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Walls, strongly built
City fortifications belong among the oldest of city monuments. They are the evidence of their importance and the social standing of their citizens, proof of their construction and organisational abilities.
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Prague – An Art Nouveau city
In France and Belgium it’s called Art Nouveau, in England it’s Modern Style, in Austro-Hungary it goes by the name of Jugendstil or Secessionism. Whatever you choose to call it, the style has left an impressive impact on the architecturally eclectic city of Prague.
Not only do Barcelona, Brussels, Paris, Vienna and other major cities of the Old Continent boast world-famous gems designed in this style. While you will not find the works of such masters as Gaudí or Horta in Prague, you will see that the architects of several of the city’s buildings definitely followed in their footsteps.
In addition to the big, and therefore financially very well-preserved, buildings such as the Municipal House designed by architects Balšánek and Polívka, the Wilson Train Station (now known as Hlavní nádraží – the Main Train Station) designed by Josef Fanta, or the luxury hotels and banks in the city centre, you have the opportunity to view many other Art Nouveau monuments in Prague. The rarities we have in mind include the still-functional Michle water tower, or tombs designed by architect Jan Kotěra in the New Jewish Cemetery, but mainly a house that you will find not far from Prague Castle and a visit to which you should definitely not pass up: the villa of famous Czech Art Nouveau designer, sculptor and mystic František Bílek.
A monumental gem of a train station
The biggest Art Nouveau work in Prague is the original Wilson Train Station. It was designed by Josef Fanta and several top Czech artists contributed to its construction between 1901 and 1909. Its ”father” was a student of Josef Zítek, the architect of the Neo-Renaissance National Theatre (in his atelier, he even helped design the interiors of the ”tabernacle” of the National Revival movement), and Professor Josef Schulz. Fanta succeeded in freeing himself of his teachers’ historical influences and, while continuously readjusting his approach toward the largest order of his creative career, took inspiration primarily from the decorative approach of so-called Floral Art Nouveau, mainly French works in this style.
From a technical perspective, this elegant and monumental building is especially interesting due to the fact that a large steel double-naved vestibule, designed by engineers Marjanek and Kornfeld, was built for the first time as part Prague’s largest train station.
Today, experts are finally beginning to speculate how to go about reconstruction, or even a complete overhaul of the service huts and platforms that were built during the dreary architectural dilettantism of the former Communist regime and now surround the magnificent Art Nouveau building.
High art and billiards
At the end of the 19th century, with advances in industrial production occurring throughout all of Austro-Hungary and Prague’s population increasing by a quarter, it goes without saying that interest in society life increased. This also occurred in the continuously expanding peripheries of the metropolis. Individual city districts profited from both these facts as they began to build a centre where people could enjoy such events as balls, feasts, theatre performances and exhibitions. Vivid examples of buildings that still host these activities include the National House of Smíchov on Zborovská třrída (Desc. no. 82) or the National House on Hybešová Street in Karlín.
In these places, however, you will not find paintings by Alfons Mucha along with other works by our most prominent artists of this period. To do so, you need to dress up – preferably as you would for a gala event – and set out for an exhibition, concert, or fine dining in the French restaurant in the Municipal House in the Old Town.
The building was designed by architects Antonín Balšánek and Osvald Polívka. Its construction began in 1905 and was completed in 1911. The Municipal House stands in Republic Square, right beside the Gothic Powder Tower, in the place of what used to be the King’s Court. Its interior features reception rooms, a gaming room and billiards hall, a pub, a café and confectioner’s, exhibition halls with overhead lighting for each work, and the Smetana Concert Hall, which can seat up to 1500 classical music enthusiasts. In 1918, the Smetana Hall was the scene of the proclamation of the independent state of Czechoslovakia.
From the moment you see its exterior, the building’s majestic appearance is certain to amaze you. The atmosphere contained within this grand packaging is packed with some of the world’s finest works of art, incredibly sophisticated details, and mesmerising mosaic flooring. Moreover, cultural events taking place in the completely renovated Municipal House, often domestic talent, are never of a standard lower than that of the best that Europe has to offer. Therefore, don’t hesitate and come see for yourself. From April 7, you have the opportunity to take in ”Faces of History,” an exhibition featuring the works of celebrated Spanish photographer Robert Capa.
Perhaps the most talented personality of Czech Art Nouveau was the man who succeeded Bedřich Ohmann (see box) in his function as Professor of Architecture at the Prague School of Arts and Crafts – Jan Kotěra. Not only did he design structures that are among the best representatives of Prague’s Art Nouveau architecture, he is also the creator of our third Art Nouveau building, Peterka’s House on Wenceslas Square 12, Desc. no. 772-II. Two other renowned artists of that time co-operated (Josef Pekárek and sculptor Stanislav Sucharda)
Trmal's villa by Jan Kotěra - typical Art Nouveau middle-class family house
in the production of the building’s simple decorations, and the structure’s facade teems with purity and serenity.
In 1899 this structure was an indicator that Kotěra, in his architectural initiatives, would gradually diverge from vegetative ornaments while moving closer and closer to geometric Art Nouveau in a manner conforming with the motto: function first, then construction, and finally form. He anticipated the de facto style that replaced Art Nouveau some time later – Functionalism.
Jan Kotěra also designed several of Prague’s family houses, which were, in the spirit of his era, practically the counterparts of the surviving Neo-Renaissance – no excessive and purposeless stucco decorations. On the contrary, emphasis is placed on a pragmatism inspired by folk architecture, including the abundant use of natural materials. Kotěra honoured this trend as early as 1902, during the construction of Trmal’s villa, Desc. no. 95, Vilová Street 11 in Strašnicka, as well as during the expansion of the villa and atelier belonging to the sculptor Sucharda in Bubenec (Slavíčkova 1 and 6, Desc. no. 248 and 628).
Geometric Art Nouveau by Kotěra - on Palackého nábřeží Prague
In addition to several other works that are unquestionably Kotěra’s work an imposing water tower (Hanusova 5, Desc. no. 1121, Michle) and tombs in the New Jewish Cemetery (Želivského Metro Station, on the A-line). You can find the architect’s own villa, which presaged his era, in Vinohrady (Hradešínská 6, Desc. no. 1542). It was built in 1908, almost completely free of fancy elements, thereby superseding the Art Nouveau influence. Experts classify it as an advanced phase of Modernism.
Stylish apartments? Absolutely!
Prague’s first accommodation facility to be built in the Art Nouveau style is the Ohmann’s charming Hotel Central (see box). The Hotel Evropa on Wenceslas Square (Desc. no. 825-II and 826-II) comprises two buildings that form a jewel and the peak of ostentatious splendour among Prague’s Art Nouveau structures (not surprisingly, the hotel’s service charges correspond with this). It was designed in 1906 by architects Alois Dryák and Bedřich Bendelmayer, who took inspiration – at least in part – from Jan Kotěra’s ”signature”: Peterka’s House, which is only a stone’s throw away from the hotel.
For those of you who have deep pockets, don’t mind staying in Prague’s busiest district, and need to present yourselves as members of high society in what is probably an excessively tidy setting of period interiors, this place is ideal.
Interior of the Sarah Bernhardt Restaurant - Hotel Paříž Prague
Another one of Prague’s more prominent Art Nouveau buildings is the Hotel Pariz, built in 1904. The building is situated at U Obecního domu 1 (that is, By the Municipal House 1 – it is directly across the street from Balšánek and Polívka’s masterpiece). From an architectural standpoint, the building’s facade is not ostentatious; Jan Vejrych designed it in the Neo-Gothic style, which was in no way progressive in his era. All the more, however, you will be amazed by the flamboyance of the perfectly preserved Art Nouveau interior, including replicas of the original furniture in the hotel rooms, designed by Antonin Pfeifer. You can also take in the atmosphere of the ”good old days” while sitting in the hotel’s café and its restaurant, named after the celebrated French actress Sarah Bernhardt, whose court artist was indisputably the world’s most famous Czech Art Nouveau artist, Alfons Mucha. Not only did Mucha create posters advertising her performances, he also designed her jewellery.
This year, the Hotel Pariz is celebrating its 100th birthday and certainly has more than one surprise in store for you.
With his fluid designs, the great František Bílek affected an entire generation of Czech artists, including František Kupka and Josef Váchal. The mystic and visionary Bílek designed objects that united architecture and sculpture. His villa is typical in its segmentation; its rough brick facade is surprisingly complemented by concrete columns. The building’s impressiveness is then augmented by an expressively flat roof.
This timeless artist also excelled in other creative pursuits, particularly in graphic art that you can view in the villa and atelier at Mickiewiczová Street 1 (Desc. no. 233) in Hradčany, not far from Belevedere. It was built in 1911 by master builder Antonín Hulán. This remarkable structure and the neighbouring villa, which František Bílek also helped design for the First Republic’s Health Minister, are now under the management of the City Gallery of Prague and are open to public culture enthusiasts on weekends, from May 15 throughout the week except Mondays. It is definitely worth visiting.
Bohemia’s pioneer of Art Nouveau: Bedřich Ohmann (1858-1927)
Somewhere in the mid-1890’s a long-awaited style called Art Nouveau finally began to gain support in Europe. It was a reaction to an increasingly expressive deflation of academia and historicism, on both of which the style is nevertheless based.
Certainly the lion’s share of the credit for leading the Czech art world in this new direction goes to an Austrian with Polish roots, a native of Lvova in the Ukraine, Bedřich Ohmann together with the man who succeeded him as Professor of Architecture at the Prague School of Arts and Crafts (which, at the time, had yet to gain recognition as an institute of higher learning) – Jan Kotěra.
Ohmann is the architect of the very first Art Nouveau buildings in Prague: the Corso Café on Na Příkopě (now demolished) and the Hotel Central on Hybernská Street. The recently restored facade of this enchanting building, situated within a short walk of the Municipal House, is certainly worth seeing. Unfortunately the entranceway and the hall of the former theatre were converted to conform to the architectural trends of 1923. Photogallery