New book explores “fantastic world” of Municipal House architect Polívka
Architect Osvald Polívka designed many of Prague’s finest late 19th century and early 20th century buildings, including the Municipal House, New Town Hall and Topič House. The intricate details found on these landmarks are the focus of the freshly published book The Hidden Beauty of Detail: The Prague Buildings of Osvald Polívka, written by architectural historian Zdeněk Lukeš and with photographs by Pavel Hroch. I discussed the architect’s work with the former.
“He had the chance to build very important buildings in the centre of Prague, especially bank buildings, insurance buildings and so on.
“The first style he used was historicism, especially the Neo-Renaissance style. That was at the end of the 19th century.
“Then he moved to the Art Nouveau style. It was born in Brussels at the beginning of the 1890s and was then a very important style in Vienna at the end of the century – and then in Prague.
“And Polívka was one of the first Czech architects who started with this new style of architecture and art.”
The book goes through all of Polívka’s buildings in Prague. Which for you are the most significant? Or is there any one that’s particularly significant?
“Of course. Something like the most important monument of the Art Nouveau style in the Czech Republic, and maybe one of the most important monuments among European architecture, is the Municipal House, in the centre of the city.
“It’s something like a symbol of the new style.
“Polívka collaborated with [co-architect] Professor [Antonín] Balšánek and many important architects, including Alphonse Mucha, Jaroslav Šaloun, Jan Preisler and many more.
“About 100 artists took part in the decoration of this building, which was a very important monument of the city, but also came under strong criticism from the younger generation of architects for so-called ‘over decoration’.
“The building, which was erected between 1904 and1912, was controversial.
“But he was also the author of many not so well-known buildings, especially tenement houses in the centre of Prague, and not only in the centre.
“And he collaborated with some builders, one of whom was Vácslav Havel, the grandfather of the former president and dissident Vaclav Havel.”
There’s a lot of focus in the book on the incredible details of some of these buildings, with mosaics and reliefs and so on, in great photos by Pavel Hroch. These images really make me want to go straight down to the centre of Prague to look very closely at these buildings. I presume that was your intention with the book?
“Yes, this was our main intention: To show something which is not so known.
“Maybe we could pass these buildings in the centre of the city – like U Nováků or the Praha or Topič buildings – and might notice some important decorations.
“But there are many more, sometimes tiny and precisely-made details on the facades, mostly made by Polívka himself.
“His world was very, very special.
“There are some special creatures, like dragons, wolves and butterflies, from the empire of nature, and many motifs with such zoomorphic details.
“This is the wonderful world of Osvald Polívka – not known and sometimes ignored by experts.
“And this fantastic world of Polívka is maybe the main theme of this book.”
Skrytá krása detailu: Pražské stavby Osvalda Polívky 1891-1922 by Zdeněk Lukeš and Pavel Hroch is published (in Czech) on the Argo imprint.