Ego and Icons behind the Palace of Art

The model of Dali house in Prague, photo: CTK

Miro Smolak has raised the ire of many in the Czech art establishment with his grandiose idea to build a Palace of Art. The gallery is to house an extensive collection of works by the Spanish surrealist, Salvador Dali. The idea of having a Dali gallery has made for headline grabbing news, but what has been discussed less is how Miro Smolak landed one of the biggest names in architecture, Daniel Libeskind, to design the project.

"I was reading a magazine and saw an article about him. I sent him an email to New York, and within two weeks he had replied - this was last year in June - that he was coming to Europe, that I could come and see him in Berlin. So I was able to show him what I wanted. It just seemed to click between us - he is a beautiful, wise person. He said he'd think about it for two months, I got an email - yes, he would be coming to Prague, and that he loved Prague and already knew the city very well. He liked the project, and said - let's do it!"

So all it took was an email to land Libeskind, an iconoclastic architect, famous for building the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Berlin and other post-modernist structures. Smolak has no reservations about what influence a huge name like Libeskind brings to his project.

"I'm more and more convinced about it, because the whole world knows him and people will be inquisitive: what will this architect, who designed the Jewish Museum and other museums in the world, what will this architect, the designer of the tallest building in the world to be built in New York - what will he do in Prague? I think he's a good magnet to attract people - just like Salvador Dali, who continues to attract people all over the world."

Loud criticism by the head of the Czech National Gallery, Milan Knizak, has focused squarely on the question of Dali's importance to Prague. However, others have been vocal about the design of the building. A towering cathedral, said Jiri Kotalik an art-historian and conservationist. Some in the architecture world find it out of place, but others like its brashness.

The young Czech architect Martin Sladky says projects like Libeskind's inject new life into Prague that is increasingly becoming a relic of the past.

The model of Dali house in Prague,  photo: CTK
"I am feeling like this is a little mistake in the minds of the people. They feel that this is something new and everything else is old. The truth is that Prague is so nice because every age that was here brought something new, and if we stop this then Prague will be just some kind of memorial.

"We have to bring something that is contemporary. And it is not only Prague, if you look at Paris or if you look at London, every city like this does as much as they can to present the town as a place where any time in all ages there is something to see."

Sladky, architect and part-owner of De.Fakto design in Prague, says that contemporary architecture can be about making bold statements, and that superstars like Daniel Libeskind can often build monuments to their ego.

"Of course they do it for ego, I think this is the only way we can build these big projects."

What cultural entrepreneurs like Miro Smolak bank on is that international names like Dali and Libeskind will bring in big money from tourists. Martina Karaskova is a representative from Mag Consulting, a tourism research agency here in Prague. She says that the Palace of Art could be a project that attracts people

Daniel Libeskind,  photo: CTK
"In the Czech republic there is very nice nature and spa areas, but culture is every important to Prague and it brings a lot of money.

"Of course we expect there to be more tourists come into the Czech Republic when there will be this museum because it could be very attractive for foreign tourists, from the whole Europe."

However, even those at Mag Consulting say that there is no conclusive evidence that new buildings generate profits. With an estimated 750 million crown purse-string attached, it will be hard for the Palace of Art to bring back its investment. Martin Sladký again:

"This is the very big difference compared to the sculptures. It is absolutely about the money, the money has to be brought back. And if it is not, then, maybe the investor who is loving you is hating you after building one building that is not bringing the profit. It's absolutely for sure, there is no other way."

While Smolak insists he has over 100 million crowns in promises from Arab and Russian philanthropists, he knows he is a long way from getting the funds needed to build the project. But one thing that is not in doubt is his conviction.

"The Palace of Art, designed by Daniel Libeskind, with a permanent Salvador Dali exhibition - I am convinced that it will in no way harm Prague - on the contrary, it will be a magnet, attracting further millions of people. I'm quite certain."