A look at the Czech architect who built Hiroshima's Industrial Promotion Hall - today's A-Bomb Dome

Hiroshima's Industrial Promotion Hall after dropping the atomic bomb, photo: Frank Gualtieri / public domain

This week citizens of Hiroshima, but also the rest of the world will mark the 60th anniversary of the first use of the atomic bomb in war. On the morning of August 6th, 1945 - in an instant - most of Hiroshima ceased to exist.

Hiroshima,  photo: United States Government / public domain
More than 66,000 Japanese died at once. On the day, President Harry Truman made this announcement to America:

"The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans."

Pictures of Hiroshima showed only very few buildings still standing in the immediate radius of the blast. One of these, Hiroshima's Industrial Promotion Hall - what had been a gorgeous Art Deco Palace - had been built by a Czech architect, Jan Letzel, who had worked for many years in Japan. His building survived only because it was located directly beneath the atomic explosion.

Inside, 120 people died instantly and part of the structure was flattened. But the building's main structure - with its characteristic dome - survived. Today, it has come to be a symbol of peace, known as the A-Bomb Dome. And, since 1996 it has been a world heritage site.

Hiroshima's Industrial Promotion Hall after dropping the atomic bomb,  photo: Frank Gualtieri / public domain
But, just who was Jan Letzel, the building's architect?

Born in north east Bohemia in 1880, he remains largely unknown in his homeland today. Part of the answer lies in the fact that he was far more productive in other countries than his own, countries like Egypt and Japan. Architectural historian Zdenek Lukes:

"He had a chance to design only one building here in Bohemia, a spa pavilion in the northern part of central Bohemia, designed in 1904-05, and it's very interesting architecture. It was very much influenced by Oriental architecture at that time, which - as we know - were an important influence on the Art Nouveau, especially the Japanese and Chinese. So, all these elements were used in this wooden pavilion. A beautiful example of Art Nouveau architecture."

As a student Jan Letzel had studied at Prague's School of Creative and Industrial Art and was taught by none other than Jan Kotera - the founder of modern architecture in Czechoslovakia. Kotera, says Zdenek Lukes, had a lasting influence on his student:

Jan Letzel,  photo: PD-Japan / Wikimedia Commons
"Letzel was a very gifted young architect and he was one of the best pupils of Jan Kotera, who was a professor at the School of Applied Arts in Prague. Kotera was a leading architect in that period and Letzel was very much influenced by his architecture, very much the 'modern style' represented by Otto Wagner in Vienna, and Kotera in Prague: simple decoration and raw materials like stone, hard plaster, and concrete."

After graduating Letzel left his homeland and in 1904 made his way to Egypt, and eventually Japan, where - in 1907 - he formed an important partnership with another Czech architect Karel Jan Hora.

Was it unusual in those days for European architects like Letzel to move and work in the Far East?

"Of course it was very atypical. But, we have to say that this was very successful."

Elements on which he relied included:

"Concrete for his buildings, large buildings, hospitals and so on. Concrete was not jeopardised by earthquakes. Earthquakes in Japan regularly destroyed traditional Japanese wood and paper architecture, which, with concrete was not the case, making Letzel a very successful man."

Hiroshima Industrial Promotion Hall,  photo: PD-Japan  (www.kinouya.com)
Even so, Letzel and Hora eventually parted ways and Leztel founded his own business that, due to recession, didn't last long. Still, he continued working and designing buildings in Japan for the next ten years, more that 15 buildings in all: schools, residences, university buildings, hospitals, and hotels. But, his most famous work, even then, was the Hiroshima Industrial Promotion Hall.

Opened on August 5th, 1915, it would survive in its original splendour for thirty years and a day.

"This work was designed in the Viennese style, perhaps influenced by Otto Wagner's Steinhof Church in Vienna, and the material was also concrete. This is the reason why the frame - or the skeleton - of the building survived. And, from what I know it was a very popular building before the war. Everybody knew there - at that time - that it was designed by a Czech."

In the incinerating blast its dome was reduced to a blackened skeleton, open to the sky. The main part of the building held, standing in the stark bleakness in the charred landscape. Much later, the Japanese held a debate over whether or not to tear the structure down. Zdenek Lukes points out there were several possibilities to choose from - but thinks the decision they finally took was the most appropriate.

"There were three possibilities: to destroy it, to leave it in its new state, or to reconstruct it completely, as it was done in Berlin, the Parliament House in Berlin which was redesigned by Lord Foster. But, on this occasion I think it was best to leave it in this condition as a modern monument to the A-bomb tragedy."

Over the last decade or so Letzel, has once again become well-known. Japanese theatre and Czech Studies expert Shimako Murai, who wrote a play about the architect, told Radio Prague this year she had long been fascinated by Letzel's life.

"In my work I wanted to show that Letzel was Czech - and not German - as many previously thought. Since the dome was made a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1996, all Japanese now know who he was."

Jan Letzel died many years before the Second World War, succumbing to illness in Prague in 1925. He died forgotten and alone.

Some twenty years later most of Hiroshima was no more - and his Industrial Hall stood transformed: the last building standing on August 6th, 1945.

A note for listeners/readers: Visitors to Prague often remark on the similarity of one of the buildings standing on the embankment of the Vltava, near the city's historic core, and the A-Bomb Dome. The building - with a similar dome - dates back to the mid 20s / early 1930s. However it was not designed by Letzel but by Josef Fanta, though Letzel's building in Hiroshima might have been an influence.

Today the building houses the Ministry for Industry and Trade. Viewers abroad may remember the building as the "setting" for the dramatic finale of Steven Soderbergh's 1991 film "Kafka", with Jeremy Irons.