The Birth and Rebirth of Functionalism in the Czech Republic - Atlas Obscura

The Birth and Rebirth of Functionalism in the Czech Republic

The global design phenomenon left a unique and lasting legacy in the country.

Villa Müller in Prague.
Villa Müller in Prague. CC by 3.0

Form rarely follows function as purely as it does in functionalist Czech architecture. The minimalist, utilitarian design ideology, which prioritizes functionality above aesthetic, became popular following World War I when the world was hungry for all things “modern.” The movement took hold of the former Czechoslovakia for much of the 20th century. Its straight lines and clean forms represented the country’s collective desire to create infrastructure that responded to how its citizens lived and navigated through their communities.

Given the tumultuous history of the Czech Republic during the 20th century, the style’s appeal is easy to identify. Both pragmatic and ambitious, functionalism reflected the people’s deep understanding of their present and future needs. Built to last, many of these structures are still standing and accessible to visit.

The move toward functionalism in the 1920s was a direct rejection of building styles—and societal structures—that had defined the Kingdom of Bohemia’s empire. No longer did the 14th-century gothic castles or the ornate details of the 19th century’s Art Nouveau movement reflect the day-to-day realities of life in the Czech Republic. Instead, as the country progressed toward an industrial future, it needed buildings that represented its new cultural priorities. Functionalism rose alongside the country’s economic aspirations. During its heyday, the style elevated Czech architecture at home and abroad. Homegrown architects spread its influence across Eastern and Western Europe.

Much of this momentum was lost in the late 1940s and ‘50s, however, as Stalin’s influence spread across the country. Grandiose new buildings of that era, such as Prague’s Hotel International, imitated the Soviet leader’s personal preferences instead of focusing on the civic needs of the people. But as the austere realities of Communist rule set in, Czech architecture eventually lost much of its Soviet sentimentality. Almost by necessity, new buildings began to revert back to the more basic, purpose-driven designs that first defined functionalism.

Throughout the country functionalist architectural gems abound. Here are some of the best places you can explore them—notably, in the cities of Brno, Prague, and Zlín.

Villa Tugendhat's exterior.
Villa Tugendhat’s exterior. Czech Tourism

Villa Tugendhat

Brno’s most famous functionalist structure may be the Villa Tugendhat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country’s loveliest examples of functionalist architecture. Even as the style disappeared from the global forefront, the Villa remains a key example of functionalism at its peak period. A three-story, stand-alone, reinforced concrete hilltop home with a conservatory, servants’ quarters, and an onyx-walled living room, the Villa still has a futuristic feel almost a century after its construction. Designed by German pioneer of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and built in 1930, the estate has been open to the public since 2012. In the intervening years, the Villa has had a range of uses, from Soviet horse stable to a dance academy.

Agudas Achim Synagogue in Brno.
Agudas Achim Synagogue in Brno. VitVit

Agudas Achim Synagogue

Another functionalist place of note in Brno is a synagogue dating to the mid-1930s. Designed by noted Czech architect Otto Eisler, the structure’s religious purpose informed its design. A large square window welcomes light from the heavens into the prayer room, but other conspicuous characteristics are sparse. Eisler adhered to a traditional synagogue layout with a platform in the middle and the Torah ark in the eastern wall. During World War II, the synagogue served an entirely separate “function” out of necessity: as a storage house. After the war, it was reconsecrated. As recently as 2016, it had undergone construction to restore its original appearance.

Hotel Avion

Designed by renowned architect Bohuslav Fuchs (also known for his work on the colorful Cafe Era), the slender Hotel Avion has a facade just under 23-feet wide, making it one of the narrowest hotels in Europe. Working with an extremely slim plot of land, the architect created a building that was unprecedented in design. Embracing the concept of continuous space, he created a a hotel with rooms that flowed into one another, centralized around a core spiral stairway.

Villa Müller's distinctive palettes.
Villa Müller’s distinctive palettes. Eigenes Werk

Villa Müller

In Prague, the Villa Müller shares a birth year and many aesthetic features with the Villa Tugendhat in Brno. A white structure with prominent yellow windows, this Villa is also made of reinforced concrete and was created without a blueprint. “I do not draw plans, facades or sections,” Adolf Loos, the home’s architect, is famously quoted as saying, “I design spaces.” The home—both spatially and conceptually —offers its resident a key facet of functionalism: continual spaces which “relate to each other,” in the words of Loos. The Villa today houses a gallery space within its historic walls.

An inside look at Zlín's Building No. 21.
An inside look at Zlín’s Building No. 21. JakubD

Building No. 21

Zlín is a city practically built by functionalist principles, offering a unique perspective on the movement. The birthplace of the global shoe company Baťa, the city grew alongside the company in the years preceding and proceeding WWI. The city’s industrial past is reflected in countless structures in the city that were built in a style that reflected the Baťa’s factories. But the city’s crowning functionalist achievement is indisputably the 16-story skyscraper Building No. 21, built to host the company’s booming business headquarters in 1938. Its elevator famously contains a private office, so the factory’s manager could easily visit all floors while keeping up with work.

Church of St. Wenceslas (Sazovice)

Post-Stalin, functionalism became the dominant style of building in the Czech Republic and continues to be an influence in the country’s contemporary architecture. After the Velvet Revolution, designers have taken liberties in blending its sensible aesthetic with influences from other movements and eras from the country’s past.

An example of this can be seen in the recently-constructed Church of St Wenceslas in Sazovice, a village in the Zlín region. While the architects at Atelier Štěpán reference the St. Vitus cathedral in Prague as an inspiration point, the building’s cylindrical shape, use of cement as a primary building material, and prismatic windows pay homage to the utilitarian ideals of functionalism. The idea of building a church dates back to the interwar period, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the town finally revived the idea and laid plans to work. In execution, the cylindrical church serves as the town’s focal point and an apt metaphor for Czech architecture in the 20th century. Conceived during functionalism’s prime and built after its gradual decline, it relays a story of the birth, death, and rebirth of Czech functionalism.

This post was written in partnership with CzechTourism. For more obscure and unconventional stories, from the Land of Stories, head here.