Christopher Lord reporting from Brno: The Czech Republic’s second city was central to European design before falling into a troubled 20th-century sleep. Revival came thanks to research investment but its future may lie in its design heritage.
International flights from Brno Airport: 3
Average summer temperature: 18c
Local dialect: Hantec Czech
Brno-born luminary: Author Milan Kundera
To cross from one cobbled Brno street to the next is to meander a European millennia. Under Austro-Hungarian spires you pass from a hushed Capuchin monastery to uniform apartments of the old Eastern Bloc, where the clink of steins resonates from a wood-lined bar. Yet it is Brno’s modernist moment in the rigorous lines of functionalist architecture that speaks of the city today.
Pronounced “burr-no”, the Czech Republic’s second city was shaped by turn-of-the-century industrialist zeal alongside daring patrons and practitioners of modernist architecture such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and later the Second World War. After four stultifying decades behind the iron curtain, Brno is still trying to reconnect with the time before the 20th century tore the city apart. It has embarked on an era of fresh-faced design, radical research and political shake-up. Yet it’s still the functionalist architecture and potato dumplings that attract a tiny number of tourists compared with well-trodden Prague.
Located in the fertile Moravian southeast, Brno is closer to Vienna than to the Czech capital, Prague and the city itself is caught halfway between the architectural excesses of the two. It’s a heritage that is clearly on display in Vila Stiassni. Once a private residence and now a museum, the house is an early glimmer of Czech functionalism, a style that shaped Brno’s centre where cinemas, hotels and banks were built with a spare clarity.
Petr Svoboda, director of the Methodical Centre of Modern Architecture in Brno, points out the crisp lines of the villa’s façade and the powder-blue tiles of its swimming pool. “We think the main purpose of this home was to improve the social standing of its owners,” says Svoboda, a monkish acolyte of high modernism, as we admire the view to the city past the heat haze rising from the tennis courts.
The villa was built in 1929 for Alfred Stiassni, a wealthy Jewish textile merchant. It was designed by Ernst Wiesner, a follower of Brno-born and Vienna-based modernist Adolf Loos, who urged architects to strip ornamentation out of their work. Svoboda leads us into the villa’s elaborate interior with its chaise-longues in floral upholstery, cherrywood cupboards and furniture with carved lions’ feet. The contrast between the understated façade and the overblown bedrooms is almost absurd. Svoboda says that a historicist architect was enlisted for the interiors. “We think Stiassni’s wife, Hermine, had the final word.”
The surrounding hillside district of Masaryk is lined with modernist marvels constructed between the wars when this city was the “Manchester of Moravia” and Brno’s industrialists – many of them Jewish or German cotton traders – competed for who could build the best home. As Nazi Germany’s presence in Czechoslovakia grew, wealthier Jewish residents fled and their elegant homes were occupied by German officers and, after liberation, the Red Army. With the war’s end, the city’s German residents were forced on a march to Austria during which thousands perished.
But the war didn’t change everything: the city’s key industry remained arms manufacturing and its leading rifle-maker Zbrojovka Brno was a household name in communist-era Czechoslavakia. It should have been a strong contender to survive the Velvet Revolution but Zbrojovka was bought out and its manufacturing base in Brno diminished. Jaroslav Tabery, vice-manager at Alfa Proj – one of Brno’s last gunmakers – points to several 1930s Zbrojovka machines acquired for use in his factory. “They just couldn’t afford to keep up with innovation,” he says.
With an eye on this history of missed opportunities, Brno has reinvented itself as central Europe’s capital of research and development. There are now 14 universities in the municipal area and 85,000 students. This volume of graduates has caught the attention of big technology companies and the likes of Honeywell, ibm and avg have opened sizeable research divisions. The city is also bringing its design heritage up to speed. Vila Stiassni was renovated in 2014 as a museum and research centre while, across town, Vila Tugendhat is a masterpiece residence designed by Mies van der Rohe that – after two years of restoration with hefty funding from the EU – is a Unesco World Heritage site. “These restoration projects give us an image of prewar society: a nation where Czechs, Germans and Jews lived next to one another,” says Ivan Wahla and Tomas Rusin of Raw Atelier, a Brno-based architecture firm that led the restoration of Tugendhat. “Thanks to the openness of the EU we can again hear European languages on the city’s streets. For us, who lived in a homogenised environment after the war, it is truly refreshing – we see in it a return to Europe.”
Brno’s Zelny Square, restored to life by Raw Atelier in 2015, is emblematic of the change. Take a stroll through the nearby cobbled streets on a Thursday evening – or “little Friday” as the locals call it because so many students head home for the weekend – and you’ll find tables are laden with tankards of Brno’s craft beers and Portuguese, Spanish and German accents mingle with Czech. These newcomers have been joined by café and bar owners who have commissioned architects to turn faded relics into cosy spaces to eat and drink.
“I’ve done 10 cafés in this city in eight years; where else could you do that?” says Martin Hrdina over Moravian wine at Café Tungsram, his first interiors project in Brno. “You can work here in the centre, reconstructing places and digging out what used to be there.” Hrdina worked in the Netherlands before opportunity drew him home. He designed Café Alfa in the restored functionalist shopping centre Alfa Passage, originally by Bohuslav Fuchs, which is also home to a theatre and one of Brno’s first multi-functional buildings.
Design has long been the backbone of Brno; the International Biennial of Graphic Design Brno is one of the oldest graphics exhibitions in the world. In the courtyard of the Moravian Gallery, once the site of an Augustinian monastery but now the country’s second-largest art space, the curators of this year’s Biennial, Radim Pesko and Tomas Celizna, remember a different city. “I used to come to Brno with my grandmother and it was the dirtiest town I’d ever seen,” says Pesko. “The streets were always being repaired but never finished.”
Both Pesko and Celizna are Czech designers working abroad and the care that goes into Brno’s public space, they say, is most striking. Indeed, from the Cabbage Market (a daily organic market that sells far more than cabbages) to the theatres and pedestrianised streets, newness permeates the city. Still, many functionalist masterpieces are stuck in private hands and lying fallow. Both curators say more could be done with Brno’s inherent status as a design city: “It’s misunderstood a bit, not fully recognised for its economic potential,” says Pesko.
The view from the South Moravian Innovation Centre (jic), which helps start-ups get off the ground and connects researchers with entrepreneurs looking for ideas, is quite different. “To retain some entrepreneurial spirit during 40 years of communism was difficult,” says Petr Chladek, regional innovation strategy manager at jic, in a meeting room adorned with portraits of mutton-chopped industrialists. “We are trying to communicate to people that they’ve got a legacy to build on.” jic’s biggest success has been Y Soft, its first client, which makes software for print companies and employs 300 people worldwide. A third of the world’s electron microscopes are manufactured in Brno, Chladek says, as an example of how specialist research is powering the economy.
Operations such as jic, which receives about half its budget from the regional government, are trying to kickstart a long-suppressed entrepreneurial spirit; others stress that a sense of community also needs to be nurtured. That’s the feeling in Kamenna Kolonie, a tight patchwork of bungalows overlooking the Svratka River. Built in the 1920s by miners, Kamenna’s cheap rents and close-knit layout attracted artists and writers in the 1960s and a commune atmosphere developed amid its narrow streets. The rents may be higher these days but Kamenna is still populated by creative types and the beer garden of the Duck Bar is packed at the weekend with cyclists who make the ride from town.
“Maybe it’s the slivovice [plum brandy] but people are more frank here,” says Kamila Hurnik-Zachrle, who ran Sixty Stone Space, a gallery and minuscule bistro in Kamenna, for several years. She sees in its close-knit urbanism an essential character of the city that was muffled by communist rule. Every year she organises a hody feast, when people dust off their traditional Moravian dress and food is served from residents’ gardens.
The rapid change sweeping the city has even produced a new political party, Zit Brno. The group started by satirising a political elite that seemed to still hark back to the “wild 1990s” corruption of post-communist Europe. Zit Brno’s biggest vote came from the city centre, where Martin Landa is now district mayor. When we meet he’s flushed after exercising a recently reintroduced right to cycle in Brno 1. “We want to give back to people the feeling that they have influence in this city,” he says.
The lack of tourists in Brno has kept the price of Moravian beer low and the restaurants beholden to no-nonsense locals. But Landa acknowledges that the second city’s design acumen could attract discerning travellers: “Tourism is the thing that can make this place flourish.”
The idea to rename Czech Republic as the snappier if less authoritarian-sounding Czechia arouses mixed feelings in Brno. Though many would like a shorter name for their country, that Czechia refers only to anglicised Cechy – the Czech word for the Bohemian region where the capital Prague is – sits uneasily with some proud Moravians. One political party in the region has called the proposal an “unconstitutional attack” on Moravian identity, preferring Czechomoravia. Just don’t tell the Silesians.
Grandezza Hotel: This cheerily genteel hotel captures a little of the city’s Baroque past with its corridors and a stained-glass skylight in the lobby. Bedrooms overlook central Zelny Square and its market, with the added bonus of views towards the beautiful Cathedral of Saint Peter and Paul.
314/2 Zelny trh
+420 542 106 010
Era Café: This preserved bistro is a fine example of late-1920s functionalist design by Josef Kranz, who took inspiration from the Netherlands’ De Stijl movement with his use of vivid interiors and a blue helix staircase. The restaurant and gallery serves hearty Czech lunches in its easy-on-the-eye dining rooms and on a leafy roof terrace.
+420 734 793 029
Simplé: A bright family-run spot with a kitchen headed by chef Lukas Necas, who works with ingredients sourced from nearby farms and livestock. A good place to pair a well-chosen Moravian red with Czech wild boar, if you’re so inclined.
+420 530 319 645
Bar, Ktery Neexistuje: Dreamt up by Jan Vlachynsky and Andrej Valis while on an extended working holiday in Alaska, Bar, Ktery Neexistuje (This Bar Doesn’t Exist) set out to be the kind of cocktail spot that Brno needed: dapper bartenders, a menu drawn up by seasoned bartenders and several tall, intimidating columns of select tipples behind the counter. It’s all done with Moravia’s characteristic lack of pretension and has a fond following among expats.
+420 734 878 602
Café Tungsram: This is one of a new breed of cafés that expressly nods to Brno’s illustrious design history. It packs in patrons keen on the idea of a long afternoon on the cobbles off Zelny Square.
7/351 Kapucinske namesti
+420 603 444 754
Moravian wine: Pick up a bottle from Marinada, a delicious deli, café and craft-products shop with a nose for the region’s best vineyards.
15 Jiraskova trída
+420 775 111 107
Tram: Brno’s network has been in service since 1884 and has since surged to include 13 efficient lines across the city. A crosstown ticket costs less than a euro from newsstands or machines at select stops.
Moravian Gallery: This gallery covers contemporary art and urbanism as well as hosting the Brno Biennial, one of the world’s oldest graphic-design exhibitions. Each of the gallery’s venues is a record of an architectural moment in Brno’s history, and its art nouveau Vila Jurkovic just outside the centre is also worth the trip.
Spilberk Park: Once the location of Austria-Hungary’s most dreaded prison, this park has since become a peaceful escape on the edge of the city centre. It’s a gentle uphill stroll to the castle, which now houses the Brno City Museum.
The leafy route alongside the Svratka River spans the breadth of the city and crosses the Riviera lidos near Brno’s exhibition grounds, where several leading architects built pavilions in the interwar period.
Functionalist architecture: The city centre’s architectural heritage can easily blend in unless you have a keen eye for its functionalist past. The excellent Brno Architectural Manual’s mapped walks in Brno 1 include outstanding examples of the movement.
Vila Tugendhat: Unesco World Heritage status for Mies van der Rohe’s design means there’s a two-month waiting list for a tour of the interior. Still, it’s worth the wait for the north African onyx and breathtakingly sharp lines in the living room.
+420 515 511 015
The Glass Room: A thinly veiled take on the lives of Vila Tugendhat’s inhabitants, Simon Mawer’s novel is an essential insight into the glamour of Brno in the 1920s and 1930s. With names and details altered, it describes the overwhelming loss felt by Brno’s wealthy residents and design patrons who had to flee with the onset of the Second World War.