As a global phenomenon, Art Deco is principally known for representativeness. With the advent of Art Deco in the 1930s glass, chrome, mirror, mahogany, and marble were no more the privilege of a certain elite: they became available for the middle class. In this sense, Art Deco is a symbol of a society with growing equality. The abstract character of Art Deco, paired with decorativeness, creates a bridge between Historicism and Modernism, traditions and progression. At the same time, Art Deco is the style of world-conquering capitalism. It is not afraid of the monumental, the mechanical, replacing the curving organic shapes and human-centred ideology of Art Nouveau – it belongs ultimately to the age of machines and futuristic visions.

In short, Art Deco has a clear, if sometimes conflicted narrative, and this same narrative is told at the same time in different places of the world, with slightly different accents.

In this essay my aim is to build a framework for the Art Deco “accent” in the geographical, cultural and social context of Central Europe. And this goes hand in hand with politics, as is usual with everything in Central Europe.

Around 1910 the region was rich in original ideas and world-class architectural productions. The Viennese Modernists, Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos and their followers actively transformed what urban space, building and decoration meant, and created a special and very characteristic universe. The works of their followers, like Jože Plečnik in Czechoslovakia and the Yugoslav Kingdom, or the Vágó brothers and Béla Lajta in Hungary, had a lasting effect on their countries’ culture. In Prague, a new school of forward-thinking architects created crystal-like, futuristic designs and buildings. They called themselves Cubists. The influence of the German architect Peter Behrens and members of the Deutscher Werkbund, formed in 1907, also proved to be decisive; Behrens himself became the father of modern architecture, with three of its leading figures among his pupils: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. In 1914, the Deutscher Werkbund organised an exhibition in Cologne, which summed up the most progressive, futuristic and idealistic aspects of the then-contemporary architecture, with participants like Bruno Taut, Walter Gropius, Adolf Meyer or Henry van de Velde.

Cubist villa in Prague, designed by Josef Chochol, 1912–13.

And then came the Great War, followed by a complete realignment in the region. Some frontiers were opened, others were closed down. A new empire, the Soviet Union was formed on an ideological basis which proved to be a terrible threat to most of Western Europe. Germany, however, during the years of the Weimar Republic, strove to be a working model society, with some greatly influential groups of architects and designers – first of all, the Bauhaus.

The newly formed national states of this region, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia, shared a common situation. They were small or middle-sized states, with a strong national and nationalist character. And they became, sooner or later, governed by strong, conservative leaders, imposing their will not only in the political, but also in the cultural sphere, from the official art trends to college education and the media. The personal taste of these leaders tells a lot about cultural differences of the interwar period.

After the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty and the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, in which Hungary lost two thirds of its former territories and inhabitants, the country sank into despair and depression. Baroque was seen as a sign of the former glory and greatness. The family mansion of Miklós Horthy, Regent of Hungary between 1920 and 1944, showed an affection for the 18th century.

The new countryside residence of the Polish President in the Barania Mountain was designed by one of the most successful architects of the time, the eminent Kraków professor Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz. In aiming the building to depict a progressive image of a quickly developing country, he decided to use modernist architectural language, even flat roofs.

Edvard Beneš, Minister of Foreign Affairs and second President of Czechoslovakia, actively participated in the design of his own family villa, along with his wife. The building evokes a country mansion from Southern France, with smooth walls and low roofs. It has a lot in common with the political ambitions of the Francophile Beneš, who played an active role in creating the so-called Little Entente, a defence alliance of Czechoslovakia, Romania and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

Octavian Goga, the Romanian poet and later Prime Minister, bought the run- down countryside mansion of a Hungarian nobleman in 1920. The single-floor building was completely restructured in the so-called Brâncovenesc style, an interesting synthesis between the Byzantine, Ottoman, late Renaissance and Baroque architecture from the 17th and the 18th centuries. Goga’s mansion stood in Transylvania, which was attached from Hungary to Romania after the First World War. Goga therefore chose an architectural style to represent his idea of a Greater Romania.

As it turns out from these differences among buildings erected with the same function and in the same years, the chosen form of architectural expression can have very diverse meanings. Thanks to that, it is possible to uncover certain similarities and parallels in the interwar architecture of Central Europe. In the case of Art Deco, this means several underlying concepts, which are the expression of a common identity, the evocation of a national phraseology and the contrasting of progression and traditionalism.

In most parts of the world, from New York to Shanghai, Art Deco proudly propagates the victory of capitalism. Contrary to that, in Central Europe we often meet Art Deco as a symbol of a common identity: the identity of a state or a group of citizens. This purpose is supported by a special character of the style, namely that it is progressive and yet capable to carry on traditions at the same time.

If we look at state-built edifices in Central Europe at this time, we can see that most of them are neither traditional nor modernist in the original sense of the word. The use of abstract, stylised traditional elements, evoking monumentalism, but with volumes, compositions, details associated with progressive movements proved to be a useful tool in the hand of Central European architects in order to express the identity of these newly formed states.

Vytautas, the Great War Museum in Kaunas, Lithuania. Photo: Stewart Ward

There is a huge volume of newly built national institutes to support this idea. The two new National Museums of Poland in Kraków and Warsaw use simplified Classicist methods of composing volumes and forms to evoke a sense of monumentality. There are no actual columns, neither statues nor tympana, yet the mass of the building is able to evoke traditional museum buildings.

Similar buildings from the interwar years could make a long list. A good example for representative use of Art Deco is the building of the Silesian Parliament in Katowice, erected in 1925–1929. Due to the difficult situation and history of Silesia, contested by Germany but finally attached to the newly independent Second Polish Republic, it became a priority for the new Parliament building to explicitly express a certain Polish identity. The building received a Neoclassical façade due to the late 18th-century being widely seen as an important period in the evolution of Polish national identity. Confuting the stern exterior, the Silesian Parliament hides spectacular Art Deco interiors, with an interesting mixture of different stylistic features, focusing mainly on reconsidered Neoclassical elements. A special feature is the main staircase and the great conference room, with spectacular stained glass windows.

Church of St Roch in Białystok, Poland. Photo by Radosław Drożdżewski, Wikimedia Commons

Another important symbol of Polish national pride was the Silesian Museum, built from 1936 in Katowice. The imposing building was finished in 1939 with sculptures by Stanisław Szukalski – the main figure among them being Bolesław I the Brave, who carried out a series of successful wars against the Holy Roman Empire at the dawn of the last millennium. This obviously irritated the occupying Nazi forces in 1939, who decided to demolish the whole, just finished building, an acknowledgement of sorts of its national significance.

Although Polish examples are the most remarkable when we are looking for monumentalism in Central European Art Deco and interwar architecture, there are several other unmissable locations, for example the Vytautas, the Great War Museum in Kaunas, Lithuania. The decision to establish a military museum in the temporary capital of Lithuania was made in 1919, right after the First World War. The building, inaugurated 17 years later, retains a strict, symmetrical composition, but uses abstract elements to summon grandiosity – with success, despite its small size.

The Church of St Stanislaus Kostka in Kraków, Poland, was designed by Wacław Krzyżanowski and built in 1932–1938. Photo by the author

Another example is the Victoria Palace in Bucharest, which currently serves as the main office of the Romanian Prime Minister. The rigid monumentality of the main façade here contrasts with the sensible articulation of the sides. When speaking about these buildings, one cannot avoid the term “Neoclassicism”, but in many cases we see more than a simple imitation of the Classical. Monumentalism is an attribute which is not alien to Art Deco, and this is especially true in the case of Central Europe, where monumental forms come hand in hand with progressive details.

In case anyone wonders why I did not mention examples from Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia above, the explanation is quite simple. The role of architecture was differently perceived in different countries of the region. Interestingly, functionalist architecture gained more space in Czechoslovakia, especially in the Czech and Moravian territories, and Yugoslavia. This can partly be explained by the Pan-Slavic movement, which was more open to the internationalist ideas of Modernism, and the fact that Prague had traditionally been an important educational centre for artists and architects from the Balkans. A third factor of the popularity of functionalist architecture is the fact that in these two countries the expression of national sentiments was eschewed. On the contrary, both states were built on supranational ideas, the peaceful coexistence of different nations in the framework of a functioning democracy – Czechs and Slovakians in one, Slovenes, Croats and Serbians in the other.

Other countries in Central Europe combined the general idea of progress with a strong national character. The biggest and artistically most important was Poland. A well- known example of the development of interwar Poland is Gdynia. After regaining its independence, the country desperately needed an exit to the Northern Sea, which could not be guaranteed by Danzig, a free city at the time. The construction of Gdynia as the port city of the Polish state started in 1921 from scratch. Although most of the buildings of the new town of Gdynia bear the dynamic forms of Streamline Modernism, some also show national characteristics. A nice example for the latter was the original train station, built after the plans of Romuald Miller in the so-called Zakopane-style, using elements of Baroque countryside mansions.

The Republic of Lithuania, re-established in 1918, struggled with similar problems as Poland. The historical capital, Vilnius, found itself on Polish territory, so the country needed a temporary capital. The city of Kaunas saw incredibly fast growth, with more than 2,500 new buildings and a territory expanding from 18 to 40 square kilometres. Today the city is undoubtedly the Art Deco capital of the Baltic states. A symbol of the city’s history and prosperity is the monumental Christ’s Resurrection Church, built as a sign of gratitude for the country’s independence.

This example also shows that in some cases, the Church also used Art Deco architecture to express its progressivity and its solidarity with the nation – or, in many cases, the leader of the country. This is especially true in Poland, a traditionally Catholic country. Numerous examples could be shown here, most of which are less known. The Church of the St. Roch in the Eastern Polish city of Białystok stands on a hill, creating a massive accent composed of three octagonal prisms. The octagonal form is a reminder of the Morning Star, a symbol of Mary, mother of Christ, but also a sign of the dawn of political independence.

In Hungary, the Church was in a different situation. As the general atmosphere was quite nostalgic, the first Modernist church was only designed in the early 1930s. The architect Aladár Árkay and his son, Bertalan, realised a truly spectacular building, the Városmajor Church. The success of the building generated serious quarrels among the Catholic elite. When Gyula Rimanóczy presented his plans for the second Modernist church of Budapest, architect Gyula Petrovácz, who was a Member of Parliament delegated by the Christian Village Party, pulled every string in his power to prevent the construction of a church he labelled “Soviet style”. He was opposed by Grand Provost Antal Somogyi, an advocate of modern ecclesial art, who wrote the following in 1934: “In particular, it should be emphasised that the building will contain nothing that is alien to the spirit of the Catholic Church.” The church has in fact nothing in common with the contemporary Soviet architecture of the time, its semi-circular orifices and arcades convey an appearance that is rather more reminiscent of Art Deco and various Italian buildings of the epoch.

Among architectural expressions of religious life, one cannot forget about the Jewish communities. Jewish citizens had very varying rights and roles in the countries of Central Europe between the two world wars, and the Jewish community itself was very differentiated. Yet, it is generally true that Art Deco proved to be an organic continuation of the traditional Moorish Revival Jewish architecture of the 19th century. The Jewish community of the Eastern Czechoslovakian city of Košice built two major new synagogues around 1927 – both use abstract, simplified, decorative forms of the Near East, evoking the well-known image of synagogues, yet remaining progressive.

The new Orthodox synagogue of Kassa (Košice, Slovakia), designed by Lajos Oelschläger (later Őry) and built in 1926–1927. Photo by the author

The orthodox Jewish community of Debrecen in Eastern Hungary commissioned a huge apartment building from an emerging local architect, István Sajó in 1927. Sajó, inspired by a recent visit to the United States, created what probably was the first major Art Deco building in Hungary, with elements directly borrowed from the latest trends.

There are cases when the three factors detailed here, the three common characters in Central European Art Deco, were easily detectable; when all the states clearly wanted to show the best of themselves to the whole world, while remaining comprehensible, unambiguous and transparent for their own citizens. The World Fair pavilions of the Central European countries in the interwar period reflect well the topic of this essay. By using clearly readable motifs, they represent the grandeur, independence and sovereignty of the individual states. With cleverly applied national imagery, they become unique and patriotic; yet, with a masterful alloy of traditional and progressive elements, they remain familiar for any visitor. From the spectacular Polish pavilion of the 1925 EXPO to the Yugoslav pavilion of Dragiša Brašovan in Milan (1931) and the Hungarian pavilions by Dénes Györgyi, these buildings represent the best characteristics of Art Deco, and, while being temporary, maintain a certain timelessness, achievable only by the best of architecture.

I have attempted to give a brief overview on the colourful world of Art Deco in Central Europe. It is important to understand that the national peculiarities mentioned above, and the troubled history of the region are mainly responsible for the fact that the rich interwar architecture of this significant part of the continent remains less researched. There are cities in the region, such as Gdańsk, the former Danzig, or Kaliningrad, the former Königsberg, where the population was entirely replaced after the Second World War. There are other places which were partially or entirely destroyed. And until recently, rigid borders and inflexible language barriers have frustrated communication in every sense of the word. Summing up, the ideas, systems, networks, leading figures and even some of the main productions of Central European Art Deco, if we can even talk about such a phenomenon, await for future researchers. This is a task worth thinking about.

(The above essay is the written version of the speech given by Dániel Kovács at the Art Deco Symposium in Budapest in January 2017.)

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