František Lydie Gahura and the Tomaš Bata Memorial

One man whose entire life was associated with the Zlín region and the Bata company, and who contributed the most to shaping the urban form of Bata’s city, was the architect and sculptor František Lydie Gahura.

Gahura was born on 10 October 1891 into the family of a worker at the local brickworks, and so his journey towards architecture truly began from the ground up. His close contact with clay in childhood inspired a passion for sculpture. He apprenticed as a stucco artist in Uherské Hradiště, and when Tomaš Bata saw his talent he supported him through a scholarship that enabled him to leave in 1910 in order to study sculpture under Professor Drahoňovský at the School of Applied Arts in Prague, followed by Josip Plečnik’s decorative architecture course in 1914–1917. Plečnik would become Gahura’s great role model, and he promoted his student’s interest in the spiritual meaning of architecture.[1] When Gahura married in 1914, he followed the example of Tomaš Garrigue Masaryk and added his wife Lydie’s given name to his own. After the war, he completed his education in the master class led at the Academy of Fine Arts by Professor Jan Kotěra, whom he knew from his work for Tomaš Bata in Zlín. While at the Academy, Gahura had to overcome initial difficulties resulting from his lack of a liberal and technical education. In October 1922, he undertook an unforgettable trip to Rome with Kotěra[2] that introduced him to the architectural monuments of Antiquity and the Renaissance. Also during his studies, he had his first success at a competition, when his design for Zlín’s town hall won out against proposals by leading architects. This project, as well as his work for Jan Kotěra and on the Bata company’s urban design studies for Zlín, allowed him to pay for the rest of his education, which he completed in 1923.

When Kotěra died unexpectedly on 17 April 1923, Gahura was given what would become his life’s task – planning the industrial garden city of Zlín. Once Tomaš Bata had overcome the difficulties associated with post-war inflation, he began, under the motto of “a factory amidst gardens”, to focus on a development plan for the Bata factory and a master plan for the city that worked with Kotěra’s ideas of a garden city. Gahura had attended Raymond Unwin’s 1921 lecture in Prague and had also read the 1923 Czech edition of Ebenezer Howard’s book Garden Cities of To-morrow.

Gahura developed Kotěra’s earlier master plan for the Letná neighbourhood and designed a checkerboard plan for the Zálešná district and the other neighbourhoods on the hills overlooking the Dřevnice River. The first houses were still built with gable roofs, but flat roofs became the norm after 1925. Thus was born the city’s characteristic forest of brick “boxes” – single-family detached or semi-detached houses built on the green hills of Zlín. Gahura also designed numerous industrial buildings for the Bata plant, and in 1926 drafted plans for a hospital in the pavilion style. Along with the builder Arnošt Sehnal, he helped to develop a skeleton frame system using a 6.15 × 6.15-meter grid of round pillars, built using sliding formwork. The resulting reinforced concrete skeleton frames with brick infill walls became the typical image of the universal Bata architecture – not just for industrial buildings, but for most other building types as well. As early as 1927, Gahura also experimented with the visual effect of rounded pillars in the monumental Church of St. Florian in Miškovice, located just a few kilometres from downtown Zlín.

František Lýdie Gahura: Baťa Memorial, 1938. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

František Lýdie Gahura: Baťa Memorial, 1938. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

František Lýdie Gahura: Baťa Memorial, airplane. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

František Lýdie Gahura: Baťa Memorial, airplane. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

Tomaš Bata Memorial, Zlin Photo: Jakub Skokan and Martin Tůma (BoysPlayNice)

Tomaš Bata Memorial, Zlin
Photo: Jakub Skokan and Martin Tůma (BoysPlayNice)

Tomaš Bata Memorial, Zlin Photo: Jakub Skokan and Martin Tůma (BoysPlayNice)

Tomaš Bata Memorial, Zlin
Photo: Jakub Skokan and Martin Tůma (BoysPlayNice)

As part of the process of building social amenities in town, in 1927 Gahura began planning a new city centre located between the factory and the historical downtown. He designed a north-south uphill axis, at the foot of which he located the Masaryk School, designed as an open embrace and with a monument to President Masaryk. The green band along this axis was lined on both sides by dormitories for unmarried men and women. To the west of the school, he built a market hall and, in 1930, a nine-story department store. The result was a remarkable trapezoid-shaped space between the new school and the new city centre that formed a counterpoint to the north-south axis, thus representing another contribution towards creating a central public urban space.

[1] See František Lydie Gahura, “Humanita v architektuře,” Svobodný zednář 12, no. 1 (1938): p. 40–44. (Excerpt from a speech given to a masonic lodge. Reprinted elsewhere in this magazine.)

[2] While in the city, Kotěra and his students experienced Mussolini’s March on Rome and his political takeover on 28 October 1922. Statement by Adolf Benš, made to the author of this text in 1980.

The complete article is published in Autumn 2020 issue of Piranesi No. 42-43/Vol. 28.

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