interactions, society, and the cityscape in profound ways. There’s a beauty in the omnipresence of history, even in the tensions it may evoke, as it reflects the multiplicity of opinions and perceptions. While this may be a daily reality for the residents, for someone like me, unfamiliar with the context, it serves as a connection point, revealing different temporalities and the complexities arising from history. My time in Trnava underscored how much I have yet to learn about this part of the world and illuminated the distinct dynamics at play here.