Social democratic architecture… what actually is it?

Party headquarters, certainly.

From the history of art standpoint, these are buildings of various styles. They include Baroque and classicism (the People’s House in Prague), neo-Renaissance (the People’s House in Plzeň, known as “Peklo”, the Workers’ House in Kladno), Secession (the Workers’ House in Mariánské hory, Ostrava), classical modern style (the People’s House in Kladno, later known as the Hornický house) and modern transitioning into functionalism (the Workers’ House in Hradec Králové, known as the Střelnice or “shooting range”).

Their legal status varied. The buildings tended to be owned by cooperatives, of both the consumer and manufacturing type, although in some cases set up specifically for the purpose of the building’s construction) or by social democrat companies (such as printing companies that also published newspapers, magazines and books).

Their fates were similiarly diverse. In some cases the buildings had been bought “second hand” and had been gradually adapted for party needs (as was the case with the People’s House in Prague). Some had been built directly to order (such as the Workers’ House in Hradec Králové, the “Střelnice“). Sometimes they were built, and then lost again while the party was still in existence (this happened with the Workers‘ House in Semily, which the locals tend to know more as the Sokol Hall).

What all these party buildings had in common, however, was their function. They provided not only administrative and economic facilities, but were centres of social life. Almost every People’s or Workers‘ house had a restaurant and function rooms for artistic events and entertainment. With time, gymnasiums, cinemas, libraries and bookshops were added, as well as hotel accommodation, for example.

However, there is more to social democratic architecture than party headquarters. Trade unions were, and continue to be, part of the social democratic milieu. This is commemorated by the First Republic headquarters of the Czechoslovak Trade Union Association on Na Perštýně street in Prague, the trade union building in Moravská Ostrava (the Palác Elektra) and the building in Ve Smečkách street in Prague where the first Czech trade union organisation, the typographers’ organisation, was founded in the 19th century. If the people standing in the queue at the People’s Dining Room at Těšnov in Prague were to look up, they would find they were standing in front of the building of the former social democratic Cooperatives Wholesale Company. Not to mention the dozens of social democratic cooperative companies, shops and apartment houses, whether operated by manufacturing, consumer or construction cooperatives (such as Rovnost – Equality – in Prague, or Budoucnost – Future – in Pardubice).

The Social Democrats also helped shape the appearance of the Czech lands through many public buildings, through the institutions in which they sat as experts or as representatives of an interest. Their contribution was sometimes slight, sometimes considerable. In some cases they initiated buildings, in others they let buildings go ahead. Notable examples in Prague are the building of the Central Social Insurance Company, still the headquarters of the Czech Social Security Administration, the “first Czech skyscraper”, as the building of the General Pensions Institute, today the headquarters of the ČMKOS trade union association, was described, and the building of the Accident Insurance Company for Bohemia, which many still remember as the headquarters of the State Planning Commission and which is now the Prague 7 town hall.

We are talking here about individual buildings, but we can also find remarkable examples of social democratic urban planning. In cities such as Plzeň and Moravská Ostrava the Social Democrats of the interwar period left behind them not only many public buildings, ranging from power stations and hospitals to crematoria, but also housing complexes, parks and the design of whole neighbourhoods.

After all, social democracy was never just a structure and system, it was also individual people. People who lived somewhere, worked somewhere, met somewhere. They lived in detached houses, apartment complexes, workers’ colonies and makeshift colonies, they worked in factories, offices and on farms, they met not only in party headquarters but also in local pubs and cafés.

All these things are material traces of the social democratic idea. All this instinctively answers the question of where we have come from. If we take a thorough look around the Czech Republic, we will be able to answer it.

We will also be able to ask further questions. Such as: Did the Social Democrats have more courage as private or public builders? Was social democratic architecture at the cutting edge in terms of its function, or was it even ahead of its time? Is there something specific about “social democratic architecture” that distinguishes it from the architecture of other intellectual currents of the time?

…and how are today’s Social Democrats making their mark on the architectural face of the Czech Republic?

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