Architectural historian Zdenek Lukes - on Prague Castle, the Communists' atomic bunker and the Rolling Stones

Zdenek Lukes

In today's One on One Jan's guest is Zdenek Lukes, one of the country's most respected architectural historians, employed at the Office of the President's heritage section overseeing Prague Castle. Mr Lukes first began working there in 1990 and in our interview recalls changes that he's seen, the fate of a secret atomic bunker, and a famous visit by the "world's greatest rock n' roll band". Jan began by asking him first what coming to the Castle was like.

"I went to the Prague Castle in the summer of 1990 and it was a surprise for me of course, the atmosphere here especially when I compare it to the job I had before that, when I worked for ten years at the architecture archives for the National Museum of Technology. That was a very special building called 'Invalids' House' found in Prague's Karlin district. A big Baroque building designed by Fischer von Erlach Dientzenhofer: six wings and a big courtyard complete with a fountain and very old plane trees planted there when the site was first built.

"Some movies were made there, for example, a version of Count Dracula by Czechoslovak TV or later Milos Forman's Amadeus. Maybe you remember the first sequence of the film, when actor F. Murray Abraham, who played the composer Salieri, is taken to the insane asylum after trying to commit suicide. His 'cell', filled with straw, was actually my office at the time. That was very strange!

"But on the 1st of August 1990, I completely changed spaces and I began work at Prague Castle in the Office of the President, with President Havel. Everything was absolutely perfect. On the other hand, previous leaders under communism had had terrible taste, so the first problem for all of us was to change the atmosphere. In 1993, I then went from the culture section to the very small office for historic monuments."

Which has as its focus the Castle itself and general environment...

Prague Castle
"Yes, it's very specific: Prague Castle is not part of the city, it is independent of the city, not unlike the Vatican in Rome. It's an independent area with its own status. And Prague Castle means not only the courtyards and palaces but also the whole fortification system and set of gardens around. It's the largest area in the world still used as a head of state's representative seat."

After 1990, was your main guideline that you followed simply to restore the castle to its former state or also to introduce new contemporary elements?

"Of course first we wanted to renovate all the 'treasures' of all the periods of Prague Castle from pre-Romanesque, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classicistic structures, as well the Neo-Gothic addition to St Vitus Cathedral, as well as 20th century architectural examples by Plecnik or Janak. At the same time we wanted to also present contemporary art and architecture here, which is why we stared to collaborate with more than 50 architects.

"It was necessary to open Prague Castle to the public. Under communism most areas, including the Royal garden, were totally closed off. The Stag Moat - a wilder nature area right in the centre of Prague, was also completely off limits. Of course, some tasks were difficult. In the 1950s the communists began construction on a then-top secret atomic shelter. But then everything was stopped and it was only President Husak, after the Soviet-led occupation in 1968, ordered construction to continue. It was a gigantic project: secret corridors went down eleven levels below ground, and the idea was that the president's office would be connected to the shelter through a special elevator. But it was never finished.

"It was a big question for all of us: 'how to use these spaces?' Do we use them for storage? Do we open them up for the public to see what was done? But it wasn't safe to open it up to the public but I can tell you that the area is very depressing. Very narrow corridors from concrete and brick. We couldn't find any use for it.

So it's just been closed off.

"Yeah. Once I went there with a group of American journalists and the group was curious a bunch of paper boxes in one dead-end corridor, which they saw to their shock were full of bones. They asked me what it was all about and I said 'Oh, maybe they are bones of people who built these corridors'. Then sometime later I saw an article in one of the newspapers mentioning these bones! Of course, it wasn't true: they were there from an archaeological site belonging to the Czech Academy of Sciences."

Rolling Stones,  photo: CTK
If we turn to the start of Mr Havel's presidency one of the things that he did was raise Prague's profile on the international scene by inviting many well-known cultural figures to the capital. How do you remember that period?

"I did have the opportunity to meet many people, among them the Rolling Stones, who came to Prague Castle. It was actually my first day! I accompanied the band through the official rooms. Now it happened that the third courtyard, the main one, was packed with thousands of people who wanted to see the band. There were shouts of 'Mick Jagger!' and 'Vaclav Havel!'

"So Mr Havel said 'Ok, we should open the door step out.' There was a balcony often used for official delegations there. We have photos of Leonid Breznev or even Adolf Hitler there and Vaclav Havel suggested 'Ok, this balcony is here for better people than those', so let us greet everyone and welcome them to Prague. The thing is, nobody could find the key to the door, so eventually everyone had to crawl out through a window to greet the crowd. In the evening we saw the concert."