Lucerna Palace: a modernist Prague icon

Located just off Wenceslas Square, the Lucerna Palace is an iconic building. Its rooftop terraces and passages are unique even for the historic centre of Prague. Interestingly, the palace was originally planned to be one storey higher and have an ice rink instead of its main concert hall.  

Vácslav Havel on the roof of the Lucerna Palace | Photo:  (c) Ivan M. Havel Archive / Václav Havel Library

The spiritual father of the Lucerna Palace was engineer, architect, and builder Vácslav Havel, grandfather of the late Czech president Václav Havel. Lucerna means lantern in Czech, and it is not known for certain why Havel chose it as the name for his project. Many locals believe that it comes from the glass façade of a nearby building on the corner of Wenceslas Square. However, that building is not part of Lucerna Palace, explains Petr Hájek, an architect who worked on the reconstruction of Lucerna’s terraces.

Rokoko Palace  (Šupich's houses) on the corner of Wenceslas Square and Štěpánská | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

“The story is shrouded in mystery. It is said that, when Vácslav Havel was sketching the plans for the building, his wife Emília came up to him and said: ‘This looks like a lantern.’”

Petr Hájek | Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International

Dagmar Havlová, the current owner of the palace and the widow of Ivan Havel, president Havel’s brother, confirms the story.

“Grandfather Havel said: That is a nice name, easy to read and remember, and it sounds similar in other languages. That is what we should call the palace.”

Dagmar Havlová | Photo: Prokop Havel,  Czech Radio

According to Petr Hájek, Lucerna was built as a mix of Art Nouveau and Modernist styles.

“For me as an architect, the building is iconic and incredible. Constructon work on it begun in 1907 and was in large part finished by 1921. It has this incredible atmosphere of transoceanic steamers and voyages, at least for me. And the terraces on which we stand are sort of a reminder of that time. When you are inside the building, you can feel the atmosphere of the New World. The building is very grandiose. Structural engineer Stanislav Bechyně took part in the design, and he drew up one of the first reinforced concrete skeletons in Europe. For economic reasons, sand and stone aggregates were also used. Interestingly, an ice rink was supposed to stand where Lucerna’s Great Hall is today. That is why the hall is around 50 metres long, 25 metres wide, and big enough to fit 2,500 people.”

The Great Hall of the Prague Lucerna | Photo: Jiří Šeda,  Czech Radio

Lucerna’s Great Hall was for a long time the largest indoor concert venue in Prague. It was also where the city’s first cinema with sound was located. Legendary actors such as Vlasta Burian, Karel Hašler, and Voskovec and Werich played in the old cabaret, today’s Lucerna bar. The palace hosted numerous balls, concerts, meetings, fashion shows, and even sporting events, including boxing and wrestling tournaments during the First Czechoslovak Republic.

Lucerna Music Bar | Photo: Jiří Šeda,  Czech Radio

Prague’s first passageway

Vácslav Havel's bust in Lucerna | Photo: Elena Horálková,  Radio Prague International

Lucerna also holds several other distinctions. For instance, it was the first building in Prague to have a passageway, explains Dagmar Havlová.

“Grandfather Havel travelled extensively around the world, and in 1905 he decided that it would be good to have in Prague something like a city palace with shops inside it. Later, when other houses were being built, their constructors liked the idea and decided to connect them with passages. The ground floor of Lucerna and its surroundings became a dense network of passageways, which was a typical modern feature.

“Lucerna was a pioneer in many ways, as Grandfather Havel was able to incorporate more features from abroad. In addition to shopping, people could also spend much of their time here at the cinema, or at concerts. There were restaurants and the very well-known Bistro Lucerna, which was the first self-serve buffet. So Lucerna was an innovator in many aspects.

Photo: Elena Horálková,  Radio Prague International

A city square above Prague

Lucerna terraces | Photo: Archive of Petr Hájek
Petr Hájek,  Ivan Havel,  Ondřej Kobza and Dagmar Havlová during the the opening of the terraces in 2018 | Photo: Archive of Petr Hájek

Another of Lucerna Palace’s many attractions are its enticing roof-top terraces, which function a bit like a city square above Prague. They are used for exhibitions, concerts, and social gatherings. In autumn 2018, an artificial lawn was laid down on the terraces. According to Petr Hájek, the empty space is special because it can be used for a variety of events.

“The whole complex of buildings should have been a storey higher. It is perhaps thanks to that plan that we can stand here on the terraces, which are on the level of the second to last floor. We are standing above a glass ceiling made of these glass fittings, which should also be reconstructed.

Lucerna terraces | Photo: Archive of Petr Hájek

“The idea to revitalize the terraces came from the café owner Ondřej Kobza, who originally wanted to create community gardens here. He arranged it with Mrs Dagmar Havlová, and they invited me here. The idea to create wooden terraces instead of community gardens came spontaneously, inspired also by the fact that this place looks like the deck of a transoceanic steamer. So that is how the city square above Prague came to be.”

All the different aspects and architectural details give the building a one-of-a-kind atmosphere, which has inspired many artists. For instance, the director Jan Hřebejk shot his film Trash, City, Death here.”

Lucerna terraces with a spectacular view of Prague | Photo: Archive of Petr Hájek

Plans for further reconstruction

As Dagmar Havlová points out, the Lucerna is still undergoing reconstruction today. How difficult is it to take care of the family property nowadays?

Entrance to Lucerna Palace from Vodičkova street | Photo: Jolana Nováková,  Czech Radio

“It occupies me more than I originally thought it would. The reconstruction is very complex. Fortunately, we have a good team, so we were able to successfully finish the reconstruction of the first house in Vodičkova Street. There are nice offices there which we have begun to rent out.”

The Lucerna Great Hall is associated with many famous concerts. Legendary Czech singer Karel Gott was among the artists who performed here. Dagmar Havlová adds that the list also includes world-famous musicians.

Luis Armstrong in 1965 in Lucerna | Photo: Czech Television

“Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald get mentioned a lot, but I most like our own native singers. Miro Žbirka and many others had beautiful concerts here.”

In the indoor plaza on Lucerna’s ground floor, the statue of Saint Wenceslas on an upside-down horse is impossible to miss.

“That statue was made by David Černý and was originally created for the lower area of Wenceslas Square, where it stood for a short while as the opposite pole of the horse on the upper side of the square. Later, it was placed into the depository, so we figured why not install it here. It became a huge tourist attraction, and I am happy to have it here.”

Saint Wenceslas on an upside-down horse by David Černý | Photo: Elena Horálková,  Radio Prague International

So what other reconstructions are in store for Lucerna? Architect Petr Hájek again.

“We are considering building some sort of extension of Lucerna. Its form has not been decided yet, but perhaps it will work out and Lucerna will get a lantern.”


Lucerna Palace was declared a national cultural monument on July 1, 2017.

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