Pavel Pelčák: Czech architecture 1999-2000      


1999-2000 Architecture on a Knife-Edge

In one of the books by Paulo Coelho the priest mentions the case of the monkeys on an Indonesian island. When the scientist studying the capabilities of the chimpanzees had taught a certain number of monkeys to wash potatoes before eating them, he ascertained that these "educated" monkeys were imitated not only by the rest of the monkeys on the island, but also by those living on other islands completely isolated from the island on which the experiment was taking place.

With reference to this phenomenon and the buildings illustrated on the pages which follow the situation of Czech architecture at the end of the first decade of freedom after half a century of totalitarian dictatorship necessarily appears considerably optimistic. This applies particularly to the building production of the past decade which has shown, after the removal of repressive and pseudoeconomic limitations, the depth of the crisis into which the communism had thrown our society as builder and our architecture as its manifestation.

Czech architecture of the past two years, therefore, appears as the architecture of the change or architecture on the edge not because of the turn of the decade, century or millennium, but because the published buildings seem to be an indication of a more profound change of our building culture. If we want to reflect these changes, we must investigate what the preceding decade, the 90s, meant to our architecture. We are too near to be able to judge. Therefore, let us try to determine and to describe the phenomena predetermining or characterizing the Czech architecture of the past decade.

The starting point which every future historian or interpreter of our architectural scene of the nineties will have to take into account, is the paradox of discontinuity. On the one hand after 1989 Czech architecture had to start from zero, because in the years of "normalization" it ceased to exist. Architecture could not be made in dissent, because it needed real investments, building permits, scaffolding, cranes and manpower. That is why the SIAL studio in Liberec merely sustained the belief that it was possible to endeavour to create architecture and could materialize this belief after 1970 in our territory only once in an entirely exceptional situation when the interest of the state and the foreign contractor coincided - the construction of the Máj department store in Prague. In the absolute majority of cases the "normalizers" barred the access of talented and experienced architects to any commissions deviating from the dictate of industrialized building with its few modules of precast skeleton or panel buildings. Alternatively these architects "normalized" themselves through their membership in the pro-communist Association of Architects.

It is impossible to speak about Czech architecture of the seventies and the eighties without being ashamed, in spite of glossy illustrated publications, the congresses of the Association of Czech Architects and the regular publication of the Architecture of the ČSSR. On the other hand it is impossible to say that Czech architecture between 1970 and 1990 did not exist at all or had no continuity whatever. A few interesting buildings originated in the studios of the personalities of the sixties. The endeavour of SIAL and of the Medium Pressure Group created scales, targets and discussions. In the course of the eighties the Municipal House generation started emerging which built e.g. the Riviera swimming baths in Brno in 1984-1990. However, continuity was represented primarily by the work of Alena Šrámková. Suffice it to recall her 1988 design of the Tuzex building in Charles Square in Prague and formally very similar design of 1991 for the competition for the Scandinavian Centre on the same site. None of these designs, of which particularly the first ranks among the most important works of Czech post-occupational architecture, was used for construction which also forms part of the described paradox of discontinuity.

Thus Czech architecture entered the 1990s without tradition, without "development", without standard and, what is more, without experience with real construction, because the "industrialized building" with a single type of the precast panel block for the whole country and the district or regional investor organization were as remote from real construction as the then so-called "people's democracy" from real democracy.

This lack of roots and direction on the one hand and the opening of new, big possibilities on the other hand hit Czech architecture at a moment when it could not start from any objective firm foundation either beyond the borders or in any other discipline. The change took place at the time which lacked not only any centripetal force but also any generally accepted "higher" value or target transcending individual essence. Strange to relate the world beyond the iron curtain was no rose garden, either. There was nothing one could fight for, no idea or form which would inspire permanently. The world of 1990 was so different from the world of 1920 as if it were not the world of the same century.

One of the remarkable features of the 9os was the fact that the stars (in the positive meaning of the word) of the Czech architectural scene of the preceding decade had disappeared from the sky of actual design. This statement does not want to detract from the significance of pedagogic, competition or moral engagement of Alena Šrámková and Emil Přikryl. It intends merely to record the fact that the designs of the office building in Karlovo náměstí in Prague and of the consulate in Shanghai were to remain the last big works of both authors for a long time.

Another important fact which influenced Czech architecture of the 9os consisted of the enormous love of postmodernism spread among the Czech "creative" architects at the beginning of the 80s. There was no other field in the Czech Republic in which the phenomenon of postmodernism (which was valid more "objectively" in the fields from which it actually had penetrated into architecture, viz. sociology, philosophy or literature) would be acclaimed more spontaneously than architecture. This was entirely contrary to other countries in the architecture of which postmodernism was merely a secondary, mediated phenomenon of limited duration of one fashion wave, i.e. one decade.

Closely before the arrival of Gorbachov the canon of post-modern expression became the synonym for non-conformism, the struggle with the official conservative aesthetics of the Association of Czech Architects and the monotonous idiocy of "industrialized building". There was probably no other country in which postmodernism had achieved such moral dimension and ethos. It is no wonder, therefore, that we are reaping the rotten fruit of this infatuation ten years after the fall of the totalitarian rule.

Another aspect which determined the Czech architecture of the 90s consisted in the fact that house building has been encountering ever growing obstacles and that it is becoming a specific, extraordinary activity, ever more greatly severed from human life. The assurance of the design and construction of a big building has become an enormous performance. At the end of the 20s an architect of thirty could prepare the construction of a metropolitan office or commercial building in Prague in a small office with a few employees only and could interrupt the work and play volleyball in the garden with his staff, if tempted by the shining sun. Today the preparation of house construction requires a big coldly, professionally functioning office with a number of computer workstations of enormous value, with the necessity of permanent telecommunication links, a twelve-hour working day and full dedication. The actual performance is often valued more highly than its content or result, i.e. the originating architecture, especially if it is not too idiotic or too provocative.

Moreover, the architects' aversion to these organizational and official aspects of the design process has brought to life a new subject, the project management firms. In major projects these firms wedged themselves between the builder and the architect, barring their direct contract and often making it as well as the whole process of project preparation considerably intransparent to enhance their own importance and increase their own profit.

Another characteristic feature of the 90s consists in the absence of critical thinking. Theoretical and critical discussions of architects and various other theoreticians, articulating in published texts not only the topical problems of architecture and the opinions on their solution, which are taking place in other countries similarly as in Czechoslovakia in the first half of the century, do not exist even in embryonic form.

The non-existence of coherent critical thought together with the sad reality expressed by the bon mot "who cannot perform, he teaches" has marked the professional standard of the graduates from the faculties of architecture of the post-occupational period. Not only they were not taught and, consequently, are not capable of independent orientation and formation of their own opinion of the intricate international architectural scene of the "post-modern" i.e. internally heterogeneous period following the 1970os. Their teachers whose career was determined not by knowledge and experience, but by their relation to Husák's normalization, could not teach them even the correct fitting of windows ín the facade.

The architecture of the past decade was influenced also by the citizen's inequality with the state or municipal institutions, the paternalistic principle persevering from the periods of monarchy and communist dictatorship, maintaining that the citizen is no partner for the state. Thus the monument conservation authorities often dictate the builder the conditions which not only have nothing to do with monument conservation, but frequently significantly limit the optimum building design or increase its costs without offering any compensation. The entirely incompetent interference of various officials with the design in the course of the planning or building permit procedures, which has no responsibility or legal framework, but is generally suffered by investors not to exceed the time limits of investment preparation, has become standard practice. For this reason the investors resort in advance to average designs for fear that an original design might cause complications in the approval procedure and would represent an element of risk on the way to the building permit.

Apart from the inproportionately large influence of various subjects of "conservation" character the number of characteristic features of the nineties includes also the paradox that these subjects were unable to protect the buildings worth this protection. As the pressure on the land yield could be assumed from December 1989, it is suprizing that they were unable to make conceptual preparations to resist it. Perhaps the bitter taste of this disappointment motivates their dogged endeavour to prevent the construction of every non-eclectic building.

The factors illustrating the situation of the 90s comprise also the social status of the architect. It is quite understandable that the people who are forced to live in the precast panel barracks which have disfigured most Czech towns and which are intended for the socially weakest strata of the population abroad, see the architects as the guilty party, although they have not caused this state in most cases. Unfortunately, they were unable to explain these facts to the public with sufficient clarity and emphasis.

They also failed to articulate the fact that their profession, which ranked among the most prestigious in the pre-Munich republic, for this very reason became the target of the communist attack in the framework of a systematic disintegration of democratic society and the destruction of its social structures in the 1940s and 1995s. As a result of all this after the velvet revolution the architects have not regained the status of a free profession like in most cultural European countries. On the contrary, the new political establishment has endeavoured again - this time under the flag of liberalism - to abolish their professional organization. Thus the architect has remained even in the new social order a somewhat suffered profession about which the public actually does not known what it is here for, especially the public consisting of skilled and know-all builders of week-end cottages.

Also characteristic of the past decade is the abysmal difference between the size and number of building investments in Prague and outside it. While outside the capital there were very few projects and very few opportunities for architects throughout the whole decade, the home and foreign investments in Prague were considerable. Foreign capital was accompanied by foreign professional developers who gradually taught Czech architects and builders how to prepare investments and how to implement them. These foreign subjects also represented an important element, because apart from their professionality (in the whole scope of the term which comprises also the capability of improvization and the sense of fair play) they reduced also the corruptibility of investment distributors, because they themselves stood near the capital sources or came from the environment not so much impaired by this phenomenon. Unfortunate for the capital, however, was the official declaration of the minimum price of one square metre of building land as a result of which, in the absence of the price map, the land prices in Prague shot upwards. Consequently, Prague investors started investing outside the city limits. In case of the rich foreign or nouveau-riche Czech investors the high land cost load resulted in "oversized" projects and excessive build-up of the land the price of which was too high in relation to building construction costs. That was also obviously one of the chief problems of such projects as the Myslbek Palace.

Another substantial factor which influenced the architecture of the gos were the builders. This applies not only to the restriction of project types, characterized by a marked monothematic character (most projects built in the first half of the gos were banks and hotels), but also to the restriction of the formal expression of these buildings (demand for formally oversized buildings the material, expression and general appearance of which represented the Czech idea of luxury and, therefore, was often painfully vulgar). This situation was predetermined particularly by the fact that the top management of new strong economic subjects commissioning such projects recruited from the former top brass of the communist party. In numerous cases they were people of low culture, experience, knowledge, overview and particularly no ambition to achieve high-quality results.

The architecture of the 90s was co-created also by the intransparent methods of public procurement playing into the hands of the designers of a certain type and, consequently, a certain "aesthetics". Last but not least it was the fact that in the prevailing majority of cases public projects were commissioned without architectural competitions, in the form of a commercial competition, which disqualified architecture by its very nature. In this way the "new" state relegated architecture to the back benches where enthusiasts could play with it after hours.

In the light of the afore mentioned phenomena which moulded Czech architecture of the past decade it is understandable that the international juries of the prestigious annual Grand Prix for architecture endeavoured to dissociate from this degraded way of building practiced by strong domestic investors, especially banks, and have been awarding this prize since 1993 throughout the whole existence of the competition to minor and low investment projects. In this way the competition has become the affair of a few dozens creative architects and has lost one of the important aspects of such competitions - the didactic and motivating example for the public and the investors.

And yet domestic investors without economic, political and nepotic ties come to architectural design studios with the demand for good quality architecture. A certain movement has emerged in the Czech building art and, explicitely, in the whole society. Although it has its roots in the closely preceding years, it has manifested itself at the very end of the decade and is recorded in this publication. In the course of the two years reflected in it more remarkable buildings of high architectural quality have been built than in the decade starting in 1990. And the investors of these buildings, although the architects had to force architectural quality on them in some cases, rank from all parts of society. Their number includes various private individuals, private companies, banks, municipalities and the state. The building types cover the whole spectrum of buildings ranging from one-family houses over villas, blocks of flats, sport or recreation facilities and office buildings to production buildings.

The builders no longer want to have the building facade or entrance hall decorated with the tasteless, but costly building materials and extravagant forms in an unpleasing, because unconventional blend. They want to impress by genuine architecture. Interest in it is awakening in society. Architecture is becoming the subject of discussion. Society has begun to notice that something like architecture exists.

Czech architecture seems to be on the knife-edge, at the breaking point. We hope that the publication you have just opened documents this situation adequately. And since it is always the builder who is the bearer of good architecture, we hope in the fulfilment of the dictum of the priest from Coelho's novel deducing from the behaviour of the monkeys: "... if a certain number of people improve, the development of the whole mankind will move forward. We do not know the number of people required, but we know it is so."

We hope that the three dozens of builders of the architecturally remarkable buildings of the two years presented in this publication, as compared with approximately the same number of buildings of the past decade, represent that required number.

Petr Pelčák

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