Creative cooperation between architects and engineers
Posted: May 4, 2011
Even in the most turbulent eras, intelligence and clarity sometimes win out over chaos, a fact evident in the work of the Engineers and Architects Association of Liberec (SIAL), a small but vitally important architecture studio that opened under communism.
When the Soviet Army invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to block a move toward democratic tendencies, or "imperialistic and bourgeois influence," as they phrased it, they succeeded in isolating the country for the next 21 years. But small islands of so-called imperialistic thought remained. One of these was the SIAL studio, led by Karel Hubáček. The studio's work is now featured in a retrospective display at Jaroslav Fragner Gallery until May 22.
Although the studio only operated as an independent office under communism from 1968 until 1971, when it was forced to join the official state architecture organization Stavoprojekt, SIAL showed that Czechoslovak architecture could equal Western styles. The studio didn't just serve as a mediator of Western architecture trends and tendencies, however. It was a creative and innovative group of architects that proved internationally relevant, according to architecture historian Rostislav Švácha, when Karel Hubáček was awarded the Auguste Perret Prize in 1969 by the International Union of Architects.
Even after joining Stavoprojekt, SIAL architects were quite successful in international and domestic competitions. For instance, Michael Brix and Martin Rajniš, who today are both successful architects, participated in the Man Size Prize, an international competition funded by the Italian company Bassano Artista Tiles in 1975. With their so-called "Linear Carrier," a project returning green to the city center and uniting "vertical chaos" in one continuous facility, they won first prize.
"Linear Carrier" joined all possible street equipment into one unit. The entity was supposed to integrate traffic signs, traffic lights, street lighting, commercials, benches, trash bins, telephones and other vendors and machines. The winning project was then prepared to be implemented on Prague's Wenceslas Square and Na Příkopě street but was blocked by authorities in 1978. SIAL architects would go on to win competitions in Paris, Vienna, Venice and Berlin in the 1980s.
Hubáček, now 87, was by all accounts a charismatic architect with an intensely creative vision, was one of the main reasons for the success of SIAL, according to Miroslav Masák, a leading architect at SIAL and co-curator of the current exhibition.
"He was a democrat, a generous boss and an innovator. His personal responsibility was exemplary, and his enthusiasm for work was exhausting," Masák said.
Perhaps SIAL's most important, most influential and most famous project in the Czech Republic was the hotel and television transmitter Ještěd, which splendidly respects its environment, mimicking the shape of Ještěd, the mountain in Liberec on which it sits. A hotel was previously located at the summit of the mountain, but burned down in 1963. An architecture competition was immediately announced for a new building. Originally there were supposed to be two buildings: a mountain hotel and a TV transmitter. Architects Karel Hubáček and Otakar Binar, with structural engineer Zdeněk Patrman, won the competition with a design featuring one building that united both functions in a futuristic, nearly cosmic shape.
This project reveals one of the key features of SIAL: the equality of architects and engineers in the studio.
"The close cooperation of architects and specialists was atypical," Masák said. "We were convinced architecture is a service, that a good building has to fulfill its necessity, thus perfect craft, and that good architecture has to have also what is essential, thus an unexpected idea, harmony of the usual and the unusual."
SIAL also worked to develop the next generation of architects, who got a chance to hone their skills in the so-called "SIAL Pre-School." The open atmosphere of the school gave young architects the unique chance to participate in very up-to-date architecture that might be compared to that of the young Richard Rogers or Norman Foster.
Attendees of the "SIAL Pre-School" are to this day successful and influential architects, and some are also university professors. This teaching activity confirms that the ideas of SIAL will still influence coming generations of architects.
"Almost all of us taught and teach in the Czech Republic as well as abroad," Masák said. "Our students are today very successful architects."
Filip Šenk can be reached at
Tags: architecture, engineering, czech republic, czech, prague, engineers and architects association of liberec, sial studio, prague exhibitions, czech history, communism, communist era.