Let's travel to the time of lavish villas of the First Republic's rich families. To a time when marriages were arranged out of reason, disobeying one's parents was impossible, and when girls only observed Parisian fashion longingly and dreamed of being the chosen ones who might be allowed to drive a car, marry for love, or smoke a cigarette from a holder in society. What we are left today from that era is many gems of Czech cinema and unattainable villas in the streets of Prague.
Most of the first republic villas are still inhabited, but they house companies and corporations rather than the families of those who had them built. They are rather a lucrative address for rich, prestigious companies, embassies and legations, and some of them are even unused and still waiting for their second chance.
Fortunately, there are moments when these neglected or unused villas come to life again, if only for a moment. One of these opportunities is Open House Prague - an architecture festival that allows us to enter some of these buildings and smell the scent of black and white photographs, old books, heavy perfumes and cigarettes, mixed with light elements of vice and flamboyance. These buildings have always attracted the curious, but because so many of them are architectural gems, their gates remain closed to the general public.
Let's visit some of them – at least virtually for now – to tune in to a dream that we can actually fulfil this weekend.
"First Republic villas are like limited edition Ferrari cars or rare jewels of incalculable value. A Ferrari is simply a limited edition as is - let alone if you get to own a real LIMITED EDITION! There actually are such Ferrari cars produced in very small numbers and even one Ferrari model that is super extra exclusive - that is, only one single one was produced. Many people are looking for a suitable investment for life. And limited editions of anything — cars, books, stamps, jewellery or real estate — are certainly great value for money. These investments age like wine, and pays for themselves many times over as the years go by. Similarly with the "limited edition" first-republic villas. Each of them is incomparable, has its own stamp of originality and uniqueness,"
"As far as the revival of old houses is concerned, in my opinion it is primarily a property law problem. When it comes to private ownership, the possibilities of any local government are fundamentally limited. In the case of the Prague 8 municipality, for example, with a budget of CZK 824 million, buying up such property is out of the question,"
"It must be remembered, however, that every owner has an obligation to take care of his property. I would like to point out that this is part of the Bill of Rights in its Article 11(3) - ownership is binding. In Prague, I see the City of Prague Municipality as the main actor of such revitalization."
This once lively, eaves-surrounded courtyard near Florenc is one of the places with a turbulent fate. And, unlike Kotěra's villas, it is not so well known. The place of lively entertainment gradually became desolated and served as a workshop or technical warehouse for the capital. Today it is being successfully revived by a café, a furniture workshop called "Z pokoje do pokoje (From Room to Room)" and the Pomezí Theatre. The house has been abandoned for more than ten years, before that it housed the Prague Information Service and the Rambo shooting range.
"If I'm not mistaken, we were the first to apply for the loan of this house. The building was and still is in very poor condition in terms of both electric installations and interiors. However, for our experimental theatre, these conditions are manageable, although punk,"
"In recent years, however, the windows have been replaced, the façade repaired and the ground floor renovated for the café that is housed here. However, the total renovation of the building is currently dependent on the extension of the metro station."
The space is currently used primarily as a café, a space for growing plants and occasionally hosting community and cultural events. The furnishings are suited to this, comprising a mix that instantly transports us to an era when time stood still – pallet seating, thrifted tables and chairs, houseplant growing corners, potted herbs and bamboo plants.
The house itself is owned by the municipality. Hana Matoušková, the previous councillor of Prague 8, helped to arrange the building's temporary use years ago, as there are plans for the development of the area above the Florenc metro station, where the house is located. The municipality agreed to the use.
The Pomezí Theatre was supposed to be housed here only until 2018, but thanks to a project supported by the Ministry of Culture and the Prague City Council, it is still there today, even though performances are not currently taking place. This unique project gives people the opportunity to tour the audience through the entire space and become a part of the performance at the same time. The rooms serve both as the stage and auditorium.
In the same district, Prague 8, we can also find the much more famous Grab‘s villa, which is now the seat of the Prague 8 Municipal Office.
The representational villa of the Jewish industrialist Hermann Grab stands to the east of the Košinka estate and was built in the mid-1890s by Josef Blecha, a Karlín-based architect and builder, who was involved in the construction of many factories and residential buildings in Libeň.
Grab's royal and imperial exclusive factory for leather, oilcloth and carpets was the largest of its kind in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the 19th century and together with its extensive buildings and residential houses, created a modern city complex. At the very end of the 1920s, the Grab brothers carried out extensive reconstruction of the family villa, which has basically preserved to this day. The composer Richard Strauss (Alice Grab's father-in-law), for example, and Hermann Grab's friends, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno and Max Brod, were frequent guests in the Grab family representative residence. Although the original villa was one storey and smaller in plan, the extension expanded it into its present form. All architectural elements have been preserved – dormer windows, attic railings with terraces and ornamentation, sculptures, balustrades and lanterns.
After the death of Emanuel Grab, Dr Hugo Grab became the sole owner of the villa, but due to debts and property issues, he could not keep it. The villa was rented to the director Josefina Victorius-Mocker, who set up a girls' home for the rich. During the German occupation, the villa was confiscated as Jewish property and in 1941 the building partially burned down, which damaged it considerably. Afterwards, it housed Hitler's youth brigade Hitlerjugend and in March 1945, before the end of the war, the villa was hit by four bombs. In 1945, a shelter for children under three was established in the villa with a capacity of about 100 beds, but three years later the building was confiscated and declared the property of the Municipality of the Capital City of Prague. In 2000, the building became the property of the Prague 8 municipality. Nowadays it’s used the needs of the Prague 8 Municipal Office and its beautiful premises also serve representational purposes. It is one of the best-preserved villas from the First Republic period, so it is occasionally used by film productions.
The three-storey cubist Kovařovic's Villa under Vyšehrad was designed by the architect Josef Chochol and built by the builder Bedřich Kovařovic in 1912-1913. The house was immediately ranked among the top works of Czech Cubism – both its interior and exterior. Its design was inspired by the works of Braque and Picasso, and therefore since 1958, the villa has been listed in the State List of Immovable Cultural Monuments. The facade, reminiscent of a diamond in its arrangement, is beautiful at any time of the day.
Kovařovic's villa was lucky enough to be used for private purposes and not open to the public. Moreover, it is currently for sale. That's why we should take advantage of perhaps the last chance to visit it this weekend.
The listed Kovařovic's Villa has been both a residence and a nursery, and it too has an interesting fate, although not as dramatic as the previous two. Tragically, the interiors of the building were extensively – and not in a very sensitive way – rebuilt in 1944, and with the exception of the railings at the entrance, all elements of the villa's cubist interior were lost. The original garden layout was also lost by the time the nursery was housed here, and a garage, for example, was added. Thank goodness, architects took over the building in the 1990s and extensive renovations restored the original features.
During the time the villa housed the MullenLowe agency and other media and creative companies, it opened its gates to the public during the 2017 Architecture Day and Open House Prague 2020 festivals. As of June 2021, it is for sale for an unspecified sum.
The National Heritage Institute's catalogue lists 21 Prague monuments that are cubist or have distinctive cubist elements.
"Czech cubism was not a massively used style, such as its relative rondocubism, national style or functionalism, but thanks to the architects Janák, Gočár and Chochol, the Czech lands have very fine examples of it. The area below Vyšehrad is famous for its cubist houses, however, conservationists have "no say" in individual sales of these buildings. It is not our responsibility; we don't even know that the building is for sale. It's not an obligation... We don’t care who owns the building, but whether everything meets the requirements of the Heritage Conservation Act,"
Since many publishers at the beginning of the last century were progressive folk, they also had their villas built by prominent architects. Such is the case of the publisher Jan Laichter and his house in Chopinova Street near Rieger Gardens. The whole area is architecturally very interesting.
The design of the villa was drawn up by architect Jan Kotěra, constructed by builder Vojtěch Tuka, and its appearance was twenty years ahead of its time. The ground floor of this originally three-storey building housed the publishing house, the first floor was Laichter's family apartment and on the other floors were rented apartments.
"The Laichter's House is one of Kotěra's most important works, the building seems to be ahead of its time. With its roughened plaster, large windows or interesting bay window, it’s simply the height of the avant-garde of the time,"
Zdeněk Lukeš, an architectural historian, evaluates the building for the Český rozhlas radio. Behind the villa lies an architecturally designed garden, which is listed for monument protection as well.
In 1937, the house was equipped with a fourth-floor extension. The first twenty years of this century, when the Paseka publishing house was housed here, were an important era of its history. The founder of Paseka, Ladislav Horáček, mediated and together with the owners financed the reconstruction of František Kysela's interior paint, thanks to which was the publishing house allowed to stay in the house for 20 years on financially favourable terms. Today, the house is still owned by the family and descendants of Jan Laichter, but it gets regularly opened to the public.
Right in the heart of Prague, in Salvátorská Street, lies the Art Nouveau Štenc's House, which proves that not all buildings in the historic city centre are Baroque or Gothic. The building housed the most modern printing house in Austria-Hungary and was a meeting place for the intellectual elite.
Jan Štenc chose the plot of land to build his house at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, when Prague was undergoing the so-called Prague Redevelopment, one of the world’s largest urban planning events of its time.
The Old Jewish Town and large parts of the Old Town did not meet the sanitary needs of the time, so there was a large demolition, to which many historically valuable monuments fell victim. In their place, new and representative buildings were built, and the streets were redesigned and widened.
Jan Štenc, a publisher of art publications, had his house designed by architect Otakar Novotný. The design of Štenc's graphic facility was strongly influenced by Dutch architecture and H. P. Berlag‘s geometric laws theory. Because of its layout, the building is sometimes described as "semi-detached." The publishing house was also housed here, together with large living quarters. The building had two courtyards and became an example of modern Art Nouveau style. However, the publisher died two years after the war and therefore he, fortunately, did not live to see his villa transferred to the management of the national publishing and printing enterprise Knihtisk a Tiskárny after the communist coup d’état in February 1948. After 1989, as part of the restitution process, Štenc's heirs took over the building and leased the premises out, while the tenant had the building carefully renovated. Today, the building's austere facade makes it look more like Dutch or English architecture.
Trmal's Villa is an example of the top villa architecture of the first half of the 20th century. Together with the Müller's, Bílek's and Rothmayer's villas, it is referred to as the house-museum quartet. The Trmal's Villa is the oldest of all four. František Trmal, a prominent teacher, educator and school inspector, chose Jan Kotěra, the founder of Czech modern architecture, to design his house as well.
Trmal's villa is an excellent example of the series of villas and houses designed by Jan Kotěra at the beginning of the 20th century, which, among others, include the Fröhlich's Villa in Černošice, the Mácha's Villa in Bechyně and the Sucharda‘s Villa with a studio in Prague. Kotěra managed to perfectly combine Art Nouveau geometric ornaments, English country architecture and Slavic traditions, which can be seen in many details here. Even the garden was designed by Jan Kotěra himself, and so the building is surrounded by curving paths and ornamental shrubs, blending into a harmonious entity. On the side, the architect has placed a timbered shed structure with spaces for livestock.
Today's surroundings have changed considerably since Trmal's time, as the house was originally built in a newly established garden district. Today it is home to the Kotěra Centre for Architecture (Kotěra Museum) and the FOIBOS BOOKS publishing house, and the villa is also the cultural, social and civic centre of Prague 10.
So, grab your cameras! You won't need any guidebook or tour guide, just sturdy shoes. And let’s go to Open House Prague! On the weekend of 7 and 8 August, the gates of buildings rich in stories, turbulent fates, and most importantly, the unforgettable historical value will open for you. And don't forget to take a look at the industrial buildings that will be open as well.
Source: goout.net, vnitrobloky.cz, nasregion.cz, bar-ak.com, neznamapraha.cz, praha8.cz, prague.eu, pamatkovykatalog.cz, Český rozhlas, kudyznudy.cz, archiweb.cz