Friday 14 December 2018

Functional Brno

The beauty of so many of the buildings which contributed to Brno's admitable cityscape in the late 1920s and 1930s is that they serve the same function for which they were created. Mojmír Kyselka's Masaryk Primary School for Girls and Boys, pictured above, is still very much in use, with less security around the perimeters than we tend to get in the UK (though I resisted the temptation to wander in and take a closer look). This is the entrance for boys, says the sign - girls were to come from the other side - but segregation no longer pertains, of course.

Most of the glories are situated in the north and northwestern suburbs of the city, somewhere I'd gladly live for six months to a year to learn Czech (pipe dream), though I did catch one central spectacular, the first big emporium of Zlin shoe king Tomáš Baťa designed by Vladimir Karfík in 1930.

The Tourist Information Centre has produced a series of free booklets, for which one would pay good money, including the one pictured below which helped me plan an itinerary. Clearly the City Spa in Zábrdovice is for a summer visit.

And boy, was it cold, if brilliantly clear. No sooner had I made my way uphill to Jan Víšek's 1927-8 vision for the Czechoslovak Hussite Church - closed despite the notice on the door -

than I felt the need to get indoors and warm, sharpish. It was too early for a coffee break so I found shelter inside the Stadion Sokol and Community Centre.

A summer stadium was built in 1922 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Sokol gymnastics movement, to which President Masaryk was an enthusiastic adherent if Jiří Heřman's ingenious staging of Smetana's Libuše was anything to go by (production shot by Marek Olbrzymek).

Then in 1928 Miloš Laml took over an original design with gyms on one side and a lower hall. The gym is still very much in use - a landing space in front of it had an exhibition of photos of old Sokol adherents -

while the hall on the other side, reached down a long flight of stairs and a generous foyer area,

was being decorated for whatever 'Babylon' might be.

The young people putting up the balloons looked at me warily but communication was limited and I ploughed on inside for a quick peak. This, if I understand it aright, was where the first performance of Janáček's Glagolitic Mass took place in December 1927.

Further along, I nosed my way into a building which contained a theatre space on the first floor (Brno seems full of theatres). A nice girl setting up the bar for a matinee performance showed me inside the studio and served me coffee with delicious poppy-seed cake, which I consumed while enjoying the warmth of the sun as filtered through the big windows.

The only shame about this was that it knocked on the head my plan to have coffee in one of the many trendy cafes that have sprung up in Brno since I was last there, Punkt, in an attractive tree-lined street of shops. I did go in to the antique shop on the corner with the main road and was somewhat horrified to see this reminder of what happened to Brno after its brief period of independent revitalization.

A potent reminder of what sent so many Jewish Czechs into exile if they could get out, including the family of my student Robin Weiss, who was there in Brno with his wife Margaret on a cultural visit. His granfather was taught by Mendel from the Augustinian Monastery; his half-sister grew up in the Villa Tugendhat, THE so-called functionalist building to see in Brno, but I went there before its revamp with Austrian friends Tommi and Martha on our 2007 whistlestop tour.

Opposite the antique shop is a row of apartment buildings with stylish curved balconies from the late 1930s. This area was previously one of factory complexes, including the former Moravia Brewery.

To the east is Lužánky Park, one of the first public parks in Europe and favourite haunt of Janáček, whose later years were spent in a modest home behind the nearby Organ School (visited on our first trip). The other side of that rises the hill of Černá Pole, with a touching celebration of the great composer outside a Seniors' Club housed in a 1913 building.

This road curves round, with plenty of fine 1920s buildings in which I'd happily lodge.

At the top of the hill is the street with my two favourite functionalist buildings along it. First you hit the earlier neoclassicism of the Masaryk University.

At the end is the primary school

and in the middle the ERA Cafe.

Josef Kranz designed it as part of a residential building, influenced by the Dutch movement De Stijl with its reduction to essentials. The exterior minimalism

is offset within by the 'dynamic spiral staircase', blue on the curves against the red xylolite of floor and steps.

The building has undergone various changes, including Soviet incorporation into the neighbouring agricultural college, but in 2011 was restored to its old glory and now serves excellent food.

This would be an early port of call on any return visit to the city. Anyway, refreshed, I needed to get back into the centre of town

 so I took a nearby tram, missing out on several buildings I'll have to see on the next visit, and heading for the Augustinian monastery, which I'll cover in a future entry together with the Jesuitical glories of the old town.


David Damant said...

The most interesting Special Edition of the Volksdeutsche Zeitung ( no charge !) saying that having been taken over by Nazi Germany Bruenn ( Brno) is now free is a powerful reminder of the fact that if a politician of dictatorial or demagogic inclinations says that black is white loud enough and often enough the well of truth is so polluted that rational discussion becomes impossible. And, one must add, this is now true of much of the formal and the social media.

David said...

I fear you're right. Of course what troubled me about that page is who had put it in a frame and how long it had hung on some domestic wall...

David Damant said...

I regard the page as very interesting, and therefore well worth preserving. Original documents are far more valuable than later histories. And the frame could have been hung up as a " Ha Ha you got your comeuppance !" or as a momentum to a terrible day. I often quote Thomas Mann on Hitler "The fellow is a catastrophe. But that is no reason why we should not find him interesting as a character, and as an event". Thomas Mann is himself of interest in this context, since he saw very early on that Hitler was not an ordinary dictator, perhaps a view brought on by the fact that he ( Mann) had written on the "German Soul" ( a concept I regards as dangerous, but Mann did get the Nobel Prize in 1929). Mann appeals to me also because of his anti-Nazi broadcasts during the war, ( which helped to get him called a communist by McCarthy) and because of his joke " The one advantage of the war is that it has stopped Hitler making speeches about culture"

David said...

Maybe, but which Czech would want a swastika on the wall? And here AH wins again, overshadowing the achievements of Czech (and Czech-German) architects between the wars...

David Damant said...

The amazing achievements of Czechoslovakia are exemplified indeed almost described by the clarity and skill of the architecture. Here was a nation surrounded between the wars by pretty awful regimes ( Austria. Hungary, Poland, Roumania,later Germany) but which maintained a pure democracy, and it attracts us in so many ways. The talent in the race was there under the Empire but it especially flowered on independence in 1918. After the battle of the White Mountain ( 1620) the bright and black eyed aristocracy had been replaced by the boring nominees of the Hapsburgs, but the underlying genes were there. The first president after independence Thomas Masaryk was the son of a coachman in a great house. Of course a great deal of the culture was German, and the King of Bohemia was an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, and sometimes Emperor. But the Czechs stood out - as in Fred Astaire and Kafka if I can be excused the comment

David said...

Agreed - even if the two flourishings were so brief. Obvious why the production of Smetana's Libuše I saw in Brno celebrated only Masaryk and Havel among the leaders from 1918 to the present day. That creativity now pertains to the Baltic states.

Susan Scheid said...

The architecture you show us is so very interesting—not what I was expecting when I started in to read your post. The news article on display in the antique shop is disturbing. It’s one thing to preserve such documents for scholarly and historical reference, but hawking them in an antique shop is worrisome, at least for me. Next will come display of such things at souvenir shops, devoid of any historical context.

David said...

Of course in departitioned Berlin Red Army souvenirs were rife, maybe still are - but I guess selling Nazi memorabilia would be outlawed in Germany. I too am more disquieted than David Damant at this being displayed for sale, almost furtively behind a partition.

The designs for living in Brno are so welcoming, which is why I can see ourselves spending a few months renting a 1920s apartment on the hill there and learning Czech.

honza_kl said...

Just a few factual notes. There are rumours (and I would say, it is more than just that) that Masaryk was an illegitimate son of the emperor Franz Joseph I. Charlotte Kotík, the president's great-grandaughter, used her right and prevented any DNA test.

The Stadion Hall was originally built as a multi-purpose hall, and due to it's size and acoustics used to be (and has been, again) frequently used as a concert hall and recording studio by the Brno Philharmonic. (The Greek Passion by Martinů with Charles Mackerras was recorded there... and many other recordings.) The Dennis Russel Davies's inaugural concert took place there on 12th September 2018. Brno is still lacking a modern concert hall but recently things started to change.

While the freedom of speech in the Czech Republic is guaranteed, and the current standard is closer to the American than to the German standard, it is a crime to promote Nazism, fascism, etc. I am not a lawyer myself so I cannot really say if this case really falls under the "free speech" or under the "nazi propaganda". But I asked for help.

David said...

Thank you, Jan, all very helpful. I'd heard that about Masaryk. I managed to get the text of his speech used in the production of Libuse and intend to devote a post to it soon - it's the epitome of patriotic democracy.

Passed the Brno Philharmonic's HQ often while there and thought it looked very fine. Not acoustically up to the mark, then? And does the Sokol Stadion Hall still have its organ? It was covered over if so when I looked in. Is Dennis Russell Davies liked? I hope he doesn't inflict too much Philip Glass on the good citizens. Though if that also means Reich and Adams, so much the better.

Interesting about that poster.

David Damant said...

I would think it of great interest ( even to the family) to find out if Tomas Masaryk was in fact the son of Franz Josef. People seem trapped by the mores of a more cramped society. But this comment reminds me of a story about Franz Josef's predecessor, the Emperor Joseph II, who took to travelling around incognito in his territories. One day he saw a labourer in a field who looked exactly as he, the Emperor, did. So he asked the man " Was your mother ever in service at the Palace? ".......To which the answer was " No, but my father was"