It looks the kind of room where learning ought to take place. The ceilings are high and bordered by an intricate cornice. The walls are a warm salmon pink. The windows open onto a garden. The tiered lamps that hang from the ceiling in mimicry of a chandelier are both modern and consistent with the room’s old-fashioned aesthetic. This is a very old room in the new campus of Anglo-American University (AAU), the oldest private university in Prague. It’s one of a few classrooms whose history can be traced back several centuries.
New Anglo-American University (AAU) campus at Thurn-Taxis Palace
AAU’s new campus officially opens next week when the Spring 2015 semester begins. Administrators decided to move from their previous location on Lázeňská street in order to accommodate the school’s growing student body. Enrollment increased 10 percent in the last year alone. When classes begin on February 6, the 17 classrooms, visual arts studio, and cafeteria, not to mention that lovely garden, within the new building and former palace at Letenská 5 will welcome more than 800 students representing 60 different countries.
Hana Novotna, manager for Marketing and Publicity at AAU, describes their new building as “the new era meets the old era.” About half of its classrooms retain their classical design, albeit with a few contemporary touches. Digital projectors hang alongside 19th century gilt mirrors. The Thurn-Taxis Palace has had several owners, suffered abandonment and through a nasty flood. Like so much of Prague, its history is long and storied.
Originally two Baroque townhouses that were rebuilt as a single palace in 1696, the Thurn-Taxis Palace changed hands several times throughout the ensuing centuries. Prince Rudolph Thurn acquired it in 1814 and gave it its neoclassical façade. Composers, singers, politicians and other notables often graced its rooms, for the prince was a progressive thinker and patron of the arts. Although a site of lively debate during the days of Prince Rudolph, however, the palace was eventually abandoned. In 2002, it was damaged by a flood. Happily, the District of Prague 1 recently came to its rescue, and reconstructed it. The city’s efforts have resulted in that mix of “the new” and “the old” eras that today distinguishes the Thurn-Taxis Palace, soon to be better known by the new purpose it serves: as the site of Anglo-American University.
“You can feel the history everywhere you go. The history is very rich,” said Novotna as she picked her way carefully down a winding staircase connecting the administrative offices in their low-ceilinged, vaulted rooms to the four floors of classrooms below. “It can be a bit confusing at first,” she acknowledged, “you truly need a map.”
Luckily, you will find on your right when you enter the palace’s stone archway a handy plaque that outlines which rooms can be found on which floors. For the benefit of Americans and other foreigners unused to the European method of listing floor levels, this plaque, re-posted throughout the palace, uses very specific terminology: 1st floor above ground, second floor above ground, etc.
There is a strict no drinking or eating policy in most of the classrooms. Not even in those rooms that were fully rebuilt in the modern style after the flood of 2002, and which no longer bear any trace of their old origins. The student lounges and the cafeteria are the main places where one can refuel with food or drink.
The latter is a brand new feature of Anglo-American University. There was no cafeteria at the old campus, nor was there a Visual Art Studies program. In fact, those students who have enrolled in the new VA program may be among the luckiest on campus. Tall mirrors and windows mark their long, rectangular classroom. The effect is of a mini Versailles. Coupled with its pleasant view of the garden, the VA room will no doubt serve as the site of much inspired work.
No matter which degree students at AAU have chosen to pursue, however, all benefit from the university’s international approach to education. “We don’t lie about the mix of nationalities we have here,” said Novotna, explaining that they generally aim for a demographic breakdown of 40 percent Czech and Slovak students, and 60 percent international students. “We try our best” to incorporate a variety of backgrounds, as well as adopt Western and specifically American and British methods of teaching. “In American education systems, students are forced to think critically and not just memorize facts like in the Czech state education system,” Novotna explained.
Building off this approach, AAU classes “encourage students to think for themselves.”
What will students think of their new campus? That remains to be seen, although, as the school has leased the Thurn-Taxis Palace for 15 years, there will be plenty of time to work out the inevitable kinks of a new location, and enjoy it. Chances are, in no time at all, all thoughts concerning the old campus will soon be history.
Author: Anna Storm, Pragueconnect.cz (29.01.2015)