Archive for the ‘Czech Culture’ Category

by Benjamin Tallis

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‘Who could possibly want such things?”
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When Jiří Mrázek and Adam Karásek started Nanovo in 2009, they were prepared for the fact that their salvaged and restored modernist furniture would not be to everyone’s taste. However, Karásek’s mother’s reaction (quoted above) shows the scale of the challenge they faced. Given the general revival of modernist architecture and design over the last decade, this may seem surprising, but it reveals much about a regionally particular politics of memory that colours attitudes towards domestic design as much as architecture. However, Nanovo’s success also shows how dominant narratives about the past and the present are being challenged and highlights the role of material objects in doing so.

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Many Czechs share the – now widespread – appreciation of the International Style. This strand of modernism carries the echoes of the First Republic, the Czech golden age, when a flourishing of art and design and the big-thinking industrial dynamism of companies such as Baťa, combined to thrust the newly-stated nation onto the world stage. This celebrated history has long allowed Czechs to embrace the International Style as a part of their own heritage, exemplified in the Tugendhat and Muller villas, but mid-century meant something very different here than the purposeful elegance of Mad Men or the soaring hope of Eero Saarinen. After ‘89, the urge to disavow the communist past led to a disavowal of its aesthetics. At home this often meant junking the old in favour of the flat-packed or multinationally homogenous new and many design classics of this other modernism became flotsam and jetsam in the currents of post-communist transition.

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Mrázek and Karásek travelled and studied abroad, where they saw that, far from being shunned, the designs of this other time, of this other modernity were celebrated. These experiences drove them to question the conformism of domestic consumption after communism and to speculate that the objects, the material remains of that past could also have a place in the present. Inspired by flea-market-furnished Berlin, Mrázek and Karásek, set about rescuing the “gems” of communist-era domestic design from thrift stores and junk shops around the Czech Republic. Rescuing domestic objects from the garbage heap of history, resonates with bigger trends in Czech society that seek to reclaim private memories from the blanket condemnation that obscures the lived experiences of this period. This resistance to locally-dominant politics of memory is interwoven with a dissatisfaction with – what might be termed – the ‘multinational style’, the homogenizing blandness that became characteristic of much of the 90s and 00s in ‘transition’ and which manifested itself in the limited choice of Western-approved or Western-owned furniture, beer or politics.

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Nanovo’s focus is on domestic objects and their ever-changing collection of household and industrial modernism. However, the Jitona sideboards, Tesla desklamps, Pragotron clocks, workshop lighting are complemented by other minor markers of time and place: chicken-shaped plastic eggcups, vintage paddles for boats long stuck-up other creeks, maps of the world made for socialist classroom walls. These objects recall the private lives of Czechs and Slovaks in the period of ‘Normalisation’. This closing down of the public sphere, a social permafrost that followed Prague’s most famous spring, heightened the importance of creating ‘cosy dens’[1]: domestic realms of retreat, resilience and resistance which functioned as interior ‘outsides’, where children could grow up and happy times could be had, in spite of “post-totalitarian” one party rule. As Charity Scribner notes in Requiem for Communism[2] consideration of the domestic objects of these times allows for collective “memory work on a human scale”.

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Despite muddled media reports,[3] Mrázek is adamant that Nanovo does not seek to satiate  Ostalgic desires for retro kitsch that rest on the allure of a dangerous regime now thrillingly exotic at a safe historical distance. The focus is on design quality rather than the period or conditions of their production. The Finnish PeeM chair – a leather upholstered armchair, which turns on an aluminium four-spoke base – has proved as popular now as it was in 70s Czechoslovakia. Mrázek argues that: “These pieces looked good 20 years ago; and they will look good in 20 years.” Nonetheless, Nanovo’s style certainly appeals to those, like its founders, who grew up in the 70s and 80s and who were “heavily shaped” by the architecture and urbanism of the time as these “styles unconsciously sunk under our skin” as Mrázek puts it.

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Mrázek and Karásek grew up respectively in the lower and upper parts of Prague’s Smichov district, where they still live, although they have now swapped places on the hill. From flea markets to the annual design supermarket, via the opening of a large warehouse space (and mid-century Aladdin’s cave) in the outlying industrial area of Vysočany and, recently, the opening of a flagship store in Prague’s Old Town, Nanovo has come in from the margins and spawned a series of imitators. This growing acceptance and success speaks to the changing conditions of the politics of memory – and its material manifestations in the Czech Republic.

Nanovo’s founders are part of the generation known locally as ‘Husák’s Children’ – after the Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husák who oversaw the period of normalisation. Coming of age only after ’89, this generation has sought continuity between their past and present; to reconcile the material environments of  chidhood and adolescence with those encountered later. It is no surprise therefore that the ‘Nanovo look’ is commonplace in the new generation of bars and cafes they own, run and frequent: Café Kaaba’s opaxit glass-topped coffee tables, the industrial lamps in Café Sladkovsky, the Ton and Tatra chairs in Cafe v Lese and the plectrum-shaped formica ‘Brusel’ tables in the Malkovich bar are but a few of many possible examples. These hipster hangouts combine internationally recognisable traits with a distinctive Czechness that speaks of a resurgent self-confidence – a willingness to rescue their childhood from the totalising judgements of history and to reject the ‘post-historical’ ablandisements of transition.

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The Ambiente restaurant group has also got in on this act with its haute reinterpretations of classic Czech cuisine but, even more so, with its ‘Lokál’ pubs. These locales pride themselves on serving only Czech products – and some of the finest Pilsner in Prague – but it is in the décor and in the small touches, such as the flea-market-familiar plastic bread baskets, that Lokál really stands out. The wooden benches and wall coverings feature etched, backlit graffiti of the kind familiar from school desks Europe-wide, harking back to the schooldays of designer Maxim Velčovský (born 1976) and many others. The bathroom decoration takes things a step further with the walls (in the gents) covered from floor to ceiling in a scrapbook collage of images from the 70s and 80s: Niki Lauda’s Ferrari and Škoda sports editions; Franz Beckenbauer Michel Platini and Antonin Panenka; glamorous foreign air hostesses and local soft porn. These images are taken from period magazines – not only from Czechoslovakia and other Warsaw Pact countries, but from Western publications as well. Lokál’s fixtures, fittings and collage questions the sweeping judgements that emphasise clear-cut difference between West and East and the isolation and inferiority of the latter, by recalling the ways in which people lived and the connections between the blocs.

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Mrázek – a big fan of Lokál – was also quick to note the international influence in Czech design during communism: “You can see that a magazine came from, lets say Italy, and that then there are some designs for lamps that, don’t copy but somehow work with, what the designers had seen there.” A generation of what Mrázek describes as “open-minded” Czechs are looking afresh at the aspects of their past, which, far from being something to be ashamed of are now celebrated: for the skill of designers and architects in remaining conversant with and making major contributions to modernist design under testing circumstances. Emphasising the connections of this modernism to Western outsides, rather than seeing it as product of isolated communist inferiority, has helped spur public re-appraisals of brutalist architecture as well as of Nanovo-style domestic design.

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However, the Czechoslovak modernism of the 60s, 70s and 80s also testifies to particular lived experiences – of communism and of what followed. Contemplating the worth of the design of this period invites reflection on the ways that Czechs can find their place in their increasingly interconnected post-communist world without totally disavowing their past or surrendering to the false diversity of much of the multinational present. Charity Scribner, quoting Maurice Halbwachs, argues that: “‘Space is a reality that endures.’ Indeed, we can only recapture the past by understanding how ‘it is preserved in our physical surroundings’. Place and group mutually constitute one another.” Nanovo’s founders Mrázek and Karásek provide material ways in which this can happen and spur modernist questioning of the pseudo-diversity of the postmodern present. We should seize the chance, as many Czechs are doing to consider their place in the international order and in their own cosy dens.

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www.nanovo.cz  

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Modernist, ‘Domestic’ issue in 2014.

[1] Cosy Dens is a literal translation of the Czech term ‘Pelíšky’ which is also the title of a well-known, 1999 Czech film, directed by Jan Hřebejk.

[2] Charity Scribner (2003), Requiem for Communism, Cambridge: MIT Press.

[3] For example in Czech Daily MF Dnes – http://nanovo.cz/ostatni/PR/press/mf_dnes-3.10.11.jpg; or online news site Czech Position – http://nanovo.cz/ostatni/PR/press/ceska-pozice25.10.11.jpg

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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In nice news, uber-Designer Swiss Miss featured my CM Prague talk on space and borders on her website (more than 1m unique visitors per month!).

Check out the talk and the rest of Swiss Miss’ on the link below

http://www.swiss-miss.com/2013/08/link-pack-3.html

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And it was the headline piece in the CM Global monthly newsletter!

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Thanks again to everyone who made it happen – I was really pleased to be part of such a great event!

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– take a look at the wonderful photos of the event from Everybay here

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.490279277720830.1073741833.331379706944122&type=1

Also, have a look at the other great talks that CM Prague – who just celebrated their 1st birthday – have organised this year!

https://www.facebook.com/CreativeMorningsPrague

BEYOND BORDERS?

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Creative Mornings invited to me to talk at the July instalment of their monthly breakfast lecture series. The month global CM theme for july was space and I spoke about borders, drawing on my research to discuss the ongoing relevance of borders, despite claims that we are moving towards a borderless world. Asking questions inspired by research into geopolitical borders allows us to consider borders more generally, as metaphor, heuristic or lens on the world and the ways we can live in it – apart and together.

The beautiful setting of the Piazetta courtyard at the National Theatre, the coffee and snacks laid on by the CM team and the glorious morning sunshine all helped things go with a swing. There were some really good comments and questions afterwards and met a lots of nice and interesting people. It was inspiring for me to see how many other people are interested in borders and how and why we make and break them.

Many thanks to Lenka, Lada & Jiri from Creative Mornings and to the excellent photographers who captured such interesting images of the event – Jakub Sodomka and Everbay Photography

Here is the link to the full video – beautifully produced by Jiri, Lenka, Lada & the crew … http://vimeo.com/71563085

You can watch the second half of the talk (on the more general/ conceptual aspects of bordering) here. The outline of the talks is included below

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Creative Mornings: Prague – Talk Outline

  • Space & Borders
    • Many thanks for the introduction and many thanks to Lenka, Lada and Jiri for inviting me to address this interesting – and, to me I have to say largely new – audience about a topic that is very close to my heart and which has changed the way that I look at the world, how we might go about being in it and indeed how we can change it …

 

  • As you know, the CM theme for this week is Space – so why borders?

 

  • They are one of the ways in which we divide space and make spaces into places  – which, as a brief definition are spaces that have acquired a particular or dominant meaning, although this is not uncontestable – On the other hand, spaces are yet to become places; other than in the sense that their very openness and lack of specific meaning makes them a particular kind of place – a space. Spaces, therefore, are (as yet unrealised) potential places, whereas places are the potential of a space exhausted – for now – in a particular set of meanings
  • In effect, they are one of the ways we make space meaningful
  • While space is open and full of possibility and potential, borders and the place or meaning making that they imply often seem to shut things down, to close things off, but I hope to be able to persuade you that that is not always the case & that understanding borders  – and why we need them – is an interesting and important way to understand how we live. Moreover, I will argue that these processes are actually necessary and desirable .
  • So, today, I will start by talking about borders as they are commonly understood – state borders – and particularly how they have changed over the last 25 years … and then go on to discuss how the research that I have been doing on this topic prompted me to think about borders more widely. I hope that in doing so, I will challenge some of your borders and prompt you to do likewise …

 

  • Post Cold War – Towards a Borderless World?
    • Much talk of a borderless world, a global village,
    • End of Superpower Conflict – Fall of Berlin Wall
    • Economic Globalisation
    • The internet and the comms revolution
    • Political Integration – such as the EU
    • The rise of global NGOs – the zeitgeistb seemed very much one of a world trying to become sans frontiers?
  • Specific Example – European Integration as Breaking Down Old Borders
    • Deepening – breaking down internal borders
      • Towards political union rather than old conflict or frozen fear
      • Completion of Single Market
      • Creation of Schengen Zone  (Area of Freedom, Justice & Security)
      • 4 Freedoms of Movement (Goods; Services; Capital; Labour)
  • Widening – extending the zone of this interior, this inside …
    • EU Eastern Enlargement (2004 & 2007)
    • European Neighbourhood Policy (2003)
    • Eastern Partnership (2009)
  • But … De-bordering or Re-bordering
    • Schengen: Trans European Networks of Control (Walters)
      • Roving Border Guard Teams – Irregular Migration
      • Mobile Customs Patrols – Smuggling & Trade Violations
      • Police Actions in Cities – Persistent Internal Control
      • Strengthen the Perimeter – Increased External Control
  • Enlargement: Exclusive Inclusion
    • Ostensible Widening – A Europe Whole & Free?
    • ‘Return to Europe’ or Creation of ‘Non-Core’ Europe-  derrida, habermas
    • Accession and Learning to be European – teachers and pupils – new rules, new borders …
    • Defining European-ness Through Membership & Conduct
      • Behaving like someone eles’s idea of what a European is
      • But with the potential to shape this in future
    • The End of Enlargement & The Limits of Europe?
  • ENP & EaP: Inclusive Exclusions
    • Ameliorating the Effects of the New Curtain – not iron, but paper and glass – the visa curtain – seems inclusive but to what extent?
    • Neighbours, Partners but not (Future) Members – borders again …
    • Is it about a Ring of Friends or a new Buffer Zone in which the EU Exports and outsources its Borders?
    • Desire for Closer Ties – Need for Labour & Access to Markets +
    • Fear of the East – Inward Migration & Cross Border Crime
    • But where is the east and how do we know – how has this changed over time – where is Eastern Europe – why do we here in Prague call ourselves central Europeans?
  • Borders as Geopolitical Phenomenon
    • Borders still exist just not (only) at the borders we used to know
    • Borders as Intersection of Security and Mobility
      • Security of what from what?
      • Mobility of what type for who?
        • is this chosen or forced? Is it the same for everyone – mob egs
    • What do they mandate, encourage, discourage or prevent?
    • What does this tell us about who and how we can be?
  • Leads to Wider Questions about Borders as Heuristic or Metaphor
    • Where are our borders?
      • As citizens, as men, women, heterosexuals, homosexuals, law abiders, criminals, entrepreneurs, conformists and creatives?
      • What are borders and what do they do?
        • Are all our borders about security and mobility
        • Perhaps they are also to do with probability and possibility, action and dream ..
        • How are borders created, confirmed or challenged?
          • Formal borders –legal, state, etc; informal borders – norms, conventions, habits, limits of imagination & creativity
          • All borders are artificial in the sense that they are social constructs
          • Doesn’t make them any less real but does mean that they can be contested and challenged,
          • How are borders policed or transgressed?
            • How are they enforced? How do we police ourselves in this regard?
            • How do they change over time?
            • Why do borders exist?
              • Why might we want them to?
  • Borders, Imposition and Desire
    • How and why are borders imposed?
      • Which borders can we think of as being imposed on us?
      • When do we want to be secure?
      • How and why is this accepted or resisted?
        • Do we accept all the borders that are imposed on us?
        • When do we want to be open or mobile?
        • How and why do we actually desire borders?
          • What borders do you desire or want to maintain?
          • Would you open the borders to your home? Your bedroom? Your body? Under what circumstances and how much ctrl do you have or want over this?
          • Who gets to make your borders?
            • You? Other people? Some combination of the two?
            • If we were to transgress the borders of language, we would struggle to make ourselves understood, but, over time words change their meaning in different context, become acceptable or unacceptable, but all of this relies on common understandings of them …
  • How do your borders relate to your identity and your horizons of possibility?
    • Your borders to a certain extent give you an idea of who you are
    • Repeated interaction with your borders gives you a sense of yuour current possibilities and limits
  • Borders, Identities, Orders
    • Identity – Your Borderscape
      • Access to different places and spaces
        • Nightclub example –
    • Belonging within a particular place (bounded by borders
    • Who gets to be there who doesn’t?
    • Who is in place and who is ‘out of place’
    • So, who gets to do what and who does not …
    • If borders relate to Identity then do we carry the border with us?
      • We trigger some of the borders that seem to spring up …
      • Zafer senocak – the border runs, right through my tongue
  • Orders – How we live with Others
    • What is a particular place for?
    • What are the activities that are supposed to take place there?
    • Where does that place stop and a new place start?
    • Who gets to decide that and how is it enforced?
    • Who gets to participate? Who is that place for
    • Spatial, Temporal and Social
      • How we can be in and make places
      • How we can change them or how we want to keep them as they are
      • What does it mean when borders are not just at the edge?
      • What is the history of a place, how has it changed over time?
      • How do power relations work in these contexts
      • How do borders and this access/ denial/ freedom/ oppression matrix work to make us who we are?
  • Bordering as Self & World Knowledge
    • How the world sees you
      • You know retty quickly if you are welcome or not
      • 1st/ 2nd class at the border – waiting or passing… at home or out of place?
      • How you see the world and yourself in it
        • Where can you go, what can you do, who can you be?
        • Is it where you would like to be …
        • Volker Braun – I’m still here but my country’s gone west …
        • How we can live and who we want to live with
          • Whose in and whose out?
          • How we can dream and imagine as well as how we stay grounded and practical
            • Possibility and durability – are we ready for total flux?
            • Borders as social and political
              • We do this together and so we have to rtecognise how power relations work, how we can ifluence or compel others and how they can do the same to us ..
              • How does going to palladium influence the situation of the homeless person
              • Borders connect us as well as divide us – relations of exclusion are still relations …
  • Beyond Borders?
    • Making Borders
      • Which borders do you help make
      • For creative types? Who is in, who is out?
      • Breaking Down Borders
        • How do you challenge your borders
        • How do you help other people challenge theirs’?
        • Knowing Borders
          • How do we know our borders?
          • How do we go about finding out?
          • This is the key to challenging those we want to challenges and to maintaining the bodrers that we want to keep.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ignored
Czech Brutalist Architecture & The Politics of Material Memory in Postcommunism

Those in the aesthetic know have long recognized that there is much more to Prague than the dreamlike castle rising above the Baroque and Rococo confections that jostle for tourists’ attention in the picturesque old town. Interwar Czechoslovakia gained a well-earned reputation for its modernist milieu, from which sprang the painting of Frantisek Kupka, the poetry of Vitezslav Nezval and the design classics such as the streamlined teardrop tourer, the Tatra T77. Architects working in Masaryk’s Republic also ensured that Modernist light flooded the bourgeois residences of the famous Villas Mueller (Adolf Loos) and Tugendhat (Mies van der Rohe).

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In contrast to the folksy, myth-making and introspective imaginary of the ‘National Revival’, the nascent bi-national consciousness that emerged from the decline of decadent Kakania and the carnage of the First World War openly embraced the International Style. Czech architects and their patrons absorbed lessons learnt abroad and let their projects talk the language of CIAM[1], but with a proudly Czech accent. Of many possible examples, Oldřich Tyl and Josef Fuch’s Functionalist Trade-Fair Palace in Holesovice and Josef Havlíček and Karel Honzík’s Corbusian Pension Institute in Zizkov display a familiarity and comfort with the principles and practice of Modernist architecture that fuelled the urban utopianism of Tomas Bata’s “shiny phenomenon” in Zlin and reflected the confidence of a Republic, recognized as such for the first time, beginning to feel like it belonged in the world.

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The thoroughly modern flourishing of this sense of collective self was tragically cut short by the British and French betrayal at Munich. Chamberlain’s cruel condemnation of Czechoslovakia as ‘a faraway country of which we know little’, an expendable pawn in the cynical play of great-power politics, opened the door for Nazi annexation and occupation, ‘liberation’ by the Red Army and the subsequent slide into authoritarian communism. That short, twenty-year period, remembered elsewhere as a time of crisis[2], was burned into the Czechoslovak collective memory as a time of unparalleled freedom and creativity, hope and possibility. This was a time when the swirling forces of modernist creativity, such as those of Karel Teige’s Devětsil ensured that while this medium-sized, Central European country grew to become world’s 6th largest exporting economy, it was feted not only for its wares, but the way it wore them. The memory of this period has become crucial to historicized understandings of what followed as well as ideas of how to be, become and belong in the present, which has been both reflected and reinforced in the material memoryscape.

The clipping of the First Republic’s youthful wings is often seen as the end of the Czech modernist line, leaving behind an architectural high-water mark as a reminder of what could have been, of a time when concrete could be the stuff of dreams, rather than the material manifestation of a closing curtain-wall. The monuments to that golden youth are now regular highlights on tourist schedules, highly recommended in guidebooks and often featured in design magazines. Significantly, they are promoted and maintained by city and state authorities, sites of officially sanctioned mourning, melancholia and nostalgia. However, while such acclaim is richly deserved, the politics of material memory are never far from postcommunist surfaces. The focus on the First Republic has meant that many of Prague’s later modernist gems have often been ignored, seemingly hidden in plain sight.

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What Prague is For

Whereas Berlin is lauded for its TV Tower and Café Moskau and the former Soviet Union has seen its Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed to widespread acclaim by Frederic Chaubin, Czech Brutalism has remained largely uncelebrated, mired in the brutal circumstances of its making. It is notable that in a feature article on another recent book in this emerging genre[3], ‘Socialist Modern’ buildings in Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine and Georgia are mentioned, while the Czech Republic is conspicuous by its absence. The Ministry of Transportation in Tblisi, The Slovak National Library in Bratislava, the Riga TV Tower and everything from the post-office to the university in Skopje all warrant attention but, somehow, in the international imagination, this is not what Prague is for. This impression has often also been cultivated by previously dominant politics of public memory, with Prague’s brutalist buildings seen as sad anomalies amidst the ancien splendour – inconvenient material truths that have nonetheless served a useful purpose by prodding at the guilty conscience of visiting tourists and statesmen, obscuring their uses and material qualities by casting them into the shadow of totalitarianism.

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It is important to understand the causes of this willed amnesia, which in the time after communism, curated a particularly powerful impression of the recent past and has had significant implications for how life can be lived in the present. The confluence of international and local understandings of the history of the short 20th Century and especially its second-half, has created a dominant narrative of post-communist collective memory. This view sees 1989 as the inevitable victory of a superior western model that ended a period defined exclusively by oppression and suffering, thus condemning the lived experience of millions of people to the garbage heap of history and constructing them in the present as victims and damaged goods. In part, this has been tactical, helping to forge an understanding of a Czechs as ‘Central Europeans’ and thus deserving of a ‘return to Europe’, to the exclusion of those further East, condemned as oriental others, as non-EUropeans. Milan Kundera’s famous essay ‘The Kidnapped West’[4] is a prominent example of such an approach, asserting Central European belonging in a Western idea of Europe and grounding its legitimacy in the interwar period. Central Europe becomes the West’s jilted lover, banished to the Russian East, diverted from it’s ‘true’ path and facing a kidnapped present and a hijacked future. Ironically, although Kundera explicitly rejects Marx and Hegel’s version of History, he effectively espouses a Fukuyamian historicism avant le letter, albeit one that limits the teleology of a Western destiny of ‘Liberal-Market-Democracy’ to Western and Central Europeans and Americans

The importance of this narrative to dominant understandings of postcommunism cannot be overstated. Playing on the curtailed experience of democracy and linking this to the cultural flourishing of the First Republic, helped Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa (and others) ensure that the so-called ‘Return to Europe’ was institutionally concretised in accession to the European Union, although this very much on the EU’s terms[5]. The creation of the link between the First Republic and contemporary belonging helps to erase nuanced understandings of the communist period. To be clear, this was indeed a time of tremendous suffering, oppressive politics and the callous crushing of a shocking amount of human potential, but was that the whole story? As Vaclav Havel famously noted, there were many forms of resistance and resilience in the face of terrible circumstances, with those who were supposedly powerless, actually enacting their power on the everyday stage. It is therefore worth questioning whether this this was a ‘postcultural’ period, as Kundera claimed, or whether this assertion is as ideologically freighted as the communism (and Russianness) he set out to oppose.


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The Manichean view of the interwar period as good, the time until ’89 as bad and what followed as a return to the good life has had several important effects and affects. Following Kundera, this sees postcommunist ‘transition’ as a journey from point to point, from the “stolen European and capitalist past” to the predetermined ʻprogressiveʼ trajectory of the West[6]. However, once back on the same path, Central Europeans were seen to be behind and backward, frequently labeled either as ‘success stories’ or ‘laggards’[7] in imitating the always-already advanced West which they were benchmarked against, leading Juergen Habermas to denigrate the events of 1989 as “catching up revolutions.” Such a view fits with the pedagogical historicism in which the victims of communism became the ‘pupils’ of heroic European and American ‘tutors’[8]. This is also reflected in the patronizing Pentecostalism that styled these revolutions as a re-birth and that talks of ‘young democracies’ and the ‘children of 89’[9].

Hard Times in Soft Cities

Importantly for this discussion of the social meaning of architecture and its role in material memory, characterizations of the communist period as one of merely kidnap and theft ignore the complexity of lived experiences of the time leaving victim testimonies as the main mode of available and acceptable public speech regarding that time. Labelling art, architecture and literature of the time as ‘postcultural’ is a delegitimizing move that seeks to reify other types of culture and which supports unfairly totalizing accounts of communist experiences, a treatment all too common where communist-era cultural production is concerned. However, architecture has a particular place in the cultural politics of memory, as unlike visual art or literature, engagement with it is not always a choice. We all experience the material environments we live in and the buildings in which we live and work may not always be of our choosing. Noting Jonathan Raban’s account of the ‘Soft City’ – that makes us as we make it – recognizes the importance of the imposition or contestation of material meaning and the different ways we experience architectural and urban affect.

Czech Brutalist buildings were mainly built after the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring and have all too often become seen as the distinctly inhuman face of socialist ‘Normalisation’. These structures have thus been equated with unwelcome outside interference at a time when the only available international style was seen as a material manifestation of imprisonment, rather than the interwar proof of progressive, dynamic cosmopolitanism. Considering the very different reaction that Brutalist buildings have often inspired in the reunified Germany, it is important to note the significance of different understandings of the communist period there, as well as the impact of a very different (inter)war past. This may have contributed to a continued embrace of contemporary modernism throughout the post-war period, with the clear connection (and open competition) between building in the East and the West, reaffirming national connection by highlighting the falseness of enforced division. In Germany, as in many other places, Brutalism was understood as an architecture from within rather than one imposed from without, albeit with differing variations and connotations in the two halves of the divided nation. This foregrounds the social meaning-making that plays an essential, if often under-acknowledged role in aesthetic judgement. Thus, the marquee buildings of the Czechoslovak Normalisation period are often seen as all too closely entwined with authoritarian politics of the period, with their aesthetic, material and functional qualities and the complexity of their social meaning is too often ignored in this totalizing gaze.


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The communist period is often seen in the popular, Western imagination as ‘grey’ or ‘drab’, with ‘the people’ of the time eking out a meagre existence in a concrete-clad, shadowy half-light that is all too easily equated with run-down, large-scale housing projects. These descriptions, as well as the slights on key socialist-era buildings, continue to reverberate in the concrete estates – built then, but still lived-in now – many of which were realized in a brutalist vernacular: from the low rise ‘Solidarita’ in Strašnice and Karlin’s sleek ‘Invalidovna’, to the fleets of panel-buildings in Ďáblice and Jižní Město, they have been all too easily dismissed as mere communist blocks that signal second class-life in what was the second world.

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After ’89 these visions of how the future used to look no longer looked the part, as post-communist countries tried to shed their socialist skin and tried to emulate the West. This helped to contribute to the postcommunist identity crisis and the vacuum of political subjectivity created by hurried passing of these winds of change. Damning the buildings of that time has also helped to cast people who live in them today as poor relations, willfully forgetting that these were, and continue to be, the places where people grew up, loved, laughed and even enjoyed moments in ignorance or defiance of the party regime. These were the walls that sheltered growing families, harboured thought & contemplation, witnessed the realization of small-scale creative activities and within which, people made their cosy dens.

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Brutalism beyond Brutality

More recently however, as the post-historical utopianism of the neoliberalising global order has been buffeted by an economic crisis so prolongued that it has become the norm and as the realities of living by rules largely made elsewhere become clearer, it has been possible to detect mnemonic counter-currents in the Prague cityscape and beyond. Aesthetically and functionally, the designs of Karel Prager, Vladimir and Vera Machonin and others at the forefront of Czech brutalism, have stood the test of time and are starting to receive the local and international acclaim that they deserve. Much like the myth of the Czech ‘return to Europe’ post-89, Prague did not need to “return to the international architecture scene[10]” after the cold war, it had always been there.

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The re-appraisal of these previously neglected architectural jewels, which increasingly stand out amidst the banality of contemporary commercial construction is part of a wider contestation of the totalizing memory of the communist period and a new willingness to accept that not everything produced in this time was necessarily bad[11]. This points to the need to re-engage a past all too quickly jettisoned in the haste of transition, not to pardon or rehabilitate the communist regime, but to recognize the nuance and complexity of the lived experiences of that period, of the significant grey areas that people were required to operate in and the not so grey experiences they may have had in and around the buildings of the time. Reconsidering the architectures of that time and their place in contemporary urban life is a significant step in reclaiming the multiple singularities of the past and thus restoring the possibility of subjective authenticity, that sense of having been both then and now and being able to speak as fully as one can of both times and indeed to rescue the beautiful babies that were thrown out with the surfeit of bad bathwater.

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The former Czechoslovak Federal Assembly building (Prager, 1972) at the top of Wenceslas Square, which served as the post-89 headquarters Radio Free Europe has been fully refurbished to mark its transformation into ‘The New Building’ of the Czech National Museum. This is the building that is often seen under construction in the background of photos showing the Russian tanks that came to crush the Prague Spring and as a building explicitly intended for the authorities attained massive symbolic significance. That this architectural wonder was effectively given away to a foreign organization in the wake of the velvet revolution is also indicative of the politics of the time, as its gleaming resurgence at the heart of officially-sanctioned national memory. Another Prager building, the Nova Scena (1983) of the National Theatre, famous as the ‘Magic Lantern’ where roundtable talks were held during the seizure of power from the communist regime has gone from being derided as looking like “frozen piss”[12] to being lauded as a must-see site in the latest Prague guide from international tastemakers Wallpaper* magazine.

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Similarly, the Kotva[13] department store is a reassuringly solid presence opposite the pink crème chantille of the recent and hideously Disney-like Palladium shopping centre. Hotels such as the Intercontinental[14], and President[15] downtown and the Praha[16] and Pyramida[17] further out have long catered for tourists and conference-goers, while commercial buildings such as the Smichov Komercni Banka[18] and the Cube[19] office complex showing the range of brutal beauty in Prague. Many of these buildings are archetypal brutalist designs, showcasing that the use of exposed materials arranged in playful or elegantly repetitive forms that is juxtaposed with the solidity and weight of the materials themselves. This play of lightness and weight, elegance and solidity is often lost in the brutalist nomenclature which was coined for its use of Beton brut, rather than anything more sinister. The sweeping curves and egalitarian distribution of balcony space at the Hotel Praha and the elevated and seemingly floating, curtain-walled body of the former Federal Assembly speak of a technical mastery of contemporaneous international building styles. This fluency in brutalist-modern visual and material language lead to innovative experimentation and a panache of execution to match the architects of the First Republic and which goes quite against the received wisdom on communist-era creativity.

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Place-making: Palimpsest and Performativity

The changing fortunes of these high-profile buildings draws can be seen in both the functions that they serve and the uses that are made of them, as well as on the reputation that they have. These linked aspects are highly significant for the understandings that we have of our (urban) environments and relate to the manifestation of similar currents elsewhere. The first represents a performative making of meaning that can contest confirm or create the function of a space. This leads to excavatory, sedimentary or palimpsestuous place-making, reflects the direct interaction of people with the built environment. In Berlin, the transformation of the 3rd Reich Air Ministry building into the contemporary Federal Ministry of Finance and the re-invention of the Olympic stadium from shameful Nazi hangover to centerpiece of a new Germany, once again accepted as having a waveable flag are only two examples of such processes. There are also many examples of this in Prague, from the re-branding of Pankrac high-rises to the cynical corporate appropriation of the already appropriated ‘Máj’ shopping centre to make the indicatively named ‘My’ Narodni[20]. The controversy around the formal listing of this building also shows the often particularly bitter hatred of brutalist style buildings that is not the preserve of either Central Europe or postcommunist countries and which relates to the discourses that also inform architectural meaning-making.

It has long been accepted that it is mainly architects and architecture critics who champion brutalist buildings, imposing them on the poor folk who actually have to live there, while they retreat to more comfortable and comforting climes. It has been of continued delight to conservative commentators that the iconoclastic critic Charles Jencks declared that “Modern Architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32pm or thereabouts when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grace by dynamite.[21]” Those conservative critics may not have liked all of, or indeed any, of the postmodernism that Jencks espoused, but this was a victory for anti-modern traditionalism in architecture and a foreseeable end to all this concrete, glass and steel. Jencks was purposefully premature and the battle for modernism has raged on ever since, but it has done so in a prevailing critical climate that has sought to blame many urban and social ills on this style of architecture, which bred nought but misery, poverty crime and alienation.

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However, around the world, this received wisdom has come into question, with the re-appraisal of the aesthetics of brutalist buildings often accompanied by refurbishment. Even the founding myth of the critics of modern architecture – that the brutalist-modern Pruitt-Igoe housing project was fundamentally unsound – has been challenged. The recent documentary film ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth’ highlights the joy with which the first tenants embraced their new homes and foregrounds the lack of maintenance, willful ghettoisation by the city authorities and the poor socio-economic status of the occupants as the main causes of the degeneration of life on the estate, rather than seeing the architecture itself as the cause. Similarly, according to reports in the Czech media, anthropological research on Prague’s biggest housing estate at Jižní Město, revealed “strong social networks, plenty of greenery and decent public transportation[22]” and that this and other such areas had not become a low-income ghettoes in the course of transition. Among the signature buildings of Jižní Město are the linked towers of the Hotel Kupa, which recall London’s Trellick tower from the renowned British brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger.

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A City in Full

The revival in the fortunes of brutalist buildings in other parts of the world has coincided with the re-appraisal of Czech communist architectures, as it has seemingly been realized that they were not some aberrant form unique to authoritarian regimes, but that actually the embrace of this style by the skilled hands of Karel Prager and others was actually capable of producing beautiful, interesting buildings. While questions will always be raised about the politics of those who were able to build during this time, even non-party members like Prager, this picture is complicated by the continued activity of interwar architects such as Josef Havlíček and Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer in postwar Czechoslovakia. However, it should be recognized that the best brutalist buildings bear elegant witness to the resilience of cultural creativity that was able to flourish despite the adverse conditions of the time. Recognising the aesthetic value of these marquee buildings makes it harder to simply dismiss their everyday cousins in the housing estates, which is increasingly important in the increasing socio-economic Darwinism of a neoliberalising Europe where we should continue to assert that just because you don’t live in a villa doesn’t mean that you don’t belong here.

The rehabilitation of these material forms and their social meaning comes as part of a renewed willingness to properly reckon with the past in all its complexity, refusing the simplifying narratives of totalizing tyranny and victimhood in order to reclaim the uniquely Czech experiences of this time and to be thus better able to contextualise and understand them within wider narratives, which can then also be better challenged. This in turn may speak of a desire to re-assert political subjectivity and articulate a new way of being internationally Czech without either passively acquiescing to every outside demand or resorting to aggressively parochial populist nationalism. Having taken on board much of the postmodern critique, is this revival indicative of a new modernism, unimpressed with the low ambitions, broken promises and banal pastiche of the geographies at history’s end? In the context of ongoing and uneven economic hardship across Europe as well as resurgent public political activism we should be rightly wary of architecture instrumentalised to political purpose, but at the same time we cannot ignore the highly political causes and consequences of our material worlds and nor should we reject the possibilities that architecture holds with regard to being, belonging and becoming.

Too often, Prague is damned with faint praise: deliriously light entertainment for tourists passing between Europe’s sites of heavy, serious, real memory; a refuge from reality for introverted dreamers, trying to stay forever young, like the First Republic they idolize; in short, somewhere to visit, a nice place to play, a temporary refuge from the real business going on elsewhere. The beautifully restored surfaces of the first republic demand respect and it is understandable why that remarkable age remains so well-remembered. However, without the emergent reckoning with that which followed, a nostalgic melancholia would dominate the politics of Czech memory and obscure the opportunities and demands of the present, not only betraying the spirit of that past, but surrendering the present to the narratives of victimhood and pedagogy. The restoration of key buildings and the continued process of improving the housing estates as well as the increased number of exhibitions on Czech Brutalism and the discussion of the issues surrounding it in the media all point to a new engagement with unquiet ghosts that haunt the present.

Perhaps the belated blooming of Czech brutalism and the recent (and bizarre) decision to re-build the Berliner StadtSchloss (in place of the Palast der Republik) mark a passing of the mnemonic baton, to Bohemia, where Prague is shedding its berlin complex[23] and is demanding to be seen afresh, as a city in full. This is an urban landscape that runs the gamut of glamour and grit, a schwer site of work and memory, not only licht laughter and forgetting. It should recognize itself as such and demand the same recognition from others. Such recognition that would begin to challenge the hierarchies of inclusion that preclude real belonging and limit the ability of people to participate in determine their individual and collective futures.

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This essay was originally published in Vlak 3, May 2012 in Prague.

[1] Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne – International Congresses on Modern Architecture, from 1928-1959

[2] Carr, E.H. 2001. The twenty years’ crisis, 1919-1939: an introduction to the study of international relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave. Original edition, 1939.

[3] Roman Bezjak’s Socialist Modernism: Archeology of an Era, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011, as featured in Spiegel Online International, 07/29/2011

[4] ”The tragedy of Central Europe”, New York Review of Books, 26 April 1984, pp.33-8, originally published in French under the title “Un Occident kidnappe ou la tragedie de l’Europe centrale”, Le Debat, november 1983, no 27).

[5] e.g. Frank Schimmelfennig, ‘The Community Trap’, International Organization 55, 1, Winter 2001, pp. 47–80

[6] Stenning, Alison & Kathrin Hörschelmann (2008), ‘History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-Socialism?’ Antipode, 40(2): 312-335

[7] King, Charles (2000) ‘Post-Post-communist: Transition, Comparison, and the End of “Eastern Europe”’, World Politics, 53(1): 143-172; Moravcsik, Andrew & Vachudova, Milada (2003) ‘National Interests, State Power, and EU Enlargement’, East European Politics and Societies, 17(1): 42–57.

[8] Jacoby, Wade (2001) ‘Tutors and Pupils: International Organizations, Central European Elites, and Western Models’, Governance, 14(2): 169-200; Chandler, David (2006), Empire in Denial: The Politics of State Building, Pluto Press, London

[9] Garton Ash, Timothy (2009), ‘1989!’, New York Review of Books,  Volume 56, Number 17 http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23232

[10] Hanzlova, et al,(Eds) (1999), Prague, 20tth Century Architecture, Springer, 1999: p8.

[11] The Czech Newspaper Pravo! reported on 06/02/2012 that a group of Czech art experts (UM!) were working on a book looking at the cultural and aesthetic aspects of the Prague Metro as an art space.

[12] As quoted in ‘The Rough Guide to Prague’

[13] Machonin & Machoninova, 1975

[14] Filsak, Bubeníček & Švec, 1974

[15] Filsak, 1977

[16] Paroubek, Navrátil, Todl, Sedláček, 1981

[17] Cajthamlov & Cajthamalova, 1987

[18] Prager, 1992

[19] Fencl, Franc & Nováček, 1977

[20] Eisler, et al, 1976. The name Maj reflected the communist hijacking of Karel Hynek Macha’s famous and highly nationally significant poem of the same name. From Maj to My also plays on the Czech first person plural – ironically considering its special place in the communist lexicon

[21] Jencks, Charles (1977) The Language of Postmodern Architecture, Rizzoli, 1977 [1991]

[22] Kristina Alda, ‘Praguescape: In the Pink?’, Prague Daily Monitor, 27/10/2009

[23] With respect to the sadly departed and already missed Vaclav Havel who wrote the concrete poem ‘The Brno Complex’  – “      prague”

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Those in the aesthetic know have long recognized that there is much more to Prague than the dreamlike castle rising above the Baroque and Rococo confections that jostle for tourists’ attention in the picturesque old town. Interwar Czechoslovakia gained a well-earned reputation for its modernist milieu, from which sprang the painting of Frantisek Kupka, the poetry of Vitezslav Nezval and design classics such as the Tatra T77 teardrop tourer. Freed from the shackles of the crumbling Hapsburg empire, architects too ensured that Modernist light flooded the atrium of the trade-fair palace, the bourgeois residences of the Villas Mueller (Loos) and Tugendhat (Mies) and fuelled the urban utopianism of Tomas Bata’s “shiny phenomenon” in Zlin.

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This thoroughly modern flourishing was tragically cut short by the British and French betrayal of ‘a faraway country’ at Munich, opening the door for Nazi annexation and occupation, ‘liberation’ by the Red Army and the subsequent slide into authoritarian communism. For many, the clipping of the First Republic’s youthful wings marked the end of the Czech modernist line, leaving behind an architectural high-water mark as a reminder of what could have been, of a time when concrete could be the stuff of dreams, rather than the material manifestation of a closing curtain-wall.

The monuments to that golden youth are now regular highlights on tourist schedules, heavily featured in guidebooks and design magazines, promoted and maintained by city and state authorities. However, while such acclaim is richly deserved, the politics of material memory are never far from postcommunist surfaces. The focus on the First Republic has meant that many of Prague’s later modernist gems have been ignored, seemingly hidden in plain sight. Whereas Berlin is lauded for its TV Tower and Café Moskau and the former Soviet Union has seen its Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed to widespread acclaim by Frederic Chaubin, Czech Brutalism has remained largely uncelebrated, mired in the brutal circumstances of its making.

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Mainly built after the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring, Brutalist buildings have all too often become seen as the inhuman face of socialist ‘Normalisation’. In Germany, there was a clear connection (and open competition) between building in the East and the West, reaffirming connection through false division and situating Brutalism as an architecture from within. This was not the case in Czechoslovakia where Brutalism was often equated with unwelcome outside interference and a time when the only available international style was seen as a material indication of imprisonment, rather than the interwar proof of progressive, dynamic cosmopolitanism.

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Aesthetically and functionally however, the designs of Karel Prager, Vladimir and Vera Machonin and others, have stood the test of time and are starting to receive the local and international acclaim that they deserve. Much like the myth of the Czech ‘return to Europe’ post-89, Prague did not need to “return to the international architecture scene[1]” after the cold war, it had always been there. This realization has dawned as Czech brutalism not only begins takes its place in the international pantheon, but it increasingly stands out amidst the contemporary commercial banality.

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The former federal assembly building (Prager) at the top of Wenceslas Square has been fully refurbished to mark its highly symbolic transformation into part of the national museum and the Kotva department store (Machonin & Machoninova) is a reassuring presence opposite the recent and hideously Disney-like Palladium shopping centre. Hotels such as the Intercontinental and President downtown and the Praha and Pyramida further out have long catered for the Modern traveler, while commercial buildings such as the Smichov Komercni Banka and the Cube office complex showing the range of brutal beauty in Prague.

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The re-appraisal of these previously neglected architectural jewels is part of a wider contestation of the totalizing narrative of post-communist collective memory which sees the period from 1948-1989 as exclusively that of oppression and suffering, thus condemning the lived experience of millions of people to the garbage heap of history and constructing them in the present as victims and damaged goods. Damning the buildings of that time also helps cast people who live in them today as poor relations. These slights, born of the urge to forget, continue to reverberate in refurbished concrete estates, realized in a brutalist vernacular; from the low rise ‘Solidarity’ and sleek ‘Invalidovna’, to the fleets of panel-buildings in D’ablice and Jizni Mesto, they are all too easily dismissed as mere communist blocks. In the increasing socio-economic Darwinism of a neoliberalising Europe, it is important to assert that just because you don’t live in a villa doesn’t mean that you don’t belong here.

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Prague is often damned with faint praise: deliriously light entertainment for tourists passing between Europe’s sites of heavy, serious, real memory; a refuge from reality for introverted dreamers, trying to stay forever young, like the First Republic they idolize; in short, somewhere to visit, a nice place to play, a temporary refuge from the real business going on elsewhere. Perhaps the belated blooming of Czech brutalism and the recent (and bizarre) decision to re-build the Berliner StadtSchloss (in place of the Palast der Republik) mark a passing of the mnemonic baton, to Bohemia, where Prague is shedding its berlin complex[2] and is demanding to be seen afresh, as a city in full. This is an urban landscape that runs the gamut of glamour and grit, a schwer site of work and memory, not only licht laughter and forgetting.

 

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[1] Prague, 20tth Century Architecture, Hanzlova, Kohout, Srsnova, Slapeta, Ticha & Templ (Eds), Springer, 1999: p8.

[2] With respect to the sadly departed and already missed Vaclav Havel who wrote the concrete poem ‘The Brno Complex’  – “      prague”

This article was originally published in The Modernist – Issue 4: brutal – in March 2012
http://issuu.com/themodernist/docs/tm_no.4__brutal__07.2__issuu_

A longer, more developed version of this piece was published in Vlak 3 in May 2012
http://vlakmagazine.wordpress.com/current-issue/

The text of this piece is available here