Eva Jiřičná, part 2: Wenceslas Sq. “biggest loss” in post-1989 development of Prague

Eva Jiřičná

Stripped of her citizenship by Czechoslovakia’s Communist authorities after 1968, architect Eva Jiřičná, then in her late 20s, remained in London. In the UK her sleek interiors were a major success and she soon developed an international reputation. It was not until the 1990s that Jiřičná was able to return to her native land. However, she wasn’t long in making up for lost time, designing a number of buildings that made their mark on Prague and Zlín, the town of her birth. In the second half of a two-part interview, I asked the architect about her experiences of working in the Czech Republic. Perhaps surprisingly, she had been reluctant to take on projects here in the immediate post-1989 period.

Eva Jiřičná | Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International
“I didn’t want to do it. Because I thought all my [Czech] professional colleagues, who were completely deprived of proper work, while I had a chance of working… They weren’t always ideal jobs, but I had tremendous opportunities to learn, to teach, which none of my colleagues could really talk about.

“So I thought I wouldn’t take any professional opportunities which might now be offered to them.

“Unfortunately, the situation was such that there were too many working opportunities and my colleagues had no experience. They were kind of not really terribly interested, though some were.

“The first job that I took on was to do offices for Andersen Consulting in Frank Gehry’s building, only because it was a competition; they asked me to take part in the competition, and there were no Czech architects invited.

“So I thought, I’m not really taking any work from anybody.

“When we did that job I was asked by Prague Castle whether we would do the Orangery for Václav Havel.

“At that time I was still working from London. And of course there was so much work that it wasn’t really a question of stealing work from anybody.

“Then we were asked to do Hotel Josef. In the meantime, I had been asked to teach in Prague.

“Havel was the most magnificent guy you can imagine. He was a totally loyal friend.”

“And I opened a little office here. It’s not very big, but we have been doing work in the Czech Republic.

“The office consists entirely of Czech people, so I’m helping them with my experience, to learn what I know.

“I also teach them how to deal with contractors. Nobody knew how in the very beginning. In 1989 there really were no proper contracts. People had no skills [laughs].”

You mentioned the Orangery at Prague Castle. You also redesigned the building we’re in now, the Prague Crossroads [formerly St. Anne’s Church], for Václav Havel. Tell us about your interactions with Mr. Havel.

“I met him when he was given an honorary degree at Oxford.

“When I was congratulating him – because I knew him from the period before the invasion, in 1968, when he was a dissident and we used to meet – he whispered, I’m looking for a little church in Prague, would you help me?

Prague Crossroads,  photo: Karlosak,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“I said, Of course I would. So a few weeks later he called me and said, Come, I think that I’ve found a church.

“It was in the middle of freezing, freezing winter. Snow, ice.

“And we came to look at St. Anne’s Church, which was full of scaffolding. There was a leaking roof, the walls were wet and all the frescoes that you now see were painted over. It was in a desolated state.

“There was a kind of site lift. Havel suffered from vertigo so he said, You go up. He was only looking at the loft through a tiny little space next to the lift tower.

“So I went up and I said, This is absolutely beautiful, I’ve never seen anything so beautiful, the loft is brilliant.

“Then he put his hands over his eyes and he did go up and said, You are right – what are you going to do about it?

“Immediately I said, I think the best thing is to do conservation – to leave it as a ruin, but take all the scaffolding out. And he said, Great.”

“The Prague historical buildings department just wants to keep everything almost like a skansen, unchanged.”

What impression did Havel make on you at the personal level?

“He was the most magnificent guy you can imagine. He was a totally loyal friend.

“He started from nothing. He wasn’t able to go to school – he didn’t even have A levels. He worked so extremely hard.

“Is there any other politician anywhere in the world who would have done such an enormous amount of work? His literary work, his theatre plays.

“He had a fantastic sense of humour. He suffered for the sake of his conscience. He was one of those people who was always a helping hand.

“He didn’t mind his illness. When we were working on the church and he had a high temperature, he still came when he saw that it was necessary for him to make a decision. He was absolutely indestructible.

“And his ideas, his way of thinking… Yes, you may disagree with on certain issues, but my goodness me, if every politician in the world was like him, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in.”

The Prague you returned to after 1989 obviously looked much different than Prague looks today. How well do you think the development of Prague has been handled over the years?

Wenceslas Square,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki
“Partially badly. That is also something that applied to London after 1945. London started being developed and some of it has now come down – because it was not really the right answer to the problem.

“Lots of housing has now been pulled down that had been necessary because of the shortage of accommodation and housing after the war.

“Prague, I think, is not dissimilar.

“I personally consider the biggest loss to be Wenceslas Square, because it was one of the most beautiful urban places, as I remember it – and it still was in 1989, or 1990, when I saw it for the first time.

“Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near its original glory.

“Lots of historical buildings have also been badly either reconstructed or changed.

“Now I think there is another extreme – that the historical buildings department just wants to keep everything almost like a skansen [outdoor museum], unchanged.

“That’s also not going to be the answer for the future.

“So it was not always successful.”

Jan Kaplický,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
You were the head of the international commission to select a design for a new National Library building at Letná here in Prague. It ended with your friend and former partner Jan Kaplický winning, but – in the face of major opposition – the project never actually went ahead. What did you take away from that whole experience surrounding the National Library building?

“That was a very sad story which actually shows how the Czech Republic, even if it had moved into a new era with Havel in 1989, became completely stubborn to look around and accept that international competitions and international law is somewhat different to what communist law is.

“Because the conditions for architectural competitions are still the same as I remember when I was a freshly qualified architect in Prague in the early 1960s.

“Unfortunately, there was a kind of jealousy mixed with a lack of self-criticism and, of course, absolutely terrible politicians messing up a purely professional situation and poking their nose into something which never, ever belonged to them.

“That somebody in a position of power – like the president of the Czech Republic or the mayor of Prague – can actually go against the jury and just claim their preferences against fairly invited members of a professional team who made their judgement, who were appointed to do so, including the Czech government… unbelievable!

“But what does Prince Charles do in London? Exactly the same.

“So, take it as you like [laughs]. Terrible!”

“Millions of my favourite memories happened in Prague. Of course you miss it.”

You’ve been living in the UK for almost 50 years. You’re here in Prague quite often but as somebody who’s based there, is there anything you miss about the Czech Republic?

“I miss lots of things. But as you say, it’s almost 50 years. I left when I was 29 and if you take off those years when you don’t understand anything, a bigger proportion of my life has taken place in England than has taken place here.

“But to be able to cross Charles Bridge and to walk on Kampa and to see Prague from the road leading to the Castle, Chotkovy sady, or to go around Prague Castle… millions of my favourite memories happened in Prague.

“Of course you miss it. And I hope I will never be a refugee again.”