Vladimír Burda: A Pedestrian Underpass in Prague

The people of Prague have it at last. On 2 December 1968, a team of associated enterprises (investor: Investor dopravních a inženýrských staveb; construction: Vojenské stavby) handed over the pedestrian underpass on Wenceslas Square to the public.

This passageway, connecting the lower and upper halves of Wenceslas Square, Jindřišská Street and Vodičkova Street, is characterised by construction materials such as stone, marble and granite (floors). The ceiling, part plaster and part acoustic, dampens the aggressive banging and rumbling noise overhead. The underpass is equipped with two sales kiosks, men’s and women’s restrooms, telephones, display cases and advertising panels. An air circulation system ensures the exchange of air. In addition to normal stairwells, there are also escalators imported from France and Yugoslavia. In connection with building the underpass, reconstruction was also carried out on the neighbouring sections of Jindřišská and Vodičkova streets that lead to the underpass. The fact that the exits to Wenceslas Square are not covered is, however, a serious shortcoming.

The overall impact of the architecture in the underground crossroads is positive. It is characterised by clarity, and the diagonal orientation of the sales kiosks as well as the fact that they are two-thirds glass contribute to this. The sense of dematerialisation that glass lends to the space dominates. Everything radiates in artificial light. There are no dark corners here. The transparent space open in all directions of traffic is rounded out aesthetically by several works of art.

Architect Josef Kales from the architectural design institution Vojenský projektový ústav entrusted artists Josef Buňka, Ladislav Dydek in collaboration with František Bílek, Karel Velický and Zdeněk Sýkora with the main decoration for the underpass and covered passageway by the Polish Information Service.  /Ed. note: This site has since been redeveloped and Zdeněk Sýkora's mosaic has become part of the interior of the new Café Emporio./


Josef Buňka’s four corner aluminium structural panels represent four variations on simple geometric form. The reliefs contain elements of letters simulating the movement of information, and the idea of the variability of the reliefs corresponds to permanent state of change at Prague’s busiest intersection, defined by the omnipresent campaign of signal lights and traffic signs above. 

Ladislav Dydek and František Bílek handled the rectangular walls of the backs of the sales kiosks by using two large coloured stucco lustro compositions. Apparently led by an effort to add lyricism to the public underground space, they created an abstract composition that would definitely be more suitable in a quieter and more intimate environment.

Karel Velický’s vertically segmented ceramic wall, located by the exit towards the statue of St Wenceslas, is based on a far more sensitive impression of the rhythm of this urban location that pulses with life.

In terms of the effect it has, its creation and implementation, and even in regards to its intrinsic aesthetics, the most interesting artistic wall is in the covered passageway by the Polish Information Service. Created by Associate Professor Zdeněk Sýkora in cooperation with mathematician and programmer Dr. Jaroslav Blažek, this black-and-white mosaic (355x480 cm) bearing the name Black and White Structure – constructed of 15 x 15 cm glazed ceramic tiles from Rakovník with designs fired onto them by the ceramics workshop TVAR on Kampa Island, based on plans and templates – falls into the category of combinatoric or permutational art that Professor Abraham A. Moles  has defined as “essentially structuralist as it isolates the atoms in the universe and rebuilds them into any structure… The objective of permutational art is to exhaust all of the unused possibilities a work has. With this activity, a cognizance of the possibilities develops in the artist,” continues Professor Moles, concluding, “Since then, art has been an idea abstractly transposed to a set of rules and a plethora of applications that satisfy all of these rules, which all differ in their materiality and which all contribute to the same system of thought.” /Ed. note: Vladimír Burda is quoting a text from Abraham Moles' First Manifesto of Permutational Art, first published in Stuttgart in the autumn of 1962 in Max Bense and Elisabeth Walther's publication rot, No. 8 under the title Erstes Manifest der permutationellen Kunst. Czech circles became familiar with this text soon thereafter, as can be seen in notes from 1963 in Josef Hiršal and Bohumila Grögerová's book Let let, Torst, Praha 2007. The first Czech translation by Hiršal and Grögerová was published in 1965 in the eighth issue of Tvář magazine; it was also included in the book Slovo, písmo, akce, hlas, K estetice kultury technického věku, Výběr z esejů, manifestů a uměleckých programů druhé poloviny 20. století (Word, Letter, Action, Voice. On the aesthetics of culture in the technical age. Selection of essays, manifestos and art programmes in the latter half of the 20th Century). Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1967. Josef Hiršal and Bohumila Grögerová made the selections and wrote the introduction; Vladimír Burda was also one of the translators for the book./


I went to visit the author of Black and White Structure, Zdeněk Sýkora, for a short interview. First of all I asked him to explain how he came to decorate the underground passageway and how this work was conceived.

I did not want to tackle this wall in particular. I knew what the space was like, I knew the materials that would be used in the surrounding area, and it was necessary to select a material that would prove to be suitable in these conditions. I also had to naturally consider financial restraints. The architect knew my work from exhibitions and wanted to test the feasability of this thinking in architectural practice (although we had already in fact tested a suitable system of facing for the Letná Tunnel ventilation shafts, for which I designed a far more monumental glass mosaic). He did not know me personally and asked me if I would do it.

You agreed and proved that your Structures are ideal for integrating into architecture. In the process, did you have to deal with any specific formal problems?

This was no problem for me in terms of looking for forms because, over the past several years, all of my artwork has been about resolving relationships of form on a surface. This is done by using several geometric elements and programming their distribution on a surface and their positions with respect to one another. This last aspect (respective positions), the size of the element and its colour were the only questions I dealt with from a formal aspect. I knew it would be a Structure. My justification for selecting black and white is that first of all these seem to correspond best to my line of thought, and second of all the construction materials used in the vicinity (this means metal, glass and marble) testified for using this colour, or lack of colour.

The nature of combinatoric art suggests that there is more than one possible solution. How many types of programs did you and Kales choose from?

Essentially, two solutions were possible – these were based on either that the elements would use their colour to either join to each other, or they would split apart from one another (an element that has black on one side connects this side to the white side of the neighbouring element). This is the rule we used because in the opposite case (where colours would join) the danger arose that large uninterrupted areas of black or white that would arise in this type of program would cause optical deformation of the wall. /Ed. note: As an illustration of this solution, in 1968 the painting Black-White Structure (1966, oil/canvas, 220 x 140 cm, currently in the holdings of Museum Kampa) was selected over the actually proposed option B – apparently due to reproduction issues./

Which line of contemporary artistic thought does this Structure identify with? Could you precisely describe your line of thought?

My work is in no way at all Op art, because it is not about creating illusions of movement or space such as in the work of Victor Vasarely or Bridget Riley, both of which defy the surface. It is about structure based on combinatoric principles that suggest the aspect of instability, but one of an entirely different type. Op art primarily aims for the shock of movement or space when viewing it as a whole, but here one can only speak of a feeling of restlessness, instability that is created only upon looking at (reading) this Structure.

Could you describe the process of how this work of art was created and executed in each of its stages? What I have in mind is mainly how this differed from traditional methods.

Projects of this kind are not preceded by a sketch in the normal sense of the term, but by  several possible plans that all must have the same method of arrangement – selecting elements, setting up the program, making calculations and transforming this into the geometric shapes that are then the basis of the project.  

The computer is involved at a certain phase of the implementation. How would you assess its role in the overall creative process?

If we were to characterise the type of work with the computer, we would not be able to summarise this with a brief formulation (definition); it is necessary to describe the process in more detail. This is not a matter of computer graphics, which is normally concerned with the graphic transformation (expression) of mathematical equations carried out directly by the computer, but the method of working with a computer that operates within the work process, just as is usual in scientific and technical work. Unlike these methods, in our case the computer’s capabilities influenced the form of our basic elements and were adapted to this capability (not just any element can be programmed).

How broadly do these rationalist structures, generated using scientific methods, communicate? Aren’t they limited to a very narrow group?

As a rule, this type of art tends to be tritely criticised as dehumanised. This is absolute nonsense (a bit like Monet’s paintings being dehumanised). Without going into a deeper analysis of this problem, these works are open to immediate communication with the viewer at any cultural level, which is best confirmed by everyday experience.

Can you think of any more general definition of this type of art, one that elucidates its philosophy, its epistemological basis? 

Nearly at all levels, in this country there is still a romantic interpretation of the term “art” – however much it is adapting to this new artistic thought. This art does not work with the inner self, nor does it deal with or want to deal with the destiny of man. In almost all of its forms, I consider the romantic solution to be incapable of broader social communication due to its subjective accent. This does not mean I am rejecting it, I am just defining it. Anyway, the demarcation of these two differing ideas (methods, processes, beliefs) is inherent in the fact that the proportion of universality of these two relations is implicit in the terms subjective – objective. This new art, then, is more concerned with expanding everyday psychological/physical experience – human perception. In today’s way of life, it has more of a prophylactic, cleansing and clarifying role, and it is definitely not obscurantist or mystifying. I welcomed the opportunity of demonstrating this art right on the street, where it belongs. As a result I am apparently in opposition to the National Gallery, where these ideas have not yet gained acceptance – as shown in the last installation of modern art collections which practically demonstrate that at its best, Czech art has developed into introspective lyricism. This understandably gives a distorted view of the true state of contemporary Czechoslovak art.

In closing I would like to note that the suspicious attitude towards a certain section of modern artistic thought and modern art harms not just artists, but society above all. Sýkora’s mosaic is proof that rationalist art blends in with urban architecture in a remarkably organic manner. I believe it would have only been of benefit if there had been a more unified artistic stance regarding the technically and structurally challenging interior of the underpass in Prague. We can only hope that new artistic experiments get applied more widely next time – and not just in architecture.


Published in Výtvarná práce, Vol. XVI, 28 Dec 1968, No. 22-23, pp. 1 and 12.

Vladimír Burda (1934 – 1970), translator, commentator, critic and poet, belonged to the circle of artists who gathered at the Kolář table at the Cafe Slavia and one of the founding members of the art group Křižovatka (Crossroads, 1963).