Giant butterflies on renovated Máj department store spark controversy

The well-known Máj department store in the centre of Prague is soon to re-open following a two-year renovation. The long-awaited reconstruction has already sparked controversy, when it emerged that the façade of the building will be adorned with two giant butterflies made of Spitfire aircraft fuselages.

Richard Biegel | Photo: Alexis Rosenzweig,  Radio Prague International

The famous building, known as Máj, was built in the 1970s and used to house one of the few department stores in Czechoslovakia under Communism. In 2007, the boxy glass and steel structure became one of the few post-war buildings to be declared a cultural monument.

Richard Biegel, head of the Club for Old Prague, explains what makes the building, which draws on the pre-war Functionalist style combined with elements of Brutalism, so unique:

“It’s very important proof that even in the 1970s, Czech architects tried to maintain the ideas of Western architecture. The Sial studio, which was charged with the project, was one of the most progressive at the time. In the grey times of the so-called Normalisation, it showed that architecture could be of very high quality and comparable to the things done in the West.”

Máj department store in November 2022 | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

Over the past two years, Máj underwent a major reconstruction and is set to re-open to the public in just a few weeks’ time. But the recently unveiled plans to install two giant butterflies on its façade, which are supposed to flap their wings and glow in the dark, have elicited sharp criticism from conservationists, including Mr. Biegel:

“If you take the building as a stage for some exhibition, it’s a sad presentation of art itself. We need high-quality art in the public space, which can communicate with the surrounding architecture and with the public. But I am afraid that what is proposed for Máj is simply kitsch.”

While the National Heritage Institute also disagrees with placing the giant butterflies on Máj, the final decision was up to Prague City Hall’s Department of Monument Care, which decided to give the project the green light.

There is also some mystery surrounding their authorship. While they were reportedly designed by the well-known artist David Černý, he has denied involvement in the project.

Visualistaion of the reconstructed Máj department store | Photo: AMADEUS Real Estate

The owner of Máj, Amadeus Real Estate, has refused to comment, saying they will only provide details regarding the building’s final appearance ahead of its re-opening in May.

For his part, Richard Biegel still hopes the decision can be reversed. He also says the whole case reflects a wider problem of how Prague City Hall approaches preservation of post-war architecture:

“What is permitted in terms of post-war architecture is radically different from the manner in which buildings from the 18th or 19th centuries are treated. The problem is that we have very few examples today because many of the buildings were demolished. And if they are not listed, we will lose almost all of them. And that’s a very sad message about our culture and society.”