How has Košice changed in the past 10 years? An interview with architect Michal Hladký

Michal Hladký is an architect by training, one of the founders of ‘Východné pobrežie’ and the head of the Creative Industry Košice organisation. In this interview, he talks about his many years of work on the development of the city, problems he encountered along the way, successful projects, international cooperation and, above all, future opportunities for the city of Košice.

This interview was originally planned to take place in Košice but since you spend so much time travelling, we’re at the roof of the Kaapeli cultural centre in Helsinki right now. Do you still enjoy your travels or have they become just an inevitable part of your work?

Travelling is always inspiring, even when it makes me tired. Stepping out of your usual context creates a new framework for your thoughts. What matters, however, is how many of those ideas you manage to realise once you get back home.

Do you still experience culture shock when returning home or have the difference between Slovakia and other countries been slowly disappearing?

Not really. I’m usually just grateful for how good we have it here, not only when compared with the East but the West as well. We often think that everybody else is better off than us but that’s not true. We are very lucky.

Sometimes I see an interesting project and wish we had something similar here. But I also understand why these things can take longer. The idea must have its owner, otherwise, it can hardly be realised. You won’t see the change happen unless you lead it.

While studying architecture, you started taking part in various other activities. Could they be grouped under the term cultural management?

Cultural management, urban development or, even better, urban development led by culture and creativity.

Is this what you’ve been interested in from the beginning?

I visited Graz as a student in 2004 and 2005. That was one year after Graz was the European Capital of Culture. Seeing Peter Cook’s Kunsthaus was very inspiring. Realising that something like that was possible and one day could even be made possible in our hometown, was exciting. A UFO right in the middle of that historic UNESCO-listed town — that was an unforgettable experience for a young student.

That’s when we first found out about the European Capital of Culture. We’d had no idea before. Later, in 2007 we realised that Slovakia would be able to nominate one of its cities for the European Capital of Culture for 2013. At the Faculty of Art, we found ourselves taking part in the selection of the logo for the Košice candidacy. There I teamed up with Peter Radkoff and as we looked for more information about the planned project, we realised that urban development was missing. We decided to change that and ended up volunteering for nearly a year. That was very intense and satisfying work.

But how about designing houses and practicing architecture? Do you ever miss that?

I can’t say I miss the houses. What I miss, though, is the creative process as such, because it can be very fulfilling. Fortunately, I’ve managed to find a creative outlet in teaching first-year students at the Faculty of Art. I teach two courses where students work on their designs and consult them with me. What I enjoy is having space for new ideas. For me, architecture is more than designing new houses, it’s putting together a complex structure. The process is the same, whether it’s about building a company or realising an idea, from the inspiration to the final product and that’s what’s interesting for me. Seeing the entire process allows you not only to see the end product but also understand why it was created in the first place.

Ten years ago, you were one of the people who wrote the European Capital of Culture application. Looking back to that time, can you compare what your original plan for the project was and what the 2013 European Capital Culture turned out to be?

I get that question very often and honestly, I have to say that almost everything went according to plan. Of course, some projects, such as the Bankov mine, were abandoned, but what’s beautiful is that the project took on a life of its own. The idea lives on. We might’ve envisioned some things differently, for instance, Kulturpark was originally meant to be an exclusively contemporary art venue. But you can see the place alive and thriving and know that the alternative and contemporary art forms have found their place in the city and manage to coexist rather well.

Take Strojarenská, for example. It started as a temporary solution for people in need of space during the reconstruction of Kulturpark. Košice 2013 ended up renting a part of the compound on Strojárenská Street and the rest is history. There’s been so much negativity connected to the European Capital of Culture and that was probably inevitable but the outcome has been very positive.

So, other than the buildings and the entire infrastructure, has the change of the city’s mindset been the major benefit of the project?

It’s definitely the mindset. In my opinion, the establishment and the authorities have made even greater progress than the culture itself, considering what they’d been willing to do. I’m not saying that the culture has not benefited as well. But the establishment has become much more open to new ideas, even the ones that, some years ago, they wouldn’t even hear about. But now they are open to dialogue.

Today you are in charge of Creative Industry Košice (CIKE). Were the plans for such an organisation a part of the original Capital of Culture project?

Not for CIKE specifically, but it was clear that a single organisation responsible for implementing the master plan would be necessary. The city decided to continue and so that’s what we do. We’re doing our best to help the goals stated in the masterplan become reality.

Speaking of CIKE, many people aren’t sure what the organisation does. Could you describe its role in the city?

Our role is to help organisations as well as individuals to grow. CIKE connects Košice to the world. We’ve made our international network available to other cultural organisations in Košice, which, to me personally, is particularly important.

We’re also trying to add new reference points that are outside our local scope and protect the interests of the creative and cultural community as a whole. Whatever’s going on, we are there to help it grow to the best of our abilities.

Is Košice perceived as a city of culture?

I think so, but that question would best be answered by people from the outside. We all live in our own social bubbles and mine happens to be full of people who know about Košice and see it as a city of culture. Who knows, if I asked nuclear physicists, they might know more about Mochovce, where the nuclear power station is. But Košice and culture can no longer be separated. Things take time but the mindset has definitely changed. The fact that the culture and creative industry have officially been recognised as one of the cornerstones of the future economic growth of the city is remarkable. Ten years ago, that would’ve been impossible. So each person should look for the answer to this question in their immediate surroundings, but my answer is yes.

We’ll soon learn whether Košice’s application for the UNESCO Creative City of Media Arts has been successful. If so, what do you see as the greatest challenge?

The greatest challenge will be to establish good cooperation between various sectors of society, which is absolutely crucial. This could simply be yet another project but that would be a missed opportunity. In my opinion, the greatest benefit of becoming one of UNESCO Creative Cities is the chance to create global partnerships. The label UNESCO Creative City of Media Arts itself is a PR opportunity not only for cultural institutions but, for instance, for tourism as well. But in order to make it work, cooperation is vital. In this case, it’s first and foremost the cooperation between the IT sector and art, from which others would benefit as well. Any creative ideas should reach out beyond the boundaries of IT and art, into urban development, healthcare, tourism or education, whether to provide an aesthetic or interactive experience, to create a business opportunity or enhance international cooperation. Becoming a part of this network is one thing but the real challenge is to make the most of it.

Let’s leave the world of institutions and projects behind for a moment and look back at the days when, together with Mišo Hudák, you dreamt of a mythical land and started ‘Východné pobrežie’ (East Coast). Perhaps it’s an integral part of your early work in the city and for the city. Can you still navigate between these two worlds?

They can’t be separated. The energy, the motivation for my work, it’s all been laid down in the manifestos of ‘Východné pobrežie’. The project itself embodies my feelings for Košice and my expectations. I feel responsible for my city, my surroundings, my family. I want them to live in a better world, in a mythical land. I don’t want to leave, even though everyone is free to do that. But leaving means giving up the right to complain about things happening or not happening here. So if ‘Východné pobrežie’ verbalises the idea, CIKE is a tool to make that idea real, to create positive things. It speaks for the city and the creative community.

What will be the first thing you do when you come home?

See my daughter and Táňa. We’ll see what happens today at the conference, but then it’s time to get back to work. I used to come home with many ideas or seeing the ideas I’d had before in a new light. I’m better at keeping the distance now. We’re also finishing the work on our upcoming Art and Tech Days festival at the end of November.

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