Artwork of the Month, September 2021: The Industrial Exhibition Hall in Hiroshima by Jan Letzel (1915)

In the summer of 2021, the Jaroslav Fragner Gallery in Prague staged an exhibition celebrating the centenary of the setting up of diplomatic relations between Japan and Czechoslovakia. Bearing the title 1920–2020 Prague–Tokyo / Exchanges, Parallels, Common Visions, the exhibition had been delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 restrictions.[1] Its focus was on architecture, and it was testimony to the rich exchange of ideas and practices between Japan and Czechoslovakia (and, subsequently, the Czech Republic). The best-known architects in this story are Antonin Raymond (1888–1976) and Bedřich Feuerstein (1892–1936), who has already been discussed in another post on this site as the architect of the crematorium in Nymburk. Raymond and Feuerstein have benefitted from a ‘rediscovery’ due to new research in the past few years.[2] However, the subject of the Artwork of the Month essay for September is an earlier, less familiar, figure: Jan Letzel (1880–1925) who was in many respects their forerunner. Unknown to many, he was the architect of one of the most famous buildings in Japan: the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Exhibition Hall (1915). Since 1996 it has been a designated UNESCO world heritage site, and has been named the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (or Gebaku Dome), for it is one of the very few structures to have withstood the detonation of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on the 6th August 1945. The building of the Hall falls outside the strict chronological boundaries of the CRAACE project, but it serves as a powerful symbol of the engagement of Czechs and Slovaks with Japan, which began in the late nineteenth century and gained momentum into the mid-twentieth. Consideration of the building also prompts us to reflect on the way that Czech and Czechoslovaks interacted with Japanese culture and the light that casts on Czech and Czechoslovak culture and self-perceptions.

Jan Letzel: The Industrial Exhibition Hall, now Hiroshima Peace Memorial / Genbaku Dome

Jan Letzel: The Industrial Exhibition Hall, now Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Hiroshima, 1915 – photo: Wikimedia Commons / Oilstreet

Letzel was born in the provincial town of Náchod in eastern Bohemia and, following an initial training in the local higher vocational school and the State Industrial School in nearby Pardubice, he was awarded a scholarship in 1901 to the School of Applied Arts in Prague. He studied under Jan Kotěra (1871–1923), at the time one of the leading architects in Bohemia and often referred to since as the ‘father’ of modern Czech architecture. This prestigious association indicates recognition of the talent of this budding architect, one of whose earliest projects was the Archduke Stephen Hotel (now the Hotel Europa) on Wenceslas Square in Prague, originally designed by Josef Schulz in 1889, but he which he helped renovate between 1903 and 1905. The historiography of Czech architecture usually focuses on structures in the historic Czech lands, but Letzel is a striking illustration of the fact that many Czech architects found professional success abroad, often taking advantage of their status as subjects of one of the major European states. As early as 1905 he was working in Cairo in the office of Fabrizio Pasha, chief architect of Abbas II, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt.[3] Two years later he had moved to Japan, where he designed numerous public buildings, including the Oriental Hotel in Kobe (1908), the Sacre Coeur Girls’ School in Tokyo (1909–10) and the Matsushima Park Hotel (1913).

The Matsushima Park Hotel by Jan Letzel, 1913

Jan Letzel: The Matsushima Park Hotel, 1913 – photo:

Working first for the Lalande Architectural Firm in Yokohama, he set up his own architectural office in 1910 in Tokyo along with Karl Hora. Director of the Osaka Gas Light Company. He returned to Prague and the newly created state of Czechoslovakia in 1920 after the end of the First World War, but he seemed unable to settle there and, disenchanted, went back to Japan in 1922. The following year he moved back to Prague; the precise details of his premature death are not clear, but he ended his days in a psychiatric hospital in Prague in 1925. Letzel is remembered in Japan with some affection in Japan and he appears to have had a genuine interest in Japanese culture. The Hiroshima-based playwright Shimako Murai (1928–2018) who was active in promoting Czech culture in Japan through translations of prominent Czech authors, wrote what is still the only book about Letzel, translated into Czech and published in 2003.[4] Despite the fame of his building, he has garnered perhaps the least attention of any of the Czech architects working in Japan; the journalist Alois Svojsik mentioned having met him on his travels in Japan in 1908, describing him as a ‘young, energetic, friend brimming with humour,’ but there was no interest in his work in Czech architectural circles.[5]

The Hiroshima Industrial Exhibition Hall before 1945

Jan Letzel’s Hiroshima Industrial Exhibition Hall before 1945 – photo:

How should we interpret this building and the legacy of Letzel? The building itself was perhaps unremarkable. It was a large, fairly conventional three-storeyed building with a dome topping a staircase that extended two further storeys higher. The skeleton of the dome is the most visible part of the fractured torso that survived the blast, and has an iconic quality, but it is worth considering other aspects of it, too. Although it was quite distinct from the Baroque Secessionist design of the Archduke Stephen Hotel on which he had worked on 10 years earlier, it was still marked by a sense of historical tradition. The building had a central avant-corps jutting out from the main body and marking the entrance, coupled with additional avant-corps marking each wing of the building. This was a feature commonly associated with Baroque and Baroque-revivalist architecture, and in adopting this ground plan, Letzel was clearly evoking architectural tradition.

The Mozarteum by Jan Kotěra, 1913

Jan Kotěra: The Mozarteum, Prague, 1913 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, the main façade, consisting of geometric columns interspersed with rectangular windows, was clearly indebted to classical tradition; the roof entablature was decorated by a balustrade, with classical dentils on the soffit. The building is typical of many pre-war architectural experiments, which had rejected the flamboyant Secessionism of the turn of the century and the historicism of the later 1800s, yet seemed unable to entirely to discard the legacy of classicism. In this regard it is comparable to some of the designs by his teacher Kotěra, whose works, such as the Mozarteum (1913) or the Law Faculty Building of the University in Prague (1926–29), which, for all their ‘modernist’ traits (minimal ornamentation, use of simple geometric forms, a foregrounding of the materials used in construction) were still rather conventional buildings employing the vocabulary of classical architecture.

We might, further, consider why Letzel saw it as appropriate to design such a building that owed much to the ideas of his teacher in Prague, in Japan. It makes no concession to local culture or architectural practices. This is in contrast to the Matsushima Park Hotel, which drew on the language of local temple architecture. We might interpret the design of the Exhibition Hall in two ways. When Letzel moved to Japan the country was in the midst of a social, economic and cultural revolution. The Meiji era, spanning the period between 1868 and 1912, had seen the Japanese government embark on a process of rapid industrialisation and modernisation, in order to compensate for the humiliation suffered in 1853 when the U. S. Navy, led by Commodore Perry, compelled it to open up its ports to American and European trade.[6] Only two years before Letzel arrived in Japan, the fruits of this project had been apparent in the decisive victory of Japan over Russia in the Russo-Japanese war, culminating in the Battle of the Tsushima Straits of 1905, when it had annihilated the Russian navy.

Given the ambitions of the Japanese government to establish a place for the country amongst the leading states of the world, Japan was a land of opportunity for European architects such as Letzel. The architectural office for which he initially worked, that of Georg de Lalande (1872–1914), was an example of this phenomenon. Lalande was a German architect from Berlin who had moved to Japan in 1903 and quickly found success. Lalande had himself gone to Japan at invitation of Ludwig Seel (1854–1922) who had been active in Japan since the 1880s, responsible for, amongst others, the Parliament building in Tokyo (1886–1891). For the Meiji government modernization meant westernization, and European architects were valued for their technical and engineering expertise. Letzel’s Hall was commissioned as part of the project of industrial modernization to showcase new industrial and commercial enterprises, and a western-style building was commensurate with the wider policy objectives of the government and was part of a wider pattern. Akasaka Palace, for example, built in Tokyo between 1899 and 1909 by the Japanese architect Katayama Tōkuma (1854–1917) for the Japanese Crown Prince, was a large Neobaroque edifice that indicated the cultural hegemony of Europe. Yet there were also practical dimensions to Letzel’s employment in Japan. He was one of a number of European architects who introduced new construction techniques and materials, including reinforced concrete. That the Hall survived the atomic bomb of 1945 was due to the fact that it was one of the few buildings in Hiroshima not built of wood.

The Industrial Exhibition Hall by Jan Letzel in Hiroshima, 1945

Jan Letzel’s Industrial Exhibition Hall in the wake of the atomic bombing of 1945 – photo: U.S. Army, Courtesy of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

We can speculate as to the motivations of Letzel in moving to Japan; professional opportunity was undoubtedly one reason, but we may view it in the context of the rise of considerable interest in Japanese culture in the Czech lands for some decades previously. The ‘opening up’ of Japan in the 1850s and 1860s had led to a wave of interest in Japan across Europe, and this had been encouraged by the increasing visibility of the Japanese state. Japan participated for the first time in a world fair in 1867 in Paris and was a regular participant in world fairs thereafter. Paris became a centre for the distribution of Japanese art, for example, through the sale of prints and other objets d’art in department stores.

Emil Orlík, Portrait of Kanô Motonobu, 1901

Emil Orlík, Portrait of Kanô Motonobu, 1901 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Such japonisme, which became an important element in the work of many artists in the following decades, ranging from Edouard Manet to Aubrey Beardsley, James McNeill Whistler and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, has been well documented and exhaustively discussed.[7] It is only relatively recently, however, that japonisme in central Europe has been explored.[8] Yet as an important exhibition staged in 2010 at the National Gallery of Prague demonstrated, it was an important element in Czech artistic culture, too. Artists such as Emil Orlik (1870–1932), Karel Hlaváček (1874–1898) and Vojtěch Preissig (1873–1944) were particularly drawn to the graphic qualities of Japanese woodcuts – their striking compositional principles, the flattening of the picture plane, the use of negative space – and sought to reproduce them.[9]

Traditionally this interest was described merely in terms of ‘influence,’ but subsequently, scholars have sought to analyse this appropriation of Japanese visual arts in a more critical vein. For it is notable that the japonisme that was made possible by the transformation and modernization of Japan peddled an image of the culture that made little reference to the present. The popular woodcuts, the most famous, perhaps, being those of Hokusai (1760–1849) predated modern Japan and could sustain the utopian image of a pre-modern, pre-industrial culture. As such, japonisme exemplified a wider phenomenon, whereby Europeans (and North Americans) were reluctant to acknowledge that other societies in Asia, Africa and Oceania, might also be ‘modern.’ In relation to japonisme this meant, with some exceptions, such as the writing of Alice Schalek, clichés about Japanese culture (geishas, samurai warriors, Shinto, the tea ceremony, Japanese aesthetics) that made little reference to the society that was rapidly developing in the period in question.

Jan Letzel, Tombstone of Klára Květoňová, Brno

Jan Letzel: Tombstone for Klára Květoňová, Brno, Štýřice, Central Cemetery, 1910 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Letzel was not immune to this. While in Tokyo he designed a tombstone  in the form of a traditional Japanese torii gate for Klára Květoňová (1881–1910) the wife of František Květoň (1881–1976), a professor at the Czech Trade Academy and, later, ally of Tomáš G. Masaryk. The tombstone is still to be found in the Brno Central Cemetery. A book by Svojsik based on his travels in Japan, Japan and its People, features a photograph of himself with Letzel and Hora.[10] It makes for uncomfortable viewing for the modern reader; the cultural difference between the Czechs and the Japanese is amplified by the class gulf between these wealthy Europeans and the lowly rickshaw driver. We can also interpret the Matsushita Hotel in this light, too, since it was built to house western tourists; its design meant to present visitors with a reassuring image of Japan as the culture of hallowed tradition.

Page from Alois Svojsik, Japan and Its People (Prague, 1913)

Page from Alois Svojsik, Japan and Its People with photograph of Svojsik, Jan Letzel and Karl Hora with rickshaw driver, 1913 – photo: National Digital Library,

Interest among Czechs in Japan continued after the First World War and the creation of Czechoslovakia. Due to his restless final years and early death, Letzel undertook no further projects in Japan – his last design was for the Seiyoken Hotel in Ueno Park in Tokyo, completed in 1917 to replace an earlier structure that was destroyed by a typhoon and itself destroyed in the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Yet others followed in his footsteps. Raymond, who had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright before the War, moved to Japan afterwards and, together with his French wife Noémi, designed numerous buildings in Japan, such as the Women’s Christian College in Tokyo (1921–38), the main building of Hoshi University in Tokyo (1924) as well as a number of notable private houses in the 1930s for private clients such as the industrialist Akaboshi Tetsuma and the golfer Shiro Akaboshi.[11] He was joined by Feuerstein, who worked with him in Japan between 1926 and 1930. Others, too, such as Jan Josef Švagr (1885–1969) undertook architectural commissions in interwar Japan. Perhaps the most significant projects of Feuerstein and Raymond were the embassies of a number of European countries, including that of the Soviet Union in Tokyo, which they completed in 1931.[12]

As the representatives of a newly created republic, Czechoslovaks may have been sympathetically disposed to Japan. Although it had long existed as a unified state, it could be seen as ‘new’ by virtue of its rapidly changing situation. In the immediate post-war period it seemed as if Japan, now a permanent member of the Council of the League of Nations, was becoming a democratic republic, its old feudal order giving way to a modern political system. Avant-garde journals in Czechoslovakia such as Stavba and Stavitel featured articles and illustrations of Japanese architecture; Karel Teige, the leading avant-garde art and architecture critic in the interwar state, suggested that contemporary designers might learn from traditional Japanese domestic architecture.[13] He also quoted the principles of the manifesto of modern architecture of the International Architecture Association of Japan, launched by a group of six architects in Kyoto in July 1927.[14] From the late 1920s onwards, too, several exhibitions were staged of Japanese art at the Topič gallery and the Municipal House in Prague as well as by the Aleš Society of Artists in Brno.[15]

This interest was reciprocated. As Helena Čapková has noted, Japanese architectural periodicals of the 1920s and 1930s discussed contemporary architecture in Czechoslovakia, mentioning figures such as Bohuslav Fuchs, Josef Gočár and Karel Honzík, as well as the writings of Teige.[16] Yet even if by this time Japan had established itself as a modern state, the stereotypes of fin-de-siècle japonisme persisted. On his return to Prague in 1930 Feuerstein delivered lectures that recycled clichés about Japanese aesthetic purity and the rootedness of modern culture in ancient traditions. When Joe Hloucha, a collector of Japanese art close to the Prague avant-garde, decided to build a permanent home for his collection, the villa he had remodelled in 1924, Sakura (cherry blossom), took the form of a traditional Japanese-style villa that said little about the contemporary culture of Japan. The timeless Japan of the exoticising European imagination seemed hard to shift and in certain respects the catalogue of the exhibition at the Fragner Gallery is not entirely free of these stereotypes, focusing on ‘archetypal’ Japanese aesthetic culture.[17]

The Villa Sakura in Roztoky, Prague, built for Joe Hloucha's collection of Japanese art

The Villa Sakura in Roztoky, Prague, remodelled by Joe Hloucha in 1924 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

This discussion has moved some distance from the Exhibition Hall of Letzel the ambitious young architect working in Japan. Yet it reminds us that while questions of Czech and Czechoslovak culture and identity are most often framed in terms of its place in central Europe and its relation to its immediate neighbours, Czech architects worked in wider global contexts and their work had an impact far beyond Europe. We learn to consider the Czech lands in another light, but we are thereby compelled to confront awkward questions about the extent to which Czech artists and architects were beneficiaries of the global cultural hegemony of Europeans in the first half of the twentieth century. Letzel’s building reminds us, too, of the complex intertwining of cultures, given that such a powerful symbol of the most traumatic events in modern Japanese history should have been built by an architect from a modest provincial town in eastern Bohemia.

Matthew Rampley

[1] Praha–Tokio: Vlivy, Paralely, Tušení Společného / Prague–Tokyo: Exchanges, Parallels, Common Visions, eds Helena Čapková, Dan Merta and Klára Pučerová (Prague, 2020).

[2] See, for example, Kurt Helfrich and William Whitaker, Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noemi Raymond (Princeton, 2006); Christine Vendredi-Auzanneau, Antonin Raymond, un architecte occidental au Japon 1888-1976 (Paris, 2012); Helena Čapková, Bedřich Feuerstein (Prague, 2014); Dan Merta et al, 7 x Antonín Raymond (Prague, 2015).

[3] Letzel wrote a brief account of his stay in Egypt: ‘Z mého kahýrského pobytu,’ Český svět, 31.3, 24 May 1907, pp. 22–24.

[4] Šimako Murai, Jan Letzel: stavitel atomového dómu, trans. Zdeňka Vasiljevová (Prague, 2003). An edition of his correspondence from Japan has been published as Japonsko – země, kterou jsem hledal: Edice dopisů architekta Jana Letzela (1880 Náchod – 1925 Praha) z let 1907–1924, ed. Stanislav Bohadlo (Náchod, 2000) as well as a volume of imaginary letters by him, Olga Strusková, Dopisy z Japonska (Prague, 1996).

[5] Alois Svojsik, ‘Z cesty k protinožcům,’ Hlas 29 December 1908, p. 2.

[6] Brett L. Walker, ‘Meiji Enlightenment, 1868-1912,’ in A Concise History of Japan (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 15978.

[7] See Siegfried Wichmann, Japonisme: Japanese Influence on Western Art in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London, 2000); Lionel Lambourne, Japonisme: Cultural Crossings between Japan and the West (London, 2005).

[8] A number of publications have examined japonisme in Poland, due to the activities of the Cracow-based collector of Japanese art Feliks Jasieński (18611929), whose collection became the basis of the Manggha Museum of Japanese in the city. See Anna Król, Japonizm Polski (Cracow, 2011) and Aneta Pawłowska and Julia Niewiarowska-Kulesza, Japonizm w sztuce modernismu (Łódź, 2016).

[9] Japonisme in Czech Art, ed. Markéta Hánová (Prague, 2010).

[10] Alois Svojsik, Japonsko a jeho lid (Prague, 1913), p. 75.

[11] Helfrich and Whitaker, Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noemi Raymond, pp. 13455.

[12] Dennis Stewart, The Making of a Modern Japanese Architecture: From the Founders to Shinohara and Isozaki (New York, 2002), p. 129.

[13] Karel Teige, ‘Moderní architektura v Japonsku,’ in Teige, Mezinárodní soudobá architektura (Prague, 1929) pp. 12425.

[14] Jonathan M. Reynolds, ‘An International Architecture,’ in Maekawa Kunio and the Emergence of Japanese Modernist Architecture (Los Angeles, 2001), pp. 34-37.

[15] These were the Výstava japonského umění (Prague, 1928); Karel Chytil, Japonské a čínské umění současné (Prague, 1929); Výstava soudobého umění čínského a japonského (Brno, 1930).

[16] Helena Čapková, ‘Letzel – Feuerstein – Raymond,’ in Praha–Tokio: Vlivy, Paralely, Tušení Společného / Prague–Tokyo: Exchanges, Parallels, Common Visions, pp. 6062.

[17] In discussion with Čapková the architectural historian Vladimír Šlapeta employs familiar tropes, referring to the ‘mystique’ of Japanese design and to the Japanese as ‘immense aesthetes.’ See ‘The Influence of Japanese Architecture on Czechoslovak Pre-War and Post-War Architecture: Interview by Helena Čapková with Vladimír Šlapeta,’ in Praha–Tokio: Vlivy, Paralely, Tušení Společného / Prague–Tokyo: Exchanges, Parallels, Common Visions, pp. 8085.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/GWY2F


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