The inhabitants of Prague hold highly opposing views on the topic and promoting new architecture in Prague is a very difficult matter. A number of simplified arguments literally made me think harder about the more general problem of “protecting what is old“ and “creating something new“ in the capital city.
Prague is said to be a unique, fascinating historical city. Its centre is a listed UNESCO World Heritage site, which is a big commitment for us. The extent of the commitment can be expressed with many words about the responsibility for our cultural heritage. However, a lot can be expressed with mere numbers: a substantial part of Prague is formed by historically protected areas. The historical centre is classified as a UNESCO heritage site, the surrounding districts (Vinohrady, Žižkov, Karlín, Smíchov and others) are conservation zones. Most of the city as it developed until WWII, is under monument protection. Such a state does not have an equivalent in the world. It is the monument protection institutions that allow historical buildings to be well-repaired and that guarantee that the architectural legacy of the past is passed on and the genius loci of whole districts is maintained. Monument protection requires detailed assessments of all proposed projects, which means almost six thousand administrative proceedings a year. This is several times more than in other regions. I am not an architect, nor am I a conservationist, so I can only assess the success of monument preservation with the limited view of a layman. My basic feeling is good. We have been quite successful in protecting our city since November 1989. I would say that the renovation of the city devastated by communism has been done in a gradual and quiet way. This is why I appreciate conservationists and their work. Protected areas have maintained their urban structure. The renovation of the facade has been a success and the renovated interiors of various buildings have captivated me on many occasions. I have no doubt that not everything has been a success. A detailed assessment by experts would certainly be more informative.
Yet, it would make me happy if, in the future, Prague were also referred to as a city of contemporary architecture; if Prague received wider recognition as a dynamic city and a cultural meeting place where great architecture did not end sometime in the distant past without any new additions. I wish we were as successful when creating new architecture as we are in monument protection. Unfortunately, so far I don’t think we have been successful in that respect.
There is no simple answer to the question why it is so. I see the main reason in the absence of a concerted effort by the city politicians, architects, investors, urbanists and cultural public. We are also hindered by a great amount of conservatism and the fear of change. After our experience in the communist era we remember how a bad style of architecture in important places can damage a city and destroy centuries of architectural treasures. The risk when creating something new has always been present and always will be. We need to take it into consideration, there is no way around it. In the case of new buildings, present-time creativity when values are only coming to life and are uncertain and even risky, fear or negative attitude is not enough. I don’t think that a city can reach any above-average goals through fear. The narrow view of conservation is in itself not enough, as the future cannot be deduced from the past. The social debate should be wider.
I feel the lack of cultivated discussion about new projects in Prague. When a proposal for a new building appears, usually nothing happens. Only conservationists well-known from the media launch a campaign in which you sometimes cannot help the feeling that architecture is a crime and investors or developers are class enemies. This, for me, brings about the frosty breath of the ideology of the party secretariat. I cannot help the feeling that recently part of civic activities has been changing from independent and respectable cultural institutions to censors of contemporary creativity, which is not good for Prague and its new architecture.
If we asked anyone whether they want perfectly renovated monuments and beautiful and high-quality new buildings at the same time, they would be likely to say yes. Yet, to meet both demands is not easy. Monument protection significantly affects and limits the development and the future appearance of all monument-protected areas. At present, new works are created in some kind of residual space in gaps after WW II bombing or in places of low-value buildings. If we state that each and every building here is valuable and irreplaceable, it may not be a very objective assertion. And if we said: no more demolitions, never even one house out of the almost twenty thousand estimated to be standing in the monument protected areas can disappear, we would not build anything at all in those places. It is an exaggerated and absurd idea. After thorough consideration, we can certainly find some buildings among the twenty thousand that can be replaced.
The word demolition sounds brutal. The cultural public does not like to hear it, an opinion that I closely feel. However, it only means that an existing building is being removed and a new one is going to be built in its place. But to be fair and objective, monument protection of the capital city is strict and the central area of Prague has seen only very few demolitions over the last twenty years. We haven’t even filled all the gaps after the 1945 bombing. Demolitions are exceptions and they should stay as exceptions. At the same time, the word demolition is not taboo for me.
Finally, I return to two cases of demolition and new buildings which have inspired me to write this text, i.e. the case of the building in Wenceslas Square and the one in Revoluční Street. I do not want to anticipate the opinion of the relevant institutions or to be a critic of architecture, yet I feel that I should express my opinion on both cases. I think that there is a difference between the two projects. In the case of Revoluční Street, there are barren walls with advertisements, which stayed there after the deliberate war demolition, the old and sore problem of damaged urbanism of the city centre. The issue was addressed by various competitions and student projects. As far as I know, even the Scientific Council of the Managing Director of the National Heritage Institute agreed to the demolition of the historically devalued building, as well as a great number of heritage authorities. Besides, the investor held an architectural competition and an inventive project by a renowned team of architects has been chosen.
In the case of Wenceslas Square the situation is somehow different. This is, at least, how I see it. A great many professionals and citizens advocate that the existing building should be preserved. The original building is referred to as an object of European importance, although until recently, it had not been spoken of at all. Unfortunately, I have to say that the standard object is not being replaced by something unique, only another unified building, a exact replica of thousands of other buildings in Prague. What is more, the investor did not hold any competition which would contribute to making the public square any more attractive. It will only contribute to one thing, the insipid character of Wenceslas Square. This is why I clearly support the first project, as I consider it a positive solution to a city problem. As for the second, more controversial project, I will continue to pay attention and watch the two-sided pub discussions on the classic theme of “we and them“.
To conclude, I only have one wish to express, which is for us to be able with an open mind to find places for new but high-quality architecture in the vast conservation area of Prague, architecture that seeks to stand out from the standard models and hold a cultivated discussion about it without hatred or prejudices.
Written for Aktuálně.cz