Saturday, 12 September 2015

Czech Modernism 3 - Prague's Baba Estate

Housing estates dating from the 1930's and built in the modernist style can be found in several countries across Europe. Examples include the Werkbund Siedlung  and Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, Weissenhof in Stuttgart, Bromma in Stockholm and the Baba estate in Prague. Baba was built between 1932 and 1940 by the Czechoslovak Werkbund, an organisation devoted to promoting modern industrial design and architecture but unlike other, similar estates in central Europe, its construction was privately funded. The estate is perhaps the best example of Czech functionalist architecture.

The home owners were members of the Werkbund and included leading cultural figures such as architect Pavel Janak, graphic designer Ladislav Sutnar, author Vaclav Rezak and composer Karel Balling.  With the exception of Dutchman Mart Stamm, the architects were also drawn from the Werkbund and included Ladislav Zak, Oldrich Stary, Josef Gocar and Frantisek Zelenka. 

The Herain villa, Ladislav Zak, 1932.
The estate was planned as an exhibition for 1932 with 32 houses designed for this purpose. The exhibition included smaller homes for childless married couples, one-family villas with housekeepers' flats, multi-family dwellings and collective housing. Whilst the focus of the exhibition was modern architectural design, the estate's location was also important. Perched on a hillside overlooking the city, residents would live in a clean, natural environment with lots of fresh air and stunning views across the city. Although Prague is today much more built up than in the 1930's, Baba retains  something of a  "countryside" feel with berries, apple trees and even grapes growing in some of the gardens.

Just seven years after the 1932 exhibition, Czechoslovakia was dismembered and then occupied by the Germans and most of the original occupants were evicted from their homes.  The estate survived the Second World War without bomb damage but the communist regime of 1948 to 1989 viewed Baba with suspicion, seeing it as a bourgeois experiment from the brief period of democracy enjoyed between 1918 and 1935 during Masaryk's First Republic. A number of buildings fell into a poor state of repair or underwent damaging "renovation" or changes. Following the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the fall of communism, a number of the houses were restored to their original owners and several have since undergone more sensitive restoration. I visited Baba recently in the company of excellent guide Jana Pehe and was able to photograph several of the homes - although the design of the estate with the front of the buildings facing the slope has meant that for much of the year it is difficult to see them in their full glory due to the preponderance of mature trees. Another, winter visit is obviously called for. In the meantime a little information and a few stories connected to some of the homes and their owners...

Detail, the Herain villa, Ladislav Zak, 1932.
Na Babe 1782/3 was the home of Czech art historian Karel Herain and his wife Ludmila. Completed in October 1932, it was designed by Ladislav Zak, one of the leading lights of the Czech modernist movement. Built with a reinforced concrete skeleton infilled with bricks and cork insulation, the design featured in On Housing, a book produced by Zak and his client, Herain. The wood framed windows originally had steel surrounds whilst character and interest is added to the design through the curved wall of the staircase leading to the rooftop sun terrace. The curve is barely visible during the summer due to overgrown trees and bushes but the terrace stands proud and looks out across Prague's river, the Vltava. 

Herain was an active Werkbund member with a keen interest in modern design. He served on the committee for the 1932 exhibition, edited the group's monthly magazine from 1922 to 1930 and was the head of the prestigious Museum of Applied Arts until 1948 when he was dismissed by the communist authorities. Zak was not only an architect but also an academic and painter.  He studied architecture under Gocar at the Academy of Fine Arts and designed three villas and several interiors at Baba. Able to work under the communist regime  he taught at his old Academy from 1946 to his death in 1973, publishing several academic works during that time. 


The Zadak villa, Frantisek Zelenka, 1932.

Frantisek Zelenka designed the house at 1792/ 53 Na Ostrohu for Jan Zadak and his wife Bozena. Zadak was an industrialist and owned a building materials factory. He was also a keen and accomplished sportsman playing in the national football team from 1910-12. He even met his wife through his enthusiasm for sport - the couple being introduced to each other on a 1923 ski-ing trip. This spilled over into his funding the construction of public tennis courts near the estate - courts which in the winter were used for ice skating. The factory operated during the war but in 1948 was later confiscated by the state as was the villa. Zadak's health deteriorated and he died in 1954.

Zelenka designed a simple layout with a continuous living area on the ground floor and an austere exterior broken by the run of windows for each of the three bedrooms. Originally, the south facing windows had folding wooden blinds, a feature often seen in the earlier functionalist type designs. My favourite features are the two terraces, accessible from a first floor corridor and joined by an exterior steel staircase. At the time of my visit, the lower terrace was being put to a very practical use - clothes were being hung out to dry there.

Frantisek Zelenka was also accomplished in the fields of graphic, stage and costume design. He was responsible for a number of successful posters and book covers and wrote articles on furniture and interiors for women's magazine Eva. Prolific, he designed over 150 theatre sets and his varied skills bring to mind many of the multi-talented European artists of this period who would work successfully in a number of disciplines. He continued to use these skills, when, being Jewish, he was deported to the Terezin transit camp in 1943. In her book, The Tin Ring, Zdenka Fantlova describes how in Terezin he designed the sets for the renowned children's opera Brundibar. In October 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz and is believed to have died on route.

The Sutnar vila, Oldrich Stary, 1932.
Ladislav Sutnar was one of the leading Czech graphic artists of his time. Born in Plzen in 1897, he served in the Hapsburg army during the First World War before going on to graduate from the School of Applied Arts in 1923. Interestingly, he also completed a qualification in mathematics and applied geometry at the Czech Technical University. As well as working in academia, he went on to serve as artistic director of the furniture co-operative, Krasna Jizba, contributed to many journals and publications and gained international prominence for his work in designing functionalist typography. Sutnar designed all of the marketing materials for the 1932 Baba exhibition including the logo, posters, letterheads and catalogues. In 1939 he had charge of the Czechoslovak exhibit at the New York Exposition and chose to remain in the States to avoid the Nazi threat at home. He remained in New York and worked there until his death in 1976.

As well as designing the marketing materials for Baba, he had a home there - 1790/2 Pruhledova, designed by Oldrich Stary and completed in October 1932. A single family house, the building also included an atelier for Sutnar's graphic work. The skeleton is of reinforced concrete, with an infill of thin-sided bricks whilst the window frames were of wood with internal iron surrounds. The exterior is simple with the east facade being entirely windowless. I especially like the south facing aspect with its red window surrounds and the beautiful reds and greens of the garden, all of which contrast with the white cement. Architect Stary was chairman of the Werkbund from 1939 to 1948 , served for a time as rector of the Czech Technical University  and edited the Architektura journal from 1939 to 1948.


The Cenek villa, Ladislav Zak, 1933.
Na Ostrohu 1793/51 was another of Ladislav Zak's designs and was completed in January 1933 as the home of musicologist Bohumil Cenek. A sinlge-family house, it follows the pattern of its neighbours with a reinforced concrete skeleton, infilled with bricks and cork for heating insulation. The interior is arranged around a single staircase from which each of the living spaces are accessed. The two terraces are partially glazed, giving the street facing side an interesting appearance whilst the south facing facade   has a corner glazed winter garden. The porthole on the otherwise blank facade above the garage adds a slight art deco touch to the building and emphasises its nautical feel. Zak added the garage at the end of the 1930's whilst the original smooth stucco was replaced by a coarser surface in beige.

Cenek worked as director of a number of choral associations, taught music at various institutions and composed choral works as well as adapting Czech folksongs. After the Second World War he continued to work in music and received a Hero of Labour award partly in recognition for his work in developing the teaching of singing.

The Janak villa, Pavel Janak, 1932.
Pavel Janak was another leading member of the Werkbund and was responsible for the overall regulatory plan of the estate. An architect, he designed his own house at Nad Patankou 1785/16. Completed in December 1932, it was originally planned as a duplex house but Janak had a change of heart and instead built a free-standing single family dwelling on the hillside facing the city. Described as a terrace-stepped cube, it was constructed with brick masonry and reinforced concrete ceilings. The ground floor contains a guest room, garage, drying room, laundry room and larder with the upper levels containing the kitchen, bedrooms and an open living area spread over two levels and connected to the garden by a terrace. 

Janak studied architecture and construction engineering in Prague before undertaking further studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna where he attended the studio of Otto Wagner. Returning to Prague in 1907, he worked in the atelier of Jan Kotera where he met, amongst others, Josef Gocar. During the late 1920's, he became increasingly interested in functionalist architecture and was one of the main initiators of the Baba project. He was also deeply concerned about historic restoration and in 1936 was appointed chief architect of Prague Castle, a post he held until 1955. Removed by the Nazis from his other post at the School of Applied Arts in 1941, he declined the offer to return after the war. Janak died in August 1956 and his wife sold the villa shortly afterwards. 

The Zaoralek villa, Ladislav Zak, 1932.
Whilst several of the homes have been sensitively restored, others have suffered from the interventions of some of the later owners. Ladislav Zak designed the house at Na Ostrohu 1708/54 for Hugo Zaoralek, a senior manager at the Ministry of the Interior. The house was completed in November 1932 and originally featured a dramatic open-bracketed supported terrace at the upper level with a second open terrace immediately below. Photographs of the original building show a striking structure accessed through a canopied staircase to the side and the Zaoraleks enjoying the lower terrace. A more recent owner has chosen to fill in the two terraces, gaining additional interior space but ruining the drama and character of the building. I wonder what Zak or the Zaoraleks would have thought of it.

I promised some stories form the estate. Perhaps the most shocking story comes from the period of German occupation during the Second World War. Ludvik Bautz lived at Na Babe 1799/4. The owner of a printing works, he was also a fanatical Nazi supporter and former residents recall him bringing his radio to the terrace to broadcast Hitler's speeches at full volume. Once the German occupation of Prague had started he also regularly plastered his Jewish neighbours' garage doors with anti-semitic leaflets and posters. Worse than this, he also denounced another neighbour - Julius Glucklich, a professor at the Masaryk University in Brno and a Jewish convert to Protestantism. Spared deportation due to his non-Jewish wife, Gucklich was still removed from his post and the family villa was confiscated in 1943. Following Germany's deafet in May 1945, Bautz went out into the street, randomly firing shots. It is generally believed that he was shot by a Czech marksman at the foot of the Baba hill, but this has never been confirmed. His family disappeared without trace.

Today, most of the homes at Baba are well cared for and several are being carefully (if expensively) restored. The estate is further evidence of just how modern and optimistic the Czechoslovak state was in the 1930's before the tragedy of German occupation and then Soviet domination combined to depress the country for five decades. It is both surprising and pleasing that the estate has survived more or less intact and that an import an part of the built heritage of Czech Modernism is still with us. 

A few more images...

The Palicka villa, Mart Stam, 1932.
The Belehradek villa, Fratisek Kerhart, 1936.
The Herman villa, Oldrich Stary, 1933.
View of the Vlatava from Baba.

You can see more pictures of Prague and Brno, including several modernist buildings here.

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