Ostrava in the Czech Republic is founded on industry, railways and coal. Until recently, apartment blocks shared streets with pit shafts and lift gear - an urbanity of big machines, bomb sites, Austria-Hungary and 50’s plain-ness. Industry remains in the blood. Ingenious metalwork can be found everywhere - a tradition of making things in sheds and small workshops. Before the war, the town was committed to modernity. There is a little-known Mendelsohn department store and a Functionalist art gallery of 1926. Located at the junction of Poland, the Czech Republic and pre-war Germany, architecture was an expression of cultural progress. In recent years, Ostrava has turned itself around, removing the slag heaps and opening itself to culture and a renewed quality of life. It remains a fascinating assembly of architectural proposals.
Recently, the city held a limited competition for a new art space – PLATO - in old slaughterhouses behind the town centre. The building - isolated in an open site - was made up in four separate blocks, high brickwork spaces created in waves through the last decades of the 19th century which evolved into a disconnected cellular plan without corridors. They have a gritty dream-like quality which matches the character of the city - a disparate sequence of halls with slatted windows, metal columns and old concrete surfaces. For the competition, the urban character of the space in the city had to be established and the slaughterhouse spaces maintained as a gritty found space for art. At the same time, they required intelligent transformation into a multiplicity of galleries arranged in a logical sequence as well as spaces for education, tickets, café and office/workshop and storage.
The project was interesting both for its art and architectural potential - how to do the minimum to the spaces to allow them to work, be lit and linked but not destroy their potential ‘otherness’. Like all intervention projects, a matter of judgement about what to do and not do, but also about forging sequences of gallery spaces which move from very small to large to tall and low and wide - imagining widely varied options for display, creating views down from above, thinking about light from the sky or no light at all.
The scheme leaves the building pure, yet makes two significant interventions. The first, an observation tower which signals the scheme across the city in the tradition of its mineshafts. The second, a giant urban crossroads, one route across the site intersecting another linking the galleries, a line cut through soft spots where the fabric allows. They meet at a new double height entrance space - performance space, education and café on one side; galleries on the other side around a rooflit route from entrance to a new atrium formed from a space between the original buildings. Windows are opened and others closed to create different lighting effects with balconies to allow viewing of ground floor galleries from a height. The galleries as designed form a powerful sequence of large and small spaces offering every possible combination for the display of great art; certain sections may be closed off and others left open without disturbing the sequence.
The site plan makes an intense grid, like an industrial site. One part is related to amenity and display, the other for access and future buildings. The plans of former buildings act like a ’ghost’, forming areas of planting or display. Some parts of the perimeter are walled to make intimate external sculpture courts. The front elevation towards Meat Street is treated as an open esplanade with the access route running down towards the front door. NMC