Monday 21 August 2017

Frantisek Zelenka - Tragic Czech Modernist

The Zadak Home, Na Baba Estate, Prague.
During the 1930's a number of housing estates were built in the modernist style with the principles of smooth lines, use of modern materials and a healthier way of life incorporated into the design. Several of these schemes were for social housing but the Baba Housing Estate in suburban Prague built from 1932-34 was a private affair attracting industrialists, artists and publishers. The homes were designed by leading Czech modernists including Frantisek Zelenka a Jewish architect who was responsible for the house of Jan Zadak on Na Ostrohu street.

Zelenka was multi-talented and in addition to architecture was also an accomplished author, graphic artist, stage and costume designer. Born in 1904, he studied architecture in Prague from 1923-28 and then from 1929 to 1932, worked as the main set designer for the avant-garde Liberated Theatre. This included designing sets for productions ranging from Shakespeare to contemporary satire. Combining Surrealist, Dada and Bauhaus elements into his work he quickly become one of the most influential set designers in the country. 

In 1934, Jan Zadak, industrialist, sports enthusiast and former member of the Czechoslovakian national football team commissioned Zelenka to design a home for him on the developing Baba Estate. In response, the architect created a simple structure of exterior brick walls and concrete pillars. The ground floor interior consists of a single living space whilst the upper level has three bedrooms at the rear with sanitary and circulation spaces located on the street facing northern facade. These latter spaces are lit by narrow strip windows reflecting traditional Czech style within an overall modernist design. The southern facade has views over the city - Na Baba is built on a hill - and the windows on this side originally had folding wooden blinds, a feature often seen in the more functionalist approach to modernism. This side also has a narrow terrace attached to the main living room with a staircase leading down to the garden, reflecting a key modernist theme of unifying interior and exterior spaces. There is also a small curved balcony on the side of the house, which together with the porthole window and canopy over the main entrance  is one of a small number of concessions to external decoration. The house led to further commissions for Zelenka and two of his buildings still survive in central Prague - an apartment block at Lodecka 3 and a former bookshop on Narodni Street. 

In 1938, conscious of the developing political situation in Europe, Zelenka considered emigrating to Switzerland  but decided to remain in Czechoslovakia, a decision that was to prove fateful when Germany occupied the country in 1939. For a time, he was forced to work as a cataloguer in the German run Central Jewish Museum in Prague. The Museum consisted of thousands of objects stolen from the murdered Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia and which were intended for display in a planned Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race. In 1942, during the occupation, he was deported to Terezin where he took part in the cultural life of the camp, overseeing the theatre. Between  July 1942 and October 1944, despite having little access to materials, he designed sets and costumes for 27 productions including Hans Krasa's children's opera Brundibar and Viktor Ullman's The Emperor of Atlantis. He was deported to Auschwitz on October 9th 1944 and it is almost certain that he was gassed on arrival as were his wife Gertrude and eight years old son, Martin. 

An edited version of this post will appear in the next edition of Jewish Renaissance - a magazine focusing on Jewish Culture and which is currently featuring a series on Jewish modernist architects of the 1930's.

You can see more pictures of Prague here.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Zelenka was VERY talented architecture, but I have not seen his work as a stage and costume designer.

    The small curved balcony and the porthole window were essential requirements for the residents. Only the canopy over the main entrance could be vaguely considered decoration, and even then it was simple as a canopy could be.