Trade Fair Palace: A jewel of functionalist architecture

Trade Fair Palace

One of the landmarks of Prague’s Holešovice district, the Veletržní palác or Trade Fair Palace was once the largest functionalist building in the world. Constructed in the 1920s, the palace now houses the modern art collection of the National Gallery. Before that, it was one of Prague’s important business and shopping centres, complete with restaurants, cafés, and one of the largest cinemas in Czechoslovakia.

Trade Fair Palace in the 1920s | Photo: National Gallery Prague

The Veletržní palác, or Trade Fair Palace in English, was designed by the architects Josef Fuchs and Oldřich Tyl, and the original idea for the building came from Václav Boháč, an employee of the Prague Sample Trade Fair Association. Boháč’s vision was for Prague to have an expo centre that would attract businesses from across Europe. Radomíra Sedláková told Radio Prague more about the palace’s history.

“Construction began in 1925 but kept being delayed for various reasons. Nevertheless, the Trade Fair Palace was finished by 1928 and opened as a gift for the tenth anniversary of the Czechoslovak Republic. They held the first trade fair that year and the palace quite quickly became popular. They began to consider building a whole ‘Trade Fair City’, which would include a second palace, an administrative building, and a hotel. Since the railway is nearby, a train service directly to the palace was also proposed. It turned out that those ambitious plans were also extremely expensive, and because of that the first Trade Fair Palace was also the last.”

Trade Fair Palace in the 1930s | Photo: National Gallery Prague

The functionalist Trade Fair Palace was one of the first buildings of its kind in Europe. With its unique interior filled with huge open spaces and galleries rising to the eighth floor, the building awed some of the best contemporary architects, as Radomíra Sedláková explains:

“Le Corbusier came to see the palace during his visit of Prague, although it is said that he criticized it. He is alleged to have said ‘This is a building, not architecture’. However, if you read the whole account of his stay here and his conversations you realize that Le Corbusier was speaking out of pure envy. He said, ‘How is it possible that you are building such houses here while I am doing family villas?’ He really wanted to gain a similarly big assignment himself. Only a few years later did Le Corbusier start designing large buildings. So, you cannot blame him, many others would also be envious.”

Trade Fair Palace in the 1930s | Photo: National Gallery Prague

During the first decades after its opening, the Trade Fair Palace teemed with life. Besides trade fairs, the palace was also the site of artistic exhibitions and housed several restaurants, cafés, a billiard hall, and buffets on every floor. Especially splendid was the rooftop café with its terrace overlooking the city. There was also the most modern cinema in the country, which took up two floors and fit 650 people.

However, the years after the Second World War brought with them an era of decline. The last Prague Sample Trade Fair was held in 1951, and the government moved all major trade fairs to Brno. The spacious rooms of the palace were filled up with piles of papers, as Radomíra Sedláková explains.

“The Trade Fair Palace was converted into an administrative building in 1953. It housed sample rooms of several companies as well as the offices of various advertising agencies and magazines. Some companies licensed to do foreign trade also had offices here. But it did not really work well, because the palace was built for trade fairs, so they had to do different reconstructions and additions, all of them quickly and with cheap material.”

Trade Fair Palace fire in 1974 | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

The misuse of the building for ill-fitting purposes partly caused the fire which engulfed the building on August 14, 1974. On that day, flames consumed the whole building, and firefighters worked to put them out for several days. In hindsight, the fire was a turning point that sparked the rebirth of the Trade Fair Palace, as Radomíra Sedláková explains.

Trade Fair Palace after the fire in 1974 | Photo: National Gallery Prague

“Absolutely everything in the building caught fire. The only thing that did not burn down was the building’s frame. However, it was also damaged. After the fire, nobody knew what to do with the palace. They considered tearing it down, but the exterior was a protected landmark, so it was kept standing. There were proposals to convert it into a research institute, a hospital, student dormitories, or into a museum of the revolutionary workers’ movement. Then there was the idea to place the technical department of the Prague 7 town hall here. The question was how to use the Small Courtyard with its open walkways. Stavoprojekt Liberec, the company that was responsible for the project, proposed that there could be a gallery of contemporary art here. That is how the National Gallery became interested in the palace. The palace was given to the gallery in 1978, and the reconstruction officially began in 1980.”

Trade Fair Palace | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

The reconstruction ended up being delayed and was only finished in 1995 when exhibitions were opened in part of the building. In 2000, the exhibition space was expanded to four floors in total, with one designated for short-term exhibitions. Architect Radomíra Sedláková again:

“You do not really expect too much when you walk in here, because the outside is rather plain. However, most people who walk into the Small Courtyard are quite awed. The courtyard is called “small” because it has relatively little floor space, but it is over five floors high. It is surrounded by walkways with a skylight on top, which fills it up with light. So, there is no need to display anything here, it is an exhibit in itself. Of course, the walkways are filled with very interesting artworks.”

Trade Fair Palace | Photo: Slavík,  National Gallery Prague

Sedláková explains that the Small Courtyard is her favourite part of the Trade Fair Palace, one that may even have therapeutic effects.

“Once we met a man walking around here who we learned was the owner of a psychiatric hospital in Switzerland. He said that he would best like to rent the Small Courtyard. Because it is a grandiose space with such perfect proportions that it can help people relax. You would never see something like it designed today. If you look closely, the walkways can sort of resemble ship decks turned into the inside of the building.”

Another interesting fact about the palace is that it was built without any right angles, as Radomíra Sedláková explains.

Trade Fair Palace | Photo: Slavík,  National Gallery Prague

“You won’t find any right angles here, except perhaps in the parts that were built additionally. The plot of land on which the palace stands is very irregular, pretty much trapezoidal in its shape. So, to make the building look straight while standing on an irregular space, the angles must be irregular. That is one of the interesting little secrets that you can discover here.”

To sum up, the Trade Fair Palace is still as intriguing as when it was built nearly one hundred years ago. As one of the exhibition spaces of the National Gallery, the palace is now also an important feature of Prague’s art scene. So, whether you come for the phenomenal architecture, for the artwork on display inside, or both, the Trade Fair Palace is certainly worth seeing.

Trade Fair Palace | Photo: Slavík,  National Gallery Prague
Authors: Vojtěch Pohanka , Katarína Brezovská
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