It is an obvious fact to Prague’s visitor that the architectural ages of this city are in a chronological, synchronic, and diachronic dialogue with each other. The group of constructions in Hradčany follows the passage from Romanesque, through Gothic and Renaissance to Baroque and, later, to Historicism (via Classicism), echoing the historical developments of the city, particularly the confirmation of Prague as a hub of regional political power and of ecclesiastic representation.

Secession style buildings of the town centre take after their Viennese peers, thus emphasising Prague’s role in the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy, namely the synchronicity of the visual elements considered representative for political establishment of the Habsburg dynasty. 

In which diachrony is concerned, Cubism blended eclecticism with functionalism resulting in a much simplified (i.e. compared to eclecticism) form, but still decorative, irrespective of the undoubtedly modern and pragmatic appearance. 

These being said, the last years of Prague as an imperial city, as a commercial and industrial centre of the already falling apart Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy, were particularly fruitful from an architectural point of view. Art Nouveau, with the local secessionist versions enriched by the English Arts and Crafts movement (i.e. the strong focus on folklore), as cultivated in Prague by the  prominent architect Jan Kotĕra (1871-1923), student of Otto Wagner and promoter of Viennese Art Nouveau, both in Vienna and outside, was transitioning to a late stage in which it almost blended with Art Deco. 

In turn, students of Jan Kotĕra at his applied arts courses in Prague, such as Josef Gočár (1880-1945), would break with the previous tendencies, just the way the city emerging from WWI wished to fly away from the architectural language of the Monarchy, and create new artistic expressions like Cubism and Rondo-Cubism. Few years later, the sober but ample and showy shapes of Cubist façades took a dramatic twist and displayed decorations that alluded to themes focusing on dramatics like human emotions, thus achieving the transition to expressionism.

Here are some relevant instances of the aforementioned tendencies. 

Palác Lucerna (Lantern Palace), accessible from Vodičkova street (no. 36) and from Štĕpánská street  (no. 61), was built in the years 1907-1921 by Vácslav Havel and Stanislav Bechynĕ (the former being the grandfather of the renown Czech anti-communist dissident and later president of the Republic, Václav Havel). It was meant to be a commercial centre and it was one of the first reinforced-concrete buildings in Prague. The construction is a combination of Art Deco with eclecticism and even Baroque influences (the first is visible on the façade and at the entrance, whereas the  last is visible on the external upper side, in the roof area). The interior bears marked Art Nouveau influences. The halls were originally intended to be a hockey rink. The large dome  designed with a profusion of stained glass windows allows natural light, thus justifying the name of the building. Today, the Lantern Palace is an entertainment venue, featuring cafés, restaurants and a cinema*. The visitor can find in the dome area the sculpture of the Czech artist David Černý  named Dead Horse Ridden by St. Wenceslas (1999), a parodical replica of the historical sculpture representing St. Wenceslas in front of the National Theatre. In the Lantern Palace, St. Wenceslas, the establisher of the medieval Czech state, still keeps a fighter posture, but his instance is ridiculous since the horse under is dead, the sculpture thus suggesting the ironic inversion of the national heroic narrative. There is hardly any other city in Central-Eastern Europe which displays  in the public space such a direct reference to the diachronic nature of those historical narratives focused on the so-called foundation myths.

Koruna Palace, named after an insurance company, was built in the years 1911-1914 by Antonín Pfeiffer and Matĕj Blecha. It is accessible from Václavské námĕsti (no.1) and Na Příkopĕ street. It is one of the first steel constructions in Prague and it has a decided Art Deco design, particularly visible in the illuminated crown supported by guardians sculpted by the artist Vojtĕch Sucharda (1884-1968). The crown decorates the tower which marks the corner of the building. Today, Koruna Palace has a mixed usage, both commercial and locative. The basement hosts a theatre and a swimming pool, the ground floor hosts shops, the firs floor hosts cafés and restaurants, the upper floors hosts offices but also residential apartments. 

U Černé Matky Boží (The House of the Black Madonna), accessible from Celetná street (no. 34), was built in the years 1911-1912 as a department store by the then 31 years old Josef Gočár for the businessman František Josef Herbst. Originally, there was a wine bar in the basement, a café on the first floor (still in use today), fashion and textiles stores on the second floor, offices on the third floor, while the attic was destined to residential usage. 

The House of the Black Madonna was built in the Old Town on the site of two Baroque palaces. A 17th century sculpture of the Virgin and of the Child, belonging to one of these former palaces can still be seen on the north-eastern corner of the building we are discussing here. It is hidden behind golden bars and the faces of both the Virgin and Jesus are black. This sculpture gives the name of the house. Black Madonnas existed on the Czech territory even before the advent of Christianity (8th century), being considered symbols of fertility as direct reference to Mother Earth.  

The House of the Black Madonna represents the first genuine example of pure Cubist style in architecture. Before 1911 and the Czech contributions in this area, Cubism was mainly limited to painting and to France. Gočár and other students of Kotĕra and of the Viennese modernism,(although, ironically, Kotĕra himself never claimed interest in Cubism), aimed at creating a comprehensive architecture which would be coherently Cubist in all aspects (both exterior and interior), down to the simplest details like window framing or furniture. The House of the Black Madonna serves as the perfect example of this idea. Its first floor hosts Grand Café Orient, which is one of the very few Cubist interiors still in use today (it was restored in 2005). All furnishings are Cubist, and the massive chandeliers attest for this style, as well. 

Below, there is another example of Cubist building, decorated with realistic statues. It is located on Na Peštýnĕ street.

Palác Rokoko (Moravian Bank) was built by Emil Králíček and Matĕj Blecha in the years 1913-1916 for the lawyer and patron of arts Josef Šupich. It is accessible from Václavské námĕsti (no.38-40) and Štĕpánská street (no. 63). This construction represents a flight from Cubism, consequently, an experimentation with more pluralistic features such as Art Nouveau and Classicism. Thanks to the  expressive human faces decorations on the façade, the building is considered a Prague predecessor of the expressionist style which attained popularity in the interwar time in cities like Berlin. 

* It was the first permanent cinema in Bohemia, opened in 1909 and still functioning in 2021. 

Resources: Chris van Uffelen, Markus Golser, Prague, The Architecture Guide, Braun, 2013, pp. 96-97, 103-105, 108-109; Magdalena Wagnerová, Tales of Old Prague Houses, Plot, 2017, pp. 81-84.

One thought on “ Prague Modernisms: From Late Art-Nouveau to Proto-Expressionism 

  1. Yes Prague really is amazing. It can be so overwhelming, so much to see everywhere you look, It survived WWII much better than most cities. But as you mentioned, it’s more than just that. It’s the continuity, the way the buildings and architecture interact with each other.

    Liked by 1 person

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