The theater of architecture

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Can you imagine that Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and Le Corbusier set forth on the stage in rap style their perceptions of modern architecture, while in the background Buffalo Bill accompanies them with dancing, occasionally interrupting their performance, approving it and giving them commands, with all of this, to judge from the reactions, serving to enhance the connoisseurship and national identity of the audience?

That’s what happened tonight on the stage of Divadlo Na zábradlí, of course, in the Czech context. In the chamber theater operating just a few minutes from the Charles Bridge, the musical comedy Divadlo Gočár, “Gočár Theater” by the theater’s house author Miloš Orson Štědroň brings to stage Josef Gočár, Pavel Janák and Jože Plečnik, the three great architects who in the 1910s created modern Czech architecture. The scene is a fictional architecture studio where they work together, and, both in dialogues and in arias, expound their architectural principles, accompanied by a brilliant jazz trio – drums, saxophone/clarinet and piano, the latter played by the author himself. The texts are full of hilarious jokes, the audience dies of laughter, while they present the essence of Czech avant-garde trends, Functionalism, Cubism and Rondocubism in a very informative manner.

The fourth role of the play is the Czechoslovak Republic. A young woman, who, according the program blurb, “has a dual role: on the one hand, with her idealist, bold and enthusiastic position she is the symbol of the young republic, while on the other hand, as a vulgar and aggressive housewife she is the representative of Czech pettiness”. She comments on the arias on architectural theories by dancing, she’s enthusiastic for the architects and reproves them, gives them orders and distributes awards to them. She announces a competition for a church building, which gives the occasion for the masters to march on the stage with huge paper maquettes of their masterpieces, the Church of St. Wenceslaus in Vršovice, the Hus Church in Vinohrady, and the Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus in Vinohrady, and introduce in a jazz cantata their credos on the architectural visualization of the transcendent. All this is accompanied by a fifth, non-speaking figure, the protective gaze of the President, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who, like the lucky cats in Chinese restaurants, waves his finger all through the play from a huge TV screen hanging in the middle of the stage.

This political allegory shows the importance of modern architecture in the former Czechoslovakia, and its topicality in today’s Czech Republic. After the independence of the country in 1918, modern architecture became an element of national identity, just as national Art Nouveau had been two decades earlier in other Eastern European countries. Modern architects enjoyed considerable political support, and local trends – especially Janák’s Cubism, and Gočár’s Rondocubism – were proclaimed the “Czechoslovak national style”. The classic modern became a defining feature of Czech – and, to a lesser extent, Slovak – urban image and aesthetics. Just here, within five hundred meters of the theater, you can see at least three important buildings from each of the three masters.

This presence of the modern in the public spaces and public mind explains the reaction of the audience and the success of the play. They understand the references to stylistic elements and to the particular Prague buildings, and they enjoy the striking summaries of modern architectural theories. The play, a retro gag in conception, evokes and makes perceivable in a new way a cherished era of Czech art and history, while enhancing the audience’s openness to contemporary architecture. It has been running in the Divadlo Na zábradlí for more than a year, and still enjoys a full house and ending with a huge ovation. A dream of every architect.

Josef Gočar: Staircase of the House of the Black Madonna, Prague, 1912