Plans unveiled for renovation of Brutalist iconic Hotel Thermal at heart of Karlovy Vary film fest

Hotel Thermal, photo: Štěpánka Budková

After years of contentious debate, the government on Friday revealed plans to renovate the towering, exposed concrete Hotel Thermal, purpose-built in the 1970s to serve as the main venue of the famous Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. However, many people – in particular the original architects’ grandchildren – are concerned its unique character will not be preserved.

Hotel Thermal, photo: Štěpánka Budková

Of the myriad buildings that the famous Czech husband-and-wife architectural team of Vladimír and Věra Machonin designed, none is better known worldwide than the Hotel Thermal. Since it opened in 1977, scores and scores of Hollywood stars, art-house directors and other celebrities from the world of film have appeared on the Hotel Thermal red carpet during the A-list film festival it plays host to.

Since the state took ownership of the hotel five years ago, the grandchildren of the fabled architects, Marie and Jan Kordovský, lobbied unsuccessfully for the Brutalist-style building – considered an icon by some and a Socialist-era eyesore by others – to obtain protected cultural heritage status.

Andrej Babiš, photo: ČTK/Slavomír Kubeš
Following Friday’s press conference in Karlovy Vary at which Prime Minister Andrej Babiš (ANO) and Finance Minister Alena Schillerová (for ANO) spoke, I asked Jan Kordovský whether he was encouraged by their pledge to preserve the original character of the Hotel Thermal while upgrading its rooms, spa facilities and dilapidated outdoor pool to make it worthy of a four- or five-star rating.

“For the past five years, we’ve been trying to explain to people why the Hotel Thermal is valuable. There was not much more we could do than write open letters and try to explain why this not exactly great-looking building, on the first glance, is valuable.

“This press conference marked the end of these struggles. It seems to us like Minister Schillerová only got briefed yesterday about what the building actually is. Even the worst of what she said sounded somehow promising, and we really, really hope they will end up doing the things she said.

“But it’s quite shocking that a reconstruction of this scale doesn’t have an architect. The new hotel general director said he might bring one in – and we hope he will do it. Because reconstructing a building of this scale, with its difficult past, needs someone who understands the building, likes it, and will look after the details and things of value.”

Vladimír and Věra Machonin designed not only the entire building but also its interiors, including the futuristic-looking red leatherette chairs, and high-top plastic swivel chairs at the diner-like coffee bar in the Hotel Thermal lobby.

A veritable “Who’s Who” of Czech designers also worked on it, including some who had been effectively blacklisted after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. While many original albeit tarnished elements remain –others, including much of the funky bespoke furniture, is long gone, or obscured behind elements added in subsequent decades. Jan Kordovský again:

Jan Kordovský, photo: archive of Jan Kordovský
“We really hope they will talk to either our grandmother, who is willing to help with anything, or to someone who will help them bring the faded glory of the building back to its original state – or at least to something which makes sense as a whole.”

Part of what concerns him most is that one of the designers of the new model rooms presented on Friday is the very same person who convinced the former culture minister that the Hotel Thermal should not enjoy protected status – calling it a virtual copy of a building by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

“He basically managed to stop it becoming a protected building – and is now doing part of the reconstruction. … Our biggest concern is that what was said today will not actually go forward; that it was something said just to please the public and it’s going to end up looking like an airport hotel in Düsseldorf, which is what the model rooms look like from the pictures we have seen.”

The state first tried to offer Hotel Thermal for sale, but almost immediately withdrew the offer. The projected cost of the renovation is well over half a billion crowns. Finance Minister Schillerová said work on the interiors will begin already this year. As of October, Vladimír Novák, who has been in the hotel business for 25 years, will take up the post of Thermal Hotel director.

Hotel Thermal, photo: Štěpánka Budková