In Prague’s Old Town, on the corner of Celetná Street and Ovocný trh, you will find the House of the Black Madonna, one of the most distinctive structures in a city known for its unparalleled mix of architectural styles. It was the first building in the rare Cubist style of architecture strongly associated with the city, and today houses a Cubist museum.
Completed in the second decade of the 20th century, the House of the Black Madonna was designed by Josef Gočár. It was the perfect venue therefore for the launch this week of the first extensive monograph dedicated to Gočár, who lived from 1880 to 1945, and is regarded as one of the founders of modern Czech architecture.
At the launch was architect and writer Zdeněk Lukeš, a member of the team of authors behind the freshly published tome.
“I think he is one of the most important architects of the first half of the 20th century, because he was a representative of many styles from that period, from Art Nouveau, through Cubism – a very curious style which was born here in Prague. Then the Art Deco period and then avant garde architecture, which means Functionalism. In every period he created fantastic architecture.”
When we discussed the work of Josef Gočár at the restored Grand Café Orient on the first floor of the House of the Black Madonna (which by the way was originally a department store), Mr Lukeš told me the architect had also been known beyond the borders of his homeland during his lifetime.
“He was also respected outside the Czech lands. For instance in 1914 he was responsible for the Czech exhibition at the Werkbund [design exhibition] in Cologne in Germany. It was a presentation of Cubist art outside Bohemia, which is why it was very important, and I think it was very influential on the generation of German Expressionists.”
What for you are his most important buildings or projects?
“I think one of the best is the House of the Black Madonna. Now we are sitting in its famous café, which was redesigned according to Josef Gočár’s plans, because the original furniture was destroyed during the ‘20s.
“This is an example of Cubism in architecture, a style that was born here in Prague in 1911, thanks to Gočár’s friend and colleague Pavel Janák. This is one of the best examples of this very Expressionist style of that era, and was finished in 1912.”
Thanks to its location, a short walk from Prague’s Old Town Square, the House of the Black Madonna is the example of Gočár’s work that visitors to the Czech Republic are most likely to see. But there are several other buildings worth visiting, both in the capital and in towns such as Hradec Králové and Pardubice.
“Another leading project was Wenke’s department store, which was designed by him in 1909 in the small town of Jaroměř. It was one of the first European examples of pre-Constructivist buildings, with a light, glass façade.
“During the ‘20s he was the author of the Legiobanka building here in Prague, which is also a very important monument of that era…”
That was the Legionnaires’ Bank?
“Yes…And also his late project, the Church of St Wenceslas in Vršovice in Prague is one of the best examples of modern architecture in Europe.
“Many of his projects were presented in foreign architecture magazines in that era, and he was also mentioned in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Modern Architects, as one of three or four Czechoslovaks.”
Am I right in thinking this café we’re in is the only Cubist café in the world?
“Of course, this is the only Cubist café in the world. There was also one café in Budapest, but it was destroyed. There are also two original Cubist interiors of two churches, one in Prague and one near Prague. But there is no other Cubist café like this.”
The new book on Josef Gočár is an impressive publication. At over 400 pages it features more than 500 pictures and photographs, along with many designs and plans. The latter included fascinating plans for projects that were never realised, such as an extension to Prague’s Old Town Hall and a state gallery intended for either Kampa or Letná.
Very coolly designed, the monograph is hefty too, weighing several kilos,and sells for CZK 2,500 or USD 135.
The book contains several sections focussing on various aspects of the architect’s work. The part dedicated to the his interiors is written by Daniela Karasová, who has been curator of the Cubist furniture collection at Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts for two decades.
“For all that period I had associated Gočár with Cubism. But while working on this amazing book I spent many hours in the archive of the Technical Museum and came into contact with members of some of the families for whom Gočár created designs, the interiors. I learned a lot – for instance about his pre-Cubist period.”
Mrs Karasová says Josef Gočár was designing his remarkable interiors for a select group of clients.
“They were Prague intellectuals. They had the courage to order Cubist furniture for their homes – and this furniture was strongly criticised at the time. Caricatures were published, poking fun at both Gočár and those who he designed interiors for. In one such comic strip somebody lies down on one of his sofas and breaks his arm, gets a lump on his head, and things like that.”
Gočár is said to have avoided writing or speaking much about his work, and is quoted as saying that whoever says too much feels too little. But according to Zdeněk Lukeš this apparent reticence did not prevent him from conveying his vision to the generation that followed him.
“He was very much respected by the younger generation of architects, and was one of the best teachers of architecture. He taught at the Academy of Art, after his professor Jan Kotěra, and he was very successful. For instance, some of his students had studied at the technical university in Prague, but they moved to Gočár’s school of architecture for one or two years.
“Especially he was important for the avant garde generation of architects in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Some of them also collaborated on some of Gočár’s projects.”