Zipp – German-Czech Cultural Projects /


Life-worlds /

Utopia of Modernity: Zlín /

Kafka /

1968|1989 /

An initiative of the
Kulturstiftung des Bundes

© Regional Gallery of Fine Arts, Zlín

A trip to Zlín in southern Moravia is a trip to an actually built utopia. The factories, in which today smaller industrial enterprises have located their premises, the generous green spaces, and the free-standing apartment blocks were once the scene of a social experiment: here shoes were not only mass produced, but also the “new man”. The urban planning realized in Zlín has two faces: on the one hand, it was to serve a thoroughly regimented and controllable social entity – this is shown alone by the elevator which Jan Baťa, the brother of the company founder Tomáš, had mounted on the outside wall of the headquarters in 1938: this was nothing other than his mobile office, with which, moving between the floors of the building, he could at any time and unexpectedly seek out his employees. On the other hand, Zlín, which followed ideas of the garden city formulated by Ebenezer Howard, was as a genuine and convincing attempt to solve problems plaguing larger cities: the oppressive density of overpopulated tenements, sanitary shortcomings and air pollution, the lack of green spaces – these are all factors the city architect František Lydie Gahura avoided in his concept of a “factory in green space” presented in 1925.

Tomáš and Jan Baťa, sons of a simple shoemaker, were to go a long way in their father’s craft, eventually establishing the family name as globally known brand. Zlín, the factory, was the nucleus of their success. The synchronization of city and enterprise, a strict regimenting of the everyday routine of employees, and the rigorous implementation of Fordist serial production not only proved that the Baťas were clever entrepreneurs, but also radical social engineers. Zlín was so schematically constructed that not only the shoes produced there became export hits. The factory city itself could be erected elsewhere like a reproducible module. Jan Baťa demonstrated precisely this – after leaving Czechoslovakia as it was under Nazi occupation, he established new Baťa cities at various locations across the world, much in the vein of the franchising principle.

Learning from Zlín? Pursing this question is more than worthwhile: after all, Zlín embodies the utopian trait of Modernity in the form of an ideal-type. At the same time though, the attempt to provide an integrated solution to the problem of balancing work and leisure for everyone reveals how similar the results can be despite very different political objectives. The idea of equality which the Baťas had developed for their employees was not inspired by a leftist social utopia; it was the means to achieve a coolly calculated optimization of performance in the sense of Fordist factory production. Ultimately, any discussion about Zlín has to pose the question as to how the industrial legacy of Modernity is to be approached in a postindustrial age. The direction can be taken from the present-day city itself: the governing authority has already decided against placing the city under monument protection and so refused a “musealization”. Zlín is a unique and exemplary chapter of Modernity. Astonishingly, it is nonetheless little known. The attention afforded the city by Zipp in a symposium and exhibition can only be the beginning of a more intensive exploration of this theme.

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