Architect recalls genesis of Dancing Building as coffee table book published

The Dancing Building

On the corner of Resslova Street and Rasinovo nabrezi, about a hundred metres downriver from the National Theatre, stands the best known - and the most controversial - modern building in Prague, the Tancici Dum, or Dancing Building. Featuring two curved towers "waltzing", it is also occasionally referred to as the Fred and Ginger Building. Now, seven years after its completion, a new coffee table book simply entitled "Dancing Building" has just been brought out. Dr Jana Ticha of publishers Zlaty Rez said the book was a long time in gestation.

Vlado Milunic on the top of the Dancing Building,  photo: CTK
"As we knew that this was a very difficult task we were a bit reluctant, to be honest. It took about half a year or so till we said, OK, let's do it. And it took two years, or two and a half from the very start of the research and of the real work on the book until we could publish the book now."

Will it be available outside this country, to buy?

"Of course. It will be available in Europe and the US, where it will be distributed by Prototype Editions, in specialised the major architectural bookshops."

The Dancing Building is the work of two men: Zagreb-born but Prague-based architect Vlado Milunic, who had the original idea for the building, and the celebrated American architect Frank Gehry, perhaps best-known for the stunning Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I spoke to Mr Milunic on the terrace of the exclusive restaurant on the Dancing Building's seventh floor, from where the view is breathtaking. He told me he first conceived of the project back in the mid-1980s, in the company of his neighbour, the then-dissident Vaclav Havel. Both men lived beside where the Dancing Building now stands.

"In '86 I made a division in Havel's apartment, dividing Vaclav and his brother Ivan..."

In the building next door here?

"Yes. During the Velvet Revolution Havel became president and he said to me go ahead and make the first sketches."

It's an incredible coincidence: you lived next door here in the same building as Vaclav Havel. Did Mr Havel have much involvement with the Dancing Building?

"Yes, yes. His support...there was a long, long list of coincidences involved in the making of the building. I lived in Havel's house and in the Velvet Revolution he became president...I spoke with Vaclav in '86 about the possibility to build a building on the corner. There was such a big list of incredible coincidences that I think it wasn't a coincidence but guiding from someone above, like God."

As his ideas started taking shape after the Velvet Revolution, Vlado Milunic knew he wanted to create a building which reflected the new Czechoslovakia.

"The building had to reflect the situation of a Czechoslovak society who had forgotten the totalitarian past and moved into a world full of change. My first idea was to have a building with two different parts in dialogue, like static and dynamic, like plus and minus, like ying and yang. From this project of mine I also made a model."

Once the model of the Tancici Dum had been completed, Mr Milunic (with the financial backing of the Dutch company Nationale Nederlanden) started looking for an internationally-renowned architect to collaborate with. The first choice was French architect Jean Nouvel, who later designed the Zlaty Andel building in Prague 5.

"First we asked Jean Nouvel, but he refused, because he said we only had 500 square metres and that's not enough for two architects. We contacted Frank Gehry, and when Frank saw my beginning, my sketches, he promised to collaborate with me on this project. From that time, the first meeting was in '92 in Geneva, to the finish of the building in '96 we made a nice building with Dutch money."

Frank Gehry is probably the world's most famous architect at the moment - how was he to work with?

"It was perfect. And the thing about Frank is he never has a co-author. I am the first to be the co-author of one of his building. Also, this building was the testing point for the Guggenheim Museum."

The Dancing Building, which Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic have described as "new Baroque", has divided opinion probably more than any other modern construction in Prague. Though the city is already a hodgepodge of architectural styles, its opponents say the Dancing Building stands out like a sore thumb. Mr Milunic says, however, that most Praguers like it.

"It's controversial for some people, not for everybody. Because the citizens of Prague accept this building. Sixty-eight percent of people like this building and only 16 percent don't like it. That's positive, because we expected fifty-fifty."

And, whatever about the objections of some preservationists during the planning stages, the Dancing Building project had friends in high places.

"My good friend was the director of the institute for the protection of monuments, the city architect was for the building, the investor wanted to build a nice building with a nice budget. We basically had no problems."

Is it the case that the façade was designed to age quickly, to get older looking quickly?

"Many people ask why the building isn't painted. But Frank Gehry and I decided that we would use the natural colour of the materials. The glass is green, the concrete is grey, the stainless steel construction is argent. We say the building is so crazy that if we painted it, it would be a problem."

In the beginning it was more commonly known as the Fred and Ginger Building, now everyone seems to call it the Dancing Building- did the Fred and Ginger name just disappear?

"That was Frank's idea but then he was afraid to import American Hollywood kitsch to Prague, though we said Fred and Ginger were artists. But in Prague many people call it the Dancing Building because it's more abstract. I call this building the Dancing Building because it's a dance after the Velvet Revolution."