Beyond Baroque, beyond Art Nouveau: a tour in Prague along the path of Cubist architecture
Cubism arose in Paris at the turn of the 20th century and immediately revolutionized the approach that figurative arts had with realism, establishing itself mainly in the field of painting and sculpture. However, in Prague – a unique case in Europe – Cubism had quite original applications in the field of architecture and design.
In those years, the city was the fulcrum of the Czech renaissance. Formally, the nation was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but a loosening of central power had allowed the country to rediscover their roots, and an extraordinary economic growth favoured the creative fervour that had led to a new push in art, literature and music.
Entire neighbourhoods in the Jewish Ghetto and in the New Town were being renovated, expanding, especially around Wenceslas Square, with new buildings built according to the prevailing style of the era, the “Secession Style” (a variant of Art Nouveau). However, in 1910 a group of Czech artists and architects who had frequent contacts with Paris, distanced themselves from this style while embracing the cubist aesthetic. The theoretician of the group was Pavel Janák. In his \article “Prism and Pyramid”, he outlined the foundations of Cubist architecture, which included geometrical structures, pointed corners, rhomboidal windows, and intersecting volumes creating prismatic shapes. The movement was to architecture what Cubism was to painting – not the frontal view and from a single point of view, as in the tradition, but rather the decomposition of the object according to multiple points of view.
If you are visiting the Czech capital, we suggest you start with the tour from the oldest of these buildings, the “House of the Black Madonna” built in 1911-1912 on a project designed by Josef Go?ar on Celetna street n.34 in the Old City. This is a tried and true architectural jewel with a prismatic facade and a cubist design. On the ground floor, there is the Grand Café Orient, which still preserves the original furnishings, with the counter and chandeliers designed by Go?ár himself. The upper floors house the Museum of Arts and Crafts which offers a wide selection of objects in the Cubist style. In fact, Czech Cubism had great vitality even in the field of applied arts.
In the New Town you will find Casa Diamant (Spálená street, 82/4), which was built the following year, a successful example of fusion between Cubism and Baroque. In fact, the entrance is flanked by a baroque statue incorporated in a cubist arch. It was designed by the architects Emil Králi?ek and Mat?j Blecha, who also built a cubist lamp post in the Jungmannovo square.
Then head to the Elišky Krásnohorské street (on the edge of the Jewish quarter), at n. 10 you’ll find the House of professors that Otakar Novotný built for university professors between 1919 and 1920. A facade offers true rigor with geometric lines that break up, creating three-dimensional structures. On the same street at no.7, you will find the Casa Rosa where the Telamons (male Atlases supporting architectural structures) reveal Cubist influences.
At the edge of the historical centre, in the Vyšehrad district, there are a number of buildings built in 1912-1913 by Josef Chochol as the Hodek Condominium (via Neklanova, 30) Three Cubist houses (Rašínovo náb?eží, 6-10) an interesting example of condo homes, and Villa Kova?ovicova (via Libušina, 3), a splendid single-family home. Have a good look at the cubist style of the outdoor railing – a similar one is found in the fountain that flanks the Church of Saint Nicholas next to the Old Town Hall.
In the 1920s, this unique architectural style underwent an evolution when, having obtained independence, nationalism raised its voice and pushed towards giving a strong patriotic connotation to the buildings. And so Rondocubism was born. Geometric lines were softened, corners were rounded, and circles and semicircles predominated, as in the Slavic tradition. The most interesting examples are Adria Palace (via Jungmannova, 31) by Pavel Janak and Josef Zasche, the Palace of the professors’ cooperative of Otakar Novotný (via Kamenicka, 35) Myšák Palace (via Vodi?kova, 1) or the former Bank of Legions (via Na Po?í?í, 24). Soon, however, this style would disappear, suffocated by a new generation of architects attracted by functionalism and the possibilities of new materials such as steel, glass and concrete.