Interview with Josef Karlík, one of the four authors of the PCC building
Josef Karlík was born on 13. 7. 1941 in Rožmitál pod Třemšínem. He studied interior and furniture design at the Secondary School of Applied Arts and the Faculty of Civil Engineering at the Czech Technical University in the architecture department, where he graduated in 1970. Until the fall of Communism, he worked in the Military Project Institute, then started his own office – located in the PCC building.
It could be said that your original profession was that of a carpenter.
Yes, my start was right in the footsteps of my father, who was a highly regarded carpenter, and joined with his cousin to head the largest firm in Rožmitál, the company Šmíd. The Šmíd works produced the full range of furniture for private homes and commercial use, and could make precise specifications for pharmacies – something that won them work even abroad. Unfortunately, around 1949 it was nationalised. The school where I graduated was in its way an art school, the only similar one was in Moravia, for the Ton factory in Bystřice pod Hostýnem. Just like at the CTU, at least for a while, we had the great advantage of being taught by teachers from the pre-1939 era. Then I worked for a year in Plzeň at the West Bohemia Carpentry Cooperative, where I did things like the fittings of the state sanatoria in Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary, hotel Škoda in Pilsen, complex equipment with furniture.
During your military service, you were with the radio brigade in Prague. How did you end up there?
One day there came into the office in Plzeň one Colonel Linka, a real bigwig in the region, and let us know that he needed a new living room. I sketched up what he wanted, and the head of the housing cooperative, a friend of his, took care of the production. So I was able to arrange for my military service to be in Prague, and what’s more, among the real Plzeň nomenklatura: in the same company as I was they had the colonel’s son and the head of the Plzeň daily Pravda. Our barracks were in the Pohořelec complex; we were part of the air force. And we had opportunities for money as well – whoever could take down the right number of Morse code impulses per minute got a hundred extra crowns in pay. It really was fun. Mostly, we received and sent reports about aircraft movements. The main command centre was in Karlín in the Jan Žižka barracks. At the time of Berlin [the Berlin Crisis of 1961 that started the construction of the Berlin Wall – ed. note], we even got visits from Marshal [Rodion] Malinovsky. All the time, we sent messages to, or called up, Kiev, Warsaw and Budapest. It really was active service.
After that, what led you to architecture?
Again, I was just lucky. I was walking down Wenceslas Square and ran into Mr. Šmíd, the former owner of the furniture works. By then, he was working as a construction supervisor for a building company in the uranium industry: it meant better money for him and somewhat less political pressure. We started talking, and went to visit his cousin, an architect working on Národní třída. Back then all I knew was that I wanted to leave the workshop in Plzeň. One of the architects in the office called the administrator for the team of Professor [František] Cubr over on Wenceslas Square, where I started working as soon as I’d arranged my address registration for Prague. Within about two years, I went off to get an architecture degree.
So when did you join Professor Cubr’s office?
Right after leaving the army, in 1962. And in 1964 I started to study an Architecture.
What were your student years like – were you still working?
After the second year, we were split up into ateliers. Every student had to complete all of the required projects: public and residential buildings, cinemas, theatres, hospitals, industrial architecture, agricultural architecture, heritage protection. Only by the time of your diploma project did you choose, but even then you had to agree with the department head whether they would accept the topic or not. But during my studies I was employed, even though I still planned to return to Professor Cubr.
Yet instead you joined the Military Design Institute.
When I had my exam from what they called “underground urban planning”, I met up with one external instructor, architect Blahomil Borovička, technical director of the Military Design Institute [Czech: Vojenský projektový ústav – VPÚ]. We got on well, the exam was really pleasant. He gave me his card, saying that if I didn’t know what to do after graduation I could get in touch with him. Back then the times were bad – because of the Russian army [After the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia in August 1968, the Soviet army remained here until 1991 in an estimated number of 150 000 people. – ed. note]. No opportunities. It was hard even to get any kind of work, so I called Borovička and met with him in the Institute of Military History. It turned out that Mr. Borovička was actually Colonel Borovička. Of course I had no idea, no one even knew this at the faculty. But he picked up the phone and called over to Atelier 7 in Jindřišská Street, with the architects Jaroslav Mayer, Vladimír Ustohal and Antonín Vaněk, and recommended me to them. Later, these were the three colleagues I worked with on the competition for the Palace of Culture. Vladimír Ustohal was the only soldier among us, a lieutenant.
How did the institute work?
The VPÚ had an enormous advantage: it had all the professions. We could, for example, work on the design for Ruzyně Airport – these colleagues of mine signed on with [Karel] Filsak for the departures hall. It was the opposite for Prager’s circle and the other open associations [Karel Prager was co-founder of the Association of Design Institutes, which was abolished after 1968 and regrouped under the City of Prague Construction Department – ed. note]. The head of the VPÚ was General [Josef] Martinec, Borovička was his deputy. We had specialised ateliers in Prague, branch offices in Pardubice, Bratislava and Brno. Altogether, up to 2000 employees. This is why we could take the chance to work on the Palace and divide up the work. Even in Bratislava they worked on it when it was needed.
What was your first project?
My first assignment was for the Unicoop office building on Revoluční in Prague [the Cooperative Foreign Trade Enterprise – ed. note], the one with the glass façade. I did the interiors. We put in a lot of artworks. In the ground floor should have been the bookshop for ‘Our Forces’ [Czech: Naše Vojsko – the Czechoslovak publishing house – ed. note].
Was the Palace of Culture the next thing?
Right after that was the metro station Hradčanská. That was all mine for the next year 1972. Through it I got to meet Standa Hubička [architect Stanislav Hubička, author of the Nusle Bridge and other transport works in Prague – ed.], and we were exchanging documentation later. Then the next thing was the A-line of the metro. VPÚ took a significant part in the design of line A and in addition to Hradčanská, we designed the Dejvická station, the vestibule and the subway at Můstek, the Náměstí Míru station and the underground areas of the Prague Castle and Chotkova Street. Dejvice is a military district and so naturally got VPÚ.
How were the projects divided – or should I say assigned?
A lot of the time, it was a competition within the institute. Three architects were selected, and they put together teams from their own people. They could pick and change the team members, but of course with the permission of the atelier head. Later, a normal jury was set up from the Architects’ Union, representatives of the investor, which decided on the best project. Then this was worked on further. VPÚ was specialized in designing for the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior. For the Ministry of the Interior, in 1972 with architect Jaroslav Mayer, we won in the intra-constitutional competition for a new city's public safety administration building at Lounská Street. All projects processed in VPÚ were implemented with selected suppliers.
Were there people from outside the institute in the jury as well?
Yes, there were also people from the represented ateliers. Everyone had one person there, the rest was made up with invitations of an investor's representative and a representative of the Association of Architects. The Ministry of the Interior had very well organized investors, many of them built new multipurpose buildings including residential buildings.
But for the Palace of Culture, the state enterprises were competing directly among themselves. How was a competition like this set up?
Right, it was organised by the City of Prague Construction Department – Construction of Purpose-Built Facilities. Their lawyers drew up the competition, perhaps the Architects’ Union helped as well, I can’t really say now. They came up with solid competition conditions. Professor [Miroslav] Kouřil from the Theatre Institute sketched out, from the latest scientific and technical discoveries, what the hall should do, its basic parameters, angles and proportions. Everything had to be justified as well in calculations. Mr. docent Chalupníček from VŠÚP, an expert in photogrammetry, has prepared 5 photo panoramas from the central area of the city with the help of phototeodololite, to which the contestants had to draw their competition proposals. There were views of Dívčí hrady, Strahov, Castle ramp, Vyšehrad and Karlov.
Was the competition open for all design institutes?
No, not at all. The institutes were selected beforehand. Someone made the decision, probably at the Ministry of Culture. Then the invited institutes could nominate whoever they wanted. So the invitation was sent out to the VPÚ and they nominated us. The jury did not decide on the winner for the first time. This was a very complex project, which was eventually followed by a government agent and a special commission. Project organizations had to demonstrate the professional composition of their employees in all professions.
The jury did not decide on the winner right away. Entering into the second round were only your team and the team of the Design Institute – City of Prague Construction Department (architects Jan Šrámek, Jan Bočan and Zdeněk Rothbauer).
Yes, I think there were only two of us who went into round two. The Brno team dreached out into the valley, off of the site. I can’t recall exactly all of the teams that entered. And again, no decision. I can’t say why. In the end, we won with the complexity of the details of the competition proposal and the final evaluation of the jury.
Architect Bočan once said in an interview that ‘they won the competition three times in succession’ but that his team couldn’t get the commission for political reasons.
This was a very demanding project. VPÚ never had any scandals, didn’t have any debts, spun a lot of money. We had a good reputation. Yet allegedly, our leadership wanted the design to go to Šrámek. Professor [Vladimír] Meduna, rector at the Technical University in Brno, once came over to our studio and told us that he’d worked hard to convince director Martinec, that he should be excited about our design and not send it out of the institute. Later, they accused us of having copied it from Hamburg. What a lot of nonsense. [Rostislav Švácha hints to this in his article in the Týden magazine from 2006. –ed. note]. We planned an appointment with architect Bočan, which has never been realized. However, architect Vladimír Ustohal discovered a project very similar to the design of architects Šrámek, Bočana and Rothbauer in the publication about Congress Hall. In the estate's daughter and granddaughter of Ustohal, both architects, will surely find the publication. Both work in the NPÚ.
The competition ended in 1974 and construction began one year later. That’s not a lot of time for design work.
Time for designing after the competition really was somewhat limited. We had to hand in the introductory project immediately. We had agreed that in no case would we be able to supply all of the documents for building construction before it started. It was a design by concurrent streaming method. The projects were split up into gross structures, supplementary structures and ‘putting on the clothes’ – doors, wall coverings. There was always something to add. Also, there were hard deadlines for constructing the metro, fixed terms in the State Plan. Of course, they there were fixed terms for the Palace too, but the metro was more important. You could almost see the sparks fly. I kept an eye on everything, but even so we only barely scraped through.
Did construction start on time?
Unofficially, construction began back in 1974 with a couple of demolitions, but building only really started a year later. For half a year, it was the largest unauthorised building site in Prague. The contractor, Průmstav, was selected already at the design stage, so they started constructing the facilities for the site. They had two mixing centres and a really complex system of other necessities. Not too good for the nerves…
So the construction took place over five years, and it was being designed at the same time?
That’s exactly how it was. In 1980, they started testing it for use, and at the beginning of the next year, they were installing artworks and dealing with acceptance.
Was the work well-paid?
Of course it was. The VPÚ had a strong technical department. Every invoice was cause for celebration. The Federal Ministry of Technical-Investment Development gave the cost of the project coefficient 2 – that is, they set aside twice the amount for the building, and what’s really funny is that we weren’t even able to use all of it.
Did you try to?
We only drew out what was mandatory. We didn’t want to take more, because that would mean that the plan would be that much tougher the next year.
What were some of the other structures you worked on?
I did one study for the plan of Chotkova Street. Also for the reconstruction of the Karlín barracks, which I had a personal relation to from my army service. But this was one of those silly ideas of the Party-State under premier [Ladislav] Adamec. They imagined that 10 000 soldiers could be sent off to build Prague’s housing estates. I also worked with Jára Němečků [also an employee of VPÚ], that gave us a place in history. To save the Vít Nejedlý Military Artistic Ensemble, they wanted to build a stage in the Pohořelec base and invite in tourists: for this, we came up with a retractable covering across the entire courtyard. The second project was an apartment block in Kavčí hory (total 88 flats devided into 2 objects), Pod pekařkou street, which took a long time to build, up until 1990. The project was developed by a team of architects Josef Karlík, Pavel Šváb and Zdeněk Volman. It also got us a prize of some kind. The two of us (me and Pavel Šváb) got the most luxurious flats in there, but only with windows – we’d never have heard the end of it if we’d had terraces.
How did you continue after the Velvet Revolution?
When the VPÚ came apart, in 1992, I went off on my own, but there were still a few military projects to finish up. I joined the Chamber of Architects and set up my own firm. Also, I started working for the Palace of Culture, where I did especially reconstruction projects for the tenant and subsequently for the annual meeting of the MMF/SB.
Still keeping in touch with the building?
Precisely, I even have my office there.
Does the Military Design Institute still exist in some form today? What is its view of authorship rights?
Yes, it does, and they say they have the authorship rights and that we were only nominated on the VPÚ’s behalf. Yet at the same time, they sent me a draft contract for the purchase of my authorship rights.
In the second round of this competition, NOVÉ KCP / NEW KCP, you were an invited expert for the jury. Did the competition meet your expectations?
I’d say that the competition was thought out quite well. The movements of thought are clear. I’m actually glad that the access terrace will be opened up.
Perhaps you could be in the position of consultant for the future process.
If they want it, then of course. With pleasure!
What would you recommend to the PCC now?
I’d advise them to fight hard to make sure that they have the project firmly in hand and finish the perfect of multifunctional exhibition hall over the southern terrace. The project should use a functional industrial architecture for exhibitions with the possibility of quick introduction of exhibition stands and equally fast dismantling and removal. Most of these are short-term exhibitions during the conference and meeting.