Myslbek – one of Prague’s youngest modern palaces
The Myslbek Palace on Na Příkopě street is one of Prague’s newest modern palaces. Constructed in the late 1990s, the building connects two historically distinct areas of Prague, the city’s main shopping boulevard and the Old Town behind it. In keeping with the tradition of the city’s older urban palaces, Myslbek is not just a shopping mall, as it incorporates art into its design and also serves as an exhibition space.
Located about halfway between Wenceslas Square and Náměstí republiky, the Myslbek Palace has only stood in the centre of Prague for some 26 years. It is thus a relatively new addition compared to the iconic palaces nearby, such as the Crown or Lucerna. Built in 1997, the Myslbek Palace was one of the first large modern shopping malls that cropped up in the centre of Prague following the Velvet Revolution. With its 17,000 square metres and six above-ground floors, Myslbek is now one of the unmissable landmarks of Na Příkopě street, the city’s main shopping boulevard. Interestingly, the building stands on the historical boundary that divides the Old Town from the New Town.
The palace’s namesake is Josef Václav Myslbek, one of the country’s most significant sculptors. But the connection between the famous artist, who was born in the mid-19th century, and a shopping mall that originated in the late 1990s is not immediately clear. Speaking to Radio Prague, the architecture historian Radomíra Sedláková explains that the name stems from the history of this part of Na Příkopě street.
“Many different buildings have stood here throughout the city’s history. The last one for a long time was the headquarters of the Union Bank, which was demolished in 1926. There were plans to replace it with a larger, more modern and more interesting building, similar to the many others being built on Na Příkopě at the time. However, none of the plans were ever realized. Eventually, the Myslbek Association of Creative Artists built its exhibition pavilion here, and it remained standing until the second half of the 1950s.”
Once the pavilion was demolished, various plans emerged for what to do with the space, which became the largest empty plot of land in central Prague. One proposal was to build a large international hotel with the capacity to accommodate official state visitors. Instead, the plot was partly converted into a park and provided a useful empty space during the construction of the Prague metro as well as the reconstruction of the nearby Estates Theatre.
The idea to fill the gap only truly got underway after the fall of communism. A new architectural contest was announced. In 1992, the plan for the Myslbek Palace drawn up by the architect duo of Zdeněk Hölzel and Jan Kerel was chosen as the winning design. Architecture historian Radomíra Sedláková describes the design of the building.
“The Czech architects also collaborated with the French architect Claude Parent, who designed the modern façade facing Na Příkopě street. The other side of the building on Ovocný trh looks completely different, to fit in with the Old Town atmosphere. In contrast to the big city boulevard on the other side, Ovocný trh is a more medieval area of the city, with the Estates Theatre and Carolinum building nearby. The façade on that side is more sloping and angular. At first sight, it almost looks as if it was falling, and that is supposedly a reference to the nearby Black Madonna House by Josef Gočár.”
According to Sedláková, the transition between the Old and New Towns is also referenced by the passageway in the building’s interior, which has gone through several reconstructions. However, one must pay close attention to spot it.
“Myslbek is a shopping arcade that people pass through as they examine the shop windows. Most don’t pay attention to where they are. Still, the house subtly lets them know that they are walking into a different part of the city, from the grand and open Na Příkopě boulevard to the smaller and more cramped Old Town. So, the interior passageway transitions from the high-ceilinged and wide entrance hall from Na Příkopě to the lower and narrower part near Ovocný trh. Both parts are connected by what is effectively a circular indoor square. One has to be quite perceptive to notice this interesting spatial effect.”
Another architectural feature that symbolizes the intersection of the Old and New Town is the large stainless-steel gate that is attached to the façade of the building on Na Příkopě street. It weighs over eight tons and its two gigantic wings are slowly opened each morning as the shops open, before closing again in the evening.
Another interesting feature is the door leading into the technical facilities of the palace, located on Ovocný trh. The imposing entryway is decorated with many bronze heads facing in various directions. They are the work of sculptor Karel Nepraš and are meant to symbolize the crowds of shoppers teeming inside the mall.
The owners of Myslbek like to emphasise that the palace is not just a shopping gallery but also a place where people can appreciate the different works of art incorporated into the building. One such interesting artistic feature is the light fixture attached to the ceiling in the central hall of the palace. It is an elongated whirlpool-shaped glass sculpture entitled “Vortex” that was designed by the artist Maxim Velčovský. Radomíra Sedláková again:
“The names of all artists whose work is connected to the palace are inscribed around the staircase leading to the first floor. Upstairs, the marble floor has mosaics with beautiful medallions of artists who were important to the surrounding area. Apart from Mozart, they are all architects, and there is a map showing which nearby buildings they created. Everyone from Petr Parler all the way up to Jan Kotěra. We can be grateful for this installation, which shows the rich local history of the area.”
Myslbek also gives space to contemporary artists. Parts of the shopping gallery are regularly set aside to display art, as Sedláková pointed out while showing Radio Prague around one temporary photography exhibition.
“Right now, we are standing in a part of the mall that is currently used for exhibiting photographs. Apparently, they have not yet found or chosen a tenant that will use this space. So, instead of covering the storefront with paper, they have opened the room up to the public and put a photo exhibition here. It is excellent that the palace is not just a purely commercial facility.”
Besides the art, Sedláková says that she also appreciates the spacious new pub that has recently opened in the shopping gallery, which allows groups of tourists and locals alike to bond over the traditional pilsner beer. However, the architecture historian notes that, despite its attempts to combine shopping, culture, and social life, Myslbek still seems to be missing something in comparison with the other palaces in the city.
“Prague’s most beautiful urban palaces were built nearby in the 1920s. They had shops on the ground and first floors, offices on the upper floors, and apartments above that. They also had one more feature that was very important for city life. Almost all of them had some sort of entertainment in the basement, whether it was a cinema, theatre, or variety show. Myslbek, by contrast, only has parking garages in its basement. But perhaps some sort of cultural establishment will be added down there in the future.”
Like other new buildings built in the centre of Prague, the Myslbek Palace has been criticised by those who consider it an ugly building, whose steel and glass façade does not really fit in with the surrounding area. But given that architecture has moved on since the beginning of the 20th century, it is perhaps inevitable that the palace lacks the old-fashioned charm of its more seasoned counterparts on Wenceslas Square. In this regard, it will be interesting to see how Myslbek will be viewed by observers in future decades. Perhaps, one day, the shopping palace built at the end of the 1990s will even be appreciated as the Lucerna Palace is today – as a cultural monument representing the distinct era in which it was constructed.