Časopis ARS 30 (1997) 1-3

Jindřich VYBÍRAL

Počátky české národní architektury
[The Outset of Czech National Architecture]


In comparison with other types of art, in Czech architecture the national romanticism asserted itself comparatively late. In the course of the construction of the National Theatre in Prague, conceived as a "solid stronghold of the Czech language and national culture", the national idea penetrated into sculptural and pictorial decoration but the architectural solution of Josef Zítek still adhered to the patterns of north Italian and Roman Cinquecento.

The first attempt at achieving a specifically Czech version of the neo- Renaissance was probably the Higher Girls' School in Prague, built in the years 1866 - 1867 according to the plans designed by Ignác Ullmann.

The facade was covered with rich figurative and ornamental decoration. It was Antonín Wiehl, however, who became the true originator of the National style here. The concept of the "Czech Renaissance" that Wiehl developed, especially during the period of 1882 - 1895, was represented by flat, non- classical elevations covered with sgraffito; high, terraced gables and domestic motif of the cornice with lunettes. At the same time, he was far from the archaeological exactness and the intellectual curiosity of mature historicism: an entire index of his "Czech" motifs was taken over from four structures - the royal summerhouse Belvedere and the Schwarzenberg Palace, both in Prague, the city hall in Plzeň, and the chateau at Kaceřov - while many decorative details, including all the ornamentation of passages and staircases, are still taken over from the Italian Renaissance patterns.

The "Czech Renaissance" soon met with a favourable response and, among architects, Antonín Wiehl gained many collaborators and imitators. The ideologists of the National style cleverly solved the problem that the artists whose works served as patterns for the imitation had been not native but rather Italians. In this regard, Jan Koula wrote that "the Italian masters who executed several projects here in pure Renaissance forms were forced to take account of our older and powerful traditions (...), which gave our country a special form that cannot be seen elsewhere."

National conservativism still maintained a strong position in Czech architecture after 1900. Its advocates were unflinchingly convinced that "where art is not in decline, its development is cultivated on a national base." The devotees of such opinions rejected modern architecture as an expression of cultural-political centralism. For the Prague national conservativism, the Art Nouveau, or Secession, was a typical Viennese phenomenon, and its cultivation in Prague was equated with betrayal of the "national idea". The need to distance oneself from the oppressive régime and, conversely, to demonstrate an individual identity by developing the "Czech national style" was so strong that architects of the rising Prague Modern considered it necessary to declare the national character of their work. However, these modernists did not recognize any guaranty of the maintenance of national authenticity in archaeological study but rather saw it in independent creativity. Only a comparatively small group of architects around Jan Kotěra dared shortly to reject the national program. They replaced the platform of patriotic collectivism with the idea of humanistic individualism.