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The Walls of Communism

My house is in the Masarykova čtvrť, or Masaryk’s Quarter. This Brno neighborhood, named after the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, was developed early in the “Second Republic,” the independent Czechoslovak state that existed between the two world wars. Most of the houses here look to have been renovated since that time. However, mine has been changed only slightly and possibly (not being an expert Czech architecture of the 1920s I can’t say for sure) contains original fixtures and decorations.

The wall decorations in the main stairwell may be part of the original interior. They are unique: a maize field with swirls of darker yellow. These patterns have been painted on and are not wallpaper. According to one of my housemates, this is an older style of painting, probably done with a special roller or stamp technique, that is no longer very popular. But I find them unique, attractive, and probably because I don’t remember seeing anything quite like them in American houses, a characteristically Czech decoration scheme. (Not quite on the level of cubism or Brno modernism, but none the less worthy of note.)

I didn’t think much more about the patterns until recently. When my Prague friend Karla visited she commented that she had noted similar patterns in other Czech houses. Then last Friday, during a party hosted by the students who occupy the downstairs of the house, a guest pointed to the walls of the living room, decorated in blue paint covered with lighter blue triangle patterns, and said, “That’s a relic of Communism.” He meant that the wall decorations were old and, in his mind, associated with post-WWII Czech society. In a word, ugly.

The party guest’s comment told me that some Czechs nowadays think these patterns are unsightly and should be covered up. Certainly these patterns were not particularly special when they were painted. They may or may not be original décor from 1924, the year when the house was probably built, and they were probably found in thousands of houses and apartments throughout the Czech Republic in the not too distant past.

But today they seem to disappearing. It turns out that the owners plan to renovate this house next year and, they tell me, completely rebuild the interior. This is largely for the good since many parts of the house are in disrepair (e.g., the kitchen). Because the neighborhood is recognized as an historic area, the exterior will not be changed, but I imagine that the interior will be completely redesigned. This means that all the unique elements – door handles, wooden windows, radiators, custom-built wooden doors and window frames (each to slightly different measurements, not mass produced), wrought-iron railings in the stairwell and on the balcony (distantly reminiscent of art nouveau), the porcelain bathroom tiles, and of course the painted walls – will disappear. And to me, many of the “Czech” aspects of the house will go with them.

I can understand that many people want to get rid of any vestiges of Communism. It was an unpleasant period that probably did more harm than good. I understand that many people want to remake everything, particularly if they have the monetary means. And I understand that there was not much opportunity or possibility for many such repairs to be done under the former regime. The obsession to erase that era’s legacy is (in part) manifested in the many reconstructions and renovations seen all over the country. It is unlikely, but I hope that this enthusiasm does not go overboard. (One parallel that comes to mind is the destruction of most of mediaeval Prague during the late nineteenth century to make way for “modern” apartment blocks). Does every reminder of the past have to go, to be painted over?


Blogger Karla said . . .

I'm glad you did a piece on the paint patterns, since I am very fond of them. They never struck me as communist, just Czech, and they're so much more agreeable and subtle than most wallpaper. But it does seem that everyone is getting rid of them. Perhaps we could inquire at the UPM when this style of painting was most popular. I'm sure they would know. Asking the average person would probably be about like when I asked a friend when the graffiti started showing up (since it wasn't here in 1990 except for a few rare instances) and she looked surprised and indicated it had always been here.    

7:02 PM, October 30, 2005

Anonymous Jesse said . . .

That's true, there's nothing particularly communist about the patterns. I might have over-amplified that aspect since it was sort of surprising. I also forgot to mention that the blue pattern is almost completely gone already because the downstairs apartment was recently repainted by the current residents.    

11:07 PM, October 30, 2005

Blogger Karla said . . .

Good thing you photographed the blue walls before they were done away with. The pattern reminds me of stuff from around the 1910s--sort of like cubist book design--but I don't think any paint job would last that long, maybe 20 years maximum. (I mean, I've visited houses in the US where the living room paint is pretty much worn away because the family hasn't painted since the 1960s or 70s.)    

8:07 PM, October 31, 2005

Blogger morskyjezek said . . .

Yes, that's a good point. It's unlikely that these are original paints. In fact downstairs the light fixtures look more 1960s to me. But I still doubt that any of the reconstruction will involve painting new patterns like these.    

8:35 AM, November 02, 2005

Blogger Karla said . . .

The kitchen looks like 1970s and worst of its era (quality-wise). But maybe in another 20 years painted patterns will come back in style (since they are somewhat in style elsewhere right now) and someone will renew them.    

5:15 PM, November 02, 2005

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