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.
In the summer of 2021, the Jaroslav Fragner Gallery in Prague staged an exhibition celebrating the centenary of the setting up of diplomatic relations between Japan and Czechoslovakia. Bearing the title 1920–2020 Prague–Tokyo / Exchanges, Parallels, Common Visions, the exhibition had been delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Its focus was on architecture, and it was testimony to the rich exchange of ideas and practices between Japan and Czechoslovakia (and, subsequently, the Czech Republic). The best-known architects in this story are Antonin Raymond (1888–1976) and Bedřich Feuerstein (1892–1936), who has already been discussed in another post on this site as the architect of the crematorium in Nymburk. Raymond and Feuerstein have benefitted from a ‘rediscovery’ due to new research in the past few years. However, the subject of the Artwork of the Month essay for September is an earlier, less familiar, figure: Jan Letzel (1880–1925) who was in many respects their forerunner. Unknown to many, he was the architect of one of the most famous buildings in Japan: the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Exhibition Hall (1915). Since 1996 it has been a designated UNESCO world heritage site, and has been named the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (or Gebaku Dome), for it is one of the very few structures to have withstood the detonation of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on the 6th August 1945. The building of the Hall falls outside the strict chronological boundaries of the CRAACE project, but it serves as a powerful symbol of the engagement of Czechs and Slovaks with Japan, which began in the late nineteenth century and gained momentum into the mid-twentieth. Consideration of the building also prompts us to reflect on the way that Czech and Czechoslovaks interacted with Japanese culture and the light that casts on Czech and Czechoslovak culture and self-perceptions.