Glass Palace -1930’s luxury apartment building for Prague’s emerging middle class
Built at the end of the 1930s, the Skleněný palác or Glass Palace is a late functionalist-style apartment building constructed for Prague’s middle class. With its groundbreaking design and plush amenities, the palace was extraordinary not just for Prague but also for the whole of Europe.
The Glass Palace or “Skleňák”, as it is colloquially known in Czech, has stood on Náměstí svobody in Prague’s Bubeneč district for more than 85 years. With its off-white tiled exterior, the building can be easy to overlook. Nonetheless, it is a cultural monument, designed by architect Richard Podzemný. Architecture historian Miroslav Pavel points out the unique aspects of the Glass Palace.
“For me personally, the Glass Palace stands out because it does not really fit in with its surroundings. The plan for the whole area around Dejvické náměstí was created in 1926, and it was based on a style that reflected the nationally conscious mood of the time, that is the neoclassical national style. However, the “Skleňák” already belongs to the later Czech functionalism, which was one of a kind. Podzemný gave us a type of architecture that perfectly matched the five points of architecture developed by Le Corbusier. The Glass Palace stands on the corner and opens out to the surroundings. It communicates with the big square next to it and naturally stands out.”
The name “Glass Palace” was not conceived by architect Podzemný himself. Rather, it was conferred on the palace by residents, who were generally enamoured with the new ground-breaking building. Miroslav Pavel explains that a building of this kind was unprecedented in Prague.
“The wings of the building open in all directions, and the walls on the ground floor facing the street are glass. This was something completely unseen in Prague 6 before then. The glass walls can be there because of the reinforced concrete frame of the building, which allowed the façade to be more open.”
The project of building the Glass Palace was initiated by Zemská banka or Land Bank, one of the main Czechoslovak banks, which owned the property. Podzemný’s winning design beat all other competitors in an architectural contest held by the bank. The construction of the palace took place between 1936 and 1937. According to architecture historian Miroslav Pavel, Podzemný’s work reconciled two distinct orientations in Czechoslovak and European architecture of the time.
“On the one hand, it was necessary to provide housing for the socially disadvantaged. On the other hand, there was the emerging middle class which wanted to have representative accommodation. And Le Corbusier’s idea of the five points of modern architecture spoke to the latter issue. By contrast, the main Czechoslovak architecture critic Karel Teige emphasized housing for the poor and argued with Le Corbusier about it. Podzemný’s work was somewhere halfway between the two perspectives.”
As Pavel points out, Podzemný was able to take Le Corbusier’s architectural principles and incorporate them into buildings that housed the wider public. This was especially true of the social housing projects that the Czech architect designed in Libeň at around the same time as the Glass Palace was built. However, the palace itself was financed by the investors at the Land Bank and intended for more well-off residents.
That fact is evident even today, as soon as one steps into the palace’s grand entrance hall, which is decorated with various artistic works. The marble panels are on both sides adorned with ceramic reliefs by the sculptor Jan Lauda, depicting women holding flowers in their hands. There is also the etched glass representation of animals by the artist Jan Bauch. Today, the ground floor of the Glass Palace houses a ceremony hall, which is mostly used for weddings, as well as an information centre of Prague 6 and various commercial spaces. Miroslav Pavel again:
“From the ground floor, the building organically grows into all sides, where the individual apartments are. The elevators used to be operated by throwing a coin into a slot. But of course they do not work that way anymore. The apartments were special because they had views in all directions. The flats were designed in such a way that one part was oriented towards the south while the other rooms also had enough light. That was achieved, among other things, by the floor plan, which has one long connecting hallway that goes through the whole storey and from which the flats can be accessed.”
As for the individual flats in the Glass Palace, they were often furnished with built-in furniture. Unusually for the time, they were also equipped with air-conditioning and underfloor heating. The bathrooms also had wall heating, which is a feature not commonly found even in much newer Prague apartment buildings. However, Miroslav Pavel says that it was another aspect that made the palace truly unique.
“In its time, the building was something extraordinary not just in Prague but in the whole of Europe. The architect managed to completely separate the palace’s residential functions and its so-called service and maintenance functions. For example, there was a centre for garbage collection and pick-up. The residents could also drive their automobiles from the street directly into the garage from which they could go up to their flats. The lower floor also contained laundry and drying rooms, and rooms that were reserved for servants, rather than residents.”
The Glass Palace’s wealthy inhabitants could spend their free time in the common garden placed above the garage. The grounds also included a tennis court and children’s playground which served as the centres of the buildings’ social life. As Pavel points out the Glass Palace was designed to be a sort of compromise between the comfort and privacy of a villa and the benefits of life in a big city.
As was typical for Prague’s modern palaces, the roof of the Glass Palace also had a garden complete with a sunbathing terrace and a private bar. Miroslav Pavel again:
“The palace was in keeping with Le Corbusier’s biggest dream - a house that communicates with its surroundings without taking up too much space. In fact, it should also have an elevated garden that creates more space for people to spend their free time, that is to use the area to its maximum potential.”
While the Glass Palace today no longer boasts all of the luxurious amenities it used to have, such as the tennis court, it still provides above-par accommodation for all of its inhabitants, even by current standards. Moreover, it is one of the few examples of late-functionalist architecture to be found in Prague and certainly warrants a spot on the list of the city’s top palaces.
The architect of the Glass Palace Richard Ferdinand Podzemný also designed social housing in Prague’s Libeň neighbourhood, which was built at around the same time as the palace. Another of his projects was the apartment building of Česká spořitelna in the town of Kutná Hora. Podzemný’s perhaps best-known project is the Swimming Stadium in Prague’s Podolí.