Eva Jiřičná, part 1: From a Protectorate childhood to Swinging London

Eva Jiřičná, photo: Alžběta Švarcová

Eva Jiřičná is perhaps the best-known living Czech architect. Her London-based firm Eva Jiricna Architects is famous for its sleek boutiques and dramatic staircases, while in recent decades she has designed a number of acclaimed buildings in her native country. Based in the UK since the late 1960s, Jiřičná was born in the Moravian town of Zlín, where her dad was an architect with the Baťa shoe company. In the first half of a two-part interview, Eva Jiřičná, who is 77, recalls her early childhood in the Nazi Protectorate.

Eva Jiřičná,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
“It was during WWII so the situation was not terribly pleasant. My parents tried to protect not only me but also the other children from what was happening.

“We had an SS officer living across the road. His daughter was my age and several times I hit her when she behaved badly [laughs].

“Then my parents had sleepless nights, waiting to see what the father’s reaction was going to be. But we somehow survived.

“In 1944 Zlín was bombed, so my father and the other architects were moved from Zlín to a little village outside Prague, to the hunting lodge of one of the directors of Baťa.

“There they were supposed to work on the reconstruction of Zlín.

“Of course the war finished and then Baťa finished as well, because nationalisation came very shortly after. So I never went back to Zlín and I grew up in Prague.”

I wanted to ask you about your recollections of the latter days of the war. You were born in 1939 so at the end of the war you were five or six. Do you remember for example the Prague Uprising?

“I do remember it very well because my father and two other architects, who we were sharing the house with, went to fight on the barricades and build the barricades in Prague.

“They walked because there was no means of transport.

“My mum and another wife of an architect, with her little daughter – she was two and I was five and a half – were waiting.

“I do remember hearing on the radio that the war was over. Even as a child I had this tremendous, tremendous pleasure.

“I was running around the house, playing with my little toy and saying, The war is over! The war is over!

“My mum put me on top of a cupboard in the kitchen to be away from the Russian soldiers.”

“We had had to go down to the cellars every time planes flew over, so somehow I had this kind of minimal understanding of what the war meant.

“Prague started fighting and then a few days later the Russian Army came. The Americans had been held at Plzeň so the Russians liberated Prague – and they also went through our little village.

“My mum took me – everybody was so excited – to the road and we were waving and the Russian tanks were going by.

“One thing I do remember vividly: There was a Russian soldier and he was injured and they threw him off the tank into a trench next to the road.

“My mother and two other women rushed towards him and started looking for water.

“I had never seen a wounded person and I saw the blood and my mum said to me, Don’t look! Don’t look!

“Then somehow they stopped one of the tanks and, according to me my mum, the Russian officer said, There are too many of us, it doesn’t matter.

“Anyway, we came back and the hunting lodge was occupied by the Russian Army. They turned it into a hospital. The bedroom where my parents used to sleep was used by the Russian officers and their new girlfriends [laughs].

“We spent the night – I remember it very vividly – my mum put me on top of a cupboard in the kitchen to be away from the Russian soldiers [laughs]. She and the other lady locked themselves in the kitchen with us children [laughs].

Orangery at Prague Castle by Eva Jiřičná,  photo: Prazak,  CC 3.0
“My mum gave her watch to ‘Sasha’, one of the Russians who had around 50 watches on his arm, and he guarded the door. In the morning we walked to Prague to my grandfather’s and that was the end of the war.”

Your dad was an architect. You became an architect. It may then look like it was the family business. But wasn’t it unusual for a woman to become an architect in those days?

“Everybody was trying to prevent me from doing so. To be honest, I wanted to be a chemist. I wanted to study chemistry because experimentation and chemistry just fascinated me.

“But I passed the A levels in physics instead of chemistry, because I hated the chemistry teacher. I didn’t get on with him so I took A levels in physics – not knowing that they wouldn’t accept me into the Faculty of Chemistry without an A level in chemistry [laughs].

“Then I though, Gosh, what am I going to do? And a colleague said, Why don’t you come with me to study architecture?

“And immediately at home it was, How can you think about something so stupid?

“My dear father, who loved me and who I loved, said, You are going to become an architect’s wife – don’t do it!

“And because everybody was telling me not to do it, I did it.

“Of course I was totally unprepared. Passing the entrance exam was a miracle.

“My portfolio was in bits – I had had to do one very quickly. It was probably completely stupid and bad, but I passed all the other exams –physics and maths – so I managed to get in.

“My dear father said, You are going to become an architect’s wife – don’t do it!”

“There were five girls [in the class] and 60 boys. It took me three months, and after three months I knew I was at the right place.

“I absolutely fell in love with architecture and I’ve loved it ever since.”

You went to London in 1968 prior to the Soviet invasion. You were planning to stay for only a year or so, I believe. When did it start sinking in that you wouldn’t be going home, that your country had been occupied?

“The fact that the country was occupied did not stop me from thinking that I was going back.

“I was so naïve that I just thought it would get sorted in a couple of months.

“I came on August 1 and it happened on August 21, so I thought, Oh, by next August it will be sorted and I’ll be returning to my country and that everything would be OK.

“It became not OK [laughs] when I got a letter from the Czech Embassy saying that my passport was abolished, my visa was no longer valid and that return to my country was no longer ‘required’. That is how they formulated it.

“I didn’t know then that it was because I had joined a society for human rights. I had absolutely no idea what it was, to be honest.

“I just signed a document, on being part of the organisation. I had no idea what I was doing.

“But I took the names of the people to a Czech journalist living in France who happened to be in London.

“I was to give him the list of people who had joined the society for human rights, because there was no email, no copying machines, no Xerox and so on.

“So when I left it at the hotel, called Coburg, opposite the Czech Embassy the spying guys from the Czech Embassy paid the guy in the hotel and got the list.

Eva Jiřičná,  photo: David Vaughan
“It included my name so they wrote to me and I thought, Oh, that is a surprise.

“But I still didn’t take it seriously. I just thought, It’ll get sorted. I was really politically totally naïve.

“I didn’t realise it wasn’t possible to sort it. How?

“The world would not have started a war because of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. They couldn’t have fought the Russians – it wasn’t possible.”

How did you maintain family ties across the Iron Curtain? Your family were still here, you were there in the UK.

“Well, it was very difficult. My brother, who was only 17, was by pure coincidence working on a farm in England, picking strawberries or raspberries in order to get some money to pay for an English course before he went to university.

“When he realised was going to go back, he said, I’m going to stay.

“And my father, who was in Japan working on the Czech pavilion in Osaka for the 1970 World Exhibition, said, Oh children, don’t worry – I’ll pick you up on the way back [laughs].

“My poor dad. He had to fly via Moscow back to Prague.

“Then almost immediately he had a gallbladder stone and had an operation which went badly – he got an infection after the operation and died in 1972. So he never picked us up.

“We both remained in England, so I was helping my little brother. And now he runs the Institute of Cancer Research in Zurich. He studied, did a PhD and eventually had a very good career, professionally.

“I got a letter from the Czech Embassy saying that my passport was abolished and that return to my country was no longer ‘required’.”

“Really, for 20 years I thought it [communism] is not going to last forever.

“Then just when I started thinking, Yes, it is going to last forever, suddenly it changed again.

“Havel came with 1989, the Velvet Revolution, and it was the end of it.”

Going back a bit to when you moved to the UK, that was the 1960s, the so-called Swinging ‘60s. Did you experience all that stuff? Or were you too busy building a new life, building a career?

“I’m so lucky I can’t tell you. I did experience the Swinging ‘60s.

“I did enjoy on the design side Mary Quant, flower power, Woodstock, The Beatles – you name it.

“I was the right age and I just met the right people. I think this story is never going to be repeated, and I’m really, really grateful for it.”

Next week, in the second part of this interview, Eva Jiřičná discusses returning to design buildings in her native country after the fall of communism, working with Václav Havel, the development of Prague since 1989 and more.