Centroprojekt – a laboratory of industrial architecture


Centroprojekt – a laboratory of industrial architecture

Gottwaldov is sometimes cited as a pre-war example of the creation of an industrial area and plant, with which some contemporary realisations cannot bear comparison. Do you know what that was behind, among other things? It was also that two people (yes, two people) decided on investments (and, if you like, architecture) in this world-renowned concern. They approved personally a) the concept, or if you want the architecture, b) the investment, and c) the time in which it must be implemented. Investment is the future, and deciding about the future belongs to the head, not the limbs. There's usually a place for a brain in the head."

Vladimír Kubečka, O průmyslu (On Industry), 1966

The designs of a number of buildings included in this manual were created in an architectural office, which in a few years will celebrate a hundred years of existence. During this time, it went through several transformations: first a specialised department of the Baťa shoe company, then a state project institute, ensuring the construction of light industry plants in Czechoslovakia and in various places around the world, then a company that, after 1990, was one of the few that managed the transformation in new market conditions. This study focuses on the middle act and would like to at least briefly recall a remarkable, but today also somewhat forgotten, episode of Czechoslovak post-war architecture.

The local enterprise of the Baťa family became a worldwide empire using principles of the scientific concept of production which the company later used for the construction of not only the factory area, but also houses for employees and public buildings. In 1925, it established a separate department for this purpose, which was responsible for the development of project documentation and its actual implementation. Such an arrangement was nothing new; most large construction companies such as Pittel & Brausewetter, K. Skorkovský, V. Nekvasil, Lanna and Záruba-Pfeffermann had their own design groups from the beginning of the century. What distinguished the Zlín studio from them was an elaborate internal system and method of work.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the coordinated team of architects, engineers, structural engineers, urban planners, and technologists numbered 120 people, and its task was to ensure the design and implementation of corporate buildings within the pre-set limits of budget tables, available materials, and the capacity of the necessary works.

This is how the department operated for some time even after 1945, when it was nationalised together with the entire Baťa company in the first wave, and its composition remained practically intact even during the following reorganisations: in 1948, it became the national enterprise Stavosvit, and while the executive branch ensured the construction of all types of buildings, the project section focused mainly on industrial buildings and in 1952 it was transformed into the national enterprise Projekční závody lehkého průmyslu Gottwaldov (National Enterprise for Light Industry Plants Design Gottwaldov). The design of residential and civic buildings soon passed to the local Stavoprojekt, in 1953 the State Institute for the Design of Light Industry Plants was established with its headquarters in Gottwaldov, and five years later, by merging with Dřevoprojekt, it became the State Institute for the Design of Consumer Industry Plants Centroprojekt Gottwaldov. This organisation initially also had a technology group for glass and ceramics, which in 1965 became the independent design institute Skloprojekt.

It would probably not have been possible to survive all these changes and preserve the continuity of the famous interwar tradition without two excellent organisers - Jiří Voženílek and Vladimír Kubečka. Voženílek joined Baťa's enterprise in 1937. In 1946, after Vladimír Karfík left for Bratislava, he became head of the design department and worked there with a short break until September 1948, when he was elected director of Stavoprojekt. Vladimír Kubečka, also an excellent architect, devoted himself to managerial work after the nationalisation of design offices and construction companies, and in 1952 he became the first director of the aforementioned State Institute for Designing Light Industry Plants, later Centroprojekt.

Preserving the structure of professional staff and their valuable know-how was absolutely crucial for the operation of this design institute. As the following years showed, the new regime's ambitious economic policy based on industrial development could not be fulfilled even with an extensive design and construction apparatus, centrally controlled by the Czechoslovak Construction Works (Československé stavební závody, ČSSZ) and Stavoprojekt. The entire system faced many problems in the early years and it took many years to set it up satisfactorily, and the demanding projects of modern factories required increasingly narrow specialisation and cooperation in broad interdisciplinary teams.

The first project bodies for industrial buildings were created rather unsystematically already within the ČSSZ, and from 1950 selected regional studios of Stavoprojekt merged according to their focus with departments of technologists and engineers from the development and design departments of production (mostly engineering) plants. The subsequent reorganisation of Stavoprojekt in 1953 brought about the desired creation of independent national enterprises (later transformed into state institutes), which were managed by the ministries responsible for the relevant industry.

While elsewhere complex teams had to be built from scratch, in Centroprojekt they fine-tuned, according to current requirements, a structure that had been successfully tested for several decades. In addition to adapting to new conditions, it was also an opportunity to recall the programmatically-erased local functionalist tradition associated with personalities such as František Lýdie Gahura, Vladimír Karfík or Jiří Voženílek.

It was precisely the search for the role of the architect in such a system that became the subject of professional debates and public polemics during the following years, because the coordination of the entire project was often entrusted to a technologist. Thus, the industrial architects had to defend their contribution, while at the same time more and more demands were placed on them - as Vladimír Karfík recalled, he was to "always familiarise himself with new development trends, he was to become a synthetic engineer, controlling all components of the project. In addition to the architectural and artistic components, there were also technological, economic, social, hygienic, ecological and political ones."

At Centroprojekt, however, architects did not have to worry so much about their position, mainly thanks to the construction typology that the institute focused on. In textile factories, tanneries, and initially also ceramics and glass factories, they could apply their architectural design to a greater extent than, for example, their colleagues in metallurgical, mining, or chemical plants.

The number of Centroprojekt employees gradually increased to 600, and the following list of the internal structure from the first half of the 1960s can give us an idea of its complexity. The operation of the institute was coordinated by the director through two deputies.

The economic deputy managed the labour and wages department, the planning department, the national economic records department, the legal department, and auxiliary operations such as planography, photo printing, the bookstore, the photo department, the model shop, shipping, material and technical supply and maintenance.

The technical-operational deputy managed actual project activities. Directly under him was the operative (internal) planning body with the technical council of the institute as an advisory body and all departments: the general concept centre, the typification department, the technical development department, the technology centre, the civil engineering department (department of architects, structural engineers, three departments of civil engineering, the department of steel structures, the electrical installation, plumbing and air-conditioning department) and a specialised centre (geological, hydrotechnical and soil survey, water management and energy department, water technology and transport communications department). From the mid-1970s, computer technology also began to be used in Centroprojekt, and a scientific-technical and economic information department was established here.

Such a background enabled Centroprojekt to act in the role of general designer, i.e. to design complex production units at all stages of pre-project and project preparation, prepare them for implementation and subsequently carry out designer' supervision. Centroprojekt also worked closely with domestic and foreign machine technology manufacturers, research institutes and universities.

Typification and its introduction into the construction industry became the main conceptual theme of Czechoslovak architecture for many years. In industrial construction, experts focused their attention mainly on what they called universal buildings, which could serve various industries and types of production, but also enable easy modernisation of technological equipment. Here, too, Centroprojekt had a certain advantage over other institutes, as it made use of many years of experience with the standard of universality – a monolithic reinforced concrete skeleton with brick infills.

The skeleton underwent its first modification during the Second World War based on a project by Jiří Voženílek. Other variants, aimed at more generous layouts, flexibility and a more comfortable working environment, were created under the supervision of Zdenek Plesník during the development of a universal multi-storey building type that was to become a nationally binding model in the mid-1950s. In the end, the Zlín skeleton proved to be sustainable enough that it was used for industrial construction with various modifications until the 1980s.

However, the development of building constructions and elements was significantly more diverse in Centroprojekt. In the 1960s and 1970s, experiments were carried out mainly with steel structures and light materials for new operational concepts, which were then reflected in the architectural solution. They were mainly abstract forms of windowless buildings for textile production, with a perfectly-controlled internal environment, which were often highlighted as a model of the modern factory.

Despite all the aforementioned requirements for typification and universality, the designer imprint did not disappear from architecture. Until the mid-1960s, its form was determined primarily by the legends of Zlín architecture - Zdeněk Plesník and Miroslav Drofa. The next generation of excellent architects trained with them: Zdeněk Chládek, Jiří Jenerál, Ludvík Jungwirth, Daniela Jungwirthová, Jiří Kotásek, Milan Možný, ​​Jan Pazdera, Zdeněk Přibyl, Ivan Přikryl, and Vojtěch Šplháček to name just some. Their realisations can be found throughout the territory of the former Czechoslovakia and were among the best structures built for the industry here.

The end of the industrial era in the Euro-Atlantic area and the cancellation of specialised design organisations in the early 1990s soon erased the awareness of the qualities and values ​​of architecture, which only a few years before were involved in the most progressive trends. A number of these factories have recently been demolished or permanently destroyed as a result of poorly executed reconstruction and modernisation. We managed to destroy even Zdeněk Plesník's top works, such as the premises of OP Prostějov and the spindleless spinning mill of the Cotton Research Institute in Ústí nad Orlicí. In addition, this layer has not yet had time to age adequately, i.e. to acquire the signs that we admire so much in factories from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, as authentic documents of an important part of our history, with an atmosphere of romantic nostalgia. So we find ourselves in a kind of vacuum, where immediate experience slowly disappears and we still find it difficult to formulate a convincing retrospective critical evaluation. Where we can start is by reminding you that at one time we had a workplace here with world-class parameters, as was the case with Centroprojekt in Zlín.


Jan Zikmund