In May 2017 a new art exhibition and concert venue opened in the Slovak town of Žilina. The result of a six-year restoration project that had been partly crowd-funded and also partly funded by the EU, the Slovak government and the town council, the building won a number of awards on the basis not only of the quality of the restoration but also for its mobilisation of grass-roots support and funding. Just around the corner from the Puppet Theatre and the substantial municipal theatre, the new centre provided a valuable addition to the cultural life of the provincial town, located some 200 kilometres northeast of Bratislava. The organisation that manages the centre, Truc Sphérique, also organises cultural events in the Stanica Žilina-Záriečie, in the town’s still operational railway station, and provides an instructive example of the productive regeneration of sites as cultural venues.
Since May 2018 a touring exhibition has been taking place of work from the photographic studio of Rudolf Sandalo (1899–1980). With an impressive and informative bi-lingual catalogue that includes high quality reproductions of nearly 280 photographs, it is worth trying to visit it at the City of Prague Museum, where it is still due to be on display. Sandalo is little known outside of the Czech Republic, but he is noteworthy as the author of an extensive portfolio of photographs of the modern architecture that was built in Brno in the 1920s and 1930s. Almost single-handedly, he shaped the present-day image of the city as a major centre of central European modernism. This exhibition is important, not only for its attention to an oeuvre of great significance for Brno and Czechoslovak interwar culture, but also for the wider questions it raises about modern architecture and the role of photography in shaping how we see it.
‘The most important elements of modern architecture? Hygiene: air, light, cleansing, airing, heating, artificial lighting.’
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.
A detail camera shot examines rubber being mixed and moulded by heavy machinery. ‘Finished. You’re beautiful. Alas, it took me a while but you have been made properly.’ A young man sings as he is taking a rubber tyre off the machine. Walking through the factory yard and wheeling the tyre alongside, he carries on: ‘And now, off you go on your own, find your master and serve him well, I’m telling you.’ The camera focuses on the tyre with large lettering that reads Baťa and Superb. ‘It’s no easy task as every one of your masters entrusts his life to you,’ the young man warns. And as he starts running with the tyre over a field and down the road leading away from the factory, he cheers up.
In the small town of Nymburk, some 55 kilometres to the East of Prague, sits one of the more unusual examples of interwar architecture in Czechoslovakia: the town crematorium. Built between 1922 and 1924, it is a plain rectangular main building – the ceremonial hall – with cylindrical front and back. Thanks to its plain unornamented forms, its low rectangular base, and a flat overhanging rectangular roof, it strikes the viewer like an exercise in the exploration of elementary geometry. This impression is reinforced by the portico around the sides and front, consisting of squat, plain columns. Everything about the building appears mis-proportioned. The portico columns seem too wide for their height, and the height (and that of the ground storey) appears to be out of proportion to the rest of the building. The upper part of the ceremonial hall thus looms over the storey below. In addition, the distance of the columns from the rest of the building gives it a squat appearance, as if it had in some sense been compressed by some enormous weight. We might dismiss this unprepossessing structure as a misconceived design, except that it is highly revealing not only about developments in architecture in Czechoslovakia, but also about social and cultural developments in Czechoslovak society.