Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Ryabushinsky Mansion - Moscow Art Nouveau

I have visited Moscow twice, first in 2008 and again, briefly in 2012 on the way home from Azerbaijan. It is a huge city with much to see but on both occasions I took the time to visit the Ryabushinsky Mansion on Ulitsa Malaya Nikitskaya, a sumptuous art nouveau building designed by Fyodor Shekhtel and completed in 1902. The former home of the Ryabushinsky family, it is now the Maxim Gorky House Museum but the building itself is the main attraction. In 2008, I found my way there by negotiating the Moscow Metro which is beautiful but difficult to manage. The names of stations are displayed only in Cyrillic and although the next station is announced it doesn't always sound the like the anglicised version of the Russian name that you might have memorised!

On arrival, I was handed a pair of over shoes to wear, to protect the wooden floors from damage, sold a ticket and then sold another ticket that enabled me to take photographs. The stern advice on not using a flash was for free as was the telling-off some visitors received for taking pictures without  a ticket. Quite right too but indicative of the then somewhat grim and Soviet style approach to "welcoming" tourists. However, once through the door to the main part of the building all of this was easily forgiven as the mansion's treasures revealed themselves.

The house revolves around the centrally located staircase, constructed of Italian limestone which resembles marble but is warm when touched. The bannister is pierced at regular intervals with sculpted features resembling breaking waves. It is lit by a newel post lamp with bulbs that have been compared to stalactites, but for me resembled dripping candles as their light has a liquid appearance. The lamp adds atmosphere to the already dramatic staircase, leading visitors up through the building which is generally dimly lit in order to preserve the fabrics, paintings and colours of materials.

The staircase may be the main feature, but it is closely followed by the beautiful stained glass windows found throughout the building including the natural scene above the wooden panelling at the foot of the stairs and the large window at the landing with its translucent drops of water and fish scales. The rooms leading off the staircase are used to exhibit paintings, Gorky's library and original furnishings. It is difficult to take good photographs in the low light (at least I found this to be the case) but you can purchase a pamphlet from the reception desk that is well illustrated and tells  something of the house's history.

The Ryabushinsky family were members of a Christian sect known as the Old Believers, people who followed the Orthodox Christian faith prior to the reforms of 1652 and 1666. Subjected to persecution, they were forbidden to establish new places of worship and in 1856 their existing churches had their altars sealed. The laws were relaxed in 1905 under Tsar Nicholas II but the house was completed three years before that and so the family established a secret chapel at the very top of the mansion. This room was restored and re-opened before my second visit in 2012 and so I was able to see it. Richly decorated in orange, blue and other bright colours it reminded me a little of the more outrageous examples of Austrian Secessionism, including some of the works of Klimt.

The family was prominent in banking, publishing, textiles and trade at the time the house was built, having started out three generations earlier as merchants. Nikolai Ryabushinsky was a Bohemian type, patronising contemporary art whilst his brother, Stepan although also interested in art was very religious and collected icons  and antique Russian needlework. In 1918, following the revolution, his collection was nationalised and is now part of the Tretyakov collection. 

The family left Russia after the revolution and the house passed to the state who used it first as the visa section of the foreign ministry and later as the state publishing house. During this period, the poet Yesenin described it as "ultra-decadent". It then served a variety of educational and governmental purposes until 1931 when Gorky returned from self-imposed exile in Italy and took up residence. He also disliked the house describing it as "absurd". Clearly Gorky and Yesenin, although successful writers new little about architecture! Gorky died in 1936, possibly poisoned on Stalin's orders, but his grandchildren and daughter-in-law remained in the house until her death. Yesenin officially committed suicide, suffering from depression but there is also a theory that he too was killed by the Soviet secret police who then "staged" a suicide. Dangerous times.

The architect, Fyodor Shektel was born in 1859 in Saratov, a small town on the Volga. After his father's death, his mother worked as a housekeeper for Pavel Tretyakov, the art collector who noticed Shektel's talent for art and sponsored his studies at the Moscow School, of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.  The young Shektel began his career as a graphic artist, illustrating children's books and then costumes and scenery for the Bolshoi Theatre prior to working in an architects office in the 1870's. His other works include the famous Morozov Mansion, the Moscow Art Theatre and the Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal all of which like the Ryabushinsky Mansion have survived until today.

Unlike its most famous resident and many of those who visited him, the Ryabushinsky Mansion came through the Soviet years with relatively little damage. Despite Gorky having carried out "improvements" that removed some original elements, it is one of the best and most complete examples of Russian art nouveau that remains. And the staff are friendlier these days. 

You might also like Midnight In Moscow and Jewish Moscow

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Czech Modernism 4 - Cafe Zemanova, Brno

One of the best things about travel is the delight of happening on the unexpected. Just a couple of weeks ago, whilst strolling through Brno's old centre, my attention was taken by a cafe with a functionalist facade. The sign above the entrance identified it as Cafe Zemanova, which was a little confusing. Confusing because there is a famous Cafe Zemanova in Brno, but not on Josefska, the street that I was on. The "other" Cafe Zeman is in Koliste and is a reconstruction of a building designed by Bohuslav Fuchs, completed in 1925 and astonishingly demolished in 1964 before being reconstructed  in 1995. So there are two Cafe Zemans/ Zemanovas in Brno.

The one I discovered by chance was designed by architect Vitezslav Korn and completed in 1936 on the request of builders Josef and Wilhelm Sedlacek. Originally named for the builders as Cafe Sedlacek, both interior and exterior display elements of functionalism - a form of modernism extremely popular in the Czechoslovakia of the 1930's. Tempted inside to escape the 35 degrees of heat and dazzling sunshine of the day, I was thrilled to discover that many of the original fixtures and fittings designed by Karel Ruzicka had been retained. The wood panelling and cushioned benches are still stylish and modern but pride of place goes to the marble staircase with it pillars and curved edge at the foot of the stairs as well as that lovely chrome bannister. There is a second larger room on the upper floor but this was closed when I visited so all of the photographs are of the ground floor only.

After the Second World War and the occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Sedlaceks were identified as collaborators, the cafe was confiscated and eventually nationalised in 1948, its name being changed to the Patisserie on Josefksa. In 1990, things changed again and Adolf Zeman who began working in the cafe as a 14 year old pastry chef in 1948 became the owner and gave the cafe its current name. He remains the owner until today and has worked there for 68 years.

I have been unable to find mention of the cafe in any of the travel guides and only fleeting references online but this place is a little gem and a step back into the very stylish mid 1930's in what was one of Europe's most modern countries. Cafes have always been an important part of Central European cultural and social life and I imagine the former Cafe Sedlacek, now Zemanova to be no exception. The photograph of the exterior shows the church directly opposite reflected in the cafe's windows. I suspect after having paid a visit to the church for religious purposes, some of the congregation would have crossed the street for a different kind of religious experience - Sunday afternoon coffee and cakes.  Cafe Zemanova - the find of my stay in Brno. 

You can see more photos from the Czech Republic including more modernist architecture here.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Prague's Best Bits - My Top Ten

I first visited Prague in 1993, just four years after the fall of communism. Although the city  did not lack charm or atmosphere, it still had a certain greyness about it. Service was generally poor, restaurants offered little choice and many of the most important historical buildings were in need of restoration. I visited again in 2001 and 2003 and saw improvements and a lighter atmosphere each time. In August this year I visited again after a gap of 12 years and was delighted to find Prague to be more beautiful than ever with surprise and delight around almost every corner.

One of the great Hapsburg cities, along with Vienna and Budapest, Prague is often acknowledged as the most beautiful of the three with its gorgeous art nouveau buildings, baroque churches, forbidding castle and series of bridges over the Vltava. It is also a great place to experience old Europe with its historic cafes, classical concerts and passages. How could I have stayed away for so long? There are many guide books that list the city's major tourists sites. This post lists some of my very favourite places in the city, some less well known than others, but all worth a visit and with a story of their own.

Patisserie St. Tropez in U Novaku, Vodickova
Regular readers will know that one of the things I enjoy most about travel is finding great cafes with excellent patisserie and good, strong coffee. Prague is awash with such places, but my favourite is tucked away inside the building known as U Novaku on Vodickova Street. The first choice for my top ten is Patisserie St. Tropez which has been under the management of the Nosal family since 1934. The patisserie is made to recipes dating back many years and includes the famous pineapple cup, said to have been the favourite of Czech present Thomas Masaryk. St. Tropez retains an elegant 1930's style and has tables both inside the cafe and in the passage - where smoking is permitted. As well as sampling the sweet delights, you can see them being made as the patissiers work behind a glass screen separating the shop from the baking area. I enjoyed a passion fruit and cream slice and two cups of coffee on the first of my two visits - a pistachio cream on the second. Delicious.

Works of art in Patisserie St. Tropez!
U  Novaku is one of a number of pasaze  - shopping arcades or passages -  dating from the 1900's to the 1930's that have survived until today. An early version of a modern shopping mall, they are supremely elegant with deco or functionalist fittings, a few shops selling food stuffs, antiques or furnishings, cafes and in several cases, a cinema. Commissioned by entrepreneur Jan Novak at the beginning of the 20th century as Prague's first department store, U Novaku has a stunning art nouveau exterior on Vodickova. Leading architect Osvald Polivka designed the curvilinear window frames and delicate ironwork but it is the Jan Preisler mosaic that dominates. Entitled Trade and Industry it shows scenes from rural life as well as from the labour referred to by its name. Its greens, reds and purples are best enjoyed from the opposite side of the street - especially if you want to photograph them. Look out too for the tiny frog holding up the windowsill!

Preisler's Trade and Industry at U Novaku, Vodickova
Lucerna Palace, Stepanska.
I am going to indulge myself and include a second pasaze in my top ten. The Lucerna Palace which  links Vodickova and Stepanska was built between 1907 and 1920.  The building was commissioned by Vaclav Havel - grandfather of the Czech president of the same name. The Lucerna is home to a famous cafe - Kavarna Lucerna. In need of restoration, as is the pasaze generally, it is still possible to see traces of its original glory including the lighting above the bar and the wonderful decorative covers over the radiators. The coffee was good too. 

The Lucerna also has a concert hall which is used for the Prague Jazz Festival and one of the oldest cinemas in the Czech republic, founded in 1907. Mixing the new with the old, the sculpture suspended from the main atrium shows King Wenceslas astride an upside down horse. It is the work of contemporary Czech sculptor, David Cerny. However, my favourite part of the pasaze is the ornate double staircase with the lower steps leading to the cinema and the upper set drawing visitors to the cafe.

David Cerny's sculpture in the Lucerna Palace.
Steps to the Lucerna Cinema
Prague has examples of many architectural styles, from medieval times to today. The city is particularly rich in art nouveau buildings, so rich that it's hard to pick just one as a favourite. Which is why I've picked two (two and a half really!). Masrykovo Nabrezi runs along the right bank of the river Vltava and has a number of ornate art nouveau works, including the wonderful entrance to the Goethe Institute which you can see here. My favourite building on this stretch is the Hlahlol, the concert hall of the Hlahol men's choir which first performed in 1861 and which in 1888 performed for Tchaikovsky when he visited the city. The hall was built between 1903 and 1906 and was designed by architects Josef Fanta and Francis Schlaffer, the latter a member of the choir. Interestingly the two worked without pay. The facade of the building features typical art nouveau ornamentation including a spectacular mural on the upper pediment, the colours of which are still vibrant more than a century after construction. The interior is equally beautiful and features a mural by Alphonse Mucha - someone we will return to shortly.

Hlahol building, Masrykovo Nabrezi.

Grand Hotel Europa and the Meran Hotel, Vaclavske Namesty.
My second art nouveau sélection is the Grand Hotel Europa at Vaclavske Namesty and its smaller neighbour, the Hotel Meran. Both were designed by architects Bendelmayer and Dryak and were completed in 1905. The Europa is currently closed for renovation but I have fond memories of it from earlier visits, sitting in the cafe and enjoying the symbolist art, ornate light fittings and even the efforts of the afternoon piano player as I worked my way through another piece of apple strudel. I understand that the hotel will reopen sometime next year and will be aimed at the high end market. Let's hope that it doesn't lose its character or indeed the remaining original features in the process.

The Europa stands out from its neighbours in this, Prague's largest of squares (although its not really a square), due to its ochre facade, elaborate balconies and stylish letters that bear the hotel's name. The Europa has some interesting literary connections. Franz Kafka gave his only public reading here in December 1912 when he read from The Judgment. At that time the hotel was known as the Archduke Stephen.

Its smaller, slimmer neighbour, the Meran, is easily overlooked due to the Europa's splendour but I like the floral decorative features and its white facade works perfectly beside the more robust colours of the Europa. The Meran was commissioned by the Hajek family who held onto it until World War II when it was confiscated by the German occupiers. It was restored to the family at the end of the War only to be taken away again in 1954 when the communists nationalised it. The fall of communism in 1989 meant that it was once again returned to the Hajeks who undertook its restoration including re-introducing the original lift which had been removed.

Grand Hotel Europa.
As well as having a special interest in coffee and cakes, I am a big fan of jazz and always try to find live performances when traveling. Prague has a strong jazz tradition.  It regularly hosts world class performers from abroad in the city's annual Jazz Festival, and also for showcases local Czech musicians. 

The Reduta Jazz Club at Narodni 20 is the next choice for my top ten. Established in 1957 by bassist Jan Arnet, it has hosted some of the biggest names in jazz including Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck and Chick Corea as well as many leading Czech musicians. The club is in the basement of a much larger building which also houses the historic Cafe Louvre and a rock music venue. Performances take place in a long narrow room - try to get one of the forward facing seats near the front if you can, otherwise it can be a little uncomfortable because of the angle of the remaining seats. There is also a small, intimate bar for drinking between sets or for those who are happy to hear the music without seeing the players, whilst the lobby and cloakroom has a CD shop too. 

During the communist period, jazz was discouraged by the regime who viewed it with suspicion and  in the late 1980's the club became one of centres of resistance to the regime, particularly during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In 1994, sometime US president and would-be jazz musician Bill Clinton played the saxophone in a jam session here. During my recent visit I was able to get to Reduta twice, hearing local pianist Milan Svoboda and his quartet on each occasion. Both gigs were excellent and the staff very friendly and helpful - especially the man running the CD shop who gave me lots of advice on Czech jazz! 

Reduta Jazz Club, Narodni.
For my sixth choice, we cross the river from the modern side of the city and climb the steep hill to the Castle district. The view of the Castle lit up against the night sky is one of Prague's most beautiful sights despite (or because of?) the shadows emphasising the forbidding nature of this part of the city. The spires of St. Vitas Cathedral dominate the skyline and it is in the cathedral we will find the next of my "best bits". Alphonse Mucha's Cyril and Methodius window can be found in the third chapel on the north wall. Designed in his art nouveau style, the window was commissioned by the Slavia Bank and features the child King Wenceslas with his mother Saint Ludmila surrounded by episodes from the lives of Saints Cyril and Methodius who brought Christianity to the Czech lands. Christ and the mythical figure Slavia also appear. The window was installed in 1931 following the completion of renovations to the cathedral in 1929. The window alone is worth the climb and the cathedral can be visited by purchasing a ticket that will also get you into other sites in the castle district including the Basilica of Saint Jiri and Golden Lane where one of Kafka's sisters lived and where he was a frequent visitor.

Cyril and Methodius window, St. Vitas Cathedral.

Detail, Jerusalem synagogue, Jeruzalemska
Until the Second World War, Prague had a large and thriving Jewish community, both secular and religious. The community produced many artists, writers, musicians, academics and even a couple of world class sportsmen and women. It is estimated that there are just 4,000 Jews living in the Czech Republic today - 77,000 having been murdered in the Holocaust. Prague retains many reminders  of a Jewish presence, including several beautiful synagogues in Josefov - the former Jewish quarter. The Old-New Synagogue, completed in 1270 is the oldest active synagogue in Europe and is one of  five in this part of the city that make up the State Jewish Museum together with the old Jewish cemetery on Siroka. 

The Pinkas Synagogue is particularly poignant as the names of all known deportees from the Czech lands to the death camps have been inscribed on the internal walls. The Spanish Synagogue houses an exhibition on the history of the Czech Jews and is also used for concerts and other cultural events. Completed in 1868, it was built in the Moorish style and has a highly decorative interior. My favourite of the Prague synagogues however, and another choice for my top ten, is the Jerusalem (or Jubilee) synagogue in Jeruzalemska, a brief walk from Josefov. I have already posted separately about this stunning building which is a riot of colour both internally and externally and which like the Spanish is in Moorish style. You can buy a ticket from the box office beside the Old-New and this will get you into all of the synagogues. The ticket is valid for a week so you don't have to do it all in one day.

Detail of remembrance of the Czech Jews, Pinkas synagogue, Siroka.
Interior, Spanish synagogue, U Stare Skoly.
Back in 1993, the highlight of my first time in Prague was visiting the Obecni Dum, or the Municipal House on Namesty Rebuliky. This next choice for my top ten is a huge art nouveau building completed in 1911, built in part as a symbol of nascent Czech nationalism and the very best craftsmen were involved in its creation. The architects were Osvald Polivka and Antonin Balsanek, whilst amongst others, Jan Preisler, Karel Spillar, Karel Novak and our old friend Alphonse Mucha worked on the stunning interiors. Inside, there are two restaurants, a cafe, a bar there and two concert halls including the main Smetanova Sin where every year the President attends the opening of the city's Spring Festival to hear Smetana's Ma Vlast (My country) played to open proceedings. 

Back in 1993, the building was very run down after decades of neglect. It had suffered the familiar fate of many if Prague's most beautiful buildings - confiscated by the Germans and mis-used by the Soviets who at one point wanted to demolish it. On my first visit the cafe was thriving but really operated as a beer hall and several parts of the building were closed. My birthday fell during the visit and I attended a performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. It was a wonderful performance of a very emotional piece, with Japanese American soloist Anne Akiko Myers and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra playing. Since then I have always associated Prague with this piece.

There are daily guided tours of the building in English and Czech and occasional tours in other languages. Photography is allowed for a fee and without flash.

Interior, Obecni Dum, Namesty Republiky.
Detail, Obecni Dum, Namesty Republiky.
In the 1930's the then Czechoslovakia was one of Europe's most modern and forward looking states, a newly establish democracy with a thriving cultural community and an ultra modern industry and design sector. This was also reflected in the architecture of the period and there are several examples of this around the city, including the Baba Estate in the 6th district, the delightful former Brandeis department store in the city centre and of course, the Adolf Loos designed Villa Muller also in the 6th district.

The villa is a box with a stark white exterior relieved only by the contrasting yellow window-frames in line with Loos' philosophy that the exterior of the building should be simple and that one's wealth should only be on display in the interior. Guided tours are available but you must book ahead a numbers are restricted - and don't expect to take any pictures as this is strictly prohibited - you must leave your camera in a locked cupboard! However, this leaves you free to enjoy the beautiful interior with its open plan living, green and white Cipolino marble columns, mahogany panelling, state of the art 1930's kitchen, the then ultramodern use of lino in the children's quarters and even a built-in aquarium in the main living area. The Mullers were cultured as well as wealthy and one of the smaller rooms was used for regular musical recitals by a string quartet! I intend to write separately about Villa Muller so will keep further details until then.

Villa Muller, Nrad Hradnim Vodojemen.

Former Brandeis Department Store, off Na Prikope.
My final choice for Prague's "best bits" might seem both obvious and a little surprising. The Charles Bridge, one of several linking the two sides of the city, is a major tourist attraction and for most of the year is completely packed with visitors. It can be a very unpleasant experience trying to make your way across the bridge through the tour groups, hawkers and selfie-takers during the peak months. However, if you make the effort to get up early and reach the bridge by 7.30 you will not be disappointed. Strolling across the bridge in the early morning light it's possible to gaze up at the Castle district, admire the sculptures that line the bridge and look down into the majestic Vltava at your own pace and then find somewhere on the opposite side of the river to enjoy a coffee and breakfast. The bridge is a real symbol of the city but make sure you go when you can have it pretty much to yourself for a real Prague experience. 

The Charles Bridge, early morning.
And that concludes my Prague top ten. it could easily have been a top twenty or even thirty and the challenge has been to narrow it down - even if I did cheat a bit by referring to other places too! You can see more pictures of Prague here.

Friday, 18 September 2015

The Odeon - York's Art Deco Cinema

Earlier this week I had to visit York for work purposes. Staying close to the centre, I was thrilled to find what is perhaps the city's best example of art deco on Blossom Road, just a short step from my hotel. The Odeon Cinema was built in 1937 as part of the Oscar Deutsch owned chain of the same name.

Not only did architects Harry Weedon and Robert Bullivant have to tone down the usual Odeon house style to comply with the city's strict planning requirements, they also had to build the cinema outside of the city walls for the same reason. Despite this, they produced a large, striking building with a brick facade - unlike the faience clad cinemas found elsewhere in the chain, including at nearby Harrogate. Weedon and Bullivant also designed the Odeon Cinema at Chester.

The main architectural drama is provided by a tower with brick fins extending to the summit and flanked by horizontal bands of bricks at the upper level. There are also interesting features on the western and eastern sides of the cinema. The western flank has a two-storey block which culminates in a delicious curve, bringing to mind some of Haifa's Bauhaus buildings. This side has shops at the lower level - a barber's, a cafe, a taxi rank and a branch of the ubiquitous fast food chain Subway. Unfortunately Blossom Road is just a little bit too far from the main centre to attract any of the more interesting little shops found on Mickelgate and its neighbouring streets. Meanwhile, the eastern wing has a protuberance ending with a smaller version of the curved structure on the other side. The brickwork is rich in detail with vertical zig-zagging arrangements and slightly different colour tones.

The interior was designed as a single auditorium with stalls and balcony but was re-shaped in 1972 when a floor was installed to separate the balcony and stalls as part of a project to create three screens. The first film shown at the Odeon was The Man Who Could Work Miracles, with Accused following  in the second week of business. Like many provincial cinemas, it flourished in the 1940's, 50's and 60's before coming on hard times and eventually closing in August 2006. the following year, the building was acquired by Kailish Suri, owner of the Reel cinema chain who restored and re-opened it in 2009, re-branded as a Reel cinema but still carrying the Odeon name on the facade. Over 13,000 people had signed a petition against its closure in 2006 and the city's Member of Parliament urged them to use it once it re-opened. I noticed that Legend is currently showing so at least some of them must have heeded his call. The cinema was granted grade II listed status in 1981.  

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Czech Modernism 3 - Prague's Baba Estate

Housing estates dating from the 1930's and built in the modernist style can be found in several countries across Europe. Examples include the Werkbund Siedlung  and Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, Weissenhof in Stuttgart, Bromma in Stockholm and the Baba estate in Prague. Baba was built between 1932 and 1940 by the Czechoslovak Werkbund, an organisation devoted to promoting modern industrial design and architecture but unlike other, similar estates in central Europe, its construction was privately funded. The estate is perhaps the best example of Czech functionalist architecture.

The home owners were members of the Werkbund and included leading cultural figures such as architect Pavel Janak, graphic designer Ladislav Sutnar, author Vaclav Rezak and composer Karel Balling.  With the exception of Dutchman Mart Stamm, the architects were also drawn from the Werkbund and included Ladislav Zak, Oldrich Stary, Josef Gocar and Frantisek Zelenka. 

The Herain villa, Ladislav Zak, 1932.
The estate was planned as an exhibition for 1932 with 32 houses designed for this purpose. The exhibition included smaller homes for childless married couples, one-family villas with housekeepers' flats, multi-family dwellings and collective housing. Whilst the focus of the exhibition was modern architectural design, the estate's location was also important. Perched on a hillside overlooking the city, residents would live in a clean, natural environment with lots of fresh air and stunning views across the city. Although Prague is today much more built up than in the 1930's, Baba retains  something of a  "countryside" feel with berries, apple trees and even grapes growing in some of the gardens.

Just seven years after the 1932 exhibition, Czechoslovakia was dismembered and then occupied by the Germans and most of the original occupants were evicted from their homes.  The estate survived the Second World War without bomb damage but the communist regime of 1948 to 1989 viewed Baba with suspicion, seeing it as a bourgeois experiment from the brief period of democracy enjoyed between 1918 and 1935 during Masaryk's First Republic. A number of buildings fell into a poor state of repair or underwent damaging "renovation" or changes. Following the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the fall of communism, a number of the houses were restored to their original owners and several have since undergone more sensitive restoration. I visited Baba recently in the company of excellent guide Jana Pehe and was able to photograph several of the homes - although the design of the estate with the front of the buildings facing the slope has meant that for much of the year it is difficult to see them in their full glory due to the preponderance of mature trees. Another, winter visit is obviously called for. In the meantime a little information and a few stories connected to some of the homes and their owners...

Detail, the Herain villa, Ladislav Zak, 1932.
Na Babe 1782/3 was the home of Czech art historian Karel Herain and his wife Ludmila. Completed in October 1932, it was designed by Ladislav Zak, one of the leading lights of the Czech modernist movement. Built with a reinforced concrete skeleton infilled with bricks and cork insulation, the design featured in On Housing, a book produced by Zak and his client, Herain. The wood framed windows originally had steel surrounds whilst character and interest is added to the design through the curved wall of the staircase leading to the rooftop sun terrace. The curve is barely visible during the summer due to overgrown trees and bushes but the terrace stands proud and looks out across Prague's river, the Vltava. 

Herain was an active Werkbund member with a keen interest in modern design. He served on the committee for the 1932 exhibition, edited the group's monthly magazine from 1922 to 1930 and was the head of the prestigious Museum of Applied Arts until 1948 when he was dismissed by the communist authorities. Zak was not only an architect but also an academic and painter.  He studied architecture under Gocar at the Academy of Fine Arts and designed three villas and several interiors at Baba. Able to work under the communist regime  he taught at his old Academy from 1946 to his death in 1973, publishing several academic works during that time. 

The Zadak villa, Frantisek Zelenka, 1932.

Frantisek Zelenka designed the house at 1792/ 53 Na Ostrohu for Jan Zadak and his wife Bozena. Zadak was an industrialist and owned a building materials factory. He was also a keen and accomplished sportsman playing in the national football team from 1910-12. He even met his wife through his enthusiasm for sport - the couple being introduced to each other on a 1923 ski-ing trip. This spilled over into his funding the construction of public tennis courts near the estate - courts which in the winter were used for ice skating. The factory operated during the war but in 1948 was later confiscated by the state as was the villa. Zadak's health deteriorated and he died in 1954.

Zelenka designed a simple layout with a continuous living area on the ground floor and an austere exterior broken by the run of windows for each of the three bedrooms. Originally, the south facing windows had folding wooden blinds, a feature often seen in the earlier functionalist type designs. My favourite features are the two terraces, accessible from a first floor corridor and joined by an exterior steel staircase. At the time of my visit, the lower terrace was being put to a very practical use - clothes were being hung out to dry there.

Frantisek Zelenka was also accomplished in the fields of graphic, stage and costume design. He was responsible for a number of successful posters and book covers and wrote articles on furniture and interiors for women's magazine Eva. Prolific, he designed over 150 theatre sets and his varied skills bring to mind many of the multi-talented European artists of this period who would work successfully in a number of disciplines. He continued to use these skills, when, being Jewish, he was deported to the Terezin transit camp in 1943. In her book, The Tin Ring, Zdenka Fantlova describes how in Terezin he designed the sets for the renowned children's opera Brundibar. In October 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz and is believed to have died on route.

The Sutnar vila, Oldrich Stary, 1932.
Ladislav Sutnar was one of the leading Czech graphic artists of his time. Born in Plzen in 1897, he served in the Hapsburg army during the First World War before going on to graduate from the School of Applied Arts in 1923. Interestingly, he also completed a qualification in mathematics and applied geometry at the Czech Technical University. As well as working in academia, he went on to serve as artistic director of the furniture co-operative, Krasna Jizba, contributed to many journals and publications and gained international prominence for his work in designing functionalist typography. Sutnar designed all of the marketing materials for the 1932 Baba exhibition including the logo, posters, letterheads and catalogues. In 1939 he had charge of the Czechoslovak exhibit at the New York Exposition and chose to remain in the States to avoid the Nazi threat at home. He remained in New York and worked there until his death in 1976.

As well as designing the marketing materials for Baba, he had a home there - 1790/2 Pruhledova, designed by Oldrich Stary and completed in October 1932. A single family house, the building also included an atelier for Sutnar's graphic work. The skeleton is of reinforced concrete, with an infill of thin-sided bricks whilst the window frames were of wood with internal iron surrounds. The exterior is simple with the east facade being entirely windowless. I especially like the south facing aspect with its red window surrounds and the beautiful reds and greens of the garden, all of which contrast with the white cement. Architect Stary was chairman of the Werkbund from 1939 to 1948 , served for a time as rector of the Czech Technical University  and edited the Architektura journal from 1939 to 1948.

The Cenek villa, Ladislav Zak, 1933.
Na Ostrohu 1793/51 was another of Ladislav Zak's designs and was completed in January 1933 as the home of musicologist Bohumil Cenek. A sinlge-family house, it follows the pattern of its neighbours with a reinforced concrete skeleton, infilled with bricks and cork for heating insulation. The interior is arranged around a single staircase from which each of the living spaces are accessed. The two terraces are partially glazed, giving the street facing side an interesting appearance whilst the south facing facade   has a corner glazed winter garden. The porthole on the otherwise blank facade above the garage adds a slight art deco touch to the building and emphasises its nautical feel. Zak added the garage at the end of the 1930's whilst the original smooth stucco was replaced by a coarser surface in beige.

Cenek worked as director of a number of choral associations, taught music at various institutions and composed choral works as well as adapting Czech folksongs. After the Second World War he continued to work in music and received a Hero of Labour award partly in recognition for his work in developing the teaching of singing.

The Janak villa, Pavel Janak, 1932.
Pavel Janak was another leading member of the Werkbund and was responsible for the overall regulatory plan of the estate. An architect, he designed his own house at Nad Patankou 1785/16. Completed in December 1932, it was originally planned as a duplex house but Janak had a change of heart and instead built a free-standing single family dwelling on the hillside facing the city. Described as a terrace-stepped cube, it was constructed with brick masonry and reinforced concrete ceilings. The ground floor contains a guest room, garage, drying room, laundry room and larder with the upper levels containing the kitchen, bedrooms and an open living area spread over two levels and connected to the garden by a terrace. 

Janak studied architecture and construction engineering in Prague before undertaking further studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna where he attended the studio of Otto Wagner. Returning to Prague in 1907, he worked in the atelier of Jan Kotera where he met, amongst others, Josef Gocar. During the late 1920's, he became increasingly interested in functionalist architecture and was one of the main initiators of the Baba project. He was also deeply concerned about historic restoration and in 1936 was appointed chief architect of Prague Castle, a post he held until 1955. Removed by the Nazis from his other post at the School of Applied Arts in 1941, he declined the offer to return after the war. Janak died in August 1956 and his wife sold the villa shortly afterwards. 

The Zaoralek villa, Ladislav Zak, 1932.
Whilst several of the homes have been sensitively restored, others have suffered from the interventions of some of the later owners. Ladislav Zak designed the house at Na Ostrohu 1708/54 for Hugo Zaoralek, a senior manager at the Ministry of the Interior. The house was completed in November 1932 and originally featured a dramatic open-bracketed supported terrace at the upper level with a second open terrace immediately below. Photographs of the original building show a striking structure accessed through a canopied staircase to the side and the Zaoraleks enjoying the lower terrace. A more recent owner has chosen to fill in the two terraces, gaining additional interior space but ruining the drama and character of the building. I wonder what Zak or the Zaoraleks would have thought of it.

I promised some stories form the estate. Perhaps the most shocking story comes from the period of German occupation during the Second World War. Ludvik Bautz lived at Na Babe 1799/4. The owner of a printing works, he was also a fanatical Nazi supporter and former residents recall him bringing his radio to the terrace to broadcast Hitler's speeches at full volume. Once the German occupation of Prague had started he also regularly plastered his Jewish neighbours' garage doors with anti-semitic leaflets and posters. Worse than this, he also denounced another neighbour - Julius Glucklich, a professor at the Masaryk University in Brno and a Jewish convert to Protestantism. Spared deportation due to his non-Jewish wife, Gucklich was still removed from his post and the family villa was confiscated in 1943. Following Germany's deafet in May 1945, Bautz went out into the street, randomly firing shots. It is generally believed that he was shot by a Czech marksman at the foot of the Baba hill, but this has never been confirmed. His family disappeared without trace.

Today, most of the homes at Baba are well cared for and several are being carefully (if expensively) restored. The estate is further evidence of just how modern and optimistic the Czechoslovak state was in the 1930's before the tragedy of German occupation and then Soviet domination combined to depress the country for five decades. It is both surprising and pleasing that the estate has survived more or less intact and that an import an part of the built heritage of Czech Modernism is still with us. 

A few more images...

The Palicka villa, Mart Stam, 1932.
The Belehradek villa, Fratisek Kerhart, 1936.
The Herman villa, Oldrich Stary, 1933.
View of the Vlatava from Baba.

You can see more pictures of Prague and Brno, including several modernist buildings here.