Artwork of the Month, September 2019: Design for a lookout tower in Prague by Jiří Hrubý (1937)

 “See! A vertical from steel of 1000 meters! This was made by Czech hands! Look out from above the clouds! This is the Czech land, our homeland!”[1]

In 1937, the Czechoslovak government, the Chamber of Commerce and a number of businesses decided to host an international exhibition in Prague, scheduled to take place in 1942. The plan was published and immediately attracted the attention of a host of individuals and institutions. Part of the bid was a proposal to build a lookout tower which would be located on a hill in northern Prague and be 1000 meters high. The estimated price was a staggering 65,000,000 crowns; to put this amount into context, an average monthly salary at the time was 764 crowns. However excessive the idea may seem, the design was very well thought through and an elaborate rationale was provided.

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Jiří Hrubý: Design for a lookout tower in Prague, 1937, National Archive in Prague, SV-NY, Ministry of Public Works

The author of this grand proposal was Jiří Hrubý, an otherwise unknown engineer from a small town outside of Prague. His tower, if built according to the design he drew up, would become the tallest structure in the world. Hrubý’s design shows his grand vision: the needle-like structure is a slim diamond of steel supported by steel ropes. The webbing between the floors, which are located at the bottom, middle and top of the diamond, are reminiscent of constructivist architecture, such as Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International of 1919-20. While these two structures may share the emphasis on the lightness of the industrial material and geometrical shapes, Hrubý’s design also stressed symmetricity. Both, however, took the Eiffel tower as their main model and rival – while working on his project, Hrubý even wrote to Paris enquiring about the exact height of the Eiffel tower, by now an iconic structure, so that his could be bigger, higher and better.

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Vladimir Tatlin: Model for the Monument to the Third International, 1919-20 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

According to Hrubý’s plan, the ground floor was dedicated to the presentation of heavy industries and engineering. Above was a round gallery displaying touristic attractions of Czechoslovakia. Several lifts would take visitors half way up to a two-floor viewing gallery with a restaurant and dance floor. “Low entrance fee and a restaurant that is not overpriced” would be available to a wider range of visitors from Prague. The second floor at the very top of the tower was designed as a lookout platform but it would also function as a substitute for a mountain experience where one could refresh both body and mind. The outer circle of the floor would rotate to allow views of all the surrounding areas. “The lookout pylon is … a masterpiece of an artistic nature because it is inspired by the human desire to be elevated above the everyday greyness of the human antheap,” Mr Hrubý explained.[2] He also identified the main beneficiaries of the tower, who, apart from tourists, would be Czechoslovak heavy industry, the individual states of Czechoslovakia (i.e. Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, Slovakia and Ruthenia) and the city of Prague, which could all utilise the space for their own activities.

Leaving aside the exaggerated dimensions of the tower design and its cost, the project highlights a number of important aspects in the history of international exhibitions. They pertain to those events that were hosted or attended by countries like Czechoslovakia that normally do not constitute the pool of the largest participants in the world’s fairs. I shall focus on three of them which I consider significant for understanding the context of interwar exhibitionary cultures in post-Habsburg Czechoslovakia as well as the context in which the design for the tallest tower in the world appeared.

1. Ambition

The scale of the intended exhibition as a whole, the planning complexity and the willingness to invest an enormous amount of money were clear signs of Czechoslovakia’s ambition as well as economic and political confidence. In the interwar period, the state was the most active participant in world’s fairs and international exhibitions when compared to other successor states of the Habsburg Monarchy. It constructed pavilions or sections in fairs as far apart as Rio de Janeiro (1922), Paris (1925), Philadelphia (1926), Milan (1927), Barcelona (1929), Stockholm (1930), Chicago (1933) and Paris (1937) and the list goes on (fig. 2). Czechoslovak pavilions were in most cases designed using the principles of interwar functionalism to indicate artistic as well as technological prowess of the country.

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The Czechoslovak pavilion (designed by Jaroslav Krejcar, Zdeněk Kejř, Bohumil Soumar, and Ladislav Sutnar) at the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life, Paris, 1937 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dating back to the onset of the First World War, various bodies and institutions started making ambitious plans for hosting an exhibition in Prague that would draw on the success of two large events that took place there in the late 19th century – the Jubilee Exhibition of 1891, celebrating the centenary of the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia, and the Czechoslavic Ethnographic Exhibition of 1895, a showcase of vernacular art and culture. The planned exhibitions would attract foreign and domestic participants while presenting the Czechs as a self-sufficient, historic yet modern nation. These included an All Slavic exhibition proposed as early as 1914 by the nationalist politician Karel Kramář, a jubilee exhibition on the occasion of the Sokol gymnastics association gathering in 1938, and an exhibition dedicated to the Little Entente, the interwar alliance of Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia formed to prevent any attempt by Hungary to regain the lands it lost after the First World War. None of these ideas took off and the only truly large exhibition that was held in interwar Czechoslovakia was the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Brno in 1928. The backing by the government for the planned 1942 exhibition could therefore be seen as an unambiguous sign that this project was serious with all its proposed aspects, including the technically ambitious tower.

2. National politics on display

As I mentioned earlier, the 1942 exhibition could draw on a long list of Czechoslovak participations abroad. Yet as it was to take place on domestic ground, the politics of the display were more tuned to local issues. It was to be organised into sections on history, contemporary culture, and entertainment. The section on contemporary culture understood culture in the broadest sense and emphasised how different culture in Czechoslovakia was from that of other European states.[3] The historical section stressed the difference between two opposing periods in the past of the lands that now constituted Czechoslovakia: 1860-1918 and 1918-1942. The first, the proposal identified, was a period of building national consciousness, the second was shaped by the focus on building an independent Czechoslovakia. The governmental proposal stated clearly that “installation of the material … must therefore place against each other … the state of the Czech lands as part of Austria, the state of Slovakia and Subcarpathean Ruthenia as part of Hungary on the one hand and today’s independent state on the other.”[4] Importantly, attention would be paid to ethnic minorities and their supposedly prosperous life in the Czechoslovak state. “… the exhibition will also be able to show the cultural stagnation in Slovak national life during that period -not of our doing – and which for a long time put on hold any independent development in education one might expected that was comparable to that of the Czechs.” Predictably, perhaps, the Czech lands of the new state (i.e. Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia) were to be presented as more modern and developed than Slovakia and Ruthenia, and this would be backed by historical circumstances going back to the Habsburg monarchy. The Czech lands would be shown “as the guarantee and refuge of our development in their cultural, national and economic advancement; and contrasted with the consistent silencing and perishing of the Slovak branch especially after 1867.” Against this would be placed “…an installation [that would] show the great intellectual transformation visible after 1918 in the politics and in the social … life of the Czechoslovak nation…”[5]

As national and international exhibitions of the interwar period were organised in and from Prague (with the exception of Brno in 1928), they had a strong Prague- and Czech-centred focus. This reflected the overall political weight in the state in which Slovakia and Ruthenia were considered as economically and culturally inferior well into the late 1930s, a view that the planned 1942 exhibition adopted as well.

3. Having a clou

At the same time, the Czechoslovak state recognized the importance of amusement and entertainment at the exhibition grounds, where visitors could take a break from the more serious displays. And as all major exhibitions around the world would come with a recognizable clou —an eye-catching structure that dominates the fairgrounds – the proposed tower could quite easily play this role in the entertainment and recreation zone. The most famous clou of the past was the Eiffel Tower, but other structures were also common, especially iconic buildings or various fontaines lumineuses which were quite common at international arts and industry exhibitions, including those in London (1884), Barcelona (1888), Paris (1889), Glasgow (1889), and Vienna in 1873 and 1890.

They were important works of art and engineering as well meeting places and often viewed as emblems of modernity. The 1891 Jubilee Exhibition in Prague included an illuminated fountain built by the electrification advocate František Křižík. At the time, the Prague fountain was celebrated as bigger and better than those of its competitors. The Exhibition catalogue emphasised that “…while 210 hectolitres of water per minute sprang up from the Parisian fountain [and] 70 hectolitres from the Viennese one, our own fountain shot up 440 hectolitres.”[6] At this exhibition, one could also find a downscaled version of the Eiffel tower built on the Petřín hill. The sixty meter tall look out tower still exists as a touristic attraction, a purpose that Hrubý envisaged for his own structure.

 

 

The exhibition and the tower never happened: the plans were scrapped as early as 1938 due to the political turmoil preceding the outbreak of the Second World War. Yet, the boldness of the tower design and the exhibition proposal suggests that until then, the future of Czechoslovakia and its display were framed by at least two things. One was the ambition to present the state as modern, architecturally and technologically progressive, the other emphasised the continued affects the Habsburg monarchy had on the economic and cultural advancement of the different Czechoslovak regions.

Marta Filipová

[1] Letter from Jiří Hrubý to the Prime Minister of 26 August 1937, National Archive in Prague, SV-NY, Ministry of Public Works.

[2] Letter from Jiří Hrubý to the Prime Minister.

[3] The Czechoslovak Exhibition in Prague 1942: Proposal of its programme and organisation, compiled by The Preparatory Exhibition Committee (Prague, 1937), p. 18.

[4] The Czechoslovak Exhibition in Prague 1942, p. 17.

[5] The Czechoslovak Exhibition in Prague 1942, p. 17

[6] Jubilejní výstava zemská Království českého v Praze 1891 (Prague, 1894), p. 156.

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2 thoughts on “Artwork of the Month, September 2019: Design for a lookout tower in Prague by Jiří Hrubý (1937)

  1. Don Sparling says:

    A fascinating article. It’s perhaps also worth mentioning another context for Hrubý’s proposed tower, and that’s the tendency to dreams of grandeur, even megalomania, that manifested itself with the creation of Czechoslovakia. This could be seen already in the peace negotiations, when the Czechs made claims to the Kladsko region in Germany, based on ownership almost two hundred years earlier, and even more ambitiously proposed that a corridor be created that would link Czechoslovakia to the equally new state of Yugoslavia – something that would entail hacking out considerable (non-Slav) territory from Austria and Hungary. And this phenomenon kept recurring during the First Republic. There was, for example, the new Strahov stadium in Prague, built for the mass gymnastics displays of the Sokol movement – the largest such facility in the world, designed to hold 250,000 spectators. Or the monument on Vítkov, also in Prague, where the equestrian statue of Jan Žižka had ambitions of being the world’s tallest. The Baťa company, as the flagship of modern Czech industry, was particularly susceptible to visions of greatness. Here in Brno, the new Baťa building erected in 1930-31 was originally planned as a 28-storey skyscraper, which would have made it the tallest on the Continent. (Luckily, the site proved to be too wet and unstable to support such a structure.) On an even grander scale, the 1937 publication by Jan Antonín Baťa entitled Budujme stát pro 40 000 000 lidí [Let us build a state of 40,000,000 people] seriously envisaged a series of measures that would increase the population of Czechoslovakia almost threefold (from around 15 million). For comparison, France at that time had a population of around 42 million, Italy of 43 million, and the UK 45 million. Even Germany had only 67 million. Baťa was a pragmatic, highly successful businessman, but when it came to Czech glory … So Hrubý was only one of the many individuals caught up in the somewhat over-the-top “Make Czechoslovakia great!” spirit of the First Republic.

    • Marta says:

      Very insightful comments, thanks, Don! I am fascinated by the Baťas and am looking into them as part of our project. They had a very active presence at international exhibitions as part of the Czechoslovak pavilions and managed to combine their business interests with national interests.

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