Sometimes they pearch on slopes, clearly standing apart from the surrounding buildings; in other instances they’re nestled in foliage or crouching at the end of some forgotten street, and you need to look for them.
Each has its own story, often intrinsically entwined with the city’s architectural – and inevitably also political – history.
They range from the thoroughly modern and avant-garde to the kitsch and cozy.
I’m talking, of course, about famous Prague villas.
The vast majority of the villas – particularly those constructed in the 1920s and 1930s – are situated in the residential neighborhoods Střešovice, Dejvice and Baba, in Prague 6, most within walking distance of one another. A handful has been converted into museums, so it’s possible to explore their interiors, in some cases complete with period furnishings. What better way to appreciate these architectural gems than up close, in their street setting? It’s only a matter of deciding where to start.
The villa that sculptor František Bílek designed for himself in 1912 in the district of Hradčany on a gentle slope not far from Letná probably belongs among the city’s most original ones. Not yet quite modern, but strikingly different – especially because of its flat roof and simple facade – from the ornate, pseudo-historical style still favoured by many architects of the time.
The deep red brick building reflects Bílek’s obsession with mysticism and is an example of symbolist architecture. Thick stone columns, which are meant to represent bundles of ripe wheat, support a massive flat roof, which overhangs the area in front of the building’s several entrances, as well as a sort of ground level terrace.
Bílek took inspiration from Egyptian temples and to a certain extent from early Romanesque architecture but invented a style entirely his own, incorportating personal details that symbolised different aspects of his family life. The door to the kitchen, for example, had the ages of his family members at the time of the building encarved int he wood.
Currently under reconstruction, the building now belongs to the Prague Gallery and houses a museum of Bílek’s work.
Just a short tram ride from Hradčanská metro stop, another, no less idiosyncratic villa, perches on a much steeper slope, overlooking Střešovická Street. Easily one of the city’s most famous landmarks, Muller’s villa was considered ugly upon its completion in 1930 by city authorities and critics alike. Even today, the building, designed by Viennese architect Adolf Loos, looks almost aggressively austere compared to the surrounding buildings in Střešovice.
But the stark facade of this not-quite functionalist villa hides a surprisingly livable interior, with warm details like with exotic wood panneling and luxurious marble cladding. For Loos, the appearance of the exterior was strictly dictated by the function of the space inside, which was specifically tailored to the needs of developer František Muller’s family.
It is here that Loos was able to fully develop his concept of Raumplan, a system, whereby interior space was divided into interconnecting, multi-level rooms, the height and size of which suited its specific fuction.
Like many opulent villas belonging to successful, bourgeois families, Muller’s villa was conficated by communist authorities in 1948 – less than 20 years after being built.
Today the building belongs to the city of Prague. In 2000 it underwent a CZK 47 million reconstruction and is now open to visitors. The last time I checked, tour reservations were necessary.
There is at least half a dozen other noteworthy buildings in the streets between Střešovická and Evropská, but a tour of Prague’s famous villas would be incomplete without a visit to Baba, one of Prague’s oldest suburbs, which in the 1920s and 1930s became one of the most progressive neighbourhoods, inhabited by the city’s elite. It became a showcase for many of the country’s top architects and to this day contains prime examples of functionalist architecture.
The so-called assembled villa, located on Matějská Street, stands apart from Baba’s the large-scale luxury. Designed by architect Jiří Štursa in 1947, the villa was a post-war experiment to construct high-quality, inexpensive, and easily assemblable apartments in an effort to alleviate the city’s housing shortage. In a sense it marked the final stage of Prague’s golden era of villa building. The communist regime, which took hold of the country only a year later didn’t support something as bourgeois and frivolous as private villas. After 1948, some villas were confiscated, divided into smaller apartments or given to communist dignitaries.
The assembled villa was Spartan but comfortable, with two apartments per floor. Its style to a large extent still reflected that of pre-war functionalist villas.
Five families live in the there today, and unlike some of the more famous villas, it’s sadly run down, with crumbling walls and rusted railings.
The assembled villa experiment was abandoned soon after the construction of the one on Matějská, when communist authorities decided it would be more efficient to build massive blocks of panel high rises – paneláky – in vast developments on the city’s outskirts. But that is a whole other story of another era.
Villas worth seeing up close:
Trmalova vila, 1902-1903
Architect: Jan Kotěra
Vilová 11, Praha 10 – Strašnice
Bílkova vila, 1910-1912
Architect: František Bílek
Mickiewiczova 1, Praha 6 – Hradčany
Kovařovicova vila pod Vyšehradem, 1912-1913
Architect: Josef Chochol
Libušina 3, Praha 2 – Vyšehrad
Müllerova vila, 1928-1930
Architect: Adolf Loos
Nad hradním vodojemem 14, Praha 6 – Střešovice
Sukova vila, 1932
Architect: Hana Kučerová-Záveská
Na Ostrohu 49, Praha 6 – Dejvice
Kytlicova vila, 1932-1933
Architect: Josef Gočár
Nad Paťankou 8, Praha 6 – Dejvice
Montovaná vila (assembled villa on Baba), 1947
Architect: Jan Štursa
Matějská 24, Praha 6 – Dejvice
Dvořákova vila, 1966-1969
Architect: Jan Kaplický
Na Doběšce 1, Praha 4 – Braník
Vila Věry Chytilové, 1972-1974
Architect: Emil Přikryl
Praha 7 – Trója
Kuthanova vila, 1991-1993
Architect: Vlado Milunič
Praha 6 – Břevnov