Profile - Eva Jiricná

Eva Jiřičná talks about her modest beginnings, her humble outlook on life and what the future holds

Words By Emily Martin

LAST NOVEMBER, architect Eva Jiricná was awarded Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award winner at the last FX Awards gala night in London. She has enjoyed a career in architecture spanning six decades, and is known for her distinctly innovative and modern style – notably pioneering glass for structural use. Her interior design schemes are internationally recognised, which encompass engineered masterpieces that underpin her architectural skills. Jiricná is head of department of achitecture at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague and has won seemingly countless international awards for services to architecture and design. She is a worthy recipient of all her awards and accolades, but her story to success is unique: her upbringing was blighted by war, prejudice, poverty and displacement. Yet, despite it all, Jiricná says it is important to remember the people who are worse off. I spoke to her about winning the award, what it means to her and her path to becoming an architect.

‘It is very difficult to answer because… with age you just get now various [lifetime achievement] awards and people notice that you have actually done something or you pursue some ideas throughout your life,’ she explains. ‘And so it is extremely pleasant when you have the acknowledgement. But on the other hand, I’m not a person who would think, “oh wow, now I’ve got the prize, so I’m a brilliant person”. I still see what I do wrong [and] it doesn’t stop me just trying to go deeper and deeper into every single problem I’m dealing with.’

The Hotel Josef is a sleek and modern design, showcasing a lighter alternative to the heavier atmospheres of the city’s older historic hotels.The Hotel Josef is a sleek and modern design, showcasing a lighter alternative to the heavier atmospheres of the city’s older historic hotels.

Jiricná’s modesty underline’s her brilliance. When you speak to her you quickly realise her kind, grounded, yet resilient and ambitious personality and her passion for architecture, which she describes as a challenge that pushes you further; ‘the encouragement to continue and carry on doing whatever you started a long time ago.’ Born in the former Czechoslovakia Jiricná attended the University of Prague and the Prague Academy of Fine Arts. She originally wanted to study chemistry, but an argument with a lecturer pushed her to architecture, which she describes as a kind of happy accident. Nevertheless, her interests were in all-male environments, who would discourage her whenever possible. But she was never deterred.

The Hotel Josef is a sleek and modern design, showcasing a lighter alternative to the heavier atmospheres of the city’s older historic hotels.The Hotel Josef is a sleek and modern design, showcasing a lighter alternative to the heavier atmospheres of the city’s older historic hotels.

‘“Why don’t you do interiors? Why don’t you do, you know, something which is simple?”, meaning cushions,’ explains Jiricná. ‘It really was hurtful because...I loved maths, I loved physics and I loved chemistry. So I couldn’t absolutely understand why I should be deprived of studying something which might have been my life venue. Immediately, as soon as I entered the architecture faculty, I did three years of structural engineering parallel to architecture.’

Born in 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, the German army had occupied the town that she was born in and Jiricná’s mother would remember the army was marching outside the windows of the hospital. ‘No, maybe I don’t want to exaggerate, but I had quite hard beginnings’ she says. She describes a ‘relatively normal’ life, which she credits her parents’ good spirits and humour, despite what was going on around: ‘I had to be terribly careful that I didn’t hit the daughter of the SS officer who lived across the road when she was stealing the toys!’, Jiricná laughs.

Inside Lloyds’s HQ, London, in 1987 with interior design by EJALInside Lloyds’s HQ, London, in 1987 with interior design by EJAL

When the family moved to Prague, the flat they lived in was left unfurnished for years. The train in which the furniture was brought in was ambushed with everything taken. ‘There was no coal, there was no electricity; I mean a few months before the end of the war, it was the most primitive. I slept on a tablecloth in a flat, but everybody was in that situation. And I had these wonderful parents who somehow went through it. My father was always joking [and] I didn’t really think that anything terrible was happening’ she says.

The family home was ‘made comfortable’ by 1951, and life for Jiricná into her early 20s when she was reading architecture was modest. She remembers waiting until the family dinner was finished until she could work. ‘Then I could put my drawing board on the dining table, but I was used to it and I wasn’t the only one [going through this]. I think I just had a tremendous gift that I didn’t take myself seriously’, she explains.

‘I never considered myself to be a victim, never. I always looked at those who were much worse than me, that is what my mum really somehow managed to do. That whatever happened, she always said “don’t look up, but look down”. And that is what I do still. So I do realise how lucky I am [and always have been].’

The staircase inside the Tomas Bata University in Zlín, Jiricná’s hometownThe staircase inside the Tomas Bata University in Zlín, Jiricná’s hometown

Arriving in London in 1968 Jiricná worked as an architect with the Greater London Council on social housing projects. She progressed quickly to the Louis de Soissons Partnership to work on Brighton Marina, before joining Richard Rogers RA to work on the interiors of the Lloyd’s of London headquarters.

While she gained recognition with architectural projects, her retail design commissions, most notably Joseph, were greatly influential. In 1976, she became a British citizen and in the early 1980s she had set up her own practice working on projects for the Royal Academy of Arts and the Jubilee Line extension at Canada Water, amongst others.

‘The glass staircase is a story of getting right into the dark places,’ Jiricná recounts on the origins of what has since become her trademark legacy. ‘Because retail brands started hiring basements [units] because it was cheaper and people didn’t want to go down because it had lack of daylight. So I thought, “okay, so why don’t we use glass?” But glass was at the embryonic stage. It broke when you stepped on it or possibly could break even if you could calculate glass as a structural material. So I started working with structural engineers.

‘And then because it is aesthetically... pleasing, we have somehow fulfilled this kind of process of opening up the possibilities of glass being used not only in interior but elsewhere.’ Initially she started putting Perspex underneath the glass, but engineered it so glass was the structural material. Clients loved it and demand grew.

Following the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Jiricná began working on projects back home in (what soon became) the Czech Republic. She designed the new Congress Centre, as well as a new faculty building of the Tomas Bata University in her birthtown of Zlín. She has designed many new projects in Prague, including the Main Hall of Komercní Banka and the reconstruction of the St Anna Church in the Old Town. In addition to her London practice – Eva Jiricná Architects – she set up Architecture Interior Design (AI Design) in 1999 with Petr Vágner, which is working on a number of projects including regeneration of a Prague Skyscraper. However, by 2020, she had closed her London office.

‘I closed the practice in London because I was 80 and I did not have anybody to leave the practice to,’ Jiricná says. ‘I saw that was the time to let all those people, who had a future ahead of them, go because I could not justify [holding on to them]. I could have died a day after. At that age you simply cannot plan the future.’

We talk more about the projects in the Czech Rebublic, which include former communist buildings, the university in Zlín, an old music hall, judging a competition for an urban scheme in Bratislava and a talk in Croatia. Life travelling between Prague and London, where Jiricná resides, and the rest of the world is still busy. When we spoke, Jiricná was awaiting a hip operation, which has temporarily grounded her, so she relies on Zoom until she can comfortably travel by plane. And, while she may not be planning too far into the future anymore, she simply says: ‘I just try to keep going!’

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