New book celebrates iconic Communist-era family house


A new book, which has just been released by the PositiF publishing house, is mapping the phenomenon of the so-called Šumperák, probably the most famous family house design in Communist Czechoslovakia. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the house was replicated in towns and villages all over the country and to this day, there are an estimated 4,000 Šumperáks to be found across the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Photographer and art historian Tomáš Pospěch travelled around the country to map the phenomenon and trace the history of the popular house. Ruth Fraňková has more in this edition of In Focus.

Photo: PositiF publishing
During the communist era, people who yearned to live in their own family house did not have many possibilities to choose from. After 1948, most architects were kept busy building a new state, drawing up plans for roads, hospitals, factories or apartment buildings. Private housing was put aside as something unimportant. If people desired a family house, they would usually have to build it themselves, or pay at a high price to workmen who would do it outside regular work hours.

At the same time, there was a huge wave of interest in lifestyle and design in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s, aroused by the country’s phenomenal success at the Expo ‘58 exhibition.

In 1967, people's dream of a new, modern and stylish home materialised in the form of Šumperák, a standardized family house designed by a former bricklayer and designer Josef Vaněk. His prototype, originally called “V-type family house”, instantly became a sensation with people all over the country.

With its slanted surfaces, light structure and unusual shape, Šumperák reflected the so-called Brussels style, typical for its use of pastel colours, various geometrical as well as roundish forms and modern materials, such as glass, metal, plastic or concrete.

Tomáš Pospěch, the author of the book called Šumperák, describes the main features of the legendary house:

“When I spoke to the Šumperák owners, they would usually compare the house to a radio or a television. That’s why the book also features photos of radios and televisions designed in that era, so people can actually see the resemblance.

Tomáš Pospěch, photo: archive of Tomáš Pospěch, CC BY-SA 3.0
“The house has a front façade featuring a long window, which runs across the whole of the first floor. There is also a narrow and enclosed balcony. On the ground floor there is an open terrace with four pillars.”

One of the very first Šumperáks was built for the then director of the hospital in Šumperk – hence the origin of its nickname Šumperák, or more familiarly, Šumperáček. While in 1969, there were around of them in Czechoslovakia, three years later, there were already around two thousand.

The designer, Josef Vaněk, sold the plan for the house for less than 900 Czechoslovak crowns and during the first years people would wait in long queues in front of his home to get it. However, Mr Vaněk had not lined his pockets on the design: he had to pay over 60 percent of his income to the state. Later he was even forced to sell the design to a local cooperative.

Among the biggest advantages of Šumperák was the low cost of construction, which was between 100,000 to 120,000 Czechoslovak crowns, provided that you knew how to build the house. For those who did not have any experience, the construction plans came with a detailed, almost IKEA-styled manual.

“Mr Vaněk knew that most people would have to build the house themselves, since there was no possibility at the time to hire a building company. The brochure may seem funny to modern readers, because it gives you the exact number of nails you need, the number of bags of cement, and instructions how to install a lighting-rod, all the little details that you needed to build the house with your own hands, even if you were completely inexperienced.”

Šumperák, photo: Vít Švajcr / Dobré svě / CC BY-SA 3.0
Due to a minimal regulation of housing under the Communists, Šumperáks soon began to pop up in villages and small towns all over the country, and they often appeared in places where they didn’t fit at all, disrupting the original style of buildings. For many architects, the house became a symbol of disrespect for the traditional village.

According to art historian Rostislav Švácha, for instance, Šumperák represents naïve art in architecture. Tomáš Pospěch agrees that that despite his good intentions, it is clear that Josef Vaněk, the author of the design, was not an architect himself.

“He was very skilled and practical and the house reflects all his ideas about the best possible house. In reality, however, it reminds me of the fairy tale How the Dog and the Cat Baked a Cake, also using all their favourite ingredients. Nevertheless, if the builder preserved the recommended proportions and used the right material, the outcome has a certain elegance, modernity, and fragility.”

Most of the Šumperáks that you come across these days have been adapted quite a bit by their owners and as Tomáš Pospěch points out, they are often a caricature of the original design. On the other hand, he says, the house bears witness to folk architecture, and reflects our ideas of a house we would like to live in.

When preparing the book and taking pictures of the numerous varieties of the house, Mr Pospěch had a chance to speak to many of its owners. Although most of them are proud that they have built the house with their own hands, they also see its shortcomings after spending so many years within its walls:

“The living area of the house is actually situated on the first floor and many people have told me that if they realised that they would always need to climb the stairs, they might have changed their minds. They also complain about the open terrace, which is unusable, but is always full of leaves or snow that needs to be cleared away. And what I would mind is that there is no connection of interior and exterior and there is no direct access to the garden from the living room.”

Šumperák, photo: Filo, CC BY 3.0
But probably the most impractical feature of Šumperák is its trademark, the enclosed balcony with a large window, which is so narrow that you can’t even fit a table there and is only good for smoking a cigarette or waving goodbye to guests.

Despite its numerous shortcomings, Šumperák has become an indisputable part of the Czech and Slovak countryside, and with the current nostalgia for things made in the 1960s and 1970s, this impractical, but unique piece of architecture is enjoying a renewed wave of interest.