Charles Bridge facing repairs

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By Pavla Horakova

"Thousands of people cross Prague's world-famous Charles Bridge every day. But the part where I'm standing now - between the Bridge Tower on the Mala Strana side and the steps down to Kampa Island, all in all about one hundred metres - will be closed off for a few months this year. That´s because the first stage of long planned repairs is due to start this spring. The reconstruction of Charles Bridge is proving to be a controversial matter as opinions are deeply divided on whether the bridge really needs a reconstruction - and if so, who should pay for it."

If there is any one structure which symbolises Prague it has to be Charles Bridge - the oldest bridge in the city. Work on the bridge started in 1357 on the orders of Emperor Charles IV. It was designed by his architect, Petr Parler.

Josef Stulc is the director of the State Institute for the Preservation of Historic Monuments.

"The bridge is not only a wonderful masterpiece of architecture but it's also an original document of the technique of the Middle Ages. It is the work of one extremely ingenious architect but parallelly also engineer Peter Parler who was one of the best builders and one of the best architects and technicians of his days. So this we must also have in mind when considering any conservation or even reconstruction."

This year, the first "test" stage of long planned repairs will show to what extent the bridge has been damaged over the years and whether the rest of the bridge needs to undergo a thorough reconstruction.

And just how much is Charles Bridge in need of repair? Josef Stulc again.

"Well I think that the bridge is in a relatively good condition, in a good state. The only problem in my view is that during the last reconstruction, a relatively heavy one, unfortunately, which took place nearly 30 years ago the contractor did wrongly the hydro-insulation of the road which goes over the bridge, so now the insulation is leaking and water penetrates into the construction. But it doesn't mean that the bridge itself, its stability is endangered."

Charles Bridge today is used only by pedestrians. But in the past it was used for normal city traffic and believe it or not there was also a tram line across the bridge. But of course, Charles Bridge has a much longer history.

"Now it is used only by pedestrians but since the Middle Ages for centuries it was used for heavy lorries loaded with barrels of beer, with grain, the armies were crossing the bridge with canons and so on. So it is incomparable how loaded it used to be in the past and how it is at present, so there is no necesity to make any profound, invasive reconstruction of the bridge which is unfortunately now being prepared."

Professor Jiri Witzany is the rector of the Czech Technical University in Prague. He was one of the team which prepared the analysis of the state of Charles Bridge for the Prague authorities a few years back.

"I don´t think there is immediate danger but continuation and development of failures of the stone bridge construction could without any doubt gradually lead to the lowering of the structure safety of the bridge. I think that a profound reconstruction is needed above all to prevent the ongoing degradation of the stone bridge construction."

So what is actually wrong with the bridge? Mr Stulc mentioned that water is penetrating into the body of the bridge. But water isn´t the only thing damaging Charles bridge.

"It is true that for decades not only water was penetrating but also salt. Up to the late 1980's it was common that the snow not only on the streets but also on the bridge was melted using normal salt."

Mr Stulc doesn´t believe the presence of salt is enough reason for the whole body of the bridge to be replaced. At the same time he acknowledges that some steps need to be taken to preserve Charles Bridge for centuries to come.

"I consulted the problem with specialists but they said if we replace the leaking hydroisolation with new one, then these salts are no more active so can't damage the construction. So even with the salts in the construction the bridge can exist without any problems for decades, even centuries. So I think that it must be done and should be done just now."

Professor Witzany on the other hand says that replacing the insulation wouldn´t be sufficient. In his opinion the bridge would take several years to dry out and during that time the salt would cause further damage to the mortar.

"The drying process of the bridge would be accompanied with sedimentation of salts and with washing out of the binder of the sandstone blocks of which the bridge is built and in this way degradation would occur."

As well as the question of what kind of repairs are needed, there is the issue of when they should be carried out. Josef Stulc believes future generations might do a more careful job.

"The technical means and methods of both protection against water, the reinforcement of construction and so on are improving during the course of time. So we can wait 20 years before the technicians will come with methods which would be uninvasive and which will protect also the original material substance of the bridge."

For professor Witzany however, the sooner the repairs begin, the better. He says modern equipment is good enough to do the job properly.

"There exist sufficiently reliable technical means to carry out the planned repair. Any postponement of the repair will mean a successive greater intervention into the bridge construction and thus a threat to its historic identity. The postponement would increase the costs. The planned first stage of the repair which includes approximately one quarter of the bridge comes up to an ammount of approximately 52 million Czech crowns."

Which of course leads us to the big issue of money and who should pay for the repairs. The city of Prague began a collection in September after the government made it clear they would not provide any money at the moment. Many people criticised the collection as embarassing. Why, they asked, should ordinary citizens pay for the repair of a national treasure? Professor Jiri Witzany says that the state should pay. He also points out that public collections are nothing new.

"I think reconstruction is necessary and I think it should be paid by the state through its institutions. In the case of Charles Bridge this has become a kind of tradition. Every time Charles Bridge was damaged people always contributed to its repairs. Last time this happened a hundred years ago."

Mr Stulc does not agree. He thinks that the public collection unfairly preys upon people´s love of the bridge.

"Why to collect money from patriotic citizens? In my view it is a bit a misuse of patriotic and altruistic feelings of people."