As if the building itself said what it wanted

We talked with Zuzana Drahotová from the team of Schindler Seko Architects about the conversion of the Zenger Substation to Kunsthalle Praha.

How did the story of Kunsthalle Praha begin for you?

I joined the project while the study was still under development. Almost at the same time, Kunsthalle Praha acquired its director Ivana Goossen, and soon thereafter, its chief curator Christelle Havranek, who, in cooperation with the client, began to refine our requirements and specifications. We also took several study trips abroad together, visiting museums and galleries to gain a clearer vision and get inspiration. During all of this, the Zenger Substation was declared a cultural heritage monument.

How does this clarification of ideas work in practice?

For example, we were dealing with the requirement of having the longest possible display wall on the second floor that would not be interrupted by any gaps or openings. This meant fundamentally changing the way this part of the gallery was entered. As a result, we had to rethink and redesign the entire communication and technical core of the building on all floors. In architecture, all things are interconnected and even the slightest change can disrupt functioning relationships.

Which places abroad inspired you?

There were several such places and stories. Certainly, the Tate Modern in London, originally a power plant adapted into a public space through very elegant interventions and without detracting from its historical identity. Or the Fondazione Prada in Milan, once a neglected industrial complex, where again the relationship between the preservation of the existing state and creation of a new, clearly identifiable architecture plays an important role.

As I already mentioned at the start, on our trips abroad, we also focused on experiences and mistakes from which we could learn. We visited several different types of galleries and observed their internal operations. We were looking for answers to questions such as: What happens to art from the moment of arrival at the gallery to its actual exhibition? How and where do we unload it? How do we ensure the required safety, the ideal indoor environment? These are very important parameters that in the future will determine what work we will be given the opportunity to exhibit. In this respect, Kunsthalle will have no competition in Prague. The planning of exhibitions and their actual design are the responsibilities of the curator, but this invisible background of every exhibition is, on the contrary, our task.

Is work on Kunsthalle Praha as a listed building more challenging than building a gallery on a “greenfield”?

Definitely. This project, of course, is based from the beginning on the location of the building itself, in the context of the inner-city and the connections that must be respected. At the same time, we have clearly defined boundaries for the space where we’ll be placing the planned program. We need to find a common language for the elements we’re going to preserve and those that are newly-designed. To adapt the building for a new use, while protecting its genius loci.

It is also worth mentioning that during the construction works, part of the Kunsthalle Praha building will continue acting as a electric substation for the Public Transit Company and PRE, and will remain its part even after completion of the conversion.

Despite all these complications, we’re glad that the investor chose the Zenger Substation building for this project. We’re glad that an otherwise decaying, unused building will once again become part of an active city. We believe using it as a gallery is ideal. For several years, it housed an underground club, which seems as if the building itself was indicating to us that its new function could be a cultural one.

What can we look forward to inside Kunsthalle?

The existing layout and geometry of the building allowed us to design a total of three different exhibition spaces on various height levels. Two of these are in the context of the traction division of the existing building, and the third is newly located on what was originally the technological terrace. These are unique spaces, which differ from each other both in shape as well as atmosphere.

Another important space is the newly-designed entrance hall, which the technical building never had. It is set into the central part of the building, making it the connecting link not only to the exhibition spaces, but also to the accompanying functions of the building.

This is a conversion of a monument building in the historical center of Prague – so it’s no surprise that we have even heard voices calling it a demolition.

The building was designed in the 1930s for its original purpose, which it served for several decades. At the same time, its architectural morphology reacted sensitively to the surrounding historical development of the Lesser Side. It is important to take into consideration both these facts. The surroundings of the substation have not changed significantly over the years, and so we will respect and preserve the morphology of the building to the maximum extent possible. As for the interior, the situation there is completely different. It was not possible to take over the building without changes, as it was originally designed, and to refit it without ending up with a half-baked solution.

The operations of the original transformer substation were addressed solely from a functional perspective and were based on clear parameters: box sizes were designed according to the size of the transformers they housed, the wings of the building according to the repetition of the boxes and so on. We took inspiration from this rational approach, with the difference that we had to take into consideration the building’s existing geometry. In practice, this meant looking for a suitable spatial layout for the intended functions.

In the course of this phase it was found, that aluminous cement had been used on the internal load-bearing construction. In the 1930s, when the substation was built, this was a new technology, which, thanks to its rapid maturation, shortened construction time. Unfortunately, as we already know today, this concrete is highly unstable and can collapse unexpectedly. That is why it was immediately necessary to remove all such constructions. The scope of demolition was, therefore, conditional upon the structural-technical state of the building, which was further worsened by contamination of the constructions with crude oil and mercury.

The north-eastern facade, which was the most affected by the situation, will be restored to its original form, including the associated profiling. On the contrary, the internal structures will be more adapted to operation of the gallery. The original segmentation of the space of the interior will be replaced by a freer and more open layout, which will allow for greater variability of planned exhibitions.

What then will the building look like from Klárov, once it shucks the cover of scaffolding?

The Neo-classical facade will remain in its current form, only it will be professionally restored and cleaned. Thanks to detailed restoration research we know, for example, the original light gray shade of windows and doors, which we will return to these architectural elements. The building’s new function will be revealed by, among other things, the replacement of the existing opaque wire glass with clear, transparent glass. The interior of the public building should be accessible not only physically, but also visually.

This technical building never had a main entrance, which, on the contrary, is a necessity for cultural institutions. In the context of the conversion, we resolved this paradox with a newly-designed pedestrian bridge, which will form a distinctive element of the restored facade. Additionally, a one-story addition will be built on the former technological terrace.

And upon entering? Can you divulge what visitors can anticipate waiting for them inside?

In the interior, we’re working with the same element of as architect Kvasnička did in the original substation. Behind the relatively decorative Neo-classical facade, there spreads out an industrial, rational concrete interior. That is why we are using construction concrete at Kunsthalle as a final surface finish and, in various forms, the most-used material.

What kind of feeling should people get from the architectural execution of Kunsthalle?

Above all, we would like for the visitor who walks through the building to have a desire to return. That they have an experience they would like to repeat.

Kunsthalle will contain more than just a gallery, is that not so?

As I’ve already indicated, Kunsthalle will include a design store, a restaurant, which is lacking in the neighborhood, and a café and book lounge, in which visitors will be able to absorb the experiences they’ve just acquired. The existing northern part of the building will house studios for the accompanying educational programs, whereas the art depositories will be situated in the basement.

As architects, you are responsible for the building as such, but what about the interiors?

For the interiors, we are collaborating with Berlin University Professor Axel Kufus and his team.

Interview led by Dan Knepr.

Photo © Dominik Žižka.