New East Digital Archive

Rediscover Prague, one brutalist building at a time

21 October 2021
Text and Images: Matouš Pudil

Ask most people about Prague’s rich architecture, and they’ll likely mention the Castle, the historic Charles Bridge, some of the Art Nouveau and Neo-Gothic buildings, or, occasionally, faceted cubist facades.

Few people would come up with an image of Prague’s brutalist Transgas complex. Built in 1978 close to Wenceslas Square, the complex housed imposing blocks with long windows, covered in steel or small cobble stones. The surrounding décor was designed to evoke gas pipelines. One of the project’s key architects, Václav Aulický, would go on to design the Czech capital’s high-tech Žižkov TV Tower.

Transgas was a testament to Prague’s mostly forgotten brutalist epoch. The Czech Republic — then part of Czechoslovakia — was under communist rule from 1948 to 1989. And while socialism changed the country’s social fabric, it also shaped its urban landscapes. During those four decades, Prague underwent one of the most intense waves of development in the city’s history, largely driven by brutalist and socialist-modernist projects similar to those in the Soviet Union. Even close to Prague’s main thoroughfares, prefabricated housing estates sprouted up everywhere. These buildings still provide homes to roughly a quarter of all Prague residents today.

The Transgas building in Prague prior to demolition

The Transgas building in Prague prior to demolition

Unfortunately, Prague’s brutalist buildings are frequently neglected and tend to be associated with the detested socialist regime. Developments such as Transgas have long struggled to find favour with the masses. Indeed, despite protests, the complex was demolished in 2019. The plot currently stands empty after the original investor who demolished the structure decided to sell the ground, rather than proceed with a new construction.

Yet although conservationists weren’t able to save Transgas, its destruction did spark interest in Prague’s brutalist and socialist modernist heritage. Transgas’s fate illustrates how important it is to promote this style of architecture, in order to prevent further such losses — not only in Prague, but in cities and towns all around the former Eastern Bloc. These buildings may have been designed in dark times in the histories of their respective countries, but they were also often innovative and unique, and contributed to the distinctive character of the places in which they were erected. Prague is certainly one of them.

There are many remarkable examples of Prague’s architecture from the socialist era around the city, yet still only a few people are aware of their value and significance. The eight most striking are listed below.

The New Stage of the National Theatre

Let’s begin with one of the rare examples of brutalism in Prague’s historic centre, designed by renowned architect Karel Prager. The New Stage of the National Theatre was opened in 1983, connecting the theatre’s adjacent Neo-Renaissance main building with an imposing curtain wall façade. The exterior consists of 4306 made-to-measure glass blocks created by Stanislav Libenský, one of Czechoslovakia’s best-known glass artists (Among his many awards and recognitions Libenský holds an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London). A thorough renovation is planned in the next few years, which will have to be carried out as respectfully as possible — the complex received recognition as a protected monument in June 2021.

Koospol (The CUBE)

The 1977 Koospol building, renamed as The CUBE in 2011, is an especially distinctive example of brutalist architecture. Although designed by Czech architects, Franc, Fencl, and Nováček, it was constructed by an Austrian firm, an unusual decision made by officials who thought the project too demanding for underdeveloped local construction companies. Today, the building is n administrative complex shared by multiple companies, but the original occupant of the building, as reflected in its original name, was the foreign trade enterprise Koospol. The organisation was one of multiple state-owned enterprises importing and exporting goods to and from Czechoslovakia. Their success was vital for the centrally planned socialist economy, something which was reflected in unique architecture of their offices, which perfectly incorporated western brutalist and socialist modernist aesthetics. Other examples of similar buildings include Prague’s Centrotex, Strojimport or Merkuria.

Žižkov TV Tower

Towering above the residential district of Žižkov and in fact the whole city, it is impossible not to see the iconic Žižkov transmitter tower from almost anywhere in Prague. It was designed by the master of high-tech architecture, Václav Aulický, in the mid-80s, but it wasn’t completed until 1992. Resembling a rocket waiting to be launched, the tower has been named one of the ugliest buildings in the world on multiple occasions, yet it still fascinates many because of its very distinctiveness, and attracts visitors with its viewing platform and restaurant. The appearance was slightly changed by the installation of David Černý’s ten statues of crawling babies in 2000, but the unique silhouette, perhaps already one of the symbols of Prague, will with luck remain the same indefinitely.

Strahov Tunnel Control Centre

Large and majestic edifices aren’t the only examples of brutalist architecture worth mentioning — just look at the small and utilitarian yet exceptionally well-designed Strahov Tunnel control centre, completed in 1981. This modest building is a vital part of Prague’s transport infrastructure, managing traffic in the Strahov Tunnel and adjacent thoroughfares, which together form Europe’s longest urban tunnel complex. The surrounding landscape, dotted by concrete benches has been moulded to mirror the shape of the surrounding hillside, apart from two stark ventilation shafts which cut abruptly skywards. The structure also offers an impressive view of the city from its walkway, which is freely accessible to the public — making it a true hidden gem for anyone who feels overwhelmed by Prague’s busier, better-known viewpoints.

Barrandov Bridge

If the Strahov Tunnel control centre is one of the hearts of Prague’s transport infrastructure, the Barrandov Bridge is one of the most crucial arteries. Designed by Karel Filsak, author of the similarly impressive Hotel Intercontinental on Pařížská Street, this heavy brutalist bridge has formed part of Prague’s motorway ringroad since 1988. Although seemingly pragmatic at first sight, the bridge’s architecture is elaborate, with gently-rounded concrete shapes stacked on top of each to create the structure’s supporting pillars. Patterns moulded into the concrete soften the heavy edges of this otherwise mammoth piece of infrastructure. Another distinctive element are the concrete sculptures by Josef Klimeš at each end of the bridge, an echo of Prague’s historical bridges. Both are abstract works of massive dimensions, complementing the overall architectural style of the bridge and proving unmissable even when one just quickly drives past.

State Bank of Czechoslovakia

Another masterpiece by the brilliant Karel Prager, this time away from the city centre, is the State Bank of Czechoslovakia building, in Prague’s Smíchov district. As its name indicates, the complex was built for the Czechoslovak State Bank, and the main building was even designed to resemble a bank safe. City officials hoped to use the complex as a springboard to redevelop the whole district throughout the 1970s, with utopian plans that included underground tunnels to connect buildings instead of normal streets. In the end, the State Bank of Czechoslovakia and its adjacent residential buildings were the only fragments of the project to materialise. They opened in 1992, three years after the fall of communism, and just before the dissolution of Czechoslovakia itself.

Line A Metro Stations

The craze for Space Age design hit both East and West with equal force in the 1960s and 1970s. No UFO-like structures were built in rather conservative downtown Prague, but the futuristic cladding inside the stations on Line A of the Prague Metro still represents a prime example of this daring aesthetic. Made from anodised aluminium, the panels form a stark and visible contrast with the marble-covered columns elsewhere in the station. Such high-quality materials were common in Eastern Europe’s metro systems, as regimes aimed to showcase both their power and their supposedly-superior socialist morals in “palaces for the people”. These modernist stations are located right underneath some of Prague’s most historic central districts, as well as the elegant residential neighbourhood of Vinohrady.

DBK Department Store

Private enterprise wasn’t allowed under communist rule, prompting considerable demand for larger, state-run department stores to provide for citizens’ shopping needs. One such shop was the DBK, opened in 1981, offering furniture and home accessories. Designed by Věra Machoninová, one of Czechoslovakia’s most successful brutalism devotees, DBK is closely related to another of the architect’s projects: the Kotva Department Store built in 1975 in Prague’s Old Town. While both stores have similar facades and heavy shapes, this one differs thanks to its innovative interior and distinctive landscaping with flourishes such as its futuristic globe-like garage ventilation shafts. Today, the building serves as a regular shopping centre.

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