Jan Kasl: In ‘89 people hoped for hundreds of unique new buildings in Prague

Jan Kasl, photo: Ian Willoughby

Prague has obviously changed enormously over the last 30 years. But what have been the city’s most, and least, impressive construction projects since the Velvet Revolution? After the Dancing House, why did interest in audacious projects seem to cool? And how has Wenceslas Square fared? Who better to answer those questions than architect Jan Kasl, who is president of the Czech Chamber of Architects and served as mayor of Prague from 1998 to 2002. We chatted recently on Na příkopě St., in the very heart of the city centre.

Jan Kasl,  photo: Ian Willoughby
What would you say have been the biggest successes in Prague in the last 30 years, when it comes to architecture and perhaps planning?

“With planning, I would say we are maybe on the side of losses more than gains, as we still have the masterplan, the city plan, from 1999.

“The new plan is not approved and probably won’t be approved before three or four years.

“So in planning we didn’t reach much success.

“In construction or reconstruction of buildings, that’s much better.

“My feeling is that the Dancing House, Tančící dům, by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic, is probably the most known landmark in terms of contemporary architecture.

“Not everybody may like it, but it’s a unique example.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have too many of this kind.

“There are some good recent examples from just this year, like Standa [Stanislav] Fiala with two buildings: Šporkovský palác [Špork Palace], between Hybernská and V Celnici, and DRN, the recent development on Národní.

“We have the most tragic, the most complex, inefficient, lengthy process in permitting buildings, and not only in Europe.”

“Both represent high quality local architecture by a local, domestic architect.

“There are some examples of unique buildings during the last 30 years, but I’m sure that everybody wanted to have hundreds of these in 1989.”

The Dancing House was completed in 1996 and it’s one of the few daring building projects there have been. Why do you think in Prague we haven’t got more of those kind of eye-catching projects?

“Prague is very conservative in terms of planning and approvals.

“Society is quite conservative – not only the authorities [laughs].

“But we have the most tragic, the most complex, inefficient, lengthy process of permitting buildings, and not only in Europe.

“It’s a famous quote – we are in 157th or 156th in the world, far behind Cameroon and Benin and other African countries where we wouldn’t expect efficient bureaucracy.

“So we have completely inefficient bureaucracy.

Dancing House | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

“We have a system of checks and balances which is in fact putting all developments into clamps – stopping every development.

“Then we have very strong opposition within the public, within society, because there is zero trust from people to the authorities, either elected or bureaucratic authorities.

“So Prague is not able to absorb modern architecture, because we are not able to get these projects approved.

“We believe that we are unique and that we can’t have new, foreign architects designing in Prague. As if Prague hadn’t been built on the basis of foreign architects.”

“Then Prague lost its attractiveness for these investors and their architects, because of the lengthy process of absorbing new influences.

“We believe that we are unique and that we can’t have new, foreign architects designing in Prague.

“As if Prague hadn’t been built on the basis of foreign architects. Only them, in fact: The majority of architects in the last 1,000 years of our history were from Italy, Germany, France, many other countries.

“So it is an absolutely crazy situation where low investment interest, low acceptance on the part of the local environment of foreign influences and lengthy processes will persuade everybody not to start.

“Because it makes no sense. If you ask for a building permit for 10 years, you simply don’t repeat it – you don’t come again.

“It’s a pity. Prague was unique as a melting pot of architecture styles, as a city with added value with every individual building adding something new – in the same street in a different style, in a different time period – and still the mixture is Prague.

“It’s not cosmopolitan ‘somewhere’ – it’s Prague.

“Now we are trying to conserve, to stop development and to keep it as it was built up to now.

Don Giovanni hotel,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki
“Which is the wrong approach.”

What would you say are some least fortunate projects that have appeared here in the last 30 years?

“I have the popular example of the Don Giovanni hotel in Vinohrady, which is something I don’t understand, simply.

“There is no excuse, there is no apology for that.

“But there are many standard developments, buildings that could have happened as unique architecture, or good architecture, like the architecture of the 1930s in Prague.

“Or good examples from the ‘50s; Socialist Realism didn’t only bring stupid architecture.

“It wasn’t only Hotel International in Podbaba – there were very good examples of liveable buildings.

“So we have some strong ‘movement’ of not interested architecture or design.

“Thank God we don’t have too many examples of bad realisations, damaging the image of the city.

“I don’t think that Myslbek [metres from where we are speaking on Na příkopě] is a disaster.

“Myslbek was probably better when it was designed for a bank. The Myslbek bank was originally designed by Zdeněk Hölzel and Jan Kerel for a bank, for CSOB if I’m not mistaken.

“I’m not sorry for the building on the corner of Opletalova and Wenceslas Square that was demolished. Buildings are here to live, to spend their lives, to get rotten and to disappear.”

“But as a speculative development of CDC it was a building which was acceptable for every tenant who was expected to be there.

“So it’s no disaster.

“There are other buildings replacing some demolitions, such as the Flower House, as Flow East calls the building on the corner of Wenceslas Square and Opletalova St….

“I wonder how it will look in the end, because I was not persuaded by the drawings.

“But maybe we will like it in the end as part of the environment.

“I’m not sorry for the building which was demolished. There was such a discussion, taking 10 years maybe, about stopping the demolition of that house.

“Buildings are here to live, to spend their lives, to get rotten and to disappear.

“The majority of buildings should be replaced. There are some unique examples of those that you will not replace, like Prague Castle and churches, etcetera.

“But these buildings could be replaced. That said, the new buildings should be better quality.”

Wenceslas Square,  photo: Štěpánka Budková

You mentioned the Hotel Don Giovanni, which put me in mind of the trend in the 1990s for what was called Businessmen’s Baroque, a phenomenon mainly outside Prague. Where do you think that came from?

“It’s like purple coats and suits and white socks and all that missing level of taste and, let’s say, lifestyle, which we simply lost for 50 years.

“You can still see podnikatelské baroko, Businessmen’s Baroque, in satellites around Prague.

“You can see some reconstructions of banks or health insurance companies that were designed in this style.

“But if I quickly think about this, I don’t think this is something that you cannot change, replace, rebuild within a couple of years.”

Like many people I guess, I myself have been horrified to see the development of some parts of Prague, the especially touristy parts, for example on the Royal Way leading up to Charles Bridge and so on, where the shops are extremely garish and ugly, the shop fronts are horrible. Is there anything that can be done to regulate that? Or is it just the free hand of the market?

“The invisible free hand of the market [laughs] is still leading.

“Every mayor was trying to change it.

“I’m sure that even [Adriana] Krnáčová, not the most efficient mayor, was trying to do something.

“You need some legislation. If you are the owner, if it’s a municipal building, then you can not rent it to them.

“But if you are not the owner, you have very limited legal tools as to how to stop the sale of kitsch, these types of products.”

“I am a big friend of trees, but I’m not sure if the double alley will not block the view of façades, will not reduce the beautiful Champs-Élysées of Prague to something like a park.”

What about the shop fronts, though? With the shop fronts it seems like a free-for-all?

“That’s another story. Monument Protection has very limited tools and they are probably not using them, I would say, drastically.

“I’ve seen many good examples where they could fine the owners or the operators and nothing happened in the end.

“Maybe this is the real danger for Prague and its future on the UNESCO list – not so-called skyscrapers in Pankrác, but the tourist-flooded centre, the Royal Way, Karlova St., Mostecká – all these streets which have really been converted into some Disneyland type of kitsch for tourists.”

We’re talking just off the bottom of Wenceslas Square, which of course was a key site during the revolution 30 years ago. How do you view the way “Václavák” itself has developed in the last three decades?

“No good news. Nothing positive, I must say.

“I do not understand why with the result of the last competition [to remodel it] – where Kuba [Jakub] Cigler presented quite a reasonable design, a project reasonably changing the square – took 10 years until something started happening. Hopefully something will now happen.

“Because it’s a back street of the city.

One of the touristy shops in Prague,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“On Wenceslas Square cars should disappear.

“Na příkopě should be improved, but Wenceslas Square is the worst example.

“It’s linked to the magistrála [mainline], to the road which cuts the museum off from the square, but suddenly you have traffic lights, it helps.

“The tram will come, it will stop for a while.

“It will connect Vinohrady and Wenceslas Square. It will bring social security to the square. More seating. Maybe more trees.

“I am a big friend of trees, but I’m not sure if the [planned] double alley will not block the view of façades, will not reduce the beautiful Champs-Élysées of Prague to something like a park.

“It’s a square, 800 metres long, and should stay a square.

“But OK, let’s wait for the result.

“But the tram definitely should be there.

“I was supporting trams from the very beginning, from the early ‘90s.

“I would put trams on Na příkopě. Not cars but trams, like on Česká St. in Brno, to use an example.

“It would help to have a connection from the National Theatre to Náměstí Republiky.”

And there was a tram before here in the past?

“Of course, there were trams everywhere [laughs]!

Na příkopě,  photo: Mr. Granger,  Public Domain
“There were cars [on Na příkopě], which thank God are gone. There is some limited access on the other side, which is necessary for delivery, for goods, and all that.

“But trams should be here.

“You don’t even have to put wires above. They could have batteries and just on that, let’s say one kilometre all together, could run on batteries.

“That’s easy and that works – those hybrids.

“But I’m happy that trams will come from Vinohradská to Vodičkova and Jindřišská and they will go to the Main Railway Station, which is quite important – to connect the railway station to the city.”