Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

A quiet pioneer

  • Comment
Review

Jan Kotera 1871-1923: The Founder of Modern Czech Architecture Municipal House/Kant Publishers, Prague, 2001. 416 pp. 50 euro plus shipping costs.

(Available from mmarkova@obecni-dum. cz) It is not only the English and the French who have been interested in the idea of the Channel Tunnel. In 1897, as his graduation project in Otto Wagner's studio in Vienna, the young Moravian architect Jan Kotera drew out his design for 'Une Ville Idéale' on the French coast near Calais, right above the long dreamed of Chemin de Fer from London to Paris.A triangulated pattern of streets responded to the angled promontory of Cap Griz Nez. No railway was visible but the line of the tunnel was reflected by a central axial street above, dominated by a grand BeauxArts public building-cum-station with Jugendstil details, typical of Wagner's more grandiose urban projects.

Fortunately, perhaps, Kotera never realised anything like this. After leaving Wagner, he moved to his homeland where he was responsible for a small but significant number of buildings. In these, he moved from Viennese Jugendstil towards a more personal expression, experimenting with the possibilities of new materials like reinforced concrete.

Kotera is less well known than other stars from Wagner's atelier like Hoffmann, Olbrich and Plecnik, but he was of supreme importance in the dynamic and increasingly confident artistic culture emerging in the Czech lands in the troubled years before the First World War. With the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia, Kotera should have emerged as the national architect, but he was fated to die unfulfilled in 1923 at the age of 52, and it was left to his friend Plecnik - whom he had invited to Prague - to transform the castle for the president of the new republic. Kotera's influence was to remain potent, however, in the work of his distinguished pupils like Josef Gocár and Pavel Janák.

Two works by Kotera in particular are of much more than local significance. His City Museum in Hradec Králové of 1909-13 is remarkable for avoiding conventional axial symmetry in a civic building. Irregularly massed wings of red brick and textured concrete suggest functional rationalism and the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, while the entrance front with its jagged recessed outline and flanking ceramic figures of seated goddesses show how the Jugendstil in central Europe was replaced by a more austere and geometrical manner of expression.

The second work is the music publisher's store in Prague of 1911-13, known as the Mozarteum. With its symmetrical facade, surmounted by a triangular pediment, this might seem to be typical of that revived Neo-Classicism which flourished all over Europe at the time, but the treatment is full of thoughtful and unusual subtleties and the progressive recession of the brick panels between the concrete frame as the building rises hint at the 'Czech Cubism' which flourished at the time among Kotera's followers.

Kotera is revered as the founder of Modern architecture in Prague and Bohemia, and last year a magnificent exhibition of his work was mounted in the Municipal House - that supremely enjoyable, if vulgar, Jugendstil building in the old city - consisting of original drawings and models and examples of his furniture. The exhibition closed in March but it will travel to Hradec Králové and perhaps elsewhere. It was accompanied by a magnificent illustrated catalogue, with essays by a team of writers, led by that redoubtable ambassador for Czech Modernism, Vladimír Slapeta.

Such is the admirable concern by the Czech authorities to promote their national architecture that 800 copies of this splendid book have been printed in English. I cannot recommend it too highly, as it is a major contribution to the understanding of European architecture at the beginning of the last century.

Is an equivalent publication - in quality, seriousness and accessibility - conceivable in England on some of Kotera's contemporaries such as James Salmon, Charles Holden or even Edwin Lutyens? Sadly, no.

Gavin Stamp is an architectural historian

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.