Josef Gočár: pioneer of Czech Cubist, Rondocubist architecture, and designer extraordinaire

Legiobanka, photo: VitVit, CC BY-SA 4.0

This Friday marks 140 years since the birth of the pioneering Czech architect and designer Josef Gočár. His legacy includes iconic works in a range of styles, most famously The House of the Black Madonna, in a Cubist tradition inspired by Picasso, and the “national” Rondocubist Legiobanka, born of independent Czechoslovakia.

The House of the Black Madonna, photo: Martina Schneibergová

Josef Gočár famously let his work do the talking, believing that “whoever says too much feels too little”. Born in 1880 in eastern Bohemia, Gočár moved to Prague in his teens to study at the State Technical School, and then at the School of Applied Arts, the most famous architecture school in the Czech lands. Zdeněk Lukeš, an architecture historian, has written extensively on Gočár’s legacy:

Josef Gočár, photo: archive of Východočeské muzeum Pardubice
“I think he is one of the most important architects of the first half of the 20th century. He was a representative of many styles from that period, from Art Nouveau, through Cubism – a very curious style born here in Prague – then the Art Deco period, and avant-garde architecture, which means Functionalism. And in each period, he created fantastic architecture.”

Gočár’s early, modernist works, dating from 1910–1911, are masterpieces of Czech architecture. These include the Wenke Department Store in Jaroměř, eastern Bohemia, and staircase beneath the Marian Church in nearby Hradec Králové, for which he cultivated an artistically advanced reinforced concrete structures. Zdeněk Lukeš again:

“He had a very good reputation after the Wenke Department Store design and a competition design for a new town hall in Prague, which was something like a Babylonian tower, a very high building, almost like a skyscraper – but it was ignored by the jury. Still, the plan was very inspiring especially for the younger generation of architects and the group of artists around Gočár.”

Gočár had joined the Cubist Group of Visual Artists in 1911. His first major building in the style, inspired by Picasso, was the House of the Black Madonna on Celetná Street, leading into Prague’s Old Town Square. Rudolf Břínek, who revived the Grand Café Orient housed within, says there’s no building like it anywhere. The only other example, in Budapest, was destroyed.

Rudolf Břínek, photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“You will only find Cubist architecture in this country – it does not exist anywhere else in the world. And even in the Czech Republic there are only a few Cubist buildings. The reason why some people think otherwise is that they tend to confuse Cubism with Art Deco, which took over the same shapes. But Cubism ended with the start of World War I and Art Deco came in the 1920s.”

From 1918 onwards, when the Hapsburg Empire crumbled, Gočár and his colleague from the Czech Cubist movement Pavel Janák were at the forefront in developing a “national” style to celebrate independence, which became known as Rondocubism.

Rondocubism literally took the edge off of Cubism, softening and rounding its cubes and pyramids in the spirit of Slavic folkloristic tradition. This stage of Gočár’s artistic development is represented in the stunning Legiobanka on Prague’s Na Poříčí Street (1921-1923) and the Anglobanka on Masaryk Square in Hradec Králové (1922-1926)

Later on, he adopted the Functionalist approach to architecture. Among his most celebrated accomplishments is the Czechoslovak Pavilion for the 1925 World Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris, for which he was awarded the Grand Prize.

Legiobanka, photo: VitVit, CC BY-SA 4.0
Yet another style Gočár dabbled in, monumentalised Functionalism, is evident in the Church of St. Wenceslas on Čech Square in Prague (1928-1930). It’s among the favourites of Alex Went, the man behind Prague Vitruvius, a website dedicated to the Czech capital’s architecture.

“It’s very notable. It’s probably one of the most famous buildings of Josef Gočár, who perhaps is most famous for his Cubist-style architecture: the House of the Black Madonna, for example, in the Old Town of Prague. And it’s difficult to imagine really that only a few years after completing that commission he created this extraordinary, forward looking slab, or column, of white stone for this community.”

Josef Gočár explored new styles and kept on designing until he died in September 1945, after having spent over 10 years mainly building and doing urban planning for Hradec Králové. He is buried in Prague’s Slavín Cemetery at Vyšehrad, along with some of the most prominent figures in Czech history.

– Interviews by Sarah Borufka, Daniela Lazarová and Ian Willoughby