The planned Central European Forum is intended to be a modern art gallery and museum of world class, so an innovative, memorable and striking work of modern architecture is ideal. But does such a thing belong in the centre of the second largest, second most valuable historic preservation zone in the Czech lands?
The purpose of the Forum is to provide a space for Central European art as an entity. The project documentation points out that fine art in the “neighboring countries has many similar features...yet..no one has ever attempted to cover and present it systematically in its entirety”. And that “Forum is a much wider term than museum or gallery. Apart from its essential activities, various discussions, lectures symposiums and other events will be organised”.
The planned buildings of Central European Forum (Středoevropské Forum or SEFO) will be an extension of the Olomouc Museum of Modern Art on Denisova ulice where five historic houses were demolished in 1969. The site is currently vacant but if funding is obtained for the project it should be completed and opened to the public by 2014. The first proposed designs for the Central European Forum were presented to the public last week and have provoked enthusiastic debate.
The modern design is for buildings of poured concrete mimicking the height and shape of the residential houses along the street, but with a smooth finish devoid of any decorative detail. In addition to exhibition halls, the forum will include a library, bookstore, performance space, garden amphitheatre, cafe, and multimedia archives. Director of the Olomouc Art Museum, Pavel Zatloukal says "The new museum will not be a place where people whisper and walk on tiptoes. On the contrary, we want visitors to become active participants creatively and artistically" and therefore generous space will be reserved for artistic activities.
The plans for the forum are the subject of an exhibition in the Olomouc Museum of Modern Art lasting until next Sunday the 18th, or you can see photo galleries here and here and a virtual tour here or here.
Opponents to the design say that it looks like a air raid shelter and the style of architecture doesn't belong in the valuable historic centre of baroque Olomouc. The site is directly opposite the recently restored Stará Škola ( the oldest part of Moravia's oldest university) and the monumental baroque church of the Virgin Mary of the Snows.
Olomoucký Deník explains that priest Pavel Bačo will look across at the forum every day and quotes him as saying the design is “like a fist in the face. That style of architecture doesn't belong here and it would be better to build nothing at all than something like that. If there's a petition against the design, I'll support it”.
There's an impassioned discussion on this website but like most internet discussions the commentators say more about themselves than they do about the subject. Between the pointless insults, the consensus among opponents to the design is that it doesn't suit its surroundings. Some compare it to a crate of milk bottles waiting to be collected, a mouthful of teeth with one missing or a row of recycling bins. Supporters say it's outstanding and original and compare it to the Kunsthaus in Graz, the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Eiffel tower.
One prominent supporter of the design is city mayor Martin Novotný who likes the suggestion of the five buildings that previously stood on the site and says that the design is memorable enough to become its own logo. Mayor Novotný was however careful to point out that his opinions don't represent an official reaction from city hall and that a vigorous public discussion can only be good. The National Historic Preservation Authority is yet to publicly comment.
For my part, I'm really not sure what to think. It's reassuring that the same architects are those responsible for the wonderful interiors of the Olomouc Archdiocese Museum, I'm a fan of Prague's dancing building and I'd be pleased to see architect Kaplicky's blob library go ahead. Any city would be proud to have a museum like Graz's Kunsthaus or Bilbao's Guggenheim.
The thing about daring projects though, is risk. Sometimes you get away with them and sometimes you don't. If this version of the SEFO project goes ahead successfully, Olomouc will reclaim its place among the cultural capitals of Central Europe. If it turns out looking like grain silos or an air raid shelter, it will spoil a prominent part of the historic centre and confirm the prejudices of smug Praguers who think that everything past the end of their Metro line is an overgrown village populated by mullet-wearing bumpkins.
While I'd like to think Olomouc has the pizzazz to bring this off, I'm not completely convinced. What do you think?