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Obituary: Bertold Hornung

Cliff Hague
Thursday 27 March 1997 00:02 GMT

"Make traffic fit the city, not the city fit the traffic." Bertold Hornung's pithy dictum now has many adherents. A generation ago, when he arrived in the United Kingdom, it bemused, even affronted, more orthodox professionals. But, when it came to constructively deconstructing bureaucracy, Hornung had been schooled in the best academy in the world, Central Europe. With wicked humour, twinkling eyes, and clear thinking, he was an inspirational figure.

He was born into a multi- lingual Jewish family in the Moravian town of Ostrava in 1925. The Nazis cut short his education. Forced to leave school before he was 14, he was sent to Prague in the hope of a place on the Kindertransport. But he stayed in Prague, and learned carpentry skills. He ended the Second World War amidst the horrors of Terezin but alive, saved by the craft he could bring to a work gang. Thereafter his home always contained elegant furniture that he had designed and built himself to a standard of which a master carpenter would have been proud.

By 1950 he had graduated as Ing Arch from the Czech Technical University. He married Hana Mautner, a wonderful support and foil to his wit. He practised his profession, working on a landscape plan for Southern Bohemia, local development plans in Prague and master-planning industrial cities. Then he wrote a letter of protest about show trials. In 1957 he was declared a dangerous person. The judgement was accurate - his intelligence, jokes and humanity were the antithesis of the apparatchik state. He was redeployed to Eastern Slovakia, where his talents were needed to design pigsties.

Many suffered similar fates; each had to find their own adjustment to what Vclav Havel called "this system of existential pressure". Characteristically, Bertie Hornung engaged with his professionalism and rich sense of irony. He entered an anonymous competition for the design of a new town, and won. The prize was to lead the planning of the town, albeit within the strict confines of centrally determined densities and building types. Even here he was able to inject imagination into layouts.

Winning another competition took him back to Prague in 1965, to head the planning of the Metro, and to cross swords with the Russian engineers providing fraternal assistance. Instead of fitting the city to the engineering, Hornung demonstrated how intelligent design could respect the rich legacy of Prague's historic street patterns and open space networks.

The Soviet tanks came before the Metro, in August 1968. Hana was working in an American film; Bertie's metro tunnels had been 20cm too small to fit the Russian trains. In the chaos of 21 August Hornung went to the Director's room at the office, found exit certificates and, as there was nobody there to sign them, signed them himself. The Hornungs packed a few bags into their car, and with their two young daughters set off, telling their neighbours they were out for a for a picnic. They forgot to mention that the picnic was in Vienna.

The family was soon in Edinburgh, the only British city that could echo the townscape of Prague. In 1965 Edinburgh's Development Plan had proposed construction of an inner ring road. There had been no cost-benefit analysis and no integration with land use, parking or public transport. After a long and acrimonious public inquiry, in 1969 Colin Buchanan and Partners were appointed planning consultants, Hornung heading the team, to work alongside the transport consultants, Freeman Fox, Wilbur Smith and Associates. Through Hornung's determined and imaginative advocacy, the balance was decisively shifted towards bus priority, pedestrianisation and traffic restraint, reducing the scale of road developments.

In 1972 he led the team (funded in part by the British Council) replanning Jerusalem, and then in 1976 took responsibility for the preparation of the Lothian Region Structure Plan. He brought a capacity for strategic thinking and a grasp of the relations between land use and transport for which there were few equals or precedents. Under Hornung Lothian produced Scotland's first Structure Plan, and with a full and open process of public consultation.

While holding this senior position in Lothian Region, Hornung attended evening classes at the Edinburgh College of Art to gain the award of the Diploma in Town and Country Planning. He became a Chartered Town Planner on his election to membership of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

He retired in 1983 after a heart attack. Retirement involved regular employment as a planning consultant, serving as a professional adviser to the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland and teaching planning students at Edinburgh College of Art/Heriot-Watt University. During the Prague Spring he had been a highly regarded part-time teacher at the Czech Technical University. In Edinburgh he was loved by his students: he not only helped to make them effective professional planners, but also educated them in life itself. It was fitting that in July 1996 his life achievements were recognised by the award of an Honorary DLitt from Heriot-Watt University.

The Velvet Revolution allowed him to revisit his beloved Prague, where his professional reputation had endured. The new government sought his advice on how to restructure their planning system. He organised mid-career training sessions for Prague City Council, and worked with the Czech Technical University training planners from smaller towns.

Hornung was steeped in a deep understanding of Czech urbanism and design. It all came together in a magnificent exhibition which he organised about Prague, which ran in Edinburgh's City Arts Centre in the winter of 1994- 95.

To the last he remained an incisive wit and thinker. When presented with a draft report and told that all that now needed doing was "dotting the i's and crossing the t's", he scanned it, shook his head and said: "I think we'll need to be crossing the eyes and drinking the teas."

"Like any other weed it is difficult to get rid of me once and forever," Bertie Hornung wrote to me a few weeks ago, explaining that he had had "a rather bad patch of heart trouble with complications". The achievements and the spirit of this weed will be around for a long time yet.

Cliff Hague

Bertold Hornung, planner and architect: born Ostrava, Moravia 25 March 1925; married 1948 Hana Mautner (two daughters); died Edinburgh 20 March 1997.

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