Lost In Czech Modern Architecture: Exhibition review

Prague Castle has become a distinctive symbol of the way that the built environment can be appropriated by political power. In such a prominent setting, linked with a long tradition of feudal sovereigns and presidents, any architectural exhibition is therefore a notable affair. The current exhibition of Czech Architecture from Art Nouveau to Today (the Czech title is slightly different: Česká moderní architektura od secese dnešku) installed in the old Riding School of Prague Castle attempts to tell one general story, but in so doing it seems to reveal more than the curators, in fact, intended.

Any exhibition is capable of conveying a variety of messages. This was the case in 1996 when, in the course of Václav Havel´s presidency, a vast project showcased the architect Jože Plečnik (1872–1957) under the title Josip Plečnik: The Architect of Prague Castle. In the mid 1990s, a team of local and international art historians reinvented Plečnik as the authoritative figure able to translate principles of democracy to modern times. In an era when democracy was re-established in Czechoslovakia (and, subsequently, the Czech Republic) the curators emphasized Plečnik’s heroic input in positioning the republic among the new democracies of Europe.

Twenty-five years after the ground-breaking exhibition on Plečnik, the time is ripe for introducing a newly interpretation of the Czech past. Some of the curators of the new exhibition remain identical to those involved in the Plečnik project, and there is a sense that this explicit continuity is mirrored in the fact that this new exhibition struggles to communicate any significant shift in perspective or thinking. Thus, the exhibition is not the cutting-edge manifesto of a new generation but rather, perhaps, a swan song closing the post Velvet Revolution epoch.

Exhibition interior view

Interior view of the exhibition Czech Architecture from Art Nouveau to Today – photo: Vendula Hnídková

The curators aimed to summarise Czech modern architecture in five chapters. This may work in a book. In an exhibition, however, it is a task demanding two key things: insightful content paralleled by an analogously sophisticated exhibition design. The official introductory text lists the five topics as: (1) Icons of Czech architecture; (2) 150 years of Jan Kotěra; (3) Prague Modern Architecture; (4) Modern architecture in the Czech Regions; (5) Architecture after the Velvet Revolution. The rationale for organising the exhibition into these themes is not clear.

Trying to blend five separate narratives can make it difficult to articulate an overall message. In this respect, it is questionable whether the average visitor can digest the diverse and often contradictory ideas briefly mentioned in the show. But given its somewhat unfocused character, the exhibition is also confusing to those who are familiar with the field of Czech architecture. In order to make the exhibition accessible to a broad audience, the curators have employed an appealing range of media including black-and-white and colour images, architectural models, interior designs, and moving pictures. One common feature often used in showcasing architecture, the plans, is absent apart from a few exceptions.

Yet, this accessibility has its limits. The first obstacle faces the visitor instantly by the entrance. The exhibition design does not provide any help on how to access and consume the displayed artefacts. Next to the absence of any navigation, there is an overwhelming mass of assembled objects and images. Their physical presence, coupled with only limited light, is so intense that it nearly prevents the visitor from entering the hall. This impressive quantity of material is also emphasized in the introduction panel: ‘More than 500 of the most important buildings and 300 architects active in our territory from the end of the 19th century to the 2020s are presented over an area of 2,000 square feet.’ But pointing out numbers alone does not really help the visitor understand the ideas underpinning the enterprise.

An initial misleading issue is the ambiguity in the name of the exhibition and its English translation. Whereas the English title, Czech architecture from Art Nouveau to today, suggests a simple timeline of local development, the Czech one adds the promising word ‘modern’. The adjective suggests a more insightful and focused approach, but the exhibition does not meet this expectation. Renouncing any explanation, the curators lost an opportunity to explain how they understand the keyword ‘modern’ that shaped the twentieth-century art world and society. Reluctant to articulate any critical insights, they open up the field of architecture to be truly inclusive of anything. But is it not obvious that this is a key objective, and in this sense, the exhibition remains vague as to its purpose.

Czech Architecture from Art Nouveau to Today, Prague Castle

Interior view of the exhibition – photo: Vendula Hnídková

A section dedicated to Jan Kotěra (1871–1923) occupies a central position in the Riding School. This might have been conceived as emphasising Jan Kotěra´s pioneering achievement in shaping Czech ‘modern’ architecture and as paying tribute to this architect; 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. Placing Kotěra in the centre of the show overtly accents his work and legacy. Highlighting his prominence only reinforces the enduringly influential narrative of the hero architect such as that outlined by Ayn Rand in her famous novel The Fountainhead. But Rand´s book was published in 1943, and there is high time to depart from such outdated assessments.

The supposed ‘core’ of Czech architecture, anchored in the work of Jan Kotěra, is expanded in the exhibition by the section dedicated to the ‘Icons of Czech architecture.’ This is an arbitrary selection of so-called iconic buildings, but instead of the buildings prominence is given to their designers. Thus, the ‘icon’ is not a particular structure but its ‘starchitect,’ though often the figures mentioned are of local importance and limited credit. Since the biographical data on each architect consistently names their places of education and their chief teacher(s) (and this was often Kotěra in the case of the first generation to be featured) the exhibition is delineating a seemingly undisputed succession of masters and pupils. Yet one part of this section does not fit this superficial genealogy: the foreign architects who left their imprint on Czech soil.

The dominant Czech narrative also seems hesitant to give much consideration to Germans, female architects, and architects of Jewish descent. A random listing of selected names does not efficiently incorporate them into the canon. This is the point where one might have hoped the curators would take the lead and give due recognition to these newly acknowledged actors.

Czech Architecture from Art Nouveau to Today, Prague Castle

Interior view of the exhibition – photo: Vendula Hnídková

Largely ignoring the social, economic, and political aspects of architecture, the exhibitions displays projects and buildings entirely separately from everyday life, as if they stood above it. The architecture in the show is not a matter of ideas but a mere list of icons and iconic authors. Yet, the grounds of selection are not clear and some visitors might be confused since the five themes are not explained or outlined. The exhibition design only amplifies the ambiguities of spatial delimitation. In this respect, some local patriots might even be offended by the show. What sort of message is being sent when a vast picture of the Electricity Works Headquarters in Prague literally overshadows a tiny panel dedicated to Brno? Or how should one interpret the fact that the section on the South Bohemian Region is introduced with a vast picture of Adolf Loos’s Müller House in Prague?

Apart from these unintentionally amusing contradictions, the most contested issue arises from the sections on ‘Icons of Czech architecture’ and ‘Architecture after the Velvet Revolution.’ In this latter section the exhibition largely consists of vast development projects transforming the urban landscape. This fact is uncritically exemplified in the fact that the models bear just the names of the most powerful developers. At this point it seems that the curators lack sufficient critical distance from the corporate authorities that have and are still heavily reshaping the built environment.

Czech Architecture from Art Nouveau to Today, Prague Castle

Interior view of the exhibition – photo: Vendula Hnídková

There is a further point at which the logic of the exhibition is open to interrogation. Specifically, it couples established pre-war and post-war ‘icons’ with contemporary architects, but this simplifies the complex history of architecture in the Czech lands and is questionable for one very important reason:  by defining a compact list of architects (including some contemporary authors) as ‘icons,’ the exhibition is not only giving in to the shallow cult of celebrity, but is also highly speculative. It contributes to the legitimization of the activities of some architects who otherwise do not have much prominence in the field. Is this the curators’ main argument?

Czech Architecture from Art Nouveau to Today, Prague Castle

Detail from a display at the the exhibition – photo: Vendula Hnídková

Last but not least: Prague Castle is one of the main destinations for foreign tourists in the Czech Republic. It is striking that with the exception of the first panel introduction, the texts in the exhibition are exclusively in Czech and in no other language. Moreover, the official website of Prague Castle does not disseminate any information about the show in English. It says in the section on exhibitions: ‘Currently no events.’ Is the show intended solely for a local audience?

The exhibition Czech architecture from Art Nouveau to Today names as its fundamental predecessors shows on architecture staged in 1935, 1940, 1953, 1967, 1978, and 2001. It was perhaps not wise to mention this genealogy, for this show definitely remains the least important among them.

Vendula Hnídková

Czech Architecture from Art Nouveau to Today, Prague Castle, 31 August to 31 October 2021

Vendula Hnídková is a researcher at the Institute of Art History, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague.

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