Prague wears its history on its sleeve. Spared large-scale destruction during World War II, the city's medieval core remains largely intact. For history buffs, a walk down nearly any street in the Old Town is a real-life power-point presentation on 8 centuries of history. A little knowledge of architecture goes a long way toward helping to decode it.
Romanesque architecture dates from the turn of the first millennium and is the style of the oldest buildings still standing in Prague. Romanesque exteriors are often circular (a rotunda), and the interiors are starker and simpler than Gothic. Prague's finest Romanesque building is St. George's Basilica at the Prague Castle complex. Look past the building's misleading 17th-century facade to find a starkly beautiful stone interior with a lovely vaulted ceiling.
Ask any Praguer what his or her favorite architectural style is and chances are they will say Gothic. It's no wonder. Gothic's signature soaring towers, spires, and buttresses are deeply connected to Prague's rise in the 14th century as one of Europe's great cities and its brief but impressive period as capital of the Holy Roman Empire under Charles IV.
In Prague's heyday the best architects of the time came here to build Charles's vision for a capital worthy of the empire. These included Peter Parler, who oversaw the building of St. Vitus Cathedral, and Benedikt Ried, whose soaring ceiling in the Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle is consider a highpoint of late Gothic. Ried was also involved in building Kutná Hora's great St. Barbara's Cathedral.
Great Gothic buildings read like a greatest hits collection of the city's architecture. In addition to St. Vitus and the Old Royal Palace, there's the Týn Church, the Old Town Hall and Astronomical Clock, and even the foundations of Charles Bridge itself (but not the statues -- they came later).
Bohemia also participated in the great European renaissance of the 16th century, with its emphasis on classical and mythical figures, and above all harmony and symmetry in architectural design. Renaissance came to Prague via the Habsburgs and the nobility and their love of Italian style.
Renaissance buildings are easy to spot, just look for the trademark sgraffito -- geometric or figurative designs etched into a building's stucco exterior. The Schwarzenberg Palace on Hradcanské námestí, across from the entrance to Prague Castle, is the city's best example of Renaissance architecture.
Baroque architecture is inevitably linked to the twin triumphs of the Austrian Habsburg Empire and the Roman Catholic Church following the 1620 Battle of White Mountain and efforts to reindoctrinate the Czechs with over-the-top displays of power and wealth. You can forget the architectural adage "less is more"; with baroque more is definitely more. Signature elements include big cupolas, marble columns, ornately painted frescoes, and all manner of marble and gold.
The most important baroque buildings in Prague are doubtless the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Malá Strana and the bright pink Goltz-Kinský Palace on Old Town Square, as well as many of the palaces in Malá Strana. The baroque period was an intensively active one; many church interiors in Prague (regardless of the exterior style) will have lavish baroque interiors.
19th-Century Neoclassical & Other "Neos"
The 19th century saw the reemergence of the Czech nation, and 19th-century buildings are invariably tied up with Czech nationalism. Unfortunately, the century was a relatively boring period for architectural invention. Prague architects took their cues from Vienna, which was in the thrall of "historicism" -- basically copying historic styles such as Gothic, Classic, and Renaissance and appending the prefix "neo" to the front.
Landmark buildings from this time include the neo-Renaissance National Theater, National Museum, and Rudolfinum. This is also when Prague received all of those Gothic spires that inspired its nickname of "City of a Thousand Spires." During the latter part of the 19th century, "neo-Gothic" was all the rage.
Art Nouveau & "Cubist"
The turn of the 19th century elicited a strong reaction from Prague architects, tired of the sterility of the previous decades. Art Nouveau, with its wavy lines, florid designs and conscious ornamentation, was everything neoclassical was not. Prague Art Nouveau emerged as a synthesis of the prevailing Parisian style mixed in elements of the more subdued Viennese Secession style. Today, buildings of both types can be found in the city center.
The best example of the Parisian variant is the Obecní Dum (Municipal House), just off of Námestí Republiky. For Secession, check out the turn-of-the-19th-century apartment buildings in Josefov, along Parízská and around the former Jewish quarter. You can't help but notice the inlaid jewel- and tile-work embedded into the facades like a finely crafted jewelry box.
Cubism came a few years later and like Art Nouveau was a reaction to the sterility of the 19th century. Cubism was a purely Czech invention that never caught on outside the country's borders; nevertheless the Cubist effects are striking. Check out the facade on the House of the Black Madonna, just off of Celetná in the Old Town.
Functionalist & Communist
These styles bear a superficial resemblance, but in fact have nothing to do with each other. Functionalism was a style that arose in the 1920s, greatly influenced by Germany's Bauhaus, that sought to strip away all unnecessary ornamentation from a building, leaving in its place clean, horizontal lines and spare but pleasing boxy shapes.
Arguably, the best Functionalist building in Prague is the 1928 Veletrzní palác in Holesovice, originally built as an exhibition space for trade fairs and now housing the National Gallery's Museum of 20th and 21st Century Art.
Communist style, by contrast, came after World War II with the ascendancy of the communist regime. These buildings are boxy too, but the boxes reflect more a lack of imagination and money more than any conscious style choice. One of the more celebrated (and controversial) Communist buildings is the 1975 Kotva department store, built in Brutalist style, just off of Námestí Republiky in the Old Town.
The brief exception to the uniformity of Communist architecture came with 1950s' Socialist-Realist style, where architects tried consciously to imitate Stalin's tastes. One of the very few examples of Socialist Realist architecture in Prague is the former Hotel International in Dejvice (now home to the Crowne Plaza Hotel).
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