Tuesday, 28 July 2015 10:18

Zlin - Conserving a classic of functionalism

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 The Bat'a family had been making shoes in the small Moravian town of Zlin from the 17th century. When Tomáš entered the business in 1895, most of the production was done by outworkers from their homes in and around the town. The railway reached Zlin 1899, and Bat'a built a factory beside the station, just on the edge of the town. however, it was a trip to North America whihc really sparked  new ideas. In 1906 the company built a new factory and a few years later they began building houses for their factory employees.

The First World War brought big orders from the Austro-Hungarian Empire for boots. Then once the war was over Bat'a and his architects developed a classic functionalist city that was in tune with his approach to production; modernism became part of the company's philosophy and business model. The work process was divided up into separate tasks on Fordist lines, and the same approach was taken to construction  The company had a division that was responsible for building the houses, shops and factories. Tomáš became Mayor - who better?

Fordism and modernism

Like the standardised cars from Detroit, there was in Zlin a template for building construction. It was a 6.15 metre by 6.15 metre ferroconcrete skeleton, infilled by red bricks and glass.  This was used by Bat'a's architects, Frantisek L. Gahura and Vladimír Karfík, not only for the industrial buildings but also for the schools, hospitals, shops, hotel and hostels for unmarried workers, as the population of the town grew from 3,000 in 1894 to 43,000 by 1938. To this day the construction system still defines the townscape and is easily legible. Of course the modernist mindset influenced the planning as well as the architecture, with a factory zone, separated from the residential areas by a zone of public buildings  and by areas of open space. Space was ordered on an industrial model.

There is no better example of the single-minded synthesis of architecture and Taylorist managment than the administration building, Building 21 (of course the buildings were given a rational numbering system, like that used for street blocks in the USA). In one corner of the skyscraper Bat'a had his office, which was in effect a lift, so that with the press of a button he could ascend or descend to any floor, open is office door and step out to converse with his staff.

A town amongst gardens

Bat'a had a motto of "Work collectively, live individually" and the housing for married staff had gardens. While not a "garden city" in the purist sense, Zlin was planned as a "town amongst gardens". Like so many "new" towns developed by industrial philanthropists the development was consciously intended to express a philosophy, and to make the residents/employees "better" people/workers, and so boosting the company's output. The push to the future here, as in British philanthropic company towns like Port Sunlight, is stamped by feudalistic paternalism.

Bat'a famously declared that “A free citizen needs space to develop. We are therefore making our new apartment blocks generous and open on all sides. Therefore we want a garden city.” Wages were also generous, and in the 1930s the working week was shorter than was the norm in UK factories at the time. There were  forms of welfare support and a strong emphasis on education and learning your trade from the shop floor before progressing to administration or management. Satellites of Zlin were spun off around the town itself and across the world.


While the modernist movement in the 1930s was strongly identified with the political left, in Zlin its design philosophy and belief in the power of new technolgy to deliver a better future was put into practice by an unavowed capitalist.  After the communists came to power the plant was requisitioned, the link with the Bat'a family was broken. When I first visited the town in the 1980s it was Gottwaldov, not Zlin, honouring Klement Gottwald, the President of the Czechoslovakian Socialist Republic, from 1948-53.

There are two main enduring impacts on the built environment from the Communist era. One is a road cut through the garden of Bat'a's villa, which had previously provided a green link between the house and the factories. Then, on the slopes above the villa, a new high rise housing estate was constructued with a dramatic curved block commanding the skyline. 

After 1989  

Since 1989 there have been some big changes, but also some positive conservation now that Bat'a's legacy has been restored to favour politicially. The biggest changes are, as in so many Czech towns, on the edge of the settlement.  A splurge of car showrooms, shopping malls and fast food outlets greets the visitor entering from Brno in the west. Then close to the heart of the town, between the factory area and the newer housing, a banal shopping mall has been dropped into place, out of scale and context in every way with the surrounding areas.

There has been a spate of extensions to the small cube-like Bat'a houses, so some of the unity of the orignal development is being eroded.

But don't despair. A clever retail and leisure mall has been inserted behind the facades of the pre-Bat'a town square, providing a link through the block to the store selling Bat'a shoes. There are confidently neo-modernist buildings housing the Bat'a University and a concert hall. The regional council has moved into Building 21 ensuring that it has a viable use while conserving and celbrating the legacy. Perhaps most encouraging of all, some of the factory buildings now house small and medium-sized enterprises, and the town is marketing itself as an entrepreneurial town.   




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