PRAGUE (Reuters) - When Tomas Bata turned the Czech town of Zlin into a global shoe capital and created a “utopian” factory village for his workers almost a century ago, his red-brick architecture won widespread praise from the likes of Le Corbusier as a “shining phenomenon”.
By the 1930s, the Bata company had built Europe’s second-highest skyscraper, with its own mobile office tucked in an elevator. Workers lived a short walk from the factory in “Bata houses”, and Zlin’s 2,000-plus-seat cinema was Europe’s largest.
A world war and four decades of communism has taken some of the shine off Zlin since then. Bata has not produced shoes there for more than 70 years and dozens of the red-brick buildings in its giant factory complex fell into disrepair, something that has continued since the 1989 return of democracy.
But the architecture remains, and now public and private investors are in the final stages of a decade-old plan to restore the area with cafes, housing and entertainment centers.
The Zlin region will finish a 900 million crown ($43.79 million) overhaul of two Bata buildings next to the railway station that will house a museum, library and gallery for the Bata Institute next year.
Blocks away, private developer Cream Real Estate is building a 300 million crown residential, office and commercial project in a refurbished former Bata factory building.
“That time (of Bata) is over,” said Martin Jarolim, Cream Real Estate’s director. “We have to think about what we can do with so many buildings in such a large area in a smaller city like Zlin...to bring new life.”
Bata is still a global brand with 5,000 shops in more than 70 countries, but in Zlin, it is a few big tire companies — including a Continental factory in neighboring Otrokovice — and countless small- and medium-sized manufacturing firms that now drive the town’s economy.
The success of the Bata shoe empire funded Zlin’s growth from a town of 3,000 in 1894, when the company started, to a city of over 40,000 by 1938 when the Batas fled to Canada before the Nazi occupation during World War Two.
It wasn’t until after communism that the Bata brand reappeared in the country. After 1989, Bata’s son Thomas J. became a frequent visitor to Zlin.
The refurbishment work today continues to showcase the red brickwork that colors Zlin, now a city of 75,000 tucked in a lush valley 300 km (186 miles) southeast of Prague.
Ringing the centre, rows of boxy, two-storied, red-brick homes, once used by Bata workers and called Batovky, dot leafy neighborhoods and are lived in today. Across from the factory complex and beyond the main four-lane road that cuts through the city stands a rectangular-shaped 11-story hotel from the 1930s.
When Tomas Bata died in a plane crash on July 12, 1932, his brother Jan Antonin took over the company. It was then - with the direction of renowned architects like Frantisek Gahura and Vladimir Karfik - that many of the stand-out buildings appeared.
This included the flagship 77.5 meter tall skyscraper on the edge of the factory complex that was refurbished in 2004 and houses regional government offices.
Buildings around Zlin are marked with the same boxy shape and steel window frames. Construction met Bata’s demand for efficiency by using reusable formwork to pour concrete.
The uniformity of Zlin’s expansion was one of the largest mass uses of functionalist architecture in its time. The model was also a blueprint for so-called Batavilles replicated around the world by the company - from Brazil to England and India.
“(It) really follows many of the ideas that are now sought in new town plans in the United States, Europe and Asia: walkable communities, mixed building types, a tight urban plan, sustainable and green land-use,” said Erik Jenkins, associate professor of architecture at the Catholic University of America.
“Today, much is made about how architecture is innovative but Bata was 75 to 100 years ahead of its time,” added Jenkins, who grew up near a Bata town in Maryland in the United States.
Despite the simple beauty of the town he created, the construction of Zlin served a single purpose: to boost production.
“In Zlin, style was not on Tomas Bata’s mind as much as utility,” said Kimberly Zarecor, an associate professor of architecture at Iowa State University.
“We look at Zlin today as having a ‘modern’ aesthetic, but Bata saw the housing and the civic buildings as an extension of the physical logic of the factory and tried to use similar building modules for all the construction to save time and money.”
The end result, though, won plaudits from architects and serves as a sort of time capsule for architectural historians.
Today, the factory complex remains an important location for Zlin. And while the area continued to churn out shoes under Communist times after it was nationalized in 1948, the return of capitalism left firms struggling to compete with cheaper made-in-China footwear.
Instead of shoes, small-scale production companies now occupy the area, and tire maker Mitas operates a factory. Government offices, warehouses and outlet shops fill out the rest of the area. More retail is on the way.
In a conference room on the 10th floor of a Bata building, Cream Real Estates’ wall is full of drawings and plans for its next project: a $100 million centre with shopping, offices and university classrooms.
Jarolim said it was important that Zlin’s heritage reaches a new generation.
“We are trying to put together the old — what Bata architects have done — with the new, which is essential for the 21st century.”
$1 = 20.5532 Czech crowns