Czech protesters run out of patience as Prague brutalist building faces demolition


Protesters this week braved freezing temperatures to protest the pending demolition of what they regard as one of the best examples of so-called Brutalist architecture from the 1970s in the then Czechoslovakia. They argue that the latest episode is one of many recent ones and epitomises the failure of local and national heritage authorities to properly protect a broad swathe of monuments in Prague and the rest of the country.

Papier maché figures of recently resigned culture minister Daniel Herman and a series of buildings that protestors say his ministry and other authorities have condemned to demolition played out a short play on the steps of the Transgas building in Prague this week. The plot was repetitive – the architectural merits of the buildings were outlined and the minister either covered his ears or gave excuses why he could not stand in the way of developers. Some of those buildings were in Prague and some in regional centres, many were relatively modern.

Prague’s Transgas building is not on the normal city tourist track although it lies close to the centre of the city above Wenceslas Square but on the other side of the busy highway that dissects the centre. It actually lies right next to the main Czech Radio building. The complex comprises three buildings, one which gives the impression of doubling up as a rather squat wartime bunker, but one of glass and steel which majestically rises above it. It was completed in 1978 and the name of the building, as well as it design with metal pipes running here and there, refer to the national gas importer and transport company tasked with taking brotherly deliveries of natural gas from the Soviet Union and sending it on to other customers in the west.

"Very few such buildings are now in the Czech Republic and Prague so it’s important to save every one of these."

In more recent times the building has not fared well. Vacated by the Czech and Slovak fuels and energy ministry. The gas transport company was privatised and the building was sold to a Slovak real estate company HB Reavis in mid-2014. The first hints of demolition surfaced a year later and in spite of calls from a series of conservation agencies and bodies the process paving the way for destruction has proceeded with few obstacles from national and city authorities. And that’s one of the main reasons why calls to save the Transgas building have been so strong. A series of architectural experts on Monday night denounced the National Heritage Institute and Prague city conservation experts for failing to list the building for conservation in good time and thereby safeguarding its future.

The Ministry of Culture and its recent minister, Daniel Herman, has also come under fire from protesters for first suggesting before October elections that he could move to prevent demolition but changing his tune once the elections ended. In mid-November the ministry ended its evaluation of the building and effectively gave the all clear for demolition.

Transgas,  photo: Barbora Linková
One of the demonstrators at the evening protest, sales trainer Lukaš Malatek, remembers the Transgas complex being completed when he was 17. He explained why he liked it:

"Because it’s unique and from the 1970s. It’s like the Centre Pompidou. Something like La Défense in Paris. The architects wanted to make it like that. Very few such buildings are now in the Czech Republic and Prague so it’s important to save every one of these. And this building is important."

Malatek says that while many of his own generation still have mixed views about it – with those views often shaped by their opinions of the communist regime – many younger people appreciate the Transgas complex for its bold architectural statement and the imaginative mix of concrete, steel, and glass which was being practiced across the whole of Europe:

"We are still analysing our legal possibilities and we are trying to mobilise the public and possibility the new government to step in."

"This was from the start a shock for normal people as well as the communists. So it was like ‘Oh that’s ugly.’ As well as that, it was supported by the communists and the state police. For normal middle aged people it’s ugly. But for all young people it’s ‘Wow, this is great. In the 70’s we were also great.’ That’s why. "

And he argues that the modern multifunctional complex that the property developer wants to put in place of the Transgas building offers nothing new or original compared to the 1970s.

"All these are the same and there is nothing unique. So, okay, it’s like come here, work, buy, and enjoy. But don’t think it over. Don’t think about what it means and so on. "

Transgas | Photo: Dominika Bernáthová,  Radio Prague International
SOS Transgas is one of the leading organisations protesting the demolition. One of its leaders and spokesman is Martin Benda. He ran through where the current situation surrounding the building is:

"The situation is that the ministry evaluated the process to be legal and that they have no right to change the assessment and they will keep it as a structure that can be demolished and which is not a cultural heritage. This is even though all the committees at the ministry and the specialised bodies say that it should be registered as a [cultural] monument but that it’s simply too late for them to that now because they would have to compensate the investor for all the investments made. That is primarily the project for the new building there. It is quite frustrating and quite bad. We are still analysing our legal possibilities and we are trying to mobilise the public and possibility the new government to step in."

Basically, Benda says local and national Czech authorities fear that they face an international arbitration case for loss of earnings and investment opportunities if the Slovak owner was denied he chance to proceed with its project. That he says, is now uppermost in the minds of the Czech authorities. SOS Transgas though is look to evaluate whether the investor really could have the right to claim so much in damages given the fact that its investment so far has not been that high and it when the purchase was made it was never a clear cut case that heritage authorities would not step in.

"I think that should be checked by a lawyer which we are actually now seeking. It would be a lawyer who would be able to do that for some money which we are now seeking. I don’t think [the investor’s] investments were that high. It could be tens of millions of crowns rather than hundreds of millions. They bought the structure before asking anyone whether it is or not a cultural monument. They do business and business is a risk, particularly this one in a UNESCO zone is a risky operation."

The developers are hoping to see the old building come down quickly and their plans come to fruition by 2020.