Yugoslav-born Vlado Milunic is one of the most respected architects based in the Czech Republic, whose work includes a well-known and remarkably quirky and playful housing estate in Petriny, a Prague district, and the world-class Dancing House on the banks of the Vltava River, which he collaborated on with renowned architect Frank Gehry. In our interview Vlado Milunic talks about his views on architecture and the Dancing House, as well as the mystique the city of Prague has held for him ever since he first arrived at the age of just sixteen.
"Yeah, it's perfect. One part of my family came from Dresden, Germany, so I used to say that I was half way between Dresden and the Mediterranean. Prague for me was a big advantage because it is so architecturally mixed by the Italian architects - the influence of the South, as well as the influence of the North. A unique exception because Prague in some way is similar to Rome but that city has just the southern influence. Prague is better because it's a mix of different cultures, a city of the Jewish, German, and Slav cultures, that's perfect."
In the 1990s, in the emerging Czech Republic, you collaborated with Frank Gehry on the Dancing House, which has become one of Prague's most notable buildings. I wanted to ask you what that project was like.
"In 1990 I got the original idea and I was contacted by my friend Paul Koch, who was a representative of the Dutch company National-Nederlanden. And, he liked my project but we decided that we would not be able to receive all the necessary approvals. We decided to associate with another architect, someone known with 'authority', who would help approve this project. The first architect we tried was Jean Nouvel, but he refused this collaboration because he said that 500 square metres was too small for two architects. And, in '92 with Paul Koch we visited Frank Gehry in Geneva. When he saw my first sketches Frank accepted the idea of having two different parts."
"I wanted the building to reflect the situation of the Czechoslovak society during the Velvet Revolution. Two parts. Like a society that forgot its totalitarian past - a static part - and a society that forgot its totalitarian past but was moving into a world full of changes. That was the main idea. Two different parts in dialogue, in tension, like plus and minus, like Yang and Yin, like man and woman."
The building became known as the Dancing House, but it also has the nickname of "Ginger & Fred", after Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. How did that nickname come about?
"That was Frank's idea, but shortly after he grew afraid he had imported to Prague something of Hollywood 'kitsch'. But, it's not true. In America and abroad it's known as Ginger & Fred, but it's the same in the same, it's two towers."
How important was the actual location of the building for you, the fact that it's on the bank of the Vltava, and that it was next to a building where you yourself lived for many years, neighbours with former dissident - and later president - Vaclav Havel?
"For the investor, for example, it was a very good location. The idea came from the fact that I had lived next door in property belonging to the Havel family. Havel, in '86, had asked me to make a division on their property for him and his brother Ivan. At this time Vaclav was also often in prison and a visual joke of dividing the space in his living room, his working space, with a grill of bars. Close to the grill I placed a modest bed so that Vaclav wouldn't get such a shock from changing so often between prison and home. The first interview he gave the BBC was Havel seen at his working place through this grill."
"But, at this time with Havel we discussed a dream about the 'next door house', we dreamed to make a building full of culture. In the end it turned out differently, it's an office building, but we had to make a choice: either we don't build it at all, or, that we make it as an office building. That was the better solution and we said maybe in the future we could find an investor who wanted to invest in art, in artistic activities."
As an architect what elements are important for you to incorporate into your work?
"The Dancing House was a very, very nice collaboration, a very nice relationship with Frank Gehry. But, at the same time [I was driven by something else]: I wanted to change existing socialist 'panelak' urbanism..."
The pre-fabricated style of apartments that were built under the Communists...
"It's terrible because Prague is the most beautiful city in the world but 40 percent of the people live in these ugly 'panelak blocs' outside the city centre. For me that was more important than a project like the Dancing House. To change these ugly, orthogonal, urban structures with stupid panelak, this was a more difficult task. I began dealing with it in Petriny, in Prague 6."
How did you actually tackle the problem? I have seen the buildings in Petriny and I know that first-off you break away from the typical shape of your typical panelak building, and there are many other elements. Could you describe just some of the elements that you applied in Petriny?
"The city must also have some secret: originally panalaks were only sample boxes without detail, without colour, without any idea, everything visible on the first view. Now, I like the Mediterranean cities because in one way they are compact and full of mystery. They have very small streets and going down them I await at every corner, every angle, some surprise. I wanted to put some of the influence of the Mediterranean [into the Petriny project], using colour, and using different details."
What is an idea that you would like to 'instil' in students of architecture today?
"Mainly, to show that 'minimalism' is the mainstream. In my view minimalism is not enough. It is not enough to reflect the complexity of life."