An Architectural Wink

I bicycled through Pelhrimov in the Czech Republic more than ten years ago, and when I lunched there last Sunday I remembered how amused I’d been a decade earlier by Pavel Janak’s architectural joke in the corner of the magnificent central square.

It’s a witty case of Czech Cubism, as far as I can see – an architectural movement that’s usually a bastion of high seriousness. I see it as witty, but it’s quite possible that I am at odds with its author. I know too little about Pavel Janak and Czech Cubism to know what his intentions were.

The main square in Pelhrimov, though less consistently of one period than the wonderful square in Telc, and much smaller, is a catalogue of the many architectural styles that have flowed through the Czech Republic or originated there, from the Renaissance, through Baroque, Art Deco, and Cubism to the modernism of the First Republic that followed the First World War.

Architecture isn’t an obvious medium for humour but this Cubist reworking/renovation of a typical high-gabled Baroque façade must surely be intentionally witty, especially the inversion of the gable’s highest point. It’s a raised eyebrow, or a wink.

Cubist Wink

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Baroque

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I don’t know what choices Janak had, but demolition and rebuild must have been one of them. After all, across the square there’s a modernist building, built, perhaps, only fifteen years later, that owes nothing to the prevailing style of the square. Janak chose to preserve both gable and arcade, adding his own particular Cubist signature.

Czech Cubism flourished in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and perhaps the perspective then was more nostalgic than forward looking. In the newly created Czechoslovakia of the First Republic it was not only more permissible but perhaps even more fashionable to demolish and start again.

1920s Optimism

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And there’s an Art Deco hotel that must have preceded Janak’s renovations by less than a decade. This must also have been preceded by demolition.

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For lovers of Czech Cubism, which was a short-lived architectural movement, best represented in Prague, it must be consoling to see the same ideas living on in the design of stealth aircraft. (Actually, this is a little more than just a joke, since in both cases the idea is to break up corners and add contouring to flat planes. In the one case, of course, to avoid detection, and in the other, for very serious reasons that I lack the expertise to explain.)

Czech Cubist Stealth Fighter

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What would you have done?

My partner and I spent the weekend at a quiet and pleasant spa hotel in the quiet and pleasant countryside of South Moravia. Indeed, so quiet and pleasant were both the hotel and the countryside, that I can remember little about either. But that was the point.

We briefly escaped on Saturday evening to visit Telc, one of the most beautiful small country towns in the Czech Republic, so beautiful and so unique in its architecture that it is now protected by UNESCO.

Telc 2

Telc 1

The town dates back to the 13th century but its remarkable central square is mostly 15th century and later. Physically it seems largely to have escaped the ravages of time. The square is  intact – on all sides there are arcaded rows of high-gabled Renaissance and Baroque houses. There was plague, I think, which killed indiscriminately (there’s a plague column raised by the survivors), and there was the Second World War, which killed very particularly. Just outside the entrance to the Church of St Jakub there’s a long list of victims of the Nazi occupation, most of them Jews who were deported and murdered in Auschwitz.

It’s always difficult to imagine terrible things happening in beautiful places. You wonder what there can be to argue about. Telc must then have been a complacent and prosperous town.  But perhaps there are still old men and women alive today who remember those days and worry about them. Could anyone have done more?

What would you have done? What would I have done?

I ask this, because on Sunday evening, back in Prague, I caught up with a film I’ve wanted to see since I saw it reviewed in the Economist some months ago. Force Majeure is a Swedish film by director Ruben Östlund that examines what happens in a moment of terror during a skiing holiday when an avalanche appears to threaten a family lunching on the terrace of a restaurant. Thomas instinctively reaches for his mobile phone and flees, whilst his wife instinctively reaches for their children. All survive.

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This near-disaster happens in the first ten minutes of the film, and the next hour and forty minutes are concerned with the corrosive effect of Thomas’s ‘cowardice’ on his marriage and himself.

What would you have done? What would I have done?

The fact is that most of us don’t face moral challenges on this scale. Our sense of ourselves, of our character, of our moral character, is built on principle and hypothesis. We all like to think we would do the right thing if challenged, but we cannot know.

What we assume ourselves and others to be, indeed, often what we might love in others is partially theoretical, untested. And when the test comes, if it comes, we can’t always choose what we do. We can’t examine our principles and calculate the right course of action. In Thomas’s case, there’s no time to think. Instinct takes over and he grabs his mobile phone.

But this does nothing to excuse him. The moral aspect of what he does, or doesn’t do, isn’t removed if we say that he can’t help what he does, that at the moment of weakness he is animal not rational. Moral character includes instinct, and we admire those whose instincts are virtuous.

It’s a good film. I hadn’t expected subtitles, but it’s worth the effort. It’s a little too long, but not as didactic or as definite in its judgements as I make it sound.