- "Believe in socialism …":Architect Bedřich Feuerstein and His Perspective on Modern Japan and Architecture
In his very last letter, until now unpublished, Czech architect Bedřich Feuerstein (1892-1936) urged his friend Jaromír Čihař, a lawyer and loyal employee of the presidential office of Czechoslovakia, to endure and trust in socialism and the society it aims to produce.1 Feuerstein wrote the few lines above before setting out for his last journey to the Vltava River, where he committed suicide in the early morning of May 10, 1936. This study will employ notions deriving from Feuerstein's transnational career, his Central European cosmopolitism, as well as his political convictions, to explore his works in Japan that have gained historical significance over time. The complex and hybrid processes of the commission and construction of Feuerstein's work remain hidden beneath the more prominent and often erroneously constructed historical narrative of modern Japanese architecture. This typical narrative has been constructed as a genealogy comprised mainly of the careers of architectural leaders—such as Antonín Raymond and Tange Kenzō—accompanied by numerous minor figures like Tsuchiura Kameki and almost forgotten players, such as Feuerstein. Among the projects to be explored in this study are the Rising Sun Company houses in Yokohama (1927-29), St. Luke's Hospital in Tsukiji, Tokyo (1929–33) (fig. 6.1), and the Soviet Embassy in Azabu, Tokyo (1929-30).
Feuerstein was a founding member of the well-known Czechoslovak avant-garde group Devětsil. Devětsil was established in Prague in 1920 as an organized platform for artists working toward artistic revolution. The members shared interests and commitments to a range of leftist ideas, from communism to socialism and Marxism; they studied proletarian literature, naming the proletariat as their ally against a literary culture they saw as created by the wealthy and bourgeois.2 The group drew on contemporary ideas, such as purism and dadaism, and developed a new, original concept—that of poetism. Poetism was proposed as a way of living for modern society, so that life becomes a poem.3 Feuerstein had been particularly drawn to purist idioms and the French architecture [End Page 80] scene, leading him to loosen his ties with Czechoslovak avant-garde circles, which put him in the position of a foreigner in his own hometown. Although he was a left-leaning artist who saw a future in socialism, he did not share the communist approach of his progressive contemporaries or their ideas about the scientific and non-artistic nature of architecture. This approach was elaborated upon by the leading Czechoslovak art theorist of the time, Karel Teige; the fact that Feuerstein distanced himself from Teige's circles, as well as from the conservative wing of the architectural scene, was partly the reason for his ultimate outsider status.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
From the early 1920s Feuerstein divided his life between Paris and Prague; he trained with the Perret Brothers in Paris (1924-25), and socialized with architects Robert Mallet-Stevens and Le Corbusier.4 He had directed the construction of the Perrets' temporary theater at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts held in Paris in 1925. Although the theater's progressive construction, a combination of wood and concrete, launched debate among architects and subsequent architecture historians, Feuerstein's key role remained obscured.5 Additionally, Feuerstein was involved in this exhibition in another way; he was invited to be a jury member of "1st section – Architecture" for the exhibition competition, a role in which he supported a number of Czechoslovak artists who later received prizes. In relation to this, in a letter written in the summer of 1925 he confessed to his friend architect Josef Havlíček that he belonged to the leftist section of the panel.6
Until recently, Feuerstein's acclaim lay not in his architecture or fine art practice, but in his innovative architectural stage design. His early projects, the Nymburk [End Page 81] crematorium (1921-24) and the Military Geographic Institute in Prague (1921-25...