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Tearing down 60s architecture – Part II

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Bohnice housing project (ČTK): Utopian visions in concrete: Prague's Bohnice housing project did not live up to its aim to become a lively residential area. (ČTK)Utopian visions in concrete: Prague’s Bohnice housing project did not live up to its aim to become a lively residential area. (ČTK)

Brutalism in white

Věra Machoninová used to be one of Czechoslovakia’s best architects. Her work was bold; she was sort of like the Věra Chytilová of Czech architecture. The 1960s for her truly were the golden years. With her husband, she designed hotel Thermal in Karlovy Vary, the Kotva department store and the Czechoslovak embassy in Berlin.

In 1952, the 24-year-old architect married Vladimír Machonin, a colleague who was eight years older. Shortly after the war, the socialist regime streamed nearly all architects into giant studios with hundreds of employees. They were sort of architecture factories, where anything from factories to cultural centres were designed. But the Machonins were ambitious and they didn’t want to be a cog in the wheel. They succeeded in doing something almost unthinkable in that time: They opened their own architectural studio.

They had good commissions and won in several architectural competitions, but the creative euphoria came to an end with the arrival of the Soviet army in 1968.

The euphoria gave way to lethargy in Czech society as well as in architecture. Svaz architektů, an association of architects, was disbanded, and a new group was created in 1972. Anyone who wanted to join had to sign a document pledging his loyalty and his support for the invasion of the Soviet army. Only members of this association could take part in architectural competitions, and there was less creative work.

To this day, architectural historians admire the details in buildings like Thermal: Everything has its own design. The furniture and the lamps were designed to go with the font on information signs and sculptures in the park. Dům bytové kultury is a building that is just as complex. Every detail is unique, specially designed, including the red panels on the ceiling. Together with the red tin on the escalators and the raw concrete on the walls, it creates a bold backdrop for shopping.

Today the interior looks completely different. The strong red tones have been painted over and are now boringly white. The shopping area is divided into small shops with plaster panels and the logic of the original layout no longer applies. “I am very tired of this. These buildings are gradually being destroyed. For us it was always important that there was a connection between the interior and the exterior. That was the 60s, this agreement. Now it’s all disappearing,” says Machoninová sadly.

The charm is gone

A law about authorship vaguely says that it is only possible to interfere with a work of architecture without the author’s permission if “it is absolutely necessary” and so long as “the value of the work is preserved”.

The biggest supporter of protecting this type of buildings is probably Rostislav Švácha, an architectural historian, who wants these structures to be given heritage status. “They serve as documents of another era, and yet they are quickly disappearing,” says Švácha. They are being torn down or reconstructed in such a way that they lose all their original charm: The details, the scale, the elegance – all that is being destroyed. “A typical example are so-called hanging facades. Soon there will be none left,” says Švácha. And yet, at the time, this was a technologically advanced system that allowed glass or stone panels to hang on the skeleton of a building. Fixing them is very expensive.

So far, one of the first buildings of this type, the Institute of Molecular Chemistry, designed by Karel Prager and built in 1965, was successfully reconstructed. The ČKD building at Wenceslas Square was also reconstructed carefully, with the help of Alena Šrámková, the author who created it. The building is now owned by the fashion chain store New Yorker.

But opinions on the protection of buildings from the 60s vary. Jakub Kynčl, a young architect from Brno, is a member of Docomomo, an association of fans of modern architecture, which looks for modern architectural landmarks all over the world. Kynčl says one must be careful about reconstructing these buildings. “A number of buildings from that era have technical problems. In such situations, reconstruction can be problematic,” he says. “Not every building can be saved.”

60,000 flats a year

And then there are the socialist-era architectural disasters. It is hard to say who is responsible. The architects who designed the projects are in many cases no longer alive. But those still living won’t say much. They all worked for a big state architectural company and just followed orders. Every project had to be approved by state construction companies, and much of the blame for bad buildings lies with these companies. Their only goal was to build as much as possible as quickly and as cheaply as possible, and to stick to the plan. (According to statistics, in the era of panel high rises, a million flats were constructed from the 60s to the 80s. In the 80s, more than 60,000 flats were built each year.) The only acceptable technology was construction using pre-fab concrete panels. Steel and wood were strategic resources, and it was not allowed to build using these materials.

There weren’t many options even when it came to urban planning. Giant construction companies had to build in a way that allowed them to build as many panel houses as possible from one crane line to the next.

Huge Prague housing projects like Bohnice, Modřany and Jižní Město got out of control and are incredibly chaotic and poorly thought-out.

Here we must note that similar mistakes happened even in western cities. All of Europe was dealing with the same problems: a housing crisis, the construction of housing projects and the reconstruction of decrepit city centres.

But the situation in Czechoslovakia was worse because of the inflexible construction industry and the general stupidity of the socialist regime. “Being an architect was a thankless job because in many cases, all they wanted from you was to be able to plan out the right number of flats in a panel high rise. What’s more, the division of labour in the state-run architectural studios mean responsibility was spread very thinly,” says Richard Biegel, an art historian and the executive head of Klub za starou Prahu, a historical preservation society. “But in a way, it’s not so different today,” he adds. “The worst projects these days are designed by mediocre architects hired by companies. Their names will soon be forgotten.”

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