My Prague – Jan Kasl

Jan Kasl

Former Prague mayor Jan Kasl takes us to his Bubeneč ‘hood and Malá Strana, where he lived at an exciting time.

Jan Kasl on Puškinovo náměstí | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

Jan Kasl is well placed to speak about “his Prague”, given that he was mayor of the city for four years at the turn of the millennium. Since then the one-time liberal politician has returned to his original profession of architect. Our tour of spots in the city close to Kasl’s heart begins at Na Slamníku, a traditional pub right by Stromovka and very near where he comes from in Prague 6.

“As we were living really not far from here I used to go for my father to bring beer from Za Školou, which I would describe as a small, ugly, dirty pub on the corner of Thälmannova St. – Verdunská nowadays.

“But Na Slamníku I remember from the early 1960s, when I was a teenager, maybe 13 or 14.

“This is a traditional meeting point for underground people, for musicians, for local people, for my schoolmates.

Jan Kasl's old school on Kupkovo náměstí,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I was attending school on Kupkovo náměstí, not far from here.”

Is your grammar school the building that looks out over Stromovka?

“Exactly. That’s the building which is next to the St. Gothard church.”

Given that your school was right beside Stromovka, which I guess is Prague’s biggest and best park, was Stromovka your playground?

“Definitely. Stromovka was a place where we escaped every day from school. Down the hill on Gotthardská St.

“In winter it was bob sledging, skiing, or just sliding. In summer walks, football.”

Na Slamníku has been renovated. What’s your view of the renovation? I haven’t been here for a few years, but I used to come here a lot, years ago, and to me it looks quite similar.

“It’s similar in atmosphere, but it doesn’t smell as much as it did.”

That’s also because the smoking ban has come in, right?

Na Slamníku,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Yes, but it was really… the smoke was in the walls. I think just painting it wouldn’t have helped.

“It’s very similar in feeling. But you have new tables, a new bar, probably some shelves.

“It’s quite pleasant. It’s kept the atmosphere.

“And thank God for the ban on smoking, because it won’t be smelly again, and dirty.”

There seem to be fewer and fewer of these kind of old school Prague pubs in existence. Are you nostalgic for those days? Or those kinds of places?

“Yes. That’s a good point. Nostalgic for the places, but not for the times.

Na Slamníku,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Because the times were terrible. There was a different regime.

“It was terrible despite the fact that I was not in jail, I was not a dissident, I was living a reasonable life with no wish to become an important person, to become a red book owner – a Communist Party member.

“So I don’t miss the times. I miss a certain atmosphere – those things which are disappearing.”

Are there any particular nights here at Na Slamníku that stand out in your memory, times in the past?

“I definitely got sick sometimes [laughs], because of the beer. There were also some rendezvous, nearby or here.

“If I’m not mistaken, there was one event when we were in the eighth or ninth class when friends of mine and I were performing as a rock band.

Na Slamníku,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I played bass guitar. We liked groups like The Kinks and The Troggs and this kind of music.

“And I think once there was some event here when we tried to play and I don’t think it was a big success – it was more a disaster [laughs].”

I used to work around the corner from here and this was one of the first pubs where I experienced barmen always slamming down one more pint before you could even finish the one you had.

“Yes. Not finishing, not asking – you got a beer.”

But it somehow worked.

“It worked, always.

“The behaviour of these guys nowadays is much better.

“I don’t think they have any of the type of Palivec – you know him from Švejk – the rude guy who hates guests.”

Luckily there are fewer and fewer of them.

“There were many guys of this kind, but now they are fewer and fewer.”

Na Slamníku,  photo: Ian Willoughby

From Na Slamníku it is maybe 500 metres to Puškinovo náměstí, a quiet, leafy square in the middle of the Bubeneč district where Jan Kasl grew up and – after an absence of two decades – today calls home once again. Indeed, the park bench we sit on seems equidistant from a number of key landmarks in his life.

“I was born 100 metres, not even 100, 50 metres from here, on Roosveltova. I was in kindergarten on the street that is now called Charlese de Gaulla.

“I was living on Thälmannova, which is now Verdunská St. Now I live on Eliášova.

“And now we are in the centre, which is Puškinovo náměstí. It is known to locals as Ural.

“The names and streets here were derived from World War I battlefields, from the Czechoslovak legions.

“So you can find Na Piavě [today Charlese de Gaulla], Na marně. You can find Ural.

“There were a lot of names connected with the first world war.

“Because the Bubeneč new development was built in the 1920s, say from the beginning of the 1920s till the mid-1930s.

“So all of these were new streets.”

What was it like actually growing up in this part of town in the 1950s and 1960s?

Stromovka,  photo: Štěpánka Budková

“It was a lot of fun, because there were not so many cars. It was a very safe neighbourhood.

“There were some soldiers, some officers, living here, some policemen nearby.

“We didn’t feel like in a dangerous area.

“I walked from school alone. I played football. I was chatting, sitting here on benches, and later on looking for girls and checking out what was going on.”

You were telling me on our way here that this area changed a bit after the Soviet invasion of 1968. How was that?

“That’s true. The Russian Embassy was, as I remember it, from the probably end of the war at Pod Kaštany, where it still is.

“Then in the mid-1960s they built an Industrial Representation or whatever that semi-round building on Sibiřské náměstí was called. And it continued.

“After 1968 a lot of Russians moved to Prague. They built a complex of a Russian grammar school and high school, which more or less destroyed the atmosphere of old Bubeneč in that part.

“A lot of Russians moved in, so there were a lot of Russians living nearby.

“But I must laugh because nowadays I meet more Russians than I met in the early 1970s.

“Russians like it here. The Kalinka shop used to be in the corner. There are a lot of other shops – like Arbat – a lot of Russian shops.

“Russians like it in Bubeneč, they like Prague 6. They feel safe here and I wouldn’t say welcome, but not rejected.”

I’ve never lived in Prague 6, but whenever I come here I always feel it’s a little bit dead.

“It used to be. When we moved in there were not as many restaurants as there are now.

“We said, What’s happening? There are so many expats living here and there are, like, only two restaurants in the vicinity.

“It’s much better now.

“We were comparing this district to Vinohrady and Prague 7. Because Letná was booming at the time.

“There was a café or restaurants in every other building and there still is. While here it was a bit slow.

“It’s a bit of a lazy neighbourhood.

“You are right that this is not the most active and vibrant environment, with hipsters on bicycles and coffee shops and all that.

“People walk their dogs, small kids play. It’s not noisy.

“It’s a bit of a lazy neighbourhood and I have nothing against that.”

Malá Strana,  photo: Štěpánka Budková

From Puškinovo náměstí Jan Kasl and I take public transport down to Malá Strana, the picturesque district beneath Prague Castle. The architect and former politician lived there from the late 1970s to 1999, when he returned to Bubeneč. Though our guide argues that time inevitably moves on, he does have a lot of nostalgia for the Malá Strana of yesteryear.

“Mainly the 1980s, the end of the 1970s and the 1980s, was a very happy time in Malá Strana, because there were not too many tourists.

“There were a lot of artists and lots of people who enjoyed being in the heart of the city, in Malá Strana.

“They somehow valued the quality of environment, the architecture, the history, the monuments.

“A lot of them were doing everything by themselves and they exchanged their new apartments or villas for shabby ground floor three-room flats somewhere in Břetislavova St., just to be here.

“But then a lot of them had to move out, because a renovation programme came in.

“That was a part of my, let’s say, political involvement in the late 1980s.

“We were against the moving of local people to somewhere else and new ‘better’ people moving in.

“We were quite a strong community. I was living at Vlašská 15, which was a big house with a yard.

“Despite the fact that I was a newcomer, I was a newcomer in 1977, they took me as a local within a couple of years.

“And I became one of the representatives of Malá Strana after the Velvet Revolution.”

How do you view Malá Strana today?

“That’s a big difference.

“You may dream about going against the flow of time and returning to that melancholic atmosphere of foggy Vlašská Street, walking to Petřín, to Lobkovická zahrada. Of walking the dog or walking with the kids.

Obecní dům | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“Well, that’s over. It will never come back.

“I believe, however, that some balance can be found between the logical interest and pressure of tourists and visitors and the interest of the locals.

“Because the local atmosphere is disappearing.

“But it’s not the tourists’ fault. It’s the fault of the locals, who are not fighting to keep it.

“The first thing they did after the Velvet Revolution was that if they had restituted a building, they sold it.

“They sold their houses, their bakeries on Mostecká. Just for stupid money, instead of keeping the tradition.

“You don’t see this in Great Britain. You don’t see this in many countries.

“People there are proud of being the local butcher, the local baker, and they maintain their tradition.

“I believe that if that tradition had been kept through the wild 1990s, or the end of the last century, it would be perfect now. It would be something unique.”

This is a big question, but I wanted to ask you as an architect, how do you view the way Prague has developed since the beginning of the 1990s?

“There are different aspects.

“From the point of view of renovation, reconstruction, improvement of the quality of the environment, from health aspects to noise and all that – it’s much better. I can’t complain.

Dancing House,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I’m a part of that, I designed several houses and I took part in that process.

“Concerning urban sprawl, the satellites built around the city, that’s not the most positive development.

“But again it was something that we probably had to go through.”

I’m going to put you on the spot with this question. What in your view is the best building that has been built in Prague in the last couple of decades?

“If you are talking about a new building, not about a renovation…. because I would remind you that the best building is Obecní dům, Municipal House, which we renovated in 1994–1997 as the City of Prague.

“But I would have to say the best new building is the Dancing House. I would have to talk about Rašín [the building is on the embankment Rašínovo nábřeží].

“If you’d me like to mention something recognised on the international level, then it’s probably only the Dancing House.”