John Hejduk’s pair of architectural structures, The House of the Suicide and the House of the Mother of the Suicide, are once again on view in Prague. Inspired by a poem by David Shapiro, the pieces were first designed in the late 1980s as an ephemeral memorial in tribute to the 1969 self-immolation of the Czech dissident Jan Palach whose death was in protest of the 1968 Soviet invasion. On January 16 permanent versions of the two structures were installed in Jan Palach Square (formerly Red Army Square), with a plaque that displays Shapiro’s poem, “The Funeral of Jan Palach.”
It took a long time for The House of the Suicide and the House of the Mother of the Suicide to find their way to the square. The structures were first created in 1986 by a group of students from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, under the direction of James Williamson in collaboration with Hejduk.
In 1991, on the invitation of Václav Havel, Hejduk installed a second version of the works in the Royal Garden at Prague Castle. In a gesture of democratic solidarity, the structures were dedicated to the president and the people of Czechoslovakia. But by the end of the decade the wooden structures were weather beaten, had fallen into disrepair, and were removed.
According to Hejduk’s daughter, Renata Hejduk, the idea to permanently install the work came back to life in 2000, when the architect was on his deathbed, but it took another fifteen years of false starts and political wrangling before the designs were finally installed.
“It was very sad and painful for him that they were deteriorating,” she told AN, recalling that visitors to Prague would send home reports that the structures were stored behind bars. “They were locked up almost like political prisoners. It has been so long and it is bittersweet, but I’m elated and overjoyed that my father’s wish that these pieces be saved was granted.”
The site in Jan Palach Square was developed MCA Studio under architects Miroslav Cikán and Pavla Melková, in collaboration with architect Václav Králíček and derives from an earlier plan to locate the works on Alšovo nábřeží, which was part of a 2002 competition study for Palachovo náměstí by Václav Králíček. Beginning in 2014, Prague City Gallery was in charge of the implementation.
The House of the Suicide and the House of the Mother of the Suicide are part of Hejduk’s Masque series and are often considered two “characters”—a mother and a son. Each 9-foot by 9-foot cube is topped by a crown of steel spikes.
Hejduk’s work is deeply moving as well as political, a reminder that form and content are not polar opposites. “Pieces are in the middle between incredible beautiful and poetic and strong with a message,” noted Renata Hejduk. “My father thought of the spikes as a sunburst, as sonic—the mother is quiet and turning in on herself. Implosion of sound and explosion. The sonic act when Jan dies is his sound going out into the universe as an act against the apathy of the students in 1968. He set himself on fire to set them on fire.”
In this current iteration fabricated by Czech KRUNTORÁD Metal Design, the son, or The House of the Suicide, is clad in burnished stainless steel and the mother is clad in dark CorTen steel. The son structure is totally sealed, but the House of the Mother has a cramped room with a single window that looks forever out at her martyred son.
“These projects have been looking for a home for 30 years,” said Williamson. “It’s paradoxical, Hejduk’s masques are often thought as vagabond or itinerant, to use Tony Vidler’s terms. But these structures were always about Prague and about this young man, these were always about a particular place. The fact that we can bring them back to that place is fantastic.”