In the last couple of years, the destruction and deteriorating state of post-war brutalist architecture in Prague has been a debated and polarizing issue. To understand the complex issue, Kafkadesk visited the exhibition ‘NO DEMOLITIONS! Forms of Brutalism in Prague,’ displayed in the Trade Fair Palace of the National Gallery Prague.
We spoke to the curator of the architecture collection in Prague, Helena Doudová, who specializes in post-1945 architecture and its media overlap.
As the name of the exhibition suggests, Brutalist buildings in Prague are in danger of being destroyed. How did this context translate into the rationale behind the exhibition?
One of the main reasons behind the exhibition was that the city of Prague is losing a layer of its cultural and architectural history. Buildings are being demolished, like the Transgas building and Hotel Praha, or the building of the Prague Telephone Exchange.
Prague is also losing a layer of its cultural memory, because a number of these buildings, like department stores and cultural centers, were popular with the public before 1989. In spite of the often-negative experience with the regime before 1989, they remember how they visited these cultural centers or went to the cinema. I would say that people’s memories are ambiguous.
Due to the 1989 transformation, the state often does not have enough finances to maintain these buildings. As a result, they tend to be abandoned, in a bad state or deteriorating. I think that there should be more attention from the Ministry of Culture in cooperation with the National Heritage Institute to say that these buildings, which were at the time actually very expensive, are valuable. And that we want that the memory, architecture, and history are maintained. Our exhibition is focusing only on Prague, but there are cases throughout the entire country. We are not saying that all of these buildings have to be kept, but the main examples should be preserved.
The Brutalist architecture of 1960s has a very special expression of the post-war Zeitgeist, of the scarcity of materials and austerity, but at the same time the technological advances of modernity. It is characterized by the authenticity of materials, revealed construction and a strong image and volume within the city. Raw concrete is generally associated as the core material. The style and is starting to get more and more attention by architecture historians. There was a large architectural conference in Berlin in 2012. Since then, there have seen more exhibitions, including the one in Prague.
How do you make sense of the negative public reception to these buildings?
It is really interesting to compare the reception of Brutalism in the UK or US, where buildings like the MET Breuer are celebrated as jewels of post-war design, whereas in our condition these buildings are tied to the post-communist heritage and quite negatively perceived by the public.
That said, Brutalism has a very expressive style. It has people who like its aesthetic expression and those who are against it. I think that is normal. Some people have a more conservative taste, while others have more expressive taste.
But in the Czech Republic, this architecture is often being associated with the 70s normalization period, which is not always justified. One of the most polarizing buildings is the former Federal Assembly on Wenceslas square, which often ranks as the worst looking building in the country in public opinion surveys. The building is in public associated with the communist regime and with the normalization period.
In reality, this building was built during the more liberal 1960s as a parliament for the reformed Federal Assembly. This is similar to a number of other buildings, which came about from relatively open architectural competitions in the 60s and were subsequently constructed in the 70s.
During the 60s, architects like wife and husband team Machoninovi, Prager, or Kuna had a lot of possibilities to travel and even to represent Czech architecture on different World Fairs abroad, where they received prizes and critical acclaim for their work.
Sadly, these buildings have been lacking proper maintenance. They were planned as large spatial gestures with large ground floor spaces for the public, but these spaces for public are not well kept. As a result, they deteriorate and people then do not have a nice experience when they visit these buildings, which also influences the public opinion.
There was a strong campaign against the demolition of Transgas. Do you feel like more people are against these buildings being torn down?
There is an activist movement that was formed for protection and against the demolition of these buildings. There was an activist movement for Hotel Praha. There was an activist movement for the Transgas complex. There were artistic performances. Unfortunately, this has been a fight in vain so far. It seems that the real-estate pressure is very high. These buildings are often standing in city centers. It’s really a combination of the anti-communist attitude and a strong interest of real estate investment, which makes it possible to tear down these buildings.
There is now a public discussion about Hotel Thermal. Public discussion is really important especially in the case when the state is the owner, like in the case of Hotel Thermal. This exhibition is also making a point in the public debate. I hope the exhibition will transform the way that the broader public sees the architecture of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
The exhibition includes many interesting items, including photographs, models and architectural plans. Could you walk me through the exhibition?
Most of the items in the exhibition are part of the architecture collection of the National Gallery in Prague, including the architectural plans and models. The idea was to present the vision of the architect. For instance, you can see how architects at the time were really concerned with the ground floor, including various artworks.
In the beginning there is a red gallery of iconic Prague architecture influenced by Brutalism. The photos by Kamil Wartha were taken in the 70s and 80s. It presents these buildings in the state when they were brand new. To contrast this, we are showing the current state of these buildings on the large-scale photographic print, which is in some cases in a bad shape. Since we started working on the exhibition, the Strahov complex by Kuna has been further deteriorating. The International Union of Students building by Hubička has been deconstructed and only the steel structure remained.
At the end, we have a video. It’s a time-lapse of the deconstruction of the Transgas building. It is called “Erosion of Transgas” and it was taken from the adjacent building of the Czech Radio in 2019. I commissioned a design studio to cut down the time-lapse from one year to four minutes, which shows how the building disappears one level after another.
Let’s end on a light note, what is your favorite brutalist building?
I really like the Kotva and Budějovická department stores by Věra nad Vladimír Machoninovi, both of them still functioning. I also like the Czech Embassy in Berlin, still kept in the original shape, including the interior, the furnishing, and the artworks, which is quite unique.
You can visit the exhibition “NO DEMOLITIONS! Forms of Brutalism in Prague” until November 22, on the third floor of Trade Fair Palace building of the National Gallery. To see the videos and images and find out more: click here.
Curator of the architecture collection in Prague: Helena Doudová (NGP)
Collaborating experts / co-curators: Klára Brůhová (FA CTU in Prague), Radomíra Sedláková (NGP), Petr Vorlík (FA CTU in Prague)
By Matej Voda