My Prague – Lukáš Houdek

Lukáš Houdek, photo: David Vaughan

Lukáš Houdek is a man of many activities. The coordinator of the government’s anti-racism Hate Free Culture project, he is also a photographer and curator as well as heading a publishers specialised in Romany literature. Houdek is from furthest West Bohemia and now lives in a village outside the capital. But for many years he called the Smíchov/Prague 5 district home – and it is there we begin our tour of “his Prague” at Cibulka, a rather hidden park.

Lukáš Houdek,  photo: David Vaughan

“I used to live not far from here and one day when I went running I was looking for a place to go and just ran in here.

“I was really shocked because it looks like a forest and it’s full of romantic statues and really very nice.”

Why do you think it isn’t better known among Prague’s parks and green areas?

“I actually have no idea, because I hadn’t heard of it before.

“Some people tell me they’ve heard about that there is some park like this, or maybe they have heard of the mansion here, which was a famous squat.

“But normally people don’t know it. Maybe it’s too far for them, which is a paradox because it’s very close to the centre.”

We’re here on a very wet, rather cold day. I presume it’s a lot nicer here in the summer?

“Yes, it’s much nicer. Normally there are almost no people so you can walk here almost alone during the day.

“There are very nice places where you can sit on the hill and watch the sunrise, or just sunbathe with a book.

“There is also a watchtower, so when it’s nice weather you can look out over Prague. There is a feel of history here as well – it’s not just about the nature.”

Is this Cibulka park well kept? It seems a little bit wild looking from where we’re standing right now.

“It’s very wild, which is what I like about it. You can normally meet rabbits here.

Cibulka,  photo: Miloš Turek

“And there are some I would say historical statues and buildings that are falling apart. Which is on one hand sad but on the other it looks very nice to me. I prefer it this way – very nostalgic.”

You used to live in this part of the city, Prague 5. How was it as an area to live?

“I quite like it because there is a mixture of people. Normally the Czech Republic is a very homogenous society, but here there are a lot of Roma. There are also other nations, like Ukrainians and so on.

“It’s a very nice mixture of people, who also live on the streets. So it’s not a very quiet area, but also not that noisy.

“It’s a lively place. I always liked to walk on the street because always somebody stops you to say hi or how are you – even if you don’t know them.”

You are an expert on Prague’s Romany communities [Houdek did Romany Studies, speaks the language and has been involved in various initiatives supporting the minority]. Is it my imagination, or are there far fewer Romanies in Prague now than when I first came here in the 1990s?

“I think it’s true, especially with this part, Smíchov. Because some rich companies buy the apartments or buildings where Roma people used to live and turn them into very luxurious places.

“Of course they want to get rid of the people, but they can’t just move them out because they have agreements with the city. So they offer them apartments, so they will own an apartment, but in Most or normally some ghetto.

“Those people will of course say yes, because they want to own their own apartment, but they will live in some socially excluded locality in the regions.

“So this is what’s happening – they just move them out.”

Many people say that Smíchov is much better today than it was, say, 20 years ago, or after the fall of communism. Would you agree?

Smíchov,  photo: Oleg Fetisov

“In terms of safety, probably yes. Near Anděl there are drug users and it’s not very safe to live there, because of the robberies.

“But in this part I think there is still a very nice mixture and I think it can be safe, as well as lively and multi-cultural.

“Probably it was different in the past, but many tourists say Prague was nicer in the 1990s than it is today.

“So maybe [Smíchov] is getting safer, but it’s losing something.”

After our wander around Cibulka it’s a relief to get out of the cold and the rain at the downtown NoD, a bar and art space upstairs from Roxy, one of the city’s most popular clubs in recent decades. Houdek explains that he has a connection with NoD after holding an art event there a few years ago.

“This is the place where I curated the first exhibition I curated, the Transgender Me programme, which was part of Prague Pride.

“It was kind of important for me at that time.”

Tell us something about it.

“I was asked by Czeslaw Walek from Prague Pride, in the first year of Prague Pride, to do some exhibition. We chose some of my photos on Transgender people.

“Then he suggested that we do some discussion around the exhibition. Then it became a huge programme. It was a side event, actually almost a festival itself, called Transgender Me and it took place here.

NoD,  photo: archive of NoD

“My colleague Lucie Zachariášová and I collected artworks that were done by Czech artists on this issue, so it was probably the first exhibition done on this topic in the Czech Republic.”

You were telling me earlier that you don’t much like NoD – or you like it less than you used to.

“Yes, because the exhibition didn’t go the way we wanted it to. So I’m not very happy about this place.

“But I think it’s changed a lot. I can see right now there is a nice bar. Also the gallery works in a different way – it’s not as punk as it was before.”

The whole place looks less punk.

“I like when a place looks punk – but I don’t really like punk organisation.

“I like to have things organised and as I want them. And that wasn’t the case here when we did the exhibition. The exhibition was closed one day. The next day it was down because they had some other event.

“These were the challenges we had to face all the time. But the exhibition was a big success.”

To me it’s kind of appropriate that the music that’s playing here is Air [debut LP Moon Safari] from the 1990s, because I associate this whole place – Roxy and NoD – with the 1990s. It seems kind of like a place from the past, for me.

“I think it was more lively some time ago and now it’s kind of over. But probably now is a good time to enjoy the place, because it’s not that crowded as before.

“It’s also good to mention that there is a good theatre here. There are some really good plays and not many people know about them.

“I come here from time to time because my [dancer] boyfriend sometimes performs here.”

Roxy,  photo: archive of Roxy

In general do you go to Prague clubs, or go out much in Prague?

“I’m not much of a party animal. Normally if I go out I go to a gay club. Honestly, I just go to maybe dance a bit, even though I don’t dance very much.

“But I work all the time, in my job and on my artworks, so I don’t really have time.

“Also I moved out to a village. So I started to be a kind of spinster living in the countryside with the lavender and so on. I’m getting this kind of boring life. So I’m not into clubbing any more.”

Has your view of Prague changed at all since moving out of the city?

“I have to say I was a little bit worried about moving out. But now I’m quite happy and I don’t like to be in Prague very much, because it’s too hectic for me.

“But still it’s a very nice place to come. Because of course I don’t like to stay in the village all the time.

“On the other hand it’s good because it’s so small. If you go to London, it’s a completely different place.”

Grand Café Orient,  photo: archive of Grand Café Orient

From NoD it is just a few hundred metres to a very different spot, Grand Café Orient in the Cubist House of the Black Madonna on Celetná St. Over a coffee, Lukáš Houdek tells me why he has selected the distinctive, old world style café as a port of call on our tour of “his Prague”.

“Because it’s a place where I used to go very often when I was 19, 20, 21. It was probably the only place that reminded me of the First Republic atmosphere, which I always enjoyed.

“And because at that time I had an obsession with Milena Jesenská, the journalist and friend of Franz Kafka – and these were the places where they were going. So I always liked the atmosphere of these old times.”

Also this is, I believe, the only Cubist café in the world.

“Probably. And yeah, I like that it has its own style and it’s kept it. It’s renovated right now but it looks the same as before almost. I think they did a very good job keeping the style.”

What is the appeal for you of the First Republic style?

“It’s also connected with music. It’s not here now, but in the past there used to always be a pianist playing, which is also not very usual in Prague.”

Also the building has one of the best building names in Prague – the House of the Black Madonna.

House of the Black Madonna,  photo: archive of Radio Prague

“That’s true – it’s connected to my work as well [laughs]. A black Madonna – an anti-racist building in Prague!

“But that’s not actually the reason [he likes the café]. This place was the first place where I had a date with my boyfriend. So it’s also connected with my personal life.”

And it was your choice of venue?

“Of course. I always took all my boyfriends here [laughs]. The most important boyfriends I’ve had were always here with me.”

This is one of those cafés in Prague where most of the people who come here are tourists. Does that bother you at all?

“Not so much – if it isn’t so crowded, it doesn’t. I used to study just around the corner so I used to come here, even though this place was quite expensive and I had to save a bit to come here for a coffee.

“What I always liked here in the morning was that there were these kind of rich old ladies that looked like the wives of dukes or some kind of aristocrats, having breakfast and reading the newspaper.

“They were not foreign – they were local. And I was like, I would love to live this lifestyle when I’m old – just to come here and have a croissant with coffee.”

Also this must be one of the few cafés in Prague with a balcony.

“That’s true. I sat there once, but I honestly prefer to sit inside because I like to enjoy the space.

“If you sit outside on the balcony it’s nice but you don’t really see the Cubist interior or enjoy the music, which is very stylish as well.”