Friday, 5 August 2016

Villa Rothmayer in Prague. Modest, elegant, enchanting and complex

The beautiful home of a talented but obscure early modern Czech architect

Have you ever heard of the Czech architect Otto Rothmayer? If you haven’t it’s not surprising. When I tried to look for background information for this post, everything I found on Google was in Czech. On our recent trip to Prague, we learnt about the house he built, and managed to book a visit. It was amazing.

What follows is based on what I remember from the guided visit, supplemented by a few bits and pieces I found online.

Otto Rothmayer (1892 - 1966) began his working life as a carpenter, but then decided to go into architecture. I didn’t realise you could do that sort of thing in those days, but there you are. He studied in Prague under Jože Plečník, the architect responsible for renovations at Prague Castle. Rothmayer later became Plečník’s assistant at the castle, where he continued to work or many years.

The Villa Rothmayer was built between 1928 and 1929, and is located in the suburbs of Prague, and is modest in scale. From the street, you see a well-proportioned, symmetrical façade. It's not particularly striking, and easily overlooked.

The entrance is the to side, underneath a covered courtyard that looks out into the garden. The plan is symmetrical, with a central circular staircase. The house is smaller than it looks from the outside, as the building is not very deep.

This is the elegant spiral staircase, within a concrete cylinder. It reminded me of the one in Goldfinger's house at 2 Willow Road in Hampstead, which I had visited quite recently.

The interior was charming. The furnishings were predominantly of varnished wood, much of it made by the architect himself, who, as you recall, had started off as a carpenter. He and his wife had separate bedrooms, which were also their workspaces.

Otto's wife, Božena (1899 - 1984), was a well-known fabric designer, and a thoroughly modern woman, who cut her hair short and wore trousers. Their son Jan (1932 - 2010) was an electrical engineer and photographer, who installed all manner of gadgets and monitoring systems around the house.

To make the best use of the limited space, there were clever devices like concealed cabinets, and space-saving furniture with panels that slid or swung in or out so that their use could be modified.  Rothmayer was a great collector of stuff, some of which was on display. The rest was in a room in the basement where the curators are sorting it out. There were many things I would have liked to have photographed but this was not permitted inside the house.

The garden was magical. Instead of formal sculpture, various bricks, tiles, pots and other simple objects were arranged in beautiful assemblies.

Photography was allowed outside, where I did take some pictures.

Here, with the house in the background, you can see the cylindrical element which houses the staircase

And here are some details:

It certainly gave me food for thought with regard to my own garden.

The famous one-armed photographer Josef Sudek was a good friend of the family, and he took many photographs of the house and its garden. Here are a few of them:

The Rothmayer family survived the second world war unscathed (they were not Jewish, as I thought they might have been), and managed to stay on in their house through the communist period. After the death of their son, the house was was given to the city as a museum.

The Villa Tugendhat in Brno, which I visited during the same trip, was magnificent, the house of a tycoon. The nearby Villa Müller, deigned by Adolf Loos, is another grand house (which I also visited, and might write about later). The Villa Rothmayer, in contrast, was the modest home of a professional couple and their son, but equally fascinating, and really worth a visit.

For another visitor's account of a visit (which I used to jog my memory), see
Tracy's Travels: Rothmayer Villa Diary

Villa Rothmayer
U Páté baterie 896
162 00 Prague 6 ‒ Břevnov
Open on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday
Tours start: 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m. .
"Visit of the villa is only possible by prior reservation!" ... and only 7 people are allowed in at any one time. See website

(Combined ticket available for the Villa Rothmayer and Villa Müller. Highly recommended)

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