Archive for October, 2013

by Benjamin Tallis

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A tourist strolling down the right bank of the Vltava, contentedly absorbing the gothic and baroque splendour of Malá Strana and the Hradčany, might, a little further down the river, be forgiven for thinking ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ Downstream of the decorative Hanavský Pavilon, something that looks like it could be a modernist hermitage nestles in the trees at the Northern end of the Letna park, its minimal chic obtrusive among the expressive edifices of downtown Prague.

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The arcing glass and shining steel of the kidney-shaped, elevated gallery grab the viewer’s attention from the riverside, with the subtle grace of the glazed pedestal only becoming apparent upon closer inspection. In answer to the tourist’s question, this light triumph came from Brussels, although, despite the flags fluttering in front of it, this building has nothing to do with the EU. It dates from a time before the Belgian capital became synonymous with the administrative HQ of the European political project, when Brussels hosted the World’s Fair: Expo ’58.

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This cold-war Expo was a highly politically charged event, a symbolic showcase for the superpowers, keen to trumpet their technical prowess and trump the progress of those on the ‘other side’ of what had yet to become a wall. The ’58 Expo was also the first major international exhibition to be held since the end of World War 2 and, despite being planned in the dark days of the 1950s, it was a modernist materialisation of hope, giving snatched glimpses of better futures.

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Although held less than two years after the both the Suez crisis and the crushing of the Budapest uprising, the World’s Fair came in during a brief thaw in open hostilities, the lull before the storm of the proxy war in Congo and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Briefly it seemed that the cold war could be won by science and culture, by those who could not only divide heaven, but who could also harness technological progress to deliver better living.

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This was the time of both Sputnik and Saarinen, of Laika and the Lever Building; a time when Mad Men set about bringing the gains of Mutually Assured Destruction and the space race into mid-century living rooms. In the soviet bloc, Khrushchev’s 20th Congress denunciation had opened a narrow window of opportunity for architects and designers, as they were called upon to provide visual and material distance from the stodgy confections with which Boris Iofan and others had tried to sugar-coat tyranny.

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In Czechoslovakia, many of the golden generation of interwar architecture found under the new regime that they flew too close to the sun and so this rare possibility to reconnect to the international style was an alluring one. With the accent firmly on the modern, visitors to the Expo were invited to spend ‘One Day in Czechoslovakia,’ in an exposition that cracked the western-manufactured façade of communist-era culture being uniformly dull and grey.

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The light and voluminous spaces of František Cubr, Josef Hrubý and Zdeněk Pokorný’s pavilion set the scene for the most striking avant-garde theatre of the Expo. Josef Svoboda’s Polyekran (multiscreen) and Laterna Magika (magic lantern) combined projection and performance to stunning effect and stood proudly alongside the Corbusier –inspired Poeme Electronique as highlights of the festival. Function was not forgotten amidst these effervescent forms, with the pavilion’s elegant lines providing the backdrop to the best of contemporary Czechoslovak public and interior design, such as the classic T3 tram seat (heater included for those cold Prague winters) and the Hedgehog tea set.
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While the political focus was on the potential standoff between the neighbouring American and Soviet showgrounds, it was the Czechs and Slovaks who took home the prize for the best pavilion. But that wasn’t all they took home, as the beautiful, curving structure that now sits in the Letna orchards, was the pavilion restaurant, where millions of visitors made sure that their one day in Czechoslovakia included a pint of the original and best Pilsner.

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The Saaz-laden suds of Bohemia’s best-known export undoubtedly helped things go with a swing, but it was in successfully marrying such traditional craft with cutting edge technological achitecture, that the comfort with which interwar Czechoslovakia had ascended to the world’s cultural top-table.
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Unlike the American pavilion which rejected the “anonymity, uniformity and all the things that go to make up modernism[1]” or the confused Soviet pavilion which encased a thoroughly retrograde exhibition in a steel and glass shell, Czechoslovakia showed how modern architecture could both spur new socio-cultural possibilities and accommodate more traditional pursuits.

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At the end of the Expo, the restaurant was transported back to Prague and fulfilled this function throughout the communist era, including the repressive period of normalisation, where it must have been a mirage-like reminder, a sleek, shimmering and somewhat unreal reminder of what Czechs came to know as the Bruselský Sen (Brussels dream). In 1991 a fire destroyed the interior and like so many buildings realised under the socialist regime, it was not properly valued in the heady tumult of what followed.

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Today, although it is well signposted in the park, visitors cannot enter the restaurant building, as it is now the offices of an advertising company. The company found itself embroiled in controversy in 2008 when it ran the Prague Mayor’s unrealistic vanity campaign to bring the Olympics to Prague under the slogan ‘We are all on the National Team.’ This was parodied on the ‘Art Wall’ under the Expo restaurant by artivists Guma Guar who used the same artwork and slogan, but instead of lauding faux-noble equestrians perched ludicrously atop mountains, they applied it to well known Czech criminals.

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Is it too much to hope that the advertising agency would seek to show that they too are part of the national team and return this beautiful building to public use? In doing so, they would gain their greatest PR success and provide a welcome reminder of a time where modernist substance triumphed over superpower spin.

The text for this piece originally appeared in The Modernist – Issue 6: ‘Cuppa’ in December 2012


[1] ‘Citizens and Architects’, Architectural Forum, 110: January 1959

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