Artwork of the Month, January 2020: The Nymburk Crematorium by Bedřich Feuerstein and Bohumil Slama (1922-24)

In the small town of Nymburk, some 55 kilometres to the East of Prague, sits one of the more unusual examples of interwar architecture in Czechoslovakia: the town crematorium. Built between 1922 and 1924, it is a plain rectangular main building – the ceremonial hall – with cylindrical front and back. Thanks to its plain unornamented forms, its low rectangular base, and a flat overhanging rectangular roof, it strikes the viewer like an exercise in the exploration of elementary geometry. This impression is reinforced by the portico around the sides and front, consisting of squat, plain columns. Everything about the building appears mis-proportioned. The portico columns seem too wide for their height, and the height (and that of the ground storey) appears to be out of proportion to the rest of the building. The upper part of the ceremonial hall thus looms over the storey below. In addition, the distance of the columns from the rest of the building gives it a squat appearance, as if it had in some sense been compressed by some enormous weight. We might dismiss this unprepossessing structure as a misconceived design, except that it is highly revealing not only about developments in architecture in Czechoslovakia, but also about social and cultural developments in Czechoslovak society.

1 Krematorium

Bedřich Feuerstein and Bohumil Sláma: Nymburk Crematorium, 1922-1924 – photo: Stribrohorak / Wikimedia Commons

The designers and architects of the crematorium were Bedřich Feuerstein (1892-1936) and Bohumil Slama (1887-1961). Feuerstein, a native of Dobrovice, had worked with Jože Plečnik and studied under Jan Kotěra, the leading pre-war Czech modernist architect.

8 RUR set design2

Bedřich Feuerstein: Set design for Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., 1921 – photo: Marta Filipová

After a spell in military service, as well as time spent in Istria and then in Paris, he returned to Prague, where he was engaged as a set designer for the National Theatre where he designed sets for a number of notable productions, including the 1921 premiere of Karel Čapek’s dystopian play about robots, R. U. R. He was also active as a painter, and was associated with the short-lived (1918-1924) group of artists known as the ‘stubborn ones’ (Tvrdošíjní) and with Devětsil.[1] Sláma, who had previously worked with Feuerstein on an (unsuccessful) competition design for a theatre in Prague, was a more orthodox professional architect, executing a number of buildings, of which the most notable, perhaps, is the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1929-32) in Hradec Králové.[2]

3 Hradec

Bohumil Sláma: Church of the Heart of Jesus, Hradec Králové, 1932 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

The crematorium was still a new type of building in Czechoslovakia. Only two others had been built beforehand: in Liberec (1915-17) and Pardubice (1922-23), while the Czech community in Chicago had built a crematorium in the Czech National Cemetery in 1902.[3] This was the case not only in Czechoslovakia, but more generally, too. Cremation had been common in classical and pagan Europe, but the introduction of Christianity had led to its disappearance across Europe except as a punishment for heretics. Consequently, it was only in the mid-1850s that the idea began to be discussed again, by the Padua-based medic Ferdinando Coletti (1819-81), initially in Italian circles, but then, in 1869, to the International Congress of Medical Sciences in Florence. The original impetus for debate was the question as to the disposal of war dead as well as victims of infectious diseases such as cholera; during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 the Prussian army had employed portable cremators. New technologies – in 1867 Siemens was awarded a prize for its regenerative gas burner at the Paris World Fair – opened up new possibilities, too. Hence, at the Vienna World Fair of 1873, Ludovico Brunetti (1813-99), professor of anatomical pathology of the University of Padua, exhibited a model of a cremating apparatus.[4]

From being a solution to a specific problem, cremation was taken up quickly as a general alternative to burial. The first public crematorium opened in Milan in 1876, and then, two years later, in Gotha in Germany. Cremation was also adopted in Britain, the first crematorium opening in Woking in 1885. Italy was not only the site of the reintroduction of cremation but also where the practice spread most quickly, an ironic situation given that it is where the fewest cremations are now performed. Yet as Asher Colombo has pointed out, this is a reflection of the widespread anticlericalism of the late nineteenth century in Italy, a fact that also highlights the role of the Catholic Church in limiting the spread of cremation elsewhere.[5] In Austria-Hungary, the Church exercised its political and cultural power to ensure that cremation was never adopted; hence, while Brunetti’s display at the 1873 World Fair attracted much interest and led to the founding of a cremation society in the Vienna suburb of Mariahilf in 1874, a proposal to the city council the same year to permit cremation was unsuccessful. The campaign for cremation gained momentum in 1885, when the Austrian Cremation Society ‘The Flame’ was created, which cultivated international connections, and several exhibitions on cremation were staged in Austria-Hungary, in Budapest (1894), Brno (1895), Vienna (1898) and Linz (1902). Yet cremation remained outlawed.[6] Being part of the Habsburg Empire, the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia were governed by the same restrictions. A Czech-language Society for Cremation was founded in 1899 followed, a decade later, by the ‘Krematorium’ association, but cremation was still not permitted. Thus, although a crematorium was built in Liberec in northern Bohemia as early as 1917 – under Habsburg rule – it was not allowed to operate.

6 Debrecen Krematorium

József Borsos: Crematorium, Debrecen, 1932 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

The founding of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 created a changed situation; the antagonistic attitude of the new president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850–1937) towards the Catholic Church underpinned a more supportive approach to the campaign for cremation and, thus, in May 1919, a law was passed legalising the practice. This was an important step, and historians have taken it as a sign of the liberal and secular culture of the First Republic, especially in contrast with neighbouring Austria and Hungary.[7] A crematorium was built in Hungary in 1932 by József Borsos (1875–1952) in the city of Debrecen, the historic centre of Calvinism, on an initiative of the municipality, but it was opposed by the Ministry of the Interior, which was part of a national government between the wars that actively sought to promote a Catholic ‘Christian Hungary.’[8] The crematorium consequently did not open until the 1950s, and no others were built in the interwar state.[9] In Austria a crematorium designed by Clemens Holzmeister was completed in 1922 in Vienna, opposite the Central Cemetery. However, this was made possible due to ordinances laid down by the new Social Democratic city council, and the Catholic Social national government contested it. A legal battle ensued that was not concluded until 1924, when the courts ruled in favour of the city council. As in Czechoslovakia, cremation assumed political significance, for it denoted a commitment to free thinking and progressive social values.[10]

5 Vienna Crematorium1

Clemens Holzmeister: Crematorium, Vienna-Simmering, 1922 – photo: Thomas Ledl / Wikimedia Commons

This opposition between a putatively secular Czechoslovakia enabling cremation and, on the other, Hungary and Austria still opposed due to the strong sway of Catholicism, is appealing but it can be slightly misleading. For while it may have applied to the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, it was not until 1968 that the first crematorium was built in Slovakia, in Bratislava. This is a sign of an important confessional and cultural divide between Czechs, on the one hand, and Slovaks on the other, for whom Catholicism was a much more important cultural and political force. In addition, the simple picture of a secular Czechoslovakia can be cast into doubt if one begins to consider the crematorium designs themselves. As a new type of building, the designers of crematoria had little to guide them when looking for precedents. Yet the apparent freedom this might have presented had to be tempered by various factors. ‘At all costs [architects] wished to avoid creating a building with too alien an appearance. Architecture was a means to “package” and “sell” cremation as a burial option. Building attractive crematoria was a means of obtaining acceptance for a new burial form.’[11] Crematorium design thus involved a compromise between the desire to signal the modern and progressive nature of cremation, and the need to humanise the process with an architectural vocabulary with which the public were familiar. The resulting designs were not always successful, but they offer a fascinating insight into a period of considerable architectural experimentation. Peter Behrens’s crematorium in Hagen, for example, took inspiration from the fifteenth-century church of San Miniato in Florence, the chimney designed to mimic a bell tower, but its pared-down rigid geometries rendered it unmistakeably modern.[12]

4 Behrens Hagen crematorium

Peter Behrens: Crematorium, Hagen, 1906 – historic postcard

Similar considerations held in Czechoslovakia. Given that cremation was enmeshed in larger debates about Catholicism, it was clearly inappropriate to have a design that could in any way by associated with a church. Hence, Feuerstein and Sláma opted for a pagan Greek temple as the basic design prototype. Theirs was not the only example. The crematorium built in Pardubice at the same time, designed by Pavel Janák, was also a classical temple, but Janák used a modernist evocation of folk culture, with references to vernacular decoration in a language now usually referred to as the ‘National Style.’[13] On the other hand, given that Protestants of various different persuasions endorsed cremation, it was not so straightforward to identify the crematorium as a secular space; Behrens’s allusion to the campanile is evidence of this, and it is visible in the Czech examples, too. In Brno, for example, where a crematorium by Ernst Wiesner (1890–1971) was opened in 1930, a design that evokes some kind of ziggurat or pre-classical pagan temple is topped by an arrangement of tapered pillars that suggest Christ’s crown of thorns. In the Nymburk crematorium the cross-shaped design of the windows of the ceremonial hall is almost impossible to miss, especially in the interior. Later designs, such as the crematorium in the Prague suburb of Strašnice by Alois Mezera (1932), converged on plans familiar from church architecture; in this case, the ceremonial hall is constructed as a single-nave basilica, a common feature of interwar church design.


Interior of Nymburk crematorium – photo: Národní památkový Ústav

7 Strašnice krematorium

Alois Mezera: Interior of the crematorium, Prague-Strašnice, 1932 – photo: Petr Vilgus / Wikimedia Commons

A glance at the crematorium designs suggests, therefore, that while they symbolised the break from the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia, they still functioned as semi-sacral spaces that employed motifs and basic design features that brought out this quality. Indeed, one might hardly expect anything else, since they served Christians of other denominations. In this respect it is worth considering the claim that Feuerstein and Sláma’s design for Nymburk was a striking example of Purist architecture. From a purely stylistic point of view this is undoubtedly correct, but its implications need a little more exploration. Originating in the ideas of Amédée Ozenfant and Charles Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), Purism was an aesthetic programme that reduced figural representation to basic geometric and stereotypic forms. Ozenfant and Jeanneret argued in their manifesto ‘Purism,’ that their ultimate aim was to reproduce certain Platonic universal forms.[14] This search for basic constants was, for all its apparent interest in machine aesthetics, a spiritual quest, and was one of many similar examples of the metaphysical search for order amongst artists and architects in the immediate post-war era. As a site where the body of the deceased would disintegrate into thin air, the simple Purist forms of the crematorium seemed a most apt architectural metaphor for this transformation of base matter, an allusion, to the release of the human spirit from its corporeal housing. Purism thus provided a vocabulary replete with spiritual overtones yet unconnected to any particular denomination of confession. At the same time, Feuerstein and Sláma’s design undercuts this message somewhat due to the squatness of the main structure, which conveys a sense of heaviness and physicality.

These comments are speculative. Yet they highlight that for all its reputation as a secular liberal democracy between the wars, many in Czechoslovakia retained spiritual beliefs, starting with Masaryk’s own vision of the presidency as a spiritual duty.[15]  This may not have always been aligned with the Catholic Church – although many large-scale Catholic churches were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s and there was a powerful Catholic intelligentsia – but they were certainly an important feature of cultural life. The interest of crematorium architecture, therefore, lies not only in the practical design solutions architects came up with to solve the various problems posed by this particular kind of building. It lies, in addition, in its significance as an illustration of the ways that broader processes of modernization and social change were identified and addressed in Czechoslovakia.

Matthew Rampley

[1] For an outline of Feuerstein’s career and life see Helena Čapková, Bedřich Feuerstein: Cesta do nejvýtvarnější země světa (Prague, 2014).

[2] On the church see Ladislav Zikmund-Lender, Struktura města v zeleni: Moderní architektura v Hradci Králové (Hradec Králové 2017), pp. 99–102.

[3] A brief overview of the history of the crematorium in the Czech lands is available in Markéta Svobodová, Krematorium v procesu sekularizace českých zemí 20. století. Ideové, stavební a typologické proměny (Prague, 2013), pp. 24-31.

[4] See, too Brunetti’s discussion of the issue in Cremazione dei cadaveri (Padua, 1873).

[5] Asher G. Colombo, ‘Why Europe has never been united (not even in the Afterworld): The Fall and Rise of Cremation Cities (1876-1939),’ Death Studies, 41.1 (2017), pp. 22-33.

[6] On the history of cremation in Austria-Hungary see the entry on Austria in Lewis H. Mates and Douglas J. Davies, eds, Encyclopedia of Cremation (London, 2005), pp. 70-79.

[7] This is the basic thrust of Svobodová’s argument in Krematorium, pp. 16-18.

[8] On the campaign for a Christian Hungary see Paul Hanebrink, In Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism and Anti-Semitism, 1890-1944 (Ithaca, 2006).

[9] See the entry on ‘Hungary’ in Encyclopedia of Cremation, pp. 251-56.

[10] In February 1923 the satirical newspaper published a short poem on the occasion of the opening of the crematorium: ‘Als Sinnbild des Freigeist’s bist du uns teuer / Denk ich und sag es frohgemut / Ein bisschen Krematoriumfeuer / Tät manchen Hakenkreuzler gut’ (As a symbol of the free spirit you are dear to us / I say this full of joy / A little bit of fire from the crematorium / would be good for one or more swastika lovers’). I. G. H., ‘Das Krematorium,’ Wiener Caricaturen, 1 February 1923, p. 3.

[11] Timothy Pursell, ‘ “The Burial of the Future”: Modernist architecture and the cremationist movement in Wilhelmine Germany,’ Mortality, 8.3 (2003), p. 239.

[12] Stanford Anderson, Peter Behrens and a New Architecture for the New Century (Cambridge, MA, 2000) p. 35.

[13] Vendula Hnídková, Národní styl: kultura a politika (Prague, 2013).

[14] Amédée Ozenfant and Charles Edouard Jeanneret, ‘Le Purisme,’ L’Esprit Nouveau: Revue Internationale D’Esthetique 1 (1920), pp. 369-86.

[15] See Matthew Rampley, ‘Artwork of the Month, August 2019: Prague Cathedral by Josef Sudek (1926-27)’.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/3MGYJ

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