A glimpse into some of Prague's most famous villas

'Famous Prague Villas'

In this week's edition of the Arts, we mark the publication of a book entitled Famous Prague Villas with a visit to some particularily interesting villas in the company of one of the book's authors, architect Zdenek Lukes.

"At the beginning the project was intended to present not only the architecture of the villas but also the history and the spirit of buildings, the stories of the original owners, as well as the destiny of the villas throughout the period of the First Republic, the Nazi occupation, communist period, up to now. So, there were two criteria for selection: not only the architectural quality but also the history and the quality of people, the owners."

Petr Krajci is the curator of the Architectural Archive of the National Technical museum in Prague. He is also one of the main contributing authors of the book, Famous Prague Villas, along with Dita Dvorakova, Premysl Veverka and Zdenek Lukes.

Today I'm joined by Zdenek Lukes, an architectural historian and also co-author of "Famous Prague Villas". We are, in fact, standing in front of a famous Prague villa of Frantisek Bilek constructed in the early 20th Century. As you can hear the area is quite heavily noise polluted, what do you think Mr. Bilek would think of the location of his villa today?

"The location is very interesting because this area is known as the Prague Bastion area - the fortifications of Prague Castle. There were some plans to destroy all of these remnants, which were built in the time of Maria Teresa in the second half of the 18th century. But some architects decided to leave all constructions here and to build a special, small garden city - very much inspired by English garden cities from the end of the 19th century. This plan was realized in 1910, and Bilek's villa was the first construction of this small area.

"Frantisek Bilek was a famous Czech sculptor who strongly used symbolism in his work. This is the first family house with a flat roof"

What is the significance of the flat roof?

"I think it came from the idea that a modern house should be built with new aspects, for example with terraces, and open space, and so on. Mr. Bilek embraced the idea of a very simple plan with a flat roof also made with the purpose of a viewing area, as I mentioned earlier, the area was like a small garden city."

Any architect, who chooses to design a villa, is going to have to influence domestic life. So, what was sophisticated about this building during that time?

"I think that by the form of symbolism is where he greatest influenced his occupants. As you can see, there is a set of Egyptian columns, some of them are broken. The entire house symbolizes 'Spring', and it's not only for living but it is also for work - there is a studio of Mr. Bilek inside."

Just across the way you have the official residence of the Czech prime minister, which was originally owned by Kramar, a famous Czech politician significant in the early 20th century. It is far more grandiose and ornate is it because it was designed by a Viennese architect?

"Half Viennese, half Prague architect because Professor Bedrich Ohrmann came to Prague in the beginning of the 19th century and was a lover of Czech Baroque architecture and he also created a very specific style of Neo-Baroque architecture of the 1890's. The Kramar villa was inspired by Baroque architecture from Prague. This villa was also very curios because, as I mentioned, the idea of the idea of the majority of designers was to create a colony of small houses with exception to some solo villas. But it was not accepted by Ohrmann or Kramar and so they built one house occupying an entire bastion, which was highly criticized by other architects of the colony of course like Kotera and so on. But the house itself is a very interesting example of Neo-Baroque architecture with an interior inspired by Russian art. The wife of Mr. Kramar, who was the first Prime Minister of independent Czechoslovakia after 1918, was Russian which explains why the interior was very curios of course."

Simply by the Bilek villa and the Kramar villa being developed at the same time in such completely opposing styles, were there any parallels with political conflicts between the two circles of architects?

"Maybe, because Ohrman was at that time back in Vienna and was responsible for the last stages of the reconstruction of the Viennese Royal Palace, and he was a conservative architect at that time. The group of Czech architects were very progressive and architects such as Jan Kotera or Josef Gocar who created a cubist house in this colony."

We are currently in front of another villa that in fact isn't featured in the book but it was designed by Jan Kotera, to whom an entire chapter is dedicated to in 'Famous Prague Villas'. Why was he not well-regarded at the beginning of his career?

"Kotera studied in Vienna and was a leading figure at the end of the 19th century, but he was not accepted by the conservative circles in Prague. For instance, when he built his first building in the centre of Prague it was a very difficult period for him because it was claimed by the conservative architects to be a typical example of pure Art Nouveau architecture. The atmosphere here was also very nationalistic and against Vienna of course. But after Kotera became the leader of the Manes Group of Artists and began to cultivate his style of very simple architecture. Under the influence of his very famous Viennese teacher, Wagner, he constructed, non-decorative, hard plaster and brick facades."

The Manes Group of Artists was founded at end of the 19th century.

"Yes it was the most important group of artists at the turn of the century, which Kotera became the leader of just after the turn of the century."

Let's go visit the cubist villa.

"Now, we have reached the end of the colony and we see that there are two houses connected together. One is older, built in 1911 and finished at the end of 1912. It doesn't exhibit many cubist motifs, but the adjacent house, the white, slightly newer, was an opportunity for Czech architect Gocar to add some very radical cubist motifs."

What are some of the unique features about this building?

The inspiration of cubist architecture was from the crystal motif and the entrance for example is a very typical example of this - the motif of a triangle on the top. It is very dynamic architecture. Notice the details on the fencing, or even the door-handle."