Communists’ prioritising of suburbs saved central Prague, says architect Petr Kučera

Prague, photo: Kristýna Maková

An expert on the history of Prague, architect Petr Kučera regularly posts fascinating galleries on Facebook documenting the city’s development. He draws on an extensive archive of photos and plans to show how districts have changed, as well as highlighting unrealised projects that would have transformed Prague even further. In addition, the 29-year-old works for Cigler Marani, the architecture firm charged with rejuvenating Wenceslas Square. When we met at his office, I asked Petr Kučera what had led him to start creating his online galleries.

Těšnov railway station
“It’s simple. I want to show how places looked because I believe that if you know the past you can understand the present – and you can change the future. It’s the reason why I do it.”

You have incredible images, including photos and plans. Where do you find all this stuff?

“I have a great library and every year I buy more books for it. I also have my own collection of photographs. I’ve been collecting old photos and pictures of Prague for 10 years or more now.

“I have about 2,000 pictures and a lot of plans – copies of course. And sometimes people send me old pictures. So my collection is growing each day.”

Have there been any particular series of pictures that have been popular on Facebook?

“Yes. I prepare galleries on particular themes, for example the history of a building, the history of some place, or on some event.

“I think the most popular was a gallery about the history of floods in Prague. I did this gallery in June 2013 after there was a small flood in Prague.

“I think the most popular are galleries about events – floods or war themes – or about unknown places.”

I was particularly interested in the images of the former railway station at Těšnov. It’s incredible to see what was there compared to what’s there today.

Těšnov today,  photo: Public Domain
“Yes, that’s the reason I do it! For example, the Těšnov railway station is a very well-known example of the demolition of a very nice building, a historical monument in the communist period.

“The place is still horrible but it has a future and I think it’s important to remember its history because, as I say, if you know the past you can change the future.”

Another one that to me was very interesting was on Sázavská, where there used to be a large synagogue. Now there’s a school there and my first job in Prague was teaching English in that school in the evenings. It was one of Europe’s biggest synagogues, is that right?

“I think it was the biggest synagogue in Central Europe. Because I know that now the biggest synagogue in Central Europe is in Plzeň, so I think that was the biggest one.

“That’s my favourite theme – I believe, I know, that each place has its own memory just like a person. And I like to show the memory of places.

“As you say, Sázavská has a very interesting story. The biggest synagogue in Central Europe was there and it was a very nice one. It had two towers, which is not ordinary because in the past synagogues didn’t have towers.

“It was a very big building and it was near to Náměstí Míru, where the church of St. Ludmila is. So they were interesting twins – the huge Catholic neo-Gothic church and 200 metres away the huge synagogue.

Synagogue in Sázavská street
“It was partly destroyed at the end of the war and it was totally destroyed in the 1950s, because the communist regime didn’t want to reconstruct it.”

You’ve also had galleries of unrealised plans, like, I believe, for Letná.

“Yes, that’s true. Two months ago, I bought a huge library and collection of plans by one Prague architect from the 1920s. It consists of a lot of old books and architectural journals from the first half of the 20th century.

“For me it’s like treasure, it’s wonderful, because there are a lot of projects, unrealised projects, realised projects.

“If you read these journals you can see the changes in architecture, from Art Nouveau to the National style, from the democratic regime to the communist regime.

“Now I’m scanning some pages and publishing them, because it’s very interesting. One of these plans is for Letná, but I have a lot of other galleries and I will prepare them.”

Would you say there was any particular crime committed against architecture in Prague in the 20th century, in terms of a large project that did damage to the city?

“What’s interesting is that in the communist period the housing estates in the suburbs were built and the centre was like a skansen [open-air museum].

Petr Kučera,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“It’s interesting that the old city mostly remains because it was not a priority of the communist regime – the priority was to build housing estates in the suburbs, so there are not a lot of horrible projects.

“But I think the most horrible is the north-east highway, which goes through the city and which divides the city into two halves.

“It destroyed a lot of very nice public spaces and it destroyed a lot of nice buildings. Now buildings are separated from the public space by this river of cars – for example, the National Museum or the Main Train Station.

“Another problem is Wenceslas Square, where in the 1980s the tram line in the middle of it was ended. That’s had a huge impact on all the public transport in the centre. I think that this tram line is now lacking and that’s one of the city’s big problems.

“But both problems are mostly traffic problems. Buildings were not changed a lot because it wasn’t a priority.”

Interestingly, you yourself are working on the project to redesign Wenceslas Square. What is the state of the project at the moment?

“It’s a never-ending story. It’s been running for a long time. For example, the first idea was in 1993. The competition was in 2005 and Cigler Marani Architects won.

“Now, nine years later, we have the documentation for an urban planning plan permit. I think that it’s a typical problem of Prague. Not only now, but all through history, because there is no pressure to do something new, something interesting.

Wenceslas Square,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“I think that’s the reason Prague is so old and so nice. It’s not a problem of nowadays but it’s typical of Prague historically.”

In my view there are several problems with Wenceslas Square, the biggest of which is that it’s simply hard to walk down – everybody is channelled onto these two pavements on the side. Are you optimistic that in the future, say in five or 10 years, we will have a remodelled, more pedestrian friendly Wenceslas Square?

“I hope so. The project envisages the pavements being twice as wide and the central part being paved. There would also be places for gardens or maybe for the tram in the future, because Prague doesn’t know if it’s necessary or not.

“What’s interesting is that the present appearance is the result of a remodelling in the 1980s, after the removal of the tram.

“The central part was paved but there they placed flowers and, in the lower part, grass, because the communist regime didn’t want to create an open space…”

Where people could gather?

“Yes, because of demonstrations. So it’s very funny that the present look is against people. It was intentional.

“It’s funny that the biggest demonstrations were on Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution – so it didn’t work!

“I think it’s interesting that Wenceslas Square now is the result of the communist thinking and 25 years after the Velvet Revolution it’s the same.

“Everybody knows that it’s horrible and that it has to change. But nobody wants to push that change. That’s the problem.”