While the majority of factories, logistics centers, printing works, and other industrial structures dotted around the Czech Republic don’t offer much in terms of aesthetics, some of the growing number that do are for the first time receiving the attention they deserve, in the exhibition Contemporary Czech Industrial, now underway at the Jaroslav Fragner Gallery in Prague.
The show turns the spotlight on over three dozen of the most impressive industrial architectural projects seen in the Czech Republic in the post-1989 era. It consists of information panels featuring excellent photographs, along with models, plans, and dozens of wooden pallets that create a construction site feel. It should appeal to anyone with an interest in design.
“The exhibition is partly meant as a kind of expression of gratitude to those in the private sector who, with their own money, are helping to build high-quality Czech architecture,” the show’s co-curator, Dan Merta, told Czech Position, adding that it is also intended as a positive example and encouragement to investors currently considering a new workshop, factory, or plant.
An ideal place to begin looking for inspiration would be the panel dedicated to the Sonberk Winery in south Moravia (one of three wineries in the exhibition). With its undulating corrugated iron roof and use of dark stone, wood, and concrete, the low structure sits perfectly among acres of vineyards and has become something of an icon of Czech architecture since its completion in 2007.
Unusually for a private project, rather than just hiring an architect, the owners of Sonberk invited several architect’s offices to take part in a competition, which was won by Josef Plekot’s Prague-based AP Atelier.
Another of the projects that catches the eye at Contemporary Czech Industrial is central Bohemia’s Wood Works Čáslav. The company’s offices are housed in a rectangular green metal, steel, and glass building covered by a curved laminated timber structure that resembles nothing so much as a gigantic climbing frame. Outside its timber mill, meanwhile, lumber is stored between what look like huge concrete bookends.
These and many of the other designs on show represent a marked improvement on a great deal of the purely functional industrial architecture built in the decades between the start of WWII and the fall of Communism. “The golden era of Czech industrial architecture was without question earlier, in the inter-war period,” the exhibition’s other curator, Petr Volf, told Czech Position. ‘The golden era of Czech industrial architecture was without question earlier, in the inter-war period ... There was a pride to investing in [it].’
“It was a reflection of the economic strength of Czechoslovakia in those days,” Volf says. “There was a pride attached to investing in architecture — such investment was clearly an expression of a certain culture.” The exhibition’s catalog highlights the example of the 1930’s Baťa shoe plant in Zlín, south Moravia, which included housing for workers and influenced corporate architecture in a number of other countries.
However, while many of the factories built in Czechoslovakia’s First Republic — and the preceding period when the Czech lands represented the industrial heartland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — covered whole football pitches of ground, almost all the structures in Contemporary Czech Industrial are on the small side.
“What they have in common is quality,” says Merta. “Obviously it’s on a different level, as here we’re mainly presenting wineries, breweries, and the like. It’s quality on a smaller scale.”
While the reintroduction of capitalism at the beginning of the 1990s laid the foundations for a return to high standards in industrial architectural, it was not until around a decade later that such a shift actually began to occur, says Volf.
“People now take a greater interest in architecture as a life style. They realize that it has broader connections and they’re more interested in the environment,” he says. “When they build something, the more enlightened of them want to add some beauty to the environment they’re entering. I think that’s the basic thing.”
That is not the only way in which the environment is of importance to investors. Almost half the buildings featured in the show can be characterized as ecological, according to Merta, who says this prompted the State Environment Fund (SFŽP) to contribute to the financing of the first-of-its-kind exhibition.
“They realize that there’s a certain segment of both investors and architects for whom the sustainability of architecture is really important,” he says. A fresh interest in all things green means wood is often one of the dominant materials used in these upscale projects. There is “recycling”, meanwhile, in the fact that several of the production facilities included in Contemporary Czech Industrial have been based on existing structures from the early 20th century.
The show’s organizers insist that going the extra mile and hiring well-known architects ultimately pays investors back – including in employee contentment. In a short survey printed at the rear of the catalog, a high number of the owners of the buildings selected say their staff regards them as a “positive” place to work.
Another intangible is the attention that aesthetically pleasing or plain unusual buildings receive from the general public. “It’s a clever marketing tool for investors, as people will automatically be interested in them,” says Volf. “Architecture is a fashion. If you see a nice building you’ll notice it, even before you find out what it’s actually used for.”
After Prague, the exhibition will run in Jihlava and the city in the Czech Republic most closely associated with industry, Ostrava. The international network of Czech Centres is also interested in taking it to capitals beyond the country’s borders.
Contemporary Czech Industrial
Jaroslav Fragner Gallery
Betlémské náměstí 5a, Prague 1
Through Jan. 22, 2012
— Ian Willoughby is a Prague-based freelance writer