Rudolf Sandalo: Vesna Trade School for Women by Bohuslav Fuchs, Brno, 1931

On Photographing Modern Architecture: The Studio of Rudolf Sandalo

Since May 2018 a touring exhibition has been taking place of work from the photographic studio of Rudolf Sandalo (1899–1980). With an impressive and informative bi-lingual catalogue that includes high quality reproductions of nearly 280 photographs, it is worth trying to visit it at the City of Prague Museum, where it is still due to be on display.[1] Sandalo is little known outside of the Czech Republic, but he is noteworthy as the author of an extensive portfolio of photographs of the modern architecture that was built in Brno in the 1920s and 1930s. Almost single-handedly, he shaped the present-day image of the city as a major centre of central European modernism. This exhibition is important, not only for its attention to an oeuvre of great significance for Brno and Czechoslovak interwar culture, but also for the wider questions it raises about modern architecture and the role of photography in shaping how we see it.

The name Sandalo first appears in relation to photography in June 1901, when Rudolf Sandalo’s father (1869–1932), also called Rudolf, placed an advertisement in the local newspaper in Brno for his newly opened photographic atelier. He was the son of an Italian (his name was originally Sandola) who had at some time been resident in Bielsko-Biała in Polish Galicia, but ended up in Bohemia in the 1860s while on military service and had then moved to Brno at some point early in the following decade.

It seems that the studio was a successful business in the pre-war era, undertaking portraits as well as some striking photographs of the evolving cityscape. A photograph from between 1905–1910 of Koliště Park in the city provides a graphic illustration of what historians often refer to as the growth of the modern crowd and urban leisure activities, for the park seems to function as a social meeting point of large numbers of the inhabitants, sitting, gazing at each other, walking, standing. The photograph was taken by the elder Sandalo; his son began working for the studio in the early 1920s. The latter remained in Brno until 1933, when unspecific economic pressures led him to move to Prague.

Promenade in Koliště Park, Brno, photograph by the elder Rudolf Sandalo, 1905–1910

Promenade in Koliště Park, Brno, photograph by the elder Rudolf Sandalo, 1905–1910, Brno City Museum. Inv. B356/2303

It is not clear what kind of training in photography the younger Sandalo had. Even though it was taught at vocational and technical schools, he seems to have had no formal training in photography or indeed in any other field of art and design. Rather, he was educated as a chemist between 1917 and 1919 at the Technical High School in Brno. A knowledge of chemistry was, admittedly, useful for a budding photographer, but it appears he did not complete his course of studies, and threw himself instead into the family business. We may therefore assume that both father and son learned their craft through their professional practice and experience, and through their consumption of the growing number of photography magazines, as well as membership of the Brno camera club, an important forum for sharing ideas and examples of work.[2]

When the younger Sandalo took over the atelier from his father in the early 1920s there was a marked change in approach, and he became perhaps the foremost observer of the modern architectural development of Brno between the wars. Given his lack of art and design education this is all the more striking, for he appears to have had an intuitive grasp as to how to present the new structures that were rising in Brno and how to bring out their structural and aesthetic qualities. They are staged so as to highlight and amplify formal and structural contrasts, between walls and windows, for example, or between furnishings and the interior space, or between individual buildings and their surroundings. A photograph from 1925 of the Zeman Café building by Bohuslav Fuchs (1895–1972), for example,  emphasises the horizontal orientation of the building by juxtaposing it with the upright trees in the foreground. The image of the Rudolf Kropáč sanatorium (1927–28) gives the building a stately presence that is all the more noticeable when set against the jumble of structures, from factories to tenement buildings, in the background. Modern medical science brings calm order to the city.

Rudolf Sandalo: The Zeman Café by Bohuslav Fuchs, Brno, 1925

Rudolf Sandalo: The Zeman Café by Bohuslav Fuchs, Brno, 1925, Brno City Museum, Inv. 226296

Rudolf Sandalo: The Rudolf Kropač Sanatorium by Bohuslav Fuchs, Brno, 1927-28

Rudolf Sandalo: The Rudolf Kropač Sanatorium by Bohuslav Fuchs, Brno, 1927-28, Brno City Museum, Inv. 226099

Evidently, contemporaries appreciated them, and he developed a close working relation with a number of architects. His photographs began to be featured in architecture magazines such as Styl, Byt a umění and Horizont although, as was practice at the time, he was seldom credited as their author. Perhaps his greatest service was to provide a portfolio of some 80 images of Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat, completed in Brno in 1930. As the catalogue to the Sandalo exhibition states, the Czech architectural world ostentatiously ignored Mies’s masterwork when it was built, due to a combination of local envy and national pride. It is thus thanks to Sandalo that we have a visual record of its early life, and it is his photographs of the villa that comprise the cover images of Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s pioneering history of modern architecture, The International Style: Architecture since 1922 (1932) as well as the catalogue of the 1932 exhibition of Modern Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.[3]

Photographs document visual appearances and can be invaluable as historical sources, but they also employ a pictorial rhetoric that can shape how we view their subject matter, an issue that was widely discussed in the 1920s and 1930s. Hence, while the Sandalo archive offers an immense amount of information about the development of modern architecture in Brno (and elsewhere, too), it has also guided the reception of the aesthetics of modernism. In this respect it is worth considering the work of the Sandalo studio with contemporaneous work by other, more famous photographers. For photography played a crucial role in mediating the understanding and appreciation of modern architecture.

Josef Sudek: The Interior of St. Wenceslas Church by Josef Gočár, Prague-Vršovice, 1933

Josef Sudek: The Interior of St. Wenceslas Church by Josef Gočár, Prague-Vršovice, 1933, Institute of Art History, Prague, Inv. S7490

This blog has already discussed the portfolio of photographs of Prague cathedral by Josef Sudek, one of the most internationally known Czech photographers. Sudek evoked a sense of aura and the sacred in the cathedral, and thereby reinforced its role as a site of communal memory reaching back into the medieval history of Bohemia. A recent project at the Institute of Art History in Prague has explored Sudek’s photographs of modern architecture between the wars.[4] It demonstrates that the aesthetics of Sudek’s images are very different from those of Sandalo; Sudek was highly sensitive to tonal contrasts between light and dark, as in his photograph of the interior of Josef Gočár’s (1880–1945) church of St. Wenceslas in Prague (1933), which, in the contrast between the dark interior and the light streaming in through the chancel window, replicates the approach he had adopted in his images of St. Vitus cathedral.

This is a well-known aspect of Sudek’s oeuvre, but it would be misleading to view it merely as an exercise in formal exploration. For his architectural photographs also deploy a pictorial rhetoric that serves as advocacy on behalf of the buildings they depict. Amongst his other images of the church in question, for example, Sudek took a number of photographs at oblique angles, from unusual standing points, that add a sense of drama to the experience of the building. Some of them evoke the dynamic nature of the encounter with the divine – as one theologian stated, churches are places ‘for doing, not just seeing, for moving, not just sitting’ – but a more general effect is to convey the energy of this modern building.[5]

Josef Sudek: Exterior view of Josef Gočár's St. Wenceslas Church, Prague-Vršovice, 1933

Josef Sudek: Exterior view of Josef Gočár’s St. Wenceslas Church, Prague-Vršovice, 1933, Institute of Art History, Prague, Inv. S7497

As Jaroslav Anděl has demonstrated, the use of oblique angles became a common technique in much interwar architectural photography, its purpose to convey both the dynamic excitement of the new buildings being erected, as well as the reorientation of spatial experience that was involved.[6] Images such as Karel Plicka’s (1894–1987) oblique view of the Green Frog Swimming Pool designed by Bohuslav Fuchs in the Slovak town of Trenčianské Teplice (1936) defamiliarize their subject and revolutionised how buildings were viewed.

Karel Plička: The Zelená žába Swimming Pool by Bohuslav Fuchs, Trenčianské Teplice, 1936, Brno City Museum

Karel Plicka: The Zelená žába Swimming Pool by Bohuslav Fuchs, Trenčianské Teplice, 1936, Brno City Museum

Looking further afield, we might also draw comparisons with Arthur Köster’s (1890–1965) photographs of the architectural designs of Erich Mendelsohn, or Aleksandr Rodchenko’s disorienting images of the new buildings and structures of the Soviet Union.[7] It is no surprise that one of the founding texts on the development of modern architecture, by the Swiss writer Sigfried Giedion, bore the title Space, Time and Architecture, since, like so many of his contemporaries, Giedion argued that the architectural avant-garde was reflecting a reordering of the experience of space of modern life.[8]

Rudolf Sandalo: Jan Víšek’s office and retail building, Bratislava, 1929

Rudolf Sandalo: Jan Víšek’s office and retail building, Bratislava, 1929, Brno City Museum, Inv. 205100

The Sandalo studio adopted a rather different approach to composition. The main reason, perhaps, was that Rudolf Sandalo was a professional photographer fulfilling commissions for the architects, whereas Köster, Sudek and others viewed their task as an artistic exercise and therefore had different priorities. Hence, in place of the avant-garde dynamism of the latter, the Sandalo atelier endowed its subjects with a stately, classical, presence. The 1929 photograph of Jan Víšek’s office and retail building in Bratislava, for instance, emphasises its clean elegant lines and proportions; the photograph of Bohuslav Fuchs’s building for the Vesna Trade School for Women gives its subject a dignified, monumental character. Here, then, is a different kind of argument about the place of modern architecture. Where many wished to emphasise the way it embodied change and the giddying tempo of modernity, the photographs of the Sandalo studio see it as an embodiment of a new rational order. Its legitimacy as architecture is underpinned by its classical aesthetic qualities.

Rudolf Sandalo: Vesna Trade School for Women by Bohuslav Fuchs, Brno, 1931

Rudolf Sandalo: Vesna Trade School for Women by Bohuslav Fuchs, Brno, 1931, Brno City Museum, Inv. 225810

In drawing this contrast it would be misleading, however, to assume that the Sandalo studio was merely seeking to root modern architecture in tradition. For many of the images nevertheless highlight an occasionally jarring contrast between the new and the old. A striking example is provided by the photograph of the Moravian Bank building completed by Fuchs and Ernest Wiesner in 1930 and standing on the main square in the city centre. The white façade of the bank singles it out from the surrounding buildings as well as from the foreground. This is not only a formal opposition; it draws on the symbolism of the white wall that Le Corbusier had elaborated on only five years earlier in his book on Decorative Art Today.[9] For Le Corbusier, and others in his wake, stressed the role of white in architecture as a symbol of hygiene, efficiency and purity. This ideology has since been dismantled but it remained a powerful trope shaping the perception of modern architecture.[10]

Rudolf Sandalo: The Moravian Bank Building by Bohuslav Fuchs / Ernest Wiesner, Brno, 1928–30

Rudolf Sandalo: The Moravian Bank Building by Bohuslav Fuchs / Ernest (Arnošt) Wiesner, Brno, 1928–30, Brno City Museum, Inv. 225595. K-125

The whiteness brings out, too, the disjunction between Fuchs and Wiesner’s bank and those on either side, in terms of the non-alignment of the floors. Yet perhaps the most powerful compositional device is Sandalo’s decision to take the photograph from a vantage point such that the Baroque Marian column in the square hogs the foreground. Completed in 1683, the column was a typical feature of central European cities in the 17th and early 18th centuries, erected as an expression of thanks for deliverance from plague, war, or one of any number of other possible catastrophes. The photograph stages a dialogue between the column and the bank that evokes the opposition of new and old, modernity and history. The image also has a very particular political significance within the context of interwar Czechoslovakia. For as an earlier blog on this site has noted, in November 1918 a similar column in the Old Town Square in Prague was felled in an act of political nationalism. The column in the capital, originally erected to celebrate the liberation from the Swedish siege of Prague of 1648, had come to be seen as a symbol of Habsburg rule. Hence, as Austria-Hungary was tottering towards its collapse in 1918, a defiant act of Czech self-assertion led a mob to pull it down. The column in Brno was untouched, due, perhaps, to the large German-speaking population of the city. Yet the echo of events in Prague cannot have been missed, especially as the functionalist architectural idiom of the bank building came to act as a signifier of Czechoslovak identity. Indeed, it has been suggested that the enthusiasm with which the International Style was embraced between the wars in Brno was because it helped redefine it as a Czech city, even though half of its population was German-speaking.[11]

Rudolf Sandalo: Hotel Avion by Bohuslav Fuchs, Brno, 1927

Rudolf Sandalo: Hotel Avion by Bohuslav Fuchs, Brno, 1927, Brno City Museum, Inv. 226301

The theme of whiteness was used on numerous occasions in the photographs of Sandalo. It is evident in his image of Fuchs’s Avion Hotel and Café (1927). The hotel design has often been lauded for the ingenious way in which Fuchs managed to address the challenges of building on such a narrow plot of land, but here the focus of interest is on how the modernity of the hotel is emphasised by the stark contrast between its gleaming front and the muddy grey of the Vágner department store and the smaller shops on each side. In other works, Sandalo achieved a similar effect by photographing buildings at night; electric lights, still a signifier of modernity, blaze through darkness, emphasising, too, the large windows that were such a central feature of functionalist design, whether of commercial and public buildings,  or private dwellings, such as the Villa Tugendhat.

The catalogue for the exhibition includes a short discussion of the ways in which Sandalo retouched photographs, in order to heighten or to edit out features that impeded the intended aesthetic effect. These are of no small interest, but more important than individual examples, perhaps, is that it draws attention to how contemporaneous photography has permanently shaped, distorted even, our view of modern architecture. For despite the compositional and other aesthetic differences Sandalo may have had with peers such as Plicka and Sudek, he shared with them a reliance on the medium of black and white photography. In one sense this is hardly remarkable. Colour photography was rare and expensive; hand-touching aside, it did not begin to become available until the mid-1930s and the invention of Kodachrome. Yet the fact that the emergence of modern architecture was documented in black and white has left a permanent imprint on the collective memory of the avant-garde as monochrome, its aesthetic and stylistic effects due above to its plastic and architectonic features. This is, of course, an entirely misleading picture, for colour was an integral part of modernist design. The Goldman & Salatsch building in Vienna (1909) by Adolf Loos has rightly been celebrated as an exemplar of functional, ornament-free, architectural design. Yet Loos made extensive use of the warmth of the wooden interiors, and the lush complex grain of the green marble used in its construction. Likewise, a central feature of the interior design of the Villa Tugendhat is the onyx wall that divides the living space. It can come as a shock to compare the classic black and white photographs of gleaming modernist buildings with them in their contemporary state. The design of, for example, Oskar Poříska’s City Accommodation Office building in Brno (1928) seems transformed when we see it in the present.

Rudolf Sandalo: The City Accommodation Office by Oskar Poříska

Rudolf Sandalo: The City Accommodation Office by Oskar Poříska – photo:

Oskar Poříska: The City Accommodation Office building in Brno, 1928

Oskar Poříska: The City Accommodation Office building in Brno, 1928 photo:

Sandalo is little known internationally, but his oeuvre deserves a much larger audience; from the very outset the photographs display a sophisticated grasp of the genre of architectural photography as well as a clear understanding of the designs being photographed. The photographs remind us, therefore, that the utopian aspirations of modernist architecture, its social and aesthetic impact, are a consequence of its mediation by photography as much as they are a reflection of the designs of the actual buildings. Our sense of the ‘decline’ of modernism, to cite Peter Bürger, is thus due not merely to the fact that its design seem to have aged given the immeasurable changes in architecture since the 1920s, but also to the fact that our understanding of it has been highly dependent on an idiom of pictorial representation, the black and white photograph, which itself is unmistakeably historical.[12]

Matthew Rampley

[1] Dagmar Černoušková and Jindřich Chatrný, eds, Víze modernosti / Visions of modernity: Rudolf Sandalo 1899-1980 (Brno, 2018). The exhibition was previously staged at the Brno City Museum, the Slovak National Museum in Bratislava, and the Regional Gallery of Fine Arts in Zlín.

[2] Petra Trnková, Technický obraz na malířských štaflích: česko-němečtí fotoamatéři a umělecká fotografie: 1890-1914 (Brno, 2008).

[3] Dagmar Černoušková and Jindřich Chatrný, ‘Visions of Modernity’ in Víze modernosti / Visions of modernity: Rudolf Sandalo 1899-1980, p. 69.

[4] Mariana Kubištová, Poetická geometrie: Moderní architektura ve fotografiích Josefa Sudka (Prague, 2018).

[5] Peter Hammond, Liturgy and Architecture (London, 1960) p. 47.

[6] Jaroslav Anděl, The New Vision for the New Architecture: Czechoslovakia 1918-1938 (Zurich, 2006).

[7] Genevieve Hendricks, ‘The Light in Architecture: Erich Mendelsohn’s Photographic Expressionism, # 31 (2020).

[8] Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge, MA, 1941).

[9] Le Corbusier, L’art décoratif aujourd’hui (Paris, 1925).

[10] See, for example, the critical analysis by Mark Wigley, White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture (Cambridge, MA, 1995).

[11] On this issue see Rostislav Koryčanek, Česká architektura v německém Brně: město jako ideální krajina nacionalismu (Šlapanice, 2003).

[12] Peter Bürger, The Decline of Modernism (Cambridge, 1992).

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/KR4CW

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