My house is my castle: the best and worst in village architecture

Photo: Jan Kruml

You may know the feeling – you return to your native village after a long absence and come across an eyesore – a building that screams “money, power and influence” and sticks out like a sore thumb from its surroundings. That is the kind of building that architect and photographer Jan Kruml likens to a flashing gold tooth.

Photo: Jan Kruml
Jan Kruml has spent many years of his life documenting the transformation of Czech villages and has done much to make people realize the importance of preserving the cultural and architectural heritage handed down by their forefathers. He has travelled the country back and forth documenting the transformation of streets, town squares and churches and has an impressive collection of the best and worst examples of human activity in this respect. Some appear in his film –Vesničko má prestavovaná – My reconstructed little village (a play on the title of Jiří Menzel’s film hit My sweet little village) others went to make up his book Village architecture 2011. I asked Jan Kruml how he came to be involved in this work.

“I guess it all stems from the fact that I was born in the country. Some of my ancestors were farmers, my father was a village teacher. And what you get handed down in your genes and absorb during your youth and childhood stays with you throughout your life. But what motivated me most was this programme Dorferneuerung –village restoration in Austria and Germany – which we learnt about still under communism. I was completely overwhelmed by its approach. In contract to the communist uniformity where people were not perceived as individuals but as a mass this approach emphasized that every village was special, that every village was made up of individuals who were important and who all had something different to offer. The democratic approach to people was an eye-opener for me in view of what we were used to –the fact that people were respected, listened to and could take part in shaping their village.”

Jan Kruml,  photo: Czech Television
Jan Kruml’s interest in preserving the historic integrity of villages dates back to the communist days, although back then his work involved monitoring the situation more than anything else. Soon after the fall of communism he published the first translations of the Dorferneuerung programme and helped to get it implemented in this country as well. He says the communist years left a sorry mark not just on villages but on people’s thinking.

“The communist ideology was that the boundaries between country life and city life should slowly be erased. Everything old was regarded as outdated and surpassed and there was an accent on modern materials and designs. As a result precious old buildings, houses, churches and such, were allowed to fall into disrepair and many people accepted the thought that what was old was not worth preserving or maintaining, which is a great pity. Today you see villages where small picturesque houses were torn down and replaced by luxury villas which is unfortunate because it destroys the character of the village, what we call its genius loci.”

Photo: Jan Kruml
After the fall of communism much could have been salvaged and modernized so as not to interfere with the historic character of the given place. And in many instances this was done. But equally so, many people who earned money and did not value “the old” started building their dream homes – tasteless replicas of castles, Spanish haciendas and buildings they had seen somewhere on their travels. After years of suffering a shortage of everything, the market offered every possible material and every possible accessory in a wide variety of shapes and colours and people’s imagination often knew no bounds. These buildings can be found in many a town or village and show no respect for their surroundings or neighbours. Jan Kruml again:

“In my view the operational word here is “harmony”. If you are building a house somewhere or reconstructing one then you need to look at the surroundings and build something that will add to the charm of the given place rather than deter from it. This should be uppermost in the mind of the owner, the architect but also the mayor because every village, every community is in a way unique.”

Photo: Jan Kruml
In addition to making films, writing and lecturing on the issue Jan Kruml initiated a nation-wide competition called “Village of the Year” where the criteria are not just preservation of the historical character of a village but relate to environmentally-friendly projects, cultural activities and social life. Mr. Kruml says that despite the eyesores, he is not entirely pessimistic in this respect.

“There is a will to conserve historical monuments. Hundreds of villages have embraced the idea of preserving their cultural and architectural legacy within the village renovation programme I spoke about. And the Village of the Year competition has shown us that there are plenty of local patriots who have respect for this legacy and are determined to preserve it and take it further. But unfortunately there are also those who say “ it’s my money and I’ll build what I like with it. This is a democracy, right? ” And they have no consideration for the fact that this form of exhibitionism not only reflects badly on them, but that it degrades the whole surrounding environment.”

Photo: Jan Kruml
Money, power and a lack of respect for the given community all contribute to the fact that structures that make one cringe have been mushrooming all around the country. How is it possible that the local authorities do not put their foot down even in the most offensive cases? Jan Kruml again:

“Everyone has a share in this. The local construction authority gives the green light to a project stamped by an authorized architect –so the architect in question carries his share of the blame as well. But to be fair – the construction office does not always see the end result. Often construction work takes a different turn, plans are slightly revised and the building ends up looking very different. And sometimes people construct it without a permit and are ready to pay a fine later. We all know about some of the bizarre constructions that have grown up around Karlovy Vary. Some buildings are out of this world. And the craving to have something different – be it a villa from Provence or something more exotic – well some people have that.”

Photo: Jan Kruml
Jan Kruml’s travels have taken him to many parts of Europe and he says he’s envious of the sights he sees in Austria, Switzerland or Great Britain where people show ingenuity and sensitivity in preserving the unique character of their country houses –right down to their front gardens or back yards. He says that there is much Czechs could learn from viewing those examples, but transplanting an attitude is not easy.

“We are all trying. Both I and my colleagues from the Society for village renovation are publishing, talking to the media and cooperating with schools to broadcast the message. I think that education in this respect should start at an early age and am hoping that if teachers make an effort and children see these publications it will be an education in taste.”