Uphill from Karlovy Vary’s famous colonnade with its lavish, pastel-colored buildings, a little off the beaten track in the city’s Westend neighborhood, visitors to the West Bohemian spa town can find a great example of stunning early 20th century architecture: the Becher Villa. Built by Gustav Becher, a member of the famous Becher family, probably best known for founding the Becherovka distillery, the villa went through many changes in its nearly 100-year history.
It is hard to imagine that the villa, now fully reconstructed, was at one point completely run-down and was not accessible to the public for over 20 years. Restored to its former glory, it was re-opened to the public in July 2010, and now houses an interactive gallery and several workspaces for artists. I spoke to Jan Samec, the director of both the Becher Villa and Karlovy Vary’s art gallery Gallerie Umění, about who originally built the villa.
“It was Gustav Becher, a member of a very well-known family in Karlovy Vary. Many members of this family were doctors, pharmacists, city councilors and even mayors, and worked in other important professions. Gustav Becher at one point took over the well-known liquor company from his father, but in 1901, he signed it over to his step-brothers, because he got married. At the age of 64 he got married to a 24-year-old, and I think it was because she did not like living in the house where he was born, on the colonnade, that he decided to build this villa, in the new, mundane Westend neighborhood.”
Westend is a villa neighborhood full of great estates that were built during the city’s heyday, and the Becher Villa provides an interesting insight into the style of architecture that was popular before the First World War. To impress his young wife, Gustav Becher decided to design the house according to what was the height of fashion at the time.
“I assume that he had this villa built mostly because of her. It can be described as having in essence a Palladian style, with an atrium in the middle, the way that style of architecture was adopted in Victorian England. At the time, it was even called “Englisch Haus” and since it was built right before the First World War, there was some influence of the Secession style, and also, but rather as a consequence of the reconstruction, elements of art-deco could be found here some eight to ten years later.”
However, Gustav Becher himself died in 1921. Since then, the villa changed hands several times, and its owners were not always respectful of the building. Jan Samec briefly sums up the history of the villa between the years 1921 and 1987.
“Mr. Becher did not get to enjoy his villa for very long, he died in 1921, and his wife sold it to the association of chemical and metallurgical producers from Ustí nad Labem in the first half of the 1920s, and they used it until 1938, when this part of what was then Czechoslovakia was taken over by Nazi Germany, which installed the regional headquarters of the SS here. When we were reconstructing the villa, we even found an old SS sign, which we kept for reasons of historical documentation, and after the war, the building became the possession of the Czechoslovak state, which transformed it into a youth center.”
The youth center, Dům pionýrů a mládeže, was situated in the villa until 1987. The villa was closed to the public for several years after that. In the late 1990s, the education office of Karlovy Vary, to which the building belonged at the time, decided to transform the building into a musical education school. However, the reconstruction was interrupted several times and the building site was vandalized and looted until the villa fell into complete disrepair. It wasn’t until the Ministry of Schools signed it over to the region of Karlovy Vary that the villa could be saved. Gallery director Jan Samec was approached by the region’s officials regarding its renovation and reopening. I asked him how long the actual process took.
“I have to say that the preparations took much longer than the actual reconstruction. We had to prepare a report about how we intended to use the space, then we had to apply for building permits and EU funds, because a large part of the 86 million Czech crowns that it cost to renovate the villa, a substantial portion was paid for by the EU, and the rest was financed by the region of Karlovy Vary. So we started the reconstruction itself in 2009, it took 9 months to complete, and was finished in early July 2010.”
Part of the reason that the project received EU funding was the unique concept that Mr. Samec came up with: aside from giving the public a chance to see the beautiful villa from the inside, the reopening also brings a very modern gallery to the spa town, where visitors can not just look at art, but interact with it.
“The name already tells you something: an interactive gallery is a bit different from a traditional one. Here, you can see interactive exhibitions, presenting works that the visitor can change or play with in some form, climb into them, etc. which today is quite fashionable. But we take the interactive concept a bit further. For example, right now, we are showing a porcelain exhibit featuring local artists, and they also teach workshops and other seminars, and we then exhibit the pieces that are created by those who attend the workshops, and so within the three months that the exhibition is going on, it will undergo a big change and be completely different at the end.”
In addition to the current exhibition of beautiful ceramics by local artists, titled VARY(I)ACE 3 + 1 = PORCELÁN, the villa also currently has a couch designed by the late architect Jan Kaplicky on display. The ceramic oven, the art library and the several studio spaces in the basement testify to the ambition of Mr. Samec to offer artists’ residencies in the future.
“I just learned, when we had an opening, that our mayor went here for a first aid course, so I have to say that for the majority of Karlovy Vary residents, this house is very connected to their childhood, and a lot of them came to look at it for that reason.”
But even for visitors who do not have this connection to the Becher Villa, the beautifully renovated building, which is open year-round, is well worth a trip.
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