Zlín – Built by Baťa

Walk a Mile in Zlín’s Shoes 

Completed in the late 1930s, the Baťa skyscraper is the main landmark of the city.

Most people around the world are familiar with Bata brand shoes, a global brand that has existed since 1894, Perhaps you even own a pair of Batas yourself. Did you know that Bata was originally a Czech brand?

Located in the southeast of the Czech Republic, the small city of Zlín was chosen by Tomáš, Antonín and Anna Baťa as the place to establish their fledgling shoe business. Tomáš had a vision for the business that went well beyond making shoes. Many of his business practices and philosophies, such as fixed work schedules and weekly wages were quite revolutionary for the time, made his company a popular one to seek work with.

Tomáš also had a very distinct vision for the city that was influenced by garden city movement founded by English architect, Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), that promoted an equal amount of urban parkland and greenspace to balance the construction in a city. Influence for what would become Zlín’s new face also came from the Modernist style of French architect, Le Corbusier (1887-1965).

To achieve that vision in Zlín, connections were made with Le Corbusier as well as Czech architects: František L. Gahura, Vladimír Karfík, Jan Kotéra and Miroslav Lorenc.

The distinctive red brick housing that Baťa provided for their employees.

Through the interwar period, the face of the city was modernised with a distinctive Functionalist aesthetic where buildings with exposed red brick facades intermingled with parks and greenspace. The fortunes of the city grew with the fortunes of the Baťas. The population of the city grew as people came there to seek work with one of the best companies to work for in the country at the time.

The Baťa business model was one of self-sufficiency and employee care. Baťa employees were compensated well by the company and the city and its amenities were built with the needs and comforts of company employees in mind first and foremost.

All of this is not to say that Zlín had no history before the Baťa years. Indeed, the city can trace its history to the early 1300s. Its history up to the Baťa era is rather unremarkable and generally similar to that of many other places in the region. Overall, the city’s pre 20th century history was built on crafts, trades and commerce.

Goodbye to the Baťas 

Full scale replica of the aircraft Tomáš Baťa lost his life in.

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Baťa company had diversified into many industrial fields beyond the shoes they started with and had established themselves as an international business force with many factories outside the borders of Czechoslovakia. It was a true heyday for both the company and for Zlín. Tomáš had even spent time as mayor of the city in the 1920s.

One of the business fields the Baťas had expanded into was aviation. In fact, Baťa is considered to be one of the first companies in the world to make use of aircraft in business; using them to quickly shuttle executives between their expanding number of factories around Europe. The Zlín aircraft company and the airport it calls home in the nearby town of Otrokovice, were both once holdings of the Baťa business empire.

In 1932, tragedy struck when Tomáš was killed in an aircraft accident as the company aircraft he was on crashed just after take off from the Otrokovice airport.

Tomáš left the company and its administration in the care of his half-brother, Jan Antonín Baťa (1898-1965), who stayed faithful to the family vision for the company and city.

Under Jan Antonín’s watch, the city’s landmark Baťa Skyscraper was built between 1936 and 1938. At 16 stories high, it was one of the tallest high-rise buildings in Europe when it was completed. As with the other buildings in the Baťa vision, it was a Functionalist structure with many modern features such as central heating and ventilation. It also included Jan Antonín’s unique office on a lift. He could travel to any floor in the building quickly to attend to business and always have his office nearby.

J. A. Baťa’s mobile office.

Jan Antonín was very respected for his business accumen and astuteness. He knew the threat that Hitler represented and had preparations underway to prepare for war before The German occupation of Czechoslovakia came in 1939. The company’s Jewish employees and their families were relocated to branches of the company in places around the world that Hitler couldn’t reach and Jan Antonín put the aviation arm of the company in Otrokovice on war footing by putting extra money into the flying school there so they could train more pilots quickly.

Ultimately, it was too little too late. Jan Antonín and his family fled Czechoslovakia at the start of the German occupation and, after spending a short time in America, settled in Brazil.

Following the war, the company’s new headquarters were established in the UK in 1945 before going to Canada in 1964 and then to Switzerland in 2004.

While the company never brought its headquarters “home” after the fall of Socialism, it is still owned by members of the Bata family to this day and they do keep connection to their and the company’s Czech roots.

After the war and the dispersal of the family around the world, the apostrophe was removed from the original spelling of the family name. When said correctly, with the apostrophe in place, the family name is pronounced “BAT-yah”

A Feel for the Place 

Main buildings of Baťa University as seen from the skyscraper.

It is impossible to experience Zlín without experiencing the legacy that the Baťas left to it. The history of the company and the city are inextricably linked.

In the contemporary sense, the city comes across as a distinctly non-touristy university town with a relaxed atmosphere.

If you’re interested in urban planning, Modernist architecture and the history of the Baťa family and company, you’ll likely appreciate Zlín as a place to visit. You’ll also likely appreciate a trip to the city if you’re looking for a Czech town that offers a distinctive architectural face that you won’t see anywhere else in the country.

Though not touristy, the city does offer a respectable selection of accomodations and restaurants to serve a variety of tastes and budgets.

The centre of the city is very walkable and there is a shared public transport system between Zlín and Otrokovice that can get you to points further afield.

One place the aforementioned public transport system will take you to is the city’s Lešná suburb and the sizable zoo located there.

One of the many residents of Zlín’s popular and well run zoo.

The zoo is the most visited tourist attraction in Moravia and considered one of the best zoos in the country. If you visit, expect to spend some time in a queue to buy tickets before entering.

One of the main draws in the zoo is a pool of rays which you can pet and, for a modest fee, buy a bit food to give them.

The zoo covers 74 hectares, 50 of which are given to the display areas. The facility is home to over 220 species of animals and many more species of plants in the botanic gardens on site.

Included in the ticket price to the zoo is admission to the Lešná chateau that sits on the zoo grounds. The chateau dates to the late 1800s and tours of it are available.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

Monument to the Baťas that stands opposite the skyscraper.

Despite its status as a city, and a university town at that, Zlín is not a particularly straightforward place to reach if you’re going without a car.

There is coach bus service to Zlín from various places around, but one must be very careful when choosing which bus to take. While there are some bus routes that are fairly direct and time effective, there are others which make many stops along their routes and can take a very long time in relation to the geographic distance between their starting point and Zlín.

You can also get there by a combination of train to Otrokovice and public transport to Zlín from there. As with bus travel, care should be taken with which train to take there. There are some fairly direct lines, but many more indirect and time consuming ones.

This link will take you to the official website of Zlín, where you can find more information about what the city has to offer:

This link will take you to the official page of the city’s zoo: