During the second quarter of the 20th century, a change in building technique and a new found preference for mass produced objects led architects to a new style which sought to strip away any unnecessary ornamentation from a building, celebrating instead the clean, straight lines of the pure, albeit cold geometrical shapes.
Prague had been one of the main centres where this new architectural concept developed. In 1927 a competition was set in search for the best of modern Czech architecture to create the church of St. Wenceslas, commemorating a millennium since the saint’s death. Although quite different from the original competition wining proposal, Josef Gočár’s building completed in 1930 resulted in a great work of architecture and a place well suited to the celebration of the Eucharist, showing integrity towards liturgical needs and architectural quality.
Church of St. Wenceslas, entrance Photo: Dominika Macková
Built on a sloping site, the church follows the contours of the hilly terrain, expressed architecturally in its exterior. The entrance is framed by simple, rectangular columns, plain walls and the flat roof above, from which rises a tall and slender bell tower. The roof continues at the same level round the sides, over the aisles, side chapels, sacristy and auxiliary rooms behind, forming a base to the nave which gradually ascends and culminates in the chancel.
Church of St. Wenceslas, stepped roof Photo: Dominika Macková
Internally, the space is divided into three aisles of relatively equal sizes. An important element of novelty is that the space narrows towards the chancel, thus accentuating the perceived depth of the church while emphasising the sanctuary and the high altar. In total there are five altars: the first two are on the same level with the nave, then a set of steps separates another pair of side altars and finally a second set of steps elevates the chancel with the high altar and the tabernacle.
The church’s interior is impressive in its simplicity, with the round apse and converging walls bringing the congregation into the heart of the liturgy. The sculptural roof is formed by four stepped layers, separated by large windows facing south and illuminating the building with gradual intensities, increasing towards the chancel which receives most light. The tall windows of the apse curve around the altar to introduce a moderate amount of softer light and imbue the sanctuary with a feeling of intangibility. By contrast, the side walls disappear in the shadow of the low ceilings above.
Church of St. Wenceslas, apse Photo: Dominika Macková
Faithful to the modernist precepts, the structure of the church expresses its function truthfully, without ornament. Built using a skeletal frame of reinforced concrete with masonry curtain walls, the concrete trusses eliminate the necessity of columns thus freeing the internal space and improving visibility and acoustics.
With a seemingly effortless structure and despite the unassuming exterior, the church of St. Wenceslas by Josef Gočár has a certain solemnity about its interior, achieved using little more than volume, light and space.
*Note: Many thanks to Dominika Macková who has kindly given her time to photograph the building.