Prague: Architecture history on tour, from Gothic to Gehry
By Joann Plockova in Prague—
Prague offers so many varying styles of architecture that after a visit you can practically go home with a PhD. Within the city center and its immediate surroundings, you’ll find every architectural style from Gothic to Baroque, Cubism to Functionalism, and Art Noveau to the boxy beasts of Communism. And that’s not all of them.
This post presents a handful of the city’s great structures categorized according to style; a kind of architecture tour of Prague, if you will. And remember, it doesn’t cost anything to gaze at some of the finest examples of architecture in the world.
Stare Mesto and Mala Strana
Construction of this epic bridge began in 1337 and was completed in the 15th century. The most distinguishing features of this stone bridge are its Baroque sculptures and statues that were added to the sides of it in the 1700’s. (Today’s are just replicas of the originals, which are housed inside the National Museum.)
Three towers are found at the entrances to the bridge, one on the side headed to Old Town and two on the Mala Strana side. The latter is considered one of Europe’s finest examples of civil Gothic architecture. As one of Prague’s most visited sites, it’s advised to visit at the crack of dawn or late night (which actually turn out to be the hours which suit this wonder best).
Others Gothic structures: The House of the Stone Bell, St. Vitus Cathedral, The Convent of St. Agnes
Ball Game Hall
Located within the Royal Garden of the castle, this sgraffito-adorned building was first built in the 16th century to serve as the Royal Game Hall for an early form of tennis and badminton. After transforming into the Royal Stables in the 17th century and then a military barrack and storeroom, the building was struck by a bomb during World War II and burned down to its outer wall.
Its restoration was completed in 1952, but the Royal Garden wasn’t opened again until after 1989. But the communists left their mark. On the front of the building, facing the garden, look out for their own sgraffito: the number five (for the “Five Year Plan”) and a hammer and sickle.
Other Renaissance examples: The Royal Summer Palace, Star Summer Palace, The House at the Minute
Strahovské nádvorí 132/1
Dating back to the 12th century, Strahov is Prague’s second oldest monastery (and it remains functioning today). Comprised of several buildings, its baroque library—including both the Theological Hall and the Philosophical Hall—are not to be missed. As it is perched atop a hill, its location offers some wonderful views of the city.
Other Baroque examples: St. Nicholas Cathedral, Troja Chateau, The Sternberg Palace.
The Municipal House
Námestí Republiky 1090/5
Including gilded decorations, ceramics, stained glass windows, and murals, the Municipal House’s details, in combination with its impressive size, make it perhaps Prague’s most shining example of the style. Completed in 1911, its remarkable outcome is the work of prominent Czech sculptors and painters, including Alfons Mucha.
A more off-the-beaten-path example, but definitely worth the journey, this great little structure is the former studio of Czech sculptor Ladislav Saloun, a leading figure of Czech Art Noveau symbolism. Designated as a protected cultural monument in 1958, today it serves as a teaching space for guest professors of the Academy of Fine Arts. You’ll find it in Prague’s Vinohrady neighborhood, to the side of a long set of stairs that run beside a park. Look out for the sculpted head above the doorway.
House of the Black Madonna
Cubism is special to the Czech Republic, as it is the only country where you will find Cubist architecture. One of the most renowned examples, the House of the Black Madonna was completed between 1911-1912 by architect Josef Gocar–one of the members of a famous group of Czech artists and architects who worked in the style. Appropriately, the house is home to the Museum of Czech Cubism and the Grand Café Orient, which boasts a cubist interior.
Inspired by the works of Braque and Picasso, this exceptional villa is a must see. Not only is the house done in the cubist style, but also the garden layout, the surrounding metal fence and even the stairs.
It’s the only cubist lamppost in the world. Enough said.
Masarykovo nábreží 250/1
Opened in 1930, the Manes building is considered one of Europe’s top Functionalist buildings. Comprised of three floors, with the river running underneath it, Manes’ function since it was formed has been to serve as a visual arts exhibition hall.
Nad hradním vodojemem 642/14
One of the most influential architects of Modern European architecture, Adolf Loos built this cubed-shaped home for the family after which it was named. Done in a design called “Raumplan,” the interior was conceived as spaces–as opposed to rooms, sections or floor plans–that flow into one another via multi-levels, according to function.
From Prague’s highest points you can’t not see these structures. Situated on the outskirts of the city, these tall, gray boxes, sitting side by side, were actually inspired by Le Corbusier’s idea of people living in small, efficient cities. However, the outcome was blank buildings that feel completely devoid of inspiration. Due to the more affordable costs, this is where a large percentage of Praguers live today.
Other Communist examples: Kotva department store, The Zizkov Television Tower (as this is the highest structure in Prague, you can’t miss it on the skyline. It was started by the communists and is today characterized by large sculpted children climbing up its sides, made by controversial Czech artist David Cerny).
The Dancing House
Rašínovo nábreží 1981/80
Not much has been done in the way of interesting modern architecture in Prague at this point. The Dancing Building however is the one exception. Built by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic between 1992 and 1996, the structure rests on a formerly vacant riverfront plot where the building before had been destroyed by a bomb at the end of WWII. It’s sometimes referred to as the “Fred and Ginger Building,” as it was made to resemble two dancers.