A Charming Impasse: Czech Cubist Architecture

The following essay is part of a series devoted to contemporary art and architecture East-Central Europe. It was first delivered as a paper at a conference held at MIT in October, 2001.

Originally, I developed my reading of Czech Cubist architecture within the framework of a more extensive project dealing with the phenomenon of the “border” in art. The ambivalent nature of the “border”, in addition to its obvious function of separation, inherently implies its own transgression, a certain amount of permeability, the existence of a boundary, and an “in-between” zone. Czech Cubism, a rather bizarre episode in the history of architecture, questions many neatly demarcated opposites (modern/anti-modern; art/technique; inside/outside). However, the main focus of this article is the difference between a project and its execution or realization. By “project”, I refer not only to the architect’s blueprint, but also to the heterogeneous mixture of theories, ideas, programmatic declarations, sketches, and models.

In considering these aspects of Czech Cubism one sees that this architectural movement differs radically from the buildings executed through the influence of Central-European architecture. I would like to carry out a “mental experiment”: what happens if one takes the intentions of the Cubists seriously, explicitly expressing what they only half-pronounced or implicitly suggested? What would it be like if the Cubist projects could actually be executed? But in examining the potential of Czech Cubism, one must note that this is not a purely utopian movement in that, in contrast with German Expressionism for example, the utopian ambitions of Czech Cubists are inscribed in the surfaces of real buildings, poised on the border of what can be realized.

I shall only be concerned with the first, pre-war period of Czech Cubist architecture. Between the years 1911 to 1914, no more than a dozen strictly Cubist buildings were constructed, although elements of Cubist décor were used in other architectural designs (some of the most important buildings executed in Prague can be found at the “Czech Cubism Image Tour”: (http://lava.ds.arch.tue.nl/gallery/praha/tcubism.html).

The period after the war is often referred to as “Rondocubism”, or the “National style” as it was called at the time. Rondocubism is a specific Czech version of Art Deco, using motifs of folk architecture and national colors. Although it was—unlike the first phase?ardently received by architects and the general public, Rondocubism did not last longer than a few years.

Czech Cubism was one of the first anti-modern movements in architecture. Pavel Janák, Josef Gocár, Josef Chochol, Vlastislav Hofman, and others argued with their mentor Jan Kotera, Otto Wagner’s prominent student and founder of Czech modern architecture. By the mid-twenties the Cubists themselves had turned to rationalism or functionalism, and in retrospect deprecated their earlier efforts as a temporary digression. Likewise the theorists spoke of “an original, yet erring, aesthetic formula” (Karel Teige); that is, if they mentioned Czech Cubism at all.

The silence was broken towards the end of the twentieth century with the fall of the hegemony of modern functionalism and the rehabilitation of Art Nouveau and organic architecture. This became especially true during the 1980s and 90s when Czech Cubism became one of the main “export items” of the exhibition industry.

The fact that Cubist architecture was discovered again in light of post-World War II tendencies suggests a comparison between these early and late anti-modern movements, namely Robert Venturi’s postmodernism. Both movements are far less ambitious compared to architectural modernism, because they do not aspire to change the world through the means of architecture, only to change architecture itself. They also share a common focus on the surface structure of a building. One must, however, first assess Czech Cubism on its own in order to understand its fundamental ideologies. I shall approach Czech Cubism with the use of two preliminary sketches, considering first what is Cubist about Czech Cubism by relating it to the French original, and then considering its place in relation to modern architecture.

I.

By adopting the latest trends in French art, the Czech avant-garde sought to place itself within the framework of Europe between the years 1907 and 1917. This was important because Paris “the successor to Italy and the predecessor of Moscow,” as described by Teige in 1928, was the artistic epicenter not only of France, but of the international art scene as well. Czech artists, however, did not slavishly imitate the French models, but took inspiration from its original form and transposed it into a style of their own. It is necessary to stress that the specific Czech version of Cubism did not arise only from the concern for local traditions, but also—paradoxically perhaps—from a certain misinterpretation or misuse of the “original” Cubist principles.

The main concern of the Cubist movement was the novel solution to the problem of transposing three-dimensional images into two dimensions. As described by Picasso, “Cubism proceeded within the borders of painting and it never claimed it wanted to cross them.” The revolutionary stylistic innovations, suggested first in Picasso’s famous Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907, and later fully developed in the analytic phase, resulted in a new “look” of paintings.

Picasso, an engineer of the image, did not concern himself much with the idea of aesthetics, but rather how the representation functioned. The Cubist “aesthetics” was a by-product of the conceptual solution to the problem of representation. The effort to see all aspects of an object simultaneously and then arrange them upon a single flat surface, allowing the work to be analyzed from a single viewpoint, creates a facetious, splintery flux of shapes tipping backwards and forwards. The arrangement and selection of the fragments are no doubt made with regard to an aesthetic quality, yet the scattering of the semi-transparent facets is not searched for but rather merely found. This may justify, to some extent, Tom? Kulka’s differentiation between the “artistic” and the “aesthetic” value of art.(See his article “The Artistic and the Aesthetic Value of Art”, The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1981, or the chapters on the same subject in his book Kitsch and Art, Pennsylvania Un. Press 1996.)

High artistic value always means “a new manner of representation,” “a novel type of ‘solution’ to visual problems,” and refers to the importance of a particular work in an art-historical context. By contrast, information about other works of art is not necessarily relevant in the case of aesthetic value, which “pertains to the visual qualities of the picture” and “is assessed on the basis of visual perception alone.”

This distinction, however schematic, may help us to identify more clearly the difference between French and Czech Cubism. The former, primarily concerned with the “engineering” of pictures, and the latter appropriates its superficial “look”, settling on aesthetic value only. The works of Czech Cubists have a “Cubist” appearance at first sight, but are not constructed according to Cubist principles. One can see this clearly in Kubišta’s St. Sebastian from 1912 (Fig. 1). There the Cubist elements are used as surface decoration on an otherwise traditionally modeled figure. This allusion to Cubism also helps Kubišta to connote the fate of the modern artist as martyr.

The most important consequence of this “superficial” borrowing of forms was the possibility it introduced of a universal application. This created the transplantation of Cubism beyond the confines of painting. In a sense, Czech Cubism tried to achieve the same goals as Art Nouveau, only through a different morphology. Thanks to the slight misinterpretation of Cubist principles, there are now many aesthetically impressive, decorative Cubist works of sculpture, architecture, furniture, glass and graphic design. Some contemporaries were critical of this at its time of expression. For example, Josef Capek commented on the work of Emil Filla by stating, “His works are meant to impress, to evoke the utmost modernity; he follows Picasso, yet errs, because Filla does not understand Picasso and only uses these external striking forms without understanding them at all.”

II.

The eighteenth century developed several concepts that until recently have been decisive for the development of architecture. It is important to stress that it was then that architecture became considerably politicized. There are two complementary ways to account for this fact. The first has been developed by Michel Foucault, who points out that “in the eighteenth century one sees the development of reflection upon architecture as a function of the aims and techniques of the government of societies.”(Michel Foucault; “Space, Knowledge and Power,” in: P. Rabinow (ed.); The Foucault Reader, London: Penguin Books 1984, p. 239.)

This move manifested itself also inside the very realm of architecture. The architectural “Rousseauism” of Marc-Antoine Laugier and others discovered the ideal of beauty as generally valid, essential, and devoid of all conventions or customs. Architecture developed a new concept of function anticipating the functionalist discussions of the subsequent centuries, and in particular the educational conception of architecture. The work of architecture conceived as a “didactic machine” is no longer interesting in relation to the harmony of its proportions or the arithmetical relations of its composition. The emphasis is instead placed on its outward expression, how the “face” describes its functions, and how a building “speaks” (architecture parlante).

This tradition, culminating in twentieth-century modernism, allows us to conceive of architecture as a specific medium of communication. Naturally, some significant transformations have occurred within this tradition of architecture. For example, eighteenth-century architecture expressed its function symbolically. This aesthetic can be expressed through the ground plan of Ledoux’s temple of love, Oikema, which was shaped as a phallus or a river that streamed through the River Inspector’s house.

Conversely modernism expresses a constructivist function. This is not a reason, however, to avoid the educational program of architecture. If we interpret this program as a communication situation, we might be able to reveal a specific concept of “sign” in its background. This implicit sign conception of modern architecture is precisely what Czech Cubism questions, implicitly as well. It is this conception that will later be criticized by postmodern architecture.

One examination of the modern notion of a sign in architecture is presented through Le Corbusier’s manifesto Vers une architecture from 1923. Le Corbusier emphasizes the use of mathematics to unveil the “universal order” and “principles that govern our universe.” Architectural works should then grow “from within to without” in accordance with the principles of using basic geometrical shapes and a mathematically refined plan, which becomes an embryonic, seminal form of the house. The final form must not deviate from the plan in any way. According to Le Corbusier the plan is “le générateur“, which determines the mass and surface of a building. The plan is the original structure that makes the building rise and reveal the essential and there is no difference between the project and its realization. The building is a perfect transparence; no ornament may obstruct the radiation of the inward essential character.(It must be added that the treatise Vers une architecture (Paris: Les Editions G. Crès & Cie 1928) realizes these intentions better than Le Corbusier’s (or anybody else’s) buildings. The “architecture” of this text is governed exactly by the premises it proclaims: the brief content keynotes are used as titles of the individual chapters and gradually developed in several steps; the sketch of introductory statements is presented in more detail by the following text. Written form seems to be more pliable with regard to his dictum: “Technique is a mere means peacefully serving the concept.”)

This model remains in the confines of the modern mimetic doctrine. It demands the correspondence of form and function and so assumes: (1) a difference between them, a distinction between representation and the represented; and (2) isomorphism between these separated entities.(Cf. Julian Roberts; “Melancholy Meanings: Architecture, Postmodernity and Philosophy,” in: N. Wheale (ed.); The Postmodern Arts, London – New York: Routledge 1995, pp. 130-149.) It is important to register both aspects of this theory, especially the moment of differentiation, because it allows for the possibility of speaking about the potential isomorphism.

The denial of potential isomorphism is expressed through the architecture of postmodernism. For example, Robert Venturi(Robert Venturi; Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, London: The Architectural Press Ltd. 1977; Robert Venturi – Denise S. Brown – Steven Izenour; Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, Cambridge: The MIT Press 1996.) still differentiates between the “image and function,” and “image and substance” of a building, only perceiving a contradiction between them. The “translucence” of the “envelope” seems unattainable to him and he regards its illusory accomplishment in modernist architecture as a cunning trick.

According to Venturi, the modernist architects decorated their buildings with constructive and technological elements that had no real function in the structure. Venturi continues to operate with the modernist ideal of a non-symbolic construction, the only difference for him being that it is no longer an ideal but only an idea. He does not demand the isomorphism between the construction and expression of building, but continues to separate the ideas and perhaps even deepens the gulf between them. For Venturi, most of architecture falls into the category of a “decorated shed”. Through this logic, the “Amiens cathedral is a billboard with a building behind it.” The building’s structure is pushed into the background, under the silt of arbitrary, freely combined forms, and by itself it remains silent. In order to break this sense of silence the “shed” must be “decorated.”

III.

It is the Cubists who cast doubts upon the modern mimetic principle with a greater sense of vigor. They focus on its more fundamental premise, of the differentiation between the representation and the represented, and the distinction between inside and outside.

It is true, that at some points they deal with their antagonists’ conceptual apparatus in a way most opposition movements do. They maintain the same schemes and definitions but attach them to opposite values. When Janák started to revolt against Kotera’s Wagnerian teachings, he wrote in his first theoretical treatise, characteristically entitled From Modern Architecture to Architecture, against the subordination of form to function and technique, and against the reduction of the “artistic” in architecture to extrinsic detail.

Encouraged by the writings of Alois Riegel, Janák asserted exactly the opposite idea, that architecture is the spiritual mastery of passive matter. Architecture, guided by “specific formative principles of spiritual creation,” was not to be excluded from the realm of art. The Cubists were still speaking from the modernist standpoint that differentiated utilitarian technique and art, butreversed its priorities. In the words of the most radical representative, Vlastislav Hofman, “form is absolute and superior to function.”

Pavel Janák was somewhat more restrained, probably due to the fact that he not only wrote and drew, but also constructed buildings. For him the relation of opposites such as art and technique or art and nature was always tense. He acknowledged their distinctiveness and peculiarity but conceived of them in terms of mutual struggle, constantly, pulling one another across common ground. In order to express the manipulability of a border, Janák discusses in his article On Furniture and Other Matters(The most important of Janák’s articles were collected and commented upon in two anthologies: Olga Herbenov?- Jir?Šetlík; Pavel Janák, ACTA UPM XIX, C, COMMENTATIONES 4, 1985, and Jir?Padrta; Osma a Skupina výtvarných umelcu 1907-1917, Praha: Odeon 1992.) the dichotomy between inside and outside: “Art is in the same relation to furniture as it is to nature ?art finds in it its basis, issues from it but also reorganizes it, reshapes, extends, perhaps even deforms ?according to the spatial imagination of our feelings, not reason. Wherever the spirit was active, the surface is transformed, moved, as if in its folds and waves the surface were a mixture of the matter existing inside and the space on the outside [my italics].

It is precisely this mixture of inside matter and outside space that Cubist facades want to accomplish (see Fig. 2 for Janák’s study of a gable, 1912 and Figs. 3 – 4 for a confrontation of his sketch and realization of a house in Pelhrimov, 1913). The crystal-like creases on the surface are not an extrinsic decoration: The viewer does not differentiate the wall from its ornamentation. The inside of the house, its mass continuously proceeds into the furrows and fractures of the splintery façade. The inside and outside, the matter and space, merge together creating a sense of continuity between the dense material core and the wavering air surrounding it. The Cubist buildings are not overly articulated or dissected but mostly constitute a monolithic mass, and a compact, enclosed ground plan.

The articulation of the surfaces is of decisive importance because if matter and materials blend with the surrounding open space, the borders of the building disintegrate. If the borders of a building disintegrate, the building itself vanishes. The primary straight wall, the border separating the inside from the outside, becomes slightly distorted in order to reinforce the idea that this process should be pushed to its limits. This emphasizes the idea that the boundary zone becomes a mixture of inside and outside influences, denying a sense of denoted space.

It is important to stress the two-way nature of this process: On the one hand, the existence of architecture is negated; on the other, we may interpret the erosion of the border as a dynamic expansion of architecture into the world around it. In this way Czech Cubism becomes rather close to German Expressionism. Paul Scheerbart, for example, frequently uses the image of the world becoming one single work of architecture.

The Cubist buildings are a pronounced aporiae, the existence of which is negated at the moment of their realization. Or rather, if the Cubist designs could truly be executed, they would dissolve at the moment of their achievement. Naturally, this is an essential condition to emphasize given that the Cubists could not realize their ideals in practice. They were not, however, satisfied only with a pencil and sketchbook. The enigma created through the vibrating surfaces of Cubist buildings brings us to the border of our own sense of realization, proving that – in the words of Vilém Flusser – “what cannot be expressed does not have to be hushed up entirely. It may be half-pronounced.”

Tomas Dvorakis a teacher at the Department of Electronic Culture and Semiotics, Faculty of Humanities, Charles University and a research assistant at the Institute of Philosophy, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

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