Sunday, 17 December 2017

Tearing down 60s architecture – Part I

By  Karolína Vitvarová-Vránková |
Respekt |
26 February 2009

The Ještěd department store in Liberec will be torn down despite protests from some architicts and historians. (ČTK)

The Ještěd department store in Liberec will be torn down despite protests from some architicts and historians. (ČTK): The Ještěd department store in Liberec will be torn down despite protests from some architicts and historians. (ČTK)The Ještěd department store in Liberec will be torn down despite protests from some architicts and historians. (ČTK)

Within a few weeks, bulldozers will start tearing down the Ještěd department store in Liberec. A number of buildings from the 1960s and 70s will most likely meet a similar fate. Should we feel bad about that? What do we do with socialist-era architecture? Tear it down or protect it? Historians, preservationists and just about everyone else in the Czech Republic is trying to answer these questions as buildings from that era can be found all over the country and we have to live with them.

Picture this: Near the Philosophical Faculty in Prague, tram number 17 enters a tunnel, which leads under Kaprova street, under Old Town and all the way to the Main Train Station. An underground tram route is practical, but during its construction dozens of historical buildings were torn down and so was a part of the Karolinum, the oldest part of the Czech Republic's oldest university. Everything was rebuilt again in the form of panel houses. The Dalai Lama gave a lecture at the Cultural Palace (the Congress Centre) at the Prague Castle, right on Hradčany square. From the terraces of the centre, you can admire the marvellous views of the city – marred only by the giant panel high rises that have replaced the historic quarter of Žižkov. Don't look for the TV tower, however; it stands on Petřín.

Communist churches

It's only a matter of luck that none of these projects were carried out because all the plans were only a step away from being greenlighted. In other parts of the country, bold visions led to tragic consequences. Many buildings in the historical centres of Czech and Moravian towns were torn down in the 1960s and 70s to make room for new department stores, cultural centres and the Communist Party's administration buildings [dubbed "communist churches" – komunistický kostel, kokos for short]. Rows of panel high rises were built around historical downtowns, destroying a city's character. Socialist-era urban planning was the epitome of stupid clumsiness.

Not many people like these buildings. But alongside the masses of grey concrete, there were also structures that earned the admiration of international architectural publications. In the 1960s, they brought attention to Czechoslovakia, just like New Wave films did. The 1960s were the golden era for architecture here, and even in the 1970s there were some good projects being built. Now the time has come to weed out those projects that were above average and those that are atrocious, before everything from that era is torn down or rebuilt without much though.

"Functionalist monuments started gaining historical protection in the 1960s, 40 years after being built. At first it was just the experts discussing it. Now almost everyone knows that pre-war architecture is valuable," said architectural historian Rostislav Švácha. He cites the example of Vila Tugendhat in Brno. In 1963 it was quietly given heritage status. Today it is a first-class Brno attraction, included on the UNESCO list.

Švácha has already proposed that a number of buildings from the 60s and 70s be given historical protection. They include the Máj department store [now Tesco on Národní třída in Prague], the Kotva department store, the Institute of Molecular Chemistry in Prague, the former Czechoslovak parliament building [later the RFE/RL headquarters at the top of Wenceslas Square]. Cutover is still awaiting the verdict; the other buildings have been granted heritage status. Also on the list is a hotel apartment building, an 11-floor high rise, which is part of Prague's Invalidovna housing project, completed in 1965.

Utopian visions

The hotel apartment building [known as hotelák] is well known among Czechs. It was built near the Invalidovna metro station to house the chosen elite. The building had a reception, modern furnishings and an elegant tin facade.

The Dejls have been living on the fifth floor of the building for 25 years now. When they moved into this "hotel-style housing", it still included all the full services. "On set days we would go down to the cleaning room, where there would be folded clean bed linen. We would deposit our dirty linen. The lady would write down our names and we would be given clean linen in exchange," recalls Jiří Dejl.

The Dejls got the flat because their brother in law had contacts in the film industry in Barrandov. They moved with very few things because the flat already had everything, including furniture. "Everyone had the same wall shelf and the same beds. We had to pay maybe about CZK 20 a month for using the furnishings," says Dejl.

The building was the product of the optimistic, utopian visions of the 1960s. It promised easy living. Most of the flats here are tiny – only 26 square metres. But the layout is well thought out. There is a kitchen with a dining table, separated from the living area with glass doors, and a curtain separates a sleeping area from the rest of the flat. In other words, a functional machine for living, as envisioned by Le Corbusier, the guru of modernist architecture.

In 2001 this technical and social experiment was given heritage status. But it doesn't look much like a landmark now. The reception is torn out, the windows are broken, the aluminium squares on the facade are grey and splotchy like after a chemical attack. The Dejls are one of the three remaining tenants. The owner, Pražská správa nemovitostí, has not offered them any adequate replacement housing yet. If it does and the families move out, reconstruction could begin. But the company must take as much care with the reconstruction as if it were a Baroque chateau, and polish the aluminum squares one by one.

Modern landmarks

"This is supposed to be a landmark? A monument to the communists maybe," says a neighbour from the building across the street. Other neighbours also don't have particularly nice things to say about the hotelák. Ugly. Best tear it down. I wouldn't miss it. Many buildings from that era evoke similar sentiments.

Neither experts nor lay people are able to agree on the buildings' quality. Perhaps the only structure from that period that has become popular is the TV transmitter that sits atop Ještěd hill. It has become a popular place for trips and spending a night at the hotel there is considered a cool thing to do.

At the beginning of this year, the book Architecture of the 60s (Arichitektural 60. let) was published, becoming one of the first publications to map the most productive decade of the socialist regime. The buildings cover 500 pages. Why are these structures so unpopular among Czechs and Moravians?

"There is lack of reflection about socialist architecture. People don't really distinguish between architecture of the 60s and later normalisation-era architecture, which put a stamp of ugliness and arrogance to all the buildings," says Richard Biegel, an art historian and the executive head of the Klub za starou Prahu, a historical preservation society.

It's not so surprising. Czech society does not particularly like to recall the long years of socialism and these buildings serve as strong reminders of that era.


Translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.