Fotograf Magazine

Jiří Kroha

Dissecting the Housing Crisis: Sociological Fragments of Living

In his Sociological Fragments of Living, the architect Jiří Kroha offered an original response to the economic crisis of the 1930s. Using photomontage and statistical graphs, he analysed living conditions in interwar Czechoslovakia. Despite its scientific character, the book is not lacking in visual attractiveness and didactic properties.

At the Exhibition of Construction and Living, held in 1933 in Brno, visitors were captivated by a series of eighty panels containing photomontages, diagrams, and texts: Sociological Fragments of,Living. The aim of the authors (the architect Jiří Kroha and his students at the Institute of Architecture and City Development at the Brno University of Technology) was to clarify the “processes of living […] as they occur in the individual social strata”, thus alerting the public to the undignified living and housing conditions of the poorest segment of the population.1

Kroha had applied himself to a progressive political and social program in architecture since 1930, when he joined the left-oriented group Levá fronta (Left Front). He did not conceive of architecture as an isolated creative act, but rather as a process linked to the social, political and economic system. New architectural proposals were therefore to be preceded by an expert sociological analysis of living conditions. Presenting this scientific conception of architecture to the public was no easy feat.

Kroha opted for the most acces sible strategy of visual communication, one which was attractive in its form and educative in its content: photomontage. Combined with clear graphs, this proved to be the most adequate method by which to introduce a broad audience to ongoing economic and social processes. Photomontage became a popular means in the didactic exhibitions which popped up around Europe in the 1920s. With the aim of mediating discourses on important social topics, their organizers focused more on visuals than text. A model of this form of presentation was the Soviet hall at the Pressa exhibition in Cologne in 1928. A dynamic scenography combined with documentary photography, photomontage and models also dominated architectural exhibitions, including the Exhibition of Contemporary Architecture in the USSR, held in Prague in 1932.

The Soviet model operated on all levels, from the method of presentation to the theses on living. Kroha claimed allegiance to the Soviet theory of collective housing after vising the Soviet Union personally in 1930. But unlike the Soviet context, within which exhibitions mostly praised the virtues of socialist developments, Kroha focused on condemning the inequalities brought about by the capitalist system. To this effect, he made use of “class against class” rhetoric in his photomontages, emphasizing the contrasts between the accommodation of the working class, the petite bourgeoisie and the grande bourgeoisie. Every panel focused on one pressing theme in areas including hygiene, accommodation, clothing, free time, and other aspects of everyday life. While statistical graphs ensured the data had a high level of scientific objectivity, the photographs served as proof of truthfulness. The combination of these two media ensured the veracity and illustrative nature of the whole. What the graphs and descriptions describe in numbers, the photographs expose directly: slums in contrast to luxury villas, tattered rags next to modern fashion, the promiscuity rampant in the destitute dwellings in contrast to opulent lordly bedrooms and so on.

Photomontage was not only demonstrative but also visually captivating. Kroha’s capacity in this field can be ascribed to the activities which he developed in the 1920s in the fields of avant-garde scenography and graphic art. This was how he came to know constructivist photomontage and its principles of legibility, colour contrasts and geometric structures. He also mastered surrealist photomontage, which assumes a freer association of fragments based on the expression of emotions and internal visions. Both these methods were used in tandem in the Sociological Fragments of Living, the aim being to achieve a maximally suggestive result.

The subject of inadequate housing and the possibilities of its presentations were still topical in 1973, when a decision was made to publish a book presenting the forty-year-old project in book form to honour Kroha’s eightieth birthday. Although the ideological dimension of his work was particularly emphasized, that was not the only reason for Kroha’s official recognition. This also had to do with the then-topical humanist values Kroha defended in the context of the mechanization of apartment-housing developments. Within the context of the standardized and commodified approach to housing today, we must admit that Kroha’s position has lost nothing of its social and visual urgency.

1Jiří Kroha, „Sociologické fragmenty bydlení“ [Sociological Fragments of Living], Tvorba VIII, no. 39, 28. 9. 1933, pp. 616–617.

JIŘÍ KROHA (1893–1974) was a Czech architect, scenographer, and visual artist. As a member of the Union of Socialist Architecture and the associations Mánes and Levá fronta, he became an important representative of the interwar avant-garde. In architecture, he advanced socially and politically engaged functionalism, and, after the Second World War, socialist realism.

FEDORA PARKMANN is an art historian at the Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, focusing on the history of photography between 1918 and 1939.

Fedora Parkmann