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Architecture and Art in Prague

For art and architecture lovers, wondering around the golden city of Prague is like walking in paradise. Not only are there churches, galleries, and museums full of masterpieces, but the city abounds in architectural splendors that span thousand years, from examples of late medieval, to post modern. As early as the 10th century, Prague was attracting travelers and merchants from the surrounding countries. At that time the city was the seat of the Catholic Diocese and the Jewish community, both of which built many buildings that can still be admired today. The greatest developments of the city coincided with the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor and Bohemian King Charles IV in the 14th century. The city became the political and cultural center of Europe, the Archbishopric was set up here, a university founded (today's Charles University), and the city was brought alive by large-scale construction in the style of High Gothic. The most significant monuments of that time are: the stone Charles Bridge, St. Vitus' Cathedral with the Chapel of St. Wenceslas, the Old-New Synagogue, and the Old Town, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the 17th century the architectural style of baroque emerged. With the Hapsburg dynasty supported by rich aristocratic families and the powerful Catholic Church, grandiose residences, palaces, gardens, monumental churches and monasteries were built throughout Prague. The Habsburgs commissioned the very best architects, master painters, and sculptors, including Santini and both the Braun and Brandl Dientzehofers. Towards the end of the 18th century, during the reign of Emperor Joseph II, further significant changes took place. Joseph II demolished many old buildings, mostly churches, making space for new public buildings. Many schools, hospitals and theaters were also built during that time. 

Ever since the Middle Ages, the city has expressed its spirit through art and architecture, but no other style shaped the soul of the city as much as Art Nouveau. This international art movement peaked at the turn of the 20th century as a reaction to the academic art of the 19th century. It brought the curvilinear depiction of leaves, flowers, vines, and a profusion of foliate forms, with sinuous lines and non-geometric curves to create an illusion of constant flow, movement, and energy. In Prague, splendid 19th and 20th century Art Nouveau gems are everywhere.

Some artists associated with Art Nouveau include Gustav Klimt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Aubrey Beardsley, Antonio Gaudi, and Alphonse Mucha in Bohemia. The roots of Art Nouveau go back to Romanticism, Symbolism, the English Arts and Crafts Movement, and the Pre-Raphaellites. Art Nouveau symbolizes the uncertainty and the relaxed lifestyle at the end of the 19th century. The movement reached the peak of its popularity around 1900, only to be gradually overtaken by art deco and other modernist styles. The Prague Art Nouveau buildings, decorated with wrought iron railings, colorful stained glass, and inlaid with ceramic tiles, hold their own among the medieval town houses and baroque churches.

The second half of the century was marked by austere functionalism and later by socialist realism implemented by the communist regime. After the fall of Communism, Prague again became the architectural center of Europe, as seen in many modern bank buildings, hotels, trade centers, housing complexes, etc. Modern architectural elements, however, are often accompanied by controversies regarding the historical nature of Prague. The one very controversial building that caused many discussions on the subject was Frank Gehry's famous Dancing House, also known as "Fred and Ginger" which was completed in 1996.