Not Concretely Brutal: The Overlooked Modernity of the East

Little-known centers of modernity have long coalesced around Eastern Europe. Over the past three decades, their stories have begun to be rediscovered.

“Due to more than 40 years of the Cold War, it has largely been forgotten—or never fully realized—how formative the eastern perspective has been for the arts and for architecture in the first half of the 20th century, ” historian Martin Kohlrausch observes in his book, Brokers of Modernity.
Indeed, even today, most people would probably follow in the footsteps of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin, or trace Le Corbusier’s work in Paris and Marseille. Perhaps Wassily Kandinsky (who was later appointed to the Bauhaus by Walter Gropius), El Lissitzky (whose works brought the mathematical understanding of architecture into painting), or Vladimir Tatlin (whose “machine art” culminated in the model of the Spiral Pavilion for the Third International), who already belonged to the artistic avant-garde in Moscow and co-founded Constructivism there under the premise that the artist was also an engineer, may also come to mind.
The fact that Eastern European architecture has produced much more than just gray concrete brutalism, and that artists in Bratislava, Zagreb, or Prague also dealt with various currents of modernism has only begun to be processed in the last three decades since the end of the Cold War.

Cubism in Prague

Cubist Lamppost © Maria Wiesner

A mere decade ago, a reporter from the New York Times reported with astonishment that the legacy of the Cubists can still be seen in Prague today. Shortly before the First World War, artists there explored the ideas of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. They, too, soon saw a connection between painting and architecture.

Today, Prague is the only place in the world where Cubist architecture can be found: on Jungmann Square (not far from the central Wenceslas Square), where the Cubist Lamppost is located, for example. Hexagonal concrete structures form the column, on top of which sits a jagged black cast-iron that holds jagged glass panes.

It was designed by the architect Emil Králíček, who had become acquainted with the ideas of reform architecture in Darmstadt as an employee of Josef Maria Olbrich, the head of the Mathildenhöhe artists’ colony. In 1912, when he realized his lantern design in an ensemble with a pharmacy behind it—the interior design of which combined intricate elements of the late Secession with Cubism—he was met with mockery by the contemporary press. Today the pharmacy no longer exists, but the lantern still tells of the time when the avant-garde entered the cityscape.

This is even more evident a few hundred meters apart, in Prague’s Old Town at Dům U Černé Matky Boží (House of the Black Madonna). Josef Gočár, one of the founders of modern Czech architecture, built it in 1911. Since the late nineties, the Museum of Decorative Arts has extended over two floors; its exhibits providing an idea of how inventive the avant-garde scene must have been in Prague at the beginning of the 20th century. Chairs, chests of drawers and ceramics adapt basic cubist elements in jagged backrests, and challenge gravity with slanted legs and perspective through pointed mirror elements. It is thanks to Gočárs’s spirit of experimentation that he sensitively worked around the then-strict building regulations for modernizing the former baroque building. The façade was not allowed to present too great a contrast to the surrounding buildings. So the architect focused on the interior design, using concrete to provide a static advantage, which allowed him to construct the Grand Café Orient on the second floor completely without supporting pillars, in keeping with Cubist spatial aesthetics.

House of the Black Madonna
Grand Café Orient © Prague Tourism Board

Functionalism in Zlín

Le Corbusier also roamed Prague on his “Voyage d’Orient” in 1911, before continuing his journey to Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade. He recorded the journey in his diary, praising—from a Parisian perspective—eastern European design, which was untouched by false European claims to civilization. Just over a decade later, on another visit to Prague, he would dismiss the functionalist Veletržní palác (then built as an exhibition hall, now the seat of the National Gallery) as “interesting, but not yet architecture”. In 1928, the building—with its large windows and strict, clean lines—was the largest of its kind in Europe.

Another functionalist superlative awaits further east: In Zlín, Jan Antonín Baťa had Central Europe’s first skyscraper constructed in 1936. It was part of the shoe factory of the same name, which his brother Tomáš Baťa had founded in 1894 (the brand still sells shoes in more than 70 countries, although no longer from Zlín). Tomáš Baťa was enthusiastic about Henry Ford, whose ideas he had become acquainted with during a stay in America. He designed his company along Ford’s lines, dividing production into small units and timing the working day in minutes. After Tomáš’s death, his brother also brought the US to Central Europe in an architectural respect, and commissioned the building of a skyscraper. Sixteen stories extend a little over 77 meters into the air, with construction carried out by architect Vladimír Karfík, a student of Le Corbusier. The crowning glory of the building was its head office, which was located in an elevator that could stop on one of the floors at any time. Baťa also designed the surrounding city, and, according to the design of late 19th century garden cities, created a Bataville complete with workers’ housing, a college and a hospital. The skyscraper now houses a museum, and the factory buildings around it still bear witness to the legacy of Constructivism.

Bauhaus in Bratislava

“If you are striving to found and organize a kind of Bauhaus in Bratislava; if you want to improve artistic creation and industry, then you seek the closest possible contact with production and industry,” Walter Gropius told László Moholy-Nagy in 1931, while on his way to Bratislava to give a series of lectures. The city’s Arts and Crafts School quickly became known as the “Bratislavsky Bauhaus”.

Here, formalist positions met socialist ones. Among the teaching staff were avant-garde photographer Jaromír Funke and architect and designer Zdeněk Rossmann, member of the Brno avant-garde collective Devětsil. The teaching combined Analytical Realism, Constructivism and folk art, and the design emphasis was on preserving existing craft traditions. Modernism also moved into Bratislava’s architecture. After 1918, young architects who had trained abroad returned to the newly-formed Czechoslovakia, bringing with them knowledge from Vienna, Prague, Switzerland or France.

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Friedrich Weinwurm and Ignác Vécsei, two leading architects of local modernism, designed several buildings that were influenced by Adolf Loos’ New Objectivity. One example is the Unitas housing complex (1930–31), which met the challenges of urbanization with modern standards. The so-called “Pałlatla” on Bratislava’s Šancová Street extended over seven blocks. The simple apartments had living- and sleeping rooms, as well as kitchen and bathrooms. Weinwurm had also conceived of a complete interior design that adapted to the tight spatial limitations, but could not be realized due to financial constraints. This alone speaks to the slow disappearance of modernity in eastern Europe.

In the still-young Soviet Union, from the early 1930s onwards, Socialist Realism prevailed. In Czechoslovakia, modern art movements were dismissed as bourgeois. In terms of architecture, the new socialist states proclaimed housing programs, and art had to give way to pragmatism. The advance of the Nazis threatened artists. Architects and designers like Weinwurm or Vécsei died in the Holocaust because of their Jewish origins and their left-leaning politics.

Maria Wiesner is a style editor at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung with an interest in Eastern Europe. She contributed to books about correspondents during the Cold War and authored a book of her own („Grund dafür sind Verzögerungen im Betriebsablauf – Wie die Bahn uns alle irre macht“, Harper Collins 2019)