Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

For the love of church architecture

Visiting a city as old and history-rich as Prague is indescribably rewarding for an architecture lover because the history of western architecture from the early Middle Ages until the 20th century is graphically inscribed in its urban texture. Romanesque architecture stands side by side with Gothic, baroque and even — incongruously, when it comes to church architecture — modernist design.

It’s hard to choose among the many churches if one is not guided by what Gaston Bachelard called one’s “oneiric” building — the dream building that every person has in their unconscious, usually a kind of oneiric house, which serves as a touchstone for judging whether one likes a building or not. For me it does not pose a difficulty to know intuitively that I prefer the clean vertical lines of a Gothic cathedral, which bend inwards to shape the vault high above, to the almost unbearable opulence of a baroque church like that of Saint Nicholas in the Little Quarter of Prague.

To enter a Gothic cathedral like Saint Vitus enclosed within the Prague Castle walls — a church that was started in 1344 and only really finished in the early 20th century — is to fall under the spell of that indefinable sense of place imparted by distinctive architecture. Here it is a kind of “place” so qualitatively different from that of recent buildings that one instinctively resorts to a whisper when talking to a friend inside the church. I cannot say that I agree with DH Lawrence, who saw in the characteristic arch of a Gothic cathedral a symbolic closing-off of one’s spirit, fatally restricting it to something created by humans instead of allowing it free passage to soar as it wished.

Standing in St Vitus — or, for that matter, the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn — is precisely to feel your spirit soar, even at a time when the secularism of the age seems to rule out such a possibility. In some of the Gothic churches in Prague — and this is the case in a magnificent cathedral, like that of St Barbara in Kutna Hora — baroque embellishments exist side by side with the authentically Gothic, which may impinge painfully on the sensibilities of architectural purists. As Hans-Georg Gadamer argues in Truth and Method, however, this practice (to integrate later architectural additions with earlier ones) is testimony to a living architectural tradition in contrast to the practice of restoring architecture to a pristine, supposedly “pure” stylistic state.

Something else that strikes us heirs of the modernist sensibility advocated by Adolf Loos in Ornament as Crime, is the unadulterated and unapologetic use of ornament in these pre-modern churches where sculpture and painting combine to flesh out the Christian Weltanschauung undergirding the art and architecture concerned. Small wonder that Walter Gropius called architecture a Gesamtkunstwerk (encompassing or total artwork). In the case of Gothic and baroque architecture all the arts combine to present a composite image of reality as understood before it waned under the impact of the historical Enlightenment.

In fact as meticulously traced by Karsten Harries in his marvellous architectural study The Bavarian Rococo Church the unified pre-modern Christian understanding of the world yielded only step-by-step to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and its concomitant “modern” conception of “art for art’s sake”. Harries’ scrupulous interpretive analysis of Bavarian churches demonstrates how, what initially functioned as ornament in the strict sense of figural elements bearing metaphysical meaning, eventually became decorative elements free from such ontologically mediating function.

The churches of Prague are still pre-modern in this respect. And when I look at the weightless angels and saints hovering above the altars and crypts in these delightful buildings I cannot help think that although I would not want to return to a state of such beguilement, the fact that humanity and the world have been thoroughly disenchanted also means that we have lost something valuable. To be more precise, when the world was still bathed in the light of a belief in something intrinsically valuable, perhaps it would have been less likely for human beings to visit destruction on it as easily as it happens today.

There is one incongruity, albeit a charming one, regarding the juxtaposition of architectural features of different period and stylistic provenance. In 1965 the church of the 14th-century Slavonic monastery of Emauzy was given two concrete spires in distinctly modernist idiom by FM Cerny. And although these spires rise elegantly above surrounding buildings as seen from the Little Quarter on the other side of the Vltava River, one cannot help noticing that it constitutes a concrete oxymoron: modernity is predicated on the rejection of otherworldly beliefs, in the place of which it installed a trust in reason and technology. Here one witnesses an uneasy synthesis of the two mutually exclusive Weltanschauungen.

One could write a number of books on just the church architecture in Prague. Apart from the similarities and differences between churches of the same, or of different periods, there are the Jewish synagogues too, mainly in Prague’s Jewish Quarter, of which the Spanish synagogue is probably the most beautiful. But in a short post like this one, one simply has to acknowledge other types of architecture, too, foremost among them the large number of charming apartment blocks, especially those with the greatest variety of art deco facades. There is even a block of apartments in cubist style, believe it or not! My partner, who is an avid photographer, just could not stop taking pictures of these apartment blocks, nor of buildings like the beautiful Dancing House — probably the most distinctive modernist architecture post the Velvet Revolution — and the majestic late 19th century National Theatre.

The fact that the National Theatre is flanked by the modernist glass architecture of the Laterna Magika building and the New Stage auditorium, which purists might believe to detract from its imposing presence, adds an enriching historical aspect to the architecture of the theatre district. Though agreement about this will probably never be reached between those who welcome historicising gestures and those who don’t. It belongs in the same category as the glass pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre in Paris, which is a source of never-ending controversy. As for myself I welcome such reminders of the complexity of our architectural and artistic cultural history. For this very reason a visit to Prague produces never a dull moment to anyone who loves art and architecture.

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