BOOKS / In the Frame: Prague: Hidden splendours

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
UNASHAMEDLY a picture book, and one for the tourist season at that, Prague: Hidden Splendours (Flammarion pounds 19.95) is a survey by Marketa Theinhardt and Pascal Varejka of the city Rainer Maria Rilke called an 'epic poem of architecture'. That is a tribute both sufficiently grandiose and abundantly vague: whether it's the kind of epic poem you like is another matter. But there's no doubt that Prague's style is all its own, at the same time as being a meeting-point of great waves of European influences.

Since the book seems to be, more than anything, a vehicle for Pavel Stecha's succulent (although rather formal) photographs, the text is brief - what there is, though, goes for the bold approach, and doesn't shirk from cutting great swathes across the complexities of the region's history to make its chiefly art-historical points. There's the inevitable start, with Romanesque and Gothic architecture, but already a small surprise: a quadrangular vaulted room which was the original ground floor (though now below street level) of a three-storey Romanesque house - one of several in a style unique in Europe. The Late Gothic and Renaissance brings in the multifarious wonders of Prague Castle, moving into the Baroque. If, like me, you find the experience of High Baroque roughly equivalent to being crawled over by millions of (brightly gilded) worms, the restrained version of the style in, say, the Wallenstein Palace will come as a relief.

There are the obvious public buildings lavishly presented here - the gold-and-plush National Theatre ('the culmination of the process of 'national revival' that fuelled Czech nationalism' throughout the 19th century); churches, monasteries and synagogues, a bank and an embassy or two (the British copped a corker), as well as the astonishing Klementium, a vast college with a library, observatory and many other buildings established by the Jesuits and expanded over several centuries. Even the Post Office Museum, in most cities the sort of sight-seeing excursion you would pay to miss, is housed in an exquisite cream and lime confection of a house with painted wall-panels of romanticised landscapes in flirty, rococo-ish frames.

There are domestic interiors, too: Art Nouveau curlicues, blackened wood and cluttered walls in the warmth of Alfons Mucha's house, built in 1414, renovated in the baroque, which then became the home of Mucha, an artist who was a master of the Art Nouveau. Or the singing lines of the early geometric Modernism in the house of publisher Jan Laichter, built in 1908-9, in which functionalism is contentedly married to the ascetic decoration of natural materials. And for visitors to the real city, there is a section at the back with addresses, opening times, and potted information about all these buildings.

It is perfect - almost. The city, in this book, is transformed into a lavish, decorative architecture lesson in 3-D, every setting artfully lit, impeccably angled, without a single chip on the paintwork or a single human being in sight. What of the real city, I longed to know, as opposed to this perfectly manicured fantasy? Where are the people, where do they walk, eat, catch trains? Glossy pictures have their place, of course - perhaps even more for the armchair sightseer than for the footsore, real-life kind. But why does a display, let alone a discussion, of beauty have to be so impossibly well scrubbed? Like Philip Larkin, who claimed to hate students because they would insist on using the books in his library, these buildings seem, with their haughty air, to regard human beings as a nuisance.

(Photograph omitted)