Modern Architecture’s Legacy in a Renaissance-era Czech City

By Monica Strauss

Around the turn of the century in Olmütz, a small town in the Czech Republic, (known as Olomouc in present day) a Jewish community flourished. With its impeccable examples of Gothic and Baroque architecture and connection to the Hapsburg Empire, it was known as the “Moravian Rome.” However, its young people were increasingly turning to cosmopolitan Vienna for intellectual stimulation. When the onset of World War I sent many of them home to Olmütz, they tried to maintain that high level of cultural exchange they had experienced in the Kaiserstadt. The writer Max Zweig, the architects Paul Engelmann and Jacques Groag, and several others met regularly for heated discussions and amateur performances of plays and music. What galvanized all of them in October 1916 was the surprising arrival of one of Vienna’s most provocative thinkers.

After serving on the Russian front, Ludwig Wittgenstein had been sent to his regiment’s headquarters in Olmütz to be trained as an officer. According to his biography, when he first arrived, he was so impressed by the size of the Town Hall tower that he asked if he could live there! He was, after all, a man used to the privileges that came with the family name. The disappointment on hearing the tower was not to let was soon appeased after meeting Engelmann and, for a few months, joining his lively circle. Those friendships formed in Olmütz continued in 1920s Vienna when both Engelmann and Groag assisted the non-architect Wittgenstein in constructing the fabled “Palais” for his sister Margaret Stonborough. The building, considered an icon of modern architecture between the wars, now houses the Bulgarian Embassy.

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“Wittgenstein Haus,” designed by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Paul Engelmann, engineer: Jacques Groag

Engelmann moved to Palestine in 1934, but Groag, after serving as an assistant to Adolf Loos, remained in Vienna and set up his own office. As some of his projects were published, demand for his work grew in Vienna, Olomouc, and beyond. In 1937 my father joined the ranks of his clients. He was newly wed, and, despite the threat emanating from Germany, remained optimistic about his future in the small town of Skoczow in Polish Silesia, just over the Czech border. The completed house was inhabited only briefly. My parents left for England just in the nick of time in August 1939. Jacques Groag also made it to London, and there is a picture of me sitting on his wife Jacqueline’s lap on the terrace of the house my parents rented during the war. Jacques Groag died in 1962, having never regained the success he was forced to leave behind in Central Europe.

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Jacques Groag, 1955, portrait by Trudy Fleischmann. Collection Ursula Prokop.

Growing up in postwar New York, the child of refugees, I was convinced that there really was an “Iron Curtain.” How else could I be so irretrievably cut off from my father’s history? When the curtain finally rose in 1989, I couldn’t wait to explore his past. By then I was an art historian and had studied Vienna’s early modern period, also intrigued by the high percentage of Jewish patrons of the avant-garde. But it never occurred to me that my father had been one of them. Why had he not told me about Groag’s training with Adolf Loos, his connection to Wittgenstein, his contribution to the 1932 Werkbund exhibition in Vienna?

My father had spoken so little about his life before the war and did not view his early years through a historical lens as I did. He had had a natural place in society, had behaved as others of his class and station did. They were the children of successful entrepreneurs. Unlike their hard-working ancestors, they had begun to indulge in the pleasures of travel, patronage, and sport. (My grandfather headed the Jewish community, my father the local tennis club.) It had been a fine existence and then it was over. The time, the place, the way of life had been excised. Cynthia Ozick put it clearly, “Catholic Poland (language, culture, land), continues, while European Jewish civilization (language, culture, institutions) was wiped out utterly – and that, for Jewish history is the different and still more terrible central meaning of Auschwitz.” Could I understand what I could never know? In the next few years, I determined to give it a try and that was what brought me to Olomouc.

 

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The 15th-century astronomical clock in Olomouc’s town square, reconstructed in the ’50s to reflect the workers and industry of the socialist government, exemplifies a shift from Gothic and Baroque styles to functionalism and realism.

The house my parents had lived in for less than two years was still standing in Skoczow, but it was shabby, neglected and had been the subject of awkward changes. But in Olomouc, where several of Groag’s houses remain in good condition, I got a sense of what his appeal had been. In their flat-roofed, white-washed simplicity, the residences are still a presence in the city’s leafy suburbs. The Villa Seidler, built in 1935, is in the best shape and conveys Groag’s particular gift for making the outdoors as much a part of the plan of the building as the house itself. On the garden front of the Seidler home, a two-tiered terrace becomes a space with its own architectural flourishes.

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Jacques Groag, Villa Seidler, 1935, published in the German design journal Innendekoration.

An awning made of squares of slatted wood creates an abstract play of shadows over the upper section. On one side, a screening wall assures some privacy, but a large circular opening adds a surprising curvilinear element. At the edge of the lower terrace, a strip of rough brick creates a richly textured boundary between house and garden. I could see that for Groag, architecture had not been about the grandiose gesture but the telling detail, an enhancement of daily life to be absorbed like a line of poetry, or a bar of music. For a moment in Olomouc, I could almost taste the past that had made those refinements possible.

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A longer version of this article appeared in Aufbau, July 2008.

Further reference: Jacques and Jacqueline Groag, Architect and Designer: Two Hidden Figures of the Viennese Modern Movement by Ursula Prokop (June 2019, DoppelHouse Press)