Architects were then able to cut into the stillness of the block by plastic treatment, reach deeper into its physical organism, and interfere with the natural ordering of its parts. They united elements, destroyed their autonomy, and subordinated to formal ideas the tectonic functions of the post, the pillar, the cornice, and the roof. Against construction, purpose, and material, they placed the idea of form; they entered into an active relationship with matter and set it in motion. Motion was perceived as a spiritual activity that transformed matter: it was an assertion of creative will against mere existence, a more profound appropriation of the inorganic world and its conquest through expression.
—Václav Vilém Štech, Werkbund Exhibition Catalogue (1914)
Few periods have produced such an effusion of artistic manifestos as the first quarter of the twentieth century. In our time, the architectural manifesto has declined to such straightforward confessions as Frank Gehry’s declaration, “So you get an idea. A stupid idea but you like it,” and Wolf D. Prix’s vow, “We want architecture that has more. Architecture that bleeds, that exhausts, that whirls and even breaks.” In the first decades of the last century, however, Europe was ablaze with creative types who joined together to tell the world (and opposing movements) what they were up to and why. The Secessionists, the Cubists, the Futurists, the Dadaists, the Constructivists, and even the Vorticists recorded their philosophies. Frequently, their words obscured their ideas. In many cases, their ideas were untethered from their works. But the architects in one short-lived artistic movement, Czech Cubism, produced a small but exquisite group of buildings that survive as pure expressions of their manifesto.
That Prague-based Czech Cubism, also known as Cubo-expressionism, is relatively unknown is unsurprising considering that the movement flourished for barely six years, from 1908 to 1914. Though the movement encompassed painting, sculpture, music, and even poetry, its architectural legacy stands most apart from the preceding manifestations of the style in Paris. And though the style faded in 1914, it is not entirely dead. My architectural firm has been looking back to Czech Cubism as an inspiration for our own designs, in particular a new house called Rowdy Meadow in Hunting Valley, Ohio, and a clock in New York’s new Moynihan Train Hall. After World War I, Cubism reemerged in Prague and transformed into Rondocubism, an ungainly cousin that presented patterns and forms from Bohemian textiles and which looks uncannily like the clumsiest examples of 1970s postmodernism. Unlike the paintings produced by artists in the greater Cubist movement, the architecture is less Cubist than it is Expressionist. Indeed, “Czech Cubism” is a misnomer. Although Czech Cubism blossomed at the same time that Picasso and Léger were pursuing a Cubist vision in their painting in Paris, there is no meaningful connection between the principles of Cubist two-dimensional art and the architecture that bears the name. The emblematic qualities of the Cubism that arose in Paris—simultaneity, reduction of synthetic form to multiple, fractured parts, and diagrammatic abstraction—were not present in Czech Cubist architecture. In fact, Czech Cubism was about triangles, crystalline shapes, and oblique angles—not about cubes at all.
Czech Cubism must be seen in the context of Prague. The style defies clear categorization; it fits into the sphere of imagination and fantasy that animates some of the Bohemian capital’s most spectacular buildings. Prague is full of examples of unusual architecture from every period, including the Riders’ Staircase (1493–1502) in Prague Castle, where the ribs that conventionally describe vaults fly off in all directions. Instead of simply defining the edges of vaults and their connection to structural piers, the ribs take on an independent life, growing free of the architecture like tree branches. Likewise, in classical modes, Prague offers examples of architecture that break the rules, such as building façades designed with four bays, resulting in a very unclassical column at the center. Many buildings in Prague are hybrid in character, and seeing these buildings for the first time is a surprise. They appear as beautiful anomalies that must have been hidden from every standard art history survey lest the students be confused.
The roots of Czech Cubism are complex and reach into the history of architecture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Influences include the work of Josef Plečnik (1872–1957), the Slovenian architect whose poetic style seemed to presage some of the forms of Czech Cubism. We visited his works in Vienna, Prague, and Ljubljana. While working for Otto Wagner, Plečnik designed the Zacherlhaus (1905) in Vienna, a mixed-use building of taut façades in plaques of granite with a monumental, faceted cornice featuring highly abstracted atlantes. Plečnik’s designs are among the buildings that make Prague feel like a city where the imagination of architectural designers has always pushed against the orthodoxy of contemporaneous styles in Western Europe. Czech Cubism is part of this tradition: it resisted the simplification of modernism just as Bohemia resisted the classical direction of the Renaissance—which was seen as a symbol of papal authority—and held onto the Gothic later than much of Europe.
Any study of Czech Cubism must begin with Jan Kotěra (1871–1923), the central figure in modern architecture in what is now known as the Czech Republic. Like most architects and artists within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kotěra was drawn to Vienna, where he studied with Otto Wagner at the Academy of Fine Arts from 1893 to 1897. After winning the Prix de Rome, he returned in 1987 to Prague, where he was appointed Professor of Architecture at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts in 1910. As a central figure and teacher, Kotěra instructed Josef Gočár, Pavel Janák, and Josef Chochol, who—along with Vlastislav Hofman—formed the core group of architects who developed Czech Cubism.
Czech Cubism is inseparable from the context of the first decade of the twentieth century, when architects and artists were searching for new ways to express their reactions to fervent intellectual and political debates.
Kotěra’s designs, like the Pavilion in the Exhibition of the Chamber of Commerce (1908) and the East Bohemian Museum (1910), project the monumentality of the architecture of the Vienna Secession. The entrance to the museum is flanked by block-like, one-story projections that serve as pedestals for massive sculptures seated on architectural thrones. As in the work of Wagner and Joseph Maria Olbrich, monumentality in architecture is complemented by heroically scaled sculpture. Adding to the weight of the museum’s façade, Kotěra steps back flanking towers with alternating bands of brick and stone. Here, we see bold planar geometry dominating while traditional details such as cornices, panels, and ornament are suppressed. More about geometry and cubic forms, Kotěra’s work eliminates or abstracts the traditional elements of the architectural orders and ornament. It does not, however, project the elusiveness or include the spiritually motivated forms that became the signatures of Hofman and his colleagues.
Czech Cubism is inseparable from the context of the first decade of the twentieth century, when architects and artists were searching for new ways to express their reactions to fervent intellectual and political debates. Modernism and ideas about social structures were combining to shift fundamentally the very pedagogical and professional foundations of architecture. Industrialization continued to challenge the relationship of artist and architect to production and, by extension, to commerce. While the imprint of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and institutions like the Vienna Academy of Arts dominated the turn-of-the-century scene, the founders of the Secession, which included Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, and Olbrich, saw their mission as not just a new path towards modernism, but also as a spiritually distinct approach to design and art.
While key modernist architects admired the idea of a non-style, shorn of ornament and celebrating functionalism, which would culminate in Le Corbusier’s house as “a machine for living,” other conflicting impulses drove architectural design. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, national identity emerged and opened the possibility of celebrating Bohemian traditions. Czech Cubism was an attempt to establish a style distinct from the work of architects associated with Vienna and the fading empire.
In the architecture of the Vienna Secession, strong, pure orthogonal forms became the canvas for decoration and ornament. Olbrich’s Secession Building has gilded bas-reliefs of trees set in its walls with leaves in the implied frieze, while Otto Wagner’s Majolikahaus is covered in decorative Majolica tiles. Key landmarks of the Secession present surfaces of panels and veneers that obscure the underlying structure. Wagner’s Austrian Postal Savings Bank, a steel and reinforced concrete structure, is covered in square plaques of marble, which appear to be held in place by aluminum rivets. Here even the stone is used as a decorative veneer. The Czech Cubist architects rejected this approach to ornament and structure; they sought out the vitalizing force of the diagonal, the triangular, and the crystalline. Sculpture and structure are one. Nothing is attached, incised, or additive.
Drawing away from superficial ornament, Hofman and his colleagues looked to Bohemian late-Gothic and Baroque precedents, finding internal power implied by the vaults, buttresses, and other diagonal elements that seemed to proclaim an inner energy. From elements like these, they hoped to express forces that were beyond the entirely orderly approach of the simple post-and-beam technique of one stone laid upon another.
The Czech Cubists found inspiration in the expressive, angular forms of peculiarly pure Gothic architecture, like the vaults in the nave of the Franciscan Church in Bechyně. The angular, faceted treatment of the piers and continuity of the vertical structure with the vaults suggested an architecture of mass and form that appealed to the Cubist quest for a style that transcended the more rational and materialistic paradigm of post-and-beam construction. It was in their own land, in places like Bechyně and beyond, that the Cubist architects found a legacy of earlier models to emulate. The Baroque-Gothic work of the Bohemian mason-turned-architect Jan Santini (1677–1723) was a particularly powerful inspiration. Santini’s Church at Zelená Hora is formed with folded planes that energize the mass of the structure and form the culminating star-shaped ceiling within. Czech Cubists abstracted and systematized the central forms of the Gothic and Baroque. While paring the details, they worked in a vocabulary where references are deeply sublimated.
Gočár’s House of the Black Madonna, designed as a department store in 1911 and now serving as the Museum of Czech Cubism, exemplifies the challenge that these architects faced in bringing their new style to Prague. The historic location, along the coronation route of the Bohemian kings, subjected the architecture to what we now call design review. The Prague City Council imposed rules that required that the building harmonize with its neighbors. Gočár’s response is fundamentally different from its Baroque context while, at the same time, gracefully referencing the key elements of this streetscape. Inspired by the Chicago School, the House of the Black Madonna is a concrete-frame building—a structural system that allows for wide spans. The loft-like floors worked well for the program. but, on the façade, Gočár had to devise a system of angled, three-part windows and muscular piers to counterbalance the horizontal bays of the concrete structure. These monumental piers and their highly abstracted capitals, capped by an angular cornice, allowed the building to express an architectural language that was radically new while also making it an immutable part of the historic streetscape; meanwhile, the underlying Doric character of the architecture makes this building a less-than-complete essay in the style.
Gočár was able to explore the potential of Cubist geometry more completely in his Bohdaneč Spa, designed in 1911. This long, low-slung building is brimming with the implied movement of angular forms. Framed by triangular piers, the bays are set with paired windows with angled mullions that seem to spring forward with the pressure of the folded plane that describes each interior room.
Gočár was an important figure in establishing Czech Cubism as a distinct style, but his work did not reach the essential transformation of approach seen in Hofman’s work. Breaking from the formalism of the Secession, Hofman became an important architect and designer in the movement, distilling a style marked by crystalline forms where the character of each building is manifest in the angles, diagonals, and pyramidal shapes that emerge, almost organically, in response to the plan, section, and elevation of each building. Hofman’s approach rejects both the classical language of the Western canon and the sterility of the reductive, functionalist, flat planes of modernism. Like Bohemian Gothic and classical buildings, Hofman’s designs represented an ambivalent attitude towards their contexts and strayed from the dominant movements in Europe.
Hofman’s approach rejects both the classical language of the Western canon and the sterility of the reductive, functionalist, flat planes of modernism.
Though Hofman did not have as many opportunities to build as his colleagues, his influence was felt through his competition entries, urban-planning schemes, and furniture designs. His position in Prague’s Municipal Building Authority gave him the opportunity to plan portions of an ambitious urban scheme. While conceptualizing furniture, Hofman was able to apply his design principles and create pure forms composed of smooth vertical, horizontal, and diagonal planes. His chair for the sculptor Josef Mařatka from 1912 is a striking example of his expressive manipulation of mass and form.
Josef Chochol, also a student of Kotěra’s, designed noteworthy examples in the Czech Cubist style. His Villa Korařovic, below the Vyšehrad fort, projects a faceted, angular, two-story bay that breaks the cornice of the main block of the building into the court at the corner of the lot. Each window pulls back into the envelope of the villa and is framed by the spare, angled planes of wall. Nowhere is ornament present. At the top story of the villa, the walls are sculpted into massively powerful piers that push outwards from the façade, and the cornice line seems to release energy that is barely contained by the symmetrical plan.
Chochol’s chef-d’oeuvre is his 1913 design for a five-story apartment house in Prague on a triangular lot. The entire façade is faceted, and the pier-like protrusions between the window bays fan out in prisms that envelope the massive, angled projection serving as a cornice. Reflecting the key point in the plan—the tip of the angled lot—Chochol fashioned a faceted pier vertically linking the corner balconies and rising straight from the ground to fan out at the cornice.
Cubism was a challenging design approach at the scale of a building, but at a smaller scale it achieved ineffable beauty: a lamppost in Jungmann Square, the sole remaining work of the architect Emil Králíček, is one of the better-known emblems of Czech Cubism in Prague. This faceted columnar support surmounted by a prismatic lantern embodies all of the energy and strength of the Cubist paradigm. The lamppost is solid but implies movement. Instead of the superficial ornament of traditional urban street furniture, a unique geometric form results from Králíček’s approach.
When architects promulgate manifestos and design simultaneously, there is a clear risk. Any approach to design that is heavy on ideology can sink under the weight of self-importance. This group was young and arrived at a pivotal moment just before the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia. Yet their skills and understanding of history grounded their designs, which remain more successful than many less deeply felt contemporaneous styles. Their writing illuminates the work and its relation to its architectural and intellectual context, and their understanding of formal transformation in Baroque architecture brought both a new perspective and deep inspiration. Pavel Janák noted in his 1911 essay “The Prism and the Pyramid” that Baroque architecture “discovered another way to reach abstraction. . . . [with] the rotation and movement of entire forms from their original, calm, antique position into planes standing obliquely and dramatically against the heart of the building.” Janák saw that understanding the architecture that emanated from the classical world—what he referred to as “the south”—would allow the creation of a radically new style:
If Baroque abstraction consists of the strengthening and animation of matter and the moving of masses, then the principle of the northern style of architecture is quite the opposite: it overcomes the tranquility and material quality of matter by delving into it, and by reducing matter in the direction of the third oblique plane.
Despite their prodigious virtuosity in conceiving architecture in complex geometries, the Cubist architects were never able to achieve the total work of art—the Gesamtkunstwerk—that was their explicit goal. The houses—even the landmark House of the Black Madonna—had interiors that were closer to Arts and Crafts. Patronage to support the expense of constructing a fully Cubist house, both inside and out, did not exist. Yet these architects delivered on the promise of the Czech Cubist manifesto. The impulse to break free of the post-and-beam paradigm and find new forms led these designers back to the Gothic and Baroque of the Bohemian past. That they successfully synthesized and abstracted these strands of history to create a distinct style was a significant achievement.
1 This piece is adapted from the introduction to Rowdy Meadow: House, Land, Art, by Peter Pennoyer, published by Vendome Press in November 2021.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 4, on page 50
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