Crematorium and Columbarium I

Rokycanská 173/125 (Plzeň) Plzeň Východní Předměstí
GPS: 49.7474983N, 13.4326178E

The conservative Austrian monarchy, which rested upon Catholicism, saw cremation as a return of pagan customs and old Slavic morals. Therefore, it sought to prevent the assembly of libertine associations advocating cremation on its territory or the construction of crematoria, which the Catholic Church perceived as “Masonic temples and monuments”. Yet, such associations did arise – two societies, “Die Flamme” and the “Society for the Cremation of Cadavers”, were active in Pilsen since 1904. On their initiative in 1914, a study of the columbarium in the city district of Vinice was carried out. However, the design of young architect Hanuš Zápal, employee of the Municipal Building Authority, did not materialise.

This modern and hygienic method of burial began to gain ground in the country only after the foundation of democratic Czechoslovakia, mainly in connection with the legalisation of cremation in 1919. This was done as a symbol of “the cultural struggle against tradition and Catholicism” at the time. Progress in cremation was also supported by purely practical circumstances – for example, the unexpectedly large number of victims of the First World War and the fear of epidemics. There were also arguments that, in comparison to traditional burials, cremation was cheaper, or that crematoria do not occupy as much space as cemeteries (“Leave the land to the living.”).

The Pilsen Crematorium, built in 1924 and 1925, was among the first buildings of its kind in Czechoslovakia. Its construction was preceded by a rather lengthy development. Not only was it necessary to find a suitable plot (in the neighbourhoods of Roudná, Bory and Doubravka), but also the shape and expression of the building, which was, typologically, an entirely new architectural task for which the architects of the time had no relevant experience. Originally, a mere adaptation of the older cemetery of the St. Wenceslas Chapel in Doubravka was considered, but eventually the idea of constructing a new building at the same cemetery prevailed. This was much thanks to Mayor Luděk Pik and the chairman of the “Krematorium” Society František Mencl.

Hanuš Zápal was commissioned again to prepare the project in 1923. Together with his colleague from the Municipal Building Authority, engineer Karel Werstadt, who was to design the technological equipment, he set off on a two-week study trip to Switzerland and Germany. After his return, he prepared the first draft. The draft’s architectural design, however, did not meet with a favourable response. The architect had designed a building of a cross layout, with a central ceremonial hall topped by a dome hidden from the outside and with distinct long side wings. Its facade was decorated with rich geometric decor inspired by Cubism and the National Style (applied shortly before by Pavel Janák at the crematorium in Pardubice in 1922-1923). This greatly decorative and oversized design did not comply with contemporary notions of rational architecture held both by city officials and the local branch of the Prague “Krematorium” Society, which supported the construction financially. Zápal adapted the project, but the relevant commission remained dissatisfied despite the new version. The main objection raised was the surplus of unused space. For comparison, Pavel Janák was commissioned for the same task. According to the commission, however, Janák planned to waste even more space than his colleague. The project thus returned to Zápal, who changed it significantly both in terms of layout and morphology.

Zápal preserved the cross floor plan but shortened the side wings considerably. Two underground floors were added to the building to house space for the columbarium and technical facilities – a doctor’s room, autopsy room, furnaces, a boiler room, etc. As noted in an official local gazette, the main space where light poured in through the glass top of the dome “is designed in a simple manner, without splendour and with respect to the tolerance promoted by our progressive men; no religious motives are used in its decoration”.

Zápal eliminated the decorative elements from the facade and greatly simplified it in favour of a pure composition of rectangular and triangular volumes. On the main axis of the front, he designed an elevated and compact entrance portico with bossage and distinct geometric columns. The roof of the portico also served as a terrace accessible by a French window with Modernist segmentation. Above it, a simple inscription reading “Toward the Light” stands out, crowned with a triangular gable with a dentil.

Although it had taken two decades since the first Pilsen associations promoting cremation were established, the city’s inhabitants were finally granted a dignified building that modern literature aptly characterises as a “sophisticated temple in which features of ancient culture meet with those of the Proto-Slavonic”.


“Krematorium” Society, City of Pilsen