Mainstream European Functionalism arrived in Czechoslovakia in the late 1920’s. The creation of a new Czech Republic in the aftermath of WWI from the former Austro-Hungarian territories resulted in a frenzy of new building activity and a spirit of optimism about the future. It was a milieu in which avant-garde architectural groups flourished. Already in the early 1920’s a general reaction to the national academic style of architecture was being expressed in the work of the “Purists” and the Czech “Cubists” (see Josef Chochol
). The Czech schools of architecture in Prague and Brno supported the new architecture and graduated several generations of architects enthusiastic about the social and formal program of Functionalism. Several groups of architects and artists published radical magazines promoting the new architecture, invited speakers from other countries to speak about their work, and participated in CIAM and other international groups and exhibitions. Many of these architects worked for architects in other countries in the late 1920’s and early 30’s Germany, Holland, England, France, the Soviet Union so that there was a constant exchange of ideas and information about new proposals and projects under construction. Two important buildings by foreign architects further validated the new architecture, the Müller Villa by Adolf Loos, built in Prague between 1928 and 1930, and Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat house, built in Brno at the same time. All of the new buildings required to serve a new government in Prague resulted in many opportunities for architects. Between 1920 and 1936, 700,00 people emigrated to Prague, drawn to the work opportunities in the new capital, but also creating the social needs that would be serviced by the new architecture. Industrial and commercial growth accompanied the expansion of the national economy and the buildings of several large companies became virtual symbols of the new architecture, namely, Bata, a shoe manufacturer, and the Lindt department stores.
The Czech Functionalist movement actually began in Brno as a result of the 1927-28 Exhibition of Contemporary Culture. Two buildings in the new style were designed for the exhibit by the Prague architects Josef Havilicek (an apartment house), and Oldérich Stary (a single family house). This exhibit was followed by the “Novy Dum” Exhibit (The New House Exhibit), which was built by the Czech Werkbund. This exhibit, following the example of the Werkbund exhibit in Stuttgart of 1927, and consisted of a group of experimental single family houses designed by nine architects. A similar exhibit, the Baba estate, which involved many more architects, was built on the outskirts of Prague the following year. Shortly building activity expanded to include schools, apartments, social and recreational buildings, government buildings, hotels and commercial buildings, hospitals and clinics.
Early planning strategies emphasized the need to keep the historic center of Prague intact and very few buildings in the new style were built here. New building in the old quarter was limited mostly to small infill projects, a few Bata and Lindt stores, a few infill luxury apartment buildings, and some large blocks of housing built on the fringes of the historic center. These small perimeter block infill buildings, obviously modeled after Paris prototypes, are some of the more interesting examples of modernist architecture in Prague and display the formal and technical skill of the Czech architects who designed them. Evzen Rosenberg designed several of these between 1932 and 1938. Rosenberg left Prague on 13 March 1939, 2 days before the German invasion and immigrated to England as Eugene Rosenburg. He went to work for Patrick Abercrombie’s MARS group and later became a partner in the firm Yorke, Rosenberg, Mardall. Rosenberg designed five similar small luxury apartment buildings in Prague during these years. This example, on Leltohradská street, is quite typical of the site and program for these small buildings. Adjacent older buildings define a narrow infill parcel facing the street and opening behind to the semi-private space on the interior of the block. Zoning restrictions on height, setback at the top floors and a commercial or service zone along the sidewalk, are characteristics typical to similar sites in most European cities. Rosenberg worked in Le Corbusier’s office in the early 1920’s and there is here an obvious reference to Corbusian infill prototypes and to other Paris examples of the genre; Roux-Spitz, Ginsberg and Lubetkin, and an established tradition of atelier
apartments. The Rosenberg type is organized with two different-sized flats per floor sharing space at the sidewalk, sometimes carrying to the next, and several floors of flats above with a penthouse apartment at the top, set back with terraces to both sides of the building. Bathrooms attach to the side walls and sometimes these areas on the interior of the plan have skylights for natural lighting. The facades are all variations of a symmetrical 3-bay organization. Sometimes the central bay is cantilevered forward slightly, creating a dominant planer central zone with vertical zones of balconies with open balustrades at either side resulting in a definite vertical zoning. In these examples, there is a ground floor apartment and entrance lobby and a rooftop terrace that steps back. In the two buildings with larger commercial spaces at the bottom floor that spread the full width of the building, the facades are detailed as alternating horizontal bands of glass and stucco and the central bay is expressed in the organization of the shop and the penthouse apartment. Rosenberg had a reputation for careful proportions and elegant detailing: windows, railings, and balustrades.
The Letohradská facade is organized around a central avant-corps
zone of narrow strip windows in a stucco wall. This plane cantilevers forward of the street plane slightly and thus emphasizes the zone of recessed balconies and floor to ceiling glass to each side. The strip windows turn the corner towards the balcony where the sill height is the same as the top of the balustrade. This creates a very simple but effective solid/void relationship between central plane and recessed balcony, between stucco and glass. The setback at the top of the building aligns with the plane of glass at the balconies and also with the recessed entrance at the ground floor. The recessed balconies help shade the windows, however, neither strip or balcony windows have blinds. The perforated metal balconies and tile balcony edges are more examples of Rosenberg’s careful detailing. Generally, buildings in Prague were poorly maintained during the cold war era. And, while the wood windows are in bad shape, the stucco walls and metal details have held up surprisingly well.