Adam Štěch: A decade and a half hunting some of the world’s coolest buildings
The coffee table book Modern Architecture and Interiors by Adam Štěch is the fruit of a deeply-held passion. Over a decade and a half, Štěch – who works for such magazines as Wallpaper and Vogue – travelled the world searching out, visiting and documenting often obscure examples of modernist architecture. As the 34-year-old explains, in many cases he got to see inside these amazing buildings simply by turning up and ringing the doorbell.
Where did your own interest in modern architecture come from?
“When I was 16 or 17 or so, in some book in my parents’ library, I saw impressionist painting. And it was my first interaction with art.
“From that time I started to be really interested in art, in reading all the books, in getting to know all the artists of the 20th century. It became my passion number one.
“And slowly I moved from art more into design and architecture. Because I think it is something which is more present in our real life, in our environment, and that’s what I like about it – that it’s everywhere and you can feel it everywhere.
“Why modern architecture? Why 20th century architecture? It’s because the 20th century is, I think, the golden era of creativity, avant-garde creativity, in all kinds of areas.
“And modern architecture in that era, mainly from the 1920s to the 1980s, presents a very rich and diverse selection of approaches, selection of styles and tendencies, which are completely different here in the Czech Republic than in Australia, or the US or Japan.
“If you travel and you visit and you look at this architecture, you can really see these differences, and this beautiful richness of forms. And this is what I really like.”
“The 20th century is, I think, the golden era of creativity, avant-garde creativity, in all kinds of areas.”
Many people like modern architecture, but few decide to go travelling around the world photographing it and documenting it. What motivated you, 15 years ago, to begin making these kinds of trips?
“It was of course a kind of a desire to visit different countries, different cities. Firstly I was mostly travelling around galleries – I wanted to see these masterpieces of modern painting all around the world.”
“But I always wanted to see buildings and document them, because for me it was natural to see them in real life – to experience them.
“For me it’s not enough to see them in books, because you see just one photo, or more photos.
“But when you go and when you enter the building, or when you observe it from the outside, suddenly you see completely different qualities of the buildings. Or you can photograph details which were not published yet.
“For example, in some book I found some architecture and I found just one photo, one black-and-white photo, from the ‘50s. And I couldn’t find any other photo, on the whole internet.
“So there is no other chance to explore it than to go to the place and to see it. And of course it connects with the idea of adventure, somehow.
“When I was 13 or 14 I wanted to be a marine biologist and explorer, so I maybe I just moved to a different interest.”
“When you enter the building, or when you observe it from the outside, suddenly you see completely different qualities.”
Many of these buildings are private homes. How do you go about getting access to these homes?
“Yes, there are many ways, actually. The first, probably the most primitive, is just to go and ring the bell and just try my luck.
“To be honest, many people are wondering that I enter these houses, but from 80 percent of my visits I always had luck – that the people are nice.
“With me it’s my passion, and when I’m standing in front of their houses I say, Hey, I’ve come all the kilometres from Prague to see this house and I’m really interested; I write for this magazine and that magazine.
“And I think I have kind of a natural charm [laughs], or how to put it, that I can get my passion across to other people. People are happy then. This is the first thing.
“But also I do Google searches and I send letters. And the last thing is to be in touch with local curators, local architects – they can give you good contacts and they can help you.”
Again about these private homes, do the people generally know about the value of the architecture? Or is it for them just the place where they live?
“I think in most cases they know. Because on one hand they can be descendants of the original clients, the original owners, so they have some kind of emotional connection to the house and they of course know the legacy of the house.
“Or they are new buyers who also know; they maybe bought it just because they like it and want to live in such architecture.
“Because to be honest it’s sometimes very difficult for other people to live in such houses, because for example some houses were completely bespoke, tailored, for the client’s wishes – and suddenly the client is gone and a new family lives there.
“It’s sometimes very difficult for other people to live in such houses, because some houses were completely tailored, for the client’s wishes – and suddenly the client is gone and a new family lives there.”
“You have to kind of adapt your lifestyle to the house. This is even more so with houses from the ‘50s and ‘60s, because they were really and truly designed to the last detail and everything is kind of, yes, custom-tailored. So I think it’s sometimes hard to live there.”
In your book there are nearly 900 buildings. I’m not going to ask you what your favourite one is, but what I would like to ask is, Is there any one country that you regard as richest in terms of the extent of its modern architecture?
“I think the majority of houses [in the book] are from Italy. Because Italy is a place where I’ve been visiting for many, many years.
“So there is a lot of Italian modernism. It’s kind of the homeland of modernism. Italian design and architecture during the post-war period was like a heyday, it was like top in the world
“But if I could mention some less typical country, it would be Uruguay, for me. I’m very attracted to South America. I was in Argentina and exactly one year ago I was in Uruguay.
“It’s such a beautiful country, a kind of forgotten goldmine of modern architecture. Because many Europeans, European émigrés, went there in the ‘30s or after the war, and they set up a real great legacy of modern architecture there.
“For example, you walk around Montevideo and you see many beautiful buildings which I think could not be built anywhere else. They are really a stylistic fusion of different approaches. They are kind of fantastical. There are a lot of art deco buildings with amazing decorations which you can’t find in Europe.
“In Japan I visited a 90-year-old lady at her house. I just knocked on the door. She didn’t speak any English. I didn’t speak any Japanese. But we kind of understood each other – what I wanted to see.”
“And what’s great is that they are signed. These buildings in Uruguay – almost every single building is signed with the name of the architect.”
You’ve obviously travelled a hell of a lot. Have there been any particular moments on your travels hunting these amazing buildings that have stayed with you, or that have been particularly memorable?
“Yes, of course, of course. There are so many of them, you know. Like I was looking for a house at Lake Como and I didn’t even know the address – it was so hard to find the address.
“I just knew the district of the city and I asked a guy, just a random guy on the street, and he said, I know these houses – come with me by car and I will drop you off there.
“So these kind of moments where you meet someone on a trip and you make new friends is a very important thing for me – it’s not just about architecture, but making friends and having a beautiful experience. You also meet architects and you can discuss your passion with them.
“There are so many moments. Like in Japan I visited a 90-year-old lady at her house. I just knocked on the door. She didn’t speak any English. I didn’t speak any Japanese. But we kind of understood each other – what I wanted to see.
“She was so lovely that she opened the whole house for me. So these experiences are memorable, yes.”
Are there any Czech buildings in the book?
“Yes, there are. There are a few Czech buildings in the book. But of course, what’s the phrase, under the candle is the darkest place? So I didn’t document so many Czech buildings, but there are some.
“During the coronavirus I started to research more Czech architecture, obviously.
“There are so many of them and they are mostly examples of late 1930s modernism. This is kind of my favourite topic now, because it’s kind of interesting to see, to explore this evolution of modernism from the ‘20s to the ‘40s, when new approaches came into architecture.
“From this super-technical, super-rational modernism – kind of Bauhaus style – architects started slowly to change their style towards more sensual, more refined, more organic, maybe more romantic architecture.
“This is the period which I really like now. It’s kind of my focus. And actually during the coronavirus I started this new project and I’m documenting modernist houses in this particular style in the Czech Republic.
“So I would like to do a new book maybe just focused on the Czech Republic.”
The book features nearly 900 buildings. How many of them would be known to people who are enthusiastic about modern architecture? And how many would be knew to most people even with an interest in this area?
“There were supposed to be 1,000 buildings and the 100 building that are not in the book we had to take out, because of copyright.
“It means that the architects who built these houses have foundations, they have families, and they want to be paid even if it’s your photo that is published.
“Mostly these are well-known architects, like Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Oscar Niemeyer, Mies van der Rohe, and so on.
“So these architects are well-known to the general public. But when I took them out, not so many well-known buildings were left in the book.
“But there are still some. There is Alvar Aaltoo, Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler from the USA, and so on. These names are pretty well-known to people who are interested, a little bit at least.
“But the majority of the book is, I think, quite hidden, forgotten gems.”
The book Modern Architecture and Interiors is due for international publication on August 11.