Bohuslav Fuchs Deml villa

Artwork of the Month, February 2022: The House of Jakub Deml by Bohuslav Fuchs (1921–22)

In the western outskirts of the provincial Moravian town of Tasov lies a picturesque three-storey house, set back from the road and distinguished from the surrounding buildings on a separate plot of land surrounded on all sides by greenery. It is not a very remarkable house, but it is noticeable because it is in a slightly elevated position and because the rest of the lane where it is situated is populated by modest single-storey cottages. Further enquiry reveals that it is the former house of the poet and writer Jakub Deml (1878–1961). Built in 1921–22, it is listed by the National Monument Institute as a protected cultural monument (registry no. ÚSKP 15415/7-3089). The house is listed, one assumes, less because of the significance of the design and rather more because its owner was one of the most prominent Czech authors of the first half of the twentieth century.

Bohuslav Fuchs Deml villa

Bohuslav Fuchs: The House of Jakub Deml, Tasov, 1921–22 – photo: National Heritage Institute

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the house, therefore, is the identity of its builder and designer: Bohuslav Fuchs (1895–1972). Fuchs was one of the most inventive architects working in the First Czechoslovak Republic. His work made a significant contribution to the implementation of modernist ideals in architecture, and he helped transform the city of Brno into a ‘capital’ of the Czechoslovak avant-garde.[1] It is therefore surprising to note that he was the author of this unassuming building.

The house is based on a traditional symmetrical ground plan, with a pitched gabled roof and extended dormer windows. The ground floor consists of rusticated stonework; the upper floors are plastered with moulded geometric linear decorations which, on the longer sides to the south and north, emphasise the windows, while, on the shorter east and west sides, their parallel forms stand in counterpoint to the triangular gable ends of the roof. The decorations evoke the ornamental forms of folk design, yet the simple formal vocabulary is distinctively modern. The house is generally identified as an example of the ‘national style,’ that project of creating a specifically ‘Czechoslovak’ architectural language, which was promoted after 1918, based on the revival of historic and vernacular building motifs but in a simplified, stripped down, form that was unmistakeably modern.[2]

Given this, we would not expect Fuchs to have designed a house for Deml, for in many respects they inhabited entirely different intellectual and cultural universes. Deml, a former priest, was part of the conservative Catholic intelligentsia that became increasingly estranged from the interwar Czechoslovak state. Fuchs, on the other hand, became part of the state apparatus; his involvement in architectural design and urban planning, albeit at municipal level, was an essential part of the modernization of the state. The puzzle presented by the house is evident in the fact that it is mostly ignored in the history of architecture. Studies of the architect say almost nothing about it; it may be included in the list of his works, but it has been the subject of very little meaningful commentary.[3] Only in publications for the general reader is it discussed at all.[4]

Bohuslav Fuchs, Klostermann Lodge

Bohuslav Fuchs: The Klostermann Lodge, Modrava, 1920 – photo: National Heritage Institute

The Deml house is one of a number of projects from the early 1920s, in which Fuchs deployed an architectural idiom that was heavily indebted to vernacular building traditions. One might include in this group projects such as the Klostermann Lodge in Modrava in southwestern Bohemia (1920), or the Ellen and Karel Pilhák villa in Háj u Mohelnice (1922), just to the northwest of Olomouc. These buildings occupy a marginal place in the literature on Fuchs. Jiří Kroupa has described the year 1925 as a turning point in his career, when Fuchs began experimenting with the constructivist ideas and principles that were beginning to circulate in Czechoslovakia, his first design being the Zeman café in Brno.[5] The works by Fuchs prior to that tend to attract little interest; his first design to merit any serious consideration is the Administrative Building of the Tauber company of 1923 in his home town of Bystřice pod Hostýnem near Zlín, which, with its simple unadorned geometries and use of brickwork to articulate structural and decorative features, indicate an interest in contemporary Dutch architecture. However, this was a short-lived phase in his career before he enthusiastically embraced the design principles and aesthetics of ‘functionalism.’

Bohuslav Fuchs The Zeman café

Bohuslav Fuchs: Zeman Café, Brno, 1925–26 – photo: Brno Architecture Manual

It is on this basis that he has featured in subsequent histories of Czechoslovak modernism.[6] His political commitments – Fuchs was involved in the Levá Fronta – also confirm the image of the architect as a member of the avant-garde.[7] His identity in this respect was established early on. Karel Teige readily acknowledged Fuchs’s importance; his book Modern Architecture in Czechoslovakia (1930) included illustrations of a number of the architect’s designs, although offering very little commentary on any of them.[8] In the same year, Zdeněk Rossmann edited a volume celebrating the first ten years of Fuchs’s work from 1919 to 1929.[9] Lavishly illustrated with photographs by Rudolf Sandalo, it was a manifesto of modern architecture, too. As Rossmann stated in the Introduction, ‘Modern architecture is determined by new materials that enable new, stronger, structures, a transformation of skills in the building industry and, most importantly, an elevation in the living standards of contemporary society.’[10] Fuchs, Rossmann argues, played a significant role in this process.

Bohuslav Fuchs The Tauber Building

Bohuslav Fuchs: Administrative Building of the Tauber company, Bystřice pod Hostýnem, 1923 – photo:

This view of Fuchs has become the orthodox interpretation, as a result of which some of his designs (such as the Hotel Avion, the Brno City Pavilion of the 1928 Exhibition of Contemporary Culture) have enjoyed disproportionate attention, while others are ignored or mentioned just in passing.[11] The house of Jakub Deml belongs to this latter category; it is difficult to fit into a narrative that emphasises Fuchs’s credentials as a member of the avant-garde.

Fuchs Hotel Avion

Bohuslav Fuchs: Hotel Avion, Brno, 1926–27 – photo: Brno Architecture Manual

It would be wrong to seek to counter this by exaggerating its value or originality as a work of architecture. It is an unremarkable building within the context of the national style, and it is not an overly impressive example of the oeuvre of Fuchs. Nevertheless, it merits further consideration, for it can cast an informative light on the young architect’s place in the cultural politics of the early decades of the twentieth century.

Deml had the house built following his decision to settle in Tasov, his birthplace, having for many years endured a nomadic existence. He had moved around constantly, first as a Catholic priest and later, after becoming alienated from the Church, as a poet and writer. In many respects he personified the rootless experience so often seen as characteristic of modernity. Yet where this rootlessness is often associated with the metropolis, it was, in Deml’s case, that of moving from one small town to another. The list of unfamiliar places he resided in: Kučerov, Babice u Lesonic, Stará Říše, Topoľčianky in Slovakia and Vrchlabí, makes this clear even if, on occasion, he also found himself in Vienna and Prague.[12]

His move to Tasov in 1921 was his final one, and he stayed there until his death in 1961. At the turn of the century Deml had been briefly associated with the Katolická moderna circle of intellectuals who were concerned with creating a form of Catholic cultural practice that could meet the challenges of modernity. Alongside their strong religious beliefs, associates of the circle were also interested in spiritual and mystical ideas. Deml saw himself as a ‘high priest’ of the Czech nation, leading it in a process of spiritual self-renewal. This was a common trope in the early twentieth century thinkers, but it had added depth due to his identity as a priest. Yet in contrast to many Catholic thinkers, he did not see the Church as fulfilling that role of spiritual leadership, and he became increasingly estranged from the Catholic church, critiquing it for being too close to the new state after 1918.

Deml expressed considerable scepticism towards the avant-garde embrace of Communism and mass culture.[13] He was also deeply patriotic – although it was a sacralised and metaphysical vision of the nation founded in his religious faith – and bemoaned the fact that, for many, patriotic pride was a matter of embarrassment, having been replaced by espousal of socialist and communist ideas.[14] Yet alongside this conservative outlook, he was increasingly drawn to various kind of formal experimentation in his writing; subsequent commentators have come to regard Deml as a symbolist, expressionist or even quasi-surrealist writer.

Deml had an active interest in the visual arts, cultivating friendships with various artists and writing on their work. It is not clear precisely when he first came into contact with Fuchs, but it is likely that it occurred when both were members of the Moravian artistic group Koliba (The Cottage). It was first established in 1914 in the small town of Frenštát pod Radhoštěm – although it later came to be based in Brno – and emerged out of a series of artistic groups that had been founded in the previous ten to fifteen years in provincial towns across Moravia and Moravian-Silesia, where Frenštát was located. It survived the disruptions of the First World War and quickly grew in size after 1918. Its aim was ‘the creation of a community of workers and the building up of collective domestic artisanal work, culture, art and craft.’[15] Much of the work of the artists associated with Koliba also had a marked religious character, with a notable reliance on Christian iconography, and this undoubtedly explains Deml’s attraction to the group. At the heart of its programme was a commitment to reviving vernacular culture but where, in the case of many similar groups, this had been linked to Czech nationalism, the idealised imagined community was that of Moravia and Moravian-Silesia. Its almanac of 1918, Kněhyně – named after the highest point in the Moravian-Silesian Beskyd mountains – was subtitled ‘The Word from the East’ (‘Slovo východu’) and its orientation was consciously regional and anti-Pragocentric. The group also sought to promote Slovak art and craft.

Fuchs became involved in the group in 1919, and in 1921 wrote a number of architectural reviews for its journal.[16] It is not entirely clear why Deml chose Fuchs’s design for his house; Čeněk Vořech, a slightly older and more experience contemporary of Fuchs, had also expressed an interest, and others had advised Deml to accept Vořech’s proposal.[17] Nevertheless, he chose Fuchs; in his later memoires he speaks warmly of the architect and suggests that it was he who had first proposed the idea of building a house in Tasov. It seems, too, that Fuchs was just much more enthusiastic about the idea and that this swayed Deml.[18] Clearly, the semi-rustic design was also in keeping with Deml’s general ideological outlook. I noted earlier that where the house is mentioned at all, it is categorised as an example of the ‘national style.’ However, given the ideological orientation of Koliba, it is likely that Fuchs’s design owed as much to the group’s commitment to vernacular Moravian design as it did to an architectural programme driven by figures based in Prague.

Koliba received a mixed reception in the Prague art world. The critic Bohumil Markalous (1882–1952), more usually known as an associate of Adolf Loos, wrote a withering assessment of its exhibition held in the Brno House of Art in 1920: ‘The Koliba exhibition in the House of Art is a modest, fair mediocre exhibition and there is nothing there that we might not see elsewhere, amongst similarly better or worse epigones. There is no formal novelty, nor chromatic sensation (surprisingly, it is a colourless exhibition), nor sensuality nor instinctual quality, nothing special, exotic or picturesque …’[19] In contrast, Emil Pacovský (1879–1948), editor of the Catholic art journal Veraikon, was immensely supportive. In addition to writing a highly positive article on the group he also allowed it to use the journal as its platform.[20] Kněhyně was first published as a supplement to the sixth volume of Veraikon and appeared again in the seventh, to be renamed Rozhled (Outlook) the following year, in 1922. Despite the negative response of Markalous and others, the group continued to gain followers, but a lack of organisation or clear direction meant that its energies were dissipated and by 1923 Koliba had ceased to exist.

The same year, Fuchs was appointed as an architect for the municipality of Brno, and he reinvented himself. His new position meant working on a larger scale, involving public housing and administration buildings as well as commissions for commercial patrons. The ideals of Koliba, focused on provincial small town and village life, were unsuited to such projects. It may also be that Fuchs recognised that the group and its ideals had a limited lifespan. Just as the national style came to be rejected by the mid-1920s, so Fuchs, too, moved on from this earlier set of ideological commitments. The buildings he designed from the mid-1920s onwards hardly bear comparison with the house in Tasov, yet there are certain continuities. Writing on Fuchs in 1926, Oldřich Starý suspected he was not fully committed to the collectivist ethic of the most progressive architecture; Fuchs was, he stated, ‘always in danger of giving into false impulses or the influences of tradition. He understands architecture to be individualistic expression.’[21] This reluctance fully to embrace mass production bears the echo of the Koliba ethic as does Fuchs’s regionalism, for it is remarkable that his extensive oeuvre consists of buildings almost entirely built in Moravia. Moreover, many of them are in small provincial towns, such as Bystřice pod Hostýnem, Luhačovice, Třebíč, Trenčianské Teplice, Znojmo and Uherské Hradiště. In this respect, Fuchs’s work can be compared with that of another architect who was based in Brno: Dušan Jurkovič (1868–1947), who likewise gained a reputation as a champion of regionalism and provincialism.

In 1930 the philosopher and sociologist Josef Ludvík Fischer (1894–1973) published a study of regionalism that argued for its value as a means of contesting the centralisation of the cultural authority in Prague and of revitalising national cultural life.[22] In so doing, he raised an issue that had much wider ramifications for, as Mary Heimann has argued, the reluctance of successive Prague administrations after 1918 to devolve their authority and decentralise their powers, became one of the running sores of the body politic that contributed to its eventual demise.[23]

This brings us some way away from the house in Tasov. Nevertheless, the foregoing considerations demonstrate how an unremarkable house in a small provincial town can prompt discussion about the larger cultural dynamics of interwar Czechoslovakia. Equally, it draws attention to an aspect of the work of a leading architect that has tended to be overlooked. The reasons for the latter are various but they are undoubtedly connected to the image of Fuchs as the architect of the avant-garde. It is difficult to reconcile that account with the idea of Fuchs as the collaborator of the alienated Catholic priest-cum-modernist writer. Yet to do so reminds us that the landscape of modern culture in Czechoslovakia was complex and multi-layered, in which sometimes the most unlikely alliances were to be found.

Matthew Rampley

This is an edited English version of a text originally published as ‘Regionalismus v moderní architectuře: dům Jakuba Demla,’ in Jan Galeta, Ondřej Jakubec, Radka Nokkala Miltová and Tomáš Valeš, eds, Od Dějin Umění k Uměleckému Dílu: Cesty k Porozumění Vizuální Kultuře (Brno, 2022) pp. 377–84.

[1] Jaroslav Střítecký, ‘Brno – die tschechoslovakische Hauptstadt der Moderne?’ in Střítecký, Studie a stati: 1 (Brno, 2017) pp. 44-53.

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

[3] Zdeněk Kudělka discusses the house briefly in an essay on Fuchs’s early work, but only to categorise it as a ‘relief’ from the architect’s work in urban planning. Kudělka, ‘Počátky architektonické tvorby B. Fuchse,’ Sborník prací filosofické fakulty brněnské university 13.8 (1964) p. 231

[4] See Jan Sedlák, ed., Slavné vily kraje Vysočina (Prague, 2008) pp. 81-83.

[5] Jiří Kroupa, ‘Bohuslav Fuchs (1895–1972) (úvodní projev na výstavě v brněnském Domě umění, 4 září 1995),‘ Sborník prací Filozofické fakulty brněnské univerzity: Řada uměnovědná (F) 45.40 (1997) pp. 131–135.

[6] See, for example, Otakar Nový, Česká architektonická avantgarda (Prague, 2015) pp. 310–26.

[7] Iva Gajdošíková, ‘Avantgarda jako kritika, akce a politika: Politická orientace brněnské avantgardy – její projevy a důsledky,’ Sborník prací Filozofické fakulty brněnské university: Řada filmologická 2.2 (2005) p. 116.

[8] See Karel Teige, Moderní architektura v Československu (Prague: Odeon, 1930) pp. 191-206. Fuchs appears in the roll-call of honour of functionalism in Teige’s later (1947) text on this theme, but no detailed analysis or interpretation is supplied. Teige, ‘Moderní architektura v Československu,’ in Teige, Osvobozování života a poezie: studie ze 40. Let (Prague, 1994) p. 226.

[9] Zdeněk Rossmann, architekt bohuslav fuchs 1919-1929: přehled architektovy tvorby za 10 let (Basel, 1930).

[10] Rossmann, ‘Úvodem,’ in architekt bohuslav fuchs, p. 5.

[11] See, for example, Zdeněk Kudělka, Bohuslav Fuchs (Prague, 1966); Mihály Kubinszky, Bohuslav Fuchs (Berlin, 1986); Iloš Crhonek, Bohuslav Fuchs: Celoživotní dílo (Brno, 1995); Adolph Stiller, ed. Bohuslav Fuchs, 1895-1972: Architekt der tschechischen Avant-Garde (Salzburg, 2010).

[12] As Jindřich Chalupecký has noted, modernism is usually regarded as the art of the city; Deml’s modernism was of the small town, but the themes of alienation, dismay at modernity and the search for authenticity were no different. Chalupecký, Expresionisté: Richard Weiner, Jakub Deml, Ladislav Klima, Podivný Hašek (Prague, 1992) p. 81.

[13] Jakub Deml, ‘Americké houpačky,’ in Deml, Česno (Tasov, 1924) pp. 7–8.

[14] Jakub Deml, Katolický sen (Tasov, 1932) p. 12.

[15] Emil Pacovský, František Tučný, Bohuslav Pavliska and Karel Handzel, ‘Stanovy Koliby, obce umělecké tvorby’ in Šopák, ed., Koliba: Programy, texty, korespondence, p. 229.

[16] These are reprinted in Šopák, ed., Koliba: Programy, texty, korespondence, pp. 73–76.

[17] Pavel Šopák, Koliba (Opava, 2004) p. 103.

[18] Jakub Deml, Mé svědectví o Otokaru Březinovi (Olomouc, 1994) p. 211 and 213.

[19] Bohumil Markalous, ‘Koliba II,’ Lidové Noviny , 25 March 1920, p. 9.

[20] Emil Pacovský, ‚ „Koliba.“ Obec umělecké tvorby na Moravě,’ Veraikon 7.7-8 (1921) pp. 67–80.

[21] Oldřich Starý, ‘Česká moderná architektura,’ Stavba 4 (1925–1926) p. 196.

[22] J. L. Fischer, Kultura a regionalismus (Brno, 1930).

[23] Mary Heiman, Czechoslovakia: the State that Failed (Cambridge, MA, 2011).

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/6MK2Y

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply