goto LAVA Sipek is not Sipek - Essay by Gavin Keeney

Borek Sipek on Prague Castle

This essay and accompanying photographs have been courteously provided by Gavin Keeney. Photo's and text by Gavin Keeney (c) 1996. Czech article appeared in the november issue of Architekt.

Entrance to the president's office


    THE recent Plecnik exhibition at Prazsky Hrad has given pause (cause for reflection) to many - foremost in thought-provoking content due to the continuing respect and favorable historical judgement due the so-called First Republic under TGM (Tomas Masaryk). It is the reverie (dreaming) associated with this recent extraordinary re-presentation of Plecnik's work for Prague (and elsewhere) that suggests a second coming for Czech humanism.

    UNDER the patronage of Vaclav Havel, Borek Sipek is poised to make both minor and significant changes to contemporary Prazsky Hrad - first in the second courtyard and, then, no doubt, in the interior of the Castle as circumstances dictate. It is the work in the second courtyard that will set the tone (if not standard) for further changes at Prazsky Hrad.

    SIPEK has been called the successor of Ettore Sottsas in the decorative arts, having produced a solid body of internationally acclaimed work in decorative glass and furnishings. Throughout this prestigious rise to prominence, he has infused the spirit of a type of late-modern expressionism into works destined to be sold in international boutiques frequented by wealthy and earnest collectors of his brand of "mannered" de luxe objects for contemporary interiors. A just opened exhibition in Denver, Colorado (USA) - "Sipek: Auratic Architecture and Design" (Denver Art Museum, through January 1977) will serve to showcase these wares, but also, and importantly, proposals and projects architectural.

    SIPEK studied both architecture and philosophy. He professes an admiration for Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault. It is something of a mystery how such anti-bourgeois philosophes might have informed Sipek's de luxe wares produced for the likes of Driade, Sevres and Swarovski. But in the architecture of Sipek, especially the new entrance to the Czech President's office in the second courtyard at Prazsky Hrad, there are intimations of formal innovation that herald a quixotic, symbolic intellectual quest for new formal (semantic) configurations consistent with Nietzsche's statements in "On Truth and Lies (In a Nonmoral Sense)": namely, Sipek has climbed onto the highest level of the "existing scaffolding" and has begun to perform audacious stunts for the public in this first gesture in glass, wood, terrazzo, Swedish granite, and patinated and gilded bronze.

    WHAT are the iconographic gestures in this winged portico? The bronze canopy, the gilded leopardess, the studded glass door - each plays a referential part in connecting the project to the existing architectural forms at Prazsky Hrad. The patinated bronze canopy is clearly a descendent of the roofscape of the cathedral complex. The gilded leopardess is descended from the Czech rampant lion (protocol problems precluded using a lion). The plate glass door with applied glass studs is clearly both an allusion to the armored doors of old Prague and a concession to the modern safety regulations that dictate vertical glass surfaces be marked with signal devices to prevent pedestrians crashing through the glass. The red Swedish granite steps are made of the same stone used in various parts of the castle in the elaborate paving program developed under Plecnik. Both the winged gilded leopardess (by sculptor Michal Gabriel) and the brass door handle are homages to Plecnik's own use of rich detail in the various portals of the castle he altered under Masaryk.

    THE programmatic side of this composition has more to do with the overall plan of the second courtyard than the simple realignment of the entry to Havel's offices. Sipek is attempting to divert attention to the second courtyard, from the third, having witnessed (by video) that most pedestrians come through the 1614 Matthias Gate (designed by Giovanni Mario Filippini) and head straight for the third courtyard gate. These gestures are meant to arrest movement and alter this rush to St Vitus cathedral and St George basilica. The second courtyard is, after all, very much a secular zone without the regal and ecclesiastical overtones of the third. This site, the second courtyard, indeed, deserves further articulation to emphasize its place in the schema of the Castle precinct. As a type of temenos, Prazsky Hrad has ceremonial aspects not unlike the Greek Acropolis, with passages and enclosures disposed in a hierarchical manner. The third courtyard is certainly the choice destination, but the second is analogous to the transitional importance of the Temple of Athena Nike at the Acropolis: it has its singular importance and its collective role in the entire temenos.

    SIPEK has produced, then, the first gesture in a makeover of the second courtyard that embodies the ideals of the Havel Presidency - "the era of Havel". The whimsical winged leopardess is a feminized counterpoint to the masculine, regal lion. The winged form of the canopy relates to the three-bay interior stair, just inside this new entrance. The formal entry shifts the location of the former entrance to the New Palace from the passage to a prominent location visible as one passes through the Matthias Gate into the second courtyard. Two doors, in fact, comprise this entry: a "representational door", larger, and scaled to the facade; and an "everyday door", the glass door. The former interior corridor becomes a foyer or lobby. Once inside, Sipek furnishings provide a stylish waiting room that echoes the sensibility of Havel's office. Grandeur is sublimated in favor of intimate, richly detailed furnishings that suggest you have entered not a presidential enclave but an intellectual salon. The verticality of the facade (built by Antonin Haffenecker between 1772 and 1775) is emphasized in the Sipek entrance by the carefully proportioned and tapered columns that echo the pattern of the baroque building's facade and the prominent neo-gothic spires of the western end of St Vitus cathedral (added in the last phases of building between 1873 and 1933 undertaken by Josef Mocker and Kamil Hilbert).

    SIPEK has, by mysterious aesthetic means, deconstructed the trappings of power. Here, Foucault's influence is evident. In a sense, Sipek serves at the pleasure of the President. It is inevitable that he will be seen as a latterday Plecnik, bringing to the Castle new forms and references that embody the change of guard that has occurred since the 1989 Revolution. He is very much a court architect, as Bramante was, or Plecnik was. His work will be read as a text written in stone, bronze and glass.


    THERE remains, then, the necessity of "reading" Sipek. People often say "Sipek is Sipek", as if he existed in some hermetic world of his own. Given the above analysis, Sipek is not Sipek. He is architect and mirror. A more interesting role to play. Watch him and "read" him. He is part of a circle, as Plecnik was part of a circle. There remains, too, to be seen, the balance of his work in the second courtyard - the new gallery he is working on and its entrance, and the controversial proposal to plant trees inside the second courtyard (displacing some of the paving that covers perhaps too much of this important territory). These additional gestures will alter the second courtyard considerably, making signature "auratic" elements prominent in a somewhat bland courtyard. They warrant attention. Each aspect "speaks" to the public about the nature of the Czech Republic - its political and cultural position. As semantic forms, the entries, and the hypothetical trees, are clear exhortations to "lighten up". Freedom of expression is the first of the many rights of man.

    Gavin Keeney
    Atelier Menus-Plaisirs
    New York, New York
    Copyright September 1996

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