The cityscape as national battleground: Brno/Brünn and the avant-garde

by Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

Matthew Rampley’s lecture ‘Brno: city of the avant-garde’ was introducing part of a current research project on Central European Modernism, which shifts the focus from Habsburg metropolises like Vienna and Prague to more regional centres that often developed their own approaches towards modernism and identity formation. Rampley’s example of Brno was particularly interesting in this context: Brno, now the second-biggest city in the Czech Republic, is located only 80 miles north of Vienna. It was the third biggest German city in the Habsburg Empire. Rampley focused on architectural developments in the city in the 1880s, when Brno was dominantly German ‘Brünn’, and in the interwar years, when it became the second city of new Czechoslovakia, strongly defined through progressiveness and modern life. Architecture, Rampley showed, is a particularly interesting way to assess how Germans and Czechs asserted national hegemony against each other, clearly visible from the ways the city was structured and re-structured.

Vladimir Karfik - Bat'a Department Store, Brno (1931)

Vladimir Karfik – Bat’a Department Store, Brno (1931)

In the early 1880s, Brno was redeveloped in reference to Vienna’s Ringstraße, including a broad boulevard circling the city’s core, dotted by buildings of cultural and political significance, like the German theatre (1882) and the Moravian design museum (1883) in typical Habsburg, historicist styles. However, as Czech national consciousness grew and members of Czech society became increasingly influential (Brno was a merchant city), they reacted to these architectural assertions of German hegemony with their own buildings, like Vladimír Fischer’s Cyril and Methodius Foundation (1913-15). As such, the national dichotomy between Czechs and Germans could be traced along the city’s architecture- even though these divisions blurred when considering social backgrounds: many architects, whether native Czech or German speakers, trained in Vienna, with one of the city’s most famous sons being Adolf Loos, a German-speaker who took on Czechoslovak citizenship after 1918, but lived in Vienna for most of his life. The mixed architecture of late Habsburg Brno/Brünn thus also represented its mixed population, whose mixed identities often betrayed the official nationalisms proclaimed as the Habsburg Empire crumbled.

In contrast to this complex German-Czech dichotomy, interwar Brno presents a rather different image, as Rampley highlighted: while struggling initially to find a language of avant-garde architecture as clearly expressed as in Prague’s rondo-cubism, the city soon functioned as an architectural showcase for the progressive new state. Relating the talk to the 2015-16 Prague exhibition ‘Building of a State’, Rampley emphasised a Czech drive to forge an architecture that would match its ambitions as ‘the island of democracy’ in interwar Central Europe. In an attempt to ‘czechify’ Brno, buildings were torn down and re-modelled, emphasising functionalism and modernity with buildings like the Bat’a Building, which represented mass consumerism and modern culture through simple form. Another, even more telling example was the Vesna school for women, which joined the progressive vision of the educated New Woman with modern architecture.

Interwar Brno was also host to a number of exhibitions, like the ‘Exhibition for contemporary culture’ in 1928, and the ‘Industrial exhibition’ in 1929, making the city a prime example for modern Czechoslovakia on an international scale. Despite the importance of modernist architecture as an assertion of national progressiveness, however, attention to regional arts and crafts persisted: there was an exhibition of Slovak arts and crafts in Uherské Hradiště (1937) for example, and the Slovak architect and folkorist Dušan Jurkovič continued to enjoy great popularity as a creator of vernacular developments like the spa town Luhačovice. One problematic aspect in this context is still the fact that Brno and its surrounding areas were by no means only Czech in the interwar years. The question remains as to the influence German and Jewish members of the population had on the cityscape before largely being erased in the 1940s. Did the aim to ‘czechify’ Brno not bring a reversed hegemony with it? How was the Habsburg legacy dealt with in a city that stood so clearly ‘in-between’?

Overall, Rampley created a multi-faceted image of Brno as a regional centre, which persisted with influences from Vienna, Prague and regional idiosyncrasies alike. More importantly, he showed that there is still a wealth of arts and culture to discover in an area that has all too long held a marginalised position between ‘East’ and ‘West’. With its legacy of Jewish, German and Czech heritage, Brno remains an important location for a shared cultural space in Central Europe – one example of many that highlights just how complex the region is and how much of it still remains to be explored, particularly now that nationalism is on the rise again.