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Prague In the rhythm of architecture

Nowhere else will you find such a varied mix of architectural styles in such a small area as in Prague. For the past thousand years the city has miraculously escaped major disasters and devastating war damage. In its streets you can read the city’s history like a book which blends many different levels of narrative. The oldest stories are woven into the heavy stone walls of Romanesque churches and rise to the sky with the slender pinnacles of Gothic churches, while others tell of the inhabitants of Renaissance town houses long ago or of the spiritual meaning which over time has been restored to dynamically curving Baroque facades.

The diverse mosaic of Prague’s historical centre is complemented by equally valuable examples of modern architecture, among which are buildings in a style you won’t encounter in any other country in the world.

Crazy Cubist dance

Czech artists have repeatedly shown that they can find original solutions to great stylistic problems that were abandoned by the rest of the art world after the style reached its peak. This was just as true in medieval times as it is now. The prime example is a the translation of Cubist principles into architecture, which you can admire on Prague’s streets today.

In the early 20th century, young Czech architects seeking their own modern idiom discovered the innovative work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, thanks to the Czech art historian Vincenc Kramář. Thus inspired, they managed to weed out of their concept of architecture anything that was connected with the past and to create their own vocabulary based on characteristic pyramid shapes and oblique angles, which were to express the new direction of the human spirit. From the beginning, they met with opposition from conservative critics and fellow architects, who felt very scandalized by their “crazy Cubist dance”. The Cubists always defended the ability of new architecture to harmoniously complement the historically valuable parts of Prague. 

Today, you can see for yourself whether or not they succeeded, for example, in the buildings of Pavel Janák, which blend Picasso’s Analytical Cubism with dynamic elements of the Baroque. Not far from Old Town Square, you can go inside one of the best examples of Cubist architecture in Prague – the House at the Black Madonna (1912) by Josef Gočár – where you can admire the architect’s excellent ability to express moods and emotions through an abstract morphology. You will also find the only Cubist café in the world here. Josef Gočár equipped the Grand Café Orient with Cubist furniture, chandeliers, wallpaper and even coat racks.

Laterna Magika

In 1958, viewers at the Czechoslovak pavilion of the World Exhibition in Brussels sat in awe as they watched a performance combining film projection with dance, music, light and pantomime. The creators of this revolutionary multimedia concept, the director Alfréd Radok and the stage designer Josef Svoboda, named it Laterna Magika. At that time, they certainly did not realize that what they had created would become a sensation that would amaze millions of viewers from all over the world.

Since 1992, Laterna Magika has had its permanent home in the building of the New Stage (Nová scéna) of the National Theatre, one of Prague’s most controversial buildings of the past thirty years. This building by the polemical architect Karel Prager aroused great passion from the start for its uncompromising expression and encroachment upon the surrounding historical buildings. After its completion it soon acquired numerous sarcastic nicknames, but today it is an unmistakeable landmark in the city centre.

Visitors to Prague admire the “cubist” design of the main building’s facade, consisting of more than four thousand blown glass blocks designed by the world-renowned glass artist Stanislav Libenský. Individual tiles have different surface treatments and together they form a distinctive three-dimensional relief, essentially making the entire building a giant glass sculpture.

The piazzetta between the buildings of the National Theatre and the New Stage (Nová Scéna) is now a lively spot in its own right, as a setting for dance and theatre performances. The glass facade of the New Stage is sometimes used by contemporary artists as a “projection screen”, which allows them to develop some of the principles used in Laterna Magika performances directly in public space.

Dancing House

After 1989, Prague opened up to many new possibilities, and further examples of new architecture were added to the mosaic. The first building by a world-class architect to appear in Prague after the revolution was initially nicknamed Ginger and Fred. Since 1996 it has stood on the right bank of the river Vltava at the corner of the Rašín Embankment (Rašínovo nábřeží) and Jirásek Square (Jiráskovo náměstí), on a lot which remained empty after bombardment at the end of the Second World War. The building was designed by architect Vlado Milunić along with Frank O. Gehry, and the parts of the office interiors were deigned by Eva Jiřičná, a Czech-born architect based in Britain.

The name Dancing House comes from the building’s two towers, which are reminiscent of the famous dancing couple Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The glass tower, representing Rogers, dips slightly into the space of Jirásek Square, while the concrete dancer, representing Astaire, is turned toward the embankment. The construction took place amid passionate discussions about the entire future of architectural development in Prague. The year it was completed, Dancing House won the prestigious Design of the Year award from the U.S. magazine Time.

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