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The architect of Poděbrady, between the beauty and functionality of his early Twentieth century artworks

Hearing the name of Antonín Engel makes us at once think about water. Despite an eclectic and brilliant career as a city planner, theoretician and academic his name is in fact inextricably connected to two infrastructural artworks: the monumental complex of Podolská vodárna – a modern Praguian aqueduct built in the late 1920s – and the hydroelectric plant of Poděbrady, a small precious stone of the industrial architecture.

Ironically, completely unknown to the ‘hydraulic world’ but not to the infrastructure one, another work that made him famous mirrors its abstract and severe architectural forms in the waters of Vltava, not far from downtown Prague: the impressive building of the Ministry of Railways, nowadays the Ministry of Transport. Even though only a few other of his artworks gained a certain reputation among the public, and his name is mainly connected to the three aforementioned artworks, Engel was one of the most interesting figures of the Czech twentieth century’s architectural scene. His ability to transform highly pragmatically purposed buildings such as a hydroelectric plant or a filtering and pumping plant into Architectures with capital ‘A’ is precisely a proof of this, turning them nowadays into international tourism destinations.

The hydroelectric plant of Poděbrady © Michal LoučFrom the beginning of his career, young Engel had proven himself a promising representative of Czech architecture. Freshly graduated, he joins the Mánes Association, a contact point between Czech artists and foreign avant-gardists. Likewise many intellectuals of his generation, he would enroll at the Za starou Prahu club, an organization aiming to protect the city’s heritage, and which is nowadays still active. Following a brief Praguian professional experience, he moved to Vienna to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, the beating heart of the Central European artistic life. He distinguished himself immediately in that elitist context, going under the protective wing of the great Otto Wagner and winning numerous awards. An urban planning study on Letná brings him the prestigious scholarship to Rome. On his return from the trip to Italy, Engel won also the anonymous competition for the Letenský tunnel project, which will make him part of a considerable controversy. Revealing the winner as an apprentice of Wagner triggers a strong attack of the Czech nationalists who immediately raise doubts about the real author of the project, suspecting that the Viennese maestro was hiding behind Engel. Wagner’s written statement in which he has declared himself a stranger to the project did not have much of an impact, determining the project to fall quickly into oblivion. Precisely in that period, young Engel returned to Prague, began his career as a teacher at the Státní průmyslová škola and at just thirty-four years old, he designed his first masterpiece: the hydroelectric power plant of Poděbrady, his hometown.

The idea of regulating the course of the river Elbe in Poděbrady, a historical Central Bohemian thermal water city, goes back to the beginning of the last century. The first works for the slight deviation and arrangement of the riverbed began as early as 1903, nursing the future idea to create a weir equipped with a navigable passage. A decade later, Engel presented his project for the weir to which he attached a hydroelectric power plant, counting on the technological support of Eduard Schwarzer. The proposal seemed to have a multifaceted and pluralistic foundation, combining the avant-garde technical efficiency with the weighted formal research, at its turn a synthesis between different cores. Even though the main imprint is characterized by austere and essential stylized classical forms and is highly influenced by the Wagnerian teachings – although abstract and geometrized, the core of the project is not exempted from the Cubist influence of those years, which reaches the pinnacle in Engel’s project through the control center of the plant.

Alongside the sober monumentality of the large multifaceted concrete pillars of the weir itself, the most interesting buildings are precisely the engine room with its succession of columns, frontons and large stained glass windows with geometric decorations and the maneuvering and control center. Besides comprising an extraordinary control panel made of black granite, the control center is also surmounted by a cubist tower with octagonal base having electrical distribution functions and equally paraphrasing the ancient tower of the Poděbrady Castle.

The works for the weir’s construction began in 1914, and those for the plant in the following year, on First World War’s eve. Although the conflict has heavily slowed down the construction of the works – completed only in 1923, it has not interrupted them, allowing the plant to become functional in 1919, due to fifty Italian prisoners who had been working on the construction site during their detention.

The beginning of the 1920s brings to light the project for the Podolská vodárna complex in Prague. A new aqueduct for the city had been already needed for quite a while, as the old Kárany aqueduct was no longer able to satisfy the rising water needs, notably after implementation of the Great Prague in 1922. In the same year, after various studies and turnarounds lasting for almost a decade, a technical solution and a location for the new Podolí structure were identified – south from downtown, on the right bank of Vltava.

Although the municipality had entrusted the provision of a modern filtering system to the famous French company Chabal & Cie, the previous year, while reviewing the construction projects that would have contained the installation, it immediately announced a contest to give appropriate architectural shape to the new large construction. Engel won the contest with a project organized on pillars that immediately proved itself to be too complex, determining him to find a better solution. Thus, he developed an ingenious structural system of parabolic arches, allowing the creation of a huge hall of sixty-meter long, twenty-four meter wide and sixteen-meter high to accommodate the filtering tanks. This ingenious technical solution is part of a harmonious monumental complex whose outstanding and exquisite elegance turns it into a magnificent cathedral on water. The main front that faces south is divided into two wings that surround the high central body, being marked by columns that intertwine with stained glass windows. The central tower that overlooks the entire district is decorated with nine sculptures, allegories of the Vltava and its tributaries.

The Podolská vodárna complex, still armed with functional equipment, had been extended along the years according to Engel’s project and was definitively turned inactive in 2002, the year of the catastrophic flood, remaining however ready to intervene if the need should arise.

Although it has been partly turned into a museum, the Podolská vodárna had a few open days and was among the protagonists of the event Dnů architektury, Architecture Days, centered on the theme “Water, People and the City”.

The careful usage of a double language able of both the monumentality of a great public work – celebrating progress and the nation itself – and the technical embodiment of an infrastructure reveals in these “the early machine age” artworks the mastery and the sensitivity of a great twentieth century architect.

by Alessandro Canevari