Exhibit highlights heyday of Prague’s most famous square

Wenceslas Square in 1890

A new exhibition located in the upper part of Prague’s Wenceslas Square is displaying dozens of large format photos depicting the square’s golden era, which is in sharp contrast with its present state. What was once a living city boulevard has in the course of past decades turned into a rather unpleasant and crowded street with fast food venues, which locals try to avoid if they can. Ruth Frankova has more in this week’s In Focus:

Wenceslas Square in 1890
At its peak time, Wenceslas Square used to be a vital city boulevard lined with luxury department stores, restaurants and representative offices of large companies. People would travel here from all over the city to shop, meet friends in cafés and visit one of its many cinemas and nightclubs.

With the development of motor transport, in the 1920s and 30’s, Wenceslas Square had also become a busy urban intersection: trams crossed the square in three places, meeting with trolleybuses, cars and crowds of pedestrians.

But the square was also a witness to many historical events that swept the country over the past century. It served as a place for holding rallies and propaganda events. In 1945, for instance, this is where the announcement of Benes decrees took place. Three years later, at the very same spot, Klement Gottwald proclaimed the final victory of the working people.

In the hardest times of the communist dictatorship, the square became the stage for a series of monumental events. One of the biggest was the mourning for the deceased Joseph Stalin on 9 March 1953, followed just days later by the funeral of Klement Gottwald. The communist regime then frequently used the square for pro-regime rallies and processions.

All these moments are captured on the photos which are currently on display at the top of the square. I met with Petr Kučera, an architect and member of a non-profit organisation Sdružení nového města pražského, who is the author of the exhibition, to find out more:

“We have twenty-four photos from the Czech News Agency, from 1920 to 1970s depicting Wenceslas Square as a representative place of Prague, as the heart of the state.”

Petr Kučera,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Did you select the pictures yourself?

“Yes, I selected them and it was a very complicated process, because there were so many nice pictures and it was really difficult to select only some of them. But I hope I selected the best ones.”

The exhibition is entitled ‘Výkladní skříň metropole’, which translates a ‘shop window of the metropolis’. What was the golden era of Wenceslas Square?

“I would say it was mostly in the interwar period, in the 1920s and 1930s, and also after the Second World War in the 1950s and 1960s.

“There were thirteen cinemas at the time, there were luxury hotels, shopping centres, restaurants, cafés, so it was really like a salon of the city.”

When did it change for the worse?

“It happened in the 1970s, when they built the three subway or metro lines and transport was shifted from the surface under the ground.

“So Wenceslas Square stopped being final destination and only became a place for transit.”

So until then, there were tram lines going up and down the square.

“Yes, and after opening the underground, the tram line in the centre of the square was cancelled, which was a big mistake.

“They also cancelled connection between Vinohradská street and Wenceslas Square, between two parts of the city.

“There were thirteen cinemas at the time, there were luxury hotels, shopping centres, restaurants, cafés, so it was really like a salon of the city.”

“Another problem was the city highway, which was constructed in the 1970s, and this highway split the city into two halves.”

That’s right. It basically cut off the top of Wenceslas Square with the National Museum from the rest of the square.

“Yes, it is like modern city walls and it is a big problem, because nowadays, the upper part of the square is like a periphery in the centre of the city.”

So now it is not easily accessible to pedestrians.

“Yes, I think it is the main problem. It is not easily accessible to people on the surface and there is no connection with Vinohrady, with the other part of the city.”

What else do you see as a problem? One of the things that I notice walking on the square is that there is not enough space for the pedestrians.

“Yes, the pavements are narrow. It is why our studio has designed twice as wide pavements with a second line of trees, in the winning entry for a public competition.”

Your architectural studio took part in a public competition for a major reconstruction of the square. I believe that was more than ten years ago.

“Yes, it was in 2005 and it was a public competition for the complete reconstruction of Wenceslas Square. Cigler Marani Architects won the competition with a minimalistic designed inspired by the past appearance of the square.”

Wenceslas Square in 1970s,  photo: Czech Television
How come that nothing has happened since then?

“I think the biggest problem is that there are many interests and there is no political will to push things forward.

“It’s been ten years and now we start talking about the reconstruction again. Every four years there is a new political representation at the Town Hall so it is like a vicious circle.

“It is about discussion but nothing has happened so far.”

You mentioned that one of the big mistakes of the past was cancelling the trams on the square. Do you actually propose to return trams back to the square?

“Yes, one of the main points of our design was to return trams back to the square. It was one of the main ideas.

Anything else?

“We also want to introduce a second line of trees and new city furniture that would be more comfortable for people.

“And we want places for beer gardens in front of the hotels, because nowadays, there is a great demand for this.”

“I think the most important thing is to remember that the current appearance is not ideal and if you see the pictures from the past, you will understand that there is something wrong now.”

Does the current exhibition coincide with some changes that are about to happen on the square?

“There is no specific reason, but it is funny that now is actually the right time for the exhibition because the reconstruction of the National Museum has just been launched.

“Prague City Hall announced last month that they would like to go ahead with the reconstruction of the square. So there are some changes taking place right now but we didn’t know about them when we preparing the exhibition.”

So hopefully the reconstruction of the National Museum will trigger some changes in the square as well.

“I think it could help to start with the reconstruction of the lower part of the square.

“In the upper part there are problems that have to be solved before we can start the reconstruction, such as the city highway in front of the National Museum and the tram line.

“So we can’t start the reconstruction of all of the square. But in the lower part all the works are completely, so we could start there next year, if there is a political will.”

Finally, what do you want to achieve with your exhibition? Do you think the exhibition itself can help to change something?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“The aim is to show that Wenceslas Square was beautiful, and now it is actually quite horrible. But it can be beautiful again.

“I think the most important thing is to remember that the current appearance is not ideal and if you see the pictures from the past, you will understand that there is something wrong now.”