Jakub Cigler: Demolition of Brutalist building makes me wonder if my own designs will last

Jakub Cigler

Jakub Cigler is perhaps THE architect of post-1989 Prague. His Jakub Cigler Architekti are behind the ongoing remodeling of Wenceslas Square and have also designed such buildings as Quadrio, Florentinum and The Park in Chodov. The studio is also involved in the massive project to overhaul Masaryk Train Station and the surrounding area. I spoke to Jakub Cigler, who is 61, at his company’s offices in the Podolí district.

You grew up in Malá Strana. How was that?

“It is possible to find the places where it is kind of still old Malá Strana.”

“It was basically a village in the very centre of Prague.

“In my childhood there were no tourists, I would say, at all, because Western countries were completely isolated from us – or the opposite: we were isolated from them!

“As I said, it was a village where there were mostly old people – and a very old-fashioned way of living; there were gas lamps.

“I was born in a relatively newly built house – it was from 1938.

“So it was slightly different experience from that of, for example, my school mates from elementary school.

“When I visited them they had very simple, primitive kind of, I would say, medieval [laughs] standards!

“Since then wherever I lived outside Malá Strana I was always kind of starving [laughs].

“So after a couple of years of living in other districts of Prague I bought a flat and I live there now, again.

“It’s very different today, but it is possible to find the places where it is kind of still old Malá Strana.”

Prague Castle and Malá Strana | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

What was it that drew you to architecture in the beginning?

“I didn’t realise that it had some influence, to be born in this place.

“But over the years I realised how strong, how deep, an influence it has being born in a nice environment, in the middle of fascinating architecture designed by the best Italian, German and Czech architects: from the Gothic period or the Romanesque, through to Baroque and up to even Functionalist buildings.

“So it’s a place full of very original architecture and it was very inspiring.”

Malá Strana with the church of St. Nicholas | Photo: Oleg Schakurow,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

After you graduated from the Czech Technical University in the late 1980s you went to London, where you worked at Future Systems with Jan Kaplický. How did you get to London before ’89? And how did you get to work with Kaplický?

“When Jan Kaplický found out that I was studying architecture he was very helpful, sending me a lot of magazines and books.”

“To be honest, I feel like a very lucky person, because I was born in a nice place and I was born into an artistic family.

“Both my parents are sculptors. All their friends and this whole environment, their relatives… it was very special.

“Therefore it was no coincidence that my parents were friends with Jan Kaplický, even though he had emigrated and lived abroad.

“They kept in contact with him and when he found out that I was studying architecture he was very helpful.

“He was sending me a lot of magazines and books about architecture.

“So I was kind of lucky to go to study architecture already prepared somehow, differently to my schoolmates.

“Later, in the late 1980s, he invited me to London to work on the competition for the Bibliotheque nationale de France.

“That was an international competition, organised for Francois Mitterrand.

“It was an amazing experience.

“In the end the Future Systems proposal was second, so it was kind of fascinating for me: to be from Communist Prague and all of a sudden to be working in London on such an important project.”

Jan Kaplický | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

Jan Kaplický did a lot of amazing designs but didn’t actually see that many of his buildings, or his designs for buildings, realised. Did you in a way learn from him how not to do things, how to be more effective and actually get things built?

“I don’t know whether I learned from him.

“I was very enthusiastic about his high-tech style of architecture at that time; he influenced my early years a lot.

“But he was a very introverted person and therefore he had a kind of hard time working with clients.

“And I think that it’s one thing to be a talented architect, but it’s also very important to be communicative, and this was his weaker side.

“Therefore for him his relationship with his wife, Amanda Levete, was very important.

“She kind of helped him very much later, in the ‘90s and later years, to complete a couple of very important projects which were very influential for world architecture.

“I think this work was an influence on a lot of other architects.”

Lord's Media Centre designed by Future Systems of architect Jan Kaplický | Photo: Albatros / Alan Záruba  (Alba Design)

You have been running your own studio in Prague for a couple of decades now. One of your big projects have been the remodeling of Wenceslas Square. What was your basic concept for Wenceslas Square?

“Since 2005 we have been struggling with many mayors and many clerks in the city to finish it.”

“Wenceslas Square is a public space which was a market and is approximately 700 years old.

“It has changed many times during this long period and this [current], let’s say, form of the square, which was implemented during socialism, reflected an approach which was not contemporary, which made it kind of problematic as a public space in the very centre of Prague.

“There was a competition in 2005, which we, as an office, won.

“Since that time we have been struggling with many mayors and many clerks in the city to finish it.

“Because these days it’s very complicated to get the agreement of all the public institutions and, in a way, the entire society.

“But the aim was to widen the sidewalks, to increase the public space for pedestrians, to decrease the areas, let’s say, dedicated to cars and to bring back the tram, which was there many years ago.

“The aim is to make it easier to access this space – which is almost a kilometer long – for the public who are living and staying in the area.”

Visualization of the future form of Wenceslas Square | Photo: Jakub Cigler architekti

Already it looks a lot better, especially the bottom part. Are you optimistic that the square can be revived in such a way that it is actually a place that people want to go again?

“After a couple of months of the lower part of Wenceslas Square being finished it is already visible that this part has different life than the upper part.”

“It is a very interesting point. When we were preparing the project during these 18 years, I was wondering whether it will change also the way of life on the square.

“Of course, you can never be sure of what will happen.

“And now, let’s say, after a couple of months of this lower part being finished it is already visible that this part has different life than the upper part.

“Also I have some information that even the rents in the neighborhood buildings [in the lower part] are increasing, because there is bigger interest for shops to be there – quality shops.

“Looking backwards, it’s kind of fascinating that the change of the sidewalks, the pavement, and bringing in some more trees and water features can really change the life in this space so much.

“This is what I want to underline: architects sometimes concentrate or focus mostly on designing buildings, but I would say maybe even more important is designing the space around these buildings.”

Wenceslas Square,  statue of St. Wenceslas with the National Museum in the background | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

You’ve been involved in many major projects in Prague, including Quadrio, The Park in Chodov, Florentinum. Which of those are you particularly proud of?

“I am proud of all of them. It’s like I have six kids and I can’t say which one I like more [laughs].

“I would say The Park in Chodov was for me very important; it was kind of a school.

“It taught me how to deal with the public space and how to deal with landscaping; it was part of our profession that wasn’t very much taught in our schools in my days, and I don’t know if students are taught it enough nowadays either.

“We had a very skilled client and it was an amazing project: in the middle of nowhere, next to the highway, kind of an abandoned space – and all of a sudden you have a street full of people, you can hear a lot of languages there, there are people eating in the parks and it’s kind of life which wasn’t there at all.”

Chodov | Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International

What is your involvement in the project to revitalize and build new buildings at the Masaryk Train Station?

“Above Masaryk Station we are designing a new public space which will be the size, approximately, of Malostranské náměstí.”

“We are the local architects for Zaha Hadid Architects, from London, and this project, this building, will be finished in a couple of months.

“I think it’s a great achievement. Also I think it’s a great job from Penta, the investor, which decided to invite an international architect to do this project in Prague.

“In the adjacent area, above the railway station, we are designing a new public space which is pretty large; it will be the size, approximately, of Malostranské náměstí in Malá Strana [laughs].

“For me it’s a very important project because to create in Prague 1, in very center of the city a new public space which didn’t exist – and this area was dividing the city into the area around Hybernská Street and the Main Railway Station on one side, and on the other the area around Florenc Bus Station…

“So the covering of the railroad will create not only a public space but also a kind of hub where three stations connect together and access will be very easy.

“I think it is a very important project that will change the life in the centre of Prague.”

Visualization of the Masaryk railway station | Photo: Penta Investments

Doesn’t this project also envisage or count on the fact that there will be a fast train from the airport? The airport train is kind of an evergreen of Prague and has been talked about for years. Is it actually going to happen?

“I don’t have a crystal ball [laughs], but I think sooner or later it will happen.

“The question is whether this train will go from airport to Masaryk station or somewhere else.

“But I think it’s important that it’s not connecting only the airport but also a lot of other places in Prague’s surroundings.

“It’s important to educate people to use trains more and to have trains coming more and more to the centre of Prague.

“Therefore I think Masaryk Station is a great station, because you are immediately in the heart of Prague.

“You can get better access than with the Main Railway Station, which is kind of bit disconnected from the centre.

“So I think Masaryk Station will always keep a very important position, and I think it’s very good that the Czech railway authorities are keeping this station alive.”

Visualization of the Masaryk railway station | Photo: Penta Real Estate

People say the planning process, or the process of getting planning permission, is super slow in Prague. How does that affect your work?

“Democracy is understood as everyone can influence everything.”

“It affects it a lot, because it’s not possible to base the business of the studio only on a couple of projects.

“It’s necessary to maintain a range of projects and to be able to react flexibly to the slowing down in some time schedules.

“It’s a very difficult illness, but I don’t believe it will change.

“I think it is a reflection of the current status of our society, which doesn’t understand what democracy is [laughs].

“Democracy is understood as everyone can influence everything and I think that is, as I said, an illness which will take time to improve.

“This [planned] new law, the construction law, I’m afraid will not improve anything; maybe it will be even worse [laughs], as usual.

“I think human beings are flexible and we are able to cope with these problems.

“So I think it’s necessary to try to improve it, but also to be able to cope with the current status.”

Construction site | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

You have said in the past that the demolition of the Brutalist Transgas building in the centre of Prague was the right thing to do [Jakub Cigler Architekti have designed a new building for the site to be built in the coming years]. But as you know many people were upset about that. This is a big issue in Prague: should these Communist-era buildings be preserved or demolished?

“The Transgas building never created a living kind of environment; it was a dead place.”

“I think it is not possible to say yes or no.

“I think every period of time has left, in Prague and elsewhere, quality buildings and not quality buildings.

“This building was definitely interesting, as a piece of architecture.

“But the Transgas building was a ‘solitaire’ in the structure of the urban blocks of Vinohrady.

“It was very unconnected with the pattern of the city in this area and I convinced, kind of easily, the monuments department to get the approval for our new proposal.

“Because this Transgas building never created a living kind of environment; it was a dead place and it was a place that was kind of abandoned from normal public life.

“Therefore I think it is good that it was demolished.

“I admire a lot of buildings from this era. For example, the tower on Ještěd [in North Bohemia] or the building in the neighourhood [of Transgas], the Federal Assembly building, which is now the new part of the National Museum.

“I think they are great achievements, but this [Transgas] building was not great, you know; even the author realized that it is not a building which must stay in the city.

“So I think it’s necessary to openly discuss with the experts which buildings it is, let’s say, adequate to keep and, eventually, protect, and which it is better to replace.

“This discussion is immature in Prague, because people are kind of only looking at what date a building was built; if it is Brutalist, okay, it’s good.

“But if it is Brutalist that doesn’t mean that it must be good.”

Transgas building | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

Imagine a situation where I can somehow give you almost magical power to improve Prague, or just kind of freedom to do what you think is the right thing to do. What would you do to make the city better?

Lužická street in Prague Vinohrady | Photo: Jiří Vlček,  Czech Radio

“I think the city is great and it doesn’t need much.

“But I think the public spaces should be improved and if I had this magical power [laughs] I would plant a lot of trees in the streets.

“I think it’s kind of simple, easy, but it’s very important.”

But wouldn’t you then have less parking spaces and more people angry that they can’t park?

Tram in Malá Strana | Photo: JamesQube,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“I think to park a car on the street is not a human right.

“I’m struggling to park my car almost every day in Malá Strana and that’s teaching me to use public transport and trams, instead of commuting from my office to my home and back.

“I think this is about the changing of habits: We think that cars are absolutely necessary, but that’s not so true.”

I guess more than any other architect maybe you have helped to transform Prague in the last 30 years or so. What’s your feeling when you drive around and you see these buildings and you think, I did that one, I did that one?

“It is great. But of course I ask myself, in relation to Transgas… maybe in some years some of these buildings will be demolished because I made some mistake.

“Or I would be happy one day if somebody said, This building can stay.

“You know this is kind of big question: whether we make things right?

“It is necessary to ask ourselves whether we are doing what we are doing properly, and so on.

“I must admit that I am changing my opinion. I was a very big enthusiast about high-tech architecture.

“But now I am promoting very much using wood and stone and, let’s say, sustainable materials.

“Because the building industry is responsible for 40 percent of C02 emissions, which is from the long term unacceptable.

“So, you know, architects have a big responsibility to also participate more in the sustainability of the future.”

Jakub Cigler | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International