As Modernism spread across the globe in the early 20th century, its vision of a totalizing, unifying way of making architecture was never fully realized. Instead, many of the tenets of the movement were “absorbed” into distinct local, regional, and national cultures. Prague, in the modern-day Czech Republic, is perhaps one of the more complex contexts that inherited these international influences in its own particular way. Currently on view at the Center for Architecture in New York is Prague Functionalism: Tradition and Contemporary Echoes, a look at the Czech Functionalism of the 1920s and 1930s, and its influence on contemporary Czech architecture today.
Prague at that time was rapidly modernizing as it grew from a provincial city into an international metropolis. It was uniquely situated in Czechoslovakia, at the intersection of the East and the West. The exhibition is two-fold: The first part focuses on the 1920s and 1930s and the intellectual history that brought architectural modernism to Prague from outside influences including the Bauhaus, Adolf Loos, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier, as well as movements around Europe such as Purism, Constructivism, Rationalism, and Functionalism. Much of the outside influence was brought in by Jan Kotera, who was a student of Otto Wagner’s in Vienna.
The second part of the exhibition shows how the period is being resurrected as a new contemporary Czech architecture. After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, Prague was free from outside rule, and became a center of progressive modernism. This freedom was lost after World War II, when the country was subjected to a USSR-backed regime that oppressed Czechoslovakia until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It was then that the interwar period of independence became the source of reference for architects looking to continue Czech Functionalism.
Individual buildings have specific borrowed motifs that can be traced throughout, including formal references like the austere white boxes of Adolf Loos, the ribbon windows of Le Corbusier, and the restrained, technologically charged minimalism of Mies. The functional innovations of the time were cultural, representing the Czech way of making buildings. Programmatic organization is often borrowed, such as in Atelier 8000’s family housing at Hanspaulka, where individual buildings are gathered into a tight complex, recalling the famous Baba Villa Colony of the 1930s. Additionally, the respect for this architectural heritage can be seen in contextual responses when contemporary buildings are built near existing modernist icons, such as the Euro Palace on Vaclavske Square, which sits alongside two 1920s department stores.
The exhibition itself is full of wonders that are worth seeing simply as single artifacts. A full-scale plan is printed on the floor of the Center, with furniture to give scale to the unit. It is an apartment unit by Ladislav ák, inspired by theorist Karel Teige’s ideas on minimum collective housing and his book, The Minimum Dwelling. The unit could be read as the Czech equivalent of Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky’s “Frankfurt Kitchen” and the German existenzminimum—minimal existence—that it manifested. In ák’s version, it was the whole apartment where unnecessary space and movement was eliminated, making the home into a functional ideal. Several models were flown in for the exhibition, including an intricate gray-scale representation of the Hanspaulka Villas by Stanislav Fiala (2009), complete with details such as wire mesh that covers an outdoor walkway. Fassadentwerf, conceptual drawings from 1921, by Vit Obrtel show the experimental nature of the otherwise dry Functionalism. His designs are made of planes that curve into one another, creating a highly complex facade from what would be a relatively simple construction technique.
The exhibition’s strongest point is the coherent and large selection of historical buildings and their contemporary echoes. Each floor shows strong conceptual and pragmatic through-lines. The two parts remain very separated, however, and they are grouped by building type. It would be interesting to see how the simple display—large-scale prints hung on the wall—could have been manipulated to more directly illustrate particular similarities between the two eras. The exhibition gets the details right throughout its broad selection of projects, but the complex and fascinating political background of this material is downplayed significantly. For example, the 19th century “Parade of (Neo-classical) Styles” that prefaced modernism played out in a unique way in Prague as the International Style was rejected by Czech Nationalists as oppressive because it had its roots in Vienna, the cultural center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ruled over Czech lands at the turn of the century.
Nonetheless, this is a tightly executed and interesting show that could likely serve as a prototype for future exhibitions focused on other contexts where modernism continues to influence local architecture. If the 2014 Venice Biennale was about “Absorbing Modernity,” perhaps this show is about “Extending Modernity” into the 21st century.