Art for art’s sake

Case study
Paintings in a former abattoir? No problem. Well, that’s what Ostrava city council thought as well as the architects and contractors behind the project. However, a number of problems cropped up along the way (including a change in the council and the pandemic). But in the end, the finished project has made it to the finals of this year’s Mies van der Rohe Awards

The Plato contemporary art gallery is situated on Porážkova in the centre of the Czech city in two separate buildings 70m apart. The main exhibition lies within the city’s historic, reconstructed abattoir building, while the other building – the former Plato Bauhaus materials market – is now the home of a number of workshops.

The city’s slaughterhouse operated from 1881 until the 1970s. After the war, the building was occasionally and haphazardly modified until it fell into disrepair. Fortunately, in 1987 part of the complex was listed as a national monument and the entire complex was added to the list seven years later. The conversion of the former abattoir into an art gallery took place in mid-2022 according to an architectural design by Polish studio KWK Promes. “Plato in Ostrava is a very important project for us as well as for me personally,” explains Robert Konieczny, the head of the studio. “When we were invited to the closed international architectural competition and we first visited the site, I was enchanted by the building. It looked like a castle or a palace. They just don’t make industrial buildings like this anymore. Of course, the entire building was dilapidated and the brick façades and the windows had been blackened by smog. You could say that the city’s industrial heritage was marked out by these walls,” he says.

The design competition was held in 2017. Robert Konieczny tells us that the monument conservation office recommended that the many openings that had been later made in the walls should be bricked over and that the brickwork cleaned up. “However, we felt that we did not want to conceal the history of the place, so we did something different. We saw some potential in these openings and wanted to use them to create natural shortcuts between what was in the gallery and what was outside. Rotating walls were also added to give artists more space to exhibit so that the art could literally go outside, making it more democratic and accessible to everyone. We are convinced that this is the most important feature of the project,” he insists.

Winning the bronze

KWK Promes actually took third place in the competition, but as the architect points out, no one had originally any faith in their project. “Everyone thought that it was too unrealistic.” However, because deals could not be struck with the studios that had won first and second place, the city turned to Robert Konieczny to complete the project. “They even went so far as to say that we were their last hope,” he recalls. “I have to point out that the competition was only for the building and did not include the square around it. But the square formed an integral part of our project since it represented an extension of the exhibition space. The council at that time promised us that the square would be included within the project,” he adds.

With such promises, the studio decided to sign the contract and start work on redesigning the entire complex. A huge team was put together that included architects Robert Konieczny, Michał Lisiński and Dorota Skóra from the studio as well as such other distinguished architects as Tadeáš Goryczka, Marek Golab-Sieling and many others. KWK Promes was also responsible for the interiors, while Yvette Vašourková of Prague-based studio CCCEA Moba completed the interior design and Denis Tomáškova was responsible for the landscaping. The installations were the work of MS Project and the general contractor was Zlínstav, while K2 Stavební Moravia was responsible for the square. The visual signage was the work of Justyna Kucharczyk and Agnieszka Nawrocka of the Tukej studio.

Bricks and greenery

The predominant material used in the construction of the buildings was brick and so damaged areas have mostly been filled in with bricks from these sections. A ceramic wireframe has now been placed over the new glazing to soften the light coming into the gallery. The rotating walls are made of MicroCement and the roof has been given a light grey membrane. The exhibition rooms have been clad in white plaster.

As Robert Konieczny tells us, sometime after the project had begun, a new council was elected in Ostrava that proceeded to remove the area around the building from the project. “This was difficult for us to take, but as a studio we are not afraid of a fight – particularly when we are convinced that our designs are good,” he explains. “We fought to include the square, even though our original idea, which was for this space to be a clear open public forum that would at the same time be a place for artists, had undergone some modifications. And the Plato gallery, which at first didn’t like our concept (representatives of the studio had sat on the competition jury) had a different conception to our own. We were talking about democratising art while they were more interested in democratising the space. It might have seemed like we were talking about the same thing, but we couldn’t find any common ground,” admits the head of the studio. But, as he goes on to relate, further visits to the site allowed the architects to understand that this was not a central part of the city with many entrance points, so visitors somehow had to be encouraged to enter it. “Furthermore, climate reports were increasingly making the case that architecture was harming the environment, so we started to modify our ideas about the surrounding area to meet the expectations of the authorities, who were demanding more greenery in the form of a biodiverse park. What was important for us was that the layout of the land mirrored the buildings that had been demolished, which it now does,” explains Robert Konieczny.

The polluted soil was therefore re-cultivated, allowing a park to be created with drainage floors, flower meadows and retention tanks. As a result, an inclusive green area has been created, not only for the sake of art but also for the environment. However, after another round of elections the original party was returned to power that had promised that KWK Promes could redesign the grounds surrounding Plato. “This was the dream situation for us. We were asked what we would still like to change, but the building and the space around it had already been turned into something that was wonderfully alive, so there was no point in destroying all this for the sake of a few unimportant details. We had already handed over the area and it had started to function really well. And because we’d had to let go of the project a bit and give others some scope, we’d shifted the borders of control and given others the opportunity to say something and had thus succeeded in creating a kind of community as well as space that engaged people. A place has thus been created for everyone that is more egalitarian than elite,” he explains.

A much-appreciated project

The design by Robert Konieczny’s studio came top of a shortlist of 40 projects for the EU Mies Award 2024 and has now been included in the final of the competition. “We never thought we would be in the top 40, let alone in the top five,” admits the creator of the project. “We’ve just met the jurors and heard from the head of the Anna Ramos foundation that the five projects in the final round are all so impressive that they have all already won in a way, so we are very fortunate to have even reached this stage of the competition. The complex has changed so much and now we are still involved in a battle to save the neighbouring market building where Plato is temporarily based and that has been earmarked for demolition. We believe that it makes sense to retain these old buildings because the former abattoir was faced with the same situation twenty years ago. At that time, many people just wanted to knock it down and not many could see any value in it,” says the head of the architectural studio.

The winning project at the EU Mies Awards 2024 is to be announced in Barcelona on May 14th, but Plato has already been the recipient of a prestigious award. In 2023, KWK Promes was awarded the Czech Republic’s Conservation Oscar.

Plato in numbers:

  • Site area: 1.14 ha
  • Built-up area: almost 2,200 sqm
  • Usable area: over 2,800 sqm
  • Number of storeys: 3
  • Total volume: 18,700 m3
  • Design work: 2017–2019
  • Development: 2020–2022
  • Development costs, including the interiors: CZK 230 mln (app. EUR 9 mln)
  • Cost of developing the square around the museum: CZK 48.6 mln (app. EUR 1.92 mln)