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On a blazing summer afternoon, residents are pottering around the gardens of their boxy brick houses in the Moravian town of Zlin. Neighbours are tending vegetable plots, watering blooming flowerbeds or cycling down the narrow lanes towards the town centre. Red-bricked former shoe factories glimmer in the distance. These are the remnants of a unique social and urban legacy left by Zlin-born entrepreneur and modernist thinker Tomas Bata.

Once a sleepy market town, between the wars Zlin was transformed into an industrial powerhouse churning out millions of pairs of shoes per year from fast-moving production lines. Built from the ground up, Bata’s shoe brand became ubiquitous not only in what was then Czechoslovakia but across the furthest reaches of the world. And the industrialist was not just responsible for building a shoe empire: he built a new way of life too.

At the end of the 19th century, Bata and his siblings started a humble shoe-making company but the price of leather and mounting debts forced him to come up with an ingenious plan: making shoes from canvas. The company thrived, given a leg up by military contracts during the First World War; Bata opened new factories in the west of the city and shops in Zlin, Prague and Vienna. His success allowed him to travel to the US, where he gleaned production-line manufacturing and management know-how. He was especially enthused by the working practices of Henry Ford.

As business boomed and the number of employees surged from 400 in 1914 to 4,000 in 1918, Bata decided that it was prudent to provide his rapidly growing workforce with housing. Not one to do anything by halves, he hired progressive architects and urban planners such as Frantisek Gahura, Jan Kotera and Vladimir Karfik (the latter had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright in the US). The newly minted industrial Zlin would be based on the ideas of UK urbanist Ebenezer Howard and the garden-city movement but with the modernist aesthetic well to the fore. “The city was replanned according to a very clear concept,” says Pavel Velev, director of the Bata Foundation headquartered in the industrialist’s opulent villa. “Here will be a quarter for living, here will be a sports area, here there will be an area for working.”

What followed was the construction of six model neighbourhoods. Set among verdant gardens, the brick two-storey workers’ homes came in standardised configurations: split into two or four apartments, or as single-family houses. Positioned row upon row on the gentle slopes of Zlin’s valley, they were erected within easy reach of the factories. “For Bata the emphasis was always on the garden, on healthy architecture,” says Velev. But Bata was also a businessman and, as such, looked for the quickest and most cost-effective option. The cookie-cutter cubes were easy to replicate and were put up in a matter of months by labourers moving from house to house, fulfilling their assigned task. “It was like a production line; it was a Fordian way of building homes,” says Vit Jakubicek, curator at the Regional Gallery of Fine Arts. Bata even manufactured the bricks – and a version of linoleum called Zlinolit – in his own factories. “His idea was that if you make everything yourself it will be cheaper.”

Functionalism reigned supreme in Bata’s Zlin. The newly adapted use of reinforced concrete in a standardised “skeleton”, filled in with the brick walls and large articulated windows that worked so well for his factories, was also applied to workers’ dormitories – simple five-storey blocks built within sight of the factory gates. Soon they were followed by a shopping centre, canteens, shops that sold food from Bata’s own farms, an open-air swimming pool, a cinema (Europe’s biggest at the time) and more housing.

“In the second half of the 1920s they started to experiment with reinforced concrete,” says Jakubicek. “New building methods sped up construction. They could build one floor a week; in many ways they were ahead of their time.” More that anything else, it was this speedy and economical construction method that endowed Zlin with a recognisable industrial-city vernacular and a distinctive architectural unity.

But business was Bata’s main concern: a happy and entertained workforce meant greater productivity. He was an early proponent of profit-sharing schemes. “Sharing the profit and loss motivated people to work 100 per cent all the time,” says Velev. “People realised that they had responsibility for their own actions.” By the early 1930s Zlin’s blueprint was ready to be exported to other countries; “Batavilles” sprung up in places such as Batanagar in India, Gweru in Zimbabwe, Batawa in Canada and East Tilbury in the UK.

Tragically Bata died in a plane crash in 1932 but the Bata phenomenon did not go with him. His half-brother Jan inherited the empire and his time at the helm saw in the company’s philanthropic heyday. The Study Institute and the subsequent Zlin School of Art nurtured plenty of young talent and saw the advent of industrial design, with avant-garde artists working on ergonomic tools and machinery, as well as furniture joinery, woodworking and graphic design. Jan went on to invite Le Corbusier to judge an architectural competition for new worker housing. The modernist architect called the city “a shining phenomenon” and complimented its “unified skeleton that creates a harmonious whole from kindred elements”. But Jan and Le Corbusier soon parted ways; the latter would not accept Zlin’s sprawling garden-city layout while Jan was determined to stay true to Bata’s “factory in a garden” ideal.

The completion of Building 21, a 16-storey skyscraper in 1938, was the apex of Jan’s time at the company – and, for a while, it was the second-tallest building in Europe. At the suggestion of architect Karfik, the building included a spacious square lift that acted as Jan’s moving office. The switchboard to the left of his desk allowed him to call any department in the company and when the lift reached the top floor he was afforded a bird’s-eye view of Zlin’s ever-expanding industrial complex.

With the advent of the Second World War the factories fell to the Third Reich and the Batas fled. Jan settled in Brazil while Bata’s son Tomas Jr left for London and continued to Canada. Losing the Zlin factories to nationalisation, Tomas Jr founded Batawa near Toronto, from where he gradually built up the company and expanded into Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, eventually moving the headquarters to Toronto in 1964. In 2008 Tomas’s grandson Thomas G Bata moved the headquarters to Lausanne and today Bata has a retail presence in more than 90 countries, employing some 30,000 people in 24 factories and offices. Shoe production continued in Zlin until the end of the 20th century (under a different name), finally ceasing in 2002 and today the city is repositioning itself as an administrative and university centre.

Although many of the factory buildings had stood empty and the whole complex became rather down at heel (a Vietnamese market moved in to replace the disused open-air swimming pool, for example), today Zlin is waking up to the fact that Bata’s buildings are an architectural treasure trove. The recent reincarnation of the post-industrial space has seen Buildings 14 and 15 transformed into a smart library and regional museum that celebrates Bata’s legacy. Meanwhile, Building 21 underwent a sensitive refurbishment in 2004 and now houses Zlin’s regional government.

In the museum’s office in Building 14, Jakubicek explains the urban tension between restoring Bata architecture and building something completely new. “How this historical complex will look in the future is going to be a compromise between the importance of retaining our heritage and modern requirements such as parking.” A garage designed by architect Ivan Bergmann at the same time as he worked on the restoration of Building 21 echoes the materials used in the skyscraper. “The rounded column and glass bricks of the new garage mean that there is a conversation between the structures; Bergamann’s approach was to respect the history of this place.”

Walking through the crisscross of former factories and warehouses (some to the west are still used for industrial production) it’s possible to appreciate the area’s gradual revival; bustling cafés and shops filling the ground floors, while above there are offices and loft apartments. A striking renovation is Building 23, which today is a Business Innovation Centre where young companies are offered favourable rents in order to entice them to the area. Characterised by its original industrial rawness, the building is all seamless polished cement floors and black metal handrails. Pavel Valek, a designer at digital agency Studio 9, is particularly fond of it. “It reminds me of old American industrial architecture. People are returning here; it’s becoming part of the city again.” The simple and flexible forms of the industrial buildings make them ideally suited to reutilisation. “Building 23 is really nicely renewed and the large windows mean there is always plenty of light.”

Bata’s architects left Zlin with a generous infrastructure that has survived because it has been so simple to reanimate. “We have to adjust the function a little but it still works for us; the city of Zlin is Bata architecture,” says mayor Miroslav Adamek when we meet him at the temporarily closed Dum Umeni, an elegant glass cube built by Gahura to commemorate the death of Bata. Turned into a concert hall during the communist era with the addition of two brick stairwells, the memorial building is slated for a comprehensive restoration. “The city has taken on the task of returning it to its original state; it’s a very symbolic gesture,” says Adamek. “It was built to commemorate what Bata believed and stood for. We want people to re-engage with the space; there will be concerts, lectures and exhibitions. We feel we owe Bata a debt. He founded our city; his legacy is everywhere.”

This legacy is particularly felt in the residential neighbourhoods. Zlin’s heritage-preservation office has been working since the 1990s to curb opportunistic extensions to the workers’ homes; today all must retain their red-brick exteriors and original boxy shapes. And while some of the Bata houses have seen better days, a new wave of young residents is eager to move in, drawn to the houses by the holiday-village feel of the neighbourhoods and their handy proximity to the city centre. Michal Babic – an interior designer at Ellement architecture studio, which specialises in restoring Bata homes – lives in the Letna neighbourhood in a quarter-house. He’s had to make use of every spare centimetre to create room for his young family, including tucking storage space under the steep staircase. Despite the tight squeeze Babic is happy with his home. “The advantage of living in a Bata house is of course the garden and the quiet surroundings, plus it is so easy to get to the centre.”

Bata’s city-planners did not anticipate the advent of cars and were building very much for their own time. The neighbourhoods’ sprawling gardens and narrow lanes are not ideal for parking but, says interior and product designer Jan Pavezka, who lives in a slightly larger Letna half-house, “not everyone has to drive all the time”. He too has worked on his Bata home, adding a plywood staircase and bright-green industrial-strength string in lieu of a handrail, and knocking through walls to unify the ground floor. “The house is a bit of a Petri dish; I’ve used it to work out some problems with Bata homes that Ellement has had to tackle,” he says.

“The big challenge for us when we work on Bata houses is how to retain the history of the place while providing all the comfort of a modern home,” says Ellement’s lead architect Jitka Ressova. “For example, we always try to insulate the homes on the inside in order to keep the original brickwork exterior.” Today buyers can expect to pay in the region of CZK3m (€110,000) for a one-family Bata home.

So what does the future hold for this unique urban and social experiment, begot by commercial prowess and a strongly held belief in the welfare of those who served the company? Back in Bata’s villa, Velev is feeling confident. “Zlin has a very special energy and many people still feel it and recall our history. I don’t think we should be scared of adapting the functionalist architecture. If we want to use these buildings for another 20, 50 years, we have to find the right way to make them good again.”

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