Prague's Architectural Wonderland of Cubist Buildings

September 12, 2018

As I first discovered in the peachy dusk of a winter’s evening in 1989 when the air in Prague still had the curious, candied smell of coal smoke, the Czech capital is one of the most spectacular living libraries of Western architecture. (It was spared much of the bombing that other Central European cities suffered during World War II.) Prague’s historic center—Hradčany Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge, and numerous churches and palaces, built mostly between the 11th and 18th centuries—is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but throughout the entire city there is a remarkably varied array of architecture: Gothic to Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical, Beaux Arts, Cubist, and Art Deco. Walk through Prague and you walk through the history of Western architecture.

We stayed at the famous Hotel Europa, a now-closed Art Nouveau masterpiece on Wenceslas Square. Upon arrival—we got in late— we were sternly warned that the city’s few restaurants rarely served much beyond 10 p.m. Hungry, we immediately set out to find dinner, but, wandering cobblestone streets spread with fine, crunchy grit against the slippery frost, buildings sprung into real life from fantasies and fairytales repeatedly waylaid us. Obecni Dum (Municipal Hall) had a magnificent porte-cochere made of glass and verdigrised metal ornamented with fantastic lamps, lanterns, and brass. It was a joyously strange flight of architectural imagination, the likes of which I had rarely before seen in Europe. The only similar examples I could think of were several houses in Barcelona by Antoni Gaudi and his Sagrada Familia cathedral in the same city.

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Peering into one smoky tavern after another, we had a hard time finding a restaurant that looked appetizing (happily, today there’s a lot of superb food in Prague). It almost didn’t matter though, because the architectural mystery and magnificence of the city fed our souls. For a time. We finally ended up with a plate of mysterious mud-brown stew and spongy bread dumplings. For dessert we went back to the city’s architecture. We wandered home without looking at the map, but generally headed in the direction of Old Town Square. On Celetná Street, brightly lit shop windows displayed glittering Bohemian crystal, one of the Czech Republic’s most famous products. And then I saw the oddest building I’d ever seen. Terra-cotta colored, it was hulking but strangely elegant, with curiously beveled windows set into deep casements in its blocky but handsome façade.

In 1989, there was no posted explanation of what this building might be. Back at the hotel I looked it up in my guidebook—no TripAdvisor or smartphones back then either: House of the Black Madonna. We had noticed a gilded black Madonna in a niche behind a golden grill at one corner of the building at the level of its first floor. I never would have guessed the building had once been a department store, nor that it was the Czech Republic’s first Cubist building. I knew the movement of Cubist painters, notably Picasso and Braque, who worked in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, but was unaware that Cubism had ever had an architectural expression.

Enthralled, I became a student of Czech Cubist architecture; it was so compellingly eccentric. Who were the people with the nerve to build these peculiar designs in one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals? On that first visit to Prague, the dearth of information in English about the city’s other Cubist buildings—House of the Black Madonna was not alone—left me wanting more. When I returned a year later, fate intervened; I met a professor, an English-speaking Czech I fell hard for and who shared my fascination with this architectural style. One element of the regular every-other-weekend visits I came to make was the special treat of being taken to see yet another of the city’s great Cubist masterpieces. I began to learn the names and stories of the men behind these buildings: Pavel Janák, Josef Gočár (the architect of the House of the Black Madonna), Vlastislav Hofman, and Josef Chochol were the most prolific and known.

In all of its different forms of expression, including architecture, painting, sculpture, and interior design and the decorative arts, Czech Cubism flourished in Prague from 1912 to 1914, when the region was still part of the huge Austro-Hungarian Empire. These years were a prolific time for various avant-garde cultural movements. Prague’s most famous son, writer Franz Kafka, was already penning the short fiction that would make him world- renowned and the city was the world’s best-known center of Cubism outside of Paris; some might argue it surpassed the French capital.

Encouraged by advances in building technology, specifically the use of reinforced concrete, Prague’s Cubist architects designed buildings that challenged the conventions of visual reality and tradition the same way Cubist painters did. Prague’s Cubist buildings had sharp angles, slicing planes, and forms reminiscent of the inside of a crystal. There were often also large spaces unobstructed by supporting columns or pillars, made possible entirely by reinforced concrete, molded cement invisibly strengthened by steel rods and bars. Such open spaces were revolutionary at the time.

Cubist architects’ aim in disrupting the golden rules of their craft, specifically symmetry and the “appropriate” use of ornamentation, was the shared belief that most objects carry their own inner energy. The only way to release this energy was to break the flat vertical and horizontal surfaces of conventional architecture. The predominant visual feature of Czech Cubism—recurring use of beveled architectural elements—give forms an aggressive angularity that’s mathematically correct but sometimes slightly off center. Prague’s Cubist movement was also a reaction against what its practitioners considered to be the florid excesses of Secessionist architecture, or Art Nouveau.

In 1918, following World War I, the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the founding of Czechoslovakia, the graphic, angled character of the Prague school of Cubism evolved. This second wave of this evolution, which had its heyday from 1918 until it was sidelined by Functionalism and Art Deco, became known as Czech Rondocubism. This style obeyed the basic tenet of Czech Cubism, which is to make buildings pre-dimensional and added more decorative and ornamental motifs and rounded façades. This style was inspired by traditional Czech folk art and reflected the euphoria of the country at gaining its independence. (For nearly two centuries, German had replaced Czech as the main language spoken.)

Though Czech Cubist architecture never found a big following outside of the country—it was too visually extreme to move from a studiously provocative experiment into the mainstream—both Cubist and Rondocubist buildings were an important source of inspiration during the birth of Art Deco in the 1920s. And they’re still an inspiration for me. The professor and I split up, but my relationship with Prague and this quintessentially Czech style of architecture endures. Continue reading for a quick class in Czech Cubism.

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The House of the Black Madonna was the first Cubist building in Prague and remains one of the finest examples of the style. Built from 1911 to 1912 by architect Josef Gočár, it was originally designed as a department store and today houses the Museum of Czech Cubism. The museum’s fourth and fifth floors are dedicated to a permanent exhibition of Cubist art—paintings, sculpture, ceramics, glassware, and furniture— curated by the Czech Museum of Fine Arts. On the first floor, the Grand Café Orient is the world’s only surviving Cubist interior.

Emil Kralicek designed the world’s only Cubist street lantern. It’s in Jungmann Square at the side entrance of the 15th- century Gothic/Baroque Church of Our Lady of the Snows.

Palác Adria is wonderfully weird, marrying elements of Rondocubism with fortress-like towers. Architect Josef Zasche designed the opulent building for an Italian insurance company in 1924.

Emil Karlicek’s Diamant House offers a pure and potent expression of early Cubism, with a huge doorway, surprising rooftop sculptures, and a diamond-cut façade.

Architect Otakar Novotny designed the dramatic apartment houses at Elisky Krasnohorske 10-14.

The quiet, residential Vysehrad District is home to many Cubist buildings by Josef Chochol including the Kovarovicova Villa (Libusina 49) and a trio of Cubist buildings part of a longer row (42, 47, and 71 Rasinovo nabrezi). His apartment building at Neklanova 98 is charming for being such a dramatic architectural mistaken-guess at how the “modern” world would look in the coming years.

In the Hradčany District around Prague Castle, which itself dates from the 9th century and includes Gothic and Romanesque buildings, Josef Gočár’s twin houses at Tychonova 4-6 are classic Cubist.

The National Gallery (Veletržní Palace), is itself a Functionalist building, but has a permanent exhibition devoted to Cubist art and architecture.

The Dancing House was built in 1996, but it’s proof that the work of Prague’s Cubist architects still resonates today. Canadian- American architect Frank Gehry worked with Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić on the design. The result is brilliantly twisted—literally and figuratively—and it’s the most famous modern building in the city. It’s also a witty post-modern riff on the work of the city’s original Cubists that they surely would appreciate.