Initiative seeks to safeguard Karlovy Vary’s controversial architectural ikon Hotel Thermal

Hotel Thermal, photo: Kristýna Maková

Karlovy Vary’s Hotel Thermal was recently, as it regularly is, the backdrop for Central Europe’s biggest film festival. The complex was designed, outside and in, specifically for the film festival in the West Bohemian spa town. But the controversial 1970s architectural work of the husband and wife team of Vladimír Machonin and Věra Machoninová is showing its age with its owner, the state, blowing hot and cold about its future. That has prompted the granddaughter and grandson of the architects to step in.

Hotel Thermal,  photo: Kristýna Maková
Marie Kordovská and brother Jan intervened in the evolving battle over the future of the Hotel Thermal complex last year when a piecemeal sell-off of the complex seemed to be on the cards. Their main aim has been to publicize and explain the history and context of this ikon of the so-called Czech Brutalismus style so that it is properly preserved for the future.

In their heyday, the Machonins were prolific exponents of the in vogue style in the late 1960s and early 1970s, both in the then Czechoslovakia and abroad. But. like the Hotel Thermal, many of those works too have suffered from time and from falling out of favour. Now though there are signs that fortunes could be changing.

I asked Marie Kordovská what were the overall aims of their initiative ‘Respekt Madam,’ a reference to grandmother Věra Machoninová and a slogan that was once daubed on her house.

“First and foremost we are trying to inform people about the building, about it’s architecture, because Hotel Thermal, or generally buildings by the architects Machonin, they have gone through some bad reconstructions after the revolution and they have most of their charm. So, we are trying to show what was so good about them and how architecturally good they were. And we are focussing on Hotel Thermal and there we are trying to have it declared a national heritage site. But there’s nothing much we can do about the process itself. That’s a lot of bureaucracy that goes around in the Ministry of Culture. So we’re just talking about the fact that it could be pronounced. We talk about the architecture, the interior design, and we want to have it reconstructed in a quality manner.”

“The building needs to be reconstructed, everybody agrees on that, because it has not been touched properly since the 1970s when it was finished.”

And at the Ministry of Culture, is there some sympathy for these go get it declared…?

“We don’t have much information or official information. It was not us who made the initial request – it was the office that Hotel Thermal comes under in the west of the country. Then it moved onto the Ministry of Culture and then it went through the bureaucracy there, some sort of committee looked into it. Now, it’s some way between the committee and the signature by the minister of culture, which is the most important. So even though the request went through a series of committees, it’s only the signature of the minister of culture that is either going to pronounce it or leave it without protection. Now it’s lying somewhere in the Ministry of Culture and we are hoping that the ministry will look into what the committees have said and just sign it.”

And the reconstruction, the building is now owned by the Ministry of Finance and there has been talk of selling various bits off and doing some work. What is the situation now, as you understand it, about reconstruction and the future of the building?

Hotel Thermal,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“The building needs to be reconstructed, everybody agrees on that, because it has not been touched properly since the 1970s when it was finished. It just has to be reconstructed because there are some serious issues with the windows being too thin etc, etc. Currently the people who run the Hotel Thermal, they talk with the architect, our grandmother Věra Machoninová, and our family generally. And they are discussing their plans with us. So that’s quite good. So even if the relationship is not perfect with the people who run the hotel, they are discussing it with us. We take that as a step forward. The state, or Ministry of Finance, they added some money for the reconstruction, for some initial steps. So that is also great. The attitude has changed since last year. Last year there was a time when it was supposed to be sold and bits were supposed maybe to be demolished. That’s a step forward but we are still urging that the reconstruction is done well because it could go wrong very easily. So that’s where it’s at right now. The family is trying to make sure that the reconstruction is done properly rather than it being a quick fix.”

“If you explain the story of the building and show the architecture to them, they start seeing it’s beauty and its importance.”

How much support have you had in the Czech Republic and perhaps wider for your initiative?

“Well, we get quite a lot of media coverage which is nice. And generally when we speak to people they are very supportive because we are not really forcing much on people. We are just the grandchildren who talk about the architecture of their grandparents because we find it important. But we are being careful about forcing it on anyone. So, people are quite supportive and they are asking us what they can do to help us but there is very little to be done. It’s all about the minister of culture now either pronouncing it a national heritage site or not.”

Do you think part of the problem is that the public perception of the style, some people call it Brutalism, is very mixed. People have different impressions of it but think it should be preserved because it comes from a certain era. Some people like it, but it’s not an architectural style that usually leaves you without an opinion?

Hotel Thermal,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“Yes, it’s not very likeable, we know. Obviously people dislike it or they dislike it from the start. But we have learnt that if you explain the story of the building and show the architecture to them, they start seeing it’s beauty and its importance and then they turn around completely. And it works almost every time. When you get to speak to the people, explain that the architecture was influenced by the West, that it incorporates some of the ideas of the 1960s, and if you show them the original pictures from when it was opened and before it was ruined by all of the reconstructions, they often turn around and start to understand why we are spending so much time fighting for the building.

The Thermal is only one of quite a few buildings that your grandparents were involved with. There were various other ones in Prague, in the centre of Jihlava, the former Czechoslovak embassy in East Germany in Berlin and the House of Apartment Design at the Budějovická Metro in Prague. A lot of them have question marks over them as well. Is there any progress on them as well, for example there are talks about selling the embassy building and there are always plans around Budějovická and the house there?

“I think the wheel is starting to turn in the right direction.”

“As you said, a lot of the buildings have question marks over them. But the story of a lot of the buildings has also turned around recently. Very recently [the department store] Kotva was sold. And people maybe were thinking about maybe demolishing the embassy. Somehow, I think that it’s because the architecture of the 1970s is getting quite popular and people are realising that the Machonins were quite important architects. It seems to me that it is all turning out to be solved somehow more or less well. Obviously, the buildings are very often in a horrible state because if they were reconstructed it was a disaster. But I think the wheel is starting to turn in the right direction. For example, you might notice now that DBK [the House of Apartment Design] started new commercials because it is 35 years since the construction or since the opening and it is all based on Machoninová’s work and the original 1970s graphics. And they are actually using this tribute to Machoninová in their advertising. So I think, slowly, very slowly, it is turning around.”