Architects Věra Machoninová and Vladimír Machonin designed some of the Czech Republic’s most distinctive modern buildings, including Prague’s Kotva department store and Hotel Thermal in Karlovy Vary. The couple’s legacy is being kept alive today by their granddaughter Marie Kordovská, who campaigns for Thermal in particular to receive sensitive treatment. The Machonins’ architecture is frequently described as Brutalist and when we met, at Kotva, I asked Kordovská if there was anything about their work that made it stand out from the genre, which is typified by a blocky, concrete style.
“My grandmother always tells these stories about how she had a friend at the Institute of New Materials, where in laboratories people were experimenting with new materials and then my grandma came and used them on a whole building.
“To me that’s quite crazy really.
“I imagine it as if she would take nanotechnologies, which are very contemporary now but are kind of being used just in laboratories, and used them as a thing to cover a whole building.
“There’s a very particular dark metal which is on Kotva and DBK [House of Apartment Culture, by Budějovická Metro station] and also on her personal house.
“What I personally think about their buildings is that in their very kind of distinctive Brutalist look, they are actually very fragile.
“It’s not actually Brutalism, it’s Late Modernism with a Brutalist influence.
“It’s not that the concrete walls would be just concrete and very, very thick and kind of bunker-like.
“It’s very often a metal structure which is just has a thin layer of concrete on it.
“So in their Brutalist appearance they’re very fragile and kind of neat and nice.”
Your grandparents are often referred to as a team. Do you know how did their collaboration actually work in practice?
“It’s very interesting to hear today that how all of their buildings are called Communist monstrosities, but that’s actually something that started during normalisation already.”
“I can’t say exactly, because I was born two years after my grandpa passed away, so I never met him.
“I’ve only talked to my grandma and she’s very technically focused. She was the one who really did calculating and the statics.
“She really kind of thought about the architecture.
“From what I’ve gathered, I think my grandpa was more of a manager.
“He was good with people and could talk things out with the government or with the bureaucracy.
“But it was never a good idea to send grandma to talk to the bureaucratic people, because she would just get into a fight.
“So I think grandpa was more the manager and grandma was more in the studio, taking care of the planning itself.
“However, it wasn’t like this 100 percent.
“It wasn’t strictly divided like that – I’m sure they collaborated on many things.”
Restrictions were placed on them during normalisation. Does that mean that most of their major commissions were from before 1968, or from before the real onset of normalisation?
“Yes, that’s exactly true.
“It’s very interesting to hear today that how all of their buildings are called Communist monstrosities, but it’s actually something that started during normalisation already.
“Because it’s true that all of their commissions happened in the ‘60s, and they were just finishing them in the ‘70s.
“So, for example, when Hotel Thermal in Karlovy Vary was finished there was an article that came out in a newspaper at the time which said, There is this concrete monstrosity here in this picturesque city – what are we going to do with it?
“I like how Kotva fits the environment. Many people would disagree with me, but I actually think it fits the old surroundings very well.”
“Because the Communists didn’t know what to do with Modernism. It was too modern for them.
“There is actually a sentence in the article saying, Oh, this feels too modern – we don’t want it.
“So actually this hatred towards the buildings, which is very present today even, in my opinion started in the ‘70s already.
“Because it was the ‘60s era that only grew in the ‘70s.”
You mention Hotel Thermal in Karlovy Vary. Did your grandparents also design the famous furniture, like the famous red and white leather chairs there?
“Yes. It’s actually, or it used to be, a very important part of the building. A key part, really.
“In the ‘60s all around the world, not just in Communist Czechoslovakia, when you were an architect and had a big commission like this, you designed not only the building itself but the furniture as well, up to the last detail, to the last tea spoon.
“There are designs of all the chairs, various kinds, with detailed instructions on how to put them together, what should look like what, what the materials should be. And they were all made specifically for the building.
“And then they disappeared in the ’90s and up to today they are being replaced by cheap alternatives.
“When they are being restored, they’re not restored well enough.
“So the look of the hotel and the atmosphere disappears with the furniture the most, I think.”
For you, of all their buildings, which is the most impressive, or maybe is the best example of their work?
“There are things about each of the buildings that are different from the other ones.
“For example with Kotva, I like how it fits the environment.
“Many people would disagree with me, but I actually think it fits the old surroundings very well.
“With Thermal, on the other hand, it was – I don’t like using this word, but it fits – just a gesamtkunstwerk of everything: the architecture together with the furniture just made an amazing structure in general.
“Currently what might be most interesting for listeners would probably be the Czechoslovak, or Czech, Embassy in Berlin.
“I understand that it’s difficult for the owners to make the Kotva building work.”
“That’s because nothing has been changed, or very little has been changed, there.
“It needs to be reconstructed, in fact – it’s very old and doesn’t function properly.
“But before that happens, if anybody gets the chance to go see the interior of the embassy, or maybe just Google it, it’s the most interesting, because you can still feel what it looked like when it was finished.”
I believe when Kotva here opened it was a major deal – it was the country’s big new department store. That was in the mid-1970s. Obviously you came here for the first time many years later, but still, how did it feel for you coming into this place, knowing that it was your grandparents’ work?
“Well, I grew up in a building that my grandma designed, with my grandpa. So I grew up in a Kotva.
“My friends call our house ‘mini Kotva’. It seemed normal to me.
“I never really thought about it up until five years ago, when we started kind of campaigning for the architecture.
“But up until then I rarely thought about it or talked to my grandma about it.
“Obviously we knew a lot about their work, but it just wasn’t that much of a big deal.”
You mention campaigning to support the legacy of your grandparents’ work. You and your brother Jan use the name Respekt Madam. Why is that?
“Someone – I believe my brother actually found out who it was – made graffiti on the wall which had Hotel Thermal on it and it said, Respekt, madam.
“It was a sort of an homage to my grandma.
“When we were figuring out what we were going to call ourselves, we thought this was the perfect way to express what we were trying to say – that our grandmother’s architecture needs respect.
“That was it.”
Kotva’s glory days are probably well behind it. What’s your view of the state of Kotva today?
“That’s difficult to say. Because, as you were saying, it’s glory days are well behind it.
“But the glory days were also well supported by the regime that was here before, which we can all agree wasn’t the best.
“So it’s very difficult for the owners to figure out how to treat a building like this in the current, capitalist political situation.
“I understand that it’s difficult for the owners to make the building work.
“On the other hand, I believe that 30 years since the revolution and 40 years since the building was built we know enough about how important the architecture is.
“Society is kind of beginning to agree that these buildings are something that should be preserved and looked after.
“And I think what the owners are lacking is some sort of a vision, or the willingness to invest more, rather than get an immediate return on their investment.
“What the building lacks now is the vision that it had in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
“A lot of what made it special isn’t there any more right now, because Thermal has been through a lot since the revolution. A lot of the architecture is gone already. The furniture is gone, almost completely.”
A major focus of your efforts as Respekt Madam is Hotel Thermal and fighting for it to be treated well. It’s being renovated, or it’s going to be renovated, I’m not quite sure what the state is at the moment. How do you view that project?
“That’s just a disaster. There’s no other word to describe what’s going on there.
“I was talking about the lack of vision in Kotva – with Thermal it’s a hundred times more the situation.
“Again, we all agree that the building needs to be reconstructed.
“Very often people think that we want to make it into a ‘60s museum – that’s not true at all.
“We really think that it needs to be reconstructed and that it needs to be given some sort of a look.
“But the reconstruction is happening for the most part without an architect.
“What’s happening there is a lot of questionable affairs and deals. It’s something that I really don’t want to get into – it’s too complicated.
“But, yes, it’s just the lack of understanding of the style, of what the people are actually working with – it just makes me really sad.”
I presume you’re afraid that in, I don’t know, five years a lot of what made it special won’t be there anymore?
“A lot of what made it special isn’t there any more right now, because Thermal has been through a lot since the revolution.
“A lot of the architecture is gone already. The furniture is gone, almost completely.
“So it is difficult to give it back its original atmosphere.
“I naively believed for a long time that maybe something will happen and they will understand and they will get a brilliant architect and have an open competition about who’s going to reconstruct it, and things like that.
“But I see now that it’s not going to happen.
“Maybe you saw in the media the new rooms that they did in a style that they’re planning to apply to the whole hotel…”
This is the hotel rooms?
“Yes, the hotel rooms. It’s quite disastrous.”
I believe you and your brother gave tours of Thermal during the Karlovy Vary film festival this year and there was a lot of interest. Do you feel you have a lot of support for you view of how Thermal should be treated?
“We’ve been doing these tours for the last five years, and we see that the support is rising.
“We started very spontaneously. We just kind of called to the film festival and asked if we could do tours and they were quite friendly about it and it just kind of happened.
“Five years from then, a lot has happened. The festival doesn’t support us anymore and we don’t really communicate with the hotel anymore.
“So we do these kind of guerrilla tours around the hotel.
“On the other hand, at the beginning we would have 10, 20 people in the tour.
“This year it was 300 to 500, I think, all together. Obviously it was much helped by [media architect] Adam Gebrian being there.
“On the other hand, I really, really see that people are beginning to understand it and like it.
“And this division between the admiration of the general public – not all of it, but a lot of it – and the complete lack of understanding from the owners or the management is baffling really.”
Your grandmother Věra Machoninová is 91, I believe, now. How does she view all of this stuff?
“Sometimes she tells us, Just give up, I’ve been fighting this fight for 30 years, it doesn’t lead anywhere, you’re just tiring yourselves out – do whatever you feel is important to you.
“And the next day you come and she just saw an interview about something and she’s like, We need to fight until the very end and we need to know that we did everything in our power to stop what’s happening.
“So she goes from being not interested at all to being very full of fight and wanting to fix it.”
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