Liberal Studies Abroad

Liberal Studies Abroad: Prague 2004
 A Short Guide to Architectural Styles

[The following notes, which have been prepared by Ian Johnston of Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, are in the public realm and may be used, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged--released March 2004]

One of the major reasons for undertaking a study trip to Prague is to visit the city's remarkable architecture, and we shall be spending a great deal of time touring, studying, and talking about many different aspects of the long and rich architectural history of this city.

While Prague contains a rich tradition of architecture from almost every period of its history, there are three particular ages in the history of architecture when Prague was internationally famous and set something of a European standard: the late Middle Ages when the city became a centre of the late Gothic style, the early part of the eighteenth century, when a high Baroque style was imposed upon the city as part of the Catholic German cultural aggression against the Czech-speaking Protestants, and the first decades of the twentieth century, when a series of modernist styles turned Prague into one of the great (if not the greatest) living display of early modern architectural trends (thanks, in part, to the fact that the city's buildings survived World War II undamaged).

The following paragraphs offer short definitions of some of the key terms we will be using as we explore Prague architecture (and these three periods in particular).  There are links provided to more complete explanations and to some illustrations (from Prague and elsewhere), so that students can acquire a basic vocabulary to describe and discuss the different buildings we will be studying.

Note that this list does not attempt a list of all the architectural terms relevant to visiting Prague, only the ones we will be using most frequently.

Gothic Architecture

What later came to be called Gothic Architecture (originally coined as a term of contempt by Renaissance writers who thought style very crude and hence attributed it to the barbarian Goths) began in the early 12th century in France as an attempt to create large churches which emphasized soaring height.  The development of the style required some major technical innovations: ribbed vaults in the ceiling (to reduce the weight), pointed arches rather than rounded barrel arches (to re-direct the thrust), and outside buttresses to counter the outward thrust of the roof.  These features enabled the walls to become much thinner and permitted the extensive use of glass, so that the total effect of a vertically ascending or descending spiritual light was greatly enhanced (an effect heightened by the longitudinal design).  Other characteristic features of the style included a towering spire and many ornaments and decorations on the outside.  This Gothic style enabled architects to build much taller buildings with more complex layouts and large open areas inside.  The style spread from France across Europe and to England, acquiring local variations on the way.

Gothic Architecture is commonly divided into Early and High Gothic.  Once the style had reached its structural limits (indicated by the collapse of some cathedrals) around 1230, architects became less interested in large size and more interested in ornamentationtracery on the windows and stonework, rose windows, gables, and other features.  This brought into Gothic architecture certain additional elements of geometric design, one reason why the Gothic had a strong appeal for certain Czech modernists. 

The Gothic style lasted for a long time, up to the end of the 16th century, and enjoyed a revival in the 19th century.  For the Czech citizens of Bohemia the style has had very important links to the great days of their historical independence and power and hence was for many people important in the modern evolution of the Czech national identity (especially in connection with St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague).

For some images of the Gothic style, try one of the following links:

Gothic Architecture A

Gothic Architecture B

The most important Gothic structures in Prague are the Cathedral of St Vitus, the Old Royal Palace, and Prague Castle.  To get some information and pictures of these structures, please try the following

Gothic Architecture--Prague

An interesting image tour of St. Vitus Cathedral is available at St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague.

Renaissance Architecture

Renaissance architecture developed in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries as a reaction against Medieval styles, inspired in large part by the rediscovery of Classical Roman models.  There was a strong emphasis on unity of design based on mathematic principles, harmony, perspective, and a sense of human scalein contrast to what many perceived as Gothic excessso that the building, as a work of art, could achieve a proper balance of reason and emotion.  

In church architecture Renaissance architects adopted a central-plan model in contrast to the longitudinal style of the Gothica circular or polygonal building with one or four equal arms, and a modular plan repeated numerically through the building.  Many of the structures featured very large domes.

A popular building in the new style was the Palazzo, a three- or four-story building with a ground floor made of outsized and rough brick and with regular relatively small windows on more elegant upper levels, topped with an elaborate cornice.  The Palazzo was often pulled back away from the urban environment and designed to be seen from from all directions.

For some examples of Renaissance architecture, try the following links

Renaissance Architecture A                  
Renaissance Architecture B

For a gallery of images of Renaissance buildings in Prague, use the following link:

Renaissance Architecture--Prague

Baroque Architecture

The term Baroque (which originates as a term of contempt applied to something very convoluted or misshapen) is commonly applied to European art and architecture during the 150-year period from (roughly) 1600 to 1750, during which time the Catholic church spearheaded its attempts win back the faithful (the Counter-Reformation) by a concerted program of erecting buildings designed to display the power, glory, and wealth of the one true religion.

The Baroque style, which developed out of the tendency in late Renaissance architecture to add elements of tension and energy (something called Mannerist architecture), combines art and architecture and sculpture to produce massive, dynamic, and dramatic buildings full of a maximum of sensory stimulation and a sense of variety and movement (often with an illusionist painting of the sky or heaven on the inside of the central dome).  Classical forms are often exaggerated with undulating surfaces and ovals instead of circles and with an emphasis on the monumental.  Viewed or approached from outside, the building is designed to assert its own power in an urban environment (often one has to move through a square outside the building and up some massive stairs through an imposing entrance); the space inside provides a variety of views, often with statues placed to be seen, not in the round, but from particular and restricted angles.  The Baroque style in art and architecture made much use of light and colour contrasts.

Different countries developed different styles of Baroque in both religious and secular buildings.  In Southern Catholic Europe the style was pushed to excess, in contrast to Northern Europe (especially England) where the sensory possibilities in the style remained more subdued (e.g. St. Paul's Cathedral, built after the great fire of London destroyed the old Gothic structure in 1666).  But everywhere, the Baroque was associated with the confident assertion of power.

Prague was turned into a Baroque city in the 18th century as part of a program to institutionalize the superiority of the Catholic German population over the Czech Protestants (who had been defeated in 1620 at the Battle of White Mountain, the most disastrous event in Czech history).  Ironically, the architectural style for which Prague is most famous was for many Czech-speaking citizens a reminder of harsh historical times.  For some useful examples of the Baroque style in Prague and elsewhere, use the following links.

Baroque Architecture A                 
Baroque Architecture B

Neoclassical, Neo-Gothic (Gothic Revival)Historicism

In the later 18th and 19th centuries architects were much inspired by the growing knowledge about classical Greek and Roman architecture, and they applied features of those ancient styles without the mediating influence of the Renaissance.  The resulting Neoclassical style was particularly popular as an expression of democratic and republican idealshence its dominant role in the public architecture of the United States during this period (particularly in government buildings, monuments, and universities).  A countervailing political aesthetic was a revival of interest in Gothic architecture, the Gothic Revival, manifested in the construction of public buildings in such a way as to remind people of traditional values of the Old Order (e.g., the Canadian Parliament buildings and a number of universities).

Both of these styles made Historicism an important movement in 19th century art and architecture, the deliberate use of styles (often in a very eclectic way) from ancient centuries to make grand dramatic gestures of wealth or power or both, frequently with the intention of advancing a particular political attitude.  This trend played an important role in the development of modern Czech art and architecture precisely because in the second half of the nineteenth century the Czechs were seeking to reinterpret their own history in order to forge a modern sense of themselves (in contrast to the German and Austrian cultures they had long been subjected to), and the Czech citizens had gain control of the Prague city council, so major architectural projects reflected their larger concerns for the future of their people.


Modernism began in the late 19th century with a desire to break away from or adapt the prevailing Historical styles.  In Prague it become also part of the search for a national Czech style of architecture.  In general, modernist architecture initially sought a return to the "natural," "nature," and "reality."  But this aesthetic promoted an inherent tension between something based upon a deliberate use of ornate patterns inspired by floral structures and styles emphasizing geometric purity with an absence of architectural ornamentation in order to express the underlying structure of matter or the aesthetics of pure geometry.

Art Nouveau architects saw the building as an artistic totality and stressed the need to attend carefully to the inner relations of space and to the smallest ornamental details (like door handles, gratings, grille work, and so on), while at the same time exposing some of the main structural features of the buildingoften encountering difficulties here because of the traditional division of labour between the contractor who built the structure and the architect who decorated the outside. Some forms of Art Nouveau emphasized dynamic ornamentation, using curved linear patterning derived from nature or even reproducing floral patterning, particularly on the outside decoration of the building (such patterning also drew on traditional folk motifs). 

Prague is one of the most important European cities for Art Nouveau architecture, and the city's most important architect in this style, Jan Kotěra (considered the founder of modern Czech architecture) enjoyed an international reputation.  This important tradition originated in the Austrian version of Art Nouveau, the Sezession style, because a great many of the city's best architects were students of Otto Wagner in Vienna.  Kotěra's architectural style followed the main trend of modernism by becoming increasingly geometric, emphasizing the material structure of the building and reducing external ornamentation. For a quick overview of the development of Art Nouveau architecture in Prague and some illustrations, use the following link:

Art Nouveau Architecture--Prague

The most unique feature of modernist Czech architecture, however, is the development of what is commonly called the Cubist and, after War War I, Rondo-Cubist stylesdescriptive labels that many (perhaps most) historians of architecture dismiss as empty (since the idea of link between Cubist painting and architectural practice is totally unclear).  The development of this style was particularly strong in Prague and in places was welcomed as a National Style.  Originating among young architects who found the Sezession style too spiritually sterile, it rejected the cube and the rectangle as the basic geometry of architecture and replaced these with diagonals, triangles, tapered quadrilaterals, and a great variety of slanting forms (including multi-faceted outer surfaces, one of the most distinctive characteristics of the style), all in order to stress, not the basic mathematical properties of matter, but the human spirit's ability to dominate matter, creatively to transform it. Cubist architects rejected the notion that their work should have some redeeming social or political purpose and were aggressively indifferent to hostile criticism. Cubist principles, as appropriated by Czech architects, had some affinity with and were in part inspired by some of the dynamic elements of the High Baroque style in Prague (which may account for why the Cubist buildings in Prague seem to fit quite well into the Baroque surroundings).

The term Rondo Cubism generally refers to the development of cubist art in Prague after World War I, when architects gave increasing emphasis to ornamentation on the facade of a building, circles, ovals, and traditional Czech folk motifs.  The most famous example of this style is the Czechoslovak Legion Bank (both inside and outside).

For a longer discussion of cubist architecture in Prague, please use the following link: Cubist Architecture.  For some examples of Czech cubism in architecture use the following link: 

Cubist Architecture--Prague

In contrast to the architects of Czech Cubism (and others who emphasized the spiritual and ideal purposes of architecture) Functionalism stressed the importance of function and adopted the principle that the form of the building was a product of its function, without regard to traditional concerns with symmetry or classical proportions or ornamentation.  This later became an important principle of what came to be called the International style. 

At its extreme, Functionalism denied that art had any place in architecture and was very hostile to traditional monumental architecture (which it saw as catering merely to the ideology of the rich).  A major goal of many Functionalists was cheap housing for the workers, with no attention paid to anything but their physical needs and functions.  All people need, they said, is a roof above their heads.  Other Functionalists, however, insisted that people had aesthetic requirements: they also needed to get their heads above the roof (this demand gave rise to Expressive Functionalism).

There is a very useful guide to Czech functionalism with illustrations at the following link:

Functionalist Architecture--Prague

Another energetic response to cubism in painting and architecture was called purism.  It was practised and preached above all by the enormously influential and famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeannert).  Purism emphasized geometric simplicity, proportion, and harmony presented with smooth surfaces and uninterrupted contours.  It totally rejected ornamentation and multi-coloured buildings as perverse.

Further Links to Czech Architecture

For a very concise history of the art and architecture in the Czech lands, consult the following link:

History of Czech Art and Architecture

And the following link is indispensable for a detailed study of modern Czech architecture (with illustrations):

Modern Czech Architecture

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