In previous posts this week we looked at some of the films screened during the current Architecture & Design Film Festival (ADFF; until Sunday 21st October) in New York (check out the film schedule here). In some of the documentaries reviewed, the final message was optimistic and encouraged architects to take things in their own hands and act rather than wait for the support of government and politicians.
"Oko nad Prahou" (Eye Over Prague), directed by Olga Spátová and part of the ADFF programme, is a story of triumph and failure and the proof that architecture and politics often don't go well together. The documentary focuses on the story of a talented architect, Jan Kaplický and on a building that never was.
Born in 1937, Kaplický grew up in a suburb of Prague called Ořechovka and studied at the College of Applied Arts and Architecture and Design in Prague. He fled to London during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and first worked with the office of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers (1971-1973), helping to develop the design for the Centre Georges Pompidou. At the end of the '70s he joined Foster Associates, and then co-founded with his then wife Amanda Levet their practice Future Systems.
The firm developed organic forms in a futuristic style: Kaplický's sketches and drawings often featured houses that looked like survival pods from another time and dimension and structures inspired by aerospace covered in shiny and glossy surfaces. At times the architect was accused of designing neofuturist unbuildable buildings, sci-fi bubbles that couldn't have been used for living.
Perceptions changed when Future Systems became known for projects such as the Selfridges building in Birmingham, the Media Centre at Lord's Cricket Ground in London and the Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari in Modena, Italy, and the studio won multiple awards, including the Stirling Prize in 1999 and the RIBA Award for Architecture in 2004.
Kaplický returned to his hometown when in 2007 his project for the National Library of the Czech Republic was selected by a jury comprising the late Zaha Hadid, UNESCO urbanistic expert Irene Wiese-von Ofen, and the head of the Czech National Library, Vlastimil Ježek.
The proposal was ambitious and certainly unique: for what regarded its irregular shape the building, dubbed "The Blob", was vaguely reminiscent of an octopus or a floppy jellyfish, but it could have been interpreted also as a ghost or an alien creature with one big eye watching the city. It was going to be covered with champagne-coloured anodised aluminium tiles, a reference to the "Golden Prague", but inside it featured different shades of purple.
The ultra-modern structure would have featured a top-level viewing platform and café with a massive eye with magnificent views over Prague and comfortable reading rooms, while the books were going to be stocked underground and distributed by an automated storage and retrieval system.
It was brave, surprising and extremely controversial and could have been a great opportunity for the Czech capital, becoming the first contemporary landmark in Prague since the 18th century, adding to the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style of the city a touch of futurism, as if aliens had landed on Letna Hill.
The building was also historically important because it was the winner of the Czech Republic's first ever international architecture tender. Kaplický and his studio were honoured about the radical project being chosen, yet, after the first initial triumph, things started to rapidly change.
The debate escalated, turning into a political issue when the Civic Democrat Mayor of Prague Pavel Bém and the President of the Czech Republic Václav Klaus became hostile to the project. Locals divided with one group of people claiming the building would have ruined the landscape of the historic area of Prague, while another supported the idea of having a very modern structure built in the city (the documentary highlights how, quite often, nobody likes a new building from the start and it should be fine like that, after all, when an entire population agrees on something it means it lives in a dictatorship...).
Excuses followed, from problems with the tender to the price, and the planned building, estimated to be finished in 2011, was cancelled in 2008 when it was announced the tender process had not been carried out legally. Kaplický died in 2009, on the same day his wife Eliška Kaplický Fuchsová, gave birth to their daughter.
While the story behind "Eye Over Prague" is disappointing for its conclusion, its moral is important - believe in your ideas and fight to realise your vision.
The fight in this case was for democracy, book conservation and the freedom of the nation, as the library represented for the architect the possibility of creating a beautiful European building in a free country. Indeed, as Kaplický highlights in the film remembering Frank Lloyd Wright's lesson, democracy builds.