Education has always occupied an important place in Czech life. Professors at Charles University -- the city's most prestigious and oldest university, founded in 1348 -- have been in the political and cultural vanguard, strongly influencing the everyday life of all citizens. During the last 50 years, the university has expanded into some of the city center's largest riverfront buildings, many of which are between Charles Bridge (Karluv most) and Cech's Bridge (Cechuv most).

The Art of Prague's Architecture

Prague's long history, combined with its good fortune in having avoided heavy war damage, makes it wonderful for architecture lovers. Along with the standard must-see castles and palaces comes a bountiful mixture of styles and periods. Buildings and monuments from the Middle Ages to the present are interspersed with one another throughout the city.

The best examples of Romanesque architecture are parts of Prague Castle, including St. George's Basilica. In Staré Mesto you'll see the best examples of the 3-century Gothic period: the Convent of St. Agnes, Na Frantisku; the Old-New Synagogue, Parízská trída; Old Town Hall and the Astronomical Clock, Staromestské námestí; Powder Tower, Celetná ulice; and Charles Bridge. A few Renaissance buildings still stand, including Golden Lane, Malá Strana Town Hall, and Pinkas Synagogue (Siroká ulice) in Staré Mesto.

Many of Prague's best-known structures are pure baroque and rococo, enduring styles that reigned in the 17th and 18th centuries. Buildings on Staromestské námestí and Nerudova Street date from this period, as does St. Nicholas Church, Malostranské námestí, in Malá Strana, and the Loreto Palace, Loretánské námestí, in Hradcany.

Renaissance styles made a comeback in the late 19th century. Two neo-Renaissance buildings in particular -- the National Theater, Národní trída, and the National Museum, Václavské námestí, both in Prague 1, have endured and are among Prague's most identifiable landmarks.

An exciting addition to the architectural lineup is the painstakingly refurbished 1911 Art Nouveau Municipal House (Obecní dum) at námestí Republiky, Prague 1. Every opulent ceiling, sinuous light fixture, curling banister, etched-glass window, and inlaid ceramic wall creates the astonishing atmosphere of hope and accomplishment from the turn of the 20th century. This is Prague's outstanding monument to itself. The music salon, Smetana Hall (home to the Prague Symphony), has a gorgeous atrium roof with stained-glass windows. After World War I, with independence won, the democratic Czechoslovak Republic was declared here by the first National Council (parliament) in 1918. Daily guided tours are offered in the afternoons; visit the information center inside for details and tickets.

Other excellent examples of whimsical Art Nouveau architecture are the Hotel Evropa, on Václavské námestí, and the main train station, Hlavní nádrazí, on Wilsonova trída, both in Prague 1.

Prague's finest cubist design, the House at the Black Mother of God (Dum U Cerné Matky bozí), at Celetná and Ovocný trh in Old Town, is worth a look. The building is named for the statuette of the Virgin Mary on its well-restored exterior. It now houses a Museum of Cubism and modern art gallery. You'll also find a full cubist neighborhood of buildings directly under Vysehrad Park near the right bank (Old Town side) of the Vltava.

The city's most unappealing structures are the socialist and Brutalist designs built from the mid-1960s until the end of Communism. Examples are the entrance and departure halls of Hlavní nádrazí, Wilsonova trída, Prague 1; the Máj department store (now a Tesco), Národní trída 26, Prague 1; and the Kotva department store, námestí Republiky, Prague 1.

However, the absolute worst are the prefabricated apartment buildings (paneláky) reached by taking metro line C to Chodov or Háje. Built in the 1970s, when buildings grew really huge and dense, each is eight or more stories tall. Today, half of Prague's residents live in paneláky, which rim the city.

One postrevolution development -- the Rasín Embankment Building ★, Rasínovo nábrezí at Resslova, Prague 2 -- continues to fuel the debate about blending traditional architecture with progressive design. Known as the Dancing Building, it opened in 1996.

Codesigned by Canadian-born Frank Gehry, who planned Paris's controversial American Center and the Guggenheim Bilbao, the building's method of twisting concrete and steel together had never before been tried in Europe or elsewhere. An abstract Fred Astaire, dusting off his white tie and tails, embraces an eight-story ball-gowned Ginger Rogers for a twirl above the Vltava. The staggered design of the windows gives the structure motion when seen from afar. The only way to get the full effect is from across the river. The kicker is that the building is made out of prefabricated concrete, proving that the Communist panelák apartment houses could have been made more imaginatively. Ex-president Havel used to live next door in a modest apartment in the neoclassical building built and owned by his family.

Modern Memorials

One of the city's most photographed attractions is the colorful graffiti-filled Lennon Wall, on Velkoprevorské námestí. This quiet side street in Malá Strana's Kampa neighborhood near Charles Bridge is across from the French Embassy on the path leading from Kampa Park.

The wall is named after singer John Lennon, whose huge image is spray-painted on the wall's center. Following his 1980 death, Lennon became a hero of freedom, pacifism, and counterculture throughout eastern Europe, and this monument was born. During Communist rule, the wall's prodemocracy and other slogans were regularly whitewashed, only to be repainted by the faithful. When the new democratically elected government was installed in 1989, it's said that the French ambassador, whose stately offices are directly across from the wall, phoned Prague's mayor and asked that the city refrain from interfering with the monument. Today young locals and visitors continue to flock here, paying homage with flowers and candles. Lennon's picture has been repainted, larger and more angelic. It is now surrounded by graffiti more ridiculous than political.

The 1989 revolution against Communism is modestly remembered at the Národní Memorial, Národní 16, under the arches, midway between Václavské námestí and the National Theater. A small bronze monument of peace-sign hands marks the spot where hundreds of protesting college students were beaten by riot police on the brutal, icy night of November 17, 1989.

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