When I arrived in Prague on May 26th it was cold and rainy. Prague captured and mesmerized me immediately. I find it hard to imagine that tomorrow my time her in this wonderful city accumulates to a little over month and marks the end of my stay. Currently, the weather is extremely similar to when I walked the streets for the first time: rainy, cold, and slightly gloomy. However, I feel quite the contrary to what the weather is casting. This course is invaluable to both my academia skills and personally. In May, good photography to me was the common iPhone photo altered by an instagram filter. June, on the other hand, I understand the process of a photo better. I may still be growing as a photographer finding a perfect shot every once in a blue moon, but it’s an art I’ve enjoyed learning, and I already see the value it holds for my career and future as a designer.
On the personal level, well traveling is an opportunity I will constantly be in search of. As my first time abroad I held a certain level of expectation, and I must say this trip has exceeded by far my expectations. I am a more confident person and inspired by everything here. Culture thrives everywhere and everywhere I’m finding impactful places and people. This trip is only the beginning of my travels in my life, however it is the ending of an experience unique and wonderful. I suppose I could call it my training session in a way, and because lack of better words myself, I will “keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because I’m curious…and curiosity keeps leading new down new paths” (Walt Disney). Ahoy!
Did baroque ever really die? Nope, it just evolved into what we know today as couture. Here in Prague, irony tends to lurk around every corner. The area of Staroměstská today houses the most expensive shopping avenue in the city complete with Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Cartier, Tiffany’s, anything that costs the price of a small car and you can wear it, you get it on Pařížská. The irony? This area once served the Jews as a confined ghetto where many a kings banished the Jewish people. It was poorly kept, cramped, and a place considered dirty and extremely unfashionable.
However, in true bourgeois fashion, at the turn of the 19th and 20th century the Jewish quarter was deemed unsanitary and many parts were demolished (today we call this gentrification). What evolved from the “remodeled” area is an area that only the finest may afford. Details, decorations, and demarcations one may by to signify their wealth and abundance much like the ideology of the baroque. In style to the eye, it may seem like the baroque faded away into history books like the successors and ancestor, but the idea of the lavish and overindulgence still hasn’t died. In Prague, the baroque is displayed for everyone to see teasing the tourist on his or her way to Old Town Square.
When it comes to traveling a plethora of museums, historical sites, and strange ‘unique to this place’ attractions are available in every town. Cities create incentives for people to travel in to spend their money on the local city economy. Incentives bring in visitors, which leads to sight seeing. Site seeing is a peculiar concept when you think about it. Of the many tours you can take in any given city which one actually respects the nature of the city? In my opinion all fail this simple and most important aspect of being a tourist of my nature. Actually, I prefer visitor. Why? Because understanding the nature of the city is a personal and extensive process and can never fully be accomplished by a simple visit.
To explain what I mean by respecting the nature of the city, a great example is the city of Vienna. I traveled here from Prague cheaply and briefly this weekend. Money well spent. There were several buildings I immediately wanted to go see (i.e. The Secessionist Building arch. Josef Olbrich, Karlskirche Cathedral, various Otto Wagner buildings, etc.). As my friend Doris and I made our way to the touristy parts, the opera house had several obnoxious tour buses parked in front, complete with abrasive tour guides attempting to persuade the naïve into getting on their bus. However, I must say this was not what bothered me most. No, instead it was watching a bus pass by an actually important site at around 30 mph, no stopping. I can’t imagine how one thing can be explained in 2 minutes. It is disrespect. How then may disaster be averted if you do not know anything about a place?
I purpose a solution that attempts to capture a small piece of the holistic nature of a city in a way that does not compromise its beauty, and strip it of it’s importance by being labeled as a ‘tourist site’ (because that phrase should be left to the swindlers in the janky souvenir shops). With my architecture obsession comes a sort of critical analyses of space no matter where I am. What is the layout? How is the orientation? Wow, way to fail at blocking the sun in the hottest part of the day. What kind of place thinks a labyrinth of bushes is okay for visitors? (Because it’s not unless you voluntarily know you’ll waste an hour getting lost and then enter the maze) Size. Shape. Aesthetics. History. Cities are living, breathing museums of culture and zoos of artifacts from everywhere and every era. A simple tour that barely explains the city is not sufficient. A visitor of my nature needs simply two things: research of noteworthy architecture beforehand, and the metro, tram, and bus map upon arrival. Sure, guided tours are fine, but only by foot and within a certain radius of the city for a more extensive look. But, half of understanding and acquainting oneself with a city is taking the trams, getting lost, finding the hidden gem of architecture only seen in pictures. It’s a list rather than a plan. It is place, people, and period that contribute and impact a city and in my opinion to fully understand the city is to call the city home. This is why we must respect the nature of cities and strive to capture their glimmer of life. We must respect home.
Yesterday, our group journeyed to Terezin for another look at the “Final solution of the Jewish Question”. Terezin acted as a sort of transitional labor camp for Jews during WWII. Here, Jews lived and built a community amongst the evacuated buildings of this former military town before the war began. It did not function as an extermination camp, but as an extremely dense ghetto and labor camp. Because of this, it blossomed into the center of Jewish culture and produced several art pieces, theatre productions, music compositions, and even literature during the war. However, the Nazi’s managed to instill their horrific genocide regardless. Beginning in 1942, at least every month, sometimes multiple times a month, community leaders were forced to pick a 1000 of their own people to be shipped off to other labor camps such as Auswitch where almost none of the selected survived. Fortunately for our survivor who accompanied us on our trip, Doris managed to not be a chosen victim to be moved and ordered, and she has no idea why.
Once more, awe struck while listening and watching this petite lady, delighted by our interest, boldly share her experiences. She managed some how to avoid execution and find one of the more relaxing and easier jobs in the Gestapo. She was in charge of the sheep. In the museum, a black and white photograph of Doris is posted on a panel displaying her amongst her sheep wearing a very nice coat. She explained they were able to take with them 50 kilos of things per person (about a hundred pounds) and nothing was taken from them for a very long while.
After touring the town, we moved on to the Prison that housed political prisoners before the war began. When the Nazi’s invaded and ran out of room for the Jews, they began to over populate the prison forcing over 50 Jewish people into a 10ft by 10ft cell with little fresh air, barely any lighting, and a small pail for excrement only to be changed once a week. These factors caused many diseases within Terezin, which caused about 35,000 Jewish people to die in the Ghetto. Overall, the most interesting aspect of the tour was seeing the theatrical designs for their small theatre. I find it extremely inspiring that through a hell-like situation, humans can somehow still create beauty. I suppose it is a coping mechanism in a way. Theatre can create an entirely different world for a small moment. It’s an outlet and a distraction, just like other arts. But, theatre diverts attention and can take you for a small moment in life to another place, a better one.
Doris told us while standing in a recreation of the women’s barracks that she feels closer to us in this moment because she cannot see Terezin through her eyes now. She is too old. She still sees Terezin through her 16, 17, 18, and 19-year-old youth, because then she had hope and so it makes her closer to us because we are about her age when she lived through Terezin. In a strange way, I felt the same looking at all of the costume and scenic designs. I felt the attempt at some normality, an attempt for a mental escape.
I took a photograph of a man taking a photograph of a fellow classmate taking a photograph. Wait, what? Just think about it. Our class traveled to the Terezin Labor Camp in the Czech republic today, which I will discuss more in a separate post. However, while we were visiting the town’s prison, another photographer seemed to be lurking on the fringes of our group at the conclusion of our tour of the grounds. I noticed him earlier in the afternoon when we first arrived due to the large music box of a camera he had dangling from his neck, but my interest grew when we became the subject of his interest.
At first I was intrigued to watch him change out the film after each shot. It seemed to function much like a Polaroid, but older and bigger. My whole concern with the antique was the fact that you really cannot just ‘mess around’ with settings, lighting, and such to produce a successful image. In fact, it stressed me out to think of how much film and money I’d waste if I didn’t use a digital camera. Professionals only I suppose? It solidified my relief that I have the luxury to learn so easily and less stressful. Film, in my opinion, is the pure art of photography.
As I watched him begin to swoop in to capture a photo of one of my classmates taking a photo, I realized that some mechanisms of a photographer are simply universal. When I attempted to snap a photo of him, I strolled casually around him and set up my shot as discretely as possible. He seemed to have the same ‘creeping’ technique as both myself and Master Photographer Darling (Professor Darling). I found it rather entertaining to watch his process: observation, then visualization of the photo he wanted, and finally quickly managing to sneakily move into position without altering the genuine response of the subject, all in a single attempt. It impressed me to see this technique in motion, but used by a different and definitely older photograph machine. Because of my competitive nature, I took it upon myself to win this photograph ‘war’. He obviously knew what I was up to and often moved out of my shots. However, I type here today, a proud victorious contender of this self-proclaimed game. I took the last shot (well, so that I know of).
Prague is divided into 10 different districts for addressing and other miscellaneous city research aspects. Luckily for me, the apartment building where I’m living is in Prague 7 while all the main attractions of the city reside in Prague 1 (this includes Wenceslas Square, Old Town Square, and the St. Charles Bridge). In Prague 1, there is a constant stream of travelers from all over the world both young and old. At times, it can be frustrating trying to navigate through the sea of people. I understand why Czech’s so often become annoyed with all these tourists demanding this or that immediately. But, on a more positive note, tourists are fun to watch and good to photograph. In other words, they’re great practice for me, and it’s turned in to a kind of thrill trying to get as close as possible to snap a picture and then scurry off while simultaneously trying to see or hear their reaction.
Yesterday wasn’t entirely ideal for photographing due to the burning hot sun, but it did encourage an exciting array of outfits. Different hats, shirtless teens, Japanese umbrellas, it was rather comical seeing the different ways people tried to avoid the heat, some fashionable others typically tacky of tourists. A camera guy for what seemed to be a travel documentary or a feature on the Lennon wall sported a sweat band that made him look rather Jackie Chan-esque. Whatever gets you by I suppose? After seeing all the unusual assortments of style, it makes me wonder, what do I look like as a tourist? Lately, locals have mistakenly responded in Czech to my, “Dobrý den”. Does this mean I’m finally fitting in? How long exactly does it take to strip yourself of a tourists status? More time will be needed for investigation on this matter.
I guess the weather here has multiple personalities disorder because just last week I was bundling up and today I walked like a starfish to keep my skin from sticking to miscellaneous other patches of skin and leaving behind a rather uncomfortable chaffed spot. To contribute to the dry summer heat, Prague architecture lacks modernity in the technical aspects such as the luxurious idea of adding a small air conditioning system, or I don’t know, perhaps even a fan? I suppose that the heavy building materials successfully cools several spaces, acting much like a cave, but buildings built at the turn of the century using the new and improved steel construction styles should definitely think about upgrading. There isn’t enough mass in steel construction to successfully cool a building especially when the sun is constantly beating down from all different reflected directions.
Any way, back to the importance of this post. In order to escape the heat, yet do something mildly interesting, my dearest friend Shaina and myself journeyed across the St. Charles Bridge to the shaded region (and now finally dry from flooding) of Kampa Island where the Lennon Wall is located. The wall is a solid symbol of Czech disagreement with the Soviets invasion and forcing of communism on the Bohemian peoples. Since songs written by musicians such as The Beatles was considered a crime against the regimen, John Lennon became a huge icon for freedom and love, and in the Lennon Wall’s case heroism and Czech pride. It began in the 1980s when a group of students painted John Lennon’s face on the wall to protest communism. The Soviets then painted over the artwork, but resilient as ever the students returned at night to pain their idol back on the wall. From then until the soviets finally left the Czech lands, a struggle for marksmanship over the wall’s appearance reflected the inner workings of the rising resistance the Czech citizens for control over their own lands once again. When the Soviets finally left, the battle for the Lennon Wall was marked a victory, and to this day any one may graffiti their art or feelings or even lyrics that inspire them too on the colorful surface of the Lennon Wall.
Of all the architects in Prague, I must say Adolf Loos is my favorite. Why? Because of his holistic approach for buildings in a self-proclaimed style that allows for constant changes in decorations. One of his best pieces in my opinion and of several other experts is the Müller Villa commissioned by Dr. Mueller for his family in 1930. The significance of the building however is not just about the construction of the building or architectural style. It is in fact both of these and many more; it is about the design and fitting the structure into its man built fortress disguised by nature; it is about the privacy of space and use of Loos’ famous Raumplan to fixate each room on an axis relying on doors only when necessary (such as for hall closets, cupboards, etc.); it is about the decoration and utilizing only old styles when they are authentic to the past and producing new style to accent and bridge traditional to modern; the house is a complete work of intellect and visual articulation.
When we visited the home this morning, we were informed we could not take photographs inside the house or in the garden. I attempted to get a few before we were informed of this fact, but failed at snapping one at the entrance of the interior. Nevertheless, the Villa was more than I had expected. Loos planned each room according to function, yet elaborated on the aesthetic choices of this new style. Every piece was carefully selected or designed for a specific purpose. For example, the furniture in the living room, the chairs and sofas (if not already pulled from a different period, which meant the pieces were actually made during that era and NOT REPLICATED) were precisely thought out and customized specifically for sitting positions. The Ladies Study contained a small booth type space for a string quartet, but also had a low ceiling for the intimacy of chatter. The closet spaces were spacious and catered to function especially in the positioning of light sources both natural and artificial. The terrace contained a rectangular hole punched in an extended sidewall that framed the view of Prague. Essentially there is no mistake in this home. Everything is intentional, and everything has a reason behind its placement.
Which brings me to my next point, the restoration and renovation. When the home was sold the Decorative Arts Museum of Prague, and extensive renovation and restoration of over a year commenced. Yes, it is both because not only was the Villa restored, but also several pieces were re invented due to either being missing, stolen, or destroyed. However, one point I must reflect upon is the irony of renovation. I am completely happy that the Villa was restored precisely as possible to its original design Loos had in mind, for aesthetic purposes. From the garden plans to his own Raumplan and interior design, everything was put back in tact. However, Loos was a strong believer in reuse and only producing new designs, strictly no replications. Perhaps for originality, or perhaps for the sake of scarcity, incorporation of classical furniture were selected from antiques and not remade. In the restoration however, some furniture had to be entirely reconstructed. I am not sure if Loos would agree with pride or be baffled at the fact that they attempted to copy a style not of our time. One loophole, regardless, is that when recreating any aspect of the renovation and restoration, only the technology of the period was used in order to capture the same atmosphere Adolf Loos had so successfully embodied. The Mueller Villa is an icon of the cubic style, a demigod of color coordination in design, and the masterpiece of a marriage between traditional and modern. Adolf Loos created the perfect experiment turned architectural idol. Regardless of the irony, the Müller Villa serves as an inspiration to myself to create a design whatever subject it may be as seamless as the work of the master architect Adolf Loos.