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The first thing I noticed when I emerged from the subway station at Můstek in Prague, was the incredible architecture. The distinctive ‘cake-like’ buildings (as I began to describe them), the colours, and the marvellous detail. Now, I must admit, I haven’t studied architecture or design in many years (c.1998), and I’m not going to give you an architecture lesson, but I did want to write about a few of my favourite buildings / areas in Prague. So, for your visual delectation, here’s an architectural tour of Prague.
Our luck was to emerge from the Můstek subway station across the road from this Art Nouveau beauty, the Grand Hotel Evropa on Wenceslas Square. It is currently closed, so I didn’t get to go inside to see the characteristic ‘total artwork’ ideals (the application of style to all areas of the building) of the Art Nouveau movement. There are Art Nouveau gems all around Prague, and don’t miss the Alphonse Mucha Museum on Kaunický Palác.
On our way to our hotel, we spotted this delicious Neo-Renaissance elementary school building. Built in 1866, it is covered in sgraffitoes and alegorical figures in plaster. Sgraffito is when you scratch away plaster to reveal a contrasting layer of plaster or stucco. The detail on this building was incredible.
One of the more famous Renaissance buildings in Prague is the striking The House at the Minute which sits in between the Old Town Square and Little Square. At the beginning of the 1900s, this house and the neighbouring house were due to be demolished to open up the gap between the Old and Little Squares, but when sgraffitoes were discovered in the neighbouring building, they were both kept and restored. The striking features are relatively unusual for a house that wasn’t built for famous people. It’s true, Franz Kafka was a resident as a child… but he wasn’t famous yet 😉
To make things super confusing, there are two Baroque St Nicholas’ churches in Prague – one in the Old Town off the main square, and one over in the Lesser Town (Malá Strana). But, if you want to see a Baroque masterpiece by the famed architects, Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, head to Malá Strana (you should spend a lot of time here anyway) to the St Nicholas with the big green dome and bell tower (lower photo).
The Jewish Quarter
Due to overcrowding and bad sanitation, the Jewish slums were demolished and regenerated between 1896 to 1912. Only 6 synagogues, the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Jewish Town Hall remained as evidence of the old Jewish town. The new buildings do show the diversity of styles of architecture being produced at that time though – in the below picture you can see Art Nouveau, Baroque, and Renaissance influences; as well as some elements of Classicism in the columns on the white building at the end.
When I was looking back through my photos of Prague, this one particular building kept showing up in the skyline. The Church of our Lady before Týn is a Gothic church on the Old Town Square. Like something out of a fairytale, the two imposing (and probably a little intimidating on a foggy night) bell towers aren’t identical in size; and were finished about 20 years apart. Odd to think of this well-balanced building ever being without one tower!
In amongst the Art Nouveau buildings of the New Town, and the Classicist grandeur of the Smetana waterfront, sitting on the edge of the Vltava river, is the modern masterpiece The Dancing House. Designed by Vlado Milunić, with cooperation from Frank Gehry, this building was finished in 1996 and was designed to remind you of a dancing couple. Frank Gehry nicknamed it ‘Fred & Ginger’ after Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; but after seeing it come together decided that such a kitsch American nickname wasn’t befitting such a stunning building. I dunno, I kinda like the name! It is a sultry and dynamic addition to Prague’s rich architecture.
What I Missed
I would have loved to spend more time looking at the Art Nouveau buildings and communing with Alphonse Mucha. Prague is lucky to have a hugely rich surviving collection of Art Nouveau style buildings, as it avoided the bombs of WWII (unlike poor Dresden). I would also like to visit Vienna and learn more about the Secessionist movement too. In opposition to the conservative err towards Historicism which had seen many Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings in the Old Town demolished and rebuilt in the Historicist style; Secessionist buildings focussed on geometric forms and decoration. Overall, I was far more drawn to the Renaissance and Baroque ‘cake’ buildings than I thought I would be. Although I didn’t get to see the ultimate cake-like building, the pink and curly Kinsky Palace!
I found Prague has suffered somewhat from its own popularity, with overwhelming tourist numbers during our December visit. So I would definitely love to visit in a quieter month, so I can stare at buildings uninterrupted!
All photos © Hannah Henderson and may not be used without permission (sharing this blog post is fine, though!). Images shot with a Canon DSLR T3i Rebel + Canon EF 35-80mm f/4-5.6 III; and an iPhone6s.