I said at the end of the piece I did on Max Fabiani a few weeks ago that I would probably follow up with one on Jan Kotera, so here it is.
Jan Karel Zdenko Kotera was Moravian, born in 1871, in Brno, to a Czech father and a German mother. His father, Antonin, was the headmaster of a secondary school and the family were comfortably middle class. Like his siblings, Jan was bilingual, and was sent to German schools. As he showed an aptitude for architecture, his father sent him to the Technical School of Construction in Pilsen. After his graduation in 1890, he moved to Prague to work in the office of architect Josef Freynov. At that time Freynov was working on the restoration of Cerveny Hradek castle. Kotera was set to work on that project. It was here that he met the castle’s owner, Baron Mladot of Solopysk, who took a shine to the young man and offered to support him through the architecture course at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
Kotera duly enrolled in the course in 1894, where he found himself being taught by Otto Wagner. Among his fellow students were Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann and Josef Plecnik. Kotera and Plecnik became close friends. The students were expected to work as assistants in Wagner’s office, under the guidance of Max Fabiani and Josef Olbrich. The main textbook for the course was Wagner’s ‘Modern Architecture’ (partially written by Fabiani). In it Wagner was arguing that the development of architecture did not lie in fundamental changes, but in the gradual modification of the old to cater for new forms of construction and technology. He encouraged his pupils to gradually strip away elements like attics and cornices and move away from the old beaux arts style which predominated in 19th century Europe. It was a message which some of the students took to heart, particularly Loos, who stripped away and stripped away until there was only a bare white cube left (See his Muller Villa in Prague). Others, like Kotera, hung on to the old decorative forms. It may well have been that which led to the Academy awarding him the Rome Prize for his diploma thesis, which was a design for public baths. In this building, he tried the whole range of historical decorations while maintaining all the functional requirements that Wagner demanded. The scholarship allowed him to travel extensively in Italy throughout 1897 and 1898.
With such experience behind him he could easily have returned to Vienna and established a successful career, but instead he returned to Prague with the aim of bringing the art and architecture there ‘up to date’. It was an idealistic position and one which, in retrospect, hampered his own career, while enabling others to take Czech architecture into the twentieth century. He is, rightly, called the father of modern Czech architecture.
The architectural establishment did not welcome him back to Prague with open arms. In 1898 Prague was closed to foreign influences and quite unwilling to accept new creative ideas. Kotera did not tick the right boxes. For a start he was partly German. And he had studied in Vienna. He was far too young and inexperienced and, above all, his obvious talent frightened the others. He found it hard to get work and turned to teaching at the Arts and Crafts school.
What he was successful at was in establishing a close circle of young artists and architects, much as Olbrich had done in Vienna. This group, the Manes Unions of Fine Arts was heavily influenced by the Vienna Secession and, just as Olbrich had designed the Secession House, Kotera designed a club house for the Mânes group.
His first significant commission came in 1899, an office building in Wenceslas Square known as the Peterka House.
This is essentially a stripped down version of the things he had been designing under Wagner’s tutelage, but in feel is much closer to Belgian Art Nouveau than Viennese Jugendstil. It was a style which was to have a profound impact on new building in Prague over the next decade, though Kotera did not return to it himself. More significantly, it freely displayed the structural steel and uncovered rough concrete from which it was constructed. The establishment was outraged and he was roundly condemned.
The Peterka House brought no other commissions for substantial buildings. He got by by designing small villas in the suburbs. By this time he was fully aware of the British Arts and Crafts movement and was strongly influenced by the domestic architecture of Mackintosh. These influences are clearly visible in the villas, which became more and more sophisticated.
The Trmal villa is typical.
Clearly English in design, on closer inspection it contains many traditional Czech elements especially the richly carved wooden elements of the railing of the terrace and the staircase. This attempt to reconcile modernism with tradition became a dominating feature in Kotera’s approach. The villas reached their culmination in the Villa Sucharda in 1905, where the construction is characterised by a reduction of facade decoration in favour of the transparency of the construction and the materials used. As Kotera put it “Purpose, construction and place are the driving forces. The form is a consequence of these.”
Ironically, it was the folk based decoration which got him his next major commission in 1905. This was the National House at Prostejov. The brief called for multipurpose halls, salons, restaurants and cafes on a difficult site. The resulting building was one of the largest in the country. The façades reveal the influence of Olbrich’s work, but covered in traditional Czech detail.
In 1909 he designed what is now considered to be his masterpiece, the museum in Hradec Kralove. Despite just four years between Prostejov and this, the decoration is now almost entirely gone. The building is a succession of volumes developed freely in space according to the functions they contain. The main entrance could be that of a British cinema from two decades later.
The success of the museum led to further work in similar style, including the Law and Theology faculties at the University of Prague.
By this time the older architectural establishment in Prague were dying off and a new generation taking over. These were led by the Mânes group which Kotera had founded on his return in 1898. The stripped down art nouveau which Kotera had introduced with the Peterka House was now the fashionable style in the city. In Kotera’s mind it was now the time to push the basic principles of modern architecture which he had learned from Otto Wagner. He began to publish the magazine ‘Free Directions’ and later ‘Styl’ and to curate exhibitions of art and architecture from the rest of Europe.
His teaching was also increasingly pushing new ideas. In 1910 he was appointed Professor of Architecture at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts. The basic theme of his course was ‘what is not purposeful is not beautiful’, and he underlined that the structure, ad function of a building was what was important. His own buildings became increasingly pared down. Art Nouveau was well in the past and, together with his students, he began to develop a style which later became known as Czech Cubism and which was basically Art Deco.
His own house in Vinohrady shows just how much of the old style he was prepared to strip away.
As does the Mojmir Urbanek building (now known as the Mozarteum)
Here he stripped an essentially classical façade back to the bare minimum, with the frankly art deco concrete frame infilled with finely detailed brickwork. It is one of my favourite buildings and richly repays close study.
In 1911 he designed the first Garden City in central Europe at Louny, very much based on Letchworth in England.
As with most architects, the outbreak of the First World War brought an abrupt halt to Kotera’s work and during the war years he began to suffer from the illness which would eventually kill him. The end of the war saw the Czech Republic break away from Austria-Hungary. Kotera was recognised as the leading architect in the new republic and he found most of his commissions coming from the government.
Perhaps as a result of his illness, perhaps because of government strictures which seemed to demand classism, to me these late buildings seem to be weak, verging on the mediocre, the Mandelik building being a good example.
Ironically, the spirit of of the new which he instilled in his pupils evaporated in his own work.
Overall, his importance is as a teacher and leader. His work is best judged in contrast with what went before it and what emerged after it. His teaching swept aside the ponderous monumental mock renaissance buildings of the 19th century, washed Prague in the art nouveau for which it is renowned, and led to the rise of Czech Cubism which is truly unique. His role was to take the evolutionary step which moved Czech architecture into the modern world.
His illness finally overtook him in 1923. He is buried in Vinohrady.