So. (To paraphrase Cat) I’m trying to be as specific as I can with my project, editing and rewriting as many times as it is necessary. The text below is roughly 2000 words, but we can agree on what is the most interesting parts, and cut down on those which aren’t. In general, what I’m pursuing in my project is the citizen’s, worker’s, and architect’s positioning along the spectrum of individual versus collective. Bear in mind, this is not a presentation text, and it is not in finalised order, but the skeleton of that future presentation, so we know what themes I’m working with, why, and what they mean. I liked the idea of presenting the images of paper Facebook as a fold-out, so that’s why most of the images are grouped. I figured it is good to tie the plans/sections/etc. to the photoshopped portraits and selfies.
If you like to read, have a go, and let me know in the comments what you think.
In the world of architecture, the pursuit of a movement has been replaced by a pursuit for an identity. We speak of Zaha-architecture rather than deconstructivism. For a man living in the presence of a 1930’s factory, it was the opposite. The architect was meant to be suppressed and serve the collective, as the issues of a people, of a city, and of a nation, were more important than the impulses of the individual. Still, there were moments when you would be able to claim your ground. Every year, starting in 1936, there was the Zlín salon, which established the annual art exhibition. Everyone was an artist, but not everyone could exhibit. As the head of the salon, Sebastian Shuto decided that the art produced in the city that year was not satisfactory, and so staged an exhibition only for himself, launching a retrospective before there was something to retrospect. The vestibule in the community house, a space for everyone, we say, is really just a space for no-one. By exhibiting there, at least one man can dwell there.
The Zlín cinema, from 1927, was the largest one in Europe at its time. A temple in which we become one with the screen, watching the actors as one would watch a friend, forgetting in the darkness that we’re sharing the space with 2000 other workers and their families. The architecture, in essence a big shed, matters in the form of “making space” for the collective, a collective which we still cannot see, and are not supposed to see, and in a way, only are aware of before and after the show which was the whole point why we came to the cinema, in the first place. And these people on the screen are not even real – they’re representations of the real, so, in essence, we’re all alone in the act of watching a film. The rows of the seats are arranged so that everyone can get a view of the screen, as well as providing a rudimentary comfort that lasts for the length of the matinée. There are no separate chairs for company veterans, nor one for Tomas Bata himself, although there are rumours that he has a projector in his very own villa. From the film, as an actor, Tomas is watching us as we watch him.
In Liberec, a Czech city close to Germany, we find the architect Vladimir Karfik’s seminal Bata shoe store. But something is wrong; the store no longer sells shoes. It has changed. The corner site, once too small to host an entire store and therefore extended vertically, has ceased to be a servant of the masses and now becomes a factory for the exclusive production of haute couture. The cows living in this proto-skyscraper are nurtured to provide the best leather, which is then transported to Zlín in order to become shoes for the privileged. Only the best craftsmen are allowed to make these shoes. The problem here is: how do we organise a factory in which everyone has to be equal to the other, while the skills of the workers inevitably vary, and as people are different from each other, so their tasks have to be. If the organisation of people changes, ought not the architecture to do the same, and on all levels, even beyond those arranged for our immediate inhabitation? Perhaps it is not only the homes in which we live that provides an image to the masses, but also the spaces dedicated to providing these masses with an endless array of consumer products.
If every revolution begins with a visit to the nearest brasserie, is conformity upheld
by an army of teapots, crumpets and average shortbread marathons? The city in which we live is designed to maximise pleasure and control in equal measures, much because we’re controlled by the provision of pleasure. In the city, this role is taken by the café. The cafés are not just perfect spaces for gastronomic satisfaction, they are places of surveillance; the answer to whom is being supervised is always the same: it is the coffee drinker. But the supervisor himself changes. The social and political rules of a company is embedded in the architecture of the café; it can be shady or bright, well-known or obscure, centrally located or in the periphery, populated by workers or artists. The cafés in town, approved by the factory, has replaced the bread of Rome with the Moravian sponge cake. We see it in the factory brochures, dispensed by the print shop in order to promote the latest offers in leisure cuisine. This is how far public life goes in the city, an outdoor serving area. Luckily, a cup of coffee is not always the same cup of coffee; it is the way it was brewed, and for whom, that matters. Architecture is no different.
There was definitely no alcohol at the company. Not at work of course, but nor was there any outside the factory, on Saturdays or Sundays. The penalty for drinking was to get the sack straightaway. Defiantly, Sebastian Shuto and his friends form a coterie for the pursuit of alcoholic beverages in Zlín. What we discover is a community within a community, which claims its own architecture, in opposition to the official architecture of the well-behaved population. In a secret storage hangar, the group meets and discusses the location of next week’s underground bar, an architecture that is not allowed to exist by the authorities, but which nonetheless exists because a number of people in opposition to these authorities allow it to. They want it to exist. They make space for it. And in this collective, the individual makes himself known, by allowing his own home to be a part of the scheme.
When Tomas Bata died, a memorial of him was built on the hills outside the city. This was one strange anomaly in the system that he had devised, for how can a company dedicated to the collective, allow for the deification of one person, even if it is the company director? There is only one sound choice to make: to convert the memorial into an event for the public, and with this we really mean *for*, that is, not for Tomas. Sebastian Shuto answered to this by allocating his wedding ceremony to the memorial, an event that is both public (to all the visitors) and personal (to the two persons being wed). But moreover, it allows the structure and the city to survive, because no matter how fundamental a trade is to the population today, there is no guarantee that it will not be forgotten tomorrow.
One day, this strange postcard was put in Sebastian’s mailbox. It came with no written sender, and he immediately recognised it for a prank, since the factory in one of the photos were in – as strange as it seemed – utter decay. Another kind of community has emerged, one in which the factory is still is the centrepoint of their attention, but not as it used to be, and operative industry. The rules are now lax, the inhabitants of the company houses can fill their backyards with whatever junk they need in order to prove to themselves that they’re different from the man next door. The factory itself, is now off-limits, even to the former factory worker. You once again has to be a part of a community, only a different community, to have access to it.
Tomas Bata once famously quipped: “work collectively, live individually!” but, in the end, the activities of one’s spare time were as meticulously staged as those on a workday. There were, for instance, athletic grounds where compulsory sporting events took place. Exercise was the motto of the factory, exercise for better health, a fuller life, and better performance at work. Spaces of indoor exercise were, however, not as frequent as one would expect, and hence the ground floor space of the community building was often set aside for makeshift competitions. The annual foot-race was staged by the workers themselves and, much like the wedding, offered a spectacle to which the individual could attach himself, by identifying himself with the competitor. For the runner, all that matters is his personal performance. His goal is to win, for himself, for his supporters, for the purpose of the competition itself.
Sebastian Shuto met his future wife in the print studio located near the factory, but for a long time, they kept their relationship in the shadows, since a formal marriage would effectively put an end to his partner Annie’s employment at the factory. Married women were to be kept in the house, and care for their family and the property. Not even the house was exempted from the rigour of Bata’s life-perfecting machine. The house is not just a container of domestic privacy, as it is today, but an extension of public life and the common image of the city. Most of the time, the rules one had to observe in the house were arbitrary: are you saving? have you cleaned? what are you buying? But when it came to architecture, they were more precise: one was not allowed to change the appearance of the house, which was the property of the company, and one was not allowed to fence off the property. Unity was achieved through standardisation.
Having made a home in Zlín, Sebastian ventures out to explore the city and its surroundings. As a citizen, a belonging he cannot give up, a community he is forced to serve and be served by, in short: as a holder of a passport, he has access to the areas of the city which have been termed public space. Public buildings, such as the memorial, and the public right of way, such as in nature, are both facets of this rule. Upon finding “his” special places in the city, he suppresses the suspicion that these places also belong to others. The sharing of such common places brings architecture to a conclusion: that it is not the building itself which settles the importance of that building, but the collective verdict of its users, including the architects, themselves. And yet, here, in these photos, we are individuals. We are alone with the camera, we are in the self-portrait age.
We are, indeed, the Batovci, the people of Bata, and we take pride in doing the same thing everyday, going to the same factory halls, travelling in the same cars, obeying the same rules, until the common space that we share has become so ingrained with our identity, that we have become servants to our mutual experience of space. I am here because “here” is me. As we travel to the other parts of the world, we bring with us ourselves along with the shoes. Against the common trend of building a legacy through the linearity of one’s personal life, the Facebook timeline, the architects of hundred years ago attempted to build a zeitgeist expression tilted towards the collective, the end of tailoring and the beginning of the machine-made. But the architect has always been both. He is a social animal, manifested in his professional title; he is an architect among other architects. He is also a reclusive ghost, his proposals always judged in the shadow of his own personality.
Towards the end, we discover another postcard sent to us in the mailbox. This time it is from one of our good friends living in the US, and emigrant seeking what he couldn’t find at home: an individual lifestyle, where everyone is unique, and where such uniqueness is celebrated, defended by law. I look at the location of his home, and wonder: what is actually the difference between this country of so many promises, and the factory of the future that is employing me? If Zlín is the America of central Europe, is this the future we all want? More and more I’m coming to the realisation, that conformity is everywhere, and that opposition is restricted to those who have the wits and the conscience to govern others. I wanted to be Diogenes, and in the process forgot of whom I really was.