Prague’s Municipal House; an artistic and historical legacy

Prague's Municipal House

Wednesday marks exactly 110 years since the opening of one of Prague’s best-known buildings, the Municipal House (Obecní dům). The famous Art Nouveau building was the site of the proclamation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 and also witnessed one of the first meetings between dissidents and the outgoing communist leadership in November 1989.

The idea to build the Municipal House was conceived by Prague councillors, who wanted the city to have a new, representative cultural and social centre, says architect and art historian Zdeněk Lukeš. It was designed by two prominent architects of the time, Osvald Polívka and Anton Balšánek, with many of the most famous Czech designers collaborating on the final work of art.

Construction of Municipal House  (1906) | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“The decision was taken in 1903 and the house was finished in 1912. The construction took eight years, because of the problems with the building lot situated on the edge of the Old Town. The house is adjacent to the Gothic Powder Tower, which is part of the former fortification of the Old Town.

“There were also problems with the decorations, since more than a hundred important artists collaborated on the rich designs of the building in the style of late historicism and early Art Deco.

“The house also elicited criticism especially from the younger generation, who criticized it for being too over-decorated and too expensive.”

During the Nazi period and the years of communist rule, the Municipal House was left to dilapidate and was threatened with demolition. Fortunately, soon after the Velvet Revolution it underwent a major renovation, which restored the landmark to its former glory, says Mr. Lukeš:

“It wasn’t an easy task, since many of the original pieces were destroyed or changed or lost and it was necessary to create exact copies based on old photos and plans of the architect.”

Smetana Concert Hall in Municipal House | Photo: VitVit,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Today, the Municipal House is one of the most visited landmarks in the city, owing its popularity not only to its stunning decorations but also to the fact that it’s one of the biggest Art Nouveau buildings in the world, says Mr. Lukeš:

“We could compare it with some other buildings, such as Maison du Peuple in Brussels by architect Victor Horta from the same period, which was unfortunately destroyed during the 1960s.

“The decorations are also very attractive. Many artists collaborated on the building, including the famous Alfons Mucha, Jan Preisler, Ladislav Šaloun and many more. And of course the house is connected with very important moments in our modern history.

“In 1918 the documents of the new-born Czechoslovak Republic were signed there and just after the Velvet Revolution it was the site of important negotiations between Václav Havel and the Civic Forum and communist representatives.”

The Municipal House remains an important cultural centre to this day, hosting concerts in its grand Smetana Hall, as well as occasional exhibitions. It is also home to a popular café and restaurant.