Saturday, October 18, 2008


Or “the buildings what I saw on my holidays”.

My darling Darling Vicarage and I actually arrived back in London well over a month ago, after a dismal coalition of, Easy Jet, Prague International Airport, UK Immigration Control and Southern Railways conspired to rile and delay us. DV had been to Prague before, in 2001, but the city has changed so much that she began to doubt whether she had been at all. The Czech Republic’s entry into Europe has been bought at a high price.

Prague is a city of many aspects. I spotted three of them. The area around Wenceslas Square is awash with strip-bars and puking Englanders; apart from admiring the Radio Free Europe building from the safety of public transport, we avoided it altogether.

Off the beaten-track is Zizkov, a working-class neighbourhood named after the old Czech warrior Jan Zizka, who fought against the doctrines of orthodox Catholicism in the reign of good King Wenceslaus. On the hill where the Hussites defeated the Crusaders in 1420, there is an enormous statue of Zizka sitting on a horse whose veins pop out of its skin. Behind Zizka and his horse is a rather grim National Monument, erected in 1927, and later used to house the Czech Communist leader Klement Gottwald, who died of syphilis and alcoholism five days after attending Stalin’s funeral.

Much more fun, though not much less Stalinist, is the Zizkov TV tower. The guidebooks tell you that the tower exemplifies Communist megalomania. Well, maybe. I can’t imagine that anybody took the design and construction of a building that so closely resembles a space rocket entirely seriously. It reminds me of an article Ballard wrote for Vogue in 1977 about the rise and fall of the space age.

Looking back, we can see that far from extending forever into the future, the space age lasted for scarcely 15 years: from Sputnik 1 and Gagarin’s first flight in 1961 to the last Skylab mission in 1974 – and the first splashdown, significantly, not to be shown on television. After a casual glance at the sky, people turned around and went indoors.

The Zizkov TV Tower was completed fifteen years after Ballard wrote his article for Vogue. It proves him wrong and right at the same time: wrong because the taste for space travel post-dated his article by several years, and right because the spaciest construction in Europe at the end of the Cold War period has nothing whatever to do with space travel.

The Czech artist David Černý has covered the tower with enormous babies with punch-bag faces who crawl up and down its sides, but on a 216 metre high space-rocket, such attention-seeking postmodernist touches are rather superfluous.

Never mind the cosmological Brutalism of the Stalinists; the Baroque churches and cathedrals of the old town are far more explicit in their politics. They conceal their despotism behind a mask of rich decoration, so that today they appear merely extravagant. St Nicholas’s Church in Malá Strana is an especially extraordinary confection. It was built during the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, when Prague had returned to absolutist Catholic rule.

From the outside it is much less ornate than some of Prague’s other Baroque churches and cathedrals, and at a first glance the inside appears merely cakey, even rather beautiful in a grotesque sort of way. “Isn’t it gorgeous,” asked an American lady to nobody in particular, but once she sat down on one of the wooden pews and looked up to the fresco on the ceiling, her complexion paled.

St Nicholas’s Church does not inspire reverence, it inspires fear. It makes one tremble in fear. It is a place of worship, but it is also an overtly political statement. We took a seat in a caustically small pew, and DV explained the impulses and techniques of counter-Reformation architecture; how it distorts perspective in order to confuse reality, to create vertiginous heights and depths, to generate the illusion that the architecture extends beyond the Church. This effect, called quadrattura, makes you submissive and unsteady and sickly, and it is achieved with magnificent skill in St Nicholas’s Church.

The quadrattura ceiling par excellence is at the church of Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marziot in Rome, but the Last Judgement fresco painted on the ceiling of St Nicholas’s Church is almost as effective. DV got vertigo when looking up at the ceiling, and I did too. The perspective of the fresco and the curve of the ceiling lead the eye up towards the heavens, but the figures in the scene appear to be slowly falling down upon the timid worshipper, and all the time one feels as though one is being pulled towards the centre of the scene (i.e. God). The implications of this magnetism in a scene of the Last Judgement could not be clearer.

Decoration flourishes on a massive scale in St Nicholas’s Church, and most of it is rather repulsive. A diminutive Christ is surrounded by gigantic statues of Saints – St Basil the Great looks absurdly dumpy and psychotic; St Cyril, who as Pope purged Alexandria of its Jews, pokes a lean, golden spike through the throat of a victim. The statues stand on cold red or pink marble bases. There are Ionic columns, also of reddish marble, which are topped with volutes of solid gold. Chapels and altars are decked with artificial marble and gold. The Baroque organ, built by Tomas Schwarz, was added later and is enormous in sound and appearance.

The Reformation had suggested that the word (and, in particular, the Scriptures) was privileged over the image. The word required no intermediary between the individual and God, whereas the image was itself an intermediary. The Jesuits of the counter-Reformation were extraordinarily successful for many years at denying this claim, at reaffirming art over the word. St Nicholas's Church bullies the worshipper, so that it crosses the line from the sacred to the profane.

The TV Tower in Zizkov, at least, wears its profanities on its sleeve.


Blogger owen hatherley said...

A blogging couple! That is the cuteness, I must say.

I was in Prague in September, on a V&A-sponsored Cold War Modernism junket that I would have written about on the blog had I more backbone. There's some very interesting Brutalist-ish stuff around (a strange honeycomb like shopping centre in the old Jewish quarter, the bizarre glass-panelled cultural centre whose location I forget) but an absolute ton of excellent 1920s-30s socialist/white walls/purist Modernism. It's very much overwhelmed by all the baroque and Jugendstil, but if you know where to look (or in my case, if you're having this stuff pointed out to you) there's a lot of it, more than in most cities outside of Germany. The biggest example is probably this place, of which Le Corbusier said something along the lines of 'it's brilliant, but it's not architecture'...

8:50 PM  
Anonymous James said...

"Klement Gottwald, who died of syphilis and alcoholism five days after attending Stalin’s funeral."

Must have been one hell of a funeral (arf arf).

4:45 PM  

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