From Bank Buildings to Deer Moats

Josek Pleskot is one of the most important architects working in the Czech Republic today. His significant buildings and structures include the new headquarters of ČSOB in Radlice, the PalmovkaPark and BDO buildings in Prague, the Consulate of the Czech Republic in Munich, and a tunnel (“the pathway through the deer moat”) at Prague Castle. He is also renowned as a designer of luxury villas, family houses, and loft apartments. He directs a team of twelve architects and designers at the AP Atelier, picturesquely housed in a former factory in Holešovice, Prague 7, once owned by his great uncle. Josef Pleskot sat down recently with Lifestyles to talk about his work and about the direction of Czech architecture.

Where are you from?

From Písek in South Bohemia. I went to school there.

What do you think of Písek in terms of architecture?

The city is beautiful, but also very settled. It has a long tradition, but it seems to me that there isn’t enough interest in modern architecture. But there could be, because in the period between the wars some very nice houses and modern spaces were built in Písek. But now these things are not happening there. I think it’s a question of taste; the city is pretty self-confident and thinks that what it has is enough. But I would warn them…

What are the trends in Czech architecture?

I think that Czech society is on the whole quite modern and forward-looking. It’s open to new trends, sometimes too open, frankly. It could be a little more discriminating and traditional – it too easily casts off certain things and follows fashionable trends. It’s a little too eager to take up trends from the West. Of course, it can also be difficult for modern architecture to penetrate those Czech cities and towns that are protected as historical monuments. Unfortunately, modern architecture is banished to the edges of towns. Architects are told “over there” you can do what you like, but we won’t let you into the center of the city. This seems to me a shame. It’s also true that there aren’t that many shining examples of modern architecture in these historical cities.

What are you working on now?

We recently finished a large project for ČSOB, their new headquarters in Radlice. It’s a project that occupied us intensively for three years and less intensively for five. A project of this size comes once or twice in a lifetime. Now we’re working on three villas, family houses, with clients who are really fun and good to work with. And we’re also refurbishing castles in Litomyšl, which is an extremely interesting project and is something totally different. This project is funded by money from the European fund.

Does the final ČSOB building reflect your original vision?

I would say so, yes. But I can’t really answer the question fully, because the project is a long-term one. You modify your original vision during the course of the work. So it seems to me what is built to a certain extent reflects the virtual vision or, I would say, is identical; but of course, the abstract is a little different from the concrete. So there are certainly some differences and no ideal can ever be attained.

What limits do you face when designing a building?

I think that money is certainly a limit. But I haven’t personally faced extraordinary financial limits. I have a great deal of freedom, but I don’t want to abuse this freedom. I want to serve the client, so I listen to them a lot. For ČSOB, the investor said that he has a particular budget and asked us to stick to it. I have enough discipline that when someone tells me what they can spend, I try to do the work for that amount and not more. I consider this a professional approach.

What other limits are there?

There are many zoning laws in the Czech Republic. We are legislative maniacs and try to control a lot of things by means of norms and standards. I think that we needlessly damage ourselves with these. In a sense, we are still Austrian-Hungarians and we have a tendency to continue to uphold the standards and legislation that were codified in that era. There are a lot of limits in this regard.

What do you think of Jan Kaplický’s controversial design for the National Library?

I’m neither an admirer nor a critic. It seems to me that the design that won is the product of a certain idea. I’m tolerant of this idea and I can imagine the National Library looking like that. On the other hand, I also participated in the competition and our design was very minimalist, completely different.

What did it look like?

We designed it to be lower than the surrounding trees. We designed the building in such a way that it did not dominate the Letna plain. But the interior space that we designed has the same qualities that Jan Kaplický claims his interior has, and I think that this was overlooked by the judges, because it wasn’t visible from the outside. But I don’t want to sound as though I’m complaining that we were overlooked or were somehow misjudged, because that’s not what I think at all. The committee that selected the design simply wasn’t in the mood for a minimalist project.

Why do you think they selected something more extravagant?

I think it was just an inner desire. Even the jury was formed in such a way to support this mood. Actually, many Czech architects didn’t participate in the competition, because they said that they could not survive in that environment. There really was a kind of desire on the part of the committee to introduce Kaplický onto the Czech scene. Why not? I have nothing against it at all.

What do you think about the public reaction to this? Why don’t a lot of people like it?

A lot of people don’t like it, but also a lot of ordinary people do, people in the villages and the pub. This is a pleasant surprise for me, because they’ve started talking about architecture. There’s a longing for modern architecture that in a way seems strange to me, because we are a small nation and it’s almost as though up until now we have sought certain qualities of a small nation. Personally, I like this kind of discreetness. But I also like grander, more organic architecture, like Jan Kaplický’s designs, which really evoke a certain rhythm. But on the whole I like minimalist styles best. These are more geometric, perhaps less spectacular, but with a lot of interior space. I just think that modern architecture, despite the fact that it’s becoming more liberal-minded, is not necessarily more liberating. Sometimes baroque palaces seem to me much more liberal and broad-minded than modern architecture, at least with regard to people, to the individual.

You studied in Prague?

Yes, I graduated in 1979, at a very bad time politically for the country. Oddly, I can’t say that this destroyed free thought in me. Thinking is and always was free, at least for me. But obviously there are much greater opportunities now. There’s a whole range of inventive and enlightened investors with whom it’s good to do business. The big construction companies like Metrostav or Skanska are giving birth to some very interesting ideas. I think that the situation in the Czech Republic is pretty good right now. Firms are saying we want to build beautiful projects.

Which architects and styles influenced you the most?

Among Czech architects I admire Jaroslav Fragner, most of all for his work on the Karolinum. The reconstruction of those historical buildings with the influence or rather the contribution of modern elements seems to me extremely noble, beautiful, and harmonious. I also love the work of Alena Šrámková, who influenced me a great deal. I’m also excited and continue to be excited by the work of Karel Prager, who is still perceived as being quite controversial.

What cities do you admire from an architectural point of view?

Well, I haven’t seen many of them! Of course, I’ve visited a few, but it’s hard for me to say, because I really love Prague and don’t travel much. Certainly I liked Rome very much and want to go back there. I was also charmed by London. If I was young and didn’t have a practice as I do now, I would certainly want to have one in London. That’s where I would want to spend my formative years.

What does London offer that Prague doesn’t?

I think that London is a much more metropolitan city, much more open. It seems to me that not even Paris is as open as London. But I’ve never been there for an extended stay; I never had the opportunity to live there and get to know it in depth. As for Rome, I like the European traditionalism, from Roman antiquity through the Judeo-Christian period to the present day. This is something that I like very much in Europe and I’m saddened that this seems to be going away.

Which of your projects are you most proud of?

I get the most satisfaction from the tunnel at Prague castle. I feel that I’ve contributed something good for a lot of people. When you build a family house, you bring good to that family; but in this case, it’s a project that has made a lot of people happy, even though the tunnel, the pathway through the deer moat, is pretty hidden and closed in the winter. But it’s made a lot of people happy, a lot of Prague residents happy.

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