Rudolfinum. The House of Artists in the true sense of the word, both in the purpose to which it is dedicated as well as in its monumental noble building and also in its location, in a quiet corner of the Crown Prince Rudolf embankment, opposite the lovely orchards of Letná. And it is a center of musical and fine arts especially, for, in its beautiful concert hall, the most famous Prague concerts are held and, in its halls, all the larger exhibitions of paintings are held.

Letem český světem, 1898 [1]


How It All Began

The construction of Rudolfinum as a multi-purpose building, the concept of which was unprecedented at the time, was initiated by the Böhmische Sparkasse (Czech Savings Bank). Founded in 1825, the oldest monetary institution in the Czech Kingdom decided to celebrate its 50th anniversary by donating 400,000 guldens to an as yet unspecified charitable cause.

The then director of the institution, Wenzel Worowka the Knight, persuaded his colleagues on the board to direct the money to support the visual art and music. The planned venture was intended to affect all clients of the savings bank, regardless of nationality or social class. And the art was seen as a common good for all people. On 19 November 1872, the general meeting of the Savings Bank approved the construction of the House of Artists and preparations for the project could begin.

The construction of the chain footbridge, also called the Rudolf or Iron Footbridge, began in July 1868 and, by the end of November 1869, the first Prague residents had already been walking along it. The footbridge stood just a few meters downstream from today's Mánes Bridge. After its completion, it was dismantled in 1914. Photo: Prague City archive.

A plot of land on the right bank of the Vltava river, exactly opposite Prague Castle, was chosen as the site for the new building. The site, referred to as a "rayard", was then "an inner periphery where low buildings, enclosures and other structures related to wood storage, saltpeter production, and other economic purposes rose from the irregular natural bank" [2].

The transformation of the whole area began with the construction of the chain gangway between 1868 and 1869. This was followed by the purchase and demolition of the old waterfront houses and, in a few years’ time, the footbridge was followed by the Rudolfinum construction (from June 1876), the waterfront redevelopment (1878), the construction of the School of Applied Arts (1882) and the Museum of Decorative Arts (1897). In the 1920s, the building of the Faculty of Arts of Charles University completed the image of the place, this "island of art and education".

View of the Old Town bank in 1872. The footbridge is now in its third year of use, with work on the embankment at the Monastery of the Knights of the Cross (right) and the area to the left of the footbridge entrance turned into a plot of land. Photo Prague City archive.
Crown prince Rudolf in 1887.
Photo: Schönbrunn Palace

Why is Rudolfinum Called Rudolfinum?

Already in 1873, the savings bank decided to name the new art stand after the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Rudolf. The building itself was intended as an expression of loyalty to the Habsburg family and the Austrian monarchy. Furthermore, the young archduke was very popular at the time. However, another member of the Habsburg family, the art-loving emperor Rudolf II, was also kept in mind when choosing the name of the building. To make matters more related to Rudolf, the adjacent embankment and the nearby chain footbridge had also born his name.


Architecture by Mr Zítek and Schulz

The savings bank announced an architectural competition, inviting a number of prominent architects of the time. In June 1874, it received 8 competition proposals, including a joint project by Josef Zítek and Josef Schulz. Although the expert jury did not choose a winner, the savings bank took advantage of its privileged position as the investor of the whole event and chose the design by the Czech architects for implementation. They considered its redesign to be the simplest.

Zítek and Schulz went on a study tour of Germany, France, Belgium, and England at their own expense, visiting important concert halls and galleries and consulting leading experts of the time on various architectural issues. In Bayreuth, they even met Richard Wagner and discussed in detail the problems of acoustics in concert halls. In April 1875, they submitted revised plans and, in May 1876, they submitted a detailed design. Nothing stood in the way of the construction.


Opening Ceremony

The Rudolfinum opening ceremony was supposed to take place on 24 January 1885, but was postponed due to the Crown Prince Rudolf’s illness. In the end, the savings bank decided to hold the ceremony on 7 February 1885, even though Rudolf could not come again (he did not see the building until April). Nevertheless, the opening ceremony was a great event. In the presence of the director of the savings bank, the two architects and the Prague honorarium, the guests toured the old masters' picture Gallery, the halls of the Museum of Decorative Arts and everything culminated in a gala concert. The first piece performed was Ludwig van Beethoven's Consecration of the House.

The Czech press was ambivalent about the opening of the new cultural stand, completed only shortly after the National Theater. While journalists hailed the "beautiful palace" and "monumental building", they also complained that few Czech artists participated in the opening ceremony and few Czech compositions were performed. The escalation of national disputes over Rudolfinum came in 1891, along with a competition to decorate the hitherto empty spaces of the hall. Prominent Czech-speaking painters were upset that the savings bank did not contact them solely and that the jury included too many professors from the Vienna Academy. They therefore refused to enter the competition. Of the fourteen designs eventually submitted, three were selected as winners, but they never materialized. The fields of the hall are therefore without an artistic decoration and will remain so.

The Czech press of the time also used national rhetoric. Rudolfinum and the events held there were often a welcome subject of satire and irony, as the cartoon from Humoristické listy of March 1885 shows.
At Rudolfinum, in the then-house of artists, it was crowded as if an apple would not drop! Across the frontal space which the brightness of the arched electric lamps was illuminating, reflecting sharply from the black shadows of the surrounding park, the labyrinthine ruins of the Old Town redevelopment and the gloomy dens of the Fifth Quarter and the ghostly arches of the iron footbridge under which streams of rushing waters were humming, carriages rumbling, and throngs of elegant spectators were rushing towards the magnificent concert hall...

Ladislav Kukla / Noční Prahou, 1927 [5]

Rudolfinum on one of the postcards of the time. On the right, where the Museum of Decorative Arts building stands today, we can still see old houses. The photograph for the postcard was probably taken several years before 1897 when the construction of the museum began.


When Europe was dancing the waltz

After Rudolfinum was opened, it became the seat of the Picture Gallery (founded by the Society of Patriotic Friends of Arts, the predecessor of the National Gallery), the music conservatory (backed by the Unity for the Enhancement of Music in Bohemia) and the Museum of Decorative Arts (founded by the Chamber of Commerce and Trade). The Böhmische Sparkasse entered a contract with all three institutions for the free use of the building as long as they served their purpose, i.e. promotion of art. The building was also the venue for the annual exhibitions of the Art Association, occasionally supplemented by exhibitions of purely German-language art associations.

The Rudolfinum Concert Hall was regularly hosting the National Theater Orchestra, the conservatory orchestra and a number of guest ensembles and soloists. On Saturday 4 January 1896, Rudolfinum also witnessed the first ever concert by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Antonín Dvořák himself took the stage as as conductor to perform his own compositions: the Slavonic Rhapsody No.3 in A flat major, the world premiere of Biblical Songs Nos. 1-5, the Othello overture and the then-world-famous 9th Symphony From the New World.

Today, then, the long-standing wish of all our musical circles will finally be realized; the concert period is to be enriched by a steady number of orchestral productions, a rosy perspective for the future is opening up for Czech composers, their orchestral works will no longer languish in the depths of their desks... (...) In a joyful mood, we will enter the splendid rooms of Rudolfinum today and we wish that all the hopes held by the founders of the philharmonic concerts were fulfilled in the most splendid way and, at the same time, were in complete harmony with the aspirations of all those for whom the flowering of domestic art is a sacred thing.

Karel Knittl / Dalibor, 1896 [6]

Military convalescents in front of the carriage ride to Rudofinum in 1914. Photo: Prague City Archive.


In the Service of the Republic

A famous quote says that war undermines the creative spirit. This was also true for Rudolfinum which, during the war, was an infirmary for wounded soldiers. The muses did not return here after 1918, however. With the new republic, the need to find decent premises for the Chamber of Deputies of the National Assembly arose. And Rudolfinum proved to be the best possible choice.

It was occupied by the state administration together with the adjacent building of the Academické Gymnázium high school (today the seat of the Prague Conservatory) on 1 September 1919. The two buildings were connected by a bridge in the same year, which served here until the reconstruction in the early 1990s. The adaptation of Rudolfinum itself took place intermittently between 1919 and 1932, mainly under the direction of architects Václav Roštlapil and Rudolf Kříženecký, and involved considerable changes in the function and appearance of the interiors in particular.

In the first phase, the stage was aligned with the concert hall, and, a little later, the organ was also removed. The loggias, galleries and lounges were modified. Alterations in the lobby and foyer, together with the connection between the north and east wings of the building, allowed better communication between the different parts of the Chamber. The creation of space for the facilities of the deputies' clubs and the newly established dining room led to the lowering of ceilings and to the building of partitions in the halls and rooms in the Rudolfinum gallery part.

The Chamber of Deputies was meeting at Rudolfinum from 1919 to 1939. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was elected president of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1920, 1927 and 1934, and Emil Hácha in 1938.

Prague's Rudolfinum–the new chamber of the Czechoslovak Republic–took over the role of the royal castle where Czech kings used to be crowned and enthroned–the magnificent feat was relegated from the heights of Hradčany to the democratic lowlands on the right bank of Vltava, in the center of Prague, and became a symbol of the popular and democratic state.

Světozor, 1920 [7]

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk arrives at Rudolfinum, 1928.
Photo: Prague City Archive.
On the stage of today's Dvořák Hall, there stood the presidential rostrum and above it a marble statue of President Masaryk by Jan Štursa.
Photo: Prague City Archive.
The hall was used as a dining room for MPs.
Photo: City of Prague Museum.


Under the Rule of the Third Reich

The functional and artistic rehabilitation of the Rudolfinum was brought about–somewhat paradoxically–by the years of World War II. The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was no longer seen as a self-governing entity and there was no longer a need for a base for political representation.

Preparations for the "return" of Rudolfinum to German art had been underway since 1939. However, the opening of concert operations was constantly delayed due to costly reconstruction. It was not until 16 October 1941 that Rudolfinum was inaugurated by the acting Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich.

Although only a torso of the original plans remained, the modifications carried out between 1940 and 1942 meant that the concert hall was returned to its original purpose–albeit for the German Philharmonic Orchestra which was active in Bohemia until 1945.

The architects Bohumír Kozák and Zítek's tutee Antonín Engel restored the function and decoration of the concert stage and hall and also focused on improving its acoustics, which had been criticized since the beginning of the concert activity. An important creative act was the establishment of a small concert hall on the ground floor, today called the Suk Hall, which corresponds in its conception and decoration to the original Rudolfinum decoration.

Front page of the Večer daily, 17 October 1941. Nazi propaganda ensured a considerable media coverage of the opening ceremony. The newspapers reprinted Heydrich's speech which gave a distorted picture of the building's history, criticized its use for the needs of the Czechoslovak Parliament and saw the reasons for its decline in the influence of the Jewish people.


“Toward a Happy Tomorrow”–Artistic and Educational Tasks

...preparing for the performance in the Small Hall. After the warm-up in the year class, the concert followed. On the way up the staircase, it was necessary to greet passing distinguished professors in a distinctive and courteous manner, to listen to a duet of practising trumpeters or trombonists in the men's restroom, to peer through a crack in the ballet department for inspiration, to cross a connecting bridge with two or three violinists also practising for tomorrow's "chamber". Hold the door and respectfully greet professor Karel Pravoslav Sádlo’s passing straight figure... (...) Look around the gym and look forward to tomorrow's rope climbing and fencing lessons with professor and 1948 London Olympics quarter-finalist Svatopluk Skýva. Then just wait in awe in the back room under the photographs of famous quartets for long minutes until I play.

...preparing for the performance in the Small Hall. After the warm-up in the year class, the concert followed. On the way up the staircase, it was necessary to greet passing distinguished professors in a distinctive and courteous manner, to listen to a duet of practising trumpeters or trombonists in the men's restroom, to peer through a crack in the ballet department for inspiration, to cross a connecting bridge with two or three violinists also practising for tomorrow's "chamber". Hold the door and respectfully greet professor Karel Pravoslav Sádlo’s passing straight figure... (...) Look around the gym and look forward to tomorrow's rope climbing and fencing lessons with professor and 1948 London Olympics quarter-finalist Svatopluk Skýva. Then just wait in awe in the back room under the photographs of famous quartets for long minutes until I play.

conservatory former student, violist Libor Nováček / Opera PLUS 2016 [8]

In February 1951, the 2nd Plenary Congress of the Czechoslovak Composers' Union was held at Rudolfinum.
On 11 May 1946, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra opened the first edition of the Prague Spring Festival at Rudolfinum. The concert was conducted by the orchestra's then-chief conductor Rafael Kubelík. The Dvořák Hall continued to host Prague Spring concerts in the following years and decades and a large part of the festival program takes place here today.
Prague Spring 1962. The statue of J. V. Stalin looking down from the Letná district in the background. The granite sculpture, the largest in Europe then, "decorated" Prague for several more months before it was blasted and demolished in November of the same year.
Tatra cars in front of Rudolfinum. The legendary 603 luxury cars reveal the presence of government officials in more than usual numbers. It is Saturday September 30, 1961, and the ceremony for the meeting of the International Red Cross highest bodies is taking place in the Dvořák Hall. And, from the Krasnoarmeytsy Square stop, the no less legendary Tatra T1 streetcar of line No. 17 departs and goes on and on along the embankment to the Bráník district.


Great Reconstruction

During the 1970s and 1980s, the building's poor condition became increasingly apparent. After Rudolfinum was declared a national cultural monument in April 1989, there was an even greater need for a general reconstruction, but also for the installation of new technical equipment, air conditioning, cooling and security systems, a gas boiler room, etc. The reconstruction, which took place between 1990 and 1992, was entrusted to the architect Karel Prager’s team. He undertook to respect the original concept by architects Josef Zítek and Josef Schulz as much as possible.

The restoration was carried out with the utmost reverence for the monument. Even from today's point of view, it is an example of a very successful reconstruction that has not been surpassed in many respects. The only downside of the whole event was the modifications of the surroundings–the construction of garages under Jan Palach Square, with the entrance on Alšovo nábřeží near the entrance to the gallery and with unsightly ventilation in the middle of the square. Their construction is one of the obstacles that have prevented change of the unsatisfactory appearance and functionality of Palach Square.

After its reopening on 14 May 1992, Rudolfinum was fully returned to the muses to whom it had been dedicated from the beginning. The main user of the building today is the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, while the restored premises in the northern part of the building have been used for exhibition purposes by the Rudolfinum Gallery since 1994.

After 2000

In the New Millenium

Since 2012, the building has been undergoing modifications in response to the needs of domestic institutions and the development of technological possibilities. In 2016, the Suk Hall was significantly transformed towards greater variability in the layout of the hall (mobile seating) and the acoustics of the entire space was significantly improved. The sound parameters of the hall were also improved and the Cafe Rudolfinum interior was transformed. An economically important project became the energy saving project, during which the Freon cooling machines were replaced by new units, the roof over the Dvořák Hall, the auditorium and the exhibition halls were insulated.

In 2018, a television studio was built to record and broadcast Czech Philharmonic concerts in 4K resolution. The operation of the studio is also connected with the modernization of the stage lighting in the Dvořák Hall. The vestibule and foyer of the music part of the building, as well as the two corner lounges, have undergone minor and major changes. The right-hand one, closer to the Vltava river, was transformed into the Jiří Bělohlávek Listening Lounge. The left one, above the main ticket office, is the Czech Philharmonic Souvenir Shop. The Rudolfinum roof is currently being reconstructed. The terrace should open to the public in 2023.

Visualization of the Rudolfinum terrace.

Sources and Literature

  1. Letem Českým světem. Pul tisíce fotograf. pohledů z Čech, Moravy, Slezska a Slovenska. Praha: J. R. Vilímek 1898, s. 233
  2. BIEGEL, Richard: Od Rejdiště k „ostrovu umění“. Rudolfinum a urbanismus moderní Prahy. In: BACHTÍK, Jakub; DUCHEK, Lukáš; JAREŠ, Jakub (eds.): Chrám umění. Rudolfinum. Praha: Česká filharmonie, Národní památkový ústav, Národní technické muzeum 2020, s. 18
  3. Autor neuveden: Otevření „Rudolfina“. Dalibor 1885, č. 6 (14. 2.), s. 53
  4. Autor neuveden: O průmyslných muzejích. Národní listy 1889, č. 316 (15. 11.), s. 2
  5. KUKLA, Ladislav: Noční Prahou. Praha: Granát 1927, s. 293–294
  6. KNITTL, Karel: K zahájení koncertů „České filharmonie“. Dalibor 1896, č. 1–2 (4. 1.), s. 1
  7. Autor neuveden: Volba presidenta T. G. Masaryka dle nové ústavy. Světozor 1920, č. 40 (9. 6.), s. 2
  8. NOVÁČEK, Libor: Genius loci: Rudolfinum – Sukova síň. Znovuotevřená a s novým klavírem. Opera PLUS 2016. Dostupné online