Czech commission to UNESCO urges city planners to respect character of historic centre

Puente de Carlos

Just a few days ago the Czech commission to UNESCO chaired by Senator Jaroslava Moserova issued an appeal to the Culture Ministry and Prague's Town Hall to do their utmost to preserve the character of Prague's historic city centre. The appeal came on the heels of several experts' assessments that if certain controversial projects were realised, it might lead to Prague's being struck off UNESCO's list of world heritage sites. The Czech capital has been included on the list since 1992 - is there any real weight to the threat it might be struck off in the future?

Well that depends on who you talk to, but it has to be said most observers are cool-headed on the subject and say flat-out that could never be an option. That said, there does seem to be a pervading mood in some circles that the city is not doing everything it could to preserve Prague's historic heritage. Earlier I spoke to the Czech commission to UNESCO's chairwoman Jaroslava Moserova, asking her whether she thought Prague was at risk.

"I see that there would be a risk if we committed a 'crime' against the image of the city. There was an article in front of our periodicals which was disturbing, so we thought it might be good to discuss this thing and discuss it with heritage people in Prague. I don't think there is a risk. But there would be if we didn't supervise things carefully."

So, in effect it's a wake-up call for the city...

"Yes, exactly."

One of the complaints is that people in city hall responsible for urban planning don't pay enough attention to recommendations by experts. Do you see that as a problem?

"That's exactly why we called this meeting and why we concentrated on this issue. And that's why the culture section sat for quite a while before the text was finalised. It is a warning."

Mrs Moserova's critical view is not shared, however, by Jan Knezinek, the head of City Hall's section on historic preservation. Pointing out that Prague's City Hall has received no official appeal so far, he stresses that utmost care is being taken with regards to upcoming projects. In his view at no other point in history has Prague done so much to restore and uphold its historic sites - and he says that City Hall is not about to start reversing that trend.

"In the past decade the greatest number of historic sights has been renovated. Never in the city's history have renovations been carried out in such an extent and quality. Of course, there have been some mistakes that we regret but in no case has Prague's historic "face" been damaged."

While that may be true to a point, but even Mr Knezinek admits mistakes have happened in the past: one example being an oft-mentioned business centre on Prague's Charles Square, a bland and unimaginative utilitarian box that has been criticised as an architectural blemish and aberration. That project result, says Mr Knezinek, led to changes in how future projects in Prague would be passed.

"As far as Charles Square is concerned, we are unhappy about it. The main problem is in the façade, so for any new projects, we will require detailed documentation and I will give final approval personally."

Full details on facades is a change probably welcomed by most conservationists, not least Josef Stulc, the president of the Czech committee for the International Council on Monuments and Sites. Still, the question is whether it will go to the crux of the problem, which is more complex overall, considering general design and in some cases preservation of archeologically important sites. An added problem, says Josef Stulc, is that city planners are just under too much pressure to properly balance investment on the one hand while retaining architectural balance and fluidity on the other.

Dancing House
"That's the point in question: that development is too quick and not always considerate to the qualities of the surroundings. Our system of preservation is rather complicated. There are decision makers in this sphere and advice-givers. I represent the second group, which has no executive power. The decisions makers are perhaps under certain political pressure."

In the end, it must come down to concrete project proposals and how they are passed. Conservationists have appealed for a special body being set-up that would regulate projects in pre-development and development stages. To be fair, though, it can't be said the city doesn't ever get it right: one example of a most positive addition to Prague's skyline has been the 1990's Dancing House. That has been an impressive success on which all sides can agree. Josef Stulc again:

"The Dancing House by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic is already now considered a monument, and with justice. So, there are exceptions."