As it enters its third great construction boom, Prague is at a crossroads: Adopt the Communist ethos to build, build, build, or continue to create modern architectural gems like the ones erected between the World Wars?

By Peter S. Green
January 28, 2011
Richard Phibbs

WE ARE DRIVING—A LITTLE TOO FAST—IN A WHITE SKODA THROUGH Prague's new Strahov Tunnel, a vast multi-lane hole under Petrin Hill, when I ask about the city's unfinished beltway.

"It's lethal for the whole town," says my guide, Michal Kohout, dangerously taking his eyes off the curving roadway to speak. A Czech architect in his thirties whose star is rising, Kohout is an editor at the bilingual architectural review Zlaty Rez, and a walking encyclopedia of Prague's 20th-century buildings. He also has unequivocal opinions about their imminent ruin. That, he believes, will be the inevitable result of the mammoth Communist-style construction projects, like the beltway, that continue to attack his beloved city more than a decade after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Once the beltway is finished—though that day may never come—the tunnel we are barreling through will be part of the ring road intended to draw traffic away from Prague's historic center. But Kohout feels that better roads will only increase congestion, by inducing people to spend more time in their cars. The construction of access streets has already scarred Prague's historic suburbs, and new bridges and tunnels threaten more of the outlying regions. "No one will stop these idiots," Kohout exclaims. "They will kill whole neighborhoods!"

Few visitors take much notice of anything outside the center of Prague. Fewer still appreciate that just beyond its medieval core lies one of the world's great assemblages of modern architecture. In fact, the Prague most visitors come to see—the magical Prague haunted by the shade of Franz Kafka, where ghosts and golems hide in every doorway—never really existed. It was largely a fantasy of fin de siècle writers like Rainer Maria Rilke, Gustav Meyrink, and Kafka himself, who were all seduced by Prague's "hundred spires" (today there are about 500, according to the Prague Information Service), the winding cobblestoned streets of the medieval Mala Strana (Lesser Town) below the castle, and the now-vanished slums of the Jewish quarter. "With all due respect to Prague's history . . . dirty backyards do not add up to anything magical or mystical," the historian Peter Demetz wrote recently in Prague in Black and Gold.

Kohout worries about the fabric of modern Prague, and in particular the extensive trove of buildings from the dawn of the 20th century. These were designed by some of history's most innovative architects: Adolph Loos, Josef Gocar, Jan Kotera, Josip Plecnik. The city's patchwork texture, found nowhere else in Europe, owes its structural wealth to that period, when industrialists, businessmen, and the newly minted Republic of Czechoslovakia generated a surge in modern construction. Spared the wrath of World War II, nearly all of those modern buildings survived, leaving Prague today as a history lesson on early-20th-century architecture, with the world's most significant styles—from Cubism to Purism, Modernism, and Functionalism—as prime exhibits.

"It's really a Prague specialty that you can find all the movements of architecture, from Gothic to contemporary, on one street," says novelist Ivan Klima. A native son, he has set most of his stories in this city; he recently completed a nonfiction book on Prague's buildings. "The city is an interesting museum of modern architecture, and not just in the center. But most people aren't even aware of it."

Prague is now on its third great building boom in less than a century. So far, the latest growth spurt has attracted a few showpieces by Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and Ricardo Bofils, but many still fear that avaricious developers will overbuild, just as they did during the second boom. Unsightly reminders of the Communist construction frenzy of the 1960's and 70's pockmark the city: acres of sloppy gray-slab housing projects, obtrusive office buildings, and garish private residences.

The city's mayor, Jan Kasl, is a great believer in Prague's future. Running his hand along a vast wall map in his office, Kasl talks excitedly about the new beltway and the badly needed elbowroom it will give the city center. He dismisses critics as unrealistic. Kasl, an accomplished architect himself, may disagree with Kohout on the need for the multi-billion-dollar ring road, but he, too, is a fan of Prague's Modernism. Also like Kohout, he has little faith that the current construction explosion will in any way approach the creative energy of the original one in the previous century.

The problem, he says, is that too many developers are creating square footage to rent to the highest bidder. There aren't enough of what he calls "investors" who make buildings "with a purpose." There should be more like Frank Gehry's Nationale Nederlanden, called the Dancing House, on the Vltava embankment. Form must follow function, Kasl believes, and the architect must be aware of the forces behind his endeavor. "First you must know who your masters are, and then you can build their house," he says. Unfortunately, he explains, the cash-strapped city government is not erecting any structures of its own. "And I am not an investor who can invite, say, Rem Koolhaas myself. But I try to encourage private developers to use great architects."

FOR NEARLY THREE CENTURIES UNDER the Austrian monarchy, Prague was a provincial capital growing haphazardly around a preserved medieval core. But by the end of the 1800's, Bohemia had become the industrial heartland of the empire and Prague one of Europe's wealthiest cities. As the empire showed signs of weakening, the Czechs began to flaunt their wealth and assert their independence. Young architects who had trained in Vienna traveled back to sleepy Prague, determined to reinvent it as a cultural center to rival Paris or Berlin. The old Jewish ghetto was razed, and replaced with decorous apartment complexes. Wenceslas Square became a showcase for contemporary architecture, where Prague's Czech, Jewish, and German cultures mixed freely. Suburbs, such as Vinohrady, Vrsovice, and the villa district of Bubenec, were transformed into elite addresses.

But Prague's historic center, sandwiched between the high hills along the Vltava River, had no room for the grand vistas and imposing squares of Europe's other great centers. Resourceful developers, in their effort to advance the newly born Czech nationalism, poured money into construction instead. Where Austria was ornate, and decadent, Prague would be strong, rational, and pulsing with industrial might. There would be no Rococo filigree here: Czech buildings would reflect the country's position as a leading producer of steel, concrete, and glass. They would point to the future.

From the Czech experiment with modern architecture, three strands eventually emerged, all of which are visible in Prague. The first stop on my driving tour with Kohout is at the Obecni Dum, or Municipal House. The yellow structure combines French Beaux-Arts with Viennese Secessionism; inside are meeting rooms and a concert hall, café, and restaurant. When you sit in the carefully restored café today, it's easy to see why the Czechs may have felt they finally had a modern building to rival any in Europe.

But the Obecni Dum was outdated even before its completion in 1911, and criticized for being neither innovative nor particularly Czech. In response, established architects, such as Jan Kotera—who studied with Vienna's Otto Wagner, the founder of Viennese Secessionism, that elegantly geometric version of Art Nouveau—chose a "rational" approach in developing the Czech National Style. Façades would retain their concrete plainness; exposed brick would reveal the building's structure rather than hide it. Kotera's Laichter House and his Mozarteum are prime examples of this rational form of design.

Younger architects quickly latched onto the latest artistic movement coming out of Paris—Cubism—and applied it to architecture. Their handful of residential houses, apartment buildings, and small department stores is a curious amalgam of jutting surfaces and blocklike details slapped like afterthoughts onto classical forms. Driving along the Vltava, we stop at Josef Chochol's Cubist Triple House, a bulky building grown slightly shabby over the years. The Cubists, Kohout explains, wanted their structures to show emotion. "It was a very artistic rebellion against the modern idea that form follows function," he says. "They felt that form follows feeling and spirit."

Cubism was neither a commercial nor a critical success, and the young architects soon softened its edges, finally arriving at the more publicly acceptable Rondocubism. (Gocar's 1923 red-and-white Czechoslovak Legion Bank is the Rondocubists' best work—and chronicles the true beginning of the Czech National Style.) By 1918 Czechoslovakia had won its independence from Austria, but the Czechs were still struggling to shed three centuries of history. Rondocubists such as Kotera and Gocar couldn't resist incorporating Wagnerian and even classical ideas into their blocky designs.

Meanwhile, the country's first president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, commissioned the Slovenian classicist Josip Plecnik to turn Prague Castle into a palace for the people. Masaryk had great plans for the castle, says Zdenek Lukes, the building's architectural curator, who greets me in his attic office. "He wanted to make it the modern center of a proud Czechoslovakia." Plecnik redesigned the castle gardens, added monumental staircases and obelisks, and opened up vistas by lowering the castle wall. A series of odd constructions—including the Bull Staircase, ornamented with tiny bronze bulls—were created. Obsessed with craftsmanship and classical forms, Plecnik was frequently at odds with Czech architects. He eventually left Prague to reconstruct the city center of his native Ljubljana—but not before constructing his monumental Church of the Holy Heart. Still, though Plecnik's work was innovative, it failed to set a trend. His ornate style was too far from the Purism and Functionalism young Czech architects preferred.

OUR NEXT STOP IS AT PRAGUE'S MOST remarkable private house, the Villa Müller. Designed by Adolph Loos, whose landmark 1908 essay, "Ornament and Crime," was the manifesto of Minimalism, the house's plain exterior encapsulates a radically new idea. Loos called the urge to decorate "a pathology," and classicism "a disease." His innovative creation was the Raumplan, or "space plan," which set rooms apart by different heights, not simply by doors and walls. Finished in the richest marbles and hardwoods, filled with fine cabinetry, and completed in 1936, the Villa Müller is a sumptuous labyrinth. The Communists confiscated the villa from its owner, Frantisek Müller, in 1948; he later died there under mysterious circumstances. His heirs, however, recovered it at the end of the Communist era and sold it to the city of Prague. Now carefully restored and filled with the family's furniture (restored and replicated), it has been open to the public since January 2000, by appointment only.

Inspired by Czechoslovakia's new democracy, emerging Functionalists, Modernists, and Purists were embraced by the upper middle class. In the hilltop neighborhood of Baba, where 33 houses designed by the leading architects of the period form a modern garden city, we meet Stephan Templ, a historian of 20th-century Czech architecture. "In Stuttgart, Zürich, and Vienna, these 'Werkbünde' were designed for the proletariat and the workers," he says of planned communities like Baba. "But in Prague they were quickly sold to bourgeois nationalists." By living in Czech-designed houses built with Czech materials, the upper-middle class was making a political statement of national pride.

All over the city, other innovative works were being built, such as the Trade Fair Palace, whose five-story atrium looks like an inverted steamship deck (it's now the Gallery of Modern & Contemporary Art). In 1927, the symmetrical Headquarters of the Electrical Company was erected by Adolf Bens and Josef Kriz. The Glass House, built in 1936, was the most modern apartment complex in Europe at the time. The Julis Hotel and the Bat'a and Lindt department stores, on the lower half of Wenceslas Square, were in the vanguard when they went up in between 1925 and 1933. But by the late 1930's European fascism had cast a pall over Prague, and when World War II broke out, the intellectual ferment was over. The war left the city physically unscathed, but staggering rates of deportation and exile meant that its days as a melting pot of intellectuals were over.

Modernists soon fell out of favor with the Communist government, which ironically saw them as too radical and labeled their work decadent and bourgeois. Few noteworthy buildings were erected in the 1950's. After the 1968 Prague Spring, a failed attempt at reforming the Communist system that ended in Warsaw Pact forces invading Czechoslovakia, the situation only worsened. Vast projects of panelaky—prefabricated apartment blocks—scarred the city's outskirts. The few great architects who remained, such as Pavel Janak, were reduced to renovating historic buildings.

THE FALL OF COMMUNISM AND THE country's subsequent growth spurt have been a boon for construction. Back in his office, Mayor Kasl counts off the new projects by world-famous architects and declares his hopes to make Prague an international hub once more. "I want Prague to become a more cosmopolitan city, to have more taste, more colors, more flavors. I want to make this city open again," he says. "Having architects from different countries renew the city is the right approach. After all, Prague was built by Czechs, Germans, Jews, all of them."

But as we drive around on a final Sunday afternoon, Kohout takes me to the major works of the past few years. Most seem simply bland. Only Frank Gehry's oversized Dancing House, with its off-kilter windows and whimsical exterior, reflects the energy and absurdities of post-Communist Prague. Ricardo Bofils's Prague project is barely noticeable, hidden in a factory's top floor on a suburban side street. Even Jean Nouvel's much-talked-about Angel complex is an unremarkable see-through box cut off from its surroundings by the beltway access ramps Kohout laments.

A few well-designed buildings do fit into Prague's existing mosaic, and merit a stop on our tour. The red sandstone Czech Radio addition, by the local architectural firm ADNS, is spacious and high-tech without disturbing the residential surroundings. Last year's MUZO building—Kohout's favorite structure—by Stanislav Fiala is eye-catching for its details, such as the vast venetian blinds, and the architect's inside joke: glass walls etched with a pattern resembling an integrated circuit, a wink at the company's credit card—security business. Kohout's own Prague building—in an office-and-apartment block with a sky-high redbrick tower—is more homage than innovation.

Thinking over our whirlwind tour, I ask Kohout whether the buildings now going up around Prague are creating a new national style. He shakes his head. Everything, he says, is somehow derived from the Modernist movement. And, he adds, globalization means that buildings, like everything else, are not being designed in the local vernacular. A Richard Meier skyscraper (there's talk of building one) or a Ricardo Bofils addition could as easily be set in Munich or Stockholm as in Prague. Jean Nouvel once said that "Prague's attraction is its 'spikiness'—all those little church towers." But there's nothing "spiky" about his Angel office-and-shopping complex in Prague—it's practically the twin sister of his Galeries Lafayette on Berlin's Friedrichstrasse. "These buildings could stand in almost any city in Europe," Kohout says.

Back in the Skoda, looking past the MUZO building, I think about what Kohout has told me. As I catch glimpses of faded Modernist buildings lining the road on the way to town, I think perhaps he's right. But in no other city would they look so good.

Begin at 5 Republic Square with Antonin Balsanek and Osvald Polivka's Obecni Dum (1903—12). A few hundred yards down Na Porici (No. 24) looms Gocar's 1923 Czechoslovak Legion Bank, the architect's first major attempt to create the Czech National Style. Dubbed "Rondocubist," for its rounding of Cubist angles, the building has red and white masonry, reflecting the Czech national colors. Its reliefs, by Otto Gutfreund, depict the legions that fought for Czech independence in 1918.

Farther down on Na Prikope stands the curved façade of Frantisek Roith's Czech National Bank (1928—39), which recalls the Vienna Postal Savings Bank of his teacher Otto Wagner. At 1 Na Prikope, the Vienna Bank Association Building (1906—08) by Josef Zasche and Alexander Neumann, finished even before the much-criticized Obecni Dum, displays its simple symmetrical granite front. It's one of the first examples of geometrical modern style in Prague.

Down the narrow pedestrian street Twenty-eight Rijna (which becomes Narodni Trida), the Art Deco former ARA Department Store, designed between 1927 and 1931, rises at 5 Perlova. Add a few seashells and its stark whiteness and stepped-back tower would fit right in on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. On the left, at 31 Jungmannova, is Janak's bizarrely ornamental Adria Palace (1922—25), originally designed for an Italian insurance company. A jumble of architectural styles, the building resembles nothing so much as a Lego fortress; Le Corbusier called it "Assyrian." During the 1989 Velvet Revolution, its basement theater was the headquarters for Vaclav Havel's Civic Forum.

At 19 Narodni, Bohumil Hubschmann's 1912 apartment house, with its triple row of bay windows, clearly shows the influence of the architect's mentor, Otto Wagner. At the end of Narodni, the entire last century comes into focus. The neo-Renaissance National Theater embodies the stodginess against which Art Nouveau revolted. The Topic House and the Praha Insurance Company (Nos. 7 and 9, 1903—07), by Osvald Polivka, display exuberant floral motifs. Note the Topic House's top floor windows: they spell out the Czech word for Prague: Praha.

Across the street, Karel Prager's New Stage for the National Theater (1977—81) holds the title of "worst eyesore on the street." An elevated block clad in handblown glass, it's best described as Neo-Brutalist. Fortunately, the 1930's Café Slavia, with its green-marble and mahogany interior, lies just down the road. For decades it has been the meeting place for Czech intellectuals; its broad windows along the embankment allow for heart-stopping views of Prague Castle.

Wenceslas Square is the heart of Prague—and a self-contained history lesson on 20th-century architecture. Begin your education with the last of a breed, the Grand Hotel Europa (No. 25-27), a timeworn bijou of Art Nouveau glitter. Even as the hotel was being finished, in 1905, styles were shifting; construction was being emphasized over decorative detail, to reflect Czechoslovakia's industrial strength. The Adam Pharmacy at No. 8, built between 1911 and 1913 by Emil Kralicek and Matej Blecha, illustrates this change, with its application of Otto Wagner's strict geometry to Art Nouveau's flowing, sensual forms.

From 1927 through 1929, architects stocked the square with eye-catching Modernist buildings. The Bat'a shoe store (No. 6) was once the main showroom for the world's largest shoe manufacturer. The Communists confiscated the white-glass-fronted shop, but in 1989 the Bat'a family won it back and their old neon sign again shines from the roof. Next door, the glass façade of Ludvik Kysela's recently restored Lindt department store (No. 4) seems to float like a curtain. The store's gold-leaf basement, once a nightclub, now houses a Thai restaurant. Farther up the block is the functionalist white-and-blue Julis Hotel (No. 22), inspired by the steamships of the twenties. Its patisserie and second-floor tearoom with dance floor were typical features of the city center in pre-war days.

Up the square at No. 56 is Gocar's Fenix House (now called Blanik). The contrasting bands that decorate the façade, which here seem almost elegant, were imitated decades later by heavy-handed Communist architects. Across the street, the Jalta Hotel's travertine-faced block (No. 45) can't escape its Stalinist origins with clumsily ornate windows and crudely carved cornices. On the southeast end of the square, at Vinohradska 1, stands the stock exchange, built in 1935 and turned into the parliament building by the Communists in 1948. In 1972, the entire complex was cloaked in a glass-and-steel addition. When Czechoslovakia broke up in 1992, its parliament was disbanded and the building handed over to Radio Free Europe, once Soviet Communism's most implacable foe.

The city's trams and metro system are easy to use, although they're not always convenient to some of the more distant buildings worth seeing. Prague taxis are usually inexpensive—but they're notorious for cheating tourists. Instead of hailing one on the street, call a radio taxi service such as AAA Taxi, 420-2/3311-3311 or HaloTaxi, 420-2/4411-4411 and hire a driver for the day.

Four Seasons Hotel Prague 2A Veleslavinova; 420-2/2142-7000, fax 420-2/2142-6977;; doubles from $245. A welcome addition to Prague's hotel scene, this outpost of the hotel chain is just a few steps from the Charles Bridge.

Hotel Sax 3 Jansky Vrsek; 420-2/5753-1268, fax 420-2/5753-4101,; doubles from $100. The property is shadowed by the castle, and many of its elegant modern rooms have excellent views of the fortress and the city.

Hotel Liberty 11 Twenty-eight Rijna; 420-2/2423-9598, fax 420-2/2423-7694;; doubles from $142. The 32-room, newly restored hotel is just off Wenceslas Square.

Sushi Bar 49 Zborovska; 420-603/244-882; dinner for two $40. Prague's freshest sushi (from the fish shop next door) in a clean, cool space.

Angel Café 3 Opatovicka; 420-2/2493-0019;; dinner for two $35. In a well-lit, spare dining room, British-born chef Sofia Aziz creates the city's most innovative dishes.

Modra Terasa 9 Na Mustku; 420-2/2422-6288;; dinner for two $25. At the top of the CKD building, with an Italian and Continental menu. The view over Wenceslas Square is as good as the food.

Ostroff Strelecky 336 Ostrov; 420-2/2491-9235;; dinner for two $50. Romantically placed on an island in the Vltava, this Italian restaurant specializes in game.

For a self-guided tour of the city's landmarks and modern buildings, pick up Prague: 20th Century Architecture by Michal Kohout, Vladimir Slapeta, and Stephan Templ (Zlaty Rez and Springer-Verlag, 1999); Architecture of the 20th Century by Zdenek Lukes (Prague Castle Administration and DaDa, 2001); and Baba: The Werkbund Housing Estate in Prague by Stephan Templ (Birkhauser Publishing House, 1999). They can be found in or ordered through the following bookshops:
Anagram 4 Tyn; 420-2/2489-5737, fax 420-2/2489-5738;
Big Ben Book Shop 5 Mala Stupartska; 420-2/2482-6565, fax 420-2/2482-6559;