Vít Obrtel

Date of birth: 22. března 1901 Olomouc

Death date: 12. června 1988 Praha


The versatile creator Vít Obrtel was one of the most prominent personalities of the Czech avant-garde scene in the 1920s and 1930s. His activities were not limited to architecture – he was also involved in scenography, furniture design, poetry, book graphics and typography. He was a member of the he Devětsil Union of Modern Culture and ARDEV (Architects Devětsil), the Mánes Association of Fine Artists, the Club of Architects and the Union of Socialist Architects. In the 1930s he published together with the poets František Hrubín and František Halas one of the finest contemporary cultural magazines Kvart. Through his expert essays published on the pages of Kvart and many other periodicals, he contributed significantly to the shaping of interwar architectural discourse.

Vít Obrtel was born in Olomouc in 1901, where he also spent his childhood and started the local grammar school; however, he passed his school leaving exam in Prague in 1918. He then enrolled at the Faculty of Architecture and Building Engineering of the Czech Technical University in Prague, studying with professors Antonín Engel and Rudolf Kříženecký. Already during his studies he prepared several designs that prefigured his further Purist work. Although the older teachers had little understanding for him. However, his fondness for architecture that was stripped of ubiquitous decorative elements resonated among other students as well. Obrtel began to develop his ideas on the possibilities of extracting pure architectural forms with Jaroslav Fragner, Evžen Linhart and Karel Honzík, with whom he later founded the informal group the Puristic Four. After graduation he spent a year on a scholarship in Paris, where he met figures such as Theo van Doesburg and Adolf Loos.

The Four presented their work for the first time during their studies at an exhibition of the Association of Architecture Students in 1921. A year later, their work was published in the Stavba / Construction revue. In their designs, Obrtel, Fragner, Linhart and Honzík arrived at a formulation of Purist architecture as a simple composition of cubic and cylindrical volumes without decorative elements, whose aesthetic function is assumed by both symmetrically and asymmetrically placed balconies, decks, bay windows or risalits complemented by a sophisticated play of shadows.

Although after joining Devětsil in 1923 Obrtel's designs were influenced by his admiration for engineering works that was common among architects within this group, he never adopted the dogmatic perception of the superiority of the function over the other components of architecture. Throughout his work he sought to find harmony between objective (technical, scientific) and subjective (artistic, psychological) functionality. Soon after entering Devětsil, Obrtel launched a lifelong controversy with the leading Czech theoretician of Scientific Functionalism, Karel Teige. He disapproved not only of what he believed to be insufficient consideration for the real needs of humans, but also strongly criticised his promotion of the ideal of "perfect uniformity" against which he formulated the ideal of "the comfort of chance" and "the comfort of facts and feelings."

After working in a private studio and for the capital city, Vít Obrtel had been employed in the construction department of the Ministry of Post and Telegraphs in Prague and Karlovy Vary since 1927. In 1931 he founded his own studio in Prague. Around this time he had developed his own style, which he himself called "Neoconstructivism" or "Empirical Functionalism". However, as claimed by the architect himself, he had already laid the foundations of this direction in the early 1920s, when – influenced by organic forms in the work of Hugo Häring and Hans Scharoun ­– he first designed houses with curved and rounded walls. He tried to formulate the ideals of the new style in two unrealised concepts – "Functional Villa" and "Villa on an Antique Motif".

Since the second half of the 1930s Vít Obrtel would send his designs to various hospital and sanatoria architecture competitions and gradually began to specialise in this type of construction. During World War II he was briefly imprisoned in Terezín. After the coup in 1948, he co-founded the Stavoprojekt construction project company in Prague, where he led the studio of medical buildings. In the early 1950s he was investigated by the State Security because of his contacts with Karel Teige and his sympathies for Trotskyism; he was eventually rescued by an intervention of the Stavoprojekt director. After Khrushchev's condemnation of the cult of J. V. Stalin in 1956, Obrtel joined the Communist Party again. As part of his work at Stavoprojekt, he prepared a project at the end of the 1950s of his only realisation in Pilsen – the Lochotín retirement home premises, the morphology of which clearly pointed to interwar Functionalism.

In 1960, thanks to his long-term focus on medical buildings, Obrtel co-founded the future Zdravoprojekt company. He led the design centre until his retirement in 1985. In 1968, he was awarded the Order of Merit. He died in June 1988 in Prague. In 2001 Vít Obrtel was granted the Accolade of the Czech Chamber of Architects in memoriam.