This is the story of obsession with a building. It centres first on the man who built it, then on a man who was desperate to live in it, and finally on a man who saw living in it as the height of his career. Villa Petschek in Prague was the dream of the fabulously rich German-Jewish-Czech banker and coal-mine owner Otto Petschek, who conceived it after the end of the First World War. Possessed of seemingly limitless riches as a result of the postwar boom, Petschek dreamed up a house of insane eclecticism, paying tribute, as he saw it, to European architecture from ancient Greece and Rome through to the Italian Renaissance and the period of the French Baroque. He stuffed it with his magpie gleanings of objects and furniture from across the Continent. Dominating his architects, constantly changing his mind and the design, exhausting his builders, bullying his children, ignoring his wife’s feelings and possessing no discernible taste or aesthetic judgement, Petschek is as impossible to like as his villa is to admire, as far from the union of taste and money as it could be. Petschek’s ignorant tinkering took up eight years and almost broke the family bank. Two years after its completion, it broke him, and he collapsed and died. The villa says less about the wondrous city of Prague and its spirit than any other building I know.
Astonishingly, this piece of bombastic neoclassicism obsessed two US ambassadors: Laurence Steinhardt, who after the Second World War nagged the State Department into buying it to house the American embassy (his wife thought it looked like ‘an expensive brothel’), and the author of this book, Norman Eisen, who