Architect Vladimír Soukenka

arch-VS-portrait Vladimír Soukenka was born on 4 April 1953 in Prague. He studied stage design at the Secondary School of Applied Arts in the Prague district of Žižkov and architecture at the Academy of Applied Arts, Architecture, and Design in Prague, where he specialised in scenic design and studied in the studio of Professor Josef Svoboda. He got his first job in his field at the Workers’ Theatre in Gottwaldov (now the Municipal Theatre in Zlín) and worked there from 1979 to 1983. In 1983 Josef Svoboda hired him to work at Laterna Magika theatre, where he was a scenic designer and head of the technical arts department. In 1988 he began working as a studio architect for Czechoslovak Television Prague, creating set designs for television drama and fairy-tale productions and for recorded concerts and operas. In 1990 all the creative jobs at Czech Television were converted to free-lance work. In 1991 he was hired from a group of candidates to teach in the Faculty of Architecture at the Czech Technical University in Prague. He was hired by Professor Věkoslav Pardyl, whose footsteps he later followed in the study of the architecture of theatres and buildings for culture. He is the head of the Department of Interior and Exhibition Design (Ústav interiéru a výstavnictví), where he heads his own studio. In 2007 he and Pavel Bednář, a colleague, were helped to establish the Intermedia Institute (Institut intermedií), an interdisciplinary centre that unites the technical education of the Czech Technical University with the instruction in the arts offered by the Academy of Performing Arts (AMU).

Vladimír Soukenka has created more than 80 scenic designs for the theatre and more than 50 sets for television studios and live broadcasts. He has worked on the stages of theatres in Brno, Ostrava, Olomouc, Uherské Hradiště, Prague, Ústí nad Labem and Pilsen. In the field of stage drama he has collaborated with directors such as Miloš Hynšt, František Laurin, Antonín Moskalyk, Lucie Bělohradská and Adam Rezek, in opera with Ladislav Štros, Václav Věžník and Tomáš Šimerda, in ballet with choreographers Zdeněk Prokeš, Jiří Kyselák, Jaroslav Slavický, Libor Vaculík, Ján Ďurovčík, and Petr Zuska, and with costume designers Josef Jelínek, Jana Preková, Irena Greifová and Milada Šerých. He has taken part in numerous exhibitions of scenic design in the Czech Republic and abroad and has won several awards for his work.

Curriculum vitae

  • 1953 Born in Prague.
  • 1968–1972 Secondary school of Art in Prague, Stage technology for theatre, film and television.
  • 1972–1978 Academy of Arts Architecture and Design in Prague. Architectural studio of Prof. Josef Svoboda.
  • 1979–1983 Stagedesigner of Theatre in Zlín
  • 1983–1988 National Theatre of Prague, scenograf and head of Art and Technical service of Laterna Magic.
  • 1988–1990 Czechoslovak Television of Prague, production designer.
  • 1991 Czech Technical University, Faculty of Architecture Prague, head of interiorarchitecture and exposition department.
  • 1994 Study stay by University of Architecture of Nantes.
  • 2006–2008 International workshops ERASMUS „From scenography to Architecture” Faculty of Architecture Prague, Lisbon, Paris
  • 2001 Interior of conference room for Goverment of Czech Republic, Prague
  • 2002–2009 Exposition of International festival Golden Prague for Czech Televizion
  • 2003 Giuseppe Verdi: Aida—stagedesign, National Theater Brno
  • 2008 Leoš Janáček: Káťa Kabanová—stagedesign City theater Ústí nad Labem
  • 2009 Interior of press room for Goverment of Czech Republic, Prague


Studying in the studio of Professor Josef Svoboda had an undeniable influence on my work as a scenic designer. I deliberately chose his studio. Having studied stage technology for theatre, film, and television at the Secondary School of Applied Arts in Žižkov, I already had experience in theatre workshops and with actual work, and Professor Svoboda was an iconic figure in my eyes. It wasn’t so much that I had succumbed to the muse of theatre. When I was a boy I used to build models, puppets, and all kinds of mechanisms using parts from Merkur toy building kits. The kinetics of Svoboda’s sets was what really inspired me. I saw a documentary on the stage designs he did for the production of Hamlet in Brussels in 1965, where the entire set was constantly shifting, and I realised that that exactly is what I aspire to.
Architecture was the focus of study in Svoboda’s studio at the Academy of Applied Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. That meant first of all mastering the essential ABCs of architecture: composition, structural layout, the typology of structures, statics, and construction technology. As a consequence we weren’t able to turn our attention to creative scenic design until our fourth year. That architectural and technical training constituted a fundamental difference between studying under Professor Svoboda and studying scenic design at DAMU.

Vladimír Soukenka

The stage set is a tool for the director to express every situation on the stage. You can equip him with an ocarina that has three tones, or with an organ that has a range of three octaves.
Josef Svoboda

Creative process

Vladimír Soukenka’s scenic oeuvre is founded on the principles of exploration and experimentation with the kinetic possibilities of stage design. For him the rudiments of successful scenic work are technical and technological literacy, enhanced since the 1990s by computer modelling in 3D software, well-honed technical skills, and a good understanding of related fields.

The experience that Soukenka acquired from studying under Josef Svoboda and working for the latter at ‘his’ Laterna Magika enabled him to view scenic design in a wider context, a skill he was able to apply over time in work, particularly, for film and television, and as a university instructor, where a scenographic perspective has proved a useful tool for him in expanding the creative compass of students beyond the limits the theatre arts, an example of which is the concept of ‘scenography of the public space’. He understands scenic design in a broader sense as the ability to work with space, the ability to grasp any kind of space, not just the performance space. He converts his experience in theatre to use in teaching, where he masters space through stories, and highlights the possibilities of applying kinetic principles in architecture. Conversely, he draws on the skills he acquired outside the theatre, in television and film in particular, and applies them in scenic form on the stage.

Scenic designers must be constantly abreast of developments in related fields and bring new techniques, technologies and materials into their own field. Otherwise they are entering the realm of historical conservation; the conservation of historical repertoires, historical technology, and archaic methods. For culture to evolve, however, authenticity is essential.
Vladimír Soukenka

Laterna Magika

In 1983 Josef Svoboda, artistic director of Laterna Magika, hired Vladimír Soukenka to join the company as a scenic designer and head of the theatre’s technical arts department. From the 1970s on Laterna Magika was part of the National Theatre but operated as a separate company with its own repertoire. Svoboda engaged top theatre artists, filmmakers, and visual artists to collaborate in this company, which was much more difficult to operate than ordinary drama stages. Soukenka’s experience at Laterna Magika was crucial to his further career (working as a television architect and scenic designer for musical-drama productions) in two respects. It provided him with a deeper introduction to the principles and rules of the work of a film architect and of film production in general, and for the first time he encountered a type of production in which the unfolding action follows a firmly fixed timing – in the case of Laterna Magika the timing was anchored to a running film, which all the other components of the work had to tie in with perfectly. At this theatre, film fulfilled the same function as music does in an opera or ballet.

On top of standard stage techniques, a key role in productions at Laterna Magika was played by the use of synchronised screenings of images from at least three film projectors. The filmmaking craft was a fundamental part of staging a production. At the very least in this area the scenic designer’s work resembled that of a film architect.

After the preparatory stage rehearsals, the entire project came together with the completed scenery and the film on the stage. This was followed by a phase of testing and adjustments. We then went back to the initial input, revised the choreography, reshot the film, reworked the scenery. The rehearsals in particular were time-consuming as it was impossible to freely rewind the film. The visual accompaniment was cut into short separate loops, like the kind used in dubbing. These short tracts were then rehearsed separately. Cutting the film strip involved removing the perforated material from the mechanism of the projector, splicing it, rewinding it and re-inserting it. This usually took twenty minutes. I’m convinced that the very expensive and time-consuming nature of this is why no other company emerged in the world that was able to work with staging principles like those of Laterna Magika.
Vladimír Soukenka


Vladimír Soukenka sees the scenic design of drama as that closest visually to reality. The degree of simulation of a real environment is in dram determined by the inner needs of the text and is therefore more pronounced than for instance in the case of musical genres. Drama, however, which he focused on right through the 1980s and completely abandoned in the decades that followed, did not provide him with enough room for creating grand scenic gestures and scenic metaphor. Sometimes there are more limitations attached to the visual representation of a dramatic interpretation of a work than there is room for creative invention. There is, however, room in drama for Soukenka’s keen interest in the kinetic possibilities of the scenic space, and the modern and well-equipped of the theatre in Gottwaldov provided him with the necessary room to work in. While there an important moment for him was meeting dramaturg Miroslav Plešák early on his engagement at the theatre. By 1983 they had worked together on eight productions and according to Soukenka theirs was the most intense example of a dialogue between a dramaturg and a scenic designer.

One of the first assignments for a scenic design Soukenka received after joining the Workers’ Theatre in Gottwaldov was for J. K. Tyl’s The Forest Maiden: A Journey to America (Lesní panna aneb cesta do Ameriky). The director sought to play up the child performers in this naive tale and in this way deal with quality of naivite in the characters. In his initial design he employed a concept of children’s picture blocks, where the individual scenes would change by turning the surfaces of the blocks. The first scenic picture of a village square was painted on a neatly arranged surface. When the scene moved from the homeland to a hostile foreign place, the entire structure collapsed, only to be harmoniously reassembled again upon returning to the homeland as the setting in the final act. Ultimately this design was not used because director Jaromír Roštínský left to take up the post of head of drama at the State Theatre (Státní divadlo) in Brno, and his successor, Karel Neubauer, adopted a different approach. In the final version a cylinder structure was set on a revolving platform, and the front half could be split open so that two sections unfolded like wings to the sides to reveal a simple setting of two homes.


The first scenic design for an opera Soukenka ever created was for Puccini’s La Bohème in 1991. This was also the first time he worked with opera director Tomáš Šimerda in the theatre, having collaborated with him a year earlier on five projects for television. Perhaps it was the experience they shared in television work and their effort to find a stage equivalent to the dynamics of a film shot that made them such a formidable creative duo. Over the course of a quarter century they worked together on twenty-three opera productions in theatres and fifteen musical-drama programmes for television.

The second production they did together was Mozart’s The Magic Flute staged in the summer season of 1991 in the Social Hall at the Palace of Culture (Palác kultury, today the Congress Centre/Kongresové centrum). A crucial moment and the touchstone for the approach to the directing and scenic design applied to this vivid work, is the scene of the ‘trial by fire and water’. It requires a scenic component to be brought on stage that can surround and engulf Pamina and Tamino. Soukenka tackled the need to make rapid changes between several different settings and to do so in a hall that did not have the same standard equipment as a theatre by using a system of flying vertical slats that were swung along cables stretched between opposite balconies and were operated manually. The rhythm of the arrangement of slats blended perfectly with the horizontal lines of the system of ceiling sufitas suspended on four point hoists. A staircase extended out from the background which made it possible to play into the height of the performance area. By simply adjusting the slats into a certain position it was possible to produce the effect of a stage with very deep perspective. Soukenka also drew inspiration from the Baroque tradition of illusionistic theatre for his treatment of the already mentioned scene of the trial by fire and water: he lowered the horizontal system of sufitas down to the stage floor in a rearwards ascending rhythm. Pamina and Tamino were able to hide in between them, like in the Baroque system of waves. The actors could ascend the steps and emerge from in between the individual levels of this layout and "float" there to the rhythm of the music. This simple and impressive design, which could be used in almost any kind of space, also proved effective in the many later touring performances of this production. Soukenka and director Šimerda later used a similar approach in a production of Adriana Lecouvreur (2009).


Soukenka’s first encounter with scenic design for a dance production occurred while he was still working at Laterna Magika (Orbis pictus) and the interaction of the dancers with the set design can be said to have come close to a kind of experimentation. Although as a genre classical ballet is not usually (nor actually can it be) characterised by efforts to come up with distinctive or innovative scenic designs, it is possible to identify such features in Soukenka’s designs. In most cases this relates to the work he collaborated on with choreographers Libor Vaculík and Zdeněk Prokeš. For their choreographed works he created several large and sophisticatedly designed structures with a kinetic function. These structures proceeded from the dramatic interpretation of the work and sought not to dominate the production as a whole but rather to support it, to complement its overall tone, and to back up or highlight the dancer’s actions.

Soukenka began to devote more systematic attention to ballet on the large stage at the start of the 1990s as part of his regular collaboration with J. K. Tyl Theatre in Pilsen and the National Theatre in Brno. The particularly spacious stage of Janáček Opera provided him with grand opportunities. The set designs he created there were such that they were able to offer the choreographer more than just a decorative backdrop. Soukenka was able to draw on his knowledge of architecture to offer functional structural designs. He moreover demonstrated this ability in his very first collaborative effort with choreographer Libor Vaculík on the production Notre-Dame de Paris, a work that is very demanding in terms of its action and settings. The ballet music based on the theme of Victor Hugo’s novel was composed by French composer Maurice Jarre, who specialises more in film music. Preparations for the performance proceeded while bearing in mind that this was the world premiere of this title and composer would be present.


Unlike the visual effect of scenic design for the theatre, film and television cameras have their own specific optics. The viewer does not see the picture of the performance area framed by the proscenium arch but sees the specific shot of the camera. In this sense, another creative profession is drawn into the collaborative hierarchy of director and scenic designer and that is the profession of the cameraman. Film editing and the optics of individual shots, where a full picture can cut to a close-up, are what similarly allow the architect to divide up the decorative features into separate parts. A prime example is how interior settings are filmed in the studio, where the camera does not take in the entire space of the room. In such cases it is more practical to build scenery in the form of an exploded view without the individual walls forming a right angle. This standard method of studio constructing allows the large number of crew freedom of movement to work without being crowded within the closed space of a right-angled room. In these cases the emphasis on the accuracy of what’s being focused on and on the realistic execution of the structure. At present, however, thanks to the ever greater miniaturisation of technology, and in an effort to reduce costs, filming is increasingly being done in real settings.

There are, however, genres in which the work of the architect is not specified in such concrete terms. These may include sci-fi, fairy tales, or even various visual fantasias based on ballet and musical themes. Here the architect is not presented with a clearly fixed stylistic or period definition of the scenery and, like in theatre, may employ his own imagination and creativity to a greater extent. The architect’s visual concept is then the most important contribution that he brings to the team of director and camera.