Taking a research trip to Zlín in the Czech Republic is perhaps not the most obvious thing to do. And yet, I would argue, there are good reasons for going to Zlín. During the 1910s-1930s Zlín changed dramatically from a small provincial town to one of the largest industrial complexes of interwar Czechoslovakia, thanks to the Tomáš Bat’a shoe factory. By the end of the 1930s it was a unique conglomerate of modernist factory architecture, advanced employee housing, and company schools—with a new airport just behind the town. Visitors felt they were entering an enclave of America—in Le Corbusier’s words, “Zlín is one of the blazing places of the new world!” (1935).
As a major example of Czechoslovakia’s modernization between the wars, Zlín has generated some interest that mainly highlights the place as an architectural and urbanistic accomplishment. Scholarly interest in economic and managerial aspects of Zlín is available, too. It is polarized: admirers see in Bat’a a managerial genius, while critics portray him as a rapacious entrepreneur imposing a military-like discipline on his workers, while smartly hiding behind his patriarchal authority. Much of this has been researched but much has also been completely neglected. Zlín was a civilization in and of itself—the factory was not only about shoes.
And here are some “modernist” reasons to revisit Zlín. The company exploited a broad range of modern media and techniques. It constructed its own visual space, it documented the employee’s collection in photography, it produced its own internal periodicals, and it even commissioned children’s literature to advocate—or better propagandize— company values to kids. Imagine your kids, reading a book which depicts the career of two young men who gradually make their way up in the system, traveling all over the world to conduct business; one as a specialist in leather tanning, the other as an aviator. And imagine company publications repeatedly bringing photographs related to aviation so that leafing through them gives one the impression the company was mainly about flying all over the world. And imagine, finally, a seamless visual space in which the factory and the town are in a constant flux. I was amazed to see a picture archive that reveals Zlín as a “lettered” city, i.e., a space systematically and professionally filled with banners displaying dozens of company-produced slogans. Slogans extended from the production space to building walls and billboards in public space, thus creating a total “lettered” environment. A lexicon of this peculiar language is underway!
Clearly, Zlín absorbed interwar modernity across the board—in architecture, economy, and culture—and as such it is a worthwhile destination for someone who works on interwar culture. There is still a room for a fresh look—and if you page through Foucault’s Discipline and Punish at the same time— you will not waste your time.