Changing Prague: Adam Gebrian on where city development is going right – and wrong

Adam Gebrian

Prague has changed enormously since 1990, but recently – with projects like the overhaul of the Masaryk Station area – it can feel like development is accelerating further. For an informed view, I spoke to the best possible guide to the city: architecture expert Adam Gebrian.

In fact Gebrian kindly offered to talk me through Prague’s transformation following an online discussion about whether the area around the Národní Metro station didn’t feel more spacious in the past.

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Kafka’s revolving head by David Černý | Photo: Kateřina Ayzpurvit,  Radio Prague International

We met on the small plaza at the back of the Quadrio centre that now occupies that location, metres away from sculptor David Černý’s revolving Kafka head.

“Originally, this was a fully developed area. It was kind of destroyed because of the Metro.

“The Metro station was a one-storey building with only one function: to get out of the Metro.

“I personally consider that really bad use of space.

“I think it was quite simple. Somebody came up with the idea: OK, there should be a Metro station, but it should be integrated within a building, and then there could be a building above that.

“By the way, if you go to Wenceslas Square you will see a lot of places where you can get out of the Metro which are carved into historical buildings.

“That was possible only because it was communist times.

“In capitalism, you would not be allowed to touch somebody’s private property and to carve out a commercially successful place and turn it into public use.

“So we would have independent boxes on Wenceslas Square, which I think would be a disaster.

Wenceslas Square | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

“In that way it’s pretty nice for the public space, that it’s hidden within the building.

“OK, so then something was built here [the now Quadrio], and it was a long process.

“And the city planners of Prague set up guidelines – kind of like a map – and they said, OK, you can build something here, but you need to leave one quarter open.

“They said it needed to remain empty, as a kind of publicly accessible place.

“It’s something which is quite unique in Prague, because this is privately owned but it’s publicly accessible.

Quadrio | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“That’s very normal in London, very normal in New York, but we are not used to it. There are very few places which are like that.

“For me, this is actually the lowest part of the entire project.

“Because whenever I’m here I feel, OK, it’s nicely paved, there are trees, somebody paid some money for this – but it feels like it’s an unwanted place.

“Because for the businesses inside it doesn’t bring much.

“And I always point out one thing – there are no benches, and the reason is that it’s not really a public space.

“This [centre] is the work of Jakub Cigler, quite a respected architect, who if you look at his work at the beginning of his career I think it was amazing.

“And later on he decided to do huge, commercially successful buildings with, I think, pretty good details and quality materials and so on.

“But they are not my favourites.”

One thing I wanted to speak to you about was Prague, to me at least, feeling more cramped, because of these building projects. Is there a loss when you fill a space like this? I know it’s not filled completely, but it is filled, especially from the other [Spálená St.] side – it feels to me like this building is looming over me.

“Once I did a survey with my students in terms of the proportion between footprint and leftover space.

“If you go to, let’s say, housing blocks of the ‘70s or ‘80s – from the communist time – usually the space covered by buildings is something like 15 percent, and 85 percent is so-called green space, leftover space, parking, pavements.

Housing blocks | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“But these are not my favourite spaces – I don’t go.

“Then we can go 200 metres away from here, really close to Old Town Square, and do the same survey and it would be, like, 70 percent covered by buildings and 30 percent by streets – so the ratio is completely different.

“But if the spaces are nice and if the buildings are nice and if the details are nice, I like it.

“So I don’t think it’s so much only about quantity – it’s very often about quality.

Old Towns Square | Photo: Ian Kelsall,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0

“I understand your point, but on the other hand, generally speaking, Prague is really a low density city.

“You can really run the numbers: Prague is 500 square kilometres, 1.3 million people, so it means 2,600 people per square kilometre.

“In comparison to Barcelona, it’s seven times lower. It’s really low.

Three months in Barcelona,  book by Adam Gebrian | Photo: Universum

“And Prague is generous in terms of parks, green spaces, open spaces.

“By the way, this is interesting for people for example from Los Angeles, there is a rule in Prague that hills are green.

“We don’t build on hills.

“If there is a building on a hill, usually it’s a national monument, it’s a lookout tower.

“Just imagine the edge of Letná. Any developer who look at the edge of Letná would say, Hey, just fully develop that by housing – that would sell for billions, with the view to the city centre.

“But we don’t do this.

“We protect so many nice spaces; they’re not possible to build over.

Lookout in Letenské sady | Photo: Miloš Turek,  Radio Prague International

“There is a rule in Prague that hills are green. We don’t build on hills.”

“So in my mind, there is a space for densification, there is space for new usage, there is space for building over existing empty spaces.

“But that must be done very carefully, and very often that doesn’t happen.

“What happens is it’s developed where it’s possible where you can buy it, where you can destroy something from previous years, which I think became a huge issue in Prague.

“So many buildings are being destroyed and replaced by worse ones – not because they were bad buildings, but because they were standing on lucrative sites.

“That’s the major reason for replacement.

Demolition of the Transgas building | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

“That’s a tough topic, but it’s related to what you said.

“The process to get this building built took, like, 14, 15 years.

“I think in that process it probably changed owners three times – and it changed its final form a couple of times.

“And that’s not unique; it’s rather normal.

“So many buildings are being destroyed and replaced by worse ones.”

“The only way you can pay for this kind of long process, and changes of owners and changes of architects, is that the building is bigger and bigger.

“If the process could be faster, then maybe the buildings could be smaller.”

Adam Gebrian also suggested we take a quick look at the front of Quadrio, an extremely busy spot right by the Národní třída tram stop.

“You said that you feel like the building is almost falling on you – I think the major reason is that these are cantilevers, so there are no columns.

“You see the full volume being kind of suspended and almost like falling. It’s an engineering thing.

Quadrio in Spálená street | Photo: Oleg Fetisov,  Radio Prague International

“And I wanted to say that this is actually – by far – my favourite tram stop in Prague.

“The reason for that is that it’s by far the biggest one. Just look – it’s like an 80 metre long tram stop.

“And it’s actually not a tram stop, so it’s not like an ugly designed small thing, which is usually designed in a kind of minimal way.

“If it [a regular tram shelter] holds five people and then it starts raining and your shoes get splashed, because there’s not enough space for you to move.

“But here you can go anywhere in a way, and you are still protected.

“Very often what happens in Prague is that even though smoking is prohibited at tram stops somebody is doing it.

“But in here you just go 20 metres away.

“And the good thing is you can still see; if you are standing in here, you can see a tram coming for three or four hundred metres, so you can slowly move.

“In that way it’s a pretty generous thing.

“Technically it’s underneath the building, and it’s in the space of the building.

Tram stop in front of Quadrio in Spálená street | Photo: Oleg Fetisov,  Radio Prague International

“I think if they wanted, they could have really fully developed that.

“So this could be all commercial spaces inside, and it’s not.

“The public space is extended and it’s nicely paved and I think it’s really the work of an architect who really thought about it.

“He said, OK, Spálená is a street which is narrow, it’s busy – let’s step back a bit and let’s give that public space a bit of form and enough space.

“And actually I really appreciate that.”

You’re really opening my eyes here!

“But look – see how people are acting and how they behave.

“Somebody is standing, like an individual, and there is another individual next to them, and there’s a gap between them, like four or five metres.

“All these things are absolutely impossible at a normal tram stop.

“So whenever I know I have to change [trams], I change here – because I’ve got the most space that I can have.”

From Národní třída it’s just a short walk to the bottom of Wenceslas Square, which is currently undergoing a long-planned major overhaul. Adam Gebrian broadly welcomes the changes, which include considerable pedestrianisation, but still has reservations.

Visualization of the future form of Wenceslas Square | Photo: Jakub Cigler architekti

“If I remember correctly, the competition was held in, I think, 2005, which is 18 years ago.

“It’s just incredible how long it has taken. There was a lot of fights between Prague 1 and Prague and no agreement about so many things.

“So now it’s started.

“I always considered the project as kind of like OK.

“By OK, I considered that the designers, Jakub Cigler and his team, tried to put an effort into creating something simple – quality materials, nice design – but also something which doesn’t bring a lot attention to itself.

“Because it’s surrounded by nicer buildings and beautiful buildings, and if you don’t look at the ground but rather what you’re surrounded by, and what’s happening around you…

“And once the process started it always came to my mind that some people would come later and say, So it took so long, and it was just for THIS?

“But on the other hand, I think the so-called pedestrianisation of this part is OK, to me.

Pedestrians on Wenceslas Square | Photo: Alexandra Baranová,  Radio Prague International

“I’m definitely a fan of the tram being put back into the middle of the square, and not only to the higher part but to the entire square and then turning into Na příkopě – I would be perfectly fine with that.

“But there’s a bigger problem. The bigger problem is that the role of Wenceslas Square is very different from its role in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s – and even the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

It’s amazing to me – the idea that Prague residents used to come here for entertainment.

“Yes, and that’s gone.

“It’s a long story, but to put it simply, this was a place for cinemas, for bars, for cafés, for restaurants, for theatres. For people who worked in culture – mainly newspapers, publishing houses.

Wenceslas Square in 1970s | Photo: Czech Television

“And they all disappeared after 1990 and this became a shopping mall of cheap clothes.

“Once I was walking behind two Americans and one of them said, Wow, this is great – a shopping mall, but outdoors.

“And this is a fair assessment of this place today.

“Wenceslas Square became a shopping mall of cheap clothes.”

“I come here quite often, because I like the place – but I think I belong to the very few people who like it.”

What about architectural projects here in recent years? Have there been any of any value or interest?

“I think it’s a sad story.

“Of course there’s one on the lower corner from 2000 [Palác Euro], done by DAM and Petr Burian, which I think is OK.

“Sometimes I’ve made jokes with people from abroad. Next to it is Baťa and Lindt, which are two beautiful Functionalist buildings from 1926, 1927, and I always tell them that the building from 2000 is from the same period – and they take it, like, normally.

Baťa,  Lindt and Euro buildings | Photo: Oleg Fetisov,  Radio Prague International

“So some of these new things are a bit similar to things from the ‘20s – in my mind they are even a bit worse.

“And then there are some infills which, if you look at them as individual things, are just bad.

“But because they are part of 40, 50, 60, 70 others which are good, then you take it.

“But that’s probably what we’re talking about today the entire day: There’s a history and DNA of a quality thing and once you start to fill it with something which you can call maybe ‘average’, and if you keep doing it for long, then you kill the city.

“And I think we are in that trajectory, in a way.”

Are there any new projects coming to this part of the city in the next few years? I know there was a project to renovate the Savarin Palace [on Na příkopě] – I don’t know if that’s still happening.

Na Příkopě street | Photo: PatrikPaprika,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“It’s happening. Also a long story, a long process.

“It’s opening up certain parts of the city, with a connection to Wenceslas Square, to Na příkopě, to Jindřišská, to Panská.

“It’s a huge thing, but in my mind a bit similar content to what we see around it.

“And a huge issue is that there are not so many people living here.

“I know just a couple of people who really live directly on Wenceslas Square, but there are very few.

“And once there is not a constant presence of people calling this home, then it’s just a place for shopping or for short visits.

“So sure, I’m glad that there is a new pavement, there’s no height differences between the pavement and the middle.

“There’s a new alley of trees and there are probably going to be new benches, and there are new standards of Prague mobilier – and all this is fine.

“But that’s not the major thing. The major thing is how you feel there, how you use it, if you are going there happily, if you really enjoy it.

Jan Gehl | Photo: Gene Driskell,  CC BY-SA 2.0

“Jan Gehl, the famous architect and urban designer from Copenhagen, says, Public space is not a space that you have to go through – public space is a space that you like to go through; you go there voluntarily, and you voluntarily spend your time.

“And the last thing on Wenceslas Square. You can see it on the upper part – somebody told me it was redesigned in the ‘70s or ‘80s in a way that people would not meet.”

It was to stop gatherings.

“It was to stop gatherings. It was to suppress public meetings.

“And if I’m cynical, then I have to say that in that way, it was a very successful design.

“It was really designed in such a way that you don’t want to spend your time there.”

For the final part of our discussion of the changing face of Prague, Adam Gebrian and I walked about a kilometre from the bottom of Wenceslas Square to a spot by Masarykovo nádraží, Masaryk railway station. It’s the site of the most important current development in the city. Named Masaryčka, the project is designed by London’s Zaha Hadid Architects and is set to make a gigantic mark on this part of the city.

Masaryk railway station | Photo: Sophie Eberhardt,  Radio Prague International

“We are at the beginning of the process, kind of, because we see one pretty big building, or two buildings, being almost finished.

“But I think it’s the beginning of the transformation of the entire area.

“It’s the project of [major developers] Penta. They built a building called Florentinum on the opposite side, so they have been kind of concentrating on this area for a while.

“And not only this area, but the area near the train stations: This station and the Main Station and also in the part of Žižkov around it.

Masaryčka,  the building by Zaha Hadid Architects | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“I think their idea is that this should be a place to connect Prague to the airport by train, in the fastest way.

“So if you are a businessman who comes to Prague by plane and you get into a speed train and you end up here, you will basically end up in the central business district.

“And you can see that in so many places around the world.

“This was a pretty bad place, kind of a rundown place for so many years, so I can easily understand why so many people consider this as an improvement.

“I’m pretty sure that when it’s done and it’s going to be full of people and they’re going to use it and they’re going to go through it – they’re going to use it a short cut and probably a new entry to the train station – I think it’s going to be considered a pretty good thing.

“For me, from the architectonic point of view, I’m not a big fan.

Visualization of the Masaryk railway station | Photo: Penta Real Estate

“But there’s a mistake that was made way before the design – the mistake is that it has only one owner, that one company, one owner, could buy huge pieces of plot within the city centre.

“Once that happens, I think there’s almost no way to stop it resulting in something like this.

“In my mind, I think the city should have tools to be able to subdivide the area into smaller plots and smaller pieces that would be designed by individual owners and individual architects.

“That’s the way that the city evolved in the whole of history.”

One thing that strikes me about this project is that some people [in the largest new building] are going to be working just a few metres from the magistrála, the through road going through the centre of Prague.

“To be honest, I don’t have such a huge problem with that.

“Because one thing is I don’t think the magistrála is there forever.

Magistrála | Photo: Bronislav Valenta,  Panoramio,  CC BY 3.0

“I’m pretty sure that it’s going to get some changes in future; it’s going to take a while, but yes.

“And on the other hand, sure, it’s a busy street, but I think one of the big problems of it is not only that it’s big – it’s super ugly.

“I don’t think the magistrála is there forever.”

“I’ve seen streets around the world which are the same busy, but they feel way nicer.

“And yeah, I think something like this could be done.

“By the way, there’s a lot of projects being done, one of them by Jan Gehl, the urbanist from Denmark, who envisaged changes to the magistrala.

“But I think so far there was not the political will – and let’s say braveness – to do something about that issue.”

Also quite near here, on the other side of the Main Train Station, there are several new buildings around Bulhar [bottom of Koněvova St.]. When these new buildings go up I think, Aha, there was a site there – I never even realised that was a potential site. I wonder sometimes, are there few places left in the near centre of Prague that can be developed like that?

Koněvova street sign | Photo: Kateřina Ayzpurvit,  Radio Prague International

“I think there are many. We would probably almost need to go one by one.

“Very often there’s a general blindness towards these places, that we almost don’t know that they exist.

“So yes, just around the magistrála I could find you probably 50 places that you can build.”

Is it only my feeling, or has there been a kind of acceleration of development in Prague in recent years? Maybe it’s because I live near this area, and I notice these particular projects.

“To be honest, I don’t know the exact numbers, so I would probably need to just go from my own experience.

“Just around the magistrála I could find you probably 50 places that you can build.”

“Maybe yes. What is typical for Prague is that preparation of projects takes really long: sometimes 10 years, sometimes 15 years.

“Very often there are certain situations, like in money or business situations, where people start to prepare projects almost simultaneously.

“Then they might be on hold simultaneously for a while and then they are about to build at the same time.

“So maybe they’ve been in the fridge for a while, and then you see the outcomes.

“It seems like, OK, they are speeding up, but it’s really just the outcome of long preparation.

“And maybe then afterwards there’s another gap of nothing going on, because there’s another long preparation.”

How do you think the city authorities are managing the development of Prague?

Prague City Hall | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“That’s a tough question.

“For me it’s not easy to answer, because I’m partially employed at the IPR, the Institute of Planning and Development, but generally speaking, I think the role of the city in Prague should be way stronger than it is.

“At least from what I see around me.

“Very often I see the role of the city as they almost, like, follow the private developers.

“And once the private developers show them what they are about to do, they try to change it a bit – like put one floor down, and add a bit of green and do a bit more housing.

“But from my point of view, it’s a bit too late.

“And I think they should set the agenda a bit more and be in front, or at the beginning of the process.

“But that’s a difficult one. It requires a lot of effort, a lot of money and a lot of people – and it’s not happening.”

Final question, Adam: Is Prague getting better or getting worse?

Prague Castle | Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International

“I don’t know.

“You would need to divide into different categories, and you would say that in some categories it is getting better.

“If I look at the last 20, 30 years, the amount of effort and money put into refurbishment and saving things is actually enormous.

“So a lot of great stuff has actually happened.

“But of course on the other hand we are destroying things that probably should be preserved.

“If I look at the last 20, 30 years, the amount of effort and money put into refurbishment and saving things is actually enormous.”

“Sure, the prices of property are skyrocketing – Prague is almost the front runner in this race – so it’s getting absolutely unaffordable for so many people who should be part of the city, and would be required for the city.

“But on the other hand, I think that the City of Prague realised that in the last couple of years and have tried to develop their own development agency and to prepare new projects and new housing.

“So at least they are trying to fight the kind of pressure which is external.

“But just to stand in front of you and say, It’s getting better or it’s getting worse, I can’t do that.”

For readers who understand Czech, Adam Gebrian's offers exclusive content at herohero.co/adamgebrian.