Saturday, September 13, 2008

The cold war’s grooviest relic

By Peter Aspden

Published: September 13 2008 01:32 | Last updated: September 13 2008 01:32

The Jested telecommunications tower stands proud and lonely on top of a tree-strewn mountain just over an hour’s drive from Prague. On a clear day, you can see across the border to Germany and Poland, where a belching factory pours out clouds of smoke. This is not a post-industrial landscape. New factories and warehouses open every month, testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of a region that used to be at the heart of the Soviet bloc. The only reminder of that dispiriting time today is, paradoxically, the modernist marvel that is Jested.

It was built in the 1960s as part of a cultural propaganda battle between east and west that is the subject of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s next big exhibition, Cold War Modern. Jested is a phenomenal piece of engineering for the time, its concrete core sunk deep into the mountain’s bedrock to make the sleek lines of the building appear part of the geology itself. Its spire thrusts elegantly skywards, a heavenly approach that architects have for hundreds of years employed to simulate close contact with divinity but that was here conceived to serve the modern gods of television and politics.

When the architect Karel Hubacek entered the competition to design a new hotel and telecommunications tower to replace the gothic mountain lodge that had burnt down in 1963, he had the novel idea of combining the two functions into one dramatic building. This served his political masters in two important ways: it was symbolic of the technological superiority that eastern bloc countries still believed they held over the west; and it attracted a domestic public that needed to be convinced of precisely that message.

Once inside, the hikers and skiers that had come to spend a weekend of fresh air and exercise were confronted with a blizzard of 1960s space age effects that might have come from the set of Star Trek. In the curved lobby, huge, sliced spheres of glass were embedded into an undulating concrete wall, simulating the effect of a meteor attack (a reminder that cold war paranoia was as much concerned with hostile galaxies as with the other side of the communist/capitalist divide).

Stroll into the restaurant and hotel areas, and guests were straight into the dazzling modernist universe that was so brilliantly captured in the early James Bond movies: a huge chandelier made of tubular steel lights, hourglass bar stools, shag-pile egg-shaped chairs dangling seductively from the ceilings. This might have been the refuge where Austin Powers spent his honeymoon, once he had settled down.

And here is the heart of the paradox that is explored in the V&A show and screams from every shiny plastic fitting in Jested: how was it that the dour, freedom-hating regimes of eastern Europe, obsessed with controlling dissent and taming the unfettered imagination, could end up sponsoring just about the coolest building on the planet?

Otakar Binar, a taciturn, modest man in his 70s, was Jested’s interior designer. We sat for dinner last week at the asymmetric hexagonal table and under the extraordinary tubular chandelier that he had designed for the restaurant’s private salon. Jested is still used as a hotel and restaurant today. Hip hotel lovers take note: there may be more luxurious destinations but there is no hipper hotel, for sheer aesthetic bravura, than this.

I asked Binar if he had been aware of being used as a political tool when he and Hubacek, part of a collective of architects, created Jested. No, he said, shaking his head, it was hard for people like me to understand but all they felt at the time was the sheer joy of being able “to build something like this,” opening his hands to the walls.

Asked what had influenced his designs, he looked again as if I simply didn’t get it. “We were completely cut off. We were living in the dark. There were one or two architecture magazines from the west in the university department but they were not easily available. We had to chat up the professors’ assistants to see them.”

Library flirtations aside, the members of the creative team behind Jested evidently worked to their own imperatives. One of them, Karel Wunsch, said he was influenced by Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious when he decided on orange, rather than white, tablecloths. It was that sort of era.

When work slowed down on Jested in the mid-1960s due to the difficulty of the project, Hubacek had to appeal to his president for support. He stressed the scientific and technological ambition of the plans for the building leaving out, presumably, the shag-pile chairs. The Czechoslovakian authorities saw only the opportunity to press the claims for the excellence of socialism and backed the architect.

There was a brief confluence of interests between art and politics but it was only brief. The wider picture in the country was changing fast. Hubacek became a signatory of the “2,000 Words”, a charter that pressed for greater freedoms. It was a professional death warrant; he never worked on another big project.

When Jested won the influential Auguste Perret prize for architecture in 1969, Hubacek was prevented from leaving the country to receive it. The government, never to be accused of lacking a sense of humour, handed him back his passport an hour after the aircraft took off.

By the time Jested finally opened to the public in 1973, Hubacek was deemed sufficiently odious to the authorities as not even to be invited to its opening. He couldn’t bear the slight and was smuggled in by sympathetic staff through the back door.

Jested today is fast becoming technologically redundant – television has new technologies to spread its divine word – and its appeal to retro-loving sophisticates on day-trips from Prague will only take it so far. The current hotel management is evangelical in its campaign to have the tower listed in the Unesco list of world heritage sites. It surely deserves it, as proof that the creative spirit can flourish in the cruellest times, and that to be groovy, baby, was once more than just a statement of style.

Cold War Modern’ opens at the V&A on September 25
More columns at