Jakub Cigler – one of the men behind the proposed makeover of Wenceslas Square

Jakub Cigler, photo: www.ciglermarani.cz

Our guest for One on One this week is Jakub Cigler, one half of the duo behind Cigler-Marani – an award-winning firm of architects whose elegant designs have helped them become one of the leaders in their field in this country. Cigler-Marani have been in the news of late because their design has been chosen by the city of Prague to revamp the Czech capital’s somewhat jaded main thoroughfare Wenceslas Square.

We started by asking Jakub Cigler how he thought this street should be perceived and what it would look like after its makeover:

“For me, Wenceslas Square is the face of Prague and the Czech Republic. If Wenceslas Square is in bad shape, it gives a signal to surrounding countries that our country is in bad shape as well.

“As regards our project, we thought it wasn’t necessary to make some completely extraordinary design. The square is a public space so it should function well, primarily for pedestrians, but it should accommodate other forms of transportation as well.

“We designed a tramline in the middle and a limited amount of lanes for cars. We have also actually doubled the size of the sidewalks. The plan is actually very similar to how Wenceslas Square looked around 1890.

“It’s a very similar project to the Champs Élysées. There are two rows of trees and ramps to garages, which are hidden from view among the trees.

“It’s a very elegant, simple project, which doesn’t want to be extraordinary or aggressive in modern terms:”

The way Wenceslas Square looks today owes an awful lot to the communist legacy. For better or worse, the socialist era left an indelible mark on the architecture of Prague. In your opinion are there any buildings from that period that actually have some architectural value, or was it a complete disaster architecturally?

“I think like everything in history, communism has two faces. The most horrible thing about this period of time was that everything got progressively worse in every single level of life.

“Communism looked like a good system to many people, but in fact, if you look at the buildings, for example; the quality of the craftsmanship and architecture of the things that were built just after the Second World War and then compare them to the buildings that were erected in the 1980s and 90s, you can see a huge difference.

“In some ways, communism hasn’t finished here. It terms of the quality of work, it is still continuing. It did a lot of damage which is still visible in this country. You can see this in the architecture and in people’s behaviour.

“This is very bad, but, as I said, everything has two faces. There were also some excellent buildings erected that met international high-quality standards in terms of their architectural value.

Ještěd tower | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International
“For example, Karel Hubáček’s Ještěd tower near Liberec [is a phenomenal building]. There is also the building that currently houses Radio Free Europe and which is the former communist parliament building.

“I think this is international-standard architecture. Maybe people don’t like the [Radio Free Europe] building near the museum on Wenceslas Square, but conceptually I think it is great architecture.

“The situation is not black and white. And it’s not about communism or non-communism. There are perhaps more bad buildings that were erected after the Velvet Revolution than before it.”

What have been the biggest changes in your field since the Velvet Revolution?

Radio Free Europe
“There is now an endless amount of opportunities, but within this endless stream of opportunities we should be asking whether it is a good thing that everything is possible.

“We should be asking whether we should somehow limit what is going on, especially when you thing of the spread of housing around the city as well as the endless amount of logistics centres and hypermarkets.

“Imagine a situation where all that was left in Prague were the things that were built after 1950 – or even after 1990 for that matter. I think we would be very surprised as architects, investors, politicians – and as a society in general – about what we are actually bequeathing the future.

“I think sometimes less is more and if you look around Prague today, you could say that this expression is very apposite.”

And what do you make of Jan Kaplický’s ‘Octopus’ building, the highly controversial structure that pipped your design for the National Library’s new premises on Wenceslas Square. Do you agree with the efforts that have been made to block the construction of this futuristic building?

National Library by Jan Kaplický
“There was an international jury for this competition. This jury was given the power to take a decision. The composition of the jury and the rules, etc. were decided two or three years before the competition and nobody objected.

“This jury had the power and a duty to decide about a building. They came to their decision. Regardless of whether I like the ‘Octopus’ or not, I should respect it. It doesn’t matter whether I think our proposal was better or worse.”

And do you like the Kaplický building? Do you think it should be built?

“Regardless of whether people trust me or not, I must say that I think the Kaplický building should be built.

“I think this building will definitely bring something to Prague which is missing here. Prague will be better and definitely not worse with the library building.

“I think it would certainly be great if this building were to be built. I think Kaplický is a very visionary man. Ten or fifteen years ago, he designed some buildings in London that everyone was initially laughing at. And now they are very successful.”

Are there any buildings that just don’t work in your opinion? If someone gave you a demolition ball and said ‘Go and knock down whichever building you want!’ which one would it be?

“What I probably most hate are these logistics centres and boxes around our cities. They are really like garbage surrounding our towns.

“[As architects] we have to introduce some quality. If we look back as old men on what we have achieved, I think we’d be pretty sad.

“Our work should be about the quality, not whether a project is big or small. It shouldn’t be fake like these shopping malls that want to look nice and shiny and expensive, but which are completely fake.

“I think Prague is real and what people like about Prague is that it has originality. There is now a lack of originals here.”