Posts Tagged ‘Politics of Memory’

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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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

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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