Architect Kaplický frustrated over National Library project

Foto: ČTK

It is exactly a year since the Czech-born London-based architect Jan Kaplický won an international competition for a new National Library building on Prague’s Letná Plain, not far from Prague Castle. Twelve months later, it still isn’t clear whether the futuristic gold-and-purple building, nicknamed “the Blob”, will ever be built in the Czech capital. The controversial design has stirred a heated debate among architects and politicians; among its biggest opponents are Prague Mayor Pavel Bém and the country’s president, Václav Klaus.

Jan Kaplický with “the Blob”,  photo: CTK
To put an end to the dispute, an expert commission consisting of architects, conservationist and lawyers was set up last October to determine the Blob’s future. A decision was due to be taken this week. While the design and location no longer seem to be a problem, the lawyers on the team say they need an acknowledgement from the anti-monopoly office that the tender was legitimate. That could take weeks or even months. Meanwhile, Jan Kaplický has threatened to withdraw from the competition.

When I met him to talk about the library and the controversy surrounding it, I first asked him about its colour, which was originally presented as green.

“The champagne colour was there from the beginning and champagne obviously is not green. In the first stage of the competition the building was gold. So we went back to the golden colour which is probably better because it is more related to the so-called "Golden Prague". So I think that it’s naturally a gold-plated library. Inside there are different shades of purple from the lightest on the ceiling to the deepest on the ramps.

The design of the Czech National Library building in Prague
“Colour is now a very important element for us but I think it is not the problem of the day. The hiccup is most likely a political hiccup and it will hopefully go away. I think that the mayor is holding one ransom, which is the ownership of the site.”

You said yesterday that if a decision was not reached within a month you were going to withdraw.

“I think you have to exert some pressure. It may seem like a minor detail if it is one month or five weeks or six weeks. But frankly, I am losing a lot of money, because during the whole year I kept travelling here and back. But that’s again not a substantial reason.

“I think it is good to put some pressure on everybody involved, on both sides. The library is pressing for time as well because they are running out of space to store more and more books. Don’t forget that every publication in the Czech Republic, two copies go automatically into the library. And the fact that you can’t reach many books in the existing building is also important. So the time fact is not invented entirely by me. It’s also invented by the National Library of course.”

Letná Plain
Have you considered building the library somewhere else than on Letná Plain, in case they rule against it?

“No, that was never discussed in the past weeks. The concept is designed for the location with the main view over the city, which I think is one of the major advantages. The library, where you are in certain isolation, also has a popular aspect of seeing the town. You see the main monuments like the Castle and the Old Town Square. So you can’t build it just everywhere. If you go somewhere else, the competition would be cancelled. There would be a new competition and I can’t take part in that. It’s absolute nonsense.”

As far as I know you have discussed possible cooperation with the mayor of Brno.

“The story about the library being in Brno is entirely a story of the press. There are other buildings that the mayor of Brno has on his mind. There are some private projects and we are building a house in Brno. But maybe it has to be said that Brno is in hands of a different political party. I don’t want to emphasize that because I think it shouldn’t be a political problem. I think that what we should try to achieve is a beautiful modern piece of architecture.”

This was probably the first international tender of its kind taking place here. Do you think that your case may discourage other architects in the future?

“It was historically the first international competition in this country since 1918, which is an amazing fact. The head of the library should be congratulated on inventing the situation and inviting the jury of amazing calibre here. That makes the situation even sadder.

“Certainly if this competition is cancelled one way or another you can almost never have another international competition here. In 2016, Prague is going to seek the new Olympic Games and every state building, which the stadiums will be, has to go through international competition open to every architect. Do you think somebody will come here? No chance. They will get average and below-average guys who will expect they might win.

“Another aspect that is very sad is the enormous and bizarre opposition from certain Czech architects. We got second in France in competition for their National Library and I couldn’t go to president Mitterand at that time and tell him it was all wrong, because we came second. It’s not how it is done. It only shows the lack of experience in these situations. There will be no library on Letná. And what will be left? Rusty tram lines on the ground. Who is going to gain? Nobody, absolutely nobody.

“It’s now a battle not for a library designed by Future systems. It’s a battle for THE library, the National Library. It’s also a battle for the Czech book and culture in general. And I think that any political party associated with going against culture doesn’t sound very good for the public. And I must say the twelve thousand signatures, the support of the public, are amazing. On every corner, in every restaurant you go, people tell you they want the project. So are the political parties so unrelated to the public support? I am astonished. What a gap.”

To finish on a lighter note, what do you actually think of the nickname Czechs have given to the library, “the Octopus” or “the Blob”? Do you find it offensive?

“Not at all, every good building has a nickname. If some little child calls it “chobotnička” or little octopus, it’s fine. Of course it’s fine. Nobody is hurt. It means that it is already in people’s minds. It’s the politicians who have a lack of support. Kids don’t know their names but everybody in Prague or in the Czech Republic knows the building.”