The Mánes Exhibition Hall – an icon of functionalist architecture

The functionalist Mánes Exhibition Hall, located on the right bank of the Vltava river between the bridges Jiraskův most and Most Legií, is one of only two buildings in Prague that were expressly designed to house art – the other one being the famous Rudolfinum gallery. Martin Pavala, the chairman of the supervisory board of the Czech Art Foundation, which owns it, explains that the art gallery’s history started in 1930.

“It was built by a very well-known, well-established, important and influential group of artists, the Mánes Union of Fine Arts, which also gave the building its name. Colloquially, they were referred to as the ‘Mánesáci’ and they had been trying to get their own exhibition space for years. They were very active, also internationally. It was thanks to them that such important French modern artists as Auguste Rodin exhibited in Prague.”

However influential and impressive this group was –its members included Emil Filla and Josef Čapek, as well as such international art stars at Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali – getting their own exhibition space was still a battle.

“But finally, due to their prestigious reputation, they were able to secure this piece of land, on which at that time, the old Štítkovský Mill was located. Still, they had to wait a few more years, because a decision on the construction of Jiráskův Most was still pending, and one of the possibilities was for the bridge to be built in this location, near Myslíková street. Once the decision to install the bridge a few streets up was made, the mill was destroyed and this building was built on this site, by architect Otakar Novotný, a long-time member of Mánes and at that time, its chairman. What he created has become an icon of functionalist architecture.”

Martin PavalaMartin Pavala The Mánes Exhibition Hall is indeed a very unusual structure – a minimalist white block with large square windows and distinctive green neon signs that read Mánes. The original water tower of the old Štítkovský mill, which has been preserved, provides an interesting counterpoint to the modern building.

“Even by today’s standards, this is a very inspiring example of modern architecture, of a fascinating and ingenious merging of modern architecture with the historic buildings here in the center of Prague. Down to the details: This modern structure, very unusual for its time, perfectly complements the original tower of the mill, which has been preserved and has become an integral part of the whole. The horizontal line of the Mánes building and the vertical line of the tower are a perfect combination, to this day.”

It is built on a bridge between the river bank and Slovanský island, better known as Žofín. In its heyday, the Mánes hall’s terraces on the island and its garden restaurant drew many visitors. During a renovation in the late 1970s, however, the building was cut off from the island.

Aside from housing a gallery and a restaurant, the exhibition hall was at one point also the home of a car dealership, a wine store and a newsagent’s – which eased the financial troubles that the Mánes group faced after its construction. Among the main supporters of the ambitious and expensive project was none other than Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia.

“President Masaryk was a great supporter of the Mánes hall and even one of its biggest sponsors. The Mánes group did not have their own budget, and the budget to build this exhibition space was huge, something like 7 million crowns, an astronomical sum at that time. In the end, it was even more expensive, 10 million crowns. This was financed by sponsors’ donations, and I believe President Masaryk contributed 200,000 crowns. And the first event to take place here was a celebration of his 80th birthday, which we have photographs of.”

But even with generous donations from sponsors and the rent from businesses that it housed, it wasn’t long before the Mánes Exhibition Hall was threatened by bankruptcy. Ironically, the arrival of the communist regime may be what saved the Mánes Union of the Fine Arts from financial ruin. It was dissolved and replaced by the communist-approved Union of Czechoslovak Artists. Most of its members remained the same, however, and Mr. Pavala is quick to point out that the group’s history during communism was rather ambiguous and full of paradoxes. In general, he says, paradoxes pervade the building’s history.

“If we look back at the past, its history has always been a paradoxical one, even its creation was very controversial. The Štítkovský Mill, which had to be torn down to make space for it, was an important monument of old Prague. It is simply unthinkable that Meda Mládková, who runs the Kampa museum, today could just decide to demolish the Kampa mills and build a modern art gallery there.”

Another ironic anecdote connected to the functionalist art space involves the late president Václav Havel, who once called the white box-like structure his favorite building in Prague.

“One of the nicest paradoxes about Mánes is of course the story of Havel, who lived across the street. He said that Mánes was his favorite building in Prague. After the revolution, it became known that the StB, the secret police, had set up a surveillance post in the water tower next to Mánes, from where they could monitor Mr. Havel and look right into his windows.”

'Play''Play' In the heady days of the Velvet Revolution, Mánes became a meeting place for the Civic Forum, which used it as a facility to print flyers and other propagation materials. Since then, the modern exhibition hall has hosted countless interesting art shows and brought the works of world-renowned photographers such as Antonín Kratochvíl to Prague. Petr Nikl’s interactive “Play” exhibition drew a record number of 50,000 visitors in 2010. It also hosts the international contemporary art fair Art Prague and Prague Photo, an international photography festival.

Starting in March, the iconic functionalist gallery will undergo a renovation that should restore it to what it once was – a gem of functionalist architecture in every sense of the word. Martin Pavala explains:

“The main principle of functionalism is that the building expresses its inner function through its outward shape. This principle is to a large degree compulsory, because as soon as the inner function changes, the building stops functioning, and that is exactly what happened here in the Mánes exhibition hall. The original function was for it to be a gallery, but today, it can no longer perform this function well, due its poor technological equipment. We can’t exhibit anything here without concern, and certainly no valuable artworks, because no insurance company would cover them in this environment.”

Planned changes during the 150-million-crown renovation include modern air conditioning, which will provide better humidity and temperature control and enable the gallery to exhibit loaned artworks. In addition, the building will be reconnected to Slovanský Island. A new café with an outdoor terrace and a spectacular view of the city from the river is promising to become a hotspot not just for art lovers. Mánes’ lower level will be turned into a multipurpose space for film screenings, lectures, concerts and more. The renovation is due to be completed in 2013; the venue will reopen by the fall of next year. Ahead of closing down for the renovation, Mánes will be auctioning off some of its artwork and the gallery’s operators are also hosting a benefit concert in March.