My Prague – Keith Jones

Keith Jones, photo: Ian Willoughby

In this edition of the programme, documentary maker Keith Jones takes us on a tour of Letná, the neighbourhood of the Czech capital that he calls home. The Irish-American, whose most recent work was the well-received Punk in Africa, studied at Prague’s FAMU film school and has been living in the city for almost all of the last 22 years.

Oko cinema,  photo: Ian Willoughby

So, I ask Jones as we grab a drink outside the district’s Oko art house cinema, what sort of area is Letná?

“Letná is for the most part like a village, but it also has the character of an island. Because it’s not only in the strange bend in the river, physically, in terms of the layout of the city – it also has a massive park on either side of it [Stromovka and Letná Plain].

“So we live in this area very cut off from the rest of the city, in a way, but also very close to it. For example, we can walk into the city centre in around 15 minutes.

“But when you come home in the evening, or when you stay in this neighbourhood, you really do feel like you’re on an island that has a character all of its own.

“Also the neighbourhood has, architecturally, a very strong unity to it. It’s mostly an Art Nouveau and Functionalist neighbourhood.

“That also gives the place not only a charm but a sense of its own history. It really roots the place in the modern cultural history of Prague in the last 120 years, let’s say.

“Those of us who live here live in flats that date from that era, so we’re surrounded by the early twentieth century all the time.”

Also, isn’t there an art school here? I know a lot of the streets have names like Keramická, which means Ceramic St.

“Yes, certainly. One of the defining characteristics of this neighbourhood is the predominance of art students, obviously, and former art students, and also artists or people who work in the field of culture, such as myself.

“A lot of that stems from the fact that AVU, the Fine Arts Academy, is based here. It also stems from that Art Nouveau era. Also Výstaviště, the Art Nouveau fair grounds from the World’s Fair of 1891 is here, and Veletržní Palác, which is now the Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art of the National Gallery.”

Keith Jones,  photo: Ian Willoughby

Also it must be far and away the greenest area relatively near to the centre of Prague?

“The fact that the neighbourhood is a small residential neighbourhood of these Art Nouveau houses that exist between two of the biggest green park spaces anywhere in metropolitan areas in the Czech Republic certainly gives the place a very strong aspect to its character.

“Because you live with the fact that you have the choice of either of these wonderful, excellent, beautiful parks as part of your urban space.

“It also influences the mentality of the people here to think more environmentally and ecologically, and to adopt a more green mentality politically. Because this area has by far the highest percentage of Green Party voters anywhere in the country.”

How long have you been living here? And how has it changed during that time?

“I’ve lived in Letná and environs for the last 16 years. In that time, the neighbourhood has become much more upscale, but also more livable.

“I think there’s a very nice multiculturalism. It’s got a fairly well-integrated Vietnamese community compared to other parts of town. You see the Vietnamese guys out in the pubs and they’re just part of the neighbourhood, which I like very much.

“There’s also a lot of specialised shops run by people from other EU countries – from Spain, from Italy, from France.

“And none of that was here when I first came here. The place really did have a character that was closer to that of [the adjoining] Holešovice and to the rest of Prague 7.

“It was a bit grimy. It’s not an industrial area in the way that Holešovice or Karlín is. But you could still feel the remnants of the former times much more strongly, and the darker elements of the history of the place were much more on display.

Metronome on Letná plain,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“It’s become more colourful, and more livable I would say, over that time.”

An enormous, usually stationary, metronome now stands at a point on Letná Plain overlooking the Vltava with a fantastic view of the city. But the spot is best-known as the one-time site of a 15-metre-high statue of Josef Stalin. The project took a great toll on its designer, the sculptor Otakar Švec, who committed suicide. Seven years after it was unveiled, in 1962, the gigantic monument was destroyed. Keith Jones, who forged a personal connection with the place in the early 1990s, fills me in a bit more on its history.

“The statue was only up for less than two years before Khrushchev denounced Stalin. Overnight, this thing was transformed from this pride and joy of the East Bloc, Communist world into an enormous embarrassment for the political authorities.

“It was at that time that the sculptor Otakar Švec, who was actually a left-oriented, avant-garde futurist of the 1930s generation, he was not a bad sculptor… the fact that his whole life story is collapsed into this awful episode is very traumatic.

“It’s symptomatic of the history of these kinds of monuments in this country. Things are constantly erected, torn down, renamed, streets have their names changed – that’s typical of this country in general. And of course at Letná we have that as well. Many places have changed their names, things come and go.

“Also this park is interesting. It’s halfway between two World’s Fair pavilions. I don’t know of any other park in Europe that can boast that.

“The 1958 Czechoslovak Pavilion from Brussels is just below us, and the Hanavský Pavilion, which was part of the 1891 global exhibition here, still stands as well.

“And for me what’s also interesting is that this place is not only the site of that former Stalin Monument, which was destroyed. Also what took place here was – to this day – the largest and best attended contemporary art action and exhibition that was every held in the Czech lands, which was the Totalitní zóna exhibition of 1990 and 1991.

Stalin monument,  photo: Miroslav Vopata,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“That was the major thing that was happening in alternative culture when I first came to this country. Out of that came things like Radio 1, the first private radio station…”

Weren’t they originally based here? And called Radio Stalin?

“Radio 1 was based here and it was called Radio Stalin. It started broadcasting in October 1990, at which point it was a pirate radio station.

“But it was very quickly visited by Václav Havel, who granted them an interview on the premises, just below where we’re standing [in a long-closed underground space]. I have footage of that.

“From that point on it became not a pirate station but a private radio station. In that magical atmosphere of the early 1990s, those things were possible and changes happened literally overnight, in some cases.

“Also what started here was the Roxy, which was started by the Linhartova Nadace [Linhart Foundation]. Some of the first kind of private video archives started here. The first public installation of a work by David Černý, even before the Pink Tank, was his Skull – and the remnants of that are still in there.

“All of those things had an enormous influence on the development of alternative culture all through the ‘90s and early 2000s.

“I think that particular event, taking place on the same physical premises as the former Stalin Monument, reveals quite a lot about the complicated political history, not only of this country but specifically of this neighbourhood.”

Letná park,  photo: archive of Radio Prague

Now, many years after the Stalin Monument was removed there is a metronome here. Was this donated by Havel? Is there a Havel connection?

“I think that’s basically some kind of urban legend. It was more that the metronome came to be seen as a symbol of the early Havel era, in terms of how he grandfathered such projects into being, under his auspices and by tacitly supporting them.”

But where did the metronome come from, do you know? Who designed it?

“Actually, the names of the artists are inscribed here. It was done by a design company. There are three artists, but the thing is designed be as anonymous and collective as possible, as a tip of the hat to Otakar Švec.

“As we mentioned, his whole artistic career is overshadowed by this one enormous mistake that he made, which in fact cost him his life.

“So there was a deliberate attempt in creating this to make the work of art stand above authorship.”

From the site of the former Stalin monument Jones leads me back across Letná Plain to a colourful bar and restaurant with outdoor seating on Čechova, one of the prettiest streets in the area and one I myself walked every day when I lived there around a decade ago.

“We’re now sitting in a very new bar and café called Vegtral, which is sort of sister restaurant of a long-standing Prague establishment, Fraktal [which is on a parallel street].

“Fraktal is more of a bar, but it’s very much crucial as a meeting point for locals and people who work in the neighbourhood, and is a place that’s been around for the better part of 15 years.

“This place is a vegetarian and fish restaurant and outdoor café and started as a spinoff from Fraktal only a few months ago. So it’s a very new place.

Vegtral,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“It’s right around the corner from where I live and it’s a place that I come to almost every day. I know practically everybody who comes in here, as many people in Letná recognise each other at least by sight.

“We tend to end up also going to the same places and inevitably you just sort of meet everybody. Everybody is a friend of a friend, at least.

“And this particular area we’re in, this handful of streets that we’re in the midst of right now, is filled with these places with outdoor café seating, lots of trees.”

What kind of people come to this bar?

“It’s mostly people who live in this neighbourhood, in this handful of streets that we’re living in. It’s basically a beer garden which primarily attracts locals.”

I used to go to a place just beside here. There was a doorbell. It was a kind of [board] games club.

“Yeah, that place was called Pokrok. There was also Žlutá Ponorka. This area has gone through a huge evolution, almost revolution, in the last 10 years, from being a district of very late night bars – as you say, you had to ring a bell to get in – and places that were open till five in the morning with a lot of dogs and a lot of dope smoking.

“The whole neighbourhood has changed to the extent that now what you see are special areas reserved for prams, playgrounds for children, roses planted in the little garden.

“Basically the orientation of what these places are used for has evolved along with the people who live in the neighbourhood.

“But I remember all of those places well. When I first moved to the area they were all notorious.”

Also what’s very near here, maybe five minutes walk from here, is one of Prague’s best-known beer gardens – possibly with the best view of any beer garden in Prague.

View from Letná plain,  photo: © City of Prague

“Sure, the Letná beer garden is an exceptional place by any standards. That’s something that anybody who’s visiting Prague is encouraged to visit. Not only for the view, but for the atmosphere that it has as a traditional beer garden.

“It’s a place that really has also preserved its early twentieth century character against the odds. It really does reflect that Art Nouveau history of the whole neighbourhood in a way that’s very honest and unique.

“The view is impeccable. I don’t know of any beer garden anywhere in Europe that has such a perfect, outstanding panoramic view that you can enjoy also with the best beer in the world.”