Built in 1928 on one of the slopes of Zlín’s hilly and quite bare landscape, the family home of Berty and Fanuška Ženatý became known as The American House. It was a replica of a house that the couple owned in the United States, where they had lived and worked for a few years. The villa was rebuilt in the new location upon the wish of the manufacturer Tomáš Baťa (1876–1932) for whom it was meant to serve as a model house that could be easily replicated for the employees of his factories.
The house stands on a square ground plan, has two floors and a flat roof. Its basic cubic shape is reminiscent of the architectural language of other red brick houses by Baťa in Zlín which grew here quickly around this time together with new factories and administration buildings.
The American House nevertheless differs in some details of the exterior, including the addition of large veranda windows or chimney shafts, visible in the outer walls. The most original part of it is the interior and its layout, which, together with the novel building technologies was meant to inspire a new, more efficient and hygienic living. The interior layout and equipment were executed in ‘an American way’ and promoted two things: a different way of construction and a different culture of living. Yet both proved hard to gain wider popularity for reasons that will be discussed below.
The brick model house was designed by Berty Ženatý (1889–1981) and his wife Františka (1895–?), who do not often figure in the histories of modern architecture beyond Zlín. Berty Ženatý, a Czech journalist, engineer, architect and sports organiser, is usually listed as the architect, although it is not entirely clear to what extent he only modified an existing American model house. What is clear is that his wife Františka, also called Fanuška, had a big role in the house’s interior layout and distribution of some of the household amenities. This influence was acknowledged by Berty and came out strongly in the writings of them both. Here, therefore, it is important to credit both Berty and Fanuška as authors of the house. This blog, as well as other publications, has already discussed the marginalisation of women’s contribution in collaborative projects. While Fanuška’s involvement in the project will be discussed in this article, additional issues surrounding the American House also deserve attention. One of the key ones is the promotion of American culture in Czechoslovakia by the use of architecture and interior design and its intimate connection with the entrepreneurial environment in Zlín.
While very little is known about Fanuška, there is more information – although not plenty –on Berty. He was born Adalbert Hans Ženatý, his first name sometimes appearing in the Czech form Vojtěch. He adopted his childhood nickname Berty, which must have been easier to pronounce abroad and did not have any German connotations. He grew up in Brno, where he studied construction engineering. After serving in the First World War, he moved to the United States around 1919 where he settled for several years and married Fanuška. While working for a power plant in Rochester, he started writing short articles about various aspects of American life, which he sent to Czechoslovakia to be published in the daily newspaper Lidové noviny. This is most probably how Tomáš Baťa encountered him and started corresponding with him; eventually he began to use Berty’s access to industrial information. Berty was asked to purchase literature on road construction in the USA, for example, or to acquire plans of hotels and modern schools or drawings of skyscrapers and send them to Zlín. It was around 1927 that Berty visited the town for the first time, and he was impressed by Baťa’s global aspirations. He also accepted a position of an editor in chief in the company weekly magazine Sdělení (Announcements) and moved to the town with Fanuška.
Sdělení had already published some of Berty’s essays from America that provided further insights into the life in the USA. Here, and in the articles in Lidové noviny, he covered a wide range of topics on life in large cities and in the countryside, from immigration and crime fighting to the power of journalism, advertising and modes of transport. He eventually published them in a two-volume book under the title Země pruhů a hvězd (The Land of Stripes and Stars, 1927).
In his short essays, Berty also paid increasing attention to American lifestyles. He thereby painted a vivid, yet largely idealised and selective picture of middle-class life in America. On the one hand, he admired American suburban houses and spent a considerable time describing the various types. On the other, he showed no sympathy towards beggars, whom he saw as deceitful and dishonest. He therefore lacked a more critical attention to the American ways of life provided by publications by more left-leaning Czech authors like Marie Majerová (1882–1967), Egon Erwin Kisch (1885–1948) or Adolf Hoffmeister (1902–1973).
Ženatý’s motivation for his articles was more libertarian and he tried to entice people in Czechoslovakia to follow the American model. This fitted into a more general enthusiasm for the USA that was typical of Czechoslovakia in the first half of the 1920s, and it included emulation of American economic, manufacturing and cultural practices. President Masaryk was inspired by the American system of democracy and fostered close links with many politicians and industrialists in the United States, motivated in part by the fact that his wife Charlotte was an American citizen. On a more popular level, America penetrated everyday life in advertising, cars or cinema.
For Berty, the American way of life was an inspiration in building practices and architectural layouts, as well as in the distribution of the roles of various individuals in society and family. With Fanuška he advocated emancipation of women outside and within the home, which was another inspiration from America. For them, it was part and parcel of modern living, partly enabled by the amenities and facilities that were made indispensable part of the household.
The culture of living
Fanuška Ženatá also wrote on the improvements of family lives for Czech magazines like Pestrý týden (The Colourful Week) and Sdělení. She offered ideas and recommendations on interior design and furnishing, based on her own experience from the USA. She was critical of the practice according to which women accepted the ‘culture of living’ from male architects who gave little thought to different aspects of the home:
‘Builders and architects, craftsmen and law makers should subject the methods of their work to the instructions of women.’ Like the German architect Bruno Taut, she argued for better planning and design of houses based on consultation with women in order to meet their needs. The different rooms should be connected in a logical way, the distribution system (water, electricity, ventilation) need to be considered, and the ease of house maintenance taken into account. In this way, a house should be constructed from the inside out, the emphasis should fall on the interior rather than the exterior.
Fanuška also offered practical recommendations for the layout based on the American House. Her fullest description of it appeared in the book Americké domečky (American Homes, 1931) in which Berty also reviewed some seventy houses and their plans, which he had inspected in the USA. They were of various sizes, at various levels of affordability. Here, Berty included advice on the choice of land and emphasised the importance of chalets with the general aim of promoting healthy living through the so-called ‘domečkové myšlení’ (‘small houses ideology’). There was also a clear stress on home ownership, which partly reflected the ‘small but ours’ mentality in interwar Czechoslovakia as well as a general tendency towards individual ownership.
In Americké domečky, Fanuška explained how their house was laid out and how others should be modelled on it to provide comfortable living for the whole family. First, there should be a welcoming porch with a glass door, not a wooden one with a tiny, uninviting peek hole. The door leads to a small but bright hallway with views of the front room and kitchen. This was the strategic point of the entire house with a stove, workspace, sink and a fridge that is filled with ice from the outside. The large central sink in the kitchen was the crucial improvement as it was used for a large amount of tasks from peeling to washing up with hot and cold running water. The sink and the entire kitchen were the ‘laboratory of the household,’ yet not an exclusive domain of the woman. ‘Men, beware!’ she warned the male counterparts directly. ‘You have surely read about American men helping with the dishes. It made your hair stand on end. But do look at our working setup. There are no buckets or smelly cloths… The “horrific process” of washing up looks like this. The woman sits down by the sink on a stool on the right… the man sits on the left.’ Fanuška then continues to describe an elaborate distribution of labour step by step, going into such detail as to pointing out which hand is doing what and when. The economization of living, promoted by the couple, therefore also included the economization of housework that can be seen as directly informed by Taylorism, with its division of tasks amongst individuals. In the home environment, the tasks could be divided amongst the woman and the man and finished more quickly. In Fanuška’s case, this shows awareness of the contemporary trends in the economics of movement especially in the kitchen, discussed in the USA and increasingly in Czechoslovakia.
Moving on with the description, Fanuška noted that the kitchen lead into the dining room which was connected with the front room and opened into the conservatory. Another important part of the house was the cellar which needed to be located under the entire house. It also should be bright and dry, she pointed out, because here the woman did the laundry, ironing, as well as food preserving and food storing. The man, according to Fanuška, would tend the fire in the cellar but it was also here where he could engage in leisure activities: put up his boxing ball, fitness expanders, or a golf practice net. The housework sharing outlined in the kitchen therefore didn’t reach the other floors; emancipation had its limits and did not fully challenge the traditional division of labour.
This principle extended to the first floor of the house, which led to a small hallway with doors to three bedrooms. One bedroom opened to the balcony for sleeping in the summer, while the bathroom had a shaft for laundry that could be sent down to the cellar. The upper floor was accessible by a wide enough staircase which allowed the woman to walk up and down many times a day comfortably. The huge number of steps a woman needed to make every day around the house was a frequent topic of women’s magazines as well as advertisements. Solutions were offered by various scientific studies on the economy of movement or by simply widening the staircase. One improvement in this regard was proposed by the company Baťa that recommended comfortable Baťa slippers for women’s tired legs.
The link between Baťa’s ideology of living and the ideas of the Ženatýs was very close. Tomáš Baťa and his half-brother Jan Antonín were also fascinated by many aspects associated with the USA, such as speed, high-rise buildings, motorisation and mass production. They embraced both Taylorism and Fordism in their company to increase effectivity of manufacture and decrease costs through mass production. Moreover, the ideas of Taylorism penetrated the architecture of Baťa’s Zlín too in a way similar to Le Corbusier’s attempts for standardisation of architectural elements and their repetition. The emphasis on speed and affordability in production and construction was shared by Baťa and the Ženatýs who aimed to offer standardised houses as well as standardised living and life.
Technology and business
The Ženatý house was therefore also an exercise in finding quicker and more affordable construction processes. It was built in brick, not timber, which would be the more common material for such a house. However, timber was unavailable in large quantities at the time and instead Berty used an innovative brick veneer. On the inside, the bricks were covered by horizontal wooden slats, in a way that oriented strand boards are used nowadays, and then plastered over. This allowed insulation by air between the two layers and quick drying of the paint. As a result, the house was inhabitable more quickly than one where paint would need to dry off for several weeks. And, as Berty emphasised, this meant that rent could be charged sooner. Moreover, the inner walls and ceilings were hollow, allowing for wires and pipes to be hidden efficiently in them.
The house also featured sash windows, which Berty called ‘American’ and which were rather unusual for Czechoslovakia where casement windows were most common. The argument for them was that they required little fitting and didn’t let a draft in. They were also easier to wash, were affordable, did not occupy space when opened and therefore furniture could be pushed close to them. The doors were also ‘American style,’ because they were made of lighter material. This made them less expensive and they could be fitted in much more quickly. The American way of building displayed, according to Berty, ‘more wisdom than sweat, more ingenuity than bricks, more skilfulness than outdated laws.’ He also emphasised the fact that the economy of new technology and increase of speed of construction did not compromise the quality of the house.
American dream homes
‘Buy the American house no. 731 from the Alladin [sic!] catalogue and send it to Zlín,’ Tomáš Baťa requested from Berty in 1927. Berty therefore arranged the supply of a timber bungalow from the catalogue of the Aladdin company from the USA to Zlín for Baťa. The entrepreneur hoped that a display of such an easily-constructed house would lead to a simple catalogue-based sale of such dwellings. The house arrived in the way an IKEA purchase would today – flat packed with all the nuts and bolts, paints and rolled-up roofing in boxes. The Alladin was put together by Rudolf Švácha, a construction engineer based in Chicago, who also worked for Baťa for a couple of years. He later supervised the construction of the Ženatý villa using corresponding (American) ways.
The plans for a catalogue sale of timber bungalows in Zlín did not come to fruition and the villa of the Ženatýs was also not replicated as planned, for reasons one can only speculate about. It might have been the lack of timber, the most suitable material for these houses, the lack of appropriate building skills, but also the departure of the Ženatýs from Zlín in 1931 or the demise of Tomáš Baťa in 1932. Both model houses nevertheless tried to address the continuing need for accommodation for large amounts of workers in both the city and in the entire country.
Berty and Fanuška and, to a great extent, Baťa too, primarily promoted the building of detached or semi-detached family houses that were, ultimately, anything but affordable for all. Their attempts therefore failed to answer the contemporary calls for new solutions to the lack of suitable accommodation that so many leftist architects, designers and theorists in Czechoslovakia issued. The housing crisis in cities, which could be dated back to the industrial revolution, was thus far from improved in the interwar period. The growing number of low-paid workers combined with the rise of population and the impact of the global economic collapse of the late 1920s, only exacerbated the need for inexpensive, clean living for large parts of the population. Baťa’s solution in Zlín had its limits and the accommodation the company provided came with very strict limitations and rules.
Sharp criticism of these solutions, whether direct or indirect, appeared quickly. While standardisation was a mantra many avant-garde designers and architects used in order to cut down costs of production, the ideal of the avant-garde was in collective rather than individualised living. The most pronounced and best known example of such critique is Karel Teige’s (1900–1951) treatise Nejmenší byt (The Minimum Dwelling, 1932), in which he condemned the obsession with the “small houses ideology” and described it as a typical solution of the housing problem by the petit bourgeoisie. The setup of such a house, he argued, only reinforced the subordinate position of the woman in the household and did not take into account the class divisions in Czechoslovakia. He saw the trend of single houses as closely connected with America where the so-called workers aristocracy had better economic conditions than the middle classes and working intelligentsia in Czechoslovakia. Similar to for example Red Vienna, collective living in apartment blocks with shared facilities like laundries, nurseries and kitchens was promoted in Czechoslovakia by the likes of Teige. To him, the shared economy of housework made more sense. Baťa, on the other hand, more in favour of individualism, offered shared accommodation only to young men and women undergoing training or to single men in the so-called svobodárny (bachelors’ apartments). The houses, on the other hand, were built for families or married couples in units of one to four apartments with their own facilities.
Despite the opposing solutions to the housing crisis, Teige and his avant-garde colleagues never engaged with Baťa’s expansive building efforts directly. Their silence was most probably explicit enough. The two fronts were indeed united in their attempt to improve general living conditions through standardisation and economisation, yet they drew on disparate sources. For the leftist avant-garde, it was the Soviet Union and collectiveness, for the entrepreneurs like Baťa and Ženatý it was the individualism of the United States.
The Ženatýs did not live in their American House for long and moved to Prague in the early 1930s. While no further information can be found about Fanuška, Berty continued working for large corporations, including Koh-I-Noor of Jindřich Waldes, a large haberdashery and textiles manufacturer. Thanks to him, the couple returned to the USA shortly before the Second World War where they stayed. Yet before they left, Berty designed three more family homes in Olomouc in the early 1930s, which also used some of the American features of the Zlín model house. More generally, however, Berty’s promotion of new construction technologies and materials did not come to much. Fanuška’s calls for designing houses from the interior to the outside and for consulting women on the layout and distribution of space in Czechoslovakia fell equally flat. Their attempts to introduce American lifestyle and culture of living to their homeland therefore failed. By the early 1930s, the enthusiasm for all things American in Czechoslovakia started fading, while in Zlín Jan Antonín Baťa, the successor of Tomáš Baťa, moved on to other projects. The American House in Zlín thus stands as a lonely witness, alongside its near neighbour, the Alladin bungalow, to a brief period of enthusiasm for one specific aspect of modernism, found in the rationalisation, economisation and standardisation of living and domestic life.
 Berty Ženatý, ‘Popis domku‘ [Description of the house], Pestrý týden, 23 February 1929, p. 14.
 Lucie Šmardová, ‘Berty Ženatý,’ Zlínský architektonický manual.
 Berty Ženatý, ‘Jak jsem se dostal do Zlína’ [How I ended up in Zlín], Sdělení zaměstnanců firmy T. a A. Baťa [Communication from employees of the company T. and A. Baťa] 11, 27 October 1928, p. 6.
 Berty Ženatý, Země pruhů a hvězd [Land of stripes and stars], vols I–II (Prague, 1927).
 Marie Majerová, Dojmy z Ameriky [Impressions from America] (Prague, 1920); Egon Erwin Kisch, E. E. Kisch dovoluje si předvésti Americký ráj [EEK takes the liberty to introduce the American paradise] (Prague, 1930); Adolf Hoffmeister, Americké houpačky [American swings] (Prague, 1937).
 F. B. Ženatá, Americké obydlí, Pestrý týden, 9 February 1929, p. 14.
 Bruno Taut, Die neue Wohnung: Die Frau als die Schöpferin (Leipzig, 1924).
 Berty Ženatý and Fanuška Ženatá, Americké domečky [American houses] (Prague, 1931).
 Fanuška Ženatá, ‘Laboratoř domácnosti’ [Household laboratory], Pestrý týden, 28 September 1929, p. 23.
 Frederick Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (New York, 1911).
 Martina Pachmanova, ‘Čtyři stěny: domestikovaná žena’ [Four walls: The domesticated woman], in Civilizovaná žena: Ideál i paradox prvorepublikové vizuální kultury [Civilized woman: The ideal and the paradox of the visual culture of the First Republic] (Prague, 2021) pp. 161–205.
 ‘Kolik kilometrů ujde žena v kuchyni?’ [How many kilometers does a woman walk in the kitchen?] Zlín, 14 June 1937, p. 4.
 Berty Ženatý in questionnaire ‘Ach! Pod vlastním krovem, čili můj dům, můj hrad’ [Ah! Under my own roof, that is my house, my castle], Pestrý týden, 23 February 1929, p. 14.
 Berty Ženatý, ‘Jak jsem se dostal do Zlína,’ p .6.
One thought on “Artwork of the Month, August 2022: The American House by Berty and Fanuška Ženatý (1928)”
A fascinating story. The house I grew up in Ottawa in the 1950s bears out much that is said here about “the American house”. Our house – made of brick – was built in the 1920s, and the layout was very similar to that of the Zenaty house – the same front door with a large glass window, the same bright entrance hall with views of the kitchen and the front room (the living room), the same dining room at the back, accessed from both the kitchen and the living room, the same verandah at the back (though in our case entered from the kitchen, and not open, though the windows were removable, to be replaced by screens in the summer). The upper floor was a bit different, with four rooms instead of three, and the bathroom located at the end of the upper hall. But again – a veranda led from one of the bedrooms, where my brother and I looked forward to sleeping from late April or May till October.
In other respects the house was like the two other “American houses” you depict. The front porch wasn’t the small appendage of the Zenaty house, but almost exactly like the full-blooded porch of the Alladin, suited for sitting out on hot summer evenings (most Europeans don’t realize that eastern Canada is hot and very humid in the summer). And the roof wasn’t flat, but the type shown in the advertisements for “Americke domy”.
The point here is that our house was very much like other houses in the neighbourhood – they all had similar layouts, with the elements combined in different ways. There truly was a (North) American style.