Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pavel's Prague, Part II: Grand Cafe Orient

Recently I asked my friend, ballet dancer Pavel Pisan, to show me his three extraordinary cafes in Prague. I knew that Pavel would know some really divine places and he did not disappoint. It's such a pleasure, I think, to show off and get to share your own culture. Do you know what you would show off where you live, gentle blog reader? What would you want a visitor to go away raving about?

We started our cafe tour at Cafe Emporio on Jindrisska. The second place Pavel took me to was so architecturally interesting. The cafe is housed in the House of the Black Madonna. Could a building name be more mysterious? More alluring? The House of the Black Madonna was designed by Josef Gocar, the Czech cubist architect whose work I fell in love with at Legio Bank.

Josef Gocar's House of the Black Madonna,
in Old Town Prague
at the corner of Celetna and Ovocny Trh

It was the first example
of Cubist architecture in Prague.

While Josef Gocar is appreciated today,
the authorities were worried back in 1911
that he would design something
that didn't fit into the neighborhood.

He incorporated this Black Madonna
from the baroque buildings that were on this site
into his design, honoring rather than
repudiating, what came before.

The Czechs know how to take any functional object
and increase the pleasure it gives
just by the way it's presented.

Here is a scrollwork detail
from the outside lamp.

The House of the Black Madonna
houses not only the cafe that was our destination,
but the Museum of Czech Cubism
and a display of Czech cubist art
curated by the Czech Museum of Fine Arts.
Alas, I haven't seen those two parts yet.
I simply must come back.

We had come to see the Grand Cafe Orient,
the only surviving Cubist interior in the world.

Won't you join us inside?

The view out the cafe windows
of the surrounding art deco and baroque
buildings along the old coronation route
that is Celetna Street.

Notice there are no supporting pillars in the room,
Gocar's innovation was building with
a reinforced concrete skeleton
eliminating the need for ceiling supports.

The renovation of this space
was all based on photographs of the
original cafe.

Czechs consider Gocar
their greatest architect
from the 20th century.

Me too.

If you saw Prague,
you'd know that what
an incredible accomplishment that is.
The competition was steep.

Everywhere else in the world,
Cubism was expressed in painting and sculpture
(think Picasso).

It was only in Czechoslovakia,
where artists of the period
expressed Cubism in other mediums too:
architecture, furniture, and decorative arts.

Cotton bolls decorate

this cubist vase.

Unfortunately, we couldn't stay to have
a cup of coffee here because the secondhand smoke
was so overpowering it felt toxic just to be in the room.

Czechs smoke like factory chimneys.
Candles aren't enough.

After Cafe Emporio,
the feeling from the cafe inhabitants here
was low energy.

Pavel was disappointed that a site
of such national significance
could be so indifferent to the customer experience
and sort of take it for granted.

He said,
"maybe it's best to come in the summertime,
it's fun to sit out on the balcony
and watch the people below."
I was grateful to just have seen it!

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