50 years since the relocation of Prague's Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene

Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene

One only has to look at such recent edifices as the so-called "Fred and Ginger" building by Frank Gehry or Jean Nouvel's Andel Centre to see that Prague's architecture becomes more and more ambitious year by year. Yet there have been few more industrious projects than the groundbreaking relocation of the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene, a move which saved the monument from certain destruction. As the building celebrates 50 years since this momentous operation, Radio Prague looks at how and why such an undertaking was made possible.

"Standing on Cechuv Most, on the northern bank of the Vltava, and with the Letna hillside towering above, one barely notices the humble 17th century rotunda of the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene, yet this unimposing exterior conceals a fascinating history. 50 years ago on Thursday, this baroque monument was moved in its entirety over 30 metres upstream, the first architectural relocation of its kind in the country."

Built according to the design of Italian architect Giovanni Battista de Barrifis, the chapel initially functioned as a monastic vineyard, remaining in its original location until 1956 when complicated traffic arrangements around the nearby bridge and plans for a new staircase leading to Stalin's statue threatened the preservation of this remarkable monument. Professor Jiri Kotalik of the Prague Academy of Creative Arts explains what makes this particular chapel so unique.

The relocation of the chapel,  photo: CTK
"The chapel is very interesting because it has an oval ground plan, and oval is a very important, significant form for movement perspective and radical architecture. So, for that reason it is very important in the development of architecture."

For the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene help came in a highly ambitious form. The academic Stanislav Bechyne proposed a complex project to transfer the building further along the river Vltava. In a challenging operation, the structure was reinforced using a timber frame and supported from beneath by a concrete and steel foundation, before being transported north along the embankment on rails. Professor Jiri Kotalik describes his personal impressions of the chapel interior after the move.

Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene
"I remember that, for me, [what was] very impressive was some kind of, let's say, intimacy of the space, beautiful lighting, beautiful illumination from the upstairs and a very intact situation, so this chapel was not, let's say, transformed, was not too much restored. There were no additions. So it's really... you feel a little bit like 300 years ago."

Indeed, it is something of a miracle that the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene remains standing at all in modern times. Towards the end of the 30 Years War, Swedish troops used the chapel as a stronghold from which to fire upon Prague students defending the Old Town. Having survived this turmoil, the structure was then destroyed in 1783 by Josef II, and the desecrated site used as a timber yard for many years until it was acquired by the city of Prague in 1908, restored and granted status as a working Catholic Church.

And so, the transportation of the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene in Prague paved the way in this field of architectural relocation in the Czech Republic, bringing a whole new meaning to the expression "moving house".