Building up Letna Plain


Letna Plain is one of the last open spaces in central Prague. Overlooking the Vltava River and located only some 1500 metres from Prague Castle, it was a strategic location in mediaeval times for troops laying siege to the seat of Bohemian monarchs. Historians assume that this was the reason why Letna remained an open space; it was only connected with Mala Strana and the Castle in 1831, and first buildings were erected at the end of the 19th century. Letna has always been a venue for protests, demonstrations, and popular gatherings. The Communists held their 1st of May parades as well as military parades there; it was also the location of the largest anti-regime demonstrations of November 1989.

Letna Plain
Now, the open space of Letna might be built up. There are a number of projects claiming the plain for themselves. Perhaps the most controversial one, and certainly the one that has stirred the public the most, is a new National Library building. There are also plans to rebuild a football stadium - currently home to Sparta Prague - located on Letna's northern edge to become a national football stadium that should seat 40,000. And the remains of a megalomaniac Stalin Monument in the plain's southern part could house a giant aquarium.

Not everyone welcomes these planned changes. Ondrej Mitrovsky, the head of the Green Party' local organisation in Prague 7, started a petition called Zachranme Letnou, or Let's Save Letna because they want to keep Letna as it is.

"Our group is focusing on four major projects; first is the national stadium, the second is the oceanarium, the third is the National Library and the fourth is one we can't do anything about because it's already being built - that's the tunnel under Letna. We are still discussing our position against or for the National Library building."

The National Library building, designed by Czech-born architect Jan Kaplicky and officially named Oko nad Prahou, or The Eye above Prague, but known better as the Blob, has divided the public. The project of a massive multi-purpose football stadium, on the other hand, which could bring thousands of people several times a week to a relatively quiet area of Prague 7, is widely unpopular. Documentary film maker and local resident Olga Sommerova says she has enough of football crowds already.

"I know what's going on there today. Those police manoeuvres, those red, dull faces of the football fans... All this is in fact taking place in the centre. I think that a football stadium belongs somewhere beyond the city, in some kind of reserve."

The idea is also dismissed by Zdenek Lukes, an architectural historian and the head of Prague Castle conservationists.

"I think this is an absolutely wrong idea. Why not build this type of stadium on the edge of Prague? Why in the central part with great traffic difficulties? It means for instance that Letna plain could change into a big parking lot."

The National Library building is more complicated. After Prague authorities moved to block the project over problems with the building site, several petitions and initiatives appeared claiming that politicians hijacked the Blob for themselves, basing their decisions purely on whether they like Kaplicky's futuristic design or not. Visual artist Jiri Cernicky started a petition in support of the Blob for architects and other art professionals, and collected more that four thousand signatures.

"It's just not possible that lawyers, doctors and judges express their opinions on this, having such banal and simplistic ideas. They say that the building looks like snot, or phlegm, and yet have the power to stop and cancel the construction. I am very upset by how little expertise weighs in this matter. Very few people are educated in this field but everybody feels free to talk about it. I don't suggest that they don't express their opinions on the issue; they have to do that. But they should first get some information, and then express their opinions with humility."

The Czech Chamber of Architects has contested the architectural competition for the new National Library building, saying that Kaplicky's winning design did not comply with the conditions of the tender. Other critics of the Blob say that the building will disturb the city's skyline, that it will appear too "arrogant" in such a close vicinity to Prague Castle, and that the design is actually out of date. Director of the National Gallery Milan Knizak faced pro-Blob activists at their rally outside Prague City Hall last week.

"I don't have anything against the octopus, but I do think that it is too expensive, it is not appropriate, it is not contemporary. I can see a similar building standing, but absolutely not on Letna. I don't think Letna should have large buildings; it is the last large open area that must be preserved as the city's lungs."

Zdenek Lukes, on the other hand, says the location for the Blob is perfect.

Vlastimil Jezek
The space is wonderful, of course, because it must be close to the city's historic centre and also close to the student campus in Dejvice. It is near the subway and also on the edge of the Prague UNESCO-listed historic monument reserve. It is also close to a nice park; that's what makes it a great location.

Last week, the two opposing sides - Prague City Hall and the National Library - brought the battle to some kind of compromise. Prague Mayor Pavel Bem and National Library Director Vlastimil Jezek agreed on a team of experts that should consider the issue thoroughly, and come up with a conclusion. Prague Mayor Pavel Bem.

"Both of us are at the moment seeking a solution to the fundamental questions: what should happen with the new National Library building, what it should look like, and where it should be. The expert team will also have three working groups; one of them will focus on architecture, the second will deal with monument care and the third with legal issues."

The team is supposed to give an answer to the question of whether the Blob will be located on Letna or pushed somewhere else. The conclusion should be known before the end of the year. No such committee, however, has been put together to discuss the planned national football stadium.