Letter from Prague

Zizkov Tower

There is an architectural style that is common to Prague, Vienna and Budapest - a style synonymous with the Austro-Hungarian empire. Then there are the more recent buildings one finds in Prague and in any number of cities around the world - the marble-floored shopping malls and the office blocks with shimmering glass windows that are the monuments to capitalist prosperity. But the last century also left a mark on Prague that is more Vladivostok than Vienna, more grey than gold - the structures designed under the label of socialism.

I arrived in Prague exactly two weeks ago, and it is my first time in the city. Whenever someone asks me what my first impressions are, I usually reply with some sort of tourist cliché that uses the word "beautiful." In fact, I heard this so many times before coming here that I wasn't really surprised by Prague's beauty. But what struck me from the very first day - and what has fascinated me ever since - is what many would regard as Prague's "ugly side" - the buildings and monuments that are the relics of the communist period.

When I took my first walk up to Prague Castle and looked from it over to the Old Town, I saw "golden Prague's" church spires, the gilded rooftops of theatres and concert halls... - and then, out of the blue, a huge rocket-like structure that is the city's main TV and radio antenna - Zizkov Tower. For a panorama that graces an endless number of postcards, snow domes and t-shirts, this very obvious structure is more often than not left out of the repertoire of Prague attractions that travel agencies, souvenir shops and the Czech tourist board deliver to visitors. Not that you would want to try to fit that antenna into a snow dome anyway....

One afternoon I took a walk up to the Prague quarter of Zizkov to observe the tower and another communist leftover - the National Memorial and former Communist Party Mausoleum. Even close up, both structures looked out of place in a quarter otherwise characterised by older buildings. Below the tower was a little park filled with senior citizens chatting away - perhaps talking about the TV news that the antenna was now providing such a clear picture of? - while another group that seemed to be well represented at both places were skateboarders, putting to use the spacious concrete plazas that former functionaries had bedecked the city with. Yet there were no tourists.

It may seem strange, but while my fellow visitors from all over the world were looking at "golden Prague" on the other side of town, I was most fascinated by what Prague's grey period had bestowed upon the eye. Perhaps it's because I find the rest of the buildings, bridges and other structures quite justifiable, quite understandable - because they are, of course, very beautiful. But this more recent architecture is harder to explain: it isn't so pretty, but it's still there and all of Prague's citizens who can see, who watch television and listen to the radio, and who skateboard have a relationship with them with they like it or not.

The Zizkov Tower was also one of the last structures the Communists gave to "the people," with its construction beginning in 1984. To understand the experience of the Czechs during the communist period - an experience that many people find difficult or confusing to speak about - and to understand the current process of coming to terms with this past, perhaps the visitor to Prague can begin by looking at the relationship between people and the socialist aesthetic that they confront everyday. That way, we will also realise that Prague isn't just the beauty of the Old Town that we see in all the tourist brochures - it is also the bizarre socialist realism of its apartment buildings, monuments and offices. And as you walk up to Zizkov Tower, it may put a smile on your face, too: some new functionary has allowed an artist to stick on it a number of sculptures of babies that appear to be crawling up the tower! So Prague's citizens are still having the last laugh on communism, thirteen years after the Velvet Revolution.