Prague Functionalism: Tradition and Contemporary Echoes

In the direct aftermath of the twentieth century’s national liberation struggles, newly formed countries often launched into ambitious building programs that aimed to establish an architectural idiom distinct from their former overlord. The consequences of this impulse for states independent after 1945 are mixed; but, the legacy of one moment, 1919, was unusually auspicious. European […]

In the direct aftermath of the twentieth century’s national liberation struggles, newly formed countries often launched into ambitious building programs that aimed to establish an architectural idiom distinct from their former overlord. The consequences of this impulse for states independent after 1945 are mixed; but, the legacy of one moment, 1919, was unusually auspicious. European states emerging from the wreckage of the Great War were born in a moment when many varieties of Modernism were flourishing in the region. The exhibit Prague Functionalism: Tradition and Contemporary Echoes at the Center for Architecture in New York compellingly documents the birth and revival of one of these varieties.

After some 400 years of Habsburg rule, Czechoslovakia in 1919 had no single vernacular tradition that was especially convenient to revive. The golden age of Charles IV had left several Gothic gems in Prague and Bohemia, producing a style that didn’t lend itself to easy replicability. Subsequent ruling Austrian families had filled the city with superb Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau landmarks, but their character was often similar to structures spread across the rest of Austria-Hungary. By the opening decades of the twentieth century, the most intriguing architectural developments were synthesized in the Vienna Secession-inspired early Modernism of Brno-born Jan Kotěra, whose idiosyncratic buildings were unmistakable but hardly numerous.

Beyond the Czech language, one real distinction separating Bohemia and Moravia—the ethnically Czech territories later absorbed into Czechoslovakia—were their respective levels of industrialization. Both were the most advanced manufacturing provinces in the Empire aside from Inner Austria itself. This circumstance proved inspired Czech intellectuals and architects seeking to forsake Habsburg gilt and locate a new national built identity in the simple lines of the machine age. They found this, in quintessentially cosmopolitan fashion, in a style: functionalism, whose roots and eventual flowering weren’t confined to any single location. Functionalism—the idea that a structure’s arrangement should be inextricably defined by its function and little else—is naturally simpler on the page than in reality, but its inspirations are clear. While Le Corbusier is arguably its theoretical father, additional practical inspiration was derived from the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism. The Prague journal Stavba, a prominent exponent of the movement, then under the active sway of artist-critic Karel Teige, offered a summing-up statement:

“A good construction should exhibit the same features as a good machine, fitness for purpose, high precision, economy of both material and exploitation, and the machine, a pioneer of progress, should manufacture only things of modern value.”

The small nation rapidly set about pioneering plenty of architectural progress, as Prague Functionalism amply displays. While the style spanned all of Czechoslovakia, the show’s focus on the nation’s capital is not mere synecdoche. Curator Zdeněk Lukeš notes that other recent exhibits had focused on functionalism in Brno and Zlín, the second-most significant centers of the style, leaving the contemporaneous architecture of the Czech capital to be further examined. It’s a legacy only very selectively surveyed in English otherwise (the sole available monograph is Vladimír Šlapeta's Czech Functionalism 1918-38, published in 1986 ), and thus presents a welcome opportunity.

The present exhibit offers a broad overview of the fantastic imprint that this subset of Modernism left on Prague, spanning from a department store for the world’s largest shoe manufacturer to an exhibition hall literally bridging the Vltava River and a hilltop restaurant built by former Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel’s father, a real estate developer. The buildings are simpler than austere, reliably forsaking extravagance while still incorporating subtle stylistic flourishes. As the exhibit’s catalog and wall text reads, “The typical features of Functionalism are frame structures, non-bearing outer walls, strip windows, flat roofs, and white lime renders together with the so-called nautical elements: jutting terraces, ramp staircases, tubular balustrades or circular windows.”

A small number of examples are internationally prominent, none more so than the Muller Villa by the architect-polemicist Adolf Loos. Born in Brno, but of ethnic Austrian-German parents, Loos was one Austrian whose influence did not wane with the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. His Muller villa was a reinforced-concrete cube whose deadpan simplicity was set off by a few unpredictable balconies and terraces and a pattern of delicate fenestration that varies on each facade. But as a model in the exhibit reveals, the house’s interior plan is characterized by a surprising degree of complexity, with 11 different levels and an intensive scaling of room sizes that makes Wright look positively unconcerned about the point. Lukeš, conducting a tour of the exhibit, notes that during Communist rule, the villa housed a Marxist-Leninist Institute and was used as a “training space for terrorists from Libya.” Clearly, it’s not just Hollywood villains who live in modernist homes.

If the Czech Functionalists seemed about as animated by left-wing concerns as their peers elsewhere, Prague’s interwar building stock is less characterized by workers housing, which constituted much of the work being done by German and Dutch architects at the time. The exhibit features a number of well-designed social housing schemes, but mainly showcases a considerable variety of middle-class and luxury projects, as well as many commercial and civic structures. The city’s Baba Villa colony, the last of six projects constructed across Central Europe to showcase low-cost and elegant modern construction—all features inaugurated by the Stuttgart Weissenhof estate—is a particular gem. The building exhibition trend was a rare colonial endeavor whose failure to seize more territory is cause for mourning, judging from the stellar example of Baba Villa. Constructed by many of the most notable Czech functionalist architects (and a lone Dutchman), the 33 almost-entirely-detached villas offer a series of engaging variations on functionalist themes—ribbon windows, balconies, cantilevers, terraces, and an occasionally deftly curved window. Lukeš attests, “I have seen all of these colonies, and Prague is the best.” He goes on to describe a photograph of Albert Speer and Richard Heydrich overlooking Prague from the colony; their opinion on its merits is unclear.

Many other structures impress. Adolf Bens’ Electric Works is an admirable cross-planned rational workplace, lit from above. A number of churches are also striking; the fantastic St. Wenceslas in Vrsovice, whose stark geometric entrance gives little clue to its curved brick apse, and neither provides much hint of the terraced rise from front to back.

Department stores stand out, bands of simple windows and neon accents. The Barrandov Hill restaurant, Vaclav M. Havel’s effort, is evidently in poor repair today, but shines here, a simple modern leisure destination for the Czech middle-classes. A number of building models offer useful insight, and a Karel Teige floorplan furnishes a view of a tiny functional apartment that makes Bloomberg-era prototype efforts look expansive (garnished with enviable reproductions of contemporary Czech furniture).

Uniquely among central European states, democracy in Czechoslovakia prevailed until German occupation in 1938, leaving a somewhat larger period unaffected by the stylistic demands of autocrats. The postwar period was obviously nowhere near as fortunate. Functionalism became a distant memory during Communism, amid official Historicism and Socialist Realist styles, genres that produced rare highlights, least of all in Prague.

The Velvet Revolution brought a second occasion for a revival of functionalism, the focus of the later portions of the Center for Architecture exhibit. If the original style, to quote Alan Colquhoun, “was an alibi for a system of forms that were to be innocent of stylistic contamination,” it now also offered a ready model for a system of forms innocent of ideological contamination. It, too, furnished an identity more genuine than the currents of western Modernism that were largely alien to the Czech experience.

If the examples of this second wave are not uniformly as impressive, they still attest to the excellence of the functionalist aesthetic model and display a persistent ingenuity in the wielding of simple forms, spreading more welcome bands of reinforced concrete and glass to enliven commercial streets and even riverfronts. A rowing club is especially intriguing, with a concrete frame overstepping a glass facade to provide a balcony above and a covered walk beneath, all slung low to avoid interrupting the view from the street beyond (and regrettably right in the path of flooding). Several sharp villas also show that the exhibition colony’s example has not been entirely lost.

The exhibit quotes architect Josef Pleskot on the aesthetic ethos of functionalism: “Reduction, simplification, tranquilization are the only way out of this civilization and possibly how to extend one’s life.” Perhaps not, but it’s certainly worth a try at the Center for Architecture.

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