Metaphors of Progress: Hygiene and Purity in Czechoslovak Architecture

‘The most important elements of modern architecture? Hygiene: air, light, cleansing, airing, heating, artificial lighting.’[1]

With these words the Czech architect and critic Oldřich Starý (1884-1971) sought to identify the central features of the most progressive architecture in the 1920s. Starý’s claim clearly should be viewed in the context of interwar architectural thinking in Czechoslovakia. However, at the time of writing in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic has already cost tens of thousands of people their lives, and has brought advanced economies across the globe to a grinding halt, Starý’s belief in hygiene may well be the object of a renewed interest.

Starý was writing in the 1920s, and he and his contemporaries played an important role in making Czechoslovakia into a leading laboratory for the latest ideas in architecture. Already it was possible to see in Prague and other Czechoslovak cities new buildings taking shape which, employing new construction technologies, foregrounded the new preoccupation with light, air and artificial lighting. In 1923, work had started on Jaromír Krejcar’s (1895-1950) Olympic shopping and office block, the front façade of which presented the passer-by with a wall of glass, while the following year saw the beginning of the construction of the monumental Trade Fair Palace, which, with its extensive ribbons of windows, was admired by no less a figure than Le Corbusier. The preoccupation with lighting culminated, perhaps, in Prague’s Bílá Labuť (White Swan) department store by Josef Kittrich (1901-68) and Josef Hrubý (1906-88), which opened its doors in 1939.

Oldrych Tyl and Josef Fuchs: The Trade Fair Palace (Veletržní Palác), Prague

Oldrych Tyl and Josef Fuchs: The Trade Fair Palace (Veletržní Palác), Prague, 1924-29 – photo:

The idea of hygiene was central to the new conception of architectural design. Krejcar also stressed its importance a year after Starý, while a statement on the ‘Principles of the New Architecture’ by the editorial board of the radical architectural journal Stavba, published in the same volume in which Starý’s essay appeared, likewise made it a basic principle.[2]  In fact ‘hygiene’ was a widespread avant-garde concept, and was embraced by artists and writers of a wide range  of political persuasions. As early as 1909 Filippo Marinetti had celebrated war, ‘the only true hygiene of the world,’ in his proto-fascist Futurist manifesto, a text that otherwise stood completely at odds, politically, with the ideals of architects such as Starý and Krejcar.[3]

We are used to thinking of hygiene in modernist architectural discourse primarily as a metaphor. Marinetti’s manifesto expressed commonplace violent fantasies about ‘cleansing’ the world through war or eugenics. However, for many, hygiene was not merely a rhetorical trope; it was also a major facet of social modernisation, to do with improvements in public health. The latter is now taken for granted, but it is important to recall that only six years before Starý wrote his article the so-called ‘Spanish influenza’ had wiped out tens of millions world-wide (lack of proper medical records means it is not possible to come to an accurate figure).[4] It is not possible to how the outbreak affected millions of individual lives, but it had a notable impact on artistic and intellectual worlds in Czechoslovakia and central Europe more widely.

In Prague two of the most prominent modernist painters, Jan Preisler (1872-1918) and Bohumil Kubišta (1884-1918) were both felled by the flu prematurely, as was, in Ljubljana, the poet and playwright and poet Ivan Cankar (1876-1918), often referred to as the ‘father’ of Slovenian modernism. The influenza pandemic had even more dramatic consequences in Vienna, where it accounted for perhaps the two most important artists in central Europe: Egon Schiele (1890-1928) and Gustav Klimt (1872-1918). The demise of the young Schiele is particularly poignant; on October 28th 1918 his pregnant wife Edith died, having caught the flu. As a means of coping with the loss, Schiele made a number of drawings of her on her deathbed. Three days later he, too, became its victim.

Indeed, it was not only in central Europe that the catastrophic effect of the influenza pandemic of 1918 was felt in the artworld. In Paris the symbolist poet Guillaume Apollinaire, an important figure for many early 20th century artists, also died. Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was also infected, and although he survived, the personal costs of suffering from the virus are visible in his Self-Portrait with Spanish Flu (1919), in which the painter’s weakened physical state is conveyed powerfully by the image’s sickly yellow hue.

The current coronavirus outbreak has brought back the earlier flu pandemic from the oblivion of the curious collective amnesia to which it had been long been subjected. Yet, it is important to note that death from infection was a common hazard even in the early 20th century. Alongside the influenza one might mention tuberculosis which, until the invention of antibiotics in the 1940s was endemic (and remains so in many countries) and likewise claimed its own celebrated literary and artistic victims in the 20th century alone, including Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) and El Lissitzky (1890-1941).[5] We can go further back in time and add to this grim list the names of victims of the sporadic outbreaks of cholera, an infection that marked the rise of modern urbanism, which for long periods was not accompanied with concomitant sanitation and other public measures. These included the philosopher Georg Hegel (1831), the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz (1855), the Russian painter Mikhail Lebedev (1837) and Juliette Récamier (1849).

We can dwell on the fact that influenza, tuberculosis and cholera cut short many lives and careers. More recently AIDS has had a similar impact. Yet, equally, death or long-term suffering from disease provided fertile ground for the creative imagination. For, as Susan Sontag has argued, tuberculosis (and, subsequently, cancer and AIDS) served as a metaphor for a variety of fantasies.[6] Many of these were founded in existential dread and the personal fear of death, but others were related to anxiety about the decline of western culture. The narrative of Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, for example, revolves around the experiences of Hans Castorp, tuberculosis patient in a Swiss sanatorium, but in Mann’s earlier novella Death in Venice (1912) the protagonist Gustav Aschenbach dies of cholera, while in Dr Faustus (1947), a meditation on recent German history, the composer Adrian Leverkühn dies after intentionally contracting syphilis as a means of heightening his musical creativity. Central Europe offers few examples that capture the resonance of disease as a political metaphor in quite the same way, but it is worth mentioning Franz Theodor Csokor’s play of 1936, The 3rd of November 1918, about a group of officers from the Austrian-Hungarian army in a tuberculosis on the Yugoslav border, a none too subtle allegory of the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. The following year witnessed the little-known play The White Disease (1937) by Karel Čapek, based on the idea of an outbreak of a mysterious fatal disease resembling leprosy in an unnamed dictatorship often taken as a surrogate for Nazi Germany.[7] In this play, adapted for film almost immediately, it is not the disease itself that provides the metaphor; rather, it is the response of the government that is central to the plot. Offered a cure – on condition that it gives up its militaristic policies – the leader opts to continue, at the expense of the population.

Going further back in time, nineteenth-century European art and literature was populated with tragic heroes and heroines dying from tuberculosis. They ranged from Insarov, the Bulgarian would-be revolutionary in Turgenev’s novel On the Eve (1860) to Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème (1896). In 1879 Claude Monet depicted his own wife Camille, a victim of tuberculosis, on her death-bed, while Munch produced a stream of paintings, lithographs and etchings of his elder sister Johanne Sophie, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 15. It is against this background, in which disease was not only a question of public health but also served as a means for articulating social, moral and political visions, that we need to understand the meaning of hygiene in the writings of figures such as Starý and Krejcar. For they embraced the idea of hygiene not merely as a means of overcoming a practical social problem, but also they saw themselves engaged in the task of building a new moral and cultural order.

The idea of hygiene was one of a cluster of values and terms in architectural discourse. Principal among these were those of purity and transparency. ‘Purity’ originated in the writings of the Swiss painter and architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965); in 1918 he and his collaborator Amédée Ozenfant (1886-1966) published After Cubism, which proclaimed a new orientation in painting – Purism – towards Platonic forms and mathematical order.[8] Two years later, they launched the journal L’Esprit Nouveau in which they published the purist manifesto (‘Purism’), declaring that ‘a work of art should induce a sensation of a mathematical order, and the means of inducing this mathematical order should be sought among universal means.’[9] Their ideas were quickly adopted by the younger generation of architects in Czechoslovakia. The essay ‘Purism’ was published in 1922 in the avant-garde journal Život [Life], edited by Krejcar.[10] One group of Prague-based architects even came to be known as the ‘Purist Quartet’ (Puristická čtyřka) and Purism informed the design programme of a number of important buildings in the 1920s.[11] One of the earliest ‘Purist’ designs in Czechoslovakia was the Nymburk crematorium (1922-24), the elemental geometrical forms of which supposedly exhibited the mathematical and spiritual order to which Le Corbusier and Ozenfant aspired. [12] Yet while the latter two envisaged Purism in terms of a desire for metaphysical order, it quickly became associated with ideas of technological rationality and was allied, too, with dreams of social and political order.

‘Transparency’ emerged as a term slightly later, but it came to play an equally important role in the modernist architectural imagination. It is generally held that the concept was first employed in 1929 by the Hungarian artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) in his theory of the ‘new vision.’[13] Yet, as Starý‘s assertion indicates, architects had already been fascination by light and transparency as architectural values some years before Moholy-Nagy’s formulation. And as with ‘purity,’ transparency denoted not only practical considerations of design – enhancing the function of internal spaces by ensuring the maximum of light – but also social, moral and political values, in which ‘transparency’ came to be equated with democracy and political openness.

Dušan Jurkovič: Spa hotel in Luhačovice

Dušan Jurkovič: Spa hotel in Luhačovice, eastern Moravia, 1902 – photo: Jan Polák / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA

This convergence of practical ideas about public health and social modernization together with the symbolic meanings that hygiene, cleanliness and purity assumed was particularly influential in interwar Czechoslovakia, more so, arguably, than in any other state in central or eastern Europe. One can see this reflected not only in the prominence of sanatoria and hospitals in the corpus of interwar avant-garde architecture, but also in the designs employed. Notable examples included the Dr. Václav Šilhan Sanatorium (1929) by Jan Víšek (1890-1966) in Brno, the Machnáč sanatorium (1932) in Slovakia by Jaromír Krejcar, or the Masaryk Sanatorium (1935) built in Brno by Bedřich Rozehnal (1902-84) for the House of Comfort oncology association. We can gain a sense of the conceptual change involved with these buildings if we compare them both with well-known earlier designs, and also with other contemporary instances elsewhere. The 1902 spa hotel in the health resort of Luhačovice in eastern Moravia by Dušan Jurkovič (1868-1947), for example, was designed in a mock vernacular style intended to evoke the rural, health bestowing, setting of the town.

In fact, even in Luhačovice itself one can see a graphic illustration of the impact of the advent of new ideas of hygiene, purity and light in a development of functionalist holiday villas built in 1927 by the Brno architect Bohuslav Fuchs (1895-1972). With their expansive windows, balconies and terraces, the accommodation blocks exemplify the new value laid on transparency. By contrast, the sanatorium by Dezső Jakab (1864-1932) and Aladár Sós (1887-1975) on Svábhegy hill in western Budapest, built in 1927-28, evoked, with its crenallations, turrets and covered balconies, the language of grand turn-of-the-century hotels. This undoubtedly reflected the era in which Jakab, the senior architect, had himself established his professional identity.

Karl Schmalhofer and Otto Nadel: The Amalienbad Swimming Baths, Vienna

Karl Schmalhofer and Otto Nadel: The Amalienbad Swimming Baths, Vienna, 1923-26 – photo: Leo Wehrli / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA

Vienna, site of the famous Purkersdorf sanatorium (1904-5) by Josef Hofmann, saw no new sanatorium buildings between the wars, but one might mention the Amalienbad Swimming Baths (1924-26), part of the ambitious policy of wholesale urban redevelopment and modernization initiated by the city council in the early 1920s. Public swimming baths were likewise underpinned by an ideology of health and hygiene – rather than being designated merely as sites of leisure. Yet many observers have noted that the architectural idiom of the Amalienbad – along with that of the many housing estates constructed in Vienna between the wars – had little in common with the functionalist avant-garde of architects such as Fuchs, Starý and Krejcar.[14] Comparison with Czechoslovakia throws up stark differences. In 1935, Fuchs also designed the Zelená žába (Green frog) thermal swimming pool for the Slovak spa town of Trenčianské Teplice, site of the Machnáč sanatorium, and went on to design two other public swimming baths: the municipal pool in the Brno suburb of Zábrdovice (1930) and, in 1927, an outdoor swimming pool in the city centre. As with the sanatoria, their designs were underpinned by the same modernist discourse of hygiene and purity.

Mestské lázné Brno

Bohuslav Fuchs: City baths, Zábrdovice, Brno, 1930 – photo: Atelier de Sandalo,

Fuchs, Krejcar, Starý and their peers were motivated by a utopian belief in the possibilities of progress and modernization, and saw their designs as making a significant contribution to that process. Metaphors of sanitation, illness and health were central to the discourse that underpinned their thinking; in this context it is important to note that the Czech term for urban redevelopment, ‘asanace,’ which gained currency during the large-scale demolition and rebuilding of parts of Prague’s old city centre in the late nineteenth century (the so-called ‘Pražská asance’) also denoted the provision of sanitation facilities. Yet as recent events have shown, such dreams of limitless social, technical and scientific progress are always vulnerable to rude awakening in collision with the contingencies of human life.

Matthew Rampley

[1] Oldřich Starý, ‘Vývoj ke konstruktivické architektuře‘ [Evolution towards constructivist architecture], Stavba 3 (1924-25), p. 2.

[2] Jaromír Krejcar, ‘Cesta k moderní architektuře’ [The path to modern architecture], Disk 2 (1925) pp. 26-30; Editorial Board of Stavba, ‘Zásady nové architektury’ [The principles of the new architecture], Stavba 3 (1924-25), pp. 153-58.

[3] Filippo Marinetti, ‘Declaration of Futurism,’ in Poesia 5.3-4-5-6 (1909), p. 1.

[4] On the flu see David Killingray and Howard Phillips, eds, The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919: New Perspectives (London, 2003).

[5] It also accounted for numerous important writers, including Anton Chekhov, Alfred Jarry, Simone Weil, Franz Kafka and George Orwell.

[6] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York, 1978).

[7] I am grateful to Marta Filipová for alerting me to this.

[8] Pierre Jeanneret and Amédée Ozenfant, Après le cubisme (Paris, 1918). On the development of Purism see Carol Eliel, Françoise Ducrot and Tag Gronberg, L’esprit nouveau: Purism in Paris 1918-1925 (New York, 2001).

[9] Amédée Ozenfant and Charles Edouard Jeanneret, ‘Le Purisme,’ L’Esprit Nouveau: Revue Internationale D’Esthetique 4 (1920) p. 371.

[10] Amédée Ozenfant and Charles Edouard Jeanneret, ‘Le Purisme’ / ‘Purismus,’ Život 2 (1922) pp. 8-28.

[11] The architects in question were: Jaroslav Fragner (1898-1967), Karel Honzík (1900-66), Evžen Linhart (1898-1949) and Vít Obrtel (1901-88).

[12] Rostislav Švácha, The Architecture of New Prague 1895-1945, trans. Alexandra Büchler (Cambridge, MA, 1995), pp. 221-23.

[13] Adrian Forty, ‘Transparency’ in Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture (London, 2000) p. 286. László Moholy-Nagy coined the term in Von Material zur Architektur (Munich, 1929).

[14] See, for example, the appraisal in Manfredo Tafuri, Vienna Rossa: La politica residenziale nella Vienna socialista (Milan, 1980). Tafuri does not discuss the Amalienbad – his interests focus on the housing estates– but he was critical of many of the designs which, he argued, had failed to make a decisive break with the Habsburg identity of the city.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/SWHR7

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