If Prague's Veletrzni Palac or Trade Fair Palace didn't house the modern art collection of the National Gallery, most of us would probably not notice the large building that stands just a few metres away from the city's exhibition complex. But the Palace is one of Prague's earliest and largest buildings in the Functionalist style.
In the early 1920s, the Prague Sample Trade Fair Association commissioned the renowned architects Josef Fuchs and Oldrich Tyl to design the massive structure. It was built over three years - from 1925 to 1928.
"If you ask me what the nicest view of the building is from outside, I would say it's definitely from the front street, Dukelskych Hrdinu, because the building in fact has two basic volumes, which are somehow brought together. It stands on the corner, and the part facing Veletrzni Street is slightly taller and has traditional windows, while the part facing Dukelskych Hrdinu has big ribbon windows, which are a badge from the modern movement. At that time it was the biggest modern movement building in the Czech Republic and maybe even in Europe because it's a very early example of this style."
...says architect Michal Kohout. It's not just the exterior of the Trade Fair Palace that impresses, but also its wide and open spaces inside. It is gigantic with eight upper and two lower floors. The entrance hall is lined with galleries that rise up to all levels; the space below used to be a cinema hall that took up two floors. There was also a café and restaurant on the upper floor, which had an observation gallery that offered a beautiful view over Prague.
"Actually, the nicest part of the building is the interior. There are two main spaces - the so-called big yard and the small yard. The small yard is actually higher than the big yard. It is considered to be one of the most elegant spaces of the Czech modern movement. When the building served as a trade fair palace, the big yard was meant to exhibit heavy machinery like locomotives, cars and such things, and the small yard was where the offices were concentrated."
As one of the first functionalist buildings in Europe, Prague's Veletrzni Palac or Trade Fair Palace did not go unnoticed by foreign architects. A comment made by one of the great pioneers of modern architecture, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who visited the building in 1928, even sparked off heated debate on style and art versus rational and scientific functionalism:
"Le Corbusier took the stand that architecture is still an art and that the technical point of view is just one aspect of the trade. There was a famous polemic that this building started. Le Corbusier - the founder of the language of the modern movement - was travelling via Prague to Moscow, where he was designing the Centrosoyus headquarters. He saw the building and commented that it was a very interesting building but not yet architecture. That started a polemic because the Czech architecture critic Karel Teige wrote an article about Le Corbusier's designs for the Mundaneum, which had a pyramidal shape. He wrote that Le Corbusier was not being true to his own principles that design should be the result of engineering processes."
The palace first served as a venue for trade fairs and later also housed a number of foreign businesses. But on August 14, 1974, a fire broke out, destroying much of it. With hundreds of millions of crowns worth of damage, it was too costly to rebuild the palace. While there was discussion and heated debate on its future, it stood empty for two decades - there was even talk of tearing it down, until it came into the hands of the National Gallery, which was looking for space to exhibit its modern art collection. Some of the country's finest architects (Otakar Binar, John Eisler, Karel Hubacek, Miroslav Masak, and Emil Prikryl were among them) helped to give the building back its original appearance. The one billion crown renovation lasted for almost an entire decade. It was not until December 13, 1995, that it was officially opened. The ceremony was attended by then Czech President Vaclav Havel and then Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus (today's president).
Today, the Trade Fair Palace is the National Gallery's Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art. Works by some of the world's best known artists of the last two centuries including Delacroix, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse, Schiele, Klimt, Munch, Picasso, and Warhol can be admired in the permanent exhibition of 19th, 20th, and 21st century art. Over 2,000 exhibits, varying from architecture, furniture, fashion, design, photographs, and paintings, are on show on a 13,500 square metre area. All it needs now is a bit of colour, says architect Michal Kohout:
"It has definitely changed. But what I think is most important is the impression that it gives. The building was meant to be a 'shell' for trade fairs. When you look at period photographs, you see that it used to be full of commercials, signs, objects that were being exhibited - and all in a very colourful way. But these days it is used as a gallery; the walls are painted white and there is white terrazzo on the floor. To me, it looks like a fossil, as if the living animal is no longer there."
But the National Gallery has been trying to bring more life into the building. The palace is just one of seven exhibition spaces but it attracts more than a third of the Gallery's visitors, exceeding 112,000 last year. The building also serves as a venue for concerts, conferences, trade fairs, and other large events varying from the biggest auto-show in the country to a Christian Dior fashion show.
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