History of Czech Architecture

The lands of the Bohemian crown have for many centuries been a multicultural environment. Several ethnic groups have converged here, each influencing the culture in its own way. The local Czechs were joined by incoming Germans, whose influence gradually predominated. From the Renaissance period on, Czech architecture tended to be dominated largely by Italians, who formed an independent colony in Prague's Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter). This fusion of ethnic groups gave rise to a relatively original architectural style that achieved a unique expression in the Gothic period. It can be seen in architecture dating from the height of the Baroque era as well as from the very beginning of the 20th century.

Only in the early beginnings of Slavic statehood in Central Europe did the Great Moravian Empire (ninth century) orient itself eastwards, to the still powerful Byzantine Empire. In the ninth century, the Přemyslid principality emerged (lasting until 1198), as did the Kingdom of Bohemia (until 1918), which had its centre in Prague. With these developments, the new state, as part of the Holy Roman Empire, became a fixed component of Western culture.

Gothic and Renaissance

Prague was twice the residential city of Holy Roman Emperors – during the reign of Charles IV (14th century) and Rudolph II (16th-17th century). These emperors brought artists to Prague from all over Europe. In the era of Charles IV, Prague became the site of the easternmost Gothic cathedral, the construction of which was begun by Matthias of Arras and was continued by Peter Parler of Cologne. As emperor, Charles IV initiated the construction of many important projects, including a new bridge that was built in place of the Romanesque Judith Bridge. This bridge is remarkable for its bridge towers, which have defined Prague's skyline just as much as has St. Vitus Cathedral in Hradčany. The buildings that originated in the reign of Charles IV were of no less importance – aside from the reconstruction of the residence at Prague Castle, of particular importance was the construction of Karlštejn Castle with its Chapel of the Holy Cross, which served temporarily as the depository for the crown jewels.

The lands of the Bohemian crown were among the first in the transalpine area to be influenced by the Italian Renaissance. As early as the end of the 15th century, Renaissance elements appeared – not just in the royal Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle, but in the buildings of Moravian aristocracy as well. The adoption of the Renaissance style is most evident in the architecture of the royal summer palace, which was situated in a newly established garden. This building, which came to be known as the Belvedere, is an exemplar of the pure Italian Renaissance style, although it does not have a direct model in Italy. Evidence of the general reception of the Renaissance in Bohemia, involving a massive influx of Italian architects, can be found in chateaus with richly decorated arcaded atriums, and also in their interiors (for example Bučovice Chateau, or the well-preserved chateau in Litomyšl, inscribed in the UNESCO list of monuments).

The Baroque

The defeat of the estates and the protestant opposition at Bílá hora (White Mountain) in the 17th century brought about not only large property transfers, but social as well as ethnic change. Furthermore, there was also a political decline, in which the Kingdom of Bohemia lost its influence and became a mere province. Despite this, the Italian Baroque, of the most dynamic Guarini style, caught on in the re-Catholicised Bohemia more quickly than in any other European country. St. Clara’s Monastery Church in Cheb and the Benedictine St. Marketa’s Monastery Church in Prague’s Břevnov district stand as testaments of this fact, as do the buildings by the Prague-born Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer. Dietzenhofer was the son of the equally celebrated builder Kryštof Dientzenhofer, whose accomplishments include St. Nicholas’ Church in Prague’s Lesser Quarter, an exemplar of the high Baroque style.

Under the influence of the abbots of clerical orders, whose origins reach back into the pre-Hussite era, Bohemia produced yet another architectural peculiarity – a synthesis of the Gothic and Baroque styles. This was not a simple return to Gothic details, but rather an original Baroque transformation. The main representative and originator of this style was Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel (1677–1723), a third-generation Swiss born in Prague, who used this style in renovating medieval monastic buildings. The monastery church in Kladruby and the Pilgrimage Church of St. John of Nepomuk in Žďár nad Sázavou – a UNESCO monument – are the best expressions of this style, which is found nowhere else.

Cubism and Functionalism

The lands of the Bohemian crown again contributed an unusual style to the world’s architectural heritage when Czech architects attempted to transpose the cubism of painting and sculpture into architecture. Below Prague's Vyšehrad, several Cubist residences were built. In the Old Town, the House of the Black Madonna, designed by Josef Gočár (1912), is certainly the height of architectural Cubism, blending with the local historical buildings to an almost incredible degree.

During the first years of the independent Czechoslovakia (after 1918), a specifically Czech architectural style, called ‘Rondo-Cubism’, came into existence. It drew on pre-war Cubism and is unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Sometimes, Rondo-Cubism is also referred to as the ‘Arch’ or ‘Legion Bank’ style.

Between World Wars I and II, functionalism, with its sober, progressive forms, took over as the main architectural style in the newly established Czechoslovak Republic. The best example of this new architecture is the Baba colony, a villa-style development that originated in a project by the most important functionalist architects. In the city of Brno, one of the most impressive functionalist works has been preserved. It is the Tugendhat Villa (a UNESCO monument), designed by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Even today, the Czech Republic is not shying away from the most modern trends of international architecture. This fact is attested to by a number of projects by world-renowned architects (Frank O. Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Ricardo Bofill, John Pawson and Richard Meier) that have been realised mainly in Prague. The Czech Republic has also produced architects whose work can be found all over the world, for instance in the UK (Eva Jiřičná, Jan Kaplický), Canada, and even China (Jan and Ivana Benda).

Last update: 16.8.2011 16:00

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