Hated and admired, Brno’s Orloj lays a claim to fame

Photo: Pavel Ševela, CC 3.0 license

It was meant to be the pride of Brno - the town’s own astronomical clock to rival Prague’s famous Orloj and attract tourists to the Moravian metropolis. Located on the city’s Freedom Square the shiny black six-metre-tall, phallus-shaped clock has attracted praise and insults in equal measure since its unveiling two years ago. As Brno City Hall hoped, it has become the talk of the town but in a slightly different way than expected.

Photo: Pavel Ševela,  CC 3.0 license
If getting talked about is laying a claim to fame then Brno’s Orloj is certainly famous. It seemed that the whole town turned out for its unveiling two years ago. Word had gone out that it was “modern art and rather unusual” so most people came with open minds, but what came as a big shock to them was that almost no one could tell the time by it. Not even the man who designed it – architect Oldrich Rujbr.

“It is...I think....hang on...I think it should be half past twelve. No, wait a minute half past eleven rather. You need to look carefully- up there near the top of the obelisk – and you see – I got it right, I checked my own watch, but yes, it is half past twelve, no - half eleven.”

This smacked of the Emperor’s New Clothes and the people of Brno are not known to mince their words.

Woman: What time is it then?

Elderly woman: I really can’t tell.

Man: It’s impossible to figure out – strange if you ask me, very strange.

Woman: What a waste of 12 million! Everyone here wants to know what time it is!

Woman: What a stupid contraption. A clock is supposed to tell the time –you are crossing the square and you look up to see what time it is, no?

In addition to the embarrassment of a clock that fails to tell the time, the organizers faced the humiliation of bungling another highlight of the clock’s christening ceremony.

Photo: Harold,  CC 3.0 license
The workings of the clock are based on an episode from the Thirty Years’ War when in 1645, the Swedish army laid siege to the city for nearly three months. The invaders were about to prevail when the city was saved by the bell – which rang at 11 am rather than noon, a deadline set by the Swedes for capturing it. They retreated – and Brno was saved. To commemorate this occasion a glass marble comes out of one of the clock’s four openings every day precisely at 11 am. The opening ceremony was tailored to the occasion and the first glass marble to roll out from the clock was to be exhibited in the city’s museum. Unfortunately, the ball rolled out and got lost in the crowd, leaving museum officials empty-handed and the organizers red-faced.

Nonetheless, some Brno patriots were ready to defend the idea.

Young man: “The glass marble is an interesting idea – I have travelled Europe through and through and I don’t think any other city boasts anything like this. I think people will find it interesting.”

Others were unwilling to accept the creation and soon there were groups of people engaged in heated arguments.

Woman : “It looks just like a missile to me, just like the missiles that the Germans dropped down on us from planes.”

Old man: “Look folks, it is modern art. And modern art has its own kind of beauty. You need to stretch your imagination a little and give it a chance. You’ll like it.

Photo: Dezidor,  CC 3.0 license
Middle-aged man: What’s to like about it?

Old man: What’s not to like?

Middle-aged man: You can’t tell what time it is –that’s what!”

It was clear from day one that Brno’s Orloj would not have an easy time winning public acceptance. But, paradoxically, its strange shape gradually attracted supporters particularly among the young generation who have come to use it as a central place for all their street parties and happenings. Last April a young theatre ensemble marked the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight to space with an improvised theatre performance around the “black rocket”.

At some point someone with a sense of fun helpfully placed a big alarm clock at the feet of Brno’s Orloj, and a popular Brno band composed and recorded a song in honour of “this poor, useless clock of ours”.

In mid -January of this year, with the country still waiting for its first proper snow – a group of young people organized a street party – a dance ritual to bring snow to the Moravian metropolis –with the help of the funny black obelisk. Admittedly, snow did indeed come soon after.

Magic or not, another myth fell soon after this incident. A few months ago Martin Krmicek, a geology teacher, announced that the so called African granite that the clock was supposed to be made of was something entirely different.

“I teach geology and I show my students how to identify different rock formations. It was pretty obvious when I saw this that it was highly unlikely to be granite. So I conducted a few tests – non invasive tests with my students and we ascertained that the clock is really made from Gabbro a rock that is black in colour and has a composition similar to basalt.”

This appears to have been confirmed, but the clock makers say no crime was committed – they were entitled to use the most suitable material and the accounting was perfectly in order.

Two years on, some Brno locals have developed a passion for capturing the glass marbles that come out of the clock. Marta, an elderly woman who has little else to fill her time with has collected 127 glass marbles – though she literally had to fight to get her hands on some of them – and Tomas and Zbynek –two young men – are hard on her heels. Each one of them has their own tactic:

“I sometimes physically take the marble from Tomas, and that makes him real mad. I have collected 127 glass marbles in all, but I gave many away. You have to know where to position yourself. I calculate the likelihood of where it may emerge from on the grounds of previous days – and often it works, but sometimes I’m wrong.”

“It’s really tricky getting into the right position. You have to monitor it for a few weeks to get the hang of it. Between last June and now I managed to collect 119 glass balls.”

“I wanted to try my hand at it and first I was hopeless, but I stuck with it and eventually I got better at judging where the ball would emerge from. I think I had about thirty marbles – but I gave some away and I also sold a few.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 20, 2012.