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Praguescape: Baťa utopia

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An exhibition about Zlín and its embodiment of the utopian vision and architectural legacy of brothers Tomáš and Jan Baťa opened at the National Gallery in Prague last week.

As the cradle of the Baťa shoe empire, single-handedly founded by Tomáš Baťa in 1894, the eastern Moravian town of Zlín came to embody a throughly modern city and, to a degree, a large-scale social experiment. The city was set up in such a way as to not only make the lives of Baťa’s employees comfortable, but also to promote certain values and practices: healthy, active city living for the 20th century. The Baťa vision extended even to the city’s school system and cultural life, with modern schools, including a business-focused university, and cultural centres built around town.

A proponent of modern housing, Tomáš Baťa invited top architects, including Le Corbusier, to design new buildings in the city in the period between the two world wars. Functionalist villas and high rises, among them skyscraper 21 which housed Jan Baťa’s famous elevator office, went up quickly over a period of just several decades. It was at this time also that the city’s wide streets and big parks (intended to promote a healthy, active lifestyle) were created.

The imprint of the Baťa brothers is palpable everywhere in Zlín to this day. The wide boulevards and expansive parks give the impression at once of faded grandeur and unrealised expectations. It’s as though the city had been built several sizes too big, with the hope that it would eventually grow into its ambitious proportions.

The National Gallery exhibition, titled Fenomén Baťa – Zlínská architektura 1910 až 1960 (The Baťa Phenomenon – Zlín Architecture 1910 to 1960) features period photos, architectural plans and models, as well as promotional films created by Baťa’s team (A Renaissance man to the core, Tomáš Baťa founded film studios in order to promote his products). Many of the plans and photos have never been published before. Now they are part of a 600-page catalogue of the show, which has been published both in Czech and English. The exhibition runs until 31 May. On 19 May there will also be a conference in Prague on Zlín architecture.

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