Inside “Prague Functionalism”

Zdeněk Lukeš, curator of “Prague Functionalism: Tradition and Contemporary Echoes,” began his tour of the exhibition on 2.13.15, with a discussion of the Tugenhadt House, a famous prototype of Modernism in the present-day Czech Republic. Designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1932, while he was director of the Bauhaus, the Tugenhadt House exemplified the cross-pollination of avant-garde design philosophy across Europe that buttressed the Functionalist movement in Prague.

In contrast to Mies’s high profile house, however, Lukeš noted that it was a group of students at the Technical University of Prague who were the forerunners in bringing avant-garde architecture to the city. The founding of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 set the stage for a more political bent in architecture, and students at the Technical University drew inspiration for a new type of architecture from several avant-garde art and architecture movements – Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture, Russian Constructivism, the Bauhaus, and Dutch De Stijl. Although the universities themselves tended towards conservatism and Neoclassicism was still a dominant architectural style in Prague at the time, students began to hold underground exhibitions of their contemporary work.

Outside of the universities, Prague was also becoming an important center of contemporary art in Central Europe. Lukeš painted an image of the quintessential intellectual haven where artists, writers, architects, and theorists gathered in cafés and shared ideas for what would lead to a bourgeoning avant-garde movement. A group of artists known as Devětsil emerged out of this intellectual scene. Among this group was the important Czech architect and theoretician Karel Teige. Lukeš talked at length about Teige’s contribution to the Czech Functionalist movement. Influenced by the French Situationists, Le Corbusier, and the Bauhaus, Teige was a proponent of building social housing to improve the lives of modern city-dwellers. Lukeš discussed a city law enacted in the 1920s dictating that every district of Prague had to build social housing. In line with this new law, Teige and his contemporaries championed an architectural style that emphasized small and efficient domestic spaces with a lot of light, housed in simple concrete forms.

Lukeš emphasized that Functionalist architecture was not found solely in housing for the masses. He discussed the many building typologies that utilized the Functionalist tenets – with fine examples in schools, museums, office buildings, and houses of worship. Lukeš also highlighted the stylish nature of Functionalism in Prague at the time – it was popular for upper-class families to commission private homes. Most famous among these is Villa Müller, designed by Adolf Loos, a deeply influential Modernist architect and theorist. Standing in front of a model of the house, Lukeš explained the complex Raumplan, or space plan, that Loos conceived for the family home. The house contains 11 different interconnected levels, with rooms sized proportionally to how important their functions were deemed. The home was designed “from the inside to the outside,” Lukeš explained. The simple, cube-like exterior shrouds the intricate interior plan.

Not only complex in its interior, Lukeš went on to discuss the harried political ping-pong to which the Villa Müller was subjected. It remained a private home until the communist putsch of Czechoslovakia in 1948. Once Czechoslovakia was under communist rule, the Müller house was repurposed as an official Marxist-Leninist institution – and even used as a training site for Libyan revolutionaries. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the house was returned to its original owners, then sold to a rich financier who threatened to completely rebuild it with no regard for the original design. The local design community spoke out against this, and finally the house was sold to the City of Prague and opened to the public. Lukeš described his frustration during the many years that the architectural icon was off-limits to visitors – to have such an important piece of architectural history looming nearby while the government showed little regard for such rich, local cultural heritage.

Lukeš’s passionate discussion of reinvesting in Prague’s Modernist legacy with regard to the Müller House provided a perfect segue for the “Contemporary Echoes” portion of the exhibition. Lukeš walked the crowd through the upper galleries, representing the rebirth of Functionalism. As the period of Soviet occupation ended, Prague faced an era of cultural flux, which was reflected in the built environment. Architects working in the 1990s looked back to Functionalist design of the 1930s for inspiration, marrying this modern tradition with an interest in emerging technologies. Lukeš again emphasized the diversity of typologies that drew upon Functionalism as an aesthetic and theoretical principle. A contemporary art museum built in two former factory buildings, a community center for a prefabricated housing block, contemporary office buildings, shopping centers, and new luxury homes – he underscored how Functionalist design continues to reverberate throughout contemporary Czech culture. Bringing the tour full circle, Lukeš ended with an anecdote about Mies’s Tugenhadt House, a gem of Functionalism in the Czech Republic: a wealthy businessman was looking to build a new home in Prague. Upon touring the Tugenhadt House, he decided to replicate the opulent onyx wall flanking the original building. In this 21st-century Prague house, he built an onyx wall even larger than Mies’s original. The legacy of Functionalism literally stands larger than ever.


Event: Curator Tour: “Prague Functionalism: Tradition and Contemporary Echoes”
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.13.15
Tour guide: Zdeněk Lukeš, Curator and Lecturer, New York University in Prague
Organized by: Center for Architecture