Ostrava, Czech Republic

The mines Vitkovice in the Czech city of Ostrava are a stunning site on a massive scale, with iron towers, pipes and conduits creating an entire city landscape. Last used in 1991, the mines are undergoing a dramatic transition from industry to culture. Valentin Bontjes van Beek – AA Intermediate 10 Unit Master – and I were invited to visit Vítkovice as guests of the Czech Centre with the aim of initiating collaboration between the city and Valentin’s students.

In a short space of time our trip covered the history of the mining district and the various architectural typologies of the area shaped by political and industrial forces. The site is privately owned by Jaroslav Svetlik, a local businessman, who largely funded the projects. On arrival, we met with Josef Pleskot; the architect of Gong, a transformed Blast Furnace now housing a concrete-lined gallery and concert hall. Pleskot gave us an extensive tour of the transformed building and compared the project to a ship in a bottle; with only one small aperture cut into the building for access, all the elements of the new functions had to be constructed within its shell. We also visited Pleskot’s newly built Science and Technology Centre. As the sole architect for the new works it would appear that Pleskot has an enviable relationship with his client.

We learnt more about the mines and the plans for future work from Milan Srami – the man responsible for the masterplan. We also met with Marta Pilarova, Chair of civic society Provoz Hlubina. Provoz were hugely influential in saving the mines for public use and have overseen the transformation of several industrial buildings into workshops for artists, filmmakers and musicians.

Our visit was given another perspective to the revitalisation of the mines by Ilona Rozehnalova from the Fiducia Gallery who believes that the plan to centralise culture in the Vitkovice area could direct precious funding and cultural activity away from the city centre, leaving Ostrava empty of cultural potential.

Central to the success of our visit was Marek Pokorny, Director of the Plato Gallery who gave us much of his time and energy. We saw some wonderful work by emerging Czech artists including filmmakers Pavla Scerankova and Adela Babanova.

We were also able to meet with Vaclav Palicka, Head of Strategic Development in Ostrava who explained the work his department are doing to bring employment and tourism to Ostrava in a climate of national and international competition.

It was an intense and interesting visit, giving us not only the context for the regeneration of the mines but allowing us to consider the successes and issues of such a large project. What’s clear though is just how uniquely stunning the mines are; we look forward to seeing the outcome of the AA students visit to Ostrava soon.