Renewing social connections

The light-touch refurbishment of a brutalist city centre bus station in the Czech Republic belies the extent of a young Czech practice’s achievement, catalysing the transformation of a local eyesore into a building of renewed social value. James Parker reports

The history of the central bus terminal in the Czech Republic’s second city (and former textile powerhouse) Brno, is inextricably tied up with the country’s communist past. And despite the light nature of the refurbishment project undertaken by dynamic local practice Chybik + Kristof, the scheme to bring brightness and transparency to a neglected asset has made it a symbol of the city’s future, and a break from the past.

Bus terminals, as practice co-founder Ondrej Chybik asserts, are not only central to the urban fabric, they’re “windows on the city,” creating the lasting impression visitors have, being the “first thing they see when they arrive, and the last thing when they leave.” Zvonarka is important for the whole region of Moravia, with connections across the country, and also internationally on the route east to Kiev.

The building is hard to miss, a vast, 100 m2 concrete slab supported by steel columns and beams, but it makes efficient use of its city centre site by accommodating a parking area for buses on the upper level. However, it had become a “dark, dirty, and dangerous’ place for users (including Ondrej himself, a non-car driver, and his partner at the practice Michal Kristof), and was a blot on the city’s reputation.

The brutalist structure, despite its condition, was an important example of the city’s heritage for the architects. It was designed by Czech architect Radúz Russ and built in 1988, with a complex, extensive network of diagonal steel beams supporting the roof, and exposed concrete cladding. Driven by functionalism principles which saw their heyday in Brno’s architecture in the interwar period, (including Mies van der Rohe’s famous Villa Tugendhat), the building instantly communicates how it works. It also ideally suits its core function, enabling buses to move easily to and from the park above and platforms below.

The effort to restore the building for the 21st century as a positive emblem of the city would require the practice to take a persistently proactive stance over many years in order to get it off the ground. For Ondrej, it was a “personal project,” which helped to motivate him in what he admits was a labour of love for the practice.

The building was not long completed before the Velvet Revolution in 1989, which saw the formerly government-owned terminal sold to a private company, however it retained the stigma of the past. As the architects attest, trying to make the case for restoring this kind of contemporary architecture is always difficult, but it’s made harder when associated with a controversial political legacy. In addition, it “wasn’t old enough to be considered historical.”

A new era of challenges

With the building having been built by the former regime, the majority of people in the region consider it “communist architecture,” says Chybik. He says the antipathy towards brutalist architecture in the country is now a “hot topic, because architects are trying to protect and preserve it.” He says the “complicated” identity of buildings of this era is resulting in their demolition, also citing the recent removal of brutalist buildings by renowned architect Kengo Kuma in Japan as a disappointing recent symptom.

Despite the hope engendered by the 1989 revolution, the initial phase of the move to democracy and capitalism in the new Republic was problematic, says Chybik, with uncontrolled speculative development rife. The new private owners of the Zvonarka terminal didn’t run the service, and only made rental income from the bus companies, and “the business wasn’t lucrative enough to maintain the property properly, or reconstruct it.” This also meant the owners weren’t able to sell it for office, retail or residential purposes.

The terminal faces onto a retail park across a public square, however prior to the refurbishment its perimeter was cluttered with retail “stands” – low-quality prefab cubicles added piecemeal over the years, selling cheap goods. These ruined the transparency and connectivity with the city which the original design offered, and obscured and darkened its ground level. Says Chybik, “It was a place where you felt sorry for young girls having to wait alone for the evening bus – it was even scary for me.”

The practice’s overarching driver alongside this renewal agenda, was one of sustainability: “You can’t constantly remove and replace. Let’s try and reuse existing buildings more efficiently, make them more versatile; society has built enough.”

Making an intervention

Founding their practice in 2010, the architects were relatively new and hungry, and determined to do something with the terminal. They were also able to devote the time to making the project happen. This was fortunate, as the client would prove to be the main practical obstacle. After approaching the city with sketches of a scheme to then find it wasn’t owned by them, they found the private owner, who “explained that his business isn’t producing enough income.”

However, says Chybik: “This answer wasn’t good enough,” so in 2012 the architects took to social media, posting “very simple renderings” on Facebook to promote their vision to the public. “The role of an architect in our generation is more than sketches and documentation – it’s about trying to diagnose the problem.”

He says that despite the increased pressure being put on the client, during what Chybik calls the “first round of negotiations,” they were “trying not to see what was there.” However after “around five years of discussions” they eventually commissioned the practice, and “started to be very active, and friendly.” When a functional brief eventually arrived, the client specified little more than the number of buses that needed to be accommodated, and a new entrance hall plus other normal functions such as a ticket office. Ondrej says, “The scale of the transformation was pretty much in our hands.”

The practice “opened a dialogue between the city and owner, as the moderator,” which “led to the municipality understanding the problem.” With the client struggling to fund the scheme, a stroke of “coincidence or luck,” saw the EU offer grants of up to 70% to improve central European public transportation hubs. “The owner was able to put in the 30%, the maximum they could afford,” says Chybik. The total project cost was 100 m Koruna (around £3.3m).

Return on investment for the designers wasn’t the priority, despite the time they had committed to getting the scheme off the ground – and the fact the practice had been working for free. “Our major motivation wasn’t income, but was to make people not ashamed to use the bus,” says Ondrej.

Design approach

The architects’ key goal (including that of project architect Ondřej Švancara) was to reveal and highlight the fabric, and celebrate its strengths. “You have to try and understand the approach of the previous author, and try to read the strongest part of the piece, and reflect on it in your approach, and not go against their initial ideas.” He adds an interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive aside: “If you follow their original context, you’re free.”

Although the designers were in any case required to preserve the major parts of the original building for structural reasons, and what heritage protection existed, this was also their goal based on principle, because “the buildings of great architects are able to work for 200 years.” The extent of the actual physical design moves belie the long-term value to the city of the restoration. Instead the project is “focused on retaining the essential traits of the building’s image, but with subtle renewal,” say the architects.

The core design move was repainting and lighting the white roof structure – “the strongest thing on the entire building.” This enhanced a feeling of “weightlessness” given by the beams overhead, say the architects, and drew an even stronger contrast with the heaviness of the mass above. In so doing, the architects managed to avoid adding other lighting infrastructure to the platforms below, which would have been “more obstacles” in the way of its mission to strip clutter out. The programmable LEDs installed within the roof are enough to give generous light to the platforms, augmented by an existing roof light running the full length of the building, front to back.

Following the same route, is a central pedestrian ‘spine’ created by the architects, and this bisects another lateral route near the front of the building, creating a ‘crossroads,’ plus an additional one near the back. The designers inserted a new, glazed entrance hall building leading straight through to the spine, providing not only a “very logical connection, but also connecting back to the city,” says the architect.

The new entrance building is roofed in red-coated concrete tiles to reference Brno bricks, and curves downwards at its flanks, creating views in and out. The slim roof suggests “the platforms’ decking being detached from the floor like a conveyor belt,” say the architects.

However both the wave-like form and its colour strongly contrast against the rectilinear, white expanse above, and help give the new addition some prominence in this large space. With the ‘temporary’ cubicles having been removed, light is no longer impeded at the corners of the front elevation, and corners have been dispensed with on the new building to obviate any more chances of any of the bus platforms feeling closed-in once more.

Chybik explains further: “It’s very transparent, from the city you can see through the building, and when leaving the station, you see the new shopping mall, plus a brick-built former factory which is now a gallery.” On one side of the public plaza created in front of the bus station is a new tram stop, and this can now be entered on the same level as the terminal, as part of the project’s focus on maximising accessibility. “This part of Brno is transforming,” says Chybik, a southern chunk of the city centre is a “big brownfield” which the municipality is redeveloping into a transport hub, including a new rail station sitting adjacent to the bus terminal.

The architects believe that the building’s brutalism, and the “rational clarity of functionalist architecture,” has been enhanced by the addition of “new forms and resources.” Chybik says the aim is to “contrast with the brutalism, not to compete with it.”

As part of the “facelift,” the building’s concrete cladding has been cleaned, and copious scrubbing has removed rust on the steel structure. The subcontractor enlisted for this role was “surprised by how complicated the derusting was,” and developed their own equipment for the task. A 1980s statue by a local sculptor has been liberated by the removal of the retail cubicles, and now stands unencumbered on the plaza.

Chybik admits there are “two camps” when it comes to public reaction to the project. “One was complaining that we ‘spent 100 million on painting it,’” adding this was 70% of the comments on social media. However while the younger generation of Brno residents are keener than their older counterparts, there are also “plenty of happy customers, understanding that the city’s biggest shame just disappeared.”

Driving social change

The project demonstrates how an architectural studio’s role can be more usefully about catalysing, and even driving forward, a difficult project to benefit a dilapidated urban area – as opposed to creating a new building for its own sake. As well as a strong sustainability driver for refurbishing the 1980s-built station, the architects’ goal in tirelessly promoting this refurbishment as a viable scheme was not just to renew a heritage building, but also to reinvent the area surrounding it, and make the terminal something the citizens could be proud of.

The studio co-founder tells ADF that he believes this project is a “great example of how architects globally can open their eyes, and show care.” This chimes with the practice’s belief that architects’ role is “intrinsically social.” He also thinks it points toward a future of fewer ‘starchitects’ and architectural ego, and more reuse, based around a “local agenda.” This project fits exactly the practice’s stated goal to “demonstrate commitment to driving social change.”

While not including major design interventions, in revitalising and opening up this structure it represents a major example of how this city is rejecting certain aspects of its past, but preserving some of the positives. Says Chybik: “An important part of the story was letting Brno be an open, transparent city.”

Chybik adds: “I know that as architects we have the power to change. We have a voice and we can advocate for it, and I’m very happy that we succeeded in this case.” He concludes: “It’s not always about the greatest shape of a window, but about the client starting to make a change, to open their eyes, and listen to us.”