Modernism Redux

In October 1993, Charles Jencks, the leading advocate of architectural postmodernism, was guest of honour at an international conference and exhibition on ‘Post-Modernism and National Cultures’ which was held at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This event coincided with the Yeltsin coup, which culminated on October 3-4 with the fighting at the Ostankino TV Center, followed by the military assault on the Supreme Soviet building and its destruction by tank artillery. This was the final attempt by hard-liners to hold onto Soviet power. And, of course, it failed.

Jencks seized the moment. He issued a pronouncement entitled ‘Moscow, October 4 1993–10:10 AM Modernity Is Dead’ (an update of his famous declaration of the death of modern architecture at Pruitt-Igoe, a large housing project in St. Louis, Missouri).[1] Jencks wrote ‘reactionary modernists all over Russia know the game is up’ and that the ‘post-modern paradigm progresses cheerfully, death by death, marking thereof the more notable funerals with architectural ruins’.


Soviet Russia suffered Modernism and the modern paradigm more than any other country. With the exception of China, its forms of the brutal materialism were more systematic than elsewhere and its imposition of reductive rationalism and mechanism mind-set more thorough going. The utopian housing estates built as vertical concentration camps in heavyweight concrete were more ubiquitous, the secret police and mind control more pervasive.[2]


Now that the Soviet project – the paradigm of modernism – was fatally wounded, radical postmodernism – ‘ironic, dually-coded and resistant to reigning power’ – could enter the stage of history.[3]

In the event, rather than articulating resistance to power, as Jencks prophesied, architectural postmodernism in Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev’s Russia has largely served the cynicism and greed of the post-Soviet elites. Nevertheless, the idea that postmodernism not only coincided with the end of communist rule but that the two were somehow codependent was an attractive one and, in the early 1990s, this connection was often made. Jencks’ vision of postmodernism as being ‘resistant to reigning power’ seemed to be in accord with the image of revolution as a kind of playful overthrow of power – an image which was perhaps most closely associated with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia rather than in the bloody street-fighting in Romania in the winter of 1989 or the long drawn-out negotiations between the opposition and the authorities in Poland which had taken place over a number of years.

Dancing House photographed by Francisco Antunes (Flickr CC licence)
Dancing House photographed by Francisco Antunes (Flickr CC licence)

Prague’s Tančící dům (the Dancing House) was often proclaimed – in the architectural press in the West – as the first postcommunist landmark in Central Europe. A fashionably anthropomorphic pair of buildings clasped together, it was designed in 1992 by Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry with an interior by émigré Czech architect, Eva Jiřičná.[4] Widely reported around the world, it was seized as a symbol of the shift to the West, the creativity and the optimistic mood of Czech culture after the Velvet Revolution. It was even claimed by a writer in the New York Times as an index of democracy in the country.[5] In Jencks’ terms, the Dancing House might well be ‘dually-coded’ but it is hardly ‘resistant to power’. Funded by a Dutch investment bank and providing up-market apartments and a French restaurant, it seemed to illustrate the dramatic arrival of postmodernism and postcommunism in Central Eastern Europe. Here was a vivid example of what Fredric Jameson in 1991 called ‘the logic of late capitalism’.[6] Viewed in these terms, much of the rhetoric which accompanied the appearance of architectural postmodernism in Eastern Europe after 1989 was a kind of victor’s triumphalism.

Whilst postmodern design was widely understood as kind of arrival from the West after the Berlin Wall was breached, the ‘local’ appeal of postmodernism in East and Central Europe should not, however, be downplayed. There had been a sincere engagement with what can be called postmodernist aesthetics throughout the Bloc in the 1980s. This took various forms (even if the title postmodernism was not widely assumed) including paper architecture schemes in the Soviet Union which visualized impossible buildings, often offering powerful meditations on the historic and largely undervalued architectural forms of pre-revolutionary Russia.[7] 4368467286_a9c3707778_oIn their retrospection and nostalgia, the etchings of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, for instance, offered a critique of the fetish made of the new in Soviet architecture. Their ‘Columbarium Architecturae (Museum of Disappearing Buildings)’ of 1984 depicts a memorial structure in which old buildings threatened with destruction are preserved like the ashes of the dead. Yet these buildings have not quite expired. They demand the careful attention of the viewer, whether the occupant of the building or the passerby. If a building is forgotten or overlooked, the massive ball in the centre of the structure swings into action to destroy it. This fantastic scheme, and others by the duo, is explicitly critical of the processes of modernisation which had swept old buildings from Soviet streets in the name of progress.

In Poland, the Roman Catholic church – a relatively wealthy and autonomous organization – commissioned architects to design new churches. Often these structures were given highly symbolic forms like arks, monumental crosses and unfinished ruins to deliver unmistakable messages about the failures of community and distortion of history under communist rule.[8] In Hungary, Imre Makovecz and a number of kindred spirits – architects as well as writers, academics – often working in the south of Hungary in Pécs, developed an archi­tectural philosophy and aesthetic in the 1970s which valued traditional materials and craftsmanship as well as highly expressive and symbolic forms which has come to be known as ‘Organic Architecture’. They established international reputations as instinctive ‘post-modernists’ behind the Iron Curtain who worked in opposition to orthodox state design. Makovecz’s colleague György Csete was, for example, singled out by Jencks in later editions of his 1977 book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture.[9]

Czechoslovakia was relatively unfertile ground for the kinds of postmodern expressivity found in Poland and Hungary prior to 1989. sramkova-2-48074c83e7a5aArchitectural critics have found ‘hints’ of postmodernism in the glass clock-tower on Alena Šrámková’s ČKD building in Wenceslas Square in Prague (1974-83), for instance. But this is one of a small number of structures which have been awarded the label. By a curious twist of fate, Jencks’ The Language of Postmodern Architecture was, in fact, published in Czech in 1979 (as Jazyk postmoderní architektury), seven years before the first Soviet edition and nine years before the first Polish version. It was also reviewed in the specialist press.[10] Significantly, however, the Czech book was a samizdat publication (an illegal, unlicensed version initiated by Jiří Ševčík and others) in an edition of only 35 copies, whilst the Russian edition was issued by Storiizdat, the State Construction House, and the Polish book was widely and cheaply available in official bookstores.

In fact, Poland in the early 1980s was home to relatively open discussions of the failings of modern architecture and design, often focusing on the anomie and alienation produced by the mass housing schemes which had been erected in the 1960s and 1970s. Architects set themselves the task of ‘humanising’ the standard and industrial schemes which filled the environment. Occasionally, these criticisms were even directed at the state: during the rise of the Solidarity trade union in Poland in 1980, for instance, the All-Poland Council of Architects issued a statement which announced:


The disastrous state of housing in Poland is the result of the crisis the whole of society and the economy. Architecture is just a reflection of the collapse of human dignity that accompanies this crisis. … In the existing system, there is no central place for contact between an architect and inhabitant and, consequently, for social impact on the shape of our homes and cities. This economic model cannot solve the pressing problems of house building. We demand the creation of new economic mechanisms, and especially a market for local initiatives, restore law and the responsibilities of the householder, the architect and the contractor under the rule of law and their competence …[11]


This was an extraordinarily bold call: one which could not have been made elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, particularly in Husák’s Czechoslovakia. Such was the central control over architecture and design that attempts to organize unofficial practices were met with a censorious response. The 1983 exhibition ‘Prostor, architektura, výtvarné umĕní’ (Space, Architecture and Fine Art) exhibition organized by Jiří T. Kotalík in Ostrava was closed down and copies of the catalogue pulped. The exhibitors’ interests (some of whom were concerned with existing dilapidated structures in the environment) were less threatening to the state than the independence of action and thought which the exhibition demonstrated. Circumspect announcements about the ‘crisis of modernism’ emerged in the late 1980s in the writings of critic and curator Milena Lamarová and the unofficial ‘Urbanita’ exhibitions in Prague’s Fragner Gallery.[12]

But perhaps the most forceful critique of Czechoslovak architectural design came earlier in the form of a movie, Věra Chytilová’s Panelstory (Prefab Story, 1979) a social satire presenting the chaotic lives of the inhabitants of a characteristically dull and unfinished panel-built housing estate. Shot using a hand held camera on a real housing estate, the film shares much with the ‘fly on the wall’ documentary form: this is unmistakably a real place and so are the experiences of the occupants. They testify to the failure of the estate’s design in their actions: when the water supply falters, for instance, a kettle has to be filled from the toilet cistern. And when a complaint is made by a tenant about the ‘horrible’ finish and ill-shaped spaces of her high-rise apartment, the official response, ‘It was designed that way’, comes with a shrug of the shoulders. Somehow Panelstory managed to get past the censors, though the film was very rarely screened.

Reviewing the state of Czech socmodernism a couple of years after the Velvet Revolution, curator Lamarová stressed what she saw as the impoverished state of both the design profession and its continued attachment to modernism: ‘While the [rest of the] world has experienced a strong wave of postmodernism since the early 1970s – first in architecture and thereafter in design and fashion – Czech design is still trying to conform to modernism in its drooping, postwar socialist form. A complex – formed by anxiety about copying foreign design from the West, and the general conservatism of a generation of designers, not to mention the characteristic bitterness of Czech industry and the total consumerisation of the skyline – continues to encourage meaningless proclamations about “functional” form …’.[13]

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 01.00.52Perhaps this sense of isolation and the exhaustion of the official design offices accounts for the enthusiastic and rapid embrace which was given to the Jencksian version of postmodernism in Czech culture in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. In April 1990, the Applied Arts Museum in Prague presented an exhibition entitled ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ (The Paths to Postmodernism) curated by Josef Kroutvor. The exhibition – focusing on architectural design, furniture, ceramics and graphics – placed a particular emphasis on the unofficial currents which had been gathering pace in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. In his introductory essay, Kroutvor linked the programmatic character of the avant-garde (effectively a synonym for modernism) with totalitarianism – much like Jencks.[14] He also played up the underground associations of postmodernism in socialist Czechoslovakia, stressing the pioneering role of critics Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík who had published some of their essays on postmodernism as samizdat; [15] the emergence of Atika in 1987, an independent design group who eschewed the shibboleths of economy, simplicity and manufacturability for ‘irony, fairy tales, the surreal and sensations brought to us by the media’ in their designs for furniture;[16] and on the resolutely impractical , ‘post-Cubist’ chairs and tables designed by the controversial and dissident artist, Milan Knížák, in the 1970s and 1980s. In this sense, ‘The Paths to Postmodernism’ accentuated the critical bona fides of postmodernism at a time when the style was being accused elsewhere of ‘pseudohistorical nostalgia, the fabricated traditions, the pandering to a nouveau-riche clientele, the populist rhetoric that often sounds more paternalistic than democratic, the abandonment of any social vision’.[17]

Too young to have exhibited in Kroutvor’s survey, Olgoj Chorchoj formed at the height of enthusiasm for postmodernism in Czech design. Conceived during a Vitra Design Museum Workshop in 1990, its founders, designers Michal Fronĕk and Jan Nĕmeček, were then students at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. The Academy was itself undergoing its own palace coup with a high proportion of the established professors being replaced by a new generation of artists and designers – selected by open election – who brought in new ideas about aesthetics as well as the role of the designer. Fronĕk and Nĕmeček were taught by Bořek Šípek, the émigré living in the Netherlands with an international reputation for high-end designs for famous brands.[18] Fronĕk and Nĕmeček recalled ‘Bořek Šípek came to our studio after the revolution … He opened up the world, and we went with him to Holland. Suddenly we saw that design could extend beyond its perceived boundaries as trade, to be a highly prestigious thing. It was said there that a designer should be a star. We saw that it was possible to make beautiful and affordable things. And that fame … is the means to ensure freedom and secure an existence.’[19]

Sexy MF copy
Sexy MF vase (1992)
Škoda I and II tables (1997)

Both Olgoj Chorchoj’s fantastic name and the studio’s earliest designs seemed to suggest a kind animism in which ordinary objects – glassware, lamps and tables designed by the duo and made by small-scale Czech manufacturers and workshops – exhibited a kind of liveliness and exuberance. Undeniably practical, these objects downplayed utility in favour of humour and pleasure. The Sexy MF vase made in 1992 in the Rückl and Sons glassworks, for instance, invited its user to couple the two anthropomorphically-shaped parts. The ‘Mr XL Fingers’ desk, a vigorous sweep of veneered plywood from the same year, seems less like a piece of office furniture than a witty comment on power. Olgoj Chorchoj’s postmodern phase was relatively short-lived. By the mid 1990s, the duo’s designs for furniture eschewed ornament and symbolism in favour of an emphasis on the texture and visual effects of materials, as well as a restrained vocabulary of forms (though they maintain a taste for gently ironic titles). In fact, as the decade progressed, the Olgoj Chorchoj Studio established an international reputation for its skilled handling of materials, often by working closely with Czech workshops. The suggestive mass and void of the Škoda I and II tables (1997), as well precise geometries of their forms, was achieved by slicing through many layers of plywood using the cutting tables at the Škoda Factory in Pilsen. This technique produced a vivid and ‘natural’ effect of stripes through the timber blocks. To avoid wastage the tables were cut from panels in standard dimensions. Deriving their proportions and aesthetic effects from the process of making, the Škoda tables represent the kind of sophisticated modernism which has come to characterize upmarket Czech architectural and furniture design since the late 1990s (the same might be said of the group’s architectural designs in the new years of the century as well). In the light of the phenomenon’s loud dismissal of socmodernism in the first years after the Velvet Revolution, what is striking about so much Czech design in the last two decades has been what architectural critic Rostislav Švácha has described as its ‘austerity’.[20] For Švácha this is largely a matter of style rather than economy, not least because most of the neomodernist villas and minimalist furniture designs have been created for wealthy private clients or in limited editions.

Is this taste for minimalism simply a matter of the turn of the wheel of fashion after the expressive excesses of postmodernism? The answer to this question may well lie in the way in which the phenomenon of Czech modernism of the inter-war years itself has undergone a wholesale reassessment since the Velvet Revolution. And, in this history, Olgoj Chorchoj should be regarded not only as an interpreter of Czech modernism but as an agent in its revival. In 1993, Fronĕk and Nĕmeček restarted ‘Artěl’, a co-operative established in Prague in 1908 to produce modern applied art designed by artists and made in workshops by skilled craftsmen and women. More than a brand, Artěl’s founders imagined the cooperative as a community of makers (much in the manner of other design reform groups like the Wiener Werkstätte in Austria). The ceramic, glass and metal wares designed by Artěl members took a variety of forms including traditional folk arts (echoing growing Czech nationalist sentiment at the time) and the angular modernism of cubist designs. Vlastislav Hofman, for example, sought to realise a decorative Cubism by deforming traditional ceramic forms in a series of services and vases. The surfaces of these Artěl products were transformed with angled planes and trimmed edges.

Artěl thrived in the 1920s in the newly independent Czechoslovakia but was eventually forced to close in 1935 when it was no longer financially viable. Nevertheless, it formed an important chapter in a longer history of modernism in the Czech lands that also includes Družstevní práce (Cooperative Work), a publishing house with a large middle class readership founded in 1922 which opened a shop and gallery in Prague with the name Krásná jizba (Beautiful Household) five years later. Selling domestic products designed by associates of the cooperative including Ladislav Sutnar as well as other pragmatic modernists (in the early 1930s, for instance, it sold Bauhaus furniture[21]), Družstevní práce set out to demonstrate that the ways of living mapped out in Modern Movement blueprints were no longer distant avant-garde dreams: they were becoming part of middle class experience.[22] Other moments in this longer – though fragmented – narrative might also include the so called Brussels Style of the late 1950s and 1960s.[23] Pointing to the interwar roots of this festive expression of Czechoslovak modernism at the Brussels Expo in 1958, Fronĕk and Nĕmeček have said ‘It was an optimistic time here, and shaped by people who had grown up in a freer society. But certainly there was no celebrity, because the designs were not in production and were not associated with their creators. Brussels was obviously a very formal style. But design is not just about form: form is the last joyful activity, the icing on the cake, a place for emotion. But a good designer is able to prepare a place for emotion. Design is usually 80% rational, whilst 20% depends on the emotions.’[24]

Fronĕk and Nĕmeček’s decision to revive Artěl and reissue some of its distinctive products – including a clock and a bookshelf designed by Josef Gočár in 1913 as well as a 1912 table by Pavel Janák in the Czech cubist manner; and a modernist breakfast service designed by Ludvika Smrčková from 1931– was by no means an expression of nostalgia. Also issuing new contemporary designs, Artěl II was a statement of intent in the early years of the Czech Republic. Czech Cubism of the 1910s – little more than a dusty antiquarian interest on the part of scholars during the years of communist rule – was, like postmodernism, a ‘discovery’ which seemed to resonate with the postcommunist condition. Here was a local version of modern design which seemed to combine national distinction with an openness to foreign influence: it also connected the Havel’s republic with the Masaryk era, widely viewed as a kind of golden age of Czech modernity. Here too was a model of business which valued high production values and served middle class markets (both attractive features after what Lamarová called ‘the bitterness of Czech industry’ during the Husák years); and, of course, here was a business led by artists. Some even saw the living line of Czech modernism from the beginning of the twentieth century to its end as an expression of what architectural theorist Kenneth Frampton called ‘critical regionalism,’[25] an architecture of resistance against the impact of universal culture and placelessness: ‘There is every hope that this remarkable example of living culture, which was interrupted by the various prohibitions of totalitarian regimes’, wrote François Burkhardt, ‘has regained its freedom of expression and will find in its own tradition the idiom appropriate to its aspirations. Postmodernism, with its return to critical regionalism, may breathe new life into a movement which has earned the historical right to continue.’[26]

Burkhardt writing in 1992 was keen to stress the postmodernity of Czech Cubism not as a form of anti-modernism (in the manner, say, of the Organic Architects in Hungary) but as its extension: ‘To expand its horizons beyond the frontiers of modernism’, he wrote, ‘it has added the emotional dimension, which touches upon the new postmodern sensibility.’[27]

Mr Egg
Mr Egg (2001)

Olgoj Chorchoj’s designs – even when they approach the emphatic simplicity of Czech functionalism – might well be understood in exactly these terms. With their humorous and sometimes gently ironic titles (like the ‘Mr Egg’ set of drinking glasses for the Květná Glassworks, 2001), their designs often have a tender appearance (the ‘20%’ investment in emotion).

Czech postmodernism was a short-lived phenomenon, particularly when compared with the long interconnected chains of Czech modernism which have been so carefully sustained through museum exhibitions, the writings of historians and, of course, the actions of designers too. But it was perhaps a necessary phase for Olgoj Chorchoj as well as for others: it stimulated an understanding of the importance of both authorship and of emotion in design; and, above all, the value of the past, in this case the bourgeois tradition of modern design in Czechoslovakia which had been obscured by image of failure which attached to modernism in the 1970s and 1980s.



[1] Charles Jencks in Alexey Yurasovsky and Sophie Ovenden, eds., Post-SovietArt and Architecture (London, 1994) p. 11.

[2] Ibid, p. xx

[3] Ibid, p. 13.

[4] Joseph Giovannini, ‘Fred and Ginger dance in Prague; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vlado Milunic’ in Architecture vol. 86, no. 2 (February 1997) pp. 52-63; Laurie Wale, ‘The dancing building; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vladimir Milunić in Architect & Builder (January 1997) pp. 2-5; ‘Praga [Ginger and Fred: offices for Nationale Nederlanden, Prague]; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vladimir Milunic ‘ in Arquitectura Viva no. 52 (January/February 1997) pp 94-99; Robert Bevan, ‘Inside Fred and Ginger’ in Interiors for Architects & Designers (Spring 1997) pp. 24-27; Simonetta Carbonaro, ‘Der tanzende Palast: Frank O Gehry und seine Begegnung mit Vlado Milunic in Prag’ in Deutsche Bauzeitschrift, vol. 44, no. 9 (September 1996) pp. 93-97.

[5] ‘Mr. Gehry’s design was approved by 68 percent of the voters in a referendum held in 1993 after the Velvet Revolution, when voting became the unofficial national pastime’ wrote Timothy-Jack Ward in ‘The Towers In Prague That Swirl And Waltz’ in New York Times (1 February 1996).

[6] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London, 1991).

[7] See Alexander G. Rappaport, Paper Architecture. New Projects from the Soviet Union (New York, 1990).

[8] See Lidia Klein, ed., P1 Postmodernizm polski. Architektura i urbanistyka (Warsaw, 2013).

[9] Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London, 1987) p. 159.

[10] Bořislav Babáček, Jiří Kučera, Jaroslav Ouřecký, ‘Jazyk postmoderní architektury’, Architektura ČSR XXXVII (1978) pp. 463-467.

[11] Statement of the All-Poland Council of Architects (Warsaw, November 1980) published in Architektura xxx

[12] See, for instance, Milena Lamarová, ‘Na vlně postmodernismu’ in Domov, 3 (1987) pp. 20-24.

[13] Milena Lamarová, untitled essay in the catalogue for the ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ exhibition at the Uměleckoprůmyslové Museum (Prague, 1990) unpaginated.


[14] Josef Kroutvor, untitled essay in the catalogue for the ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ exhibition at the Uměleckoprůmyslové Museum (Prague, 1990) unpaginated.

[15] See for instance, Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík, ‘Loučení s modernismem. Čtyři úvahy o nové malbě’ in Sborník památce Jiřího Padrty (samizdat), 1985, pp. 21–29 reproduced in Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík, Texty (Prague, 2010) pp. 188–194.

[16] Milena Lamarová from the catalogue for the Studio Atika exhibition in Prague, 1989 reproduced in Dagmar Koudeliková and Anežka Šimková, eds.,  Atika 1987-1992. Emoce a forma (Olomouc, 2007) pp. 112-3

[17] Mary McLeod, ‘Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism’ in Assemblage, no. 8 (February 1989) p. 22.

[18] See Martina Pachmanová and Markéta Pražanová (eds.), Vysoká škola uměleckoprůmyslová v Praze, 1885–2005 (Prague, 2005) pp. 85-7.

[19] ‘Olgoj Chorchoj: Sláva je prostředkem ke svobodě’ in Lidové noviny (12 December 2011) – – accessed 31/3/16

[20] Rostislav Švácha, Czech Architecture and Its Austerity (Prague, 2004).

[21] Iva Janáková, ed., Ladislav Sutnar. Prague-New York. Design in Action, (Prague, 2003) p. 188.

[22] See Christopher Wilk, ed., Modernism. Designing a New World 1914-39 (London, 2006) pp 392-3.

[23] See Daniela Kramerová and Vanda Skálová, eds., Bruselský sen. Československá účast na Světové výstavě Expo 58 v Bruselu (Prague, 2008).

[24] Olgoj Chorchoj: Sláva je prostředkem ke svobodě’ in Lidové noviny (12 December 2011) – accessed 31/3/16

[25] Kenneth Frampton ‘’Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’ in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture (Port Townsend, 1983) pp 16-29.

[26] François Burkhardt, ‘Czech Cubism Today’ in Alexander von Vegesack, ed., Czech Cubism. Architecture, Furniture and Decorative Arts 1910-1925 (London, 1992) p. 105.

[27] Ibid, p. 96.


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