David Vávra: I don’t know the borders of art

Although the public knows him as an actor and founder of Sklep theater, he is an architect by profession. Here he speaks out on that and other cultural topics.

You say you’re an architect first and that your acting and other activities are secondary. However, the public doesn’t know you as an architect. Why is that?
This demonstrates how the times are out of joint. Architecture once used to be the queen of the arts, reigning at the top of the pyramid, and today it comes after music videos and other aspects of pop culture. Architecture is one of the main forces that shape the environment, something you can’t avoid. You have to pass buildings, while you can shut out, close off, not buy or not visit other manifestations of art. This is one of the reasons the series (ed: documentary series “Šumná města” about 20th century architecture in Czech towns) is made as entertainment, aimed at people who have no expertise. And that’s why most people know me as a clown rather than as an architect [laughs].

So what have you actually built?
We (with co-workers) have a few buildings in Prague and its environs, family houses and apartment buildings. We also do reconstructions. We worked on Dobeška (ed: cultural center in Prague 4), I worked with František Skála on the café in Akropolis, for which we received an award, the interior of the year, I think. Now we’re working, among other things, on the reconstruction of Švandovo Theater. And for about ten years we cooperate with a day-care center for handicapped in Horní Bezděkov.

Lately there is a lot said about you regarding the documentary series Šumná města. As a moderator of the show you behave a bit unusualy; you criticize practically nothing, but rather speak ironically…
[Interrupts] … Wait, wait. I make my living by architecture. Because I design buildings, I know how terribly difficult and unrewarding construction can be. There are many obstacles, and during the socialist realism era in particular it wasn’t easy to put up buildings with such low quality materials and forgotten craftsmanship. So we try to be more indulgent, even though sometimes we have to state our opinions bluntly – but it’s subjective, and it can offend people. I’m sorry in retrospect that I criticized some people; so I apologize to all my colleagues whom I’ve maligned.

What is your opinion of controversial buildings and reconstructions, such as the Fred and Ginger building, Expo 58 and its subsequent use, Sovovy mlýny and its glass cube?
The first thing people think of when you ask them about modern architecture is the Fred and Ginger building. It’s good it was built, as it’s a sort of milestone. However, everyone prefers a different harmony, so everyone can have different feelings about it. For example, I don’t think exactly that way, but I highly respect the building, although it does break certain rules that shouldn’t be broken, such as the line of the street. It could set a dangerous precedent. As far as the glass cube on Sovovy mlýny is concerned, I’m sometimes a very strict preservationist, on the other hand I’d like to have the freedom for completely unlimited, creative thinking. I’d like to have the freedom to at least consider demolishing St. Vitus Cathedral and replacing it with truly modern architecture using glass and aluminum. So I’m partially a fundamentalist preservationist, but on the other hand I’m an anarchistic creator.

As an architect you have to deal with business, just like everyone who has to pay invoices and taxes. What bothers you most about the business environment in the Czech Republic?
Nothing really bothers me, because you can’t really expect anything in ten years. After forty years of thwarted nature, everything is just getting put right. Many things that could be different; taxes could be lower, but all in all, it’s OK. I’m quite satisfied, and I’m grateful for it.

You say you’re a gregarious sort, that you have to belong to something. Director Ondřej Trojan said that you’re “a unifier, a positive person who brings people together by being friends with them”. What does friendship mean for you today, when the trend is towards individualism?
I can’t answer this for your magazine, as I’d damage everything. When you say something, you take the bloom off it by bring specific. It isn’t good to describe feelings, because it sounds corny. However, because I’ve always been a part of a community that has given me strength and energy under communism and capitalism alike, I’m glad to be have had this identity for thirty years.

Is friendship the reason the Sklep ensemble has already been performing for thirty years?
It’s because we don’t perform too often, so that it serves as relaxation for the people and they look forward to it. But as long as our “therapy” sessions are of interest to people, everything’s okay. I’ve said on occasion that that’s how we develop: from the cellar to the center, and back home. We’re now a hundred meters from the cellar (ed: where the theater was founded. Sklep = cellar), so it would be very simple to go back and reduce the number in our audience from 200 to 20.

But in your conception of theater the audience serves a bit as extras?
That’s also a way to put it. Really, often the audience served as scenery for our party. The system works like that: there is a Christmas Party, individuals or groups prepare a surprise or a performance, then we make some cuts and play it all year. But because we are becoming part of a season ticket in regions it’s as if we are denying our main idea. We are becoming a part of “Cycle D – Contemporary Theatre: Cimrman, Zábradlí, Sklep.”. Buy a season ticket for CZK 330. However, sometimes we don’t even know what each of us will write two weeks before the show.

From what you have said it seems that you are very patriotic. Yet you adopted two black children, which is a bit unusual in this country. What is your opinion of nationalism and globalization? How do you, as a man who has a feeling for roots, see these two opposite poles?
Do you think we’ve confused the children a bit? I think everyone should know their origins. But it doesn’t matter what color one’s face is – what matters is a connection with a culture. He should also respect other cultures, taking both the positive and negative heritage from them. The art of living in one city with various ethnic groups was once common here and created Prague’s beauty. That’s missing now, but something new is taking its place – Vietnamese and Russians live here now, instead of Germans and Jews. So it’s good to start with where I belong and to be open to the rest of the world. But one should show his own culture to the world, not a globalized culture. I don’t like walking through the streets and through the department stores and not knowing which continent I’m on. The materials and aesthetics are so universal that I actually can’t recognize where I am.

A life in numbers
1957 born March 9, in Prague 4
1971 with Milan Šteindler, founded a cult theater Sklep in his grandmother’s cellar
1983 – 84 earned a half-year scholarship at an architectural school in France
1984 graduated from AVU (Academy of Fine Arts) department of architecture
1989 appeared in Tomáš Vorel’s film Pražská pětka, and in a film by Věra Chytilová titled Kopytem sem, kopytem tam
1994 awarded “Interior of the year” by Design Center for his interior of restaurant in palace Akropolis
2002 in April Architekt magazine recognized his co-writing and moderating Šumná města, the TV series about architecture in CR

Let’s return to culture. The program “Česká soda”, in which you took part, is no longer aired on Czech Television, but it looks like it has inspired many other programs, such as “Tele tele” on Nova. What do you think of the quality of humor and entertainment in our media?
I think that politicians are doing so well that it’s hard to top them. They’ve exhausted all the topics. “Tele tele” is another matter. I have to admit that I agree with the way you described it, but I recently watched two episodes and was rather surprised at how funny they were. I appreciate their putting it on every week, which is murderous. On the other hand, because it’s commercial television, which has its limits due to its socio-political classification, the show also has limits. There are probably issues they can’t raise, so it is somewhat lacking in freedom. You can sense this.

It seems that there has been no true political satire here of late. Do you think the humor is becoming a bit depressed? As if the shows and performers from the era of “normalization” are making a comeback?
Yes, it seems so to me, but it doesn’t upset me. It’s the people’s will. Besides, there is an alternative minority culture, but it is more powerful and will have a greater influence on society than things that vanish as soon as they’re aired. It doesn’t bother me at all. And culture, what is that? I don’t know the borders of art and culture. Culture is also the way people behave to each other, which is also often plebian.

Talking of plebian behavior, what do you as an artist say about the behavior of Milan Knížák, director of the National Gallery, one of the highest ranked cultural posts, who speaks very disrespectfully about his colleagues?
I will probably disappoint you. I have a weakness for Knížák and I highly regard his strong personality. Of course I understand all of the reproaches against him, but I like him – although of course within the institution it [his behavior] brings some inconveniencies. A man in his position should probably be more liberal. But I respect his great personality and energy.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Call heaven – they’ll tell you. Or call hell. I don’t make decisions like that. We’re a part of the colossus of a never-ending world, and this power determines our being.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Now I’m a father.

How would you like people to remember you?
However they remember me is fine. It’s up to them. I hope that they’ll see my heritage as positive rather then negative. That’s my only wish.

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