The Dancing House
Prague Czech Republic
Because buildings can be fun…
When I was in art school, naive and full of admiration for architects, Frank Gehry had me smitten. His playful bent wood chairs and twisting buildings like the Guggenheim Bilbao had my little student brain mesmerized. The rectangles and leaking roofs of Le Courbusier never made any sense to me. I wanted buildings that had movement, life, and intelligent solutions, which pretty much rules out anything by Le Corbusier. While I was backpacking through western europe I took a two day detour through France to visit Bilbao. On this little venture I endured a french business man masturbating our sleeping car, almost getting robbed on the train at night, getting scammed in Paris, pick-pocketed in Bilbao, and the pains of traveling on the back end of food poisoning. Good god, talk about architectural dedication. Either way, it was worth the trip. A single good building can be reason enough to visit a city.
On a much different trip for the Prague Workshop, along the Vtlava River, is one of Gehry’s earlier international successes. Officially named the Nationale-Nederlanden Building, the Dancing house is a playful interpretation of a Czech apartment building on a touch of acid. The windows bulge out of the facade and the hour glass facade slinks up the side and a bundle of metal and mesh cap the roof line. It is a playful way to combine glass, steel and concrete.
The day we arrived a painter was touching up the lower columns. He said the concrete needs to be painted four times a year to keep in fresh. We lucked out and were able to play with the architecture while his roller cut in and our of our pictures. It made for a touching human element in a forest of curing concrete.
A Very Different Building
When we finished exploring the many options for composing with curves, we went down the road to a very different building. The Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius has a dark history of a fatal shoot out between the Nazi’s and the Czech Resistance. The story behind the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, who was being groomed to succeed Hitler, is a story rarely told in American history books. You can read the entire story here. The short version is that the Resistance fighters Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis planned to open fire on Heydrich’s open top Mercedes. The machine guns jammed and they lobbed a grenade at the car. Its explosion only temporarily disabled Heydrich as a shoot out ensued. Heydrich died the next day from complications for shrapnel, but the Nazi search for Gabcik, Kubis and the other planners went on.
In standard Nazi form, they leveled the city of Lidice and Lezaky and executed their inhabitants (men, women, and you guessed it, the children too.) Unfortunately these towns had nothing to do with hiding the fighters, who were hiding in the crypt of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. On the street level there is a small window, where the Nazi’s used to shoot into the crypt. After failed attempts at shooting, gassing, and exploding the crypt, they filled it with water. The eight fighters escaped through a secret staircase, but were completely surrounded. They each committed suicide with poison and a pistol shot to the head for insurance purposes, since the Nazi’s were not planning on keeping them alive. In the end these men are local heroes.
We entered the crypt through a bizarre steel door. Inside the damp walls are all lit by the single window. The light is a poetic reminder of the sacrifice made by these men who wanted to prevent the Nazi expansion in eastern Europe. While this is not the most uplifting site in Prague, it is well worth the effort. The war memorabilia outside ranges from the machine guns used in the attaches to SS hats (never trust an officer who wears a skull and cross bones on their hat) to the color guides that Nazi’s used for evaluating eye color. All of items are fascinating and completely absurd.
After our history lesson, we went for a Czech version of a Thai lunch across the street. Over a few Budwiser Budvars, not the American beer, we swapped war stories. Since the workshop participants were representing Brazil, Australia, Greece, Mexico and the US we all learned different versions of World War 2 history. The unexpected severity of the church brought out a sympathetic tone from each of us.
As we continued our days in Prague, I though to myself, its a real privilege to live in a time where people from such different backgrounds can meet through a website, travel to a new country together and spend a week enjoying each other through photography. It is certainly a far cry from what the streets of Prague might have looked like in the 1940’s. Up next will be our trip to see Mucha’s Slav Epic…
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