Modernism not so shocking after all


What is your opinion of modern architecture? Geometric slabs of concrete, white stuccoed flat-roofed buildings that go mouldy after a decade. Wherever you are in the world you may have formed your opinion on the architectural movement that was later deemed "the international style". Its practical advantages prompted its rapid development worldwide, although it was certainly not to everyone's liking. Today, the Prague Castle Imperial Stables are opening their exhibit of Stuttgart 1927 - A Vision of Modern Style.

Stuttgart was the hub of where the modernist movement began and attracted such big names as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius. Their models and sketches are presented at the Prague Castle gallery. It may rid visitors of their misconceptions and provoke dialogue among Czech architects. I spoke with Vladimir Slapeta, one of the curators of the exhibit and faculty member of the Czech Technical University in Prague.

"The modernist movement in Czechoslovakia already appeared before the First World War in the Czech Cubist movement. Czech architects were very influenced by Cubism in France and the work of painters such as Picasso and Braque. These architects then tried to transform two-dimensional paintings into three-dimensional architecture. At that time, they developed crystalline structures and pure-elevation facades, as seen in the work of Josef Chochol. Walter Gropius was very impressed by his sketches and he published them in his first book of the Bauhaus series in Munich in 1925."

So already by the 1920s Czech architects were on the international scene. Josef Chochol's most famous buildings are still standing in Prague today, including the Cubist House built at an acute angle under Prague's Vysehrad Castle or the functionalist Vila Verunáè.

The New Architecture exhibit, a vision of modern style, presents an era of design where architects were no longer concerned with designing castles and churches. Instead, they were on an uncompromising search for a new ways to live, often designing structures that were shocking at the time.

Quotes were on display by many artists at the exhibit such as Frank Lloyd Wright's, "See into life! Don't just look at it." I asked Mr. Slepeta about the connection between the artists and the political landscape of the time.

"I think it was connected with the idea of democracy and transparency of political actions at the time which was also the idea of the Weimar Republic in Germany and the New Czechoslovak state. Very often newly founded states, such as Czechoslovakia or Finland, linked the identity of the new state to new architecture or the new international style."

But where did modern architecture go wrong? The movement based on the use of light, space, air and pure lines was also the precursor to what most Czechs view as an eyesore. Modern dwellings put into the hands of engineers without social sensitivities led to the development of communist structures known as "Panelaks". They are enormous, nondescript, rectangular-shaped buildings, usually concrete clustered into drab colonies and are still common today in the North and South of Prague. During communism the only mention of the modernist movement was connected with leftist ideology. But after the revolution in 1989, the ideals of modernist creation are open to reinterpretation by today's young Czech architects. Mr. Slapeta of the Czech Technical University:

"Of course, the Prague modern movement today is connected to the Prague middle class, the new young bourgeoisie and the new intellectual class, which equates the identity of the new state with the idea of modern architecture."

The exhibit at the Prague Castle Imperial Stables runs from January 23rd to March 28th.