From St Martin’s rotunda to the Obecní dům (municipal house), the towering castle to the cathedral, Prague is one of Europe’s most historic cities, where there seem to be echoes of the past in every cobbled street and handsome square. The city’s architecture is a rich melting pot of styles – Romanesque, Gothic, baroque, art nouveau and more – and what makes exploring Prague all the more appealing is that its buildings aren’t just relics of bygone times. They are living, breathing spaces that contain must-visit restaurants, cafés and boutiques, allowing visitors to become part of a new page in their history.
The early 20th century was an important time for Prague in terms of art and design. This was when the Czech cubist style flourished; people such as architect Josef Gočár, sculptor Otto Gutfreund and painter Emil Filla, inspired by what was happening across Europe, created distinctive angular artworks and buildings. Today, Kubista is a standard bearer of this movement. As well as acting as an exhibition space, the gallery also sells modern pieces influenced by classic Czech cubism, from angular teapots to candle-holders and furniture.
What makes a visit to Kubista even more fascinating is the fact that it is in one of the most important buildings of the cubist movement. The Dům u Černé Matky Boží (the house of the black Madonna) was built in 1912 by Gočár; the first cubist structure in the city, it incorporated shops, a café – the opulent Grand Café Orient, which reopened in 2005 after an absence of 80 years – and apartments. The only vestige of the baroque building it replaced is the statue of a black Madonna and child on one corner, from which it takes its name.
On the opposite side of the Vltava, not far from the castle, is another shop with a unique ambience. Houpací Kůň – the rocking horse shop – is a treasure trove of retro toys, many made by hand in the Czech Republic. The thoughtfully chosen stock includes everything from wooden rocking horses to exquisite wind-up toys, any of which would please the fussiest customer. The sheer pleasure of browsing is only enhanced by the location, in an elegant 17th-century arcaded building on Loretánské náměstí, where its neighbours include the impressive Černín palace, Loreto and Capuchin monastery.
Architects of the past
More modern, but no less intriguing, is Černá Růže, which translates as ‘the black rose’. This glossy shopping centre, with its cult denim labels, beauty brands and hip fashion emporiums, has an intriguing past. It consists of two buildings connected by an arcade, all created at different times. The one whose Romantic façade overlooks Na Příkopě dates from the mid 19th century, and was designed by architect Jan Jindřich Frenzel as a house for his brother. It was by no means the first structure on the site, however; city records show there was a house here as early as 1377. Over the years, it was – among other things – the home of a fabulously wealthy burgher, part of the city’s university, a coaching inn and municipal salt house.
Designs for life
At the start of the 1930s, part of the back of the historic structure was demolished, to be replaced by a separate building and two-storey arcade – with a glass and concrete vaulted ceiling – by celebrated functionalist architect Oldřich Tyl. It’s this intriguing mix of architectural styles, immaculately restored in recent years, that makes shopping in Černá Růže – and Prague in general – such a rewarding experience.