Kotva: Of Carbuncles and Communist Memory

kotvascanThe following is from an article on Prague’s legacy of Communist architecture that I originally wrote for the publication ‘Hidden Europe’. The editors wanted me to focus on a couple of landmark buildings in the center of the city. The ‘carbuncle’ reference comes from Britain’s Prince Charles, who famously referred to that country’s stock of 1970s-era Brutalist architecture as, well, a bunch of carbuncles.

Prague’s Kotva department store (pictured left in a stock photo from the 1970s) just may be the ugliest building ever built in the Czech Republic.

It dates from the mid-1970s and was hailed at the time as a Czech example of “Brutalism” – then the reigning international architectural style – while meeting the special ideological demands of Communism.

In fact, by nearly any measure, it’s a classic Prince Charles’ carbuncle. Start with the exterior: It’s a hulking, dark-brown box, windowless on several sides. The façade, on close inspection, looks to be made of some type of corrugated sheet metal.

Interlocking Hexagons?

The shape of the building is defined as a series of interlocking hexagons. The intention was probably to lend an innocent touch – like children playing with building blocks – but these hexagons are huge. The effect is more aggressive than playful.

What’s more, the building’s peculiar shape creates little indentations, particularly at the back, which at night morph into hideaways for occasional petty crime and illicit drug use. After midnight, much of the property is a no-go zone.

Things are not much better on the inside. The interiors are cramped. The hexagons limit sight lines, and the floor plan is broken up by a series of small kiosks.

From nearly any point of view – functional or aesthetic – Kotva arguably should be knocked down and its valuable real estate, on the edge of Prague’s Old Town, given over to some other use.

And yet, despite its flaws, there’s something undeniably alluring about Kotva, something that still draws crowds.

Mnemonic Devices

It’s hard to put a finger on, but a visit here feels in some way like a trip through time — back to a pre-Velvet Revolution Prague when life was bleaker but also simpler and more manageable. Kotva is a kind of corrugated-metal mnemonic device, capable of triggering all manner of memory, good and bad, of life under Communism.

It’s probably no surprise that Kotva — and another department store from the same era, Maj – find themselves at the center of a raging debate on whether to preserve buildings built during the Communist period. On its face, the debate appears to be about architecture but in fact has more to do with memory. Specifically, is it better to remember Communism, or bury it?

Like Kotva, the Maj department store was built in the mid-1970s and might very well find itself someday on a “World’s Greatest Carbuncles” list. The architects apparently modeled Maj, at least partly, on the Pompidou Centre in Paris, though you’d have to look pretty hard to see any real resemblance.

Perched on a busy corner of a main artery, the store – now wearing the ill-fitting “Tesco” label of its current owner — looks like an ordinary glass and metal box. The faded-yellow metal stripping around the windows leaves a dated — or retro — feel, depending on your point of view.

The building’s architectural claim to fame is an exposed bank of escalators below a glass canopy at the back. That’s the kind of architectural flourish that helped win design prizes in the 1970s, but the location of the escalators is actually an inconvenience to shoppers, who must exit the store to move from floor to floor.

Eyesores or Landmarks?

Efforts to protect the buildings have been led by a controversial local critic, Rostislav Svacha. Svacha has been accused of being too sympathetic to Communist-era design. He’s even come out, on occasion, in favor of the pre-fab housing projects (panelaky in Czech) that ring every major city in the country. Nearly everyone else admits they’re simply eyesores.

Svacha’s views may be debatable but his perspective makes some sense. The 1960s saw an enormous building boom in schools, hospitals, hotels, and shopping centers, and by no means are all of the buildings bad.

Brussels ’58

If there was a heyday for Communist-era architecture, it was during this time, the decade following the influential Expo ‘58 world exhibition in Brussels. There, the stylish Czechoslovak pavilion won unprecedented international acclaim. This catalyzed a new generation of architects to move away from the stifling Stalinist “wedding cake” and Social-Realist styles in vogue immediately following the Second World War.

The best of these buildings from the 1960s incorporate these same arty, winsome elements that made the Czechoslovak pavilion at Brussels ’58 so alluring in the first place – a sort of retro-future, Sputnik-inspired modernism that looks as if it came straight out of a Jetsons cartoon.

By now, many of these buildings are falling apart. They languish, caught up in a general debate over their architectural worth. They could use the kind of financial support and attention that historic preservation would bring.

Tesco: ‘Knock ‘em Down’

Those opposed to the architectural preservation – including Tesco’s management, which had hoped to demolish its Maj property to build a new store – argue the buildings are badly designed and ill suited to modern needs. Couched in the argument, for many, is a deep rejection of the Communist experience as a whole, something the vast majority of people would probably like to forget.

Zdenek Lukes, the chief architect at Prague Castle, is caught in the middle. He has the unfortunate task of weighing the various claims of a building’s architectural merits and rendering an informed opinion.

Lukes tries to be detached. His criteria for evaluating Communist buildings are the same as for other periods: originality, creativity, and how a building works in practice. He supports efforts to recognize Kotva and Maj – despite their flaws — as historic buildings. He points out that Maj, for example, was one of the most important buildings of its day.

He’s less charitable about other buildings built during the period, particularly those in the 1970s and ‘80s after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, a time he calls the worst for design in modern Czech history.

It’s no stretch to say that architecture is the lifeblood of Prague.

A stroll through town feels like a graduate course in architectural history. The Gothic spires of the oldest buildings yield, a block away, to a more mannered Renaissance and then to the rounded, colorful Baroque, before breaking out into Rococo farce. The 19th century brought with it decades of bland but handsome Neoclassical, erupting in another design frenzy at the turn of that century, Art Nouveau. There’s even a sprinkling of early-20th-century Cubism, Czech National Revival, and finally the stripped-down, arty Functionalism of the interwar years.
The beauty of these buildings draws millions of people here every year.

It must be admitted it’s unlikely Kotva or Maj will ever compete for attention with the Charles Bridge or the Tyn Church. But there may be that odd tourist, someday, who’d like to experience a taste of life in the bad old days. And for him, at least for now, we know just where he should shop.

2 Thoughts on “Kotva: Of Carbuncles and Communist Memory

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