My Prague – Adam Gebrian

Adam Gebrian, photo: Ian Willoughby

Adam Gebrian is a young architect and journalist who has a regular column in the newspaper Lidové noviny, so naturally a tour of “his Prague” included stops at a couple of the city’s most interesting contemporary spaces. But let’s start today’s show at what he considers the most vibrant spot in the Czech capital right now: the Náplavka riverside walkway beneath the embankment Rašínovo nábřeží. Over a beer at (A)void, a rusty old boat into a “floating gallery” with a great view, I put it to Gebrian that Náplavka can at times be extremely crowded.

Adam Gebrian,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I think now it’s getting to the point when it might be even too much – it’s a victim of its own success. We are exactly in this spot and I think the only thing that would help would be if there were other attractive spaces where people would go – and I think that’s happening.

“Especially during the warm nights it’s overcrowded and once you have to wait for a beer for two or three minutes, or 10 minutes, I think it’s not really great.

“But on a day like today, when it’s around 20 or 25 degrees, I think it’s still OK. It’s crowded but with local people. They pass by, they cycle, they run, they look, or they sit…”

What kind of people come here?

“That’s probably the most interesting thing about this whole story – it’s all kinds of people, from super young to old to rich to poor. That I really like.

“All of them go to these terrible toilets and all of them walk on this not so good pavement and they have to interact. That’s the role of a public space.”

It seems to me that it still isn’t that well known. There are people who come here very often, but I know many people who don’t know anything about it, even people who’ve been in Prague for years.

“That might be a more general story about Prague. I think there are many places that are not perfectly accessible. If somebody came from abroad he would look at Prague’s islands and say something like, wow, they are basically not accessible. Štvanice, Střelecký ostrov – it’s hard to get in.

Náplavka | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“But also that’s the reason why they are still quality spaces. If they were easily accessible, I think they would immediately become tourist spots and they would lose a lot of their appeal.

“And this is similar. Even though we are right in the city centre, there is no metro station nearby, for example.

“Of course, you can go by tram, but also we are a bit lower, we are separated by a wall, and sometimes you have to look for the closest staircase – it takes, like, 200 metres to be able to get in.

“Let’s say the best garden in Prague is Vojanovy sady and its quality is based on the fact that there is only one entry. If there were six of them, like in Valdštejnova zahrada, then it wouldn’t be interesting any more.

“I think here we are in kind of tension in that it’s accessible but not so greatly accessible.”

Also it seems to me that because it’s a public space it isn’t just commercial with bars making money. People come here, they bring a few cans of beer, or they bring nothing and just sit.

“Absolutely. The people who run bars here are very interesting and also produce cultural productions. They earn some money out of it, but I think the majority of it they invest back in this place. And you can see that.

 (A)void Floating Gallery,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“So, hopefully this is going to stay like this for a while. As yet, there is nobody who is just trying to get as much money as possible and invest it somewhere else.

“There are a couple of restaurants close to the river in the northern part of Prague, which I think is one of the worst parts of Prague, and you would never go there.

“Right now it’s in a pretty good balance here. Let’s see how long it will stay. Because normally in every city it never stays. In a couple of years it’s going to get worse, I guess.”

Why do you think it’s taken so long for this area to develop as it has? It’s been here forever, Prague has been flourishing for many years.

“In a place like this… In a way, it’s a big place. But when you look at which parts could be commercially rented, they are very small.

“They are small holes in this very old wall and the size of each plot is something like from 25 to 50 square metres. So if you look at it from a commercial point of view, it’s not very attractive…”

These are kind of tunnels inside the embankment?

“Yes. I think it needed somebody who was not interested in commercial profit, and there are not so many people like this in Prague [laughs].

“And somebody thought, this is a great place, I’m not going to earn tonnes of money out of it, but I think it’s an interesting spot and if we work on it, it can be a really great public space.”

Hotel Metropol,  photo: Ian Willoughby

Hotel Metropol is a designer hotel located at the city centre end of Národní St. Inside its sleek, open to the street café, my guide explains why he’s chosen the location as one of the three destinations on our short tour of the Czech capital.

“It’s one of my favourite spots, because basically nobody ever goes here. It feels like you are in a luxurious, beautifully designed, very expensive hotel.

“It’s accessible to everybody and it’s not really expensive. I enjoy the fact that there is nobody here, which is rare in the packed centre.

“So if you are looking for an oasis of no people, you can just sit here and have a coffee or beer.”

I’ve often passed here, but it never entered my head to come in.

“I understand and I think there are several reasons for that. One of them is that it looks really sleek and luxurious, but also cold and open and not, let’s say, romantically beautiful.

“Also it has small details that don’t really invite you in, even though there’s a huge, fully-glazed façade that you can lift up – and there is no height difference between the pavement and the interior, so it’s really exactly the same level.

“The architect in his mind did everything to invite people in, but it’s not happening. So it’s an interesting paradox.”

Construction site next to Tesco  (Máj) building,  photo: Kristýna Maková

Also across the street from here is one of Prague’s best-known modern buildings, Tesco, previously known as Máj. What’s your view of that building?

“It’s been an important building in Czech history. It was finished in around 1975 and it was done by good designers and a good architect, and it was well constructed by a Swedish construction company, which was unique at that time.

“There was an interesting concept in that there is an escalator hall, which is behind the building. I think the original idea was that the building would be doubled and it would be in between.

“That never happened, so there was a fully-glazed escalator hall. But right now it’s gone, because there’s going to be a new building next to it so they’ve made it blind – it’s covered. And I think covering the escalator hall has led to the building losing its main quality.”

Perhaps 10 minutes’ walk away from Hotel Metropol, just by the Staroměstská metro station, is Café Mistral, a spot with good, reasonably priced food and a bare but cool interior. But Gebrian is the architecture journalist – I’ll let him describe the place.

“We are in an environment that I really like. It’s really simple, in a bit of a Scandinavian way. It’s in two or three colours and two materials. There is concrete on the ground, this white wood and greyish painting. And that’s it.

“It was done by a young architect whose name is Jiří Zhoř. I really enjoy it as a striking contrast to what it was before.”

Hotel Metropol,  photo: Ian Willoughby

Previously it was called Arzenal and it was designed by Bořek Šípek, who was big architect here in the 1990s.

“Yes, and I hope we’ve moved somewhere else, to some different dimension of architecture.

“We have two proofs of that. This place is one and the other is called Red Pif and it’s also close by. They changed owners and the owners found different architects – and both of them decided that nothing would remain from the previous design [by Šípek].

“In this case, there are only the shop windows and in the other case it’s just a door handle, and everything else is way, way simpler.

“I think that’s how it should be. I don’t think you should go to a restaurant probably because of how it looks inside.

“In a way it’s neutral and this is what I enjoy. We are so much surrounded by advertisements and all this stuff, and in here I think it’s calm.”

Aren’t there a few places like this in Prague now? For example, Pod lipami is quite small but it has similar décor.

“There are places like this and I think there are more and more of them. I think it’s kind of like more adult taste than there was before.

Café Mistral,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I think the ‘90s was a pretty direct reaction to what was before. During communism, everything was grey and simple and made out of concrete panels, and of course the natural reaction would be, let’s go for the opposite. For instance, Hotel Hoffmeister in Prague – late post-modernism.

“I think it took us a while to understand that there is also beauty in simplicity and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s related to these apartment panel buildings.”

There are a few tables in front here, and now that’s extremely common in Prague – there are many places with outdoor seating. I was even reading that conservationists were against too many places opening with outdoor seating, or just being outdoor places. Can a city have too many outdoor spots?

“In my mind, probably not. But in Prague I understand what it’s about a bit. I don’t think it’s necessarily about the amount of it, but its look, especially in the centre.

“If you go around the Old Town Square you will realise that some of these, let’s say, front gardens have almost become buildings. They’re completely surrounded by plastic – and basically are one-storey buildings.

“There was never an attempt to regulate how these things look. There are some city laws which are in my mind highly controversial, related to the protection of blind people.

“So, for example, it’s almost impossible, or very difficult, to just put a chair on the ground. Usually you need to put it on an elevated plateau, seven or eight centimetres off the ground. Then there’s the issue of hand rails and so on.

Café Mistral,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Not exactly in the centre but say in Prague 6 you would see incredible stuff which looks like a huge fence protecting cattle or something like that. And I think that’s something which should be regulated.

“So it’s not about the number but the look and the presence. I think this and advertisements are two major issues that have always been neglected in previous years.

“Now there is higher awareness that something should be done about it and it shouldn’t just be left to the open market.”