Panorama Cottage industry: photographing the dreamy, maniacal history of the Czech 'chata'

15-09-2005 16:25 | Brian Kenety

The Czech obsession with getting away for the weekend to the family cottage in the countryside or cabin in the mountains began to take root in the 1920s and reached a fever pitch in the final decades of communist rule. Escaping to one's own 'chata' -- a simple cottage, typically located next to a forest or river and built from scratch by the family without professional help -- was, for many, a vital reprieve not just from cramped apartment life, but from collective society. Today, the Czechs boast the highest per capita number of weekend houses in Europe: Sculptor, painter and award-winning photographer Veronika Zapletalova has spent three years travelling the country documenting chatas -- what she calls the "sculpture of people's dreams."

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Veronika ZapletalovaVeronika Zapletalova "I'm a sculptor, painter --I'm not [originally] a photographer-- so I spent several years walking around and thinking how to actually 'catch' the pictures. And I decided to 'sculpt' by camera, it means to take photos of houses as sculptures."

Veronika Zapletalova's installation 'Chatarstvi' is a collection of photographs of the 500 most interesting Czech cottages she has documented over the years. She sees chatas as artefacts; each one says something about its owner, and the time and probable circumstances under which the family lived. Unlike 'chalupas' -old village farmhouses that are also make extremely popular second homes - chatas reveal the dreams of their owners, for they were built "only for happiness," for recreation.

Part of Zapletalova's 'Chatarstvi' installationPart of Zapletalova's 'Chatarstvi' installation "And the very beginning was asking a club of Czech tourists for maps they published - tourist maps. I got a hundred maps of Czech Republic and I made a mark wherever 'chata' was written. And every 'chata' means a chata colony. There are hundreds and thousands of them, and I just couldn't photograph them all because it's just not psychically possible."

"And I spent three or four years walking around, let's say three days weekly, during the week -- in the summer and spring, because of the light - actually, systematically all around the Czech Republic, photographing those chatas."

Totems were popular in chata colonies of the 20sTotems were popular in chata colonies of the 20s Owning a chata, a cottage in the countryside, was popular long before the communist putsch in 1948. Colonies of simple wooden Chatas, built to look like log cabins, began to appear in Czechoslovakia as early as the 1920s, especially in areas popular with 'trampove' - self proclaimed Czechs 'tramps' with a romantic vision of the American 'Wild West.' For these true pioneers of the back-to-nature movement, the sporting life centred around volleyball and canoeing, while many such colonies built communal fire pits and erected totem polls inspired by Native Americans.

"The first Czech 'chatas' were in the beginning of the twenties and there are two main kinds. Some were built under the influence of American Indians and cowboys - actually, thanks to the new films that came from the United States about American Indians and cowboys. So then all the Czech 'Marie' and 'Marusky' became 'Marys' and all the Czech 'Janove' and 'Honzove' became 'Johns' and so on. I think we had more 'sheriffs' and 'cowboys' than all the United States together.

A First Republic, functionalist style chataA First Republic, functionalist style chata Many more substantial summer homes were being built that looked for inspiration from great architects of the First Republic like Josef Gocar and Jan Kotera. The countryside around the town of Hradec Kralove, says Veronika Zapletalova, in particular has some striking examples - they are colourful vilas, really, with terraces, verandas, but everything is on a minute scale.

According to the study, "The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation: National Identity and Post-Communist Social Transformation," by the social anthropologist Ladislav Holy, the trend of mass ownership of weekend dwellings - in effect, 'folk architecture' - only began to really take off from the 1950s on. The period of "normalisation," the hard-line rule that followed Alexander Dubcek's famous liberalisation with the aim of introducing "Socialism with a human face," saw tremendous growth -- their numbers nearly trebled from 1968 to the collapse of communism.

Beer barrels and industrial vats are often converted into cottagesBeer barrels and industrial vats are often converted into cottages The weekend migration of city dwellers from the new, but cramped quarters of the prefabricated socialist blocks of flats, known as panelaks, was a national phenomenon that continues to this day.

"They had to stay in the panel houses [apartment blocs], which were ugly, they couldn't realize themselves through work... During communism, it was really true that during Friday lunch, everyone disappeared, and everyone came back on Sunday night. It definitely had something to do with the impossibility to travel..."

In communist times, foreign travel permits were largely restricted for holidays to fellow socialist countries, and apart from the occasional summer on the Bulgarian coast, Czech families were obliged to relax close to home - helping giving rise to the massive tradition of weekend living, and do-it-yourself construction.

A garden house is not a true chataA garden house is not a true chata Although spending time at these cottages initially signalled an escape from the collective life of public spaces, says Prague-based sociologist Dr Vanda Thorne, ironically, it gradually developed into yet another mass activity. According to one analysis made in the early 1980s, she writes, on average people were spending 100 to 120 days a year at their weekend houses - often in very close quarters.

"Then another page shows the influence of the Czech socialist period, where people lose contact with the landscape, somehow..."

As we flip through her Chatarstvi installation catalogue, artist Veronika Zapletalova pauses to explain what, in her mind, makes each of the 500 cottages - and by extension, their owners -- unique. In some cases, it's the materials - a number of them have been made from old buses or houseboats, beer barrels and discarded chemical vats. Some garden houses, which are not, strictly speaking, chatas, but were included because of the ingenuity that went into building them, were made out of pickle jars.

No. 24 in the series of 500 photographsNo. 24 in the series of 500 photographs " ... and this is very interesting -- people don't live there; they just plant their flowers and herbs -- but the material is very interesting and the shapes are very interesting too. So I found them to be like sculptures, really."

But it is not just the materials that make each chata unique, she says. They also reveal something about the amateur builder's sense of beauty, she says, and dreams.

"All the houses, actually, I found as the sculpture of people's dreams. The places they built - the function of those houses was only the happiness of the people... They have their flats in town, so those [chatas] are places only for weekends, to spend their happiness."

People use all kinds of materials to make themPeople use all kinds of materials to make them "They combine very strange materials, and I am asking myself why they are using those materials, some of it is necessity - I mean, they have it already or could find it -- and some is just what people find beautiful. And I am asking myself why [they think] this is beautiful, under which influence: political, social, historical, psychiatric." [laughs]

RP: I don't find beautiful, THIS one. [laughs]

"Me -- after a while, I find some special beauty in it. After knowing more and more, I found beautiful... things which I wouldn't think about them before."

RP: I should describe this chata. It couldn't be simpler; it's a concrete box, and we can only see one window. It almost looks like someone carved out a section of a panelak [bloc of flats] and dropped it in the middle of the countryside. What does this one -- No. 24 [in the catalogue] -- say about this person's dreams?

"Well... This one is for me a symbol of Socialistic architecture. It's from close to Ostrava, which is an industrial region. So for me it was very interesting how people from very industrial places - where they put their summer houses, and how they actually create them."

Today, an estimated one out of seven Czechs owns a weekend house. Veronika Zapletalova's installation, which is now touring Slovenia and has been shown in Prague, Argentina, Brazil, New York and London, offers a rare glimpse into their shared history.

To learn more about the artist or the Chatarstvi project, please see www.zapletalova.com/

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