Architect Eva Jiricna reminiscences about a 40-year career, spanning from Prague to England
Eva Jiricna — the woman behind the design of some of Prague’s most prestigious hotels — hadn’t intended on becoming an architect, nor had she intended on living in England for nearly 40 years. But life, as they say, is what happens when you are busy making other plans.
No one knows this better than Jiricna, who left Prague in 1968 for a “smashing” job opportunity in London. Three weeks after she had moved, however, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. Jiricna was immediately notified that her passport had been abolished, and she was banned from returning to her home country.
“I was so naive,” she says. “I didn’t think it would last — a country, in the center of Europe, being occupied?”
It would be more than two decades, however, before she was allowed to go back.
Today, Jiricna, now a UK citizen, still doesn’t hold a Czech passport. But that hasn’t stopped her from taking on influential architecture projects in England, the Czech Republic and many places in between.
“Being here [in Prague] is close to my heart,” says Jiricna says, who was born in Zlín, south Moravia. “But I consider myself lucky to have two homes, and after all these years, it would be hard to move permanently, but the opportunity to do both is a very nice thing.”
In 1982, she started her own practice, Eva Jiricna Architects, in London. Following that success, Jiricna helped open A.I. Design in downtown Prague in 1997 to help support all the work she found herself taking on in the Czech capital and its surrounding areas.
But all this almost didn’t happen. Growing up, Jiricna had always thought she’d go into the science field.
“I was obsessed with chemistry,” Jiricna says now. “I was totally convinced my future was in chemistry.”
Jiricna’s father was an architect, and she says she loved to hear him talk about buildings and enjoyed drawing but had no specific interest in following in his footsteps.
It was a classmate, who was going to architecture school, who casually suggested Jiricna come along, too. And just like that, her goals suddenly shifted.
“Everyone said, ‘Girls can’t be architects,’ ” she recalls. “So to stop the process of everyone telling me not to study architecture, I did.”
She went on to receive an undergraduate degree from Czech Technical University and a master’s from Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts.
Jiricna had no portfolio and no education in drawing. She’s convinced if she hadn’t excelled in the other subjects required, she wouldn’t have been accepted.
As it was, she was one of only six girls studying architecture, and, she says, “The feeling was, girls are no good and the pressure was on.”
With an “I’m going to show the boys” attitude, Jiricna took on structural engineering classes in conjunction with her architecture ones.
“My love for chemistry turned into a love for structure,” she says.
After graduation, Jiricna worked for a few years in Prague, and then was granted permission to work in England as a department architect for the Greater London Council.
“I wanted to learn more about architecture,” she says. “There wasn’t much architecture being done in Czechoslovakia.”
Her contract was for one year, but things changed drastically when the Soviets marched into Eastern Europe.
Jiricna would later find out her passport was revoked because authorities found her name listed on a human rights petition she had signed because a friend had asked for her support. If she wants to re-establish her Czech citizenship, she would have to apply for a pardon.
Jiricna, however, is in no hurry.
“As a student, I had to search for inspiration,” she says. “But in England I was influenced by freedom — I could say, do, wear whatever I wanted. It was a dream for me.”
It didn’t take her long to find her footing in her adopted homeland.
Eva Jiricna Architects does it all — residential, commercial and retail design. Jiricna says she doesn’t have a preference for one over the other. Each one, she says is different —and fun.
“When a new job comes, I completely fall for it,” she smiles. “We have a new job for a jewellery retailer in Dubai. I do get excited about anything.” But, she adds, “there’s no such thing as an easy job. … We have done lots of shops, but it doesn’t make a difference; the next one is brand new.”
While Jiricna’s work has been steady and prosperous over the years, she never lets herself forget she is in a highly competitive, cutthroat business.
“I’m a born fighter,” she says. “Some people are fat. Some are tall. I accept the fact that maybe I didn’t get a job because I’m a woman, but it’s a field of constant competition and often you lose.
My philosophy [is] if I lose, [the client] had someone better to give [the job] to.”
She credits her mother for teaching her how to be a “good loser.”
“Mom wasn’t a praiser,” Jiricna says. “She would always say, ‘You can do better.’ ”
Because of this, Jiricna says she never bothered to tell her mom about the many awards and honorary doctorates and professorships she’s been given over her long career. But one year, the Technical Institute of Brno planned to present her with an Honorary Doctorate of Technology, and Jiricna decided she had to tell her mom about it.
“I had a relative who worked there,” Jiricna recalls. “So I knew my mom would hear about it. When I called and told her, her response was, ‘Didn’t they have anybody better to give it to?’ ”
Jiricna says she uses each job “loss” to her advantage, believing she can learn something from every competition and can use what she’s learned toward winning the next project.
Jiricna’s work is clearly identifiable by her use of natural materials — especially glass, metal and stone.
“Your use of materials is partially conscious, partially unconscious,” she says. “You develop preferences for everything, colors, dress. I call it architectural DNA. Everyone has their own
Jiricna’s view, as it turns out, is on glass.
“I’m obsessed with light, so I love glass, because it has so many uses,” she says. “It reflects, diffuses and lets light in. Glass is an experience of light.”
Natural stones often appear in her work as well. She believes that with today’s technology, one simply has to look at a stone’s texture to appreciate what nature can create.
It’s this sort of philosophy and passion that seems to carry Jiricna.
“Our lives are changing, and we are creating architecture that responds to our present needs,” she says. “But architecture has a right to change itself, buildings should last a little longer. … We are going through a period where everyone wants to be creative, but is losing the aspect of structure.
“It’s up to us to achieve it,” she adds, “We are holding the reins.”