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October 21, 2021

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The Villa Kovarovic is one of the city's classic Cubist buildings.

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Get bent in Prague

In the early 20th century, Cubist architects created a new style that changed the face of the Czech capital

Prague is famed for its Gothic spires and Baroque palaces, but some of its most amazing buildings come from the early 20th century. In 1918, as the capital of a newly independent Czechoslovakia, Prague wanted a uniquely

Czech architecture. And a spate of homegrown architects created just that: a daring new style called Rondo-Cubism, along with many hybrid forms that drew inspiration from ecclectic sources.

Neglected during the long Communist years because of their association with the early republic, these buildings are coming back to life and offer a glimpse of Prague’s golden age.

One of my favourite places in Prague is the unusual Art Nouveau Café Imperial (15 Na Porici Street), just outside the Old Town. The most extraordinary aspect of this café is its 1914 décor with glazed, ceramic tiles depicting an odd mix of Egyptian gods and medieval peasants covering every surface. It’s like nothing anywhere else — which is a thought I often have in Prague, a city layered with a paradoxical history and the architecture to prove it.

Just opposite the Café Imperial is Legiobanka (24 Na Porici Street). I walked passed this building many times before I really looked at it; and when I did, I was amazed. Built in 1924 by highly original architect Josef Gocar, it is an odd mix of cylindrical shapes and folk art sculpture, the epitome of the new Rondo-Cubism. Today the building still houses a bank and, inside, the original 1920s decor looks like it could be a silent film set.

Architectural origami

Before Gocar was a Rondo-Cubist, he was a full-fledged Cubist, and a five-minute walk away in the Old Town is another of his masterpieces. Pablo Picasso and George Braque began the Cubist style in painting but it was only in the innovative atmosphere of 1910s Prague that Cubism made the move to architecture.

And nowhere more dramatically than in the House of the Black Madonna (34 Celetna Street; Its rust-coloured exterior looks like origami in architecture, all angles and folds; except, that is, for a solitary niche on the northeast corner that holds the 17th-century Black Madonna statue from which the building takes its name.

Built as a department store in 1912, the House of the Black Madonna was shockingly modern at the time, particularly when compared to the frothy Art Nouveau of the Municipal House (5 Nam Republiky;, completed just a few months earlier.

Today the building holds, quite appropriately, the excellent Museum of Czech Cubist Art. On the first floor, the original Cubist café reopened in 2005 after an 80-year break. The Grand Café Orient is a great place to linger over a sweet Czech cake and coffee served in Cubist cups while planning an excursion out to the residential neighbourhood of Vysehrad. There, in the 1910s, Gocar’s contemporaries built Cubist apartments and villas, such as the prismatic Villa Kovarovic (3 Libusina Street), for fashionable clients.

We don’t often think of suburbs having architectural masterpieces but as Prague grew, its sophisticated population built avant-garde villas. And none fits that bill more than the 1928 Müller Villa (14 Nad hradnim vodojemem;, which stands overlooking the city in the neighbourhood of Stresovice.

It was designed by influential Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who famously stated, “ornament is crime.” What this sleek Functionalist home lacks in adornment it makes up for in luxurious materials and elegant lines, all of which miraculously survived years as a socialist apartment building and the offices of the Marxist-Leninist Institute. Today it is open to visitors, who ooh and aah over its design and spectacular Prague views.

The same trendsetters who built these suburban retreats would have hung out downtown in Wenceslas Square. This famous square is still a meeting point, and although today it has a bit of a seedy edge, its architecture still echoes its earlier glory.

Walking along its length I could see a spectrum of modernist styles, from the elegant Art Nouveau Grand Hotel Europa (25 Wenceslas Square) whose café has period decor evoking the fin-de-siècle atmosphere of pre-World War I Prague; to the sleek Functionalist lines of the 1929 Bata Building (6 Wenceslas Square), which began selling Tomas Bata’s shoes again in the 1990s.

Form follows function

Reflecting the cutting-edge atmosphere of the inter-war city, this same shoe store was to be part of an avant-garde art installation by pioneer Kinetic artist Zdenek Pesanek. Around 1935, Pesanek designed a luminous commercial sign for the Bata facade involving baroque clouds and fragmented male and female torsos projecting from the building.

Never completed, the surrealistic plans can be seen at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Trade Fair Palace (47 Dukelskych hrdinu;, a short tram ride away from the centre in the neighborhood of Holesovice.

This huge ship of a building is itself a Functionalist gem that attracted international attention when constructed in 1928. French superstar architect Le Corbusier visited and stated that the Trade Fair Palace had shown him “how to make large buildings.” Its most impressive aspect is its mammoth sky-lit atrium surrounded by balconied galleries that slope inward, resembling a sleek ocean liner from a 1920s Art Deco poster.

There are other intriguing Modernist architectural spaces in Prague’s centre. Just to the west of Wenceslas Square is the unusual Palac Adria (31 Jungmannova). A Rondo-Cubist building designed for an Italian insurance company in 1925, it’s best described as a cross between an Italian medieval fortress and a Lego set.

Around the corner, monumental statues grace the facade of the Urbanek Publishing House (30 Jungmannova). Built in 1913, it’s considered the first Modernist building in Prague. Here luminaries of the European avant-garde scene lectured in the 1920s.

Nearby along the Vltava River, the 1930 Manes Gallery (250 Masarykovo nabrezi; daringly combines a sleek Functionalist art gallery with a medieval water tower.

The royal treatment

Across the Vltava, rise the majestic towers of Prague Castle, the symbol of royal rule since the 10th century. Even this iconic complex felt the effects of early 20th-century Modernism. In 1920, the first Czechoslovak president gave idiosyncratic Slovene architect Josip Plecnik the task of turning “a monarchical castle into a democratic” one.

Instead of using the popular Modernist styles, Plecnik took inspiration from “timeless architecture” — ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt. Inside the castle he created a spectacular Egyptian-inspired Hall of Columns, which can be glimpsed as you enter the Castle courtyards via the Mathias Gate.

In these Baroque courtyards, he added an obelisk and the marvellous Bull Staircase, whose Cretan-inspired canopy leads to the South Gardens, which offer one of the best views in the city.

Here Plecnik added classically inspired colonnades and observation points as well as his own version of yin and yang: a massive granite bowl, designed as the “female” counterpart to the “male” obelisk in the courtyard. Although President Masaryk liked his work, his opponents didn’t: it was too unorthodox and Plecnik wasn’t even Czech.

Taste, however, is rarely constant through time, and today Plecnik’s renovations are considered ingenious and are admired as yet another layer in Prague’s extraordinary architectural history.

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