Exhibition & detailed "guidebook" highlight Cubist architecture

The Czech Republic has many claims to fame but one of its greatest and most curious regarding the arts is the country's unique history of Cubist architecture, celebrated in an exhibition and recent new book named "Czech Architectural Cubism". Both book and exhibit provide a comprehensive and fascinating overview of the brief periods before and after World War I, which saw notable Czech architects inspired by Cubist principles. In fact, Czech architects were the first and only ones in the world to ever design original Cubist buildings. A look at their legacy in today's Arts.

Zdenek Lukes is one of the country's most respected architectural historians and he is the person behind the exhibition on Cubist architecture currently on at Prague's Jaroslav Fragner Gallery. That is a collaborative effort with young architectural photographer Ester Havlova who photographed dozens of chosen sites in black & white for the show & book. Mr Lukes is a specialist in the unique period of Cubist architecture, and when I met with him recently he began by explaining how the movement in Paris most unusually inspired Czech architects here. It was only three or four years after Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907, widely considered the first Cubist painting. The impact of the Cubist movement on architecture in the Czech lands was short-lived but it was profound.

"Of course Cubism in art was born in Paris thanks to Pablo Picasso but Cubism was accepted by many Czech sculptors and painters who travelled between Prague and Paris in that period. From 1910 Prague was a very important centre for Cubism and Pavel Janak, a Prague-based architect who had trained in Vienna in that period, was inspired by Cubism. He had been involved in a struggle with then leading architect Jan Kotera, a proponent of 'rational' architecture. By contrast, Janak thought that architecture should be something that was very creative."

Until then Janak had been a member of the Manes Association of Fine Artists but he left to co-found the more avant garde Group of Artists and soon began a new publication. In 1911, he wrote "The Prism and the Pyramid", an influential essay outlining Cubist precepts in architecture. Zdenek Lukes makes it clear that Janak was a driving force behind the movement in its first few years.

"In 1911, he sketched crystals from the National Museum's collection of mineralogy and tried to create something like a 'crystalline' architecture with many motifs of prisms and pyramids, very dynamic architecture, closer to Expressionism than the rational architecture of Kotera's circle."

Prague's House at the Black Madonna
This style, Cubism in architecture, was accepted by only some people like architects Gocar, Chochol, Kralicek and others. And the period was very short because we can say that many people were against this new style. Some theoreticians said that it was a 'betrayal' of modern architecture. Of course the buildings were expensive as well as 'bizarre' which is also why much of the public was against it. So, it was a short period but a very interesting one of course."

Both the exhibition and the book capture Czech Cubist architecture in two historic stages, roughly between the years 1911 to 1917 and then during the 1920s up to 1928. Architects like Jan Gocar, who designed Prague's House at the Black Madonna or Emil Kralicek, one of the most daring of the "Cubist architects", are of course represented, as well as many others. In all, about fifty sites are featured: many famous but also a good number of lesser-known buildings. All the sites are captured in wide views as well as in thoughtful detail, apartment houses, family villas and factories. They all have unique elements.

Not surprisingly, it was paramount that any exhibition or book capturing the work of the original architects needed to emphasise their use of line and shape. I caught up with Mr Lukes' colleague, the photographer Ester Havlova, and asked her which formal considerations had proved important in photographing the Cubist sites.

"I would say that the quality of the light was perhaps the single most important factor. Many buildings look good even when photographed, say, in soft light - but Cubist structures benefit particularly from direct sunlight, which really brings out the lines and shadows. Harsh natural light then goes hand-in-hand with black & white, since black and white prints really bring out different aspects and details." Regarding the project, some buildings in Prague I had shot before and I had material in my personal archive. But, many buildings I also shot for the first time, on my own, and that took about one year. It was an interesting experience: most private owners are well-aware of their building's value and were interested and more than helpful. In general, I had no problems."

Visitors to the exhibition, or readers of the book, will no doubt also be pleased to learn more about various sites. As historian Zdenek Lukes points out, for example, Cubist villas were both costly and demanding, given that most of them were made of brick, which is difficult to cut into geometric shapes. Concrete was far more ideal as a material for Cubist construction, since it could be poured into more dramatic geometric forms.

In the book, other famous examples included are Otakar Novotny and Emil Kralicek's Kovarovic House along Prague's Vysehrad Embankment, described as "a brilliant example of radical Cubism". The well-known Diamond House with its diamond-shaped motifs along its façade and main portal, is also featured, and no study of the Cubist movement in Czech architecture would be complete without space devoted to a famous streetlamp designed by Emil Kralicek, which stands on Jungmann Square.

"It's an interesting story because it was designed by Kralicek in 1912, designed for the back lot of Adam's Pharmacy, then a new building on Wenceslas square and I think there was strong criticism of the lamp then by conservatives. Now, it is an icon of sorts for Czech Cubism. One interesting thing is that in the early 90s the lamp was an inspiration for a film director who shot a video in the early 90s here with rockers Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer. They had the lamp appear to 'dance' through the city of Prague with other examples of Cubism."

Czech Architectural Cubism - the exhibition - lasts into February. The book, written in both English and Czech is on sale now and truly serves as an excellent guidebook given that it includes a map of Cubist locations not only in Prague but also in other parts of the Czech Republic.