Czechoslovak Embassies Under Communism
During the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, architects who won commissions to design embassies were tasked with representing the country as an advanced society with a clear political ideology. Paradoxically, the interiors of Czechoslovakian embassies were devoid of visual socialist propaganda, being instead conceived for a global audience in the spirit of international Modernism . Since the early 1960s, therefore, some of the country’s finest design work has been realized within the context of its embassies, which have often operated on the principle of a gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art conceived to the very smallest detail.
As a result, Czechoslovakian embassies of the postwar period became repositories for experimental trends – not only in relation to architecture and design, but also fine art, with all three disciplines working in tandem in an environment that provided an impressive, if somewhat unexpected, nexus for artistic invention. Nonetheless, each embassy was constructed in line with the schema established by the competitions to which architects submitted their designs. Within this framework, Bočan and fellow architect Karel Filsak managed to secure the most prestigious positions of their time, in as much as they were able to execute their distinctive architectural style in several remarkable buildings that were fundamentally identical in their ideological and artistic approach.
As leading architecture historian Rostislav Švácha: “In Karel Filsak’s best works – which I consider to be the buildings of Czechoslovakian embassies and missions in Brazil, Geneva and New Delhi – I am fascinated by the fact that their dramatic, sovereignly controlled forms compete with the qualities of Western Brutalism, not only for their harsh poetic beauty but also for their ideological depth. Few other Czech buildings from can boast such a profound understanding of Brutalist-existential poetics.”
Bočan took a similar approach in his work and, by the late 1960s, had likewise established himself as an independent and ambitious architect, to which his two major projects – the Czechoslovakian Embassies in London and Stockholm – stand as testament.
The Czech Embassy in London occupies a special position within the history of postwar Czechoslovakian architecture. Working alongside Zbyněk Hřivnáč, Oldřich Novotný, Zdeněk Rothbauer and Jan Šrámek, Bočan applied his knowledge of Brutalist concepts to devise a representative work that met with a very positive reception, especially abroad. The local office of Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners as well as architect Karel Štěpánský also collaborated on the construction. The building, which was completed in 1969 by the John Walis construction company, was a great success. In addition to a glowing review by D. Rock published in Architects’ Journal in 1969, the building won the Royal Institute of British Architects Award in 1970.
Located on the corner of Notting Hill Gate and Kensington Palace Gardens, the building comprises a concrete skeleton punctuated by banks of glass in a dynamic Brutalist rendering of abstract forms. However, our particular interest lies in the embassy’s unique interiors, which were custom designed by Bočan with Hřivnáč, Rothbauer and Šrámek. “In the designs for individual seating, especially the armchairs, the originality of the sculptural forms extends beyond the purely functional. It would appear some words of wisdom from Adolf Loos or Le Corbusier have been nostalgically recalled here, since they did not hesitate to adapt proven formula to invent atypical elements of interior design at any cost,” wrote Czech art critic Jiří Šetlík in an article published in the late 1960s.
Text by Adam Stech