Williamson Helps Bring Jan Palach Memorial to Fruition in Prague

Palach memorial
Hajduk’s House of the Suicide and House of the Mother of the Suicide are now installed permanently in Jan Palach Square in Prague. photo / provided
Palach memorial
Detail from House of the Suicide. photo / James Williamson
Palach memorial
Detail from House of the Mother of the Suicide. photo / provided
Hajduk’s House of the Suicide and House of the Mother of the Suicide are now installed permanently in Jan Palach Square in Prague. photo / provided Detail from House of the Suicide. photo / James Williamson Detail from House of the Mother of the Suicide. photo / provided
News
February 2, 2016

After 25 years in the making, the Jan Palach Memorial on the Alšovo Riverbank in Prague opened to the public on January 16. The memorial pays tribute to the 1969 self-immolation of the Czech dissident Jan Palach, whose death in protest of the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 served as a galvanizing force against the communist government in Czechoslovakia and throughout the Warsaw Pact.

As the project architect, James (Jim) Williamson, visiting associate professor and director of the B.Arch. program, was largely responsible for seeing the memorial through to completion. The structures that constitute the memorial were originally created as a teaching exercise by American architect John Hejduk, with assistance from Williamson, at Georgia Tech in the late 80s. Titled House of the Suicide and House of the Mother of the Suicide, each steel and wood structure measures 9' x 9' x 24', and comprises 49 steel spikes, the longest of which is more than 12' tall.

After their initial construction at Georgia Tech, a second edition of the buildings was temporarily installed in the Royal Garden at Prague Castle in 1991 in commemoration of the newly formed democracy in Czechoslovakia under the sponsorship of President Vaclav Havel. The original buildings were also featured as part of an exhibition on Hejduk at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002. Hejduk's original structures are now constructed for the final time as a permanent monument installed on Jan Palach Square (formerly Red Army Square) as part of a national recognition of political and social solidarity for the country's democracy.

Williamson's involvement with the project has spanned all of the installations. After Hejduk passed away in 2000, his daughter, Renata, asked Williamson to represent the estate in the ongoing effort to install the exhibition permanently in Prague. Williamson worked along with Czech architect Miroslav Cikán, of MCA Atlelier, for many years to see the project through to completion.

"The project has had a long and storied history spanning 30 years and four different 'resurrections,'" says Williamson. "To see the project finally find its place — a permanent place — after so many years is very gratifying and a fitting end to the its long and compelling story."

Hejduk, who was dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union for more than 25 years, began his teaching career in 1954 as a studio instructor at the University of Texas in Austin. He was joined in Texas by a group of innovative architecture instructors — later named the Texas Rangers — including Lee Hodgden, Bernhard Hoesli, Colin Rowe, Werner Seligmann (B.Arch. '55), John Shaw, and Robert Slutsky. Many of the Texas Rangers and one of their students, Jerry Wells, later taught at Cornell before dispersing; Hejduk spent two years in Ithaca and then joined the faculty at The Cooper Union in 1964.

Another member of The Cooper Union's faculty, the poet and art critic David Shapiro, wrote a poem titled "The Funeral of Jan Palach," which is inscribed on a plaque at the base of the monument.

The memorial's opening ceremony included presentations by representatives of the City of Prague; Williamson; Shapiro; and Hejduk's daughter, Renata Hejduk. Attendees included Adriana Krnáčová, the mayor of Prague; U.S. Ambassador Andrew Schapiro; Israeli Ambassador Gary Koren; Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka; Jan Wolf, councilor for culture; and several members of the Prague City Assembly.

By Rebecca Bowes