History of Housing in Bohemia: Residences in the Czech Republic

Architecture in the Czech Republic dates back to around the ninth century. It was around this period of time in which Slavic tribes settled in the valley of the Vltava River, creating what is now the city of Prague in the state of Bohemia. The people of the area built housing around the palace of their ruling family and on the banks of the Vltava, in order to create shelter for themselves as a means to live. By the time of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the residents of Prague were still living in the same burgher townhouses that were built in the Medieval time period, although they had undergone stylistic renovating (Pavitt #).

The burgher houses in Prague were built from local materials. Builders used mainly stone and brick, and stucco and plaster. Sandstone and limestone are the most prevalent indigenous stone in the Bohemian area, therefore more widely used because it is cheaper and more available than imported alternatives such as marble (Pavlik & Uher #). Stone and brick give the houses structural support and create walls. Both the exterior and interior of the townhouse walls were frequently covered with variating thicknesses of stucco (Pavlik & Uher #). Stucco is a plaster made from a limestone base, giving the walls a white color, which could be left bare or covered in a colored paint. Roofs were supported by ceiling rafters and joists made of wooden beams, and generally built in either gable, hip, or combination styles. The material sheathing the roof is brick material, known as “pantiles,” made of clay and formed with ridging (Pavlik & Uher #) that aid in directing water runoff. Wood is also used in the construction of these houses in Prague, but its use, besides in the ceiling, is usually less structural. Wood is found in trims and as steps and doors, plus in furniture construction for the houses’ interiors.

The materials used to build townhouses in Prague were beneficial to the inhabitants. Their houses have lasted since the Medieval period, with seventeenth century rebuilding and remodeling. The stone construction has proved more durable than other materials such as wood, especially since the Vltava River underwent seasonal flooding frequently until dams were built in the twentieth century ( v cha #). While damage still occurred to the floor levels covered by the water, and stucco finishes needed repairing, the structural stone and brick generally remained steadfast and the townhouses stayed standing.

Heating and venting systems in the townhouses of seventeenth and eighteenth century Prague were still relatively basic. Deep set windows could be opened to allow air circulation in the house. The thick stone or brick walls needed to support the multiple-storied houses also served to insulate the interiors well. Heating the house was performed by coal or wood ovens ( v cha #), or fireplaces. Sun is shielded by the inset of the windows, as well as interior draperies, and the surrounding houses, which were not all the same height. Water is stopped from entering by glass windowpanes and the aforementioned pantile roofs, which were built with not only vertical ridging, but small eaves, in order to facilitate better water runoff.

Prague burgher houses have multiple floors, and tend to be three to five stories in height. The richer the family building the house was, the more floors they could afford to construct. The presence of a basement was not uncommon, and they were built with vaulted ceilings (Pavitt #). Typically, the first level of a townhouse would be the more public spaces, such as a kitchen, a dining area, and sitting rooms. Bedrooms were situated against each other with no corridor ( v cha #). The reason for this is that hallways wasted space and were unnecessary, since privacy was not deemed necessary in Bohemia at this time. It was culturally acceptable to walk through the bedrooms of other family members to enter a specific bedroom. If the family was wealthy enough and there was enough space available, balconies overlooking streets or courtyards were built. Although streets had names at this point in time, houses were not yet numbered. Because of this, houses were referred to by the ornamented motif that was sometimes installed on the face of specific townhouses. Examples of this is the “House of the Red Lion” and the “House of the Green Lobster” (Pavitt #).

The Czech Republic, which was the kingdom of Bohemia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was a serfdom. This means that most of the poor of the country were bound to more rural areas, while those who could afford to own a house in urban Prague were mostly either merchants or nobility not wealthy enough for a palace. This accounts for the various sizing of the townhouses. The more wealthy the owner, the bigger the plot of land that could be bought and the taller the house could be built. Entire generations would live in a house, not just nuclear families. This is why there was a need for several bedrooms. Since these townhouses were a kind of status symbol, it was important to their owners that they lived in fashionably styled housing. This means that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Prague townhouses were heavily dominated by a Czech variation of Baroque style. This style was reflected in the interiors of the housing with carved, substantial furniture and heavy, expensive draperies ( v cha #). Rhythm and curvature also played an important role in the style (Pavlik & Uher, #). The repetition of windows against the background of a simple stucco wall is an example of rhythm. Curvature in the architecture dripped down from the high fashion of the churches and secular palaces, which were built with rounded balconies, vaulting, and arches. The assignment by history books of this period architecture as Baroque means little though, since little actually changed in the houses since they were constructed in the Medieval time period besides perhaps facades and furniture. An especially good case study of the use of rhythm and curvature in this Baroque style of the Prague townhouses are staircases (Pavlik & Uher, #). The even sizing of well-designed rises and treads of steps present repetitive rhythm to the eye, as well as being easier on which to walk. Staircases would also usually contain curves, which served several purposes besides being purely stylish. Curved or spiraling staircases are harder, and therefore more expensive to build, and therefore can be seen as another status symbol. A major benefit to the curved staircases was that the stairwell took up much less space in the floor plan of the townhouse. This meant that there was more space for actual rooms on which to be situated.

In the Czech Republic, specifically the city of Prague in the state of Bohemia, many citizens lived with their families in burgher townhouses if they had the financial means to do so. These rows of houses were built mainly of different bricks, stone, and stucco, modeled and remodeled into a Baroque style during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The townhouses of Prague could sometimes represent status, but above all, functioned to provide shelter to their residents.

References Kadlek, Frantisek. (1999). Zlat Ulicka. Prague: Spr va Prazsk ho hradu. Pavitt, Jane. (2000). The Buildings of Europe: Prague. New York: Manchester University Press. Pavlik, Milan, and Uher, Vladimir. (1977). Dialogue of Forms: Prague Baroque Architecture. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Ryb r, Ctibor. (1975). Praha: Pruvodce, Informace, Fakta. Prague: Olympia. Stalet Praha. (1990). Stalet Praha: Pam tky Prazsk ho Venkova. Prague: Panorama. v cha, Rostislav. (1995). The Architecture of New Prague. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

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