Showing posts with label Czechoslovakia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Czechoslovakia. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain" by Peter Sis

Yesterday I read a children's picture book that took me right back to the nine months I spent in Prague, Czech Republic.

Peter Sis, a Czechoslovak immigrant to America in the 1980s, wrote about what it was like to be born at the start of the Communist regime and grow up in a totalitarian system.

When I lived in Prague, I had listened with extraordinary intent to Czech friends who had gone through this history. I loved hearing their experiences, their wisdom from what they had been through, and learning from them how people and families cope with a dystopian reality.

Peter Sis has compressed his own history and his nations' history into this graphical history that can be read in less than an hour. He bore witness! He warned! It's as if he is handing the reader at home the conversations we expats got to have in Prague with our Czech friends about what it was like.

I can't recommend the book enough. It would make a wonderful book to read together as a family for an intergenerational discussion about freedom.

This book has been widely acclaimed both as a Caldecott Honor book for distinguished illustration (the author's wonderful drawings help tell the story), and as the winner of the Siebert award for the most distinguished informational title in America, for children, in the year it was published.

Here is a short interview with the author.

From "The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain"

“When my American family goes to visit my Czech family in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies. I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it’s hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life— before America—for them.”                 —Peter Sis

You may be interested in these other reads:

The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia" by Milan Simecka

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulic

In Prague, You Can Enjoy Reading "Café Europa" at the Café Europa

WWII was worse for Central Europe than even our histories and memories tell us

Heda Kovaly, Czech Who Wrote of Totalitarianism, Is Dead at 91  

Understanding Iran: The Power of One Graphic Novel named "Persepolis"

The 'Empty Nest Expat' blog is on Facebook! Follow my adventures there.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The perfect tribute to Václav Havel : the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent

The Goddess of Democracy
from Tiananmen Square
circa 1989
Václav Havel and the Czechs inspired my 'Empty Nest Expat' adventure. I knew people who could elect a playwright as President were different in a way I couldn't define than me and my countrymen. The Czech Republic seemed like such a delightfully highbrow non-warlike society. I wanted to learn all about the Czechs by moving overseas and seeing what they were like.

To this day, I'm inspired by Václav Havel. This week, I discovered that one of the most beautiful tributes has been created to honor what he did so well: creatively dissent from the State.

Havel, for years a dissident at odds with the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, led the challenge that eventually overthrew the regime, and consequently, he became the first President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.

Many credit Havel with the fact that both the Velvet Revolution resulting in the overthrow of Communism and the Velvet Divorce separating the Czechs and the Slovaks were violence-free.

The inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent will be awarded to Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Saudi women’s rights advocate Manal al-Sharif, and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

I am particularly delighted that Saudi citizen Manal al-Sharif has been recognized. At a time when human beings have walked on the Moon, it seems so strange that other human beings still aren't allowed to drive a car on a particular part of our planet just because of their gender.

Showing breathtaking courage and speaking plain common sense, Manal al-Sharif posted a samizdat video of herself on Youtube driving in Saudi Arabia while she described to the camera all the different reasons a woman needs to be able to drive to fulfill her different duties. The video was swiftly removed. I was one of the 600,000-1,000,000 people who got to see it before it was gone. Awed by her courage, I also thought her reasoning was undeniable.

Manal al-Sharif is an internet security consultant in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia working for Aramco. I predict someday she'll have her own statue in her nation.

These three Havel Prize laureates will receive an artist’s representation of the “Goddess of Democracy,” the iconic statue erected by Chinese student leaders during the Tiananmen Square protests of June, 1989.

To learn more about the prize, here is the web page.

To see additional posts about Václav Havel

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Checking Out the History of Dissidents: New Vaclav Havel Library to Open in 2013

A Force for Good
Vaclav Havel

Modeled after the American Presidential Libraries, the new Vaclav Havel Library will be a repository for Vaclav Havel's published works and unpublished papers. Unlike Presidential Libraries, this Library will carry the samizdat of years of repression and the official papers of years of expression.  The unique gathering of that collection makes for an interesting juxtaposition and the final triumph of Prague dissident voices from repression - to rule  - to Presidential level archives. It's a fairy tale, really.  A political fairy tale.

Click on my title to read more about the project.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Does the World Need the Opposite of a Nobel Peace Prize?

Do you remember when Ronald Reagan first declared the totalitarian Soviet Union an "evil empire?" Many citizens in the Soviet Union cite that moment as the one that caused them to really think about and question their own system.

"How could that be?" I wondered,  "Everyone could see it was evil, why couldn't the people who actually live there? Why would it take an American President to make them stop and question something that was so obviously not working for participants and outsiders alike?"

Reagan said:
...I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
President Bush tried to create the same effect of waking foreign citizens out of their denial by demanding Iran, Iraq, and North Korea end their "axis of evil."  Unfortunately, President Bush seemed to be in his own self-delusion regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq at the time so it didn't quite have the intended effect. And it also didn't accurately reflect those three nations diplomatic actions.  They weren't in a tri-part pact.

If people get delusional, it makes sense that countries and societies can get delusional too. They are just a giant collection of individual people.  Indeed, there are delightful books written about economic self-delusion such as Tulipmania:  The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused. Another well-known form of personal delusion is addiction as described in the fiction bestseller A Million Little Pieces.

What could some national delusions be?  How about:
Debt loads?
Ethnic cleansing (World War II Germany and the Balkans and Rwanda more recently)?
Environmental degradation?
Hatred? (Middle Eastern attitudes toward Jewish People and European attitudes toward Roma)?
Extreme Paranoia and Societal Militarization (North Korea)?
Extreme Paranoia and Thugocracy? (Iran)
Nationalization of Property? (Soviet Union)
Non-Acceptance of Election Results? (Ivory Coast)
Extraordinary Corruption? (Afghanistan)
Extraordinary Use of Resources (United Arab Emirates and the United States)
Censorship and Lack of Free Expression (China)

What if someone with more credibility and less baggage than President Bush, a disinterested organization with a track record of caring, credibility, and leadership toward uplifting humanity gave the national equivalent of a 12-step intervention to a nation?  A diplomatic call to "snap out of it!"

I propose that such a yearly intervention exist. Coming from the Nobel Committee, this yearly-awarded challenge could go to the country most needing a loving intervention and reminder that your fellow humans wish the best for you and think you can and should do better.

In order to let a nation know it needs to change, this intervention could be labeled not the Nobel Prize, but the Nobel Challenge. The Nobel Challenge would be the very classy national equivalent of friends and family sending an addict to rehab. Detox, please!

 Even if countries go behind "an iron curtain," if the citizens have known about the prize beforehand and find out that their country has won the award, it becomes a kind of shorthand meaning "look long and hard at the direction your nation is headed.  We, orignators of the award, "challenge" you because we think your nation is the one potentially endangering the peace of the world. It forces debate among citizens that can't be so easily dismissed and ignored.

The Nobel Challenge could be the sort of thing that seeps change into a country at the grassroots level.  How can any one story in the media reach the North Korean people and give them the message "the entire world thinks you need a change."  For all I know, the North Korean people know that better than we do.  But do all the people of Iran? What seeps into the minds of the oppressed at the grass roots level? One big call to action might not only bring people to discuss change, but be empowered to create change.

Here's another example from my own culture where a society fails to recognize its own delusion.  There were recently stories in the news that America and the United Arab Emirates consume electricity and water in huge quantities.  The United Arab Emirates used four times as much water as Europe and four times as much electricity as the United States. These stories may have been noted for about 24 hours when they came out but most citizens of those countries would just yawn in indifference.What if the world, in the form of the Nobel Committee, said through the Nobel Challenge, "your use of resources is unsustainable, please change, your behaviour could create potential conflicts." First, my country would have a hissy fit, then we would get down to business and exceed whatever benchmark was given for change. 

So how can humanity create change rather than yawning indifference to a long-term story? Think instead how the announcement of a Nobel Prize is treated.  The tradition is institutionalized so journalists are prepared for the announcement and make sure to cover it in a significant way.  It's a tradition that is highly anticipated around the world.  It has a track record that people can discuss and debate.  It has a meaning deeper than one particular year or person or organization. Instantly, when a Nobel Prize is announced, book clubs around the world read the works written by the author cited in the literature prize, for example, and think about the author's ideas and discuss what has been held up to the light by the prize.

Why even a totalitarian nation might have a hard time keeping that news from it's people no matter how hard it tried.  It would be the equivalent of when an addict is confronted by all their family and all of their coworkers and the ability to "excuse" is stripped away. I recognize that defiance (one of the central hallmarks of an addict), may be the outcome of a dictator being challenged in this way, but the world has to shut him down sometime.

 In George Orwell's "Animal Farm," it's when the pigs take the milk and apples from the other animals and the other animals notice and don't say anything that the abuse of power continues and increases. Orwell calls it the turning point of the story.  When Chamberlain appeased Hitler with Czechoslovakia, same thing.  Indeed, an  ignored Nobel Challenge to someone like Saddam for the way he treated his citizens might have given George Bush some legitimacy for later intervention (I can't believe I just said that, I didn't believe in that military intervention one whit).

As the history of the Nobel Challenge built up, it might begin to have a preemptive performance effect before it is even given.  Jack Welch, the CEO of GE chosen by Fortune Magazine as the "Manager of the Century", was famous for the performance he got out of his company (when he took over as CEO, revenues were $26.8 billion - when he left they were $130 billion). He had a rule that he would eliminate the bottom 10% of nonperforming staff every year.  Can you imagine how extremely motivating it must have been to people to not be in that bottom 10%?  Can you imagine how motivating it would be to not have your country ever receive a Nobel Challenge?  It sounds cruel, but actual conflicts are crueler.  Just read my previous blog post for a reminder.

All managers of any sort of human enterprise know that there is an entire emotional cycle to implementing change with all kinds of foot-dragging and noise by those who hate changing.  The Nobel Challenge could be helpful in prodding those who love the status quo because it's the "devil they know." The world may have to absorb change at an even faster pace in the future.

If our species doesn't find a way to challenge the ever-expanding global abuses of power in a cost-effective, non-military way, could it be the turning point in our story?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Heda Kovaly, Czech Who Wrote of Totalitarianism, Is Dead at 91

People of a certain age in the Czech Republic have had the misfortune of experiencing the full blast of the worst of the 20th century.  The Czech Republic was occupied by the Nazis longer than any other country.  Quickly after the nightmare ended, years and years of gray totalitarianism started.

While I have not read this author, I can't help but read her obituary and be impressed by her dignity, her humanity, and her sheer ability to survive.  Here's what the New York Times reviewer had to say about her book looking back on the worst of totalitarianism in Central Europe:

“This is an extraordinary memoir, so heartbreaking that I have reread it for months, unable to rise to the business of ‘reviewing’ less a book than a life repeatedly outraged by the worst totalitarians in Europe. Yet it is written with so much quiet respect for the minutiae of justice and truth that one does not know where and how to specify Heda Kovaly’s splendidness as a human being.”

Take a moment to click on my title and read about the life of Heda Kovaly, author of ''Under a Cruel Star.''

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Czech People Overlooked Yet Again for the Nobel Peace Prize

I am sure that 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo of China is a brave and amazing person who puts mere mortals to shame. However, it made me sad this year to hear that yet another year passed without Vaclav Havel receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.  It would have been so moving for him to receive the most prestigious decoration humanity offers  - last year - when the Czech Republic was celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.  It could have been one giant festival of appreciation between President Havel and the Czech people who helped him transform their nation.

Instead of using the prize as a carrot and a capstone for a statesman's career, it seems the Nobel committee wants to use the prize as an accelerator of change, demanding almost through recognition that winners and their governments conform to what the Nobel Committee thinks should happen.  This cheapens the prize in my opinion because it switches it from honoring the noblest and bravest among us to having a political motivation.

Last year, when Barack Obama won, I was offended, because I felt that as President he would need to make decisions that could be at odds with the Peace Prize goals.  It felt manipulative to me, as an American, that the Committee would try and influence the course of his Presidency while it happened.

My emotions conflicted, though, because I recognized that anyone who voted for Barack Obama could feel a bit of pride in the Nobel Committee's contention that no one of that particular year had done more to change the landscape than Barack Obama.  Since he had been in office such a short time, the American people could be proud that we had changed the landscape with new leadership.

I remember when I got on my half-full bus at 6 a.m.on that bleary day, I shouted out to the whole bus "how about that Peace Prize?" I was living in Madison, Wisconsin at the time where there was close to a 100% certainty that anyone on a bus in that town had voted for the President.

The Peace Prize selection glory reflects to those who followed.  No one can be a prophet without followers. Vaclav Havel was the statesman he was because the Czechs chose to follow him.  Barack Obama was elected President because the people of America chose to follow him.

Vaclav Havel's moral authority transitioned the country from Communism to freedom without violence and retribution in the Velvet Revolution and again to the stand-alone Czech Republic during the Velvet Divorce with Slovakia.  How fraught those giant changes were and how much worse they could have been!

Even in retirement, Havel's moral authority can slice through rationalizations made in the name of strategic interests. Once, meeting with an American reporter for an interview, he asked,  "Is it true Barack Obama cancelled his meeting with the Dali Lama?" (presumably to pacify China's leadership).  Havel demonstrates the courage it takes to speak truth to power when your own country's is less.

America is comng to the age where our power will be eclipsed in size by China.  Havel's success in keeping true to his values while navigating this size differential between the Czech Republic and the former Soviet Union is an example the whole world can learn from as the globe copes with China's rising, and frequently bullying, power.

One measure of a leader is how institutionalized the changes he embodied becomes;  yearly, the citizens of the Czech Republic set new attendance records at the internationally-famous "Jeden Svet (One World) Film Festival in Prague, devoted to human rights around the globe.  Czech people, having lived through totalitarianism, have a sophisticated understanding of oppression that is rarely found anywhere in the Free World. Havel, and the citizens of the Czech Republic, have something to teach all global citizens about what it is to speak truth to the larger power.

As I understand it, Liu Xiaobo and his fellow Chinese dissidents who created Charter 08, were inspired by Vaclav Havel and the Czech people who were signatories to Charter 77.  Would a science Nobel go to a scientist whose work was derivative of another's theory? Wouldn't the committee honor the original thinker of the idea? Shouldn't Vaclav Havel receive a Nobel for inspiring freedom in the Czech Republic but now also China? It seems he is becoming worthier and worthier.  Is there not time to honor that young man and not much time to honor Vaclav Havel?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Little Corruptions

The Czechs had a phrase during communism times: "If you're not stealing, you're stealing from your family."  Since the government back then felt oppressive, and wealth created through industry often felt like it was shipped off to the Soviet state, and no one was really "the owner" of property, this felt like a victimless crime to an entire society.

This attitude is slowly dying out, but I learned to always make sure when buying something that the price was clearly displayed ahead of time because if I had to ask, as a foreigner, I was going to be charged a higher price.

I had been told by Bulgarians that "wealth by any means, no matter how you get it" was a continuing problem in Bulgarian society.  This attitude, far from dying out, is continually glamorized in Bulgarian pop culture, and infecting the young.  It reminded me of of the gangsta culture of a lot of American hip-hop music.  To me, it seemed in both places, Bulgaria and America's urban projects, that new freedoms brought a confusion of how to use them and a slow build-up to wealth through hard work and investment didn't have much attraction. Where's the drama in that?

You have to constantly watch and make sure that you are not getting ripped off in formerly Eastern Europe.  For example, when I left the Czech Republic, the luggage storage attendant told me that my cost was going to be twice what I had expected.  The sign said the stated price was for 24-hour storage. "But you brought it in one day, and left the next." said the attendant. Hmmmm, I guess I should have confirmed beforehand the price was for 24 hours in a row.

"How much is it for extra bags on the bus?" My Czech bus ticket attendant told me 200 kc extra for each bag.  I decided to wait to pay this because I wasn't sure what my final bag count would be. When it came time to get on the bus, no one made me pay for extra bags.  The question was viewed as a money-making opportunity according for the staff.

Leaving Bulgaria, I rolled my suitcase onto the tram and an inspector insisted I pay her 10 lev on the spot for not buying a ticket for my suitcase.  I knew if I was supposed to buy a ticket for my suitcase the Bulgarians who first helped me when I rode the tram would have told me I needed to do so.

"Nope, sorry, not paying it."  I started to write down her badge number and name.

She got more and more insistent.  I just kept writing.  "I'm calling the police because you're writing down my name and number." 

"Okay, go ahead. Call them." This stance had the potential to make me miss my bus to Istanbul and possibly have to repurchase a $50 ticket, but I wasn't going to be bullied into this shakedown. Surely, writing down an inspector's name and number could not be a crime in Sofia.  Indeed, she probably had to wear the badge for precisely this occasion.  After lots of shouting in Bulgarian, she finally let me off the bus when I put another one lev into the tram box for my suitcase.  All talk of the 10-lev "fine" was forgotten.

Upon arriving at the bus stop, the lady in the bus office wanted to charge me 2 lev on the spot as the official cost for having my luggage stored for five minutes in the office while I ran back to the luggage storage spot to get my additional bags.

"Could I have your name please, I would like to confirm this policy with your management." I asked politely about seven times.  She slowly slid the two lev back over the counter to me with a glare.

The shakedowns in Bulgaria are so obvious they were hard to miss.  Giving in would mean I had helped contribute to dysfunctional culture rather than help healing dysfunctional culture.

These examples made me think of a famous book called "Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity" by Frances Fukuyama where the author compares two cultures on two aspects: their trust in each other and their relative wealth. Societies with high wealth have enormous degrees of trust in each other.  The author used the example of Jewish diamond merchants who did million dollar deals on a handshake.  Their word is their bond and should they ever break it, they would be finished as a diamond dealer.  He then compared young men living in an urban culture with no trust in each other.  No wealth either.  Bulgaria's poverty is profound, it felt cruel to photograph it, so I didn't.

There are other examples out in the word though for all of us to see. The Scandinavian countries are known for both their wealth and their lack of corruption.  African nations are getting bled by leaders who are using their countries for their own wealth creation through bribery rather than working on behalf of the people.

The United States has gone through a period of constant erosion of public trust.  Is the wealth of the United States increasing or decreasing? The evidence provides more proof of Fukuyama's theory.

I wish the author of "Trust" would create a pop version of the title for regular people. The book is recommended more for academic circles and frankly, at 480 pages, it's too damn long. But the central premise of his title needs to move out of the academy and into the living rooms of the world! Wouldn't it make a great "One Book, We All Read It" selection because it's all about changing public culture for greater prosperity?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Artist David Cerny: "I Painted Tank Pink to Get A Girl"

David Cerny

Czech artist David Cerny is so endlessly entertaining.  He always makes me laugh.  Turns out he painted the Soviet tank pink back in the 1970s to get a girl.  Read the full story on the Radio Free Europe web site by clicking on my title.
Related posts:
It's David Cerny Appreciation Week and
The Saturday Profile: With Sharp Satire, Enfant Terrible Challenges Czech Identity

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Forgotten Transports of Czech Jews

Deported Czech Jews
working as conscripted laborers
in Estonia
I haven't yet been to Terezin, the concentration camp that is frequently visited by Prague tourists as a day trip out of the city.  If there is one experience that tells the story of Czech Jews, visiting Terezin and seeing it for oneself has been the single event that most people interested in Czech history have experienced.

Now a new and intensively-researched film documents the little-known stories of what happened to Czech Jews during the Holocaust.  Filmmaker Lukas Pribyl, is a project obviously close to his heart due to his family's history, has culled photos from survivors and relatives of both sides of the story to create a photographic narrative of what happened for us to see almost as if we were there.

To read more about his new film, click on my title to access the story in the New York Times. Does anyone know if it's been shown in Prague yet?  Have you seen it?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Communist Art in the Prague Metro

Andel Metro Stop

When I first arrived in Prague, I would get off at the Andel Metro Stop every morning to go to class.  The Andel station is beautiful, firstly, because it's all done in different shades of pink and cream marble. The colors gave it warmth and femininity.

 Bronze reliefs
mounted in the walls

Nothing made me appreciate the leap I made more than seeing the Communist art embedded in walls of the Andel station in Smichov.  I liked being in a place where the ideology was different than mine, the history was different than mine, the aesthetics were different than mine.  That's the whole point of travel, isn't it? To challenge our thinking! And maybe, to be a little scared, to push ourselves into experiencing new things.

I hope Czechs never remove this art from the station. Originally, the whole station had been designed by Soviet architects.  Andel (Angel) used to be named in honor of Moskevska (Moscow). The Soviets built this station and one back home in Moscow they named in honor of Prague. The Czech couldn't change the name of the station fast enough after the Velvet Revolution.

Czechs don't appreciate these period pieces now.  Americans do.  It's Orwellian art. I felt the privilege it was to get to see it.  Czechs are just grateful not to be living it anymore.

 All of the art in the Andel Station
celebrates the "friendship" between
the Czech and Soviet peoples.

 Mir - the Russian word for Peace

 My name for this:
"The Happy Cosmonauts"

No Art Represented My Image of Communism
More Than This
-Everything For the Glory of the State!

There's a gorgeous city
out there waiting to be explored.

I'm glad I made the leap.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Inside Milos Forman's Connecticut Home

Milos Foreman

Milos Forman has been "at the top of the heap" in not one, but two, countries. One loss for American society is that with the end of Communism, great talents like Forman no longer "need" to come to America because they're unappreciated by governments at home. As I said, our loss.

The very first Czech movie I saw was "The Fireman's Ball." It's a hoot. Foreman made the movie in 1967 using real fireman. Legend has it, he and a bunch of colleagues were in a small town and went to a volunteer fire department's dance as a diversion. It was such a disaster, Foreman and his friends couldn't stop talking about it afterwards and decided to make it into a movie.

I've always meant to rewatch his American film "Amadeus" now that I've seen the Estates Theatre in Prague, the filming location. "Amadeus" was the movie that first gave Americans some hint of Prague's charms. Although, is the city portrayed as Prague in the movie or Vienna? I can't remember. I just remember thinking, wherever that is, I want to go there. Click on my title to read about Milos Foreman's success in America.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Disarming the Velvet Revolution

Text ColorVaclav Havel
waves to the crowd in November 1989

CNN has put together a whole group of videos commemorating an "Autumn of Change" when the Berlin Wall fell. I was particularly drawn to this story of the choices individuals were forced into at the time of the Czech Velvet Revolution.

CNN producer Tommy Etzler describes what it was like serving in the Czech military twenty years ago. He describes his own instantaneous organizing within the military in such a matter-of-fact way, I just want to pause a moment to honor real and true bravery. Click on my title to read his story and view the videos of "Autumn of Change."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Czechs Velvet Revolution Paved by Plastic People

The Plastic People of the Universe

Today the New York Times celebrates the rock band that started events in motion that would eventually result in the Velvet Revolution. Busy creating a second culture, because the first culture of communism was so oppressive and official, rockers chose to meet out in the country, sing in English, and get their groove on. Communism would have none of it. Click on my title to read more history created by the rock 'n roll generation in Czechoslovakia.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Havel Recalls Days of Revolution

The 20th anniversary of that bloodless regime change known as the Velvet Revolution occurs this year. Click on my blog post title for memories of some of the revolutionaries involved, including President Havel. This article made me realize what I don't know about the Velvet Revolution. Why did the Slovak people feel unaccommodated during this time? What happened then that fed into the Velvet Divorce between the Czechs and Slovaks later? Teach me, Central Europeans.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pavel's Prague, Part II: Grand Cafe Orient

Recently I asked my friend, ballet dancer Pavel Pisan, to show me his three extraordinary cafes in Prague. I knew that Pavel would know some really divine places and he did not disappoint. It's such a pleasure, I think, to show off and get to share your own culture. Do you know what you would show off where you live, gentle blog reader? What would you want a visitor to go away raving about?

We started our cafe tour at Cafe Emporio on Jindrisska. The second place Pavel took me to was so architecturally interesting. The cafe is housed in the House of the Black Madonna. Could a building name be more mysterious? More alluring? The House of the Black Madonna was designed by Josef Gocar, the Czech cubist architect whose work I fell in love with at Legio Bank.

Josef Gocar's House of the Black Madonna,
in Old Town Prague
at the corner of Celetna and Ovocny Trh

It was the first example
of Cubist architecture in Prague.

While Josef Gocar is appreciated today,
the authorities were worried back in 1911
that he would design something
that didn't fit into the neighborhood.

He incorporated this Black Madonna
from the baroque buildings that were on this site
into his design, honoring rather than
repudiating, what came before.

The Czechs know how to take any functional object
and increase the pleasure it gives
just by the way it's presented.

Here is a scrollwork detail
from the outside lamp.

The House of the Black Madonna
houses not only the cafe that was our destination,
but the Museum of Czech Cubism
and a display of Czech cubist art
curated by the Czech Museum of Fine Arts.
Alas, I haven't seen those two parts yet.
I simply must come back.

We had come to see the Grand Cafe Orient,
the only surviving Cubist interior in the world.

Won't you join us inside?

The view out the cafe windows
of the surrounding art deco and baroque
buildings along the old coronation route
that is Celetna Street.

Notice there are no supporting pillars in the room,
Gocar's innovation was building with
a reinforced concrete skeleton
eliminating the need for ceiling supports.

The renovation of this space
was all based on photographs of the
original cafe.

Czechs consider Gocar
their greatest architect
from the 20th century.

Me too.

If you saw Prague,
you'd know that what
an incredible accomplishment that is.
The competition was steep.

Everywhere else in the world,
Cubism was expressed in painting and sculpture
(think Picasso).

It was only in Czechoslovakia,
where artists of the period
expressed Cubism in other mediums too:
architecture, furniture, and decorative arts.

Cotton bolls decorate

this cubist vase.

Unfortunately, we couldn't stay to have
a cup of coffee here because the secondhand smoke
was so overpowering it felt toxic just to be in the room.

Czechs smoke like factory chimneys.
Candles aren't enough.

After Cafe Emporio,
the feeling from the cafe inhabitants here
was low energy.

Pavel was disappointed that a site
of such national significance
could be so indifferent to the customer experience
and sort of take it for granted.

He said,
"maybe it's best to come in the summertime,
it's fun to sit out on the balcony
and watch the people below."
I was grateful to just have seen it!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Futurista Builds Upon the Past

After falling in love with Josef Gocar's Rondo-Cubism architectural style at the LegioBank building, I was eager to learn more about the wonderful design history of Czechoslovakia. Very near to where I lived in Prague was an ultra-hip design shop that showcased the best of Czech decorative arts and design from mid-century in addition to the current generation. The shop is called Futurista and is near Old Town Square.

A Czech cubist tea set

Can't you picture it in a
Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers
elegant NY penthouse?

These cubist tea set designs were created by
Pavel Janek
who worked with Josef Gocar
to create Rondo-Cubism

I was delighted to learn that
one of his other well-known designs

is Palace Adria
a gorgeous building near Mustek
where you can go and sit on the balcony
and enjoy the promenade of Prague people below.

Vlatislav Hofman designed
the cubist vases
housed in this ultra-hip
cubist breakfront.

Hofmann also designed
over 300 sets theatre sets.

One way Futurista exceeded my expectations
was the well-founded patriotic pride
of the young staff in their decorative heritage.

Lucie knew her country's artists
and loved sharing the beauty they created.

A cubist chair

What flowers would you arrange
in these vases to do them justice?

For me, if it was autumn,
dried bittersweet and sumac.

How it must delight Czechs
to have a design movement
that is all theirs.

In addition to his own Czech design heritage,
Miracek was crazy about Delft design
in the Netherlands.

The building that houses Futurista
is ancient

and has undergone countless remodelings
through the centuries.

If you go,
enjoy the glass bottom in the first floor

looking down to the gothic basement
where all the furniture is kept.

See the bottom of the window well
in the picture above?

That used to be the door jamb
for the first floor

back in medieval times.

David loved talking about
the modernist furniture
for sale in the basement.

I didn't understand the point
of this cheesy Communist poster
but David said native Czechs love to buy it
because ugly baby
and Dad with excessive sideburns

are very familiar to them as a
humorous memory of those times.

Mod meets art deco

An art deco breakfront

A way-cool white leather
executive table
and chairs

More modernist office furniture

I love this modernist plant stand.
I just need a super cool modernist
Prague apartment to go with it.

David said this sort of plastic office desk
with side fold-out drawers is so familiar to Czechs
they hate it and never want to see it again.

To a foreigner like me,
it's just one more fabulously cool
modernist experiment.

Futurista has started a web page. So far it only has one page to it, and it's in Czech, so I've linked in my title to the only store in North America that is devoted to mid-century Czech furniture and design. It's in New York City, of course; it's called the Prague Kolektiv.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I needed some cash in my new neighborhood

When I first moved into my Prague neighborhood, I needed to run to an ATM to pay my security deposit. "No problem," said my flatmate, "my bank is nearby." Based on my experience of ATMs in America, I wasn't expecting much. I actually wasn't expecting anything at all.

Local bank branches in America are usually housed in small brick buildings of 5,000-15,000 square feet and are forgettable in appearance. Cities usually deplore them because these branches use up prime corners of real estate and don't bring in any sales tax. Plus, have you noticed how many corners they take up? It's a lot. It's a rare bank building in America that evokes any emotion upon entering.

Not so in Prague. Join me in the pleasure of discovering the beautiful architecture of the Legio Bank Building (now CSOB) at 24 Na Porici in Prague. Before the Internet and TV ad campaigns, formidable architecture probably equaled branding. Cities were more glorious for it! Now that brick-and-mortar banks have to compete with Internet banks, maybe they could go back to imposing architecture to differentiate themselves and give us some reason to go in there...but I digress. I came back to this bank again and again for the sheer pleasure of it.

LegioBank's version of Prague Paving,
the stone of choice for
Prague sidewalks,
was my first signal this would be
no ordinary branch.
It was no ordinary sidewalk.
Notice the repetition of circles
and half circles throughout the project.

The bank was designed by
Czech architect Josef Gocar in 1921-1923
in the style of Rondo (Round) Cubism
which expressed Czech nationalism
at the time.

It featured a frieze designed by Czech sculptor
Otto Guttfreund, depicting scenes from
Czechoslovak history unknown to present-day Americans,
when the Czech foreign legion fought in Siberia
during the First World War.

Later, Otto died before his time
by drowning in the Vltava River.

There is a pathos sometimes to Eastern European
political art unknown in American art.
Could you picture the soldier in the gas mask
on an American bank?
Me neither.
Regardless, I loved it because
it made me stop and contemplate the soldier's fate
each time I went there.

Stunning iron railing detail
again repeating the circle theme.

Oh, the pleasure of opening these
massive front doors!

Enjoy with me the superb detail
on the floors and the ceilings.

Funny, he didn't repeat the circle theme
on the floor, maybe circular tiles
didn't exist?

More exquisite woodworking
Internal doors.

The circular iron scrollwork guarding the elevator
is done in the colors of the Czech national flag:
red, blue and white.

Photos aren't allowed of the lobby
with it's pretty fountain and beautiful
architectural detail. It is a bank after all
and has to worry about security.

I will say it was several moments of just standing and
looking at it with my mouth agape before I could go ahead
and pursue my bank business.
It's that pretty.

You'll have to settle for the lobby foyer, above.
Down the hall is the vault and the trust department.
Even the vault has beautiful scrollwork!

Align Center
What do these shut gates leading upstairs
say to you? Open and explore?
Me too!
Let's go!

Oh, and in case you needed MORE BEAUTY
as you walked up the stairs
the architect provided it on the
stairwell ceiling.

And in marble on the walls.

Wow. I wonder what this room was used for.
The parquet floors are so beautiful.
I can imagine the Board of Directors meeting here.
Or an amazing cocktail party
Or the waiting room lobby for the bank execs.

This room and dome were on the second floor of
a building with about five or six floors.

Beautiful wall painting detail.

Imagine, this dome made it from the 1920s
without being ruined.
Small miracles.
Another beautiful design detail it would be hard
to imagine in America.
An American developer would want to rent
all the square footage
or let the atrium light benefit every floor
by removing the inner windows and walls.

Orco, a real estate company,
is developing the offices for rent.
You could hang out with the soldier.
That office window is available.
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