As Czechs and Slovaks celebrate 30 years of democracy following post-war communist rule, we look back at a small home that managed to defy the former regime’s housing straightjacket, becoming a labour of love and making the Czechs a nation of amateur handymen.
‘I have just finished looking, with great enthusiasm, at your project for a small family home. It is sensational and seems perfect to me. Visually modern, simply beautiful. I so adore its detailed embellishments. Please, would you be so kind as to send me a brochure … ’
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Czech draughtsman and builder Josef Vaněk received many such breathless letters about Family House Type ‘V’, now affectionately known as Šumperák. Since then, the modest, free-standing blocky dwelling – with integrated carport, living spaces on the first floor, a narrow balcony to the street and a gentle, backward-sloping roof – has become an endearing and unlikely symbol of individual aspiration and graft in a supposedly classless society. First designed for a hospital director in the northern Moravian town of Šumperk (thus its name), the house was something of an architectural sensation in post-war Czechoslovakia: more than 5,000 came to be constructed in the republic’s towns and villages, and almost all of them were self-built by their occupants.
But it wasn’t the country’s interwar modernist period – during which homegrown architects built factory towns and exhibition halls that wowed Le Corbusier, while Adolf Loos and Mies van der Rohe designed homes for the moneyed classes – that provided the inspiration for the Šumperák. The post-war Communist regime did away with the earlier cosmopolitan modernism and quickly re-oriented the country’s artistic production towards socialist realism, a historicist style of architecture and city planning apparently better suited for a workers’ paradise. Stalin’s death in 1953 and his subsequent denunciation by Khrushchev in 1956 resulted in more than just a welcome thaw in international relations – it also meant that the modernist project in the Eastern Bloc was back on track.
So radical was the turnaround that the modernist Czechoslovakian pavilion won the Grand Prix at Expo 58 in Brussels, a feat extensively celebrated by the domestic press. Its space-age, midcentury-modern aesthetic, known as the ‘Brussels style’, became the object of much popular desire. Although the planned economy met some of the growing demand for domestic goods, the nation’s building industry had little time to deal with people’s wish for individual housing. Those with aspirations, but no party connections, were left to their own devices. The modest, modish Šumperák designed by Vaněk filled this void.
The initial enthusiasm for the little house spread by word of mouth in the mostly tight-knit communities – when one person started building, their neighbours often wanted the same thing. Initially, Vaněk sold the blueprints, along with complete project documentation, for 842 crowns (CSK), at a time when the average monthly salary was CSK 1,997, and the cost of building a Type V was around CSK 120,000. Vaněk was eventually forced to transfer the copyright to the state’s architectural conglomerate Stavoprojekt in 1971, as individual enterprise was not permitted, but this did little to quell the would-be homeowner’s demand. The last documented Šumperák was built in 1986, by which time Stavoprojekt was offering a much wider range of blueprints for better-planned and larger houses.
Despite its popular success, critics never embraced the humble home: it was not true architecture, they said, but rather a modern vernacular. To be fair, its faults are numerous: the balcony is too narrow to be used in any meaningful way, the rooms are small and poky. The living room has no direct access to the garden and the now-elderly inhabitants, many of whom built the houses in the first place, are beginning to regret not having a step-free living space. And the original structures weren’t always well integrated with their surroundings: older villagers often complained about their incongruous modern neighbours.
But the impact on the national psyche was far-reaching. People had to make do with materials and resources they could get their hands on, and often spent evenings, weekends and holidays building their dream home. ‘The Czechs became a nation of amateur handymen, who could make almost anything themselves,’ says Tomáš Pospěch, art historian and author of a 2016 book dedicated to the Šumperák, ‘sometimes with predictable results.’ He also points out that, to this day, Czechs who aspire to owning their own freestanding house feel most comfortable choosing a catalogue project, which they then later tailor to their tastes and means. Nowadays, however, popular tastes run more towards pitched roofs and square windows. Šumperák is a reminder of a time when modernity was not just something the masses wanted to buy, but to make in their own image.