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Viva la Villa!

Prague’s early 20th century architects produced some fine homes 

František Bílek was known as a sculptor, not an architect. That didn’t stop him from designing his own studio cum home in Prague 6. | na serveru Lidovky.cz | aktuální zprávy František Bílek was known as a sculptor, not an architect. That didn’t stop him from designing his own studio cum home in Prague 6. | foto: © Tomáš SoučekČeská pozice
František Bílek was known as a sculptor, not an architect. That didn’t stop him from designing his own studio cum home in Prague 6.

When it comes to architectural discussions in Prague, today it often seems to be a bitter battle of words from preservationists versus developers. Hearken back to the “golden” days of Czech architecture when art nouveau dominated at the beginning of the 20th century (think Obecní dům), which was soon followed by the iconic Czech cubist style pioneered by Josef Gočár and Josef Chochol, among others like Emil Králíček who designed the still-standing, but a bit crumbly cubist street lamp on Jungmannovo náměstí.

These more decorative periods were quickly replaced by a love of clean lines and open space. Jan Kotěra, Pavel Janák and Josef Plečnik, who worked on Prague Castle, were a few of the main implementing this style in the 1920s. Functionalism quickly followed, spreading across Europe thanks to Brno-born architect Adolf Loos and German Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. These men were just a handful responsible for the renaissance of Prague’s architecture that has left its mark on the city even today.

While public buildings are most often used as examples of period Prague architecture, there are a number of still-standing and often well-preserved private villas, a few even open to the public. And it turns out, even back in those glory days; battles were still waged over the design of a “modern” building.

For the love of Loos

Adolf Loos, best known for his arrangement and size of interior space based on function, was quite open about his distaste for the art nouveau style popular around his time. He even went so far as to pen an essay entitled “Ornament and Crime” fully spelling out his dislike for the elaborate style of the Vienna Secession. One of Loos’ still standing and remarkably well-preserved samples is Villa Müller in Prague 6.

“This was the start of functionalism architecture in Prague,” Maria Szadkowska, curator at Villa Müller told Czech Position. “Villa Müller was the first building with a flat roof, clean façade, and after this villa, all the other architects copied this style.”

The white cube perched on the side of a small hill has beautifully maintained gardens and dynamic views of the city and to Prague Castle. The original owner, František Müller, initially commissioned Loos to only design the interior. But the architect was so captivated by the site and view that he convinced Müller to let him have a go at the whole project.

“Loos offered to build a new building representative of modern architecture and as a representation of Müller’s company,” Szadkowska said. “His company did industrial building, structural engineering, and was one of the first to start using new technologies in the ‘20s. It was important for Müller to have a house like a business card for his company.” ‘People were skeptical of the house and criticized it; it confused and shocked.’

In November 1928, Müller requested a building permit, which the local authorities strenuously objected to for various technical and aesthetic reasons. It was finally granted in June 1929.

“People were skeptical of the house and criticized it; it confused and shocked,” Szadkowska said. “But Loos had a good name and was already known in Europe. I think the building commission agreed based on his reputation.”

The villa’s interior is as much Loos as the exterior. The multilevel home is marbleized to the hilt and decorated in a variety of styles, always keeping in mind how the room would be used. The living room is a mix of Chippendale chairs, chaise lounges and baroque pieces. The organization of closets and cupboards, complete with shelves and drawers would give IKEA a run for their money. And the crowning jewel is at the top: A Japanese styled summer dining room leading out to a huge terrace overlooking the city.

Country cottage brought to the city

Across town in Strašnice, a short walk from the metro station will put you in another world. Private homes complete with gardens in numerous styles line the streets.

“Villas in this area aren’t as known by people like in Bubenč where there are many villas designed by important architects,” Tomáš Řepa from the Trmal Villa told Czech Position. “Villas here aren’t as important in the development of art history, but do have interesting facades in classical, art nouveau and cubist styles.”

The Trmal Villa was completed in 1903, an early project by Jan Kotěra. Strašnice at that time wasn’t even a part of Prague and the home was one of the first buildings in the neighborhood. Designed like a German-Swiss chalet, while the Loos villa was all about functional space, Kotěra’s didn’t take into consideration the inhabitants.

“Kotěra mixed two architectural forms – a typical Czech cottage, but with a square plan and pointed roof, with an open, huge entrance hall with views to the second floor which is more typical of an English cottage,” Řepa said. “The peaked wooden ceiling in the entrance Kotěra designed for how it would look. It makes the viewer’s view of the space bigger and their eyes are drawn upward.”

Indeed, the entry way is the most intriguing part of the home, complete with wooden beams painted with cheerful blue-green leaves and a curving staircase. Outside, the cute cottage look continues with a big balcony and red tulips painted on the timbers.

“The building looks large from the outside and the entrance hall, but individual rooms, besides the dining room are quite small,” Řepa said. “It’s not very functional for living.”

Like Loos, Kotěra had some strong ideas about architecture. “Kotěra was progressive, he monitored the trends and was critical of neo-baroque and other neo styles, saying they stole elements and principals from what was popular in Europe two to three centuries earlier,” Řepa said, adding Kotěra followed a principal he called absolute art “as an architect, you design a room and then fill it with light, sculptures, porcelain – that’s absolute art.”

There are some pieces of Kotěra’s furniture on display at the villa, but not ones specifically designed for the Trmal’s. Kotěra also designed the large garden into three parts; one with rose bushes, the second with bushes and trees and the final for a vegetable and herb garden.

The sculptor’s villa

Loos and Kotěra are both big names in architectural history, but František Bílek is known as a sculptor, not an architect. That didn’t stop him from designing his own studio cum home in Prague 6.

“As he became more famous, Bílek needed to move to Prague (from his home town of Chýnov) and couldn’t find a place to make his huge sculptures,” Eva Riebová with Bílek Villa told Czech Position. “He bought land in 1910 and in 1911 had already moved in. He designed the building and furniture; it can almost be considered more as sculpture then building.”

The massive main room is dominated by samples of Bílek’s work, as the villa is open more as a museum than as a display home, but this stays true to the building’s main function which was to serve as his studio.  Bílek even put in a balcony from the upstairs so he could consider his works-in-progress from another angle. The sculptor was known for being a bit of a religious nut and Riebová pointed out a number of icon-like shapes representing the harvest.

“There are lots of curves to represent a scythe and the exterior columns are shaped like silos,” she said. “He liked symbols for harvesting, which to him represents hard work and how a man should live his life.”

The furnishings throughout the villa are all Bílek originals and his artistic skills are apparent in nearly every corner, even if he probably wouldn’t have made a good architect. “There are three balconies but only one is accessible, they are just for decoration,” Riebová said. “An architect would never do it that way.”

Villas today

Examples of different sorts of architectural styles can be glimpsed all over Prague, unfortunately not many are open to the public. Others that are include Michnův letohrádek, aka Villa Amerika that now houses the Antonín Dvořák Museum and Villa Gröbe in Havličkovy sady which is open sporadically, usually for events. To admire some exteriors only, Cubist fans should check out some of Josef Chodol’s work in Prague 2—namely the Cubist Villa under Vyšehrad, located at Libušina 3 as well as the apartment complex at 30 Nekanová and the triplex at 6-10 Rašínovo nábřeží.

Řepa, from Trmal’s Villa says preservation of these historical buildings is on the upswing. “ In general, the situation of villas and the reconstruction of villas and a consciousness of the importance of this kind of architecture are getting better,” he said. “Owners are now able to appreciate the historical importance of their homes and they care about the architectural aspects and looking for the history of their property.”

— Jacy Meyer is a Prague-based freelance journalist