View of the Bedřich Feuerstein exhibition

Bedřich Feuerstein, Architect: Prague – Paris – Tokyo: Exhibition review

The history of architecture is littered with designers who, for various reasons, have disappeared from the record or have remained on the margins. One of the unfortunate architects to have suffered this fate was Bedřich Feuerstein (1892–1936), who is known primarily for the crematorium he designed in Nymburk. The exhibition of his work now at the Technical Museum in Prague is a welcome and long overdue event. The curator, Helena Čapková, has already published a book on Feuerstein’s work, and this exhibition is a crystallisation as well as a development of her earlier research on him.[1]

View of the Bedřich Feuerstein exhibition

Interior view of the exhibition Bedřich Feuerstein Architekt: Praha – Paříž – Tokyo – photo by author

Feuerstein was born in the small town in Dobrovice in central Bohemia, from where he went to Prague to study at the Technical Academy and then the Academy of Fine Arts, completing his education there in 1917 as a student of Jan Kotěra (1871–1923). He was drafted into military service as an engineer in Istria during the First World War. After the end of the war, he pursued what, at first sight, seemed a promising career for a young designer. This included work as set designer for the National Theatre, where he designed the scenography for the première of Karel Čapek’s (1890–1938) play R. U. R. (1921) and a paid study trip to Paris in 1924 where he gained work in the office of Auguste Perret (1874–1954), one of the most prominent architects working in Paris. In 1926 he moved to Japan, following in the paths of other Czech architects such as Jan Letzel (1880–1925) and Antonín Raymond (1888–1976). Whilst there, he designed his major work: the Hospital of St. Luke in Tokyo. He returned in 1930 to Czechoslovakia and undertook more scenographic design, working with the film-maker Vladislav Vančura (1891–1942) as well as with the Prague Free Theatre (Osvobozené divadlo), the avant-garde theatre best known as the platform from which Jan Werich (1905–1980) and Jiří Voskovec (1905–1981) launched their careers. He was also a member of the avant-garde group Devětsil and of the more established Mánes Art Society. For reasons that remain to be determined, he committed suicide in 1936.

Those unfamiliar with Feuerstein’s work will find that the exhibition gives a good overview of the diverse output of this versatile and gifted designer. It takes a broadly chronological approach, starting with childhood drawings, and Čapková should be congratulated for the careful archival work she has undertaken. The centrepiece of the exhibition is Feuerstein’s St. Luke’s Hospital, but the exhibition does justice to many other examples of his work, encompassing military uniforms, magazine covers, architectural designs, painting, film and theatrical scenography. It also presents a highly informative range of material from Japan associated with Feuerstein’s time there – including his kimonos – and helps flesh out a palpable sense of his activities while there.

Display case at the exhibition with kimono – photo by author

The visitor is thus offered a good survey of his life and work. Yet there are questions that one might have hoped it could attempt to answer. The first and most obvious one is how we can explain that fact that he has been so neglected. The exhibition gives a few clues, but without consciously addressing the issue head-on. Drawings predominate in the exhibition over finished works; most of his ideas never left the drawing-board; the only building design to be realised in Czechoslovakia was the Nymburk crematorium; with his other major project being in Tokyo, it has been difficult to establish how to fit him into narratives of architectural history. Consequently, for all its diversity, Feuerstein’s oeuvre was rather modest in scale, even taking into account his premature death. Yet this raises further questions. For example, we may wish to ask why he was unsuccessful. He submitted projects to many competitions, but in vain. At the very least, the reasons for this need to be recognised as a requiring discussion. He did not ever teach, which meant that he left no institutional imprint or students who might have wished to preserve his legacy in some way. In addition, while the diversity of his interests is understandably celebrated in the exhibition, it may have ultimately proven to be counter-productive, since he did not excel in any particular field. His energies and focus were too dispersed. He perhaps lacked the single-mindedness that characterised the work of so many of his contemporaries.

Bedrich Feuerstein exhibition

Interor view of the exhibition – photo by author

It seems, too, that Feuerstein suffered from the professional organisation of architectural work, and this is one of the powerful messages we get from the exhibition. To give one example, it includes several photographs of the theatre built for the International Exhibition of Modern and Decorative Arts held in Paris 1925. The theatre is formally attributed to Auguste Perret, but it was built at a time when Feuerstein was working for Perret. The exhibition suggests that he might take some credit for the design, but the lack of archival documentation makes it almost impossible to quantify his input. The same can be said of his work for Raymond in Japan, including St. Luke’s Hospital, for which he has traditionally taken the credit. Architectural design and construction has always been a collective effort, and Feuerstein, this exhibition suggests, deserves to be mentioned and recognised for these works.

The exhibition consequently raises a wider issue: the fact that histories of architecture still tend to focus on the ‘architect’ as a privileged figure. In the twentieth century this turned some into celebrities and it still affects how architecture is thought about, even now. The exhibition Czech Architecture from Art Nouveau to Today staged in Prague in 2021 and reviewed here exemplified this approach; star architects and their teachers, in a kind of patriarchal hierarchy were the focus of attention. When we consider the work of figures such as Feuerstein, we are reminded of the casualties of this approach: the assistants and builders lower down in the hierarchy whose work becomes almost invisible. To this we might add women architects, as a study on that theme just recently published reminds.[2]

We might thus thank Čapková’s exhibition for bringing to the fore an important question to do with the stories we construct about architecture, even if it does not do so explicitly.

Bedrich Feuerstein exhibition

The model of St. Luke’s Hospital at the exhibition – photo by author

Yet the exhibition is not without its own curious deficits. As one enters the gallery space one sees, at the far end of the room, an impressive model, built by David Vávra, of St. Luke’s hospital. The Museum obviously went to some expense to fund this meticulous, large-scale, recreation of the original design drawings that are exhibited nearby. It is therefore curious that there are almost no photographs of the building. In addition, we learn nothing of the circumstances of the project. We learn almost by accident, from a page of the Japan Times and Mail from 1927 that it was a symbol of American-Japanese friendship. If we wish to understand why, we have to look elsewhere and beyond the exhibition. In fact, there had been a St. Luke’s Hospital in Tokyo since 1902, built up by Rudolf Teusler, a medical physician who was a missionary for the American Episcopal Church. It was destroyed in the earthquake of 1923 and had to be rebuilt. It was a massive fund-raising effort in the United States that made this possible, hence the newspaper report.

However, this also stimulates our curiosity about certain issues. The exhibition makes much of Feuerstein’s presence in Japan. Given that this was an important aspect of his career and also distinguishes him from many other Czechoslovak architects, it is a well-grounded approach. A recent exhibition held in the Fragner Gallery in Prague documented the intermittent history of Czech-Japanese architectural exchange since 1920, yet what social role did Feuerstein assume (as well as other Czechs and westerners) whilst there? In the early twentieth century, Japan had emerged as a modernized country; it had defeated the Russian empire in the war of 1905 and had joined the First World War as an ally of Britain and France. This process of rapid transformation was associated with the process of westernisation, set in motion in the 1850s when American naval power compelled Japan to open up its markets to western trade. It was still underway in the 1920s. Europeans and Americans, as representatives of a hegemonic society, continued to play a role in providing technical and scientific expertise. Architects were no exception to this pattern.

Some still saw it as the dominating intrusion of a foreign culture. Only 20 years earlier, in 1903 and 1904, Kakuzō Okakura (1863–1913), dean of the School of Fine Arts in Tokyo, had published two books on the eve of the Russo-Japanese war that espoused a pan-Asian and Japanese nationalism that challenged the hegemony of western culture.[3] They were still popular two decades later. In the 1930s, Japanese militarism was informed by a mixture of resentment and jealousy of western power and control over Asia. How might we measure Feuerstein in this context? He was, of course, only in Japan for four years, and there may be no sources to cast any light on this. Nevertheless, it would have been helpful if the exhibition had tried to explore such questions. As a missionary institution, the hospital design included a tower topped with a cross, that owed much to Perret’s famous church of Notre Dame de Raincy, which had been completed in 1923. What did Feuerstein think of this overt display of Christian faith in Tokyo? What might that tell us of his sensibilities regarding the location of the project?

It may be that these kinds of questions are addressed in the forthcoming catalogue. Yet even if they are not, the exhibition performs an invaluable role in bringing to our attention the rich oeuvre of an unjustly marginalised figure in the history of Czechoslovak architecture.

Bedřich Feuerstein Architekt: Praha – Paříž – Tokio (National Technical Museum, Prague. 10 November 2021 to 15 May 2022)

Matthew Rampley

[1] Helena Čapková, Bedřich Feuerstein: Cesta do nejvýtvarnější země světa [A trip to the most creative country in the world] (Prague, 2014).

[2] Helena Huber-Doudová, Moderní žena – architekta / Modern woman – architect (Prague, 2022).

[3] Kakuzō Okakura, The Ideals of the East (London, 1903) and The Rise of Japan (New York, 1904).

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/54GSD

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