Monumental, unique, timeless. All this is the Thermal Hotel the story of which began in the 2nd half of the 1960s. Take a peek at the chequered history of architect couple Vladimír Machonin and Věra Machoninová’s iconic work which still ignites emotions, despite its concrete structure.
Czechoslovakia’s first international film festival
The post-World War II cultural revival saw the return, after an involuntary break, of the Venice festival in 1946, and the creation of festivals in Locarno and Cannes. And the first Czechoslovak international film festival took place in Mariánské Lázně.
Festival moves to Karlovy Vary
The festival, initially non-competitive, awarded its first Crystal Globe in 1948 to the still critically acclaimed Polish film The Last Stage. In the following years, culture became gradually subordinated to the political situation with the festival screening mostly communism-promoting films which would not score well with today’s audiences.
In 1949, the festival permanently moved from Mariánské Lázně to Karlovy Vary, a more convenient location. Its several venues scattered across town were making its organization extremely demanding.
Karlovy Vary festival palace construction project
As years went by, the number of visitors and the festival’s importance grew. The spa town’s cinema capacities and technical facilities were no longer sufficient to meet the demands of an international festival. Worries that the festival could move to a different city led to negotiations to build a new festival palace that would both fit the whole event and compare to its international counterparts.
In 1956, the festival was recognized as a Category A festival, the most prestigious label a competitive festival can get.
The political situation was loosening up post-1958 and the film legend Luis Buñuel came to present his film at the festival, for instance.
The festival was becoming increasingly popular with guests from the West. However, the USSR issued orders for the festival to be held in turns in Moscow and in Karlovy Vary.
Architectural design competition announced
The new building construction did not start in 1958 as planned. In 1963, a decision was made to expand the festival palace project to include an international hotel and an outdoor swimming pool filled with thermal water. An architectural design competition was announced. 82 teams took on the prestigious task but less than 30 of them met the demanding brief of the competition.
The jury met seven times and, in the end, selected Věra Machoninová and Vladimír Machonin’s design proposal. The winners submitted a building design in a then modern, or trendy, but, from today’s perspective, also timeless style with Brutalist elements.
The design proposal was typical for the partially relaxed 60s architecture. Even though the building was diametrically opposed to the original built-up area it fit into the surrounding terrain. The innovative proposal included a 16-story hotel, an outdoor, rock-embedded swimming pool and a large cinema designed to look as if levitating in space.
The Machonins – experimenters enamoured of concrete
When Věra Machoninová and Vladimír Machonin won the design competition to build the Thermal Hotel, they had already successfully completed the construction of the Culture and Trade Union House in Jihlava (1961). Later, they also designed the iconic Kotva Department Store in Prague (1974), the Home Design Centre (Dům bytové kultury), a home decor store in Prague (1977), and the Czechoslovak Embassy in Berlin (1978).
The architects’ work centred around Brutalism – a modern style using mostly rough concrete, metal constructions and interiors blending with exteriors, among other things. Their creative career reached its peak in the 60s and the 70s.
„There was hope in the air in the 60s. And when one has hope, everything is amazing.“– Věra Machoninová (shortened, Směták, Pučerová 2010).
The Machonins rank among the most prominent Czech architects. In 2006, Věra Machoninová was awarded the prestigious Society of Czech Architects’ Grand Prix. In 2014, she received the Society of Czech Architects’ Honor Award and two years later, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Architecture from the Ministry of Culture. But let us go back to the 60s.
Demolition and great expectations
Before the design competition, the Chebská street (Egerstrasse) was selected as the best place for the construction of the Thermal Hotel. The street featured roughly thirty, mostly Art Nouveau buildings in serious disrepair so their removal and replacement was deemed a better, economically sound solution. Mattoni’s Villa, the Pošta and Alice hotels, and the Komenský School were also demolished.
The city’s inhabitants were excited about the modern festival palace. The building design proposal was also praised by experts.
Experts applauded its meticulous design and use of high international standards. Before the launch of the construction, the Machonins made a trip to the West to find inspiration. They visited almost twenty buildings, mostly large cinemas and festival cinemas in France and the UK.
Foundation stone ceremony
On 3rd January 1968, while Czechoslovak cinema was surfing the new wave, construction works began in Karlovy Vary. The foundation stone ceremony took place later, on 5th June 1968, as part of the opening of the 16th edition of the film festival.
New materials, procedures and technologies were used during the construction. Even though the project included various parts, the Machonins succeeded in giving the complex a unified look. The main materials, concrete, glass, and red-stained wood, were used in both the exteriors and interiors, connecting freely.
Large open spaces cleverly play with light and colours. The tricky construction of the Large Cinema Hall, which is suspended on a long bracket, creates the illusion of the hall floating in space and defying gravity. A swimming pool overlooking the city was constructed on the rocky slope behind the building.
Cultural complex in construction
The Machonins designed the Thermal Hotel as a comprehensive work of art. Aside from the building itself, the project also included designing the interiors and furniture and involved other well-known designers of the time.
The information system, the logo and typeface were designed by the graphic designer Jiří Rathouský. René Roubíček created the original lighting fixtures, the chandelier in the foyer was designed by the already mentioned Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová. Sculptures by Josef Klimeš and Miloslav Chlupáč and works by Arnošt Paderlík, Vlastimil Květenský and other authors completed the building.
“We designed everything for the building, even the furniture, including a whole new set of chairs – from low to highchairs, couches or wing chairs. The wing chairs were huge so people could completely disappear in them. Our principle was to create a unified character for the whole building so that it leaves maximum impression. In some cases, we even invited artists to help us with the interiors. We did the ceiling of the Large Hall with Čestmír Kafka. We also designed the tablecloths, cutlery, and glassware. Stanislav Libenský helped us select the glassware.”– Věra Machoninová (shortened, Vorlík 2010).
August 1968 – change of course
Shortly after the launch of the construction, in August 1968, Czechoslovakia was occupied. The government adopted a different approach to the construction of the Thermal Hotel designed and planned in a period of relative freedom. The Machonins did not sign the approval of the military invasion and their involvement became undesirable.
The communist party decided that, aside from being a festival palace, the hotel would serve as a spa sanatorium for the working class for the rest of the year. In 1974, Interhotel Karlovy Vary, the original investor, was replaced by the state-run company Československé státní lázně a zřídla (Czechoslovak State Spas and Natural Springs).
The opening ceremony of the Thermal Hotel boasting 533 beds in nearly 300 rooms, a 2000-place congress centre, restaurants and a swimming pool took place in 1977. While being criticized by the state propaganda for its shortcomings, especially for its robustness and appearance, the hotel was praised by international press after it hosted its first film festival for its modern design, architecture, and top-notch technical facilities.
Post-Velvet Revolution difficulties
1989 brought the return of freedom to Czechoslovakia but also difficult times for the Thermal Hotel. The public has been wrongly associating the hotel with the fallen regime, the normalization period, and insensitive communist building development.
Few of the non-professionals saw the building as a unique, internationally significant work of architecture designed in the relaxed period of the 60s.
Even the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, still hosted by the Thermal Hotel, was fighting for its survival after the Velvet Revolution. In 1994, Jiří Bartoška and Eva Zaoralová’s team took the helm of the event putting it back on the map of prestigious film festivals and securing the presence of world-famous film stars.
In 1991, a privatization project was approved to transfer the ownership of the hotel to the National Property Fund and announce a public tender. However, the project soon ran into problems.
After signing the purchase contract, the winning company registered the hotel under its name in the cadastre of real estate. However, it never paid the purchase price and immediately sold the Thermal Hotel to another company which paid the purchase price and became its registered owner.
Beginning of legal disputes
Due to the violation of the tender’s conditions, the National Property Fund withdrew from the contract and cancelled the tender. In 1995, the Fund brought an ownership lawsuit against the companies. The Fund won the lawsuit four years later and transferred the ownership of the Thermal state company to the THERMAL-F public company of which the Fund was the sole shareholder. Shortly after, another ownership dispute began, this time with the company that finished second in the 1991 tender.
The unfinished privatization and subsequent long-running hotel ownership disputes were for long hindering investments into renovations, repairs, and modernization. Moreover, from the beginning of its existence, the hotel’s function kept changing with every new political regime, management, and owners.
Complicated development and new services
In 2011-2012, 35 years after the hotel’s opening, a balneotherapy centre and indoor swimming pool were built on the lower ground. The outdoor thermal pool was closed for the 2013 winter season due to its high running costs. Two years later, the loss-making, run-down swimming pool was closed for good.
At the same time, a proposal was submitted to the National Heritage Institute to make the Thermal Hotel complex a protected heritage site. The proposal was rejected in 2017.
Modernization preparations begin as state ownership confirmed
The Thermal Hotel ownership disputes lasted until 2017 when the Supreme Court of the Czech Republic ruled that the owner of the hotel (officially THERMAL-F, a.s.) was the Ministry of Finance of the Czech Republic which had taken over the powers of the now-defunct National Property Fund. The ruling allowed the government to boost the company’s capital and the hotel’s management set to prepare its modernization.
In 2019, the hotel’s renovation began based on plans to address its general technical disrepair and high energy performance. Its main stages will be completed in 2022.
The largest part of the renovation aimed at improving the hotel’s energy performance. Supported by the State Environmental Fund, it should reduce energy costs by up to a half. The heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and utility lines in the hotel building, including a new fire safety solution, have already undergone complete modernization. Roofs and terraces have been insulated. The remodelling of the hotel’s upper floor Superior rooms, which is currently nearing its end, will be followed by a renovation of the whole building.
The popular outdoor swimming pool, featuring a Saunia sauna world, will reopen as a relaxation centre for the public and hotel guests in 2021.
The scenic restaurant/café with an unbeatable view of the colonnade will also reopen its doors.
Thermal Hotel’s genius loci
The Thermal Hotel is nearing middle age. In 2022, it will celebrate the 45th anniversary of its opening. We believe that the hotel will benefit from the ongoing renovation while preserving its genius loci established by previous generations. Come see for yourself – book a stay at the hotel, visit Karlovy Vary or come by for one of the future editions of the film festival.
BENEŠ, Ondřej, Lukáš BERAN, Pavel HALÍK, Daniela KARASOVÁ, Petr KLÍMA, Radomíra SEDLÁKOVÁ, Pavel SMĚTÁK, Klára PUČEROVÁ, Petr VORLÍK a Jakub ŽELEZNÝ. 60’/70’: Věra a Vladimír Machoninovi. Prague: Galerie Jaroslava Fragnera, 2010, ISBN 978-80-904484-1-4.
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