Martin Rajniš – from ‘70s high tech to a building “for an ice queen” on Sněžka

Martin Rajniš is a renowned Czech architect, who along with Johnny Eisler and Miroslav Masák, authored the famous Máj building (now Tesco) in the centre of Prague. Designed in the high tech style Máj was one of Czechoslovakia’s first department stores and is now a cultural heritage site. But that is only one of the architect’s achievements: in the 1990s after the fall of Communism, he was involved in the extensive redesigning of the area around Anděl in Prague’s Smíchov district. Since, the architect has also concentrated more and more on designs using natural materials – especially wood – in newer projects, including an acclaimed building on the Czech Republic’s highest peak, Sněžka.

Martin Rajniš, photo: CTKMartin Rajniš, photo: CTK Martin Rajniš discussed those projects as well as the philosophy behind his work when I met him at his Prague studio this week. The first thing I asked about was what life was like for him and fellow architects in the Communist 1970s.

“Around us was one of the worst political systems in Europe – Socialism following the occupation of 1968 by the Soviet army. Even so, we managed to live in a very free way. These were some of the best people of our generation and I had the wonderful luck to see some of best friends at work, which is one of the best things for an architect. The problem under Communism was that we prepared many projects but only very few were ever realised.

“But one of those which was built was the Máj department store. We were very young: Johnny Eisler and I were not yet even 30, while Mr Masák was ten years older. When we won the competition the chief architectural office and preservation board and other authorities were really a little pissed off! We tried to do it in a simple, modern, and functionalistic way. It was one of the buildings of the 1970s which really ‘worked’. It was not socialistic architecture it was a normal international style. Nowadays, of course, it looks a little bit old. When I see it and when I see myself I say oh Christ! It has been more than 30, 35 years. So I think there is a possibility that it could see some renovation. Okay, we’ll see what happens.”

You mentioned that your community – within its confines - managed to live fairly freely under Communism. What was it like communicating with architects abroad?

Martin Rajniš, photo: CTKMartin Rajniš, photo: CTK “In those times communication and being abroad were a problem. But I received an offer and we had a chance to work abroad on a big exhibition and I did that for seven years. There existed a state company called Art Centrum which gave a chance to different authors, sculptors, painters to export work abroad. It was not easy but it worked. I was able to save enough money that I began convincing friends we should open a private business in architecture. They said ‘Martin, they’ll send you to jail!’. My thoughts were that it was better to approach the problem in a Napoleonic way: to fight and then see. In any case, the Velvet Revolution came. At just the right time.”

1989 paved the way for many new projects in Prague: how would you describe those years?

“Within a few years we were in the middle of big business. We had the chance to design a part of the new city and we tried to do it in a very normal and natural way. The first step was what to do with this bloody big tunnel that had been planned under Strahov Hill. In the first plans there was a big highway junction and no city anymore. It was a typical Communist solution. And we said ‘okay, this is impossible!’ And we tried and we had the tunnel pushed into a U-form to push it back and the city ‘survived’. The next step was what to do with the city. When the city is not devastated by transportation, by bridges and junctions, then starts the question what the new city can look like. When you see Smíchov now you can see 40 buildings by various architects and what you see is a living city. Like parts of Berlin, or modern Paris, or Brussels. Just for different buildings.”

As an architect obviously the philosophy of the building is very important for you; what materials do you get a particular enjoyment out of using?

“Very simple: more and more our philosophy is to be closer to nature and more and more to use natural materials: wood, stone, and glass. Step by step its more and more important for us how to bring architecture and structure of buildings and the city and feeling back to nature. Human beings are a part of nature and they are connected at a million points: not just personally but through their homes and gardens. It’s a way how to organise their space.”

One of your most recent projects which has gotten a lot of attention and a lot of positive reaction is the post office on Sněžka Mountain. How would you describe that structure?

“It’s like a small box that is not a building ‘for eternity’. When the weather is good the whole building is open and you have marvellous views around you. You feel like you are in an airplane. In the winter it all closes up and you feel like you are in a box for cigars!”

In the summer the wooden slats open up and in the winter they shutter up: but the aspect that I like it how it all freezes over.

“Yes of course. You know, Sněžka is not very high: only 1,600 metres or so. But the weather there is very rough and windy, with a lot of fog and water in the air. That means that freezing ice sometimes is over half a metre. This is another way how nature can change a building! Within a few hours the wooden box changes into a fantastic ‘ice box’ for an ice queen from a fairy tale. But just a bit of sun can change things in 20 minutes. THIS is what I like! In the case of this small building on the summit, Nature is the major player. The building itself is only part of a broader orchestra!”