This is an extract of a talk which I will present at the ‘Afterlives of Constructivism‘ conference at Princeton University in May 2013 ♦ At the height of the period of liberalization in Czechoslovakia in the mid 1960s, architects began imagining the kind of ambitious projects for cities and buildings that went far beyond the official imperative to build ‘economically and quickly’ and eschewed the technocratic role given to architecture in socialism. As architect and critic Jiři Hrůza argued – perhaps boldly – his 1967 book The Utopian City (Město Utopistů), surveying many speculative projects including those designed by Leonidov and Chernikov in the 1920s as well as those of his contemporaries such as Karel Honzík, the future could operate as a critique of the present: ‘Just as we can find in the concepts of utopian architectural avant-garde both audacious and prescient anticipations of the future, we can also find escapism from the coarse and prosaic reality of life, an ideal dream formed in disillusionment with the present …‘.[i] To find a way out from this kind of impoverishment, Hrůza directed his readers to science fiction. There they might discover a rich vein of imagination unfettered by mundane concerns.
Honzík (to whom Hrůza’s book was dedicated) could supply both architecture and sci-fi. A prolific essayist, architect and former member of Devětsil, who had designed numerous functionalist buildings before the Second World War, he had welcomed the new order in Czechoslovakia at the end of the conflict. His early post-war writings – like the introduction to Creation of Lifestyle (Tvorba životního slohu, 1946) – is full of parallels between the Czechoslovak present and Russia after the October Revolution. In 1949 he published a letter in Volné směry which made his modernist affinities clear: ‘I firmly believe that new and truly full realism can be achieved only by those artists who have absorbed the seeking and experimentation of the last fifty years.’[ii] The claim on experimentation was a call for intellectual freedom. The editor of the journal published a series of sharply disapproving responses from prominent champions of the new order, some of whom had once been Honzík’s close allies and collaborators. And so under considerable pressure, like Syrkus in Poland, he disavowed his past by writing an essay for the architectural press with the title ‘The Final Farewell to Thirty Years of Constructivism.’[iii]
A few years later after the prohibition on modernism had been lifted, Honziík, then unwell and in semi-retirement, began working on experimental housing schemes. His designs self-consciously revive the idea of the collective home as a single megastructure, a preoccupation of Soviet architects at the end of 1920s (cf Barshch and Valdimirov’s schemes c. 1929-30). Honzík’s vision for ‘vertical community’ living, ‘Domurbia’ (1962-64) took the form of three massive blocks connected by high bridges and a common service zone on the lower floors. All human needs of the 2000 inhabitants – social, health, educational and domestic – would be served in one structure. This proposition, though still unbuildable, had little of the imaginative reach to warrant the label ‘experimental’ or ‘utopian’ – this baton had been passed to ambitious young architects designing bravura socmodernist structures like the much-lauded television tower and hotel on the peak of the Ještěd mountain (Stavoprojekt, Liberec, 1963-73) or Slovak National Radio headquarters in Bratislava (Štefan Svetko, Štefan Ďurkovič and Barnabáš Kissling, 1962-85).
Honzík’s architectural imagination had perhaps been debilitated by his experiences but it was still exercised vividly in his science-fiction novels and short stories written from the late 1950s (few of which were published during his lifetime – he died in 1966). His story, Trace in the Universe (Stopa ve Vesmíru) describes an ideal society of intelligent extra-terrestrial beings who have achieved full communism. War and private property are things of the past and the state has withered away. They live, unsurprisingly, in tower- cities. New buildings are manufactured and delivered to site by aeroplanes. Others have mobile facades. All needs are met by machines and, in an echo of his earlier writings, all consumption is governed by the rational principles of need. The beings who enjoy this world are not human: they have evolved from a squirrel-like progenitor. Honzík’s point being that all intelligent life would ultimately follow a path predicted by Marx towards communism.
How we assess the utopianism of such schemes in the 1960s in political terms is not clear. This ambiguity may well have even been strategic. Groups like Dvizhenie in Soviet Russia operated with official imprimatur, only occasionally falling foul of the patrons in the party/state. The group’s chief ideologue, Lev Nussberg, was a well-connected and skilful operator, adept at persuading the authorities to support the group’s projects. In the late 1960s, Dvizhenie’s works travelled abroad and were widely reported in the international press, providing vivid examples of the creativity of Soviet culture in the face of evidence of its ossification. At the same time, architects in Czechoslovakia – perhaps more than any other Eastern Bloc state – were able to convert their visions into daring architectural forms. Responsible for the Ještěd Television Tower, SIAL –around Karel Hubáček in the state architectural office, Stavoprojekt, in Liberec – also claimed privileges from the State by pressing their bona fides as loyal visionaries.[iv] Honzík was a loyalist too but in his science fiction one senses a desire to sustain restore the fantastic dimensions of Utopianism in the face of technocratic thinking. Might his paper worlds be understood as what Theodor Adorno called ‘negative utopias’, i.e., conditions or experiences which resist the foreclosure of the possibility of a completely new way of being?[v]
[i] Hruza, 163.
[ii] Cited in Honzík, 2002
[iii] ‘Konečné rozloučení s třicetiletou érou konstruktivismu’ Architektura ČSR, 12, 1953, 141-144.
[iv] See Jiří Jiroutek, Fenomenen Ještěd (Liberec 2005) 66; see also ‘Excerpts from an interview with Karel Hubáček’, in Mašinisti, exh. cat., Fragner Gallery (Prague 1996)138.
[v] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London, 2004) 176