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Praguescape: Cubism at the zoo

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Chances are not many zoos in the world house a stack of disassembled cubist buildings. The two wooden houses, designed by renowned Czech cubist architect Josef Gočár in 1920, have been lying in storage at the lower end of the Prague zoo property since the 2002 flood.

The zoo has been talking about reassembling and restoring the flood-damaged houses for years now, but apparently lacked the finances to do so. Things are finally looking up. Last month, the heritage department of the city council recommended that funds for repairing Gočár’s houses – estimated to amount to CZK 30 million – be incorporated into the city’s 2009 budget.

Reconstruction could start next year, and, once complete, these unique structures would be opened up to the pubic. Zoo director Petr Fejk told journalists earlier this year one of the houses could house a zoo museum and a photo gallery, while the other would be turned into a restaurant and an education centre.

It is not yet decided where the houses will stand, however, and there is a possibility that they might be moved out of the zoo to Petřín hill. According to architectural historian Zdeněk Lukeš, the zoo has not been taking good care of the landmark-status buildings, allowing further deterioration to happen even after the flood damage.

There has also been some doubt as to whether a cubist landmark should stand in a zoo, with some city hall representatives suggesting the houses would be better appreciated at a more central location.

Gočár’s houses were only moved to the zoo some 30 years ago. Originally, they stood at Prague’s Kbely airport, housing a restaurant and an administrator’s office. At the zoo, the houses served as storage space and contained a staff cloakroom.

The houses were designed by Gočár in the so-called nationalist style, a decorative cubist style that was inspired by folk architecture. The aim was to emphasise Czech national identity (the Kbely houses were, after all, built just two years after the founding of independent Czechoslovakia), and the wooden facades were painted red, white and blue – the country’s national colours.

Today the wooden panels of the disassembled houses are a faded black. They are on a list of the Czech Republic’s most threatened landmarks.

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