EXHIBITION: Moving History / Power plant and villa in Háj by Mohelnice
VERNISAGE: 23 03 2023 v 18:30
TRVÁNÍ: until June 4, 2023
MÍSTO: Museum of modern Art, Galery
AUTHORS: Pavel Zatloukal, Martina Mertová a Klára Jeništová
CURATORS: Klára Jeništová, Martina Mertová
GRAFIC DESIGN: Vladimír Vaca,
LOANS PROVIDED BY: Miroslava a Ondřej Groharovi, Jiří Krušina, Soňa Štěrbová, Slezské zemské muzeum, Vlastivědné muzeum v Šumperku, Národní technické muzeum

Photos + descriptions HERE

Between the Hanušovice and Zábřežská uplands, the River Morava flows through an extensive valley. The flow of the water here has always determined the character of a wide strip of the surrounding floodplain landscape, meadows with typical tree and shrub growth, interwoven with meanders, blind arms, pools, and islands with low banks. The regular spring floods here made agricultural exploitation difficult, so the whole landscape has been preserved in its older form. Other parts were transformed into a vast natural landscape.

Not far from Třeština, on the annually flooded meadows of the mean¬dering river, lies the settlement of Háj. It was first mentioned in connection with the Háj mill in the middle of the 14th century. In 1873 Josef and Terezie Plhák, who came from the neighbouring village, became its owners. Ten years later they passed the property on to their son Hubert. From the union of Hubert and Johana Drlíková four sons were born: Miroslav, Radomír, Aleš, and Karel. In 1894 Hubert decided to establish an electric power plant in the mill. He thus ranked among the pioneers of Czech power engineering in Central and Northern Moravia. The “First Moravian Agricultural Power Plant, Ltd. at the Háj Mill near Mohelnice” became the first cooperative power plant in the whole monarchy after the turn of the century; it supplied dozens of Central Moravian villages with electricity.

Before the war, Hubert Plhák had already begun to consider the idea of building a completely new hydroelectric power plant. In 1919 he therefore started to build a new embankment. In the same year, however, he handed over the older and growing business to two of his sons, Radomir and the youngest, Karel. Which of the Plháks came up with the idea of commissioning one of Prague‘s top architects to deal with the power plant project will probably remain a mystery. The first to be approached was Pavel Janák, who had reigned over Czech architecture for decades. However, his Rondocubist proposal did not appeal to the Plháks. Therefore, aiming even higher, they turned to Jan Kotěra. Although the busy artist could not satisfy them, he recommended two of his “most talented pupils”, Bohuslav Fuchs and Josef Štěpánek. 

The two budding architects, who were collaborating in Štěpánek‘s Prague studio, submitted plans for the power plant in the spring of 1920 and, a year and a quarter later, also a project for a villa. The extension of the contract to include a second building was related to Karel‘s preparations for his marriage to Alžběta/Ellen Hervertová, which actually took place in the summer of 1922. In the same year, the shells of both buildings were completed; the power plant was approved in the autumn of 1923, while the villa was ready for occupation in the summer of 1924. A former classmate from the School of Applied Arts, Hubert Aust, now an architect from Olomouc, helped with the detailed drawings. Dozens of photographs of the construction of the embankment and both buildings were taken by the Zábřeh photographer Josef Relich.

Štěpánek and Fuchs responded to the most up-to-date trends in contemporary Czech and European architecture with their buildings: they coped with the fading Czech Cubism and the more current Rondocubism, but also with the organic branches of Dutch and German Expressionism. Above all, however, they displayed an ambition for their own position.

The concrete base of the power plant grows out of a pillar, which emerges from the embankment, only to branch out again. The basic idea of the main façade is thus obvious – to convey through architectural means the creation, transformation, concentration, and transmission of energy. Energy that rises from the water to the crown of the building, where it is then transmitted to the grid via electrical wires. The rounded roof and the arch motifs of the deep red building are a constant reminder of what is not visible from the outside – water falling from a sluice or water turning turbines. But also – in contrast to the symmetry of the main façade – the modelling of the side faces was according to the modernist principle of “inside out”. The monumental central hall is dominated by a wall with a distribution board broken by arcades on the first floor. Brass and glass instruments are reflected in marble slabs; a widely developed allegory, symbolism as the embodiment of a strong vitalistic will.

The single-storey house with a high roof that stands opposite is designed to be asymmetrical, with the exception of the southern façade, i. e. it is also conceived “from the inside out”. Both the façade and the layout are dominated by motifs of a circle, a semicircle, an arch, and even a broken arch. With its semicircular design, the entrance draws the visitor directly into its open arms. The body is in motion behind it: from the north it is bent inwards with tension, from the south – not unlike a mask of the power station – it is supported by columns that clamp the retreating front with buttresses that are almost Gothic. The essentials inside are concentrated in the entrance hall, with its fireplace and open staircase to the first floor. The central element here is a sculpted column. It not only defines the staircase, but it also carries the clusters of ceiling beams, which also run in curves. Symbolically, it supports the whole house, saturating it with life-giving, energy-transmitting rays – the analogy of the power station interpreted by other means. It is the tree of life, drawing energy from the earth and powering and binding the whole organism of the building with its branches. Again, we can think of a richly branching symbolism of the transformation of energy with a vitalistic connotation.

The commission of the most important of the villa‘s furnishings in the same style was awarded to Jan Vanek’s “Spojené uměleckoprůmyslové závody, a. s.” (United Arts and Crafts Plants) in Třebíč, with its headquarters in Brno. Valuable sets of Rondocubist furniture are now preserved by the Silesian Museum in Opava and the Museum of National History in Šumperk. With both buildings, Fuchs and Štěpánek continued the Cubist and Expressionist tendency to move the mass, but in terms of detail they reached for a rather static Rondocubist vocabulary. They created a seemingly paradoxical form of dynamic Rondocubism. In other words, the form is Rondocubist, while the conceptual background is strongly expressive and symbolist.

The garden around the villa was gradually landscaped as a park or arboretum. It flowed freely into the surrounding vast meadows. However, the cultivation interventions of the Plhák family associated with the planting of groups of trees and shrubs, but also with modifications of small romantic stops of a commemorative nature, were also visible.

Another hobby of the Plháks – this time mainly Ellen and her son Karel Jr. – photography, is also connected with the natural surroundings of the Háj buildings, both near and distant. Evidence of this is provided by a series of landscape photographs. They were interested in composition – on the one hand, in terms of harmony of proportions and balance, and on the other hand, in the contrast of a landscape with a low horizon with wind-swept vegetation or a dramatic sky with a jumble of clouds, whether in the monumental whole, or in the enchanting detail of natural cuts, quiet pools, close-ups of flora, or winter motifs with contrasting play of light and shadow.

Towards the end of the war, Karel Jr. joined the anti-Nazi resistance, and Háj also served as a hiding-place for escaped Yugoslav, French, and Soviet prisoners of war. After the liberation, however, first the power plant was nationalised and then, in 1951, both Radomír and Karel Sr. were sentenced to prison and forfeiture of their property in a show trial. In 1948 Karel Jr. emigrated to Canada. After her husband‘s death, Ellen lived in Háj for a few more years; following the expropriation she was left with part of the villa, which she later ceded to an agricultural cooperative.

After 1989, both buildings were acquired by new owners, who embarked on their repairs and exemplary reconstruction. The villa, whose original furnishings can only be seen together in our exhibition, has been listed since 1958 and in 2008 the power station was even classified as a national cultural monument.

The exhibition presents a comprehensive set of original planning documentation from the museum’s collections, as well as from the private collection of the Grohars, who also take care of the surviving original artistic furnishings of the house. Valuable sets of Rondo¬cubist furniture were loaned by the Silesian Museum in Opava and the Museum of National History in Šumperk. Period photographs from the time of the construction of the dam and the power station were provided by Jiří Krušina. Thanks also go to Soňa Jelínková and Soňa Štěrbová, who continue to preserve part of Ellen Plháková’s archive, including original film footage. The period material is accompanied by Markéta Lehečko¬vá’s latest set of photographs, which document the architecture and the lyrical landscapes of the immediate surroundings.

The exhibition is accompanied by Pavel Zatloukal’s book What Buildings Tell Us About. The Power Plant and Villa at Háj u Mohelnice, published in 2022 by Arbor Vitae in Prague with the financial support of Jiří Krušina, the owner of the Háj hydroelectric power plant.