Sunday, January 12, 2014


Vladimír Šlapeta and Susana Tejada, Curator of the Darwin D. Martin House (J. Quinan)

Fiercely determined to research the papers of the distinguished Czech engineer, Jaroslav J. Polivka in the UB Archives, and to see the Darwin Martin House, Vladimír Šlapeta traveled from New York’s upper West side to La Guardia airport at 5 a.m. Monday morning only to be rebuffed by weather conditions in Buffalo. The following day he tried again at 5 a.m. to no avail. Finally he arrived after delays of two and a half hours on Thursday morning and was sped to the archives for an abbreviated stay. Such is the life of a distinguished scholar and world-renowned historian of Czech and European architectural modernism.

Vladimír Šlapeta, Honorary Fellow of the AIA, was Head of the Architecture Collection of the National Museum of Technology in Prague from 1973-91, where he organized a series of exhibitions: The Brno Functionalists in Helsinki, 1983; Czech Functionalism 1918-1938 at the AA in London; and Czech Cubism at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York and the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 he became Dean of the Architecture Faculty in Prague from 1991–97 and from 2003-2006, and later in Brno from 2006-2010. He is a Fellow of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, where he served as Deputy Director of the Architecture Department from 1997-2006. He is the author or co-author of more than 30 books on architecture.

Czechoslovak Pavilion, New York World's Fair, 1939

Why the intense interest in Polivka, and why Buffalo?  Born in 1886, Polivka rose from humble beginnings to become one of the great modernist engineers in Europe. After serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army in World War I he opened an office in Prague and developed photo-elastic stress analysis, a way of studying the stresses in reinforced concrete structures through passing light through clear plastic building models.  This and other innovations led to Polivka’s selection as engineer of the Czechoslovakian pavilions at the Paris Exposition in 1937 and the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

With the Second World War looming he decided to remain in the United States where he first became a professor of engineering at U.C. Berkeley and later established a private office. An admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, Polivka offered to help Wright with the engineering of some of the architect’s most prominent late buildings and projects including the Guggenheim Museum, the research tower of the Johnson’s Wax Company, and the famous (or infamous) Mile High Illinois Building of 1956. Alas, Wright was painfully slow to  reward Polivka for his services.  

Wright (left) and J.J. Polivka (Photo: University Archives, State University of New York at Buffalo)
Research Tower, Johnson's Wax Company, Racine, WS 1937 (Photo: David Daniels)

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, N.Y., 1943-1959

Polivka kept extensive records of his dealings with Wright including letters, photographs, and sheets of calculations for the Guggenheim’s spiral structure. These documents came to the UB Archives when, in the 1980s, Katka Hammond, Polivka’s granddaughter, a resident of Buffalo, persuaded her mother and uncles to donate them to UB, thereby considerably enriching the University’s holdings of Frank Lloyd Wright documents.

Vladimír Šlapeta in the pergola of the Martin House (J. Quinan)

[Thanks to Katka Hammond and Max Wickert, Susana Tejada, and Barry Muskat]

1 comment:

Hetty said...

Fascinating! Thanks, Jack!