Česká centra, Czech Centres

Česká centra / Czech centres - logo


All news

Czech Houses – An interview with curators Ján Stempel, Ondřej Beneš and Jan Jakub Tesař

1 SEPTEMBER 2015 - At the same time that Open House, London’s greatest architectural festival, is taking place, the Czech Centre presents Czech Houses, an exhibition mapping the development of Czech family housing since 1989. The curators of the project, architects Ján Stempel, Jan Jakub Tesař and Ondřej Beneš, have granted an exclusive interview to the Czech Centre.

Ján Stempel Jan Jakub Tesař Ondřej Beneš

What was the foremost inspiration for the realisation of the Czech Houses project?

Firstly, this isn’t the first project dedicated to individual housing in the Czech Republic (J.Stempel: 99 domů / 99 houses, Praha Kant 2012).  A previous large publication was intended for the Czech expert and non-expert public; however, compared to that publication, Czech Houses aims to present a full and representative selection: 33 family homes from 33 ateliers.

Against which criteria did you choose the particular houses for your project?

They are houses where you can feel and see – in accordance with the essential requirement of the patriarch of Czech architecture, Karel Hubáček – that they truly ‘work’: ...they grasp the issue of housing as a service, as ‘a mission, a vision, tasks, clients’ – they return a perpetuity and an elegance to the ‘service’ through the ‘vision’.  A ‘joy of living’ radiates from family homes.  The publication therefore primarily presents houses that meet these specific criteria, ones that ‘passed’.

The aim was to present contemporary Czech architecture in the family housing sector in its remarkable breadth – the entire spectrum of expressive environments, the materials used, conceptual mindsets, sizes. 

In the subtext of the publication, we raised this question: Does contemporary – since 1989 – Czech architecture have specific characteristics, its own identity?  The first answer highlights a certain paradox: the common feature may be the fact that these features are extremely difficult to trace – the production of family housing displays extraordinary diversity. The second answer highlights the undeniable specificity of Czech architecture;  the extraordinary ability to 'receive and adapt significant foreign influences – perhaps, sometimes, at the expense of deeper theoretical anchorage.

In an attempt to make Czech architecture clearer and more understandable to foreigners, the eminent Czech architectural historian R. Švácha identifies ‘austerity’ as a fundamental feature of contemporary Czech architecture, from its beginnings to the present day.  We could, perhaps, expand this idea of ‘austerity’, with some adjustment.

Family House in Beroun; HŠH architekti; Photos: Pavel Pszczolka

What problems do you believe contemporary Czech architecture currently faces and will face in the future? 

The architecture of individual housing in our country, among other things, symbolises the possibility to create for oneself a kind of ‘Czech dream’ – being able to create one’s own world with its own rules, independent of the ‘outside’ world (for more of this idea, see Á. Moravánsky’s text in the book). Sometimes in an environment to which the building does not correspond. Yes, we are talking about the so-called satellite building, which experienced its greatest popularity in the 1990s, though the concept is still far from coming to an end.  The exploitation of the landscape continues.  Individual construction therefore contends with this – besides the usual problems, it is, above all, an issue of connection with the surroundings, an issue of the creation of quality and of the meaningful use of public space.

How can we
‘educate’ the public so that interesting architectural projects increase in number? And is it really a question of educating the public?   

This is always an issue, for clients, for architects; it is a question of the amount of investment and technology.  For architectural quality, the most important thing is a ‘high average’ – this, far and away, has the most bearing on the environment in which we live. And the best way of ‘educating’ is to provide a good example.  

As for quality, that is often simply inferred in a rational way – its ordinariness appeals to us, it draws attention by itself. Nowadays, it is accompanied by deliberation, more what to remove, than what to add.  Its essence is such that quality is far closer to the non-consumerist way of life. In the period up until 1989, the building of family homes was suppressed; therefore the development of family homes, including their quality, is also a significant measure of the transformation that Czech society has undergone.   

Therefore, if we are talking about ‘educating’ people, this is far more likely to concern style and the organisation of our lives; the search for alternatives that is reflected in the creation of family housing.  If the client and architect agree on this fundamental rule, the journey towards the creation of quality begins.  Here, architecture is the result of a consensus between client and architect; as the architect Karel Hubáček (who was awarded the Auguste Perret Prize for the creation of the Ještěd hotel and television transmitter) said, ‘everything can be done well, badly or adequately’.  The family homes shown are ‘well-made’; they are often ‘plain’ and simple, they present a unique solution, etcetera.

Rak, Raková, Rydlo, Skalický
Photos: Ester Havlová
Family House Vanov, 3+1 Architects
photo: Pavel Planicka

Which aspects of British architecture could inspire Czech architects?

In the Czech Republic, British architecture traditionally has an exceptional reputation. Therefore, many Czechs try to gain knowledge of British architecture. Those who had the most success in this at the end of the 20th century were Jan Kaplický, Eva Jiřičná, Jan Bočan at the end of the 1960s, and the recently deceased Dalibor Veselý (who taught at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, at the University of Essex and finally in the Department of Architecture at the Faculty of Architecture and History of Art at the University of Cambridge. He won the 2006 Annie Spink Award for Excellence in Architectural Education).   

And which aspects could inspire Czech architects nowadays?  It would most probably be the balance between conscientiously well-maintained tradition and the modern, innovative elements that constantly penetrate it. 

The fundamental difference from the past is that, today, many young Czech architects work in England. 

Another distinct aspect may be the adaptation of the British practice of constructing high-rise buildings in the historic centre of a metropolis.  This is especially so in the context of the upcoming Prague metropolitan plan, where high-rise buildings are in close proximity to the centre (leading to issues of regulation) – this is a very controversial issue.    

Family House in Zebetin
Makovsky & Partners
Family House Humpolec
photo Jan Malý

How great an interest, if there is interest at all, does the foreign professional public (including architects and architectural theorists) show in Czech architecture?

Very slowly, Czech architecture is becoming part of general European architectural discourse. It doesn’t draw attention to itself with extraordinarily expensive or exclusive buildings. At the same time, though, it is something that can be built on – modernism, functionalism, the distinctive 1960s (presented at the Cold War Modern exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2008).  Abroad, modern Czech architecture had its admirers and its ‘ambassadors’ – Kenneth Frampton remains an admirer of the Czech avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s to this day. 

Czech architecture since 1989 lacks ‘ambassadors’ and, furthermore, it is far more difficult to ‘read’. It is hard to recognise a central theme; something by which it can be identified. R. Švácha therefore attempted to establish the above-mentioned concept of so-called Czech ‘austerity’.  However, the best way is to present a representative collection of buildings encompassing the whole spectrum of the family housing sector – the foreign reader can then come up with their own opinion.

For many, the ‘quality, quantity and variety’ of this collection has been surprising.  Our Moscow colleague Eugene Asse (founder of the Moscow School of Architecture (MARCH), member of the European Cultural Parliament and several times curator of the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale) was literally astonished. 

Are you planning Czech Houses 2?

Of course. 



Czech Houses will be exhibited in 12 Star Gallery in London from 16 till 25 September 2015.




Translated by Rebecca Seaton