Mánes restoration aims to return functionalist gallery’s former glory

Prague’s Mánes to feature state-of-the-art gallery space, a multifunctional venue and an outdoor café after its 2013 reopening

Arts & Leisure
Guest Writer | 12.01.2012
The renovation will preserve the building’s distinct façades — including its iconic Mánes neon signs — and make it as truly functional as architect Otakar Novotný had intended

One of Prague’s most distinctive art spaces, the Mánes gallery on the right bank of the Vltava, is closing its doors in March for a major renovation job that its operators say will bring back a good deal of the functionalist building’s original shape, including outdoor terraces.

Mánes has a rich history. It was commissioned as a permanent home for the Mánes Union of Fine Arts, named after the great 19th century painter Josef Mánes. The group was effectively a who’s who of the local art elite in the early part of the 20th century, while its non-Czech members included Picasso, Dali, and Matisse.

Before the Union’s new headquarters was fully ready to open its doors to the public in September 1930, Mánes played host to one of the biggest social events in Prague that year, the 80th birthday celebrations for the founder of Czechoslovakia, President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, a keen backer of the project. It launched its activities with a major show entitled “100 Years of Czech Art: 1830–1930.”

A rough impression of what the Mánes gallery will look like when the building reopens in the second half of 2013

The white, block-like structure designed by architect Otakar Novotný (who was chairman of the Mánes Union of Fine Arts) is built on a bridge over a tributary between the Masaryk embankment and Slovanský Island. The spot had for centuries been home to a mill, Šítkovské mlýny, which was demolished to make way for the new structure. Its only remnant is an onion dome-topped 16th century tower that stands adjacent to today’s gallery.

“The golden age of the building was without doubt the 1930s,” Martin Pavala, chairman of the supervisory board of Nadace českého výtvarného umění (Czech Art Foundation), which owns the building, told Czech Position.

Along with the late 19th century Rudolfinum Gallery, he says, Mánes remains to this day the only exhibition hall in the Czech capital expressly built for that purpose. But as well as housing art shows, it was also an important social center in its heyday.

Lively terraces

“Mánes had beautiful terraces, and there was a huge seating space outside for a summer restaurant, a garden restaurant, on Slovanský Island,” Pavala says. “In photos and documents we have from that time, it’s clear that it was an incredibly lively spot.” It was also famed for its French Restaurant, whose huge windows offered great views across the Vltava River.

When Mánes first opened in 1930 it featured a car showroom, wine shop, and newsagent’s

Meanwhile, the glass-fronted side along the embankment housed a newsagent’s, a vintner’s, and, of all things, a small car showroom. The rent from those commercial spaces went at least some way to paying off the considerable debts that the construction project had saddled the Mánes Union of Fine Arts with.

Indeed, there is a good chance that the organization would have gone bankrupt if it had not been dissolved by the Communists in 1957 and replaced, more or less with the same membership, by the party-approved Union of Czechoslovak Artists, says Pavala. Decades later in the heady days of the Velvet Revolution, Mánes – which had maintained its role as one of Prague’s leading art houses – was taken over by the opposition.

“Very spontaneously, it became one of the centers of the Civic Forum in November 1989, and the center for the distribution of all kinds of printed materials,” says Pavala. “Many of the improvised posters of that time were created here.”

Havel’s favorite building

The man whom the revolution would soon turn into the country’s first democratically elected president in half a century, Václav Havel, boosted Mánes’s status further when he told a BBC television program in the early 1990s that it was his favorite building in Prague, a city world renowned for its wealth of architecture.

The opening exhibition at Mánes was entitled ‘100 Years of Czech Art: 1830–1930’

Ironically, it later came to light that the Communist-era secret police, the StB, had created a spy station at the top of the tower that adjoins Mánes in order to monitor Havel’s apartment, located perhaps 50 yards away beside what is today the site of the Dancing Building (Tančící dům).

Following the change of regime, Mánes continued to serve as a space for temporary exhibitions. One of the most notable in recent times was Petr Nikl’s hit interactive show “Play”, which drew over 50,000 visitors in 2010.

“Actually, if we just wanted to run it as it has been run for the last 20 years, all we’d have to do is plaster and paint it a bit and it could just keep going,” says Pavala. But the main problem, and the reason for the renovation, is the building’s serious technical shortcomings. A lack of humidity control, for instance, means that owners are currently unwilling to lend the gallery valuable pieces.

Functionalist, not functioning

“It’s a functionalist building,” says Pavala. “And a basic principle of functionalist architecture is that the architecture reflects the function of the building. That isn’t the case right now.”

State-of-the-art air conditioning is just one thing visitors can expect when Mánes reopens — the target date is September next year — following a renovation job that will cost in the region of Kč 150 million.

The main, street-level part of Mánes will continue to serve as a gallery, but with all mod cons including a high-tech movable wall at the back. At the rear of the building there will be an affordable café opening directly on to Slovanský Island and with terraces on two levels.

This undoes part of a renovation carried out in the 1970s and ‘80s that effectively cut Mánes off from the island, destroying one of its original attractions. The outdoor seating, and the views it affords, will no doubt be a major draw in the summer months. The watchword is preservation, as exemplified by plans to maintain the building’s distinctive façades.

The structure’s lower level, which has up to now been employed as additional gallery space, will be turned into a multifunctional venue that can be used for concerts, film screenings, and other events that operators hope will help make Mánes a cultural hub.

However, the watchword is preservation, as exemplified by plans to maintain the building’s distinctive façades – including their iconic Mánes neon signs. “We’re essentially returning it to its original state and removing the alterations made in the last renovation,” says Pavala. “We’re restoring it, not reconstructing it.”

— Ian Willoughby is a Prague-based freelance journalist 

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