The meaning of ‘modern’ architecture

The Prague Post

Famous Czech architect and English émigré Eva Jiřičná discusses her local projects

Stepping into the bright clean space of Café B. Braun from the grungy streets of Sokolská in Prague 2, your eyes open in surprise. Filled with glass, steel and practically all white in color, the café is a lovely homage to light. Once you learn it was designed by renowned Czech/British architect Eva Jiřičná, it’s no surprise.

“The first thought was how to make a nice interior and how to revive an initially beautiful exterior with so many existing constraints,” Jiřičná said. “There was a totally uncomfortable staircase in the wrong place, minimal ceiling height and terrible damage to the original fabrics. An architect is not a clairvoyant, and he or she has to work on the total concept.”

The café is located in the historic Lékařský dům, owned by the Czech Medical Association (ČLS-JEP). B. Braun is a medical supply company that in partnership with ČLS-JEP arranged a long-term lease and refurbished the café.

“For some time, we were interested in the interesting and unused space on Lékařský dům’s ground floor,” said Martin Kuncek, managing director of B. Braun Avitum. “Our goal was to return nobility and social prestige to the space, which dates from the ’30s.”

Kuncek said they had a good idea of how they wanted the café to look and chose their architect especially.

“We did not want to ‘just’ reconstruct the place and open a nice-looking café; we wanted to create something people would talk about, a place that had spirit,” he said. “That is why we approached one of the best architects, Eva Jiřičná and her studio AI Design, which in cooperation with the design studio Najbrt has done an excellent job.”

The café is long and narrow. White tile covers the floor, and minimal decoration is used. The B. Braun medical supply business was used in the décor motif, with interesting (but not scary) looking medical instruments in Plexiglas boxes on the wall. The only other decoration is a world map with the countries made out of mirrors. Tall black pillars reach up to the second level, and these are sketched with what appear to be medical apparatuses.

The design peak, however, is the gorgeous glass staircase that winds its way to the second floor. Windows front the building, flooding the space with light. A tiny back garden will be the perfect rendezvous spot when the warm weather returns, and there’s space for a couple of tables out front, as well. The furnishings are basic – white molded chairs and brown tables. The whole concept is simple and airy. Compared to the street and building facade, modern instantly comes to mind, but Jiřičná begs to differ.

“The word ‘modern’ always astonishes me. I never think of modern as opposed to something else – traditional? Stylistic? Colonial? English? French? Old-fashioned? This is a really inappropriate question,” she said. “One does what one thinks is right and what produces, in one’s best opinion, the best solution under certain circumstances. In this case, the task was to give a new breath of life to a dying building that once represented the most progressive, intelligent and sophisticated ideas about creating a contemporary working and representative environment for members of the medical profession.”

Jiřičná adds that reconstruction wasn’t their main focus, but rather to maintain the continuity of the building’s history while considering the current use of the space. She believes the colors are a mix of that historic context and the current feeling of the time we live in.

Kuncek is definitely pleased with the design.

“The final version of the café is exactly according to our ideas,” he said. “We took a relatively small space and created a modern and innovative environment that is certainly different from the hundreds of other cafés in Prague.”

Besides her Czech studio, Jiřičná also runs Eva Jiřičná Architects in London, where she has lived and worked for more than 40 years. She has designed buildings from the UK to the Czech Republic and everywhere in between. Locally, the hotels Josef and Maximilian are two of her most well-known projects, and she has a couple of other projects in the works, as well.

“One of them is the restoration of the functionalist Hotel Avion in Brno,” she said. “We are also completing the congress center in Zlín with a multipurpose auditorium. We are hoping to enrich the cultural life of the town, which has an extraordinarily impressive history, and give a new home to The Philharmonic Orchestra of Bohuslav Martinů.” She added that they had a soft opening of the auditorium about a month ago and are now putting the finishing touches on the interior and acoustics.

Petr Vágner, Jiřičná’s partner in AI Design, says Hotel Avion will be reconstructed with design and colors commensurate with the building’s era, and the top floor will be a glass rooftop café.

The congress center in Zlín presented some challenges, including how to incorporate a building of such size into Zlín’s existing urban and architectural style and how to achieve the best acoustic results in the main auditorium.

“We chose an organic shape in order to achieve the minimal size of the building and incorporate the main auditorium with 850 seats. I find the new shape of the building appropriate, refreshing and enriching to the city center of Zlín,” Vágner said. “Regarding acoustics, we designed special 3-D shaped shells, and based on the measurements and according to the latest comments from the musicians, the result is very promising.”

For Jiřičná, all new projects are exciting, even a small café in the center of Prague.

“I am always interested in a project in which the client wants to achieve good design,” she said. “In this particular case, I was even more interested because it was a real challenge, starting with a tiny little space in a very run-down unit of what must have been one of the nicest buildings before the Second World War.”