Joze Plecnik's Modern Reactivation of Prague Castle: Analysis & Implications

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Hannah Lise Simonson 29 April 2016 History of Central European Architecture ARC 388R | Professor Long

Jože Plečnik’s Modern Reactivation of Prague Castle Analysis & Implications

In 1920, the President of the new Czechoslovakian Republic, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, commissioned Jože Plečnik to renovate Prague Castle. Associated with the monarchy since the 10th century, Prague Castle was suddenly the seat of a new democratic power in 1918. The Austro-Hungarian government, the previous tenants of Prague Castle, had not been engaged stewards of the building and thus it had succumbed to varying states of disrepair by the end of World War I. Masaryk, who ascribed to an ideal of democracy based on humanist principals, wanted Plečnik to help him create an appropriate democratic headquarters. i Plečnik’s work was well-known and respected in Prague; he was a student of Otto Wagner and came highly recommend by Jan Kotěra, the father of Czech modernism and nationalist architecture. I will examine a selection of Plečnik’s interventions at Prague Castle including the First Courtyard, Third Courtyard, Bastion Gardens, Rampart Gardens, and Paradise Gardens and ask: How are Plečnik’s interventions expressing democracy or nationalism? What is Plečnik’s style or approach to the site? How might we characterize Plečnik’s work at Prague Castle in order to extract strategies for contemporary interventions in the historic built environment? Plečnik was born in 1872 in Ljubljana, which would later become the capital of Slovenia, and had a strong interest in expressing his Slavic and Catholic identity through architecture. 1

Plečnik ended up taking a professorship at the University of Ljubljana in the same year that he agreed to take on the renovation of Prague Castle. Through a flexible arrangement with Masaryk, in which he would visit Prague around his class schedule and have his assistant, Otto Rothmayer, supervise the project in his absence, Plečnik managed to divide his time between the Prague Castle renovation and teaching in Ljubljana. ii Prague Castle had long been seen by Czechs as a symbol of national identity and had been inspirational to nationalist architects. The castle is a veritable palimpsest of complex Czech architectural and social history, with layers of Baroque, Gothic, and Romanesque architecture as well as military defense infrastructure. Masaryk articulated his goal for the project in a 1925 letter to Plečnik: The purpose of this project is to render the Castle a seat of a democratic president. The complete reconstruction of the Castle’s exterior and interior must be simple but artistically regal, symbolizing the notion of the state’s independence and democracy. The nation looks upon the Castle as a national seat and therefore, in order that the Castle be transformed from an edifice conceived and executed in the spirit of the monarchy to that of a democratic castle, not only the President but also his government must be mindful of the changes. iii At a moment when the dominant modern architectural idiom was functionalism, it was important to recognize the difference in discourse between functionalist “democratic architecture” – which placed emphasis on housing and services for the working class through economical and industrialized, efficient architecture – and the representation of democracy through architecture that Masaryk desired – which was an architecture that did not speak elitism, hierarchy, or aristocracy. Plečnik and Masaryk made “democracy visible” by emphasizing the humanistic possibilities of architecture. iv Plečnik tackles the question of the day – what is the architecture of the modern Czech and Slavic identity? While some used folk forms to express


national and cultural identity, others focused on the condition of modernity and turned to functionalism. Plečnik’s approach is an adapted, minimal classicism. Although the Prague Castle had a complex, layered built fabric and cultural history, the integrity of the Castle had been radically altered during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa. Theresa tasked her imperial architect, Nicolaus Pacassi, with updating and “unifying” the Castle. Theresa and Pacassi’s strategy to represent the state of their monarchical power was to update the historic buildings to the contemporary Baroque style and try to show a cohesive and coherent visual façade. One result was a loss of much of the oldest built fabric. Additionally, Pacassi altered the buildings to standardize their massing and rooflines, and used Baroque decorative motifs as the unifying style. While Plečnik is not a preservationist in the sense that we think of them today, he was interested in retaining the built connection to national and cultural history. Thus, Plečnik’s strategy was not to modernize through stylistic veneer. Rather, Plečnik sought reactivate Prague Castle by creating coherence through space, movement, and spirit. Plečnik’s interventions were designed to make the space relevant again by creating meaningful, emotive experiences for the modern person. One reason that Plečnik was largely at odds with the contemporary trends in architecture – including the increasingly international style of functionalism, and even Wagner’s more rationalized purified Jugendstil and neo-Classicism – was that he favored a rigorous and reflective, but unique and context-specific approach to architecture. Whereas, many other modern architects ascribed to rationalized sets of rules that were meant to be universally applied as a modern style or vocabulary, for the purposes of aesthetic cohesiveness, standardization, and industrial production. v 3

During the period from 1920 to 1935 while he was active in his role as Prague Castle architect, Plečnik was prolific – designing everything from complete excavations and overhauls of gardens to grand hallways to monoliths to paving patterns to the minutia of railings, light fixtures, vent covers, and door handles. There was no strict rule for the scale or type of interventions that Plečnik made throughout the castle. Instead, they were completely dependent on what he thought suited the site and context. In his essay, “Columns, Walls, Space,” Boris Podrecca provides a visual catalogue of the dramatic variety of columns, materials, wall facades, and plans that Plečnik used throughout the Prague Castle and his career – the diversity of which, is further evidenced by Plečnik’s endlessly iterative sketchbooks (fig. 1). vi Plečnik did not attempt to create a sense of monumentality or formal unity through repetition of classical forms. He used classical and historical forms, but adapted them freely, and applies different strategies throughout the Castle to uniquely create monumentality within each particular space. The approach that Plečnik takes might be called “slow architecture” – he approaches even large scale projects like the Prague Castle as a series of small moments of space and time. He emphasized craft and quality by reflecting deeply on the context and needs of each space, using materials to their greatest inherent effect, and applying a rigor to his design thinking and execution.

First Courtyard

The First Courtyard is just off of Hradčany Square and serves as the formal entrance to Prague Castle. Matthias Gate, which is at the back of the First Courtyard, was originally designed as a free-standing triumphal arch, but later buildings merged into it to create a gateway. Plečnik 4

advocated permanently sealing the Matthias Gate so as to create a grand reception space at the base of the Baroque staircase leading to the Castle’s reception rooms. vii Although this did not end up happening, Plečnik still designed the First Courtyard around the concept of two smaller entrances to the different interior zones – the President’s private living quarters to the south and the entertaining wing and Spanish Hall to the north. Plečnik arrived at this plan after rigorously testing other plans for the courtyard, which would have emphasized the axis of Matthias Gate. viii The implemented design used a crenulated paving pattern that starts at the edge of Hradčany Square and diverges in a V-shape toward two small entryways on either side of Matthias Gate (fig. 2). The paving steers visitors either toward the entertainment zone of the Castle or to the President’s private residential zone. ix This path has a physical and psychological effect on the visitor as they must cross a small, intimate threshold to move out of the monumental courtyard – the clear delineation in zoning and function is felt somatically. The two beautifully minimal flag poles that flank Matthias Gate are a monumental gesture toward Czech nationality. Each flag pole is 25 meters tall (over 82 feet) and tapers to a gilded, pin-sharp point (fig. 3). Originally the poles were made of a single, solid piece of wood with a natural finish that expresses their texture, knots, grain, and color. x Although the attenuated flag poles are a conscious reference to the pylons of ancient Egyptian temples, they are distinctly modern in form. xi The poles taper in perfectly clean straight lines, emphasizing the impressive engineering that was required to prepare the poles from a single piece of timber. The base and tip of each pole is gilded, and the pronounced gold rivets on the base express craftsmanship. The gold rivets are echoed in the ceiling of the Column Hall which has a copper ceiling fasted with gold rivets, which is a latent influence from Plečnik’s former teacher, Otto 5

Wagner (fig. 4). The sensuous curve of the gilded base of the poles is mimicked in the curve of the marble plinth that elevates each pole, adding further monumentality to their towering presence in front of the gate. The graceful monumentality of the flag poles is exemplary of Plečnik’s ability to adapt an ancient typology to a modern context through rigorous attention to detail. None of the materials are particularly modern, but the reduced geometry and confident craftsmanship allow the flag poles to stand in harmony with the architecture behind them, while proudly brandishing a new, modern Czech national identity.

Third Courtyard

After passing through Matthias Gate and the Second Courtyard, the visitor is immediately confronted with the towering, Gothic St. Vitus’s Cathedral. Although the pathway is not particularly narrow, the great height of the cathedral casts a shadow over the space and makes the visitor feel dwarfed. As the visitor turns right and walks around the cathedral, they are suddenly welcomed by a monumental, open courtyard and an obelisk (fig.5). The drama of this passage is appropriate for the official path to the President’s quarters. The Third Courtyard is entirely enclosed by a palimpsest of built fabric, creating an irregular shape with only small passageways entering and exiting the space. The Gothic cathedral is immediately flanked by the Romanesque Old Provost’s Lodging and surrounded by Renaissance and Baroque structures. The Old Provost’s Lodging was the oldest extant building during Plečnik’s tenure and is juxtaposed with the governmental office building that it faces. The façade of the office building had been “updated” by Pacassi during his architectural unification project to fit a Baroque royal style. xii 6

Plečnik achieved a beautiful monumentality in the Third Courtyard by using a simple paving pattern to relate the buildings of very different styles to one another (fig. 6). The courtyard had previously been divided into two sections with two distinctly different elevations by a wall and St. George’s Fountain, but Plečnik insisted on regrading the area to create a cohesive sense of space. The one-meter-square granite paving stones are sourced from eight different Moravian quarries, which lends subtle visual variety to the otherwise repetitive grid pattern. xiii Scholars such as Caroline Constant argue that the grid of the paving creates an axis between the governmental office building entrance and the elevated St. George’s Fountain and I would further argue that the grid corresponds with the coursing of the fenestration on the governmental offices on the south side of the courtyard, and appears to be generated from the elaborate entrance to the building. While the gridded paving creates a flat surface, the courtyard itself slopes to meet the historic ground-plane of the building entrances. Plečnik solves the problem of elevation without breaking up the visual cohesion of the unified plane with simple gestures such as the gently sloped ramp down to the Royal Palace, which has a square, geometric snaking grip carved into the stone. What is not immediately obvious upon entering the Third Courtyard, is the genius, modern feat of engineering inspired by preservation. In 1918, during a project to renovate the deteriorating Prague Castle, crews working on a sewer line in the Third Courtyard came upon ashlar masonry of a yet unknown Romanesque building (fig. 7). xiv In the spirit of his interest in reinvigorating the history and cultural resonance of the Prague Castle, Masaryk supported the excavation and survey of this archeological resource from – which would later cause tension with the competing interest of completing renovations to house a functioning seat of governmental 7

power. Excavations on the Romanesque site of St. Bartholomew church continued from 1920 to 1925, but a full survey of the site was never completed. In 1926, Plečnik designed a reinforced concrete slab to cover the excavated ruins, a task for which he was well-suited based on his cutting-edge reinforced concrete design for The Church of the Holy Spirit in Vienna (1911-13). The reinforced concrete slab had the dual purpose of protecting the archeological site and creating a flat foundation for his gridded paving. The sensitive placement of the large reinforced concrete slab was an impressive feat of engineering in 1926, and the design is additionally innovative because it allowed visual and physical access to future visitors (fig. 8). Thus, not only is the physical record of the site preserved for posterity or possible future excavations, but the site remains part of the cultural memory because it is still accessible. This excavation was one of the largest to date at the Prague Castle and was a huge contributor to Masaryk and Plečnik’s project of reactivating national pride and cultural memory around the history of Prague Castle. xv Another small intervention in the Third Courtyard worth noting is the surround that Plečnik designed for the St. George Fountain. Plečnik saw an aesthetic and cultural value in retaining the fountain in the new courtyard design. xvi Plečnik’s strategy for creating a modern, democratic space in the Prague Castle was not accomplished by applying all the latest contemporary trends or styles. Rather, Plečnik sought to retain culturally relevant links to the past by reactivating them through small gestures. The surround accomplishes the practical task of protecting the fountain and preserving it for posterity, but also recontextualizes it in a new space. The surround is a minimal metal ring with rivets, set on four granite columns that are smaller versions of the new base that Plečnik designed to elevate the fountain (fig. 9). The metal rivets are familiar from the flag poles in front of Matthias Gate as well as the ceiling of Column Hall. The surround 8

reminds the viewer of the continued importance of this fountain as a source of water in the history of Prague Castle, as well as the newly laid out space with gridded paving that emphasizes the axis between the fountain and the government office building. While many modernists at the time were rejecting connections to the past outright, Plečnik used modern methods and materials, as well as expert craftsmanship, to highlight historic elements of the built environment. When he inserted his own designs and features, they were a pure, minimal classicism that we recognize as being based on primary forms, but the exact likes of which we have never seen before.

Bastion Garden

The Bastion Garden is just north of the First Courtyard and provides an entry procession to the Spanish Hall, one of the grand reception halls for visiting dignitaries. Tomáš Valena argues that Plečnik’s design for the Bastion Garden is a representative transition between the completely paved First Courtyard and the un-designed, natural wilderness of the Stag Moat (fig. 10). As the visitor enters the Bastion Garden from the First Courtyard to the south they arrive on a paved section of the garden that has light brick inlays that create a pattern reminiscent of oversized brick coursing. As the visitor proceeds further into the garden, they reach a circular staircase and transition to an elevated section of the garden which is gravel with geometrical strips of grass and a precise planting grid. Valena argues that the design highlights the polarity of the natural environment and the human-built environment by dramatizing its representation in the Bastion Garden. xvii 9

I would argue that the Bastion Garden also exemplifies Plečnik’s interest in creating emotive spaces. His interventions at Prague Castle are neither mere stylistic updates, nor historic reconstructions. The interventions move past surface motifs and decorations by really targeting the experiential nature of architecture, space, and design. The way that Plečnik manipulates the landscape of the Bastion Gardens, and other gardens within Prague Castle, is spatial and architectonic. The metaphoric transition that occurs in between the two sections of the Bastion Garden is partially achieved through very thoughtfully articulated edge conditions. The visual tension between the paving of the southern courtyard section and the gravel and geometric plantings of the northern garden section are emphasized by the spatial tension created by the stairs and ramps that move the visitor through the garden. The two sections are divided by a 130cm granite retaining wall and a circular set of stairs that acts as the transitional node between the two sections and negotiates the difference in height. xviii The lower half of the stairs are concave, as if part of a cone, but the stairs transition in the middle to a concave form reminiscent of amphitheater steps (fig. 11). The point of transition between the concave and convex steps occurs in line with the retaining wall and is negotiated by a smaller concentric circular “step.” The smaller circle in the center is not a functional step, but rather forces the visitor to walk around it. Although the circular nature of the stairs allow the visitor to enter or exit the stairs at any point or travel in any direction, the visitor must slow down to walk around the central circle or deliberately cut a tangential path to the central circle. In this sense, the circular stairs function like a traffic circle, forcing people to slow down as they move through the space. xix


The stairs are impeccably executed in Plečnik’s rigorous, detail-oriented manner. The stones of the stairs are cut radially so that the joints visually lead into the center of the circular stairs. Each of the concave stairs ends flush at the retaining wall in a pure flat edge, such that each stair is visibly delineated in profile. The retaining wall appears as an angular, stepped point that further emphasizes the focal point of the circle’s center. The elegant negotiation of the linear retaining wall and circular stairs is a microcosm of the large scale negotiation of courtyard and garden. Once past the circular stairs, Plečnik continues to play with the spatial effect of elevations in the garden section of the courtyard. To the west of the garden area is a high wall that establishes a sense of privacy. The north end of the garden, there is only a low balustrade which opens up to a view of the Stag Moat. Again, a contrast between controlled human-built environment is juxtaposed with the natural environment using architectural interventions. The balustrade itself is a simplified, geometrical exploration of classical primary forms. Extant drawings illustrate Plečnik’s iterative design process which began with a more ornamented motif, including a vegetal form, which he then simplified to the design that would ultimately be implemented. Plečnik plays with proportion and scale in subtle ways to create unique forms for specific implementation. The flatted orbs of this balustrade create a visual tension between their horizontal span and lack of top connection. Since the flattened orb protrudes so far beyond its base and the rest of the balustrade it is cantilevered out over space - it appears precarious, especially when viewed from below. This balustrade begins in the Bastion Garden and continues down a set of stairs to the Stag Moat and along a path to connect with the Power Bridge, but the orb detail becomes vertically elongated with a concave lip as the balustrade leaves the garden to 11

the footbridge. The balustrade creates continuity through these spaces, but the slight variation in detail signals a transition in zone and function (fig. 12). The variety in the detailing of the balustrade is exemplary of Plečnik’s ability to manipulate form – he rarely repeats or recycles forms throughout the Prague Castle, but rather makes slight adaptations to classical forms for each site-specific need.

Rampart & Paradise Gardens

The long, narrow Rampart Garden runs along the south side of Prague Castle and meets the Paradise Garden in the southwest corner. Although the Rampart Garden has historically not been open to the public, Plečnik symbolically made the garden more accessible and democratic by lowering the defensive wall. By opening up the Rampart Garden, Plečnik reconnected the garden and the Castle with the surrounding city, a gesture that was well received by Prague citizens and Masaryk. xx Plečnik didn’t just lower the Rampart wall though, he strategically lowered the wall and also established particular look-out points. By creating a series of belvederes and elevated look-outs with differing architecture, stairs, and pathways, Plečnik created a spatially complex progression along the otherwise straight path. A single straight path creates a SW-NE axis through the center of the narrow Rampart Garden, giving the garden both a coherence and a formality (fig. 13). This axial path and the perfectly geometric strips of green grass are an architectonic way of dealing with the garden. Plečnik creates visual and spatial interest within the gardens through more intimate spaces around the edges of the monumental space. Beginning at the easternmost corner of the 12

Rampart Garden, the first such intimate edge space is the Moravian Bastion. Plečnik lowered the walls of the bastion and erected an obelisk topped with an ionic capitol and gold orb (fig. 14). The attenuated Moravian Bastion obelisk is visible from afar, drawing the public eye to the lowered bastion walls. A Plečnik-designed oval table sits under a pergola, next to the new brick walls with an oval opening. The Moravian Bastion simultaneously attracts the attention of the public eye because of the obelisk and democratized, lower wall, but also provides a sheltered and intimate space for people within the castle grounds. Plečnik achieves spatial complexity in the Rampart Garden by the varying the topography. Plečnik regraded the site so that sunken and elevated areas would create new spaces and edge conditions. The sunken space by the Moravian Bastion runs parallel to the main axial path and has a set of stairs at either end. Functionally, there is no need for this sunken space as a set of stairs could have led to the Moravian Bastion from the level of the main path; however, the sunken space encourages slower, deliberate movement. The sunken space is lower than the tree tops on the outside of the castle wall so the view is limited and the bermed wall of grass creates an intimate, verdant space. The while the main axial path is flat and uninterrupted, the spaces parallel to the main path vary from sunken to elevated. The sunken space by the Moravian Bastion rises back to the main level of the garden with a wide, straight-run stair case that is met by the Hercules Fountain. xxi Parallel to the stairs, a berm slopes upward on the opposite side of the main path. The berm, which has a geometric edge, leads to the elevated Bellevue – a covered structure attached to the lower level of the Covent for Noble Ladies building which looks somewhat like the Acropolis without a pediment – on an axis with the Hercules Fountain (fig. 15). In contrast with the sunken 13

area, the Bellevue’s elevated location provides a more formal, monumental view of the garden and the surrounding city. xxii Plečnik rigorously works out these details in elevation to explore the potential of complex spatial experiences (fig. 16). Moving further west, the formal axis of the primary path is perpendicularly bisected by a secondary path that leads from a small structure to the Rookery Gate. xxiii The Rookery Gate frames a staircase that leads downward to the Alpine Garden. The Alpine Garden is steeply terraced with geometric massing, but more naturalistically planted flora. A series of long running switchbacks and stairs allow a visitor to meander through the Garden and enjoy expansive views. From here, set low into the steep hillside, the visitor almost forgets the Castle itself. A variety of paths and stairways provide multiple alternate routes back up to the Rampart Gardens. A narrow, curved staircase leads up to the semi-circular Look-Out Terrace, but not before the visitor comes upon an attenuated pyramid standing directly in front of the landing. The arced bench on the Look-Out Terrace does not extend the full length of the view platform, gently guiding the view toward the east (fig. 17). Contrasting with the uncovered, expansive space and views of the Look-Out Terrace, the Small Look-Out just down the path to the west, is enclosed and intimate. The Small Look-Out is covered and surrounded by columns and what look like narrow, free standing plinths. This series of spaces is significant because it illustrates the variety of responses that Plečnik developed, ranging from intimate to monumental, within a single progression. Near the large open area by the Look-Out Terrace is the Slavata Monument, another obelisk topped with an orb and a square cross (fig. 18). Plečnik installed quite a few obelisks and monoliths throughout Prague Castle, which he found to effectively communicate monumentality 14

and a cultural relevant link to the past. The base of the Slavata Monument is mostly obscured from the main path because the monument is sunken into a space that has the shape of an inverted truncated pyramid. A narrow set of stairs on the north side leads down to the monument. The south side of the sunken space is protected by a simple thin stone cylinder resting on four blocks. The sunken space allows the visitor to approach the monument and read the inscription while experiencing a quiet, solitary, reflective moment. Throughout the Rampart Garden, the main axial path cuts a straight path through the garden even as it runs parallel to the less-than-straight façade of the Castle buildings. To the west, the Rampart Garden meets the Paradise Garden at an obtuse angle. The main path can no longer continue straight, so Plečnik creates a moment of spatial transition by terminating the long axial path in a fountain. The circular space around the fountain gracefully negotiates the meeting of the two irregular garden spaces. The Rampart Garden narrows as it ends at the fountain, but the Paradise Garden immediately opens up physically and visually. The visitor is greeted by a large elevated trapezoidal area of grass on which sits a monumental basin. The basin was turned from a single piece of granite, making it a feat of engineering to create and to move to its final resting place – seeming to hover over the grassy plane, just barely resting on two blocks. In contrast with the Rampart Garden, the Paradise Garden does not have a path along the main axis – the visitor must choose one of the two paths running along either side of the monumental grassy area. Eleven extant, detailed of the Paradise Garden illustrate Plečnik’s rigorous, iterative process. xxiv He thought through not only every decorative detail, but also every possible emotionally and spatially effective arrangement of space.


The visitor is confronted with a monumental staircase that spans the entire width of the garden and tapers to a vanishing point were the exit of the garden is obscured to the side in a modest doorway (fig. 19). xxv Unlike the gorgeously articulated entrance to the Bull Staircase, this exit from the garden is modest and the visual and experiential emphasis is placed on the huge staircase. The long procession from one end of the Rampart Garden, through a series of different elevations and restricted and expanded views, into the Paradise Garden, the viewer is suddenly confronted with an uncertain exit. The visitor must trek up the daunting, monumental staircase just to find the exit, but is rewarded by looking back to the gardens from the top of the staircase over the granite bowl, through a framed tree-lined view, back out over the city (fig. 20). There are innumerable small interventions throughout the Rampart and Paradise Gardens that illustrate Plečnik’s rigorous attention to site, detail, and emotive experience. Each of these columns, vases, walls, lights, and monuments could warrant their own in-depth analysis, but I have walked us through the span of the Rampart and Paradise Gardens to illustrate the overall scale and effect of Plečnik’s interventions. Plečnik’s careful arrangement of objects in plan, as well as his arrangement of space in elevation are part of a project to create an emotive space that moves the visitor through a series of expanded and restricted views, intimate and expansive spaces. As I argued earlier, Plečnik’s treatment of the gardens is architectonic. The Gardens (with the exception of the Alpine Garden) are minimally landscaped – Plečnik worked around existing trees and introduced large geometric swaths of grass. The success of the Gardens is a consequence of his careful sequencing of different visual and physical experiences. Plečnik’s interventions are architectonic in the sense that he does not use flowers and other flora to stimulate the visual senses, but rather uses manipulations of space through berms, stairs, walls 16

and pathways to frame views, create extended sight corridors, slow down movement, or create reflective moments. xxvi


Plečnik’s approach to architecture is innovative because he bucks the trend of modernists rejecting everything historic or classical and he is not afraid to reinterpret classical forms in new ways. Plečnik approaches classical forms with seriousness and respect, but rigorously adapts them to new modern sites and circumstances. Plečnik’s architecture is neither strictly “Modernist” nor “Historicist,” but is an evolving approach to adapting historic forms to new spiritual and emotional effect. Plečnik reinvigorated the Prague Castle as a modern, democratic space through a series of interventions that met no set of stylistic rules – he did not seek to invent or create a “democratic style” – but rather each intervention was uniquely worked out to meet the conditions of the site, historic context, and modern project. Plečnik’s slow architecture emphasizes craft, reflection, aesthetic rigor, a sense of relevant materiality, unique responses to condition, and emotive space. “I don’t want anything great,” said Plečnik, “I want things small; these things I will make great.” xxvii He could adeptly use small interventions to create either monumentality or small, intimate spaces depending on the functional need of the space. Although many of Plečnik’s interventions are smaller-scale, non-structural interventions, these can still be understood as architectonic interventions because they were designed not to merely be decorative, but worked out in section to functionally and emotionally change the visitor’s relationship to the space of the 17

Prague Castle. Plečnik’s approach was distinct from previous “updates” of the Prague Castle which had amounted to a veneered application of the latest style; Plečnik’s approach was to leave intact the historic fabric that was still functionally and emotionally effective and to strategically intervene around this historic fabric to create a new, modern spatial experience within the historic Castle grounds. I have examined Plečnik’s understanding of identity and representation of democracy through his interventions in the Prague Castle with specific reference to the flag pole at Matthias Gate, the reinforced concrete protection of the excavation site in the Third Courtyard, and the lowered rampart walls in the Gardens. Throughout this discussion of Plečnik’s interventions, we have seen classical inspirations worked out in an endless variety of ways – resisting classification as specific style or conformation to a specific set of rules. Plečnik reinvigorated the First Courtyard, Third Courtyard, Bastion Garden, Rampart Garden, and Paradise Garden with completely unique interventions, but consistently considered the historic fabric and context of the site in order to relate to the modern Czech citizenry. While Plečnik’s interventions are integrated in to the Castle in such a way that they don’t clash with the layered palimpsest of historical fabric, a focused eye can read Plečnik’s modern interventions from the older materials. Much of the discourse in historic preservation is caught up in an anxiety about “compatibility” without creating a false sense of historicism – perhaps we can learn something from Plečnik. Plečnik’s approach takes time, rigor, and probably a lot of money. However, it would be worth understanding that every detail of a space should be thoughtfully responsive to the site, historical context, and contemporary needs – down to the benches. In the recent past, Prague Castle has acquired many of the trappings of a tourist destination, including store18

bought, mass-produced signage, benches, chairs, ropes, and stantions. A quick glance at the Prague Castle’s current condition on Google Earth reveals stark white bistro chairs, generic metal sign stands, and Rent-A-Fence style gates – none of which are particularly surprising to anyone that has visited a historic tourist site. However, when we compare these objects to the thoughtfully designed St. George’s Fountain surround or the granite beam protecting the sunken Slavata Monument, it becomes painfully clear that “historic preservation” should not just be about preserving a building or site at a particular moment in historical time, but should be a “total” work of evolving architectural engagement. Plečnik’s interventions at the Prague Castle were commissioned in part to revitalize the Castle after its period of deterioration, in part to recontextulize the history of Prague and the Czech nation, and in part to reinvigorate a new generation of interest and engagement in the site and Czech heritage. A “total preservation,” like total architecture, would consider a site and its participants as a whole. A total preservation in this sense would consider all object introduced to the site as part of an evolving architectural project. If we think of historic preservation as an engagement with history, culture, and identity rather than just object curation and conservation, the opportunity for polyvalent spaces that continue to be culturally, emotionally, and somatically relevant could justify the additional responsibility and effort that such a rigorous practice necessitates.


President Masaryk was in no small part convinced that Plečnik was the right man for the job by his daughter Alice Masaryk. Alice Masaryk and Jože Plečnik developed a close relationship over the years, and she would be his champion even in the face of public criticism. For more on this relationship, see: Věra Běhalová, “Alice Masaryk, Plečnik and the Castle,” in Josip Plečnik - An Architect of Prague Castle (Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1996), 81-87. ii Caroline Constant, “A landscape ‘fit for a democracy’: Jož Plenik at Prague Castle (1920-1935),” in Jan Birksted, ed., Relating Architecture to Landscape (London: E & FN Spon, 1999), 121-123. iii Constant, “A landscape fit for a democracy,”115.



Tomáš Vlček, "Modernism as a Means to Achieve Democracy: T.G. Masaryk and Josip Plečnik," in Josip Plečnik - An Architect of Prague Castle (Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1996), 44. v Ibid., 42. See also, Damjan Prelovšek, Jože Plečnik: 1872-1957, Achitectura Perennis. Translated by Patricia Crampton and Eillen Martin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 138. vi Boris Podrecca, "Columns, Walls, Space," in François Burkhardt, Claude Eveno, and Boris Podrecca, ed., Carol Volk, trans., Jože Plečnik, Architect: 1872-1957 (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989), 166-185. For reproduced pages of Plečnik’s sketchbooks, see Podrecca, “Columns, Walls, Space,” 114-115. vii Prelovšek, Jože Plečnik, 138. viii For more of Plečnik’s early design drawings of the First Courtyard, see Josip Plečnik - An Architect of Prague Castle (Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1996), 18. ix I use the term “visitor” in spite of the fact that Prague Castle was not open to tourists in the way that it is today. However, the term “viewer” does not sufficiently capture the somatic experiences that Plečnik is designing. x There are some conflicting reports about whether the wood is “straight pine” or “Moravian fir.” Additionally, poor conservation resulted in rot and then replacement with strips of wood veneer, unfortunately damaging the integrity of Plečnik’s minimal, monumental gesture. xi Anthony Alofsin, When Buildings Speak: Architecture as Language in the Habsburg Empire and Its Aftermath, 18671933 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), 168-169. xii Constant, “A landscape fit for a democracy,” 118. xiii Prelovšek, Jože Plečnik, 145. xiv Jan Frolík and Petr Chotěbor, “Archeological Survey,” in Josip Plečnik - An Architect of Prague Castle (Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1996), 317. xv Ibid., 319. xvi In a footnote, Caroline Constant notes that the Fountain of St. George had been previously moved from the southern wing of the Royal Palace to the courtyard wall in the 18th century. Constant, “A landscape fit for a democracy,” 143. xvii Tomáš Valena, “Courtyards and Gardens: Plečnik’s interventions in the context of Prague Castle,” in Josip Plečnik An Architect of Prague Castle (Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1996), 285-287. xviii Valena, “Courtyards and Gardens,” 285. xix A statue of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, designed by Jan Bartoš and Josef Vajce, was erected just outside the First Courtyard in 2000. The statue stands in the center of a similar (if less elegant) series of concave and convex stairs built into the sloped corner in front of Salm Palace. See, “Statue of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk,”, (accessed 21 April 2016). xx Constant, “A landscape fit for a democracy,” 133-134. xxi The geometric snake-like motif running around the edge of the base is reminiscent of the carved grip in the ramp from the Third Courtyard to the Palace. xxii Tomáš Valena has created a wonderful set of spatial diagrams of the gardens, which are published in his essay “Courtyards and Gardens: Plečnik’s interventions in the context of Prague Castle,” in Josip Plečnik - An Architect of Prague Castle (Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1996), 285-287. xxiii Although I couldn’t find any specific description of this small, house-like structure. My best guess is that is the house for the gardener and/or aviarist, based on its location and modest size. xxiv Prague Castle Administration, Josip Plečnik - An Architect of Prague Castle (Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1996), 56-59. xxv From numerous drawings, it is evident that Plečnik intended there to be a large monolith in the midst of the monumental staircase – creating an axis that would draw the eye from the granite basin, past the monolith and terminating in a triangular corner. Interestingly, this axis does not lead to the exit of the garden, which is further up the stairs and east. This move further obscures the exit of the garden. xxvi Arguably, many modernists were experimenting with manipulations of space and spatial experience in buildings during this period, including Adolf Loos and Josef Frank in their raumplan buildings. xxvii Constant, “A landscape fit for a democracy,” 139.


Figure 1 | Sketches of the table and balustrades for the Moravian Bastion from Plečnik’s sketchbook (1922). Prague Castle Administration, Josip Plečnik, 248.

Figure 2 | First Courtyard paving design (1921). Prague Castle Administration, Josip Plečnik, 19.


Figure 3 | Flag poles in front of Matthias Gate (1921-25). Prague Castle Administration, Josip PleÄ?nik, 17.

Figure 4 | Detail of metal rivets on flag pole base (1921-25). Prague Castle Administration, Josip PleÄ?nik, 213.


Figure 5 | Architectural palimpsest of Prague Castle Third Courtyard (1921-25). Prague Castle Administration, Josip PleÄ?nik, 341.

Figure 6 | Third Courtyard (1927-32). Prague Castle Administration, Josip PleÄ?nik, 330-1.


Figure 7 | Archeological excavation of the Third Courtyard (1926). Prague Castle Administration, Josip PleÄ?nik, 316.

Figure 8 | Reinforced concrete slab protecting the excavation site. Prague Castle Administration, Josip PleÄ?nik, 347.


Figure 9 | St. George Fountain surround (1929-30). Prague Castle Administration, Josip Plečnik, 342.

Figure 10 | The Bastion Garden (1930-32). Prague Castle Administration, Josip Plečnik, 297.

Figure 11 | Circular Bastion Garden Stairs (1930). Prague Castle Administration, Josip Plečnik, 301.


Figure 12 | Detail drawings of the balustrades in the Bastion Garden (1932-33) Prague Castle Administration, Josip PleÄ?nik, 307.


Figure 13 | Plečnik’s arrangement of the Prague Castle grounds and gardens (illustration by T. Valena). Prague Castle Administration, Josip Plečnik, 270.

Figure 14 | Moravian Bastion (1922-23) Prague Castle Administration, Josip Plečnik, 240.


Figure 15 | Rampart Garden (1923-26). Prague Castle Administration, Josip Plečnik, 238-9.

Figure 16 | Plan and section of The Bellevue (1923-24). Prague Castle Administration, Josip Plečnik, 234.


Figure 17 | Look-Out Terrace (1924-25). Prague Castle Administration, Josip PleÄ?nik, 166-7.


Figure 18 | Slavata Moument (1925). Prague Castle Administration, Josip PleÄ?nik, 193.


Figure 19 | Paradise Garden stairs. Exit is in top left corner, but not visible from this view (1921-25). Prague Castle Administration, Josip PleÄ?nik, 69.

Figure 20 | Granite Basin and view over Paradise Garden (1923-25). Prague Castle Administration, Josip PleÄ?nik, 73.



Anthony Alofsin, When Buildings Speak: Architecture as Language in the Habsburg Empire and Its Aftermath, 1867-1933. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. Caroline Constant, "A landscape 'fit for a democracy' Jož Plenik at Prague Castle (1920-1935)," in Jan Birksted, ed., Relating Architecture to Landscape. London: E & FN Spon, 1999, 11337. Jan Frolík and Petr Chotěbor, "Archeological Survey," in Josip Plečnik - An Architect of Prague Castle. Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1996, 317-320. Google Maps, (accessed April 21, 2016). Peter Krečič, Plečnik: The Complete Works. London: Academy Editions, 1993. Christopher Long, "Jože Plečnik in Vienna and Prague, 1900-1921: The Search for Architectural and Cultural Identity," Slovene Studies 18, no. 2, 1996, 171-179. Boris Podrecca, "Columns, Walls, Space," in François Burkhardt, Claude Eveno, and Boris Podrecca, ed., Carol Volk, trans., Jože Plečnik, Architect: 1872-1957. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989, 166-185. Prague Castle Administration, Josip Plečnik - An Architect of Prague Castle. Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1996., Statue of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, (accessed April 21, 2016). Damjan Prelovšek, Jože Plečnik: 1872-1957, Achitectura Perennis, Patricia Crampton and Eillen Martin, trans. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. Vladimir Šlapeta, "Jože Plečnik and Prague" in François Burkhardt, Claude Eveno, and Boris Podrecca, ed., Carol Volk, trans., Jože Plečnik, Architect: 1872-1957. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989, 82-99. Tomáš Valena, "Courtyards and Gardens: Plečnik’s interventions in the context of Prague Castle," in Josip Plečnik - An Architect of Prague Castle. Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1996, 285-287. Tomáš Vlček, "Modernism as a Means to Achieve Democracy: T.G. Masaryk and Josip Plečnik," in Josip Plečnik - An Architect of Prague Castle. Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1996, 41-47.


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