From the 1920s until the late 1940s, the city of Zlín in the Czechoslakia established itself as a modernist haven for architecture and urban planning thanks to architects such as Jan Kotěra and František Lýdie Gahura. However, during the communist rule of Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989, Zlín – renamed Gottwaldov after the first Czechoslovak communist president – was stripped of its purpose and architectural heritage.
Since the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia over 30 years ago, Zlín regained its name and cultural prowess thanks to its programme of architectural renovations and the addition of its now internationally acclaimed annual film festival. The story of Zlín is somehow a perfect example of how the light always manages to shine through the darkness.
Although we will focus here on one of Zlín’s buildings in particular, we’ll first take a look at the colourful history of the city itself, which is inextricably linked to the entrepreneurial activities of Thomas Bat’a, an entrepreneur who brought the industrial revolution to Moravia in 1894.
A little history
The city of Zlín itself was transformed by Tomas Bat’a, who would become the city’s central protagonist. His shoe company, Bat’a, quickly grew into the world’s largest manufacturer of shoes. Bat’a’s vision for Zlín was to create a model working town with a mix of factories, office complexes and accommodation.
Under his guidance, Zlín was designed by well-known functionalist architects, including Jan Kotěra, who is considered a pioneer of modern architecture. Even the production of the factory buildings were given the modernist touch associated with the rest of the city: large and simple buildings that got plenty of sunlight and fresh air. Uniform shapes, pillars and formwork also ensured extremely short construction times. In addition to these approaches, which were based on both Bauhaus and American functionalist developments, the social awareness that was ahead of its time was exceptional.
Baťa had settlements, kindergartens, schools, hospitals, shops and even the largest cinema in Central Europe at the time built into the urban planning of Zlín. From 1923 he was no longer just a patron, but also mayor of the city, which grew from 5000 to 43,000 residents within twenty years.
The beacon of light: Tomas Bat’a memorial
Another pioneering architect, František Lýdie Gahura, was responsible for designing the main building here in question, the Tomas Bat’a memorial, which opened one year after the death of Tomas Bat’a in 1932. The building is arguably the most valuable monument of the Zlín constructivism and the highlight of the so-called Bat’a architecture phenomenon.
At first glance, the idea for the monument is simple: an empty prism placed on a visible spot above the town, on the central axis of the ascending park space, made up of several modules of the Zlín 6.15 x 6.15 m frame and clad only with cathedral glass. The inside of the building is devoid of all features and facilities. Perhaps somewhat spookily, the only thing inside the monument is the ill-fated Junkers F 13 aircraft in which Tomas Baťa died in 1932.
Gahura reduced the monument to the three basic materials of Zlín architecture – concrete, steel and glass – and were complied in such a way as to reflect Baťa’s character traits – generosity, simplicity and optimism.
The execution of the standardised frame as a single column hall and a three-aisled space at the same time, the variable height of the space and dispersed natural light brought the stripped-down Zlín constructivism closer to sacral buildings of the ancient and medieval times, without using any historical refrences.
The architecture also garnered the attention of several notable figures such as Le Corbusier, who famously visited Zlín in 1935, and ended up designing the Bat’a pavilion at the world’s fair in Paris in 1937.
After the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948, the legacy of Tomas Bat’a was all but erased from the city’s memory. The memorial building was dually repurposed in the 1950s as a concert hall and gallery, and the monument effectively lost its architectural meaning and qualities.
With democracy restored, the comprehensive renewal of the monument began around 18 years ago, and was completed recently by Petr Všetečka from Transat architects.
Given the monument’s place in the structure of Zlín, the building also doubles as a light-landmark for the town. The possibility of using the building for reverential and social events or exhibitions will always be limited with regard to the ideological and architectural essence of the monument and the austere conditions of its interior environment, but somehow these factors are irrelevant when one considers the beauty of the golden illuminated glow of the frosted glass facades.
The three storey room is supported by a single pillar, and the different room heights also encourage scattered light. The memorial gives the impression of a sacred building from antiquity, without resorting to historical stylistic devices. Concrete, steel and glass play the main role in the empty prism. The core experience within the building consists of the visitor’s experience of the space and light, in slowing down and contemplation.
When talking about 20th century architectural modernism, the words Bauhaus, Gropius and Dessau usually spring to mind. In light of this article, perhaps you might want to add the city of Zlin to the list of associations.
Architect of original building – František Lýdie Gahura
Architect of renovation – Petr Všetečka / Transat Architekti | www.transat.cz
Project Location – Náměstí T. G. Masaryka 2570, Zlín, Czech Republic
Project Type – Memorial, Restoration, Renovation
Completion year – 2016 – 2019
Area – Built-up – 15,000 sq.m. | Usable floor area – 1592 sq.m. | Enclosed volume – 9200 m3