Students conceive vertical utopia from Prague quarry

Urbo Kune, photo: archive of DOX

A new exhibition currently on display at Prague’s DOX Centre for Contemporary Art presents an experimental project by architecture students from Prague and Bratislava, who created a so-called parallel membrane city. Urbo Kune, which means a common city in Esperanto, was designed for an old quarry in Prague’s Zbraslav. The laid-out model of the utopian city can be seen at DOX until mid-January.

Urbo Kune,  photo: archive of DOX
I spoke to architect Martin Stoss, one of the authors of the project, and I first asked him about the initial idea behind Urbo Kune:

“I should start from its founder, Jan Tábor, who is an Austrian architect and theoretician of architecture. A few years ago he came with perhaps a slightly provocative and idealistic idea that the EU should have a common city.

“He thought it shouldn't be any existing city like Brussels, and he also said it shouldn't be only a centre of politics, but also of the arts. He invited Czech architect Petr Hájek, who is my colleague, who was at the time working on a project here in Prague, and they agreed that it could be placed here.”

So it was Petr Hájek who chose the old Zbraslav quarry as the location for the city…

“Exactly. Petr Hájek is a teacher at the Technical University in Prague and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava, and together with his students, he was designing a new city into a former quarry close to Prague, on the riverbanks of the Vltava River. The old quarry presented a certain problem in the landscape and he thought that if we gave it a new meaning, we could somehow improve the landscape.”

Before discussing the design for the old Zbraslav quarry, I would like to return to Jan Tábor and his idea of a common city, which means ‘a common city’ in Esperanto.

“It comes from the artificial language, Esperanto. Jan Tábor decided that it could be used for this common city, because it is so artificial and doesn't belong to anybody.”

You are also using the term membrane city, what does the word membrane refer to?

“The walls have the shape of the former landscape, which used to be there hundred years ago before the quarrying started.”

“Maybe I could explain what the city looks like. The old quarry is basically a big hole, because the quarry is placed on a sloped side. The hole is two kilometres long and 500 metres wide and it is hard to build there something.

“Petr decided to divide the whole area with long walls placed eleven metres from each other, and these walls define the spaces in between them. These spaces could be filled with whatever you can imagine, with all of the different functions you need.

So basically it is divided into different slots and each of these slots serves a different purpose…

“Exactly. And from a distance it looks like a huge ridge or a huge membrane cluster. You can see many membranes placed side by side. Also what strikes me is that it is not built horizontally as you would imagine a city is built but rather vertically.

„The verticality comes from the reason that we wanted to repair the landscape. So the walls have the shape of the former landscape, which used to be there hundred years ago before the quarrying started.

“There are huge tall walls and the city has to be vertical because the walls are vertical. It looks like something very unusual but the structures in between the walls are quite normal.”

Urbo Kune,  photo: archive of DOX
So when you designed the city, each student had his or her own slot, which they filled with residential neighbourhoods, gardens and shopping centres. And there is even a skate-park and a huge aquarium. Can you tell me more about the different designs?

“As you said, each student got one slot. The slots are really different; the shortest one is about 20 metres long and the longest one is about 500 metres long. And there have to be all the functions that a normal city needs. So there are shops, there is a swimming pool, a spa, a hotel, a brewery and so on.

“What is interesting is that you can't get through the membranes, through the walls, and you have to go around the whole city. And to get to another membrane you need to use a small train which is very fast.”

Why did you decide to design this utopian city? What does it bring to the students? Will they use the skills they acquired in this project when they are building real buildings in real life?

“For us it was an idea that we wanted to test and proof. And I think it is the same for the students. It is to test and develop their skills. It is like a test wall for firemen. They have a very unusual space, and they have to think a couple of times more than when they are designing an ordinary house.”

“They can’t just copy some plan of an existing house. They have to really think about it, since the space is really narrow and tall. So when they are working on that, they learn much more than if they were working on a normal house.”

“For us it was an idea that we wanted to test and proof. And I think it is the same for the students. It is to test and develop their skills.”

The city that you designed served as a source of inspiration for other artists as well. The novelist Miloš urban recently published a book Urbo Kune based on your plan. And you told me that there was an interesting interaction between him and the architects….

“Miloš Urban is a friend of Petr Hájek’s and about two years ago they were discussing how to spread the idea of Urbo Kune. They though it would be nice to somehow connect architecture and literature. So Miloš Urban started to write a book based on the design of the membrane city and he placed a story in the city.

“Miloš Urban needed a library for the story but it wasn’t there, so he invented it himself. He described it in the book, he said it would be really huge, for 15 million people, and when we read the book, we liked the idea and though that we could visualize it. So now, when you read the book, you can see the library there as an illustration.”

The laid-out model of the membrane city is currently on display at the Centre for Contemporary Art at DOX. The exhibition also includes painting inspired by the project.

“Another person who took part in the project was Pavel Růt, a graphic designer. He was so much inspired by the city when he was working on it that he made several paintings inspired by the individual membranes, for instance by the monastery.”

As far as I know the model had been exhibited elsewhere before coming to DOX.

Urbo Kune,  photo: archive of DOX
“It was already in Bratislava, at the gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, it was on display at the castle in Litomyšl, it was also in Vienna and it is also going to Tokyo next year.”

And what are your further plans with the project? Will it develop any further?

“For sure, but we don’t know how. It is an open project – there are always new people joining the group, so we will see. But we definitely hope that it will go on.”