Martina Mertová, Tomáš Pospěch
Vydavatel’stvo PositiF, Praha 2015

Tomáš Pospěch’s album (text by Martiná Mertová) is a photographic monograph on the one‑family home that used to be popular in Czechoslovakia. The first building of the “V” type, designed by Josef Vaněk, was nicknamed the “šumperák” and was built in 1967 in the city of Šumperk in Moravia. The house, built for the former director of Šumperk’s hospital, was met with such interest on the part of the Socialist Czechoslovakian Republic citizens that 2,100 copies of its construction plan were sold to clients. In 1969, already nine šumperáks had been completed, and two years later… 2,000. Altogether, there were around 4,500 “V” houses built, which suggests that illegal copying and dissemination of the construction plans must have occurred (initially they cost 842 Czechoslovakian crowns). The costs of constructing the building itself oscillated between 120,000–150,000 crowns – in comparison, the price of the then‑popular Czech Škoda 100 MB was 49,000 crowns and the imported Polish Fiat 125p cost 79,000 crowns. The average salary at the time was around 2,000 crowns per month.
The šumperák was a square, two‑storey home, with each side measuring close to ten metres. On the ground floor there was a terrace, garage, entrance hall, laundry room, a storeroom for fruits and vegetables and a ­drying room, and on the second floor a kitchen with a pantry, four rooms (living room, dining room, bedroom and children’s room) as well as a bathroom. The staircase on the right was illuminated with the natural light coming through rectangular glass‑brick windows. The long panel of windows running along the second­‑floor front of the house is what gave it its popular nickname, “televizák”, although the name may have also originated from the similarity of the šumperák’s bulk to the Tesla TV sets which were produced at that time. Vaněk’s building is the product of an epoch in which design was dominated by the so‑called Belgian style, as could be seen in the architecture of the Czechoslovak Pavilion at the Expo ‘58 in Brussels. This style was similar to designs from the era of Poland’s “­Little Stabilisation”, yet our southern neighbours boast significantly more examples of it, particularly as far as automobiles are concerned. The aforementioned Škoda 1000 MB, the Tatra 604 limousine, the Karosa ŠM‑11 bus and the Tatra T‑3 tram are the best‑known examples of the Belgian style.

The šumperák itself did not appear out of thin air. Martina Mertová, whose essay on the “V” house is included in Pospěch’s album, indicates influences from Oscar Niemeyer (Casa Prudente de Morais Neto, 1947), Jiři Suchomel’s reflections on the “weekend home” (studie vikendové chaty) and the almost identical project of Vladimír Kalivoda in 1960. The essayistic‑historical section of the album is where, in addition to Mertová’s text, there are also floor plans for both storeys of the building, pictures of the construction of later šumperáks from private archives, and the builders’ memoirs (which take up no more than 40 pages, in comparison with the over 300 pages of visual material). Pospěch, a photographer and historian of art whose earlier photographic projects are proof that he freely makes use of diverse methods and photographic conventions, this time decided on a veritable registry, subject to the rigours of classifying visual typography. In the beginning of the album we see eight photographs of specially selected šumperáks, their construction faithful to Vaněk’s plans and unmodified for over fifty years. We therefore have four photographs of each side and four angled photographs. These same shots can be seen later in the album in the form of a typological series called pochled A, pochled B ,pochled C (angle A, angle B, angle C), etc.
During the first three years of working on his book, Pospěch photographed about 550 buildings. Among them we find not only houses built according to construction plans but also those built with substantial modifications or influenced by Kalivoda’s aforementioned project. Although Pospěch’s precise and rigorous typologies are always composed with an utmost care for aesthetic appeal, they also allow him to position šumperákphenomenon in two contexts. Firstly, we can examine it in the context of the history of architecture, as the šumperák offers an interesting example of socialist modernism (the locals call it the “Belgian style”). Secondly, it can be placed it in a social context, in which the need for unification and recognition within a group competes against a strong desire for individualisation. Visual typologies, popularised by the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, are a narrative strategy quite popular in European plastic arts. It does not mean, however, that everyone who photographs a typological series of objects, situations and motifs automatically attracts public attention. It is not only the recurrence of a certain narrative strategy that matters, but also its semantic potential. Pospěch’s project definitely owes much to the Bechers, but one can read it on many different semantic levels without focusing exclusively on its aesthetic, visual and photographic aspects.

Photographic projects similar toŠumperák, whose major focus was the architecture of the former Eastern Bloc, were published a bit earlier in Poland and Hungary. The seriesHungarian Cubesby Katharina Roters (the book published in 2014 was the result of a project that had begun ten years earlier) is about Hungarian cube‑shaped houses. Roters does not focus on buildings constructed according to one design scheme, but rather is interested in geometric patterns designed by inhabitants to decorate their houses’ exterior. Łukasz Skąpski’s series Grey Cube / Szara kostka, published roughly at the same time, focuses on family housing built in the last two decades of the Polish People’s Republic. Skąpski’s typology, openly inspired by the Bechers, presents cubical structures (always centred in his photographs) that are so similar to one another that, the author suspects, they could have been based on the same construction plan. Skąpski’s series is part of a larger project called Domopolo; Grey Cube is accompanied by the series ­Wypoczynek (Leisure set)which presents images of the houses’ dwellers. The inhabitants – similar to Zofia Rydet’s photographic seriesSociological Record – pose in front of the camera, sitting comfortably on their sofas (which are actually called wypoczynki, leisures).

While working on his monograph dedicated to Vaněk’s type “V” house, which shares certain features with the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (apart from the construction and walls, there is also specially‑designed woodwork, ­railing ornaments and terazzo‑like flooring on the terrace), Pospěch progressed in a “holistic” rather than “total” manner in order to remain true to his theme. In this way, he was able to create a complete facsimile of this architectural phenomenon. Apart from the aforementioned typological series of eight perspectives on the šumperák’s exteriors, the book also offers close‑ups of the buildings’ elements and their interiors. This demonstrates certain recurring elements of this project which remained distinct despite the many modifications made to the building over the past five decades.
Pospěch’s record of the building concludes with photographs of streets lined exclusively with šumperáks, as well as images of houses, garages and gazebos, all with characteristic elements copied from Vaněk’s project (for example, round windows in the walls of the ­terrace or triangular, slanted windows on garage doors). As this example shows, the aforementioned need for unification (and thus individualisation) was especially strong among the citizens of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. One has to remember that šumperáksbecame most popular after the Prague Spring of 1968, thus after the attempt to liberalise the communist system that was halted by the invasion by the Warsaw Pact’s armed forces (including Polish People’s Army), and followed by the period of “normalisation” – the rule of party hard‑liners, repression and restriction of civil rights.

 Wojciech Wilczyk

Translated from the Polish by Paulina Duda and Jodi Greig