Exhibition marks 40 years in the life of Prague’s biggest housing estate


It is exactly forty years since the first inhabitants started moving into the Czech Republic’s biggest housing estate, Jižní Město in the south of Prague. The local Chodovská tvrz gallery is marking this anniversary with an exhibition dedicated to the history of the district and to the everyday life of its inhabitants. Called Jižní město: From Utopia to Reality, it features large-scale models of the prefabricated houses, audio recordings, as well as art objects reflecting life at the so-called “Jižák”.

Jižní město, photo: Barbora NěmcováJižní město, photo: Barbora Němcová I met with the exhibition’s curator Jiří Sulženko and I first asked him what the title of the exhibition refers to:

“In the 1960s, when Czechoslovakia had progressive minds, and quite open environment for a while, architect Lasovský but also his predecessors who took part in the competition for urbanism of Jižní Město brought in some utopian ideas of a modernist city that would be almost self-sustainable, with separate lines for traffic and pedestrians, zones for living and working.

“However, these ideas had not been fully realised and they also don’t really work from today’s point of view. We wanted to show how these original ideas of architects and urbanists had been transformed into reality of everyday life. That was the main idea behind the exhibition.”

So how did the reality differ from the original plans?

“First of all Jižní Město is the second biggest housing estate in Czechoslovakia and the biggest in the Czech Republic. There were so many organisational and financial problems that the first ideas the bold and multi-layered ideas had to be cut down due t to economic reasons.

“Nowadays we can see that Jižní Město is really a place to live in, not just a set of houses and streets, and it was made this way thanks to the people and who live there.

“One of the beautiful examples of that is the Central Park in Jižní Město was originally designed by Magdalena Jetelová and her ideas were also very bold. She wanted to create a park for enlightenment of the soul, with underground greenhouses and huge meeting places that would produce green groceries for the city, which was of course unfeasible.

“Nowadays you can see small community gardens in the courtyards of Jižní Město, which are much more humble and much more community based. However, the general idea has been implemented, although through very different means.”

“We wanted to show how the original ideas of architects and urbanists have been transformed into reality of everyday life.”

So what were the biggest problems the residents faced when they moved to Jižní Město in the 1970s?

“Actually we have one recording in the exhibition which expresses all the troubles the builders and planners have faced when building the previous block of flats and the idea was to avoid these, but they didn’t manage. The trouble was that while the houses were already built there were no public facilities or even shops and pavements, when the first inhabitants moved in.

“So there are funny stories about travelling through the mud with prams full of kids, finding a way to reach the bus stop. So the equipment, the public space and all the services had not been there and they were only available several years after the first people moved in.”

This is actually captured really well in the film by Věra Chytilová, Panel Story...

“Yes, for me, that movie is really depressing. Not only in the way it pictures the city, but also in how it pictures the relationships. However, since then, the place has changed completely and we wanted to show that the quality of the public space and the quality of living but also the personal stories behind the walls and relationships that have developed really helped immensely to change the image of these places.

Jiří Sulženko, photo: archive of Czech RadioJiří Sulženko, photo: archive of Czech Radio “Nowadays there is already second or third generation of inhabitants who really feel at home there and who like these places and somehow of course these places have become in a way a good address.”

In fact in the 1990s many experts predicted that Jižní Město could become kind of a ghetto, with young generations moving out, but that never happened…

“This never happened and I think it is due to a combination of a good connection to the city and forests and greenery close by, and all schools and kindergartens and leisure activities. So we can say that the investments in the public services maintained the quality of the space.”

Jižní město is also known for having a lot of statues and other artefacts in the public space. In fact there was a requirement that two to four percent of the costs of the constructions works should be spent on art in public space

“We have cooperated on the exhibition with architect and sculptor Pavel Karous who is an expert on art in public space in the Normalisation period. Seven years ago, when we started working together, he made the first map of statues and art pieces in the public space of Jižní Město and he found and located 65 items. So the district is in fact is one of the biggest open-air museums and the statues are mostly still in place and in quite good shape.

“The district is in fact is one of the biggest open-air lapidariums and the statues are mostly still in place and in quite a good shape.”

“Most of the statues are connected with the Communist regime, but some of them are by then young designers, such as Čestmír Suška or Jaroslav Róna, who somehow managed to sneak in the system and place their first art pieces in the public space.”

Part of your exhibition is actually dedicated to artists who somehow reflected the life at Jižní Město in their works…

“Some of them lived there or live there still. We are honoured that we can show some paintings by Josef Bolf for example. We also have a wonderful picture from the 1950’s called Madona of Chodov, a rather naive representation of the beautiful space before the housing estate was built there.

“We have documentary pictures by Sylva Francová, who has been documenting the changes in the city. So it shows that this place has a strong image and a strong genius loci and that it has always been reflected by sensitive people.”

Are there any initiatives to preserve the unique atmosphere of the place?

“With the emphasis on energy efficiency, a lot of buildings are covered with insulation. I am not against insulation, but the buildings lose the original colours and the typical divisions between the panels. There are no rules about colours or decorations and with all the salmon, pink and greenish colours it totally opposes the original idea brought in by the urbanists and architects.

“One of the strongest points of our exhibition is the graphic design by Jiří Rathouský and its application by architects. The city is now losing it and it is hard to sustain at least the street signs on the buildings with their specific fonts and colours that make the place so unique.”

Jižní Město, photo: Hynek Moravec, CC BY 3.0Jižní Město, photo: Hynek Moravec, CC BY 3.0 Finally, what do you think are the biggest challenges that the district is facing in the future?

“From an outside point of view I would say there are two main things: one is to foster the community, to foster the relationships of the local people. As we said, Jižní Město is very interesting in terms of real estate development and the local government has always been under a lot of pressure to balance investments and public space development, so I would say these are the biggest challenges.”