My Prague – Zdeněk Lukeš


Zdeněk Lukeš is one of the country’s best known architects. During the 1990s he was part of Václav Havel’s team revitalising Prague Castle and he still works in its monuments department, while as an author and journalist he has done a great deal to popularise architecture in the Czech Republic. Our tour of “Zdeněk Lukeš’s Prague” is in fact a tour of his Letná, the leafy area he has always called home. We begin with a coffee at the district's Café Alchymista, specifically in the lovely garden in the back.

The garden at Café Alchymista,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“This is a fine place, I think. It was created about 10 years ago. What is wonderful about it is that there is a café, of course, inside and also a museum of coffee.

“But now we are sitting outside the building, in the yard, with a beautiful garden in the Japanese style.

“It’s real nature. You can hear the birds singing. You can also hear water, because there is a small pond here. This is a place I love.”

Apart from Café Alchymista what cafés do you particularly like in Prague?

“There are many – today. It’s an absolutely different situation than in the communist period. The city was dark and empty and there were no cafés or bars.

“Today the situation is much better of course – it’s not comparable.

“I like cafés with a specific atmosphere, connected with interesting architecture. Because that’s my job: modern architecture.”

About this area, Letná – were all these streets built around the same time, because they look similar?

“Yes. One of the first buildings that was built here was the Academy of Fine Arts, on the edge of Stromovka park.

“That was in the beginning of the 20th century. It was finished in 1905, I think.

Café Alchymista,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Then all the owners of the apartment buildings around, which were built later, added something special: studios for painters on the top floors, and studios for sculptors in the courtyards.”

And who lives at Letná? Are there still a lot of artists living here?

“I’m not sure if it’s comparable with the situation at the beginning of the 20th century, when I think about 95 percent of all sculptors and painters lived here within the area of Letná and had studios here.

“Names like Mr. [Jan] Štursa [sculptor], Mr. [Stanislav] Sucharda [sculptor, Mr. [Josef] Mařatka [sculptor], Mr. [Antonín] Slavíček [painter]. Very close to here – I think just around the corner – were the studios of these famous artists.

“It was an absolutely different situation from today. But I think some still live here – which is why we can meet some artists, but not so many.

“I think today it’s a luxurious part of the city and for artists it’s not so easy to stay here and pay rent.

“But the area is also connected with music. Many musicians live here and also people like Jiří Černý, who is a very famous expert on music and critic.

“Members of some famous groups live here, like Mr. [Vladimír] Mišík, for instance – he’s my neighbour. And there many others – it’s also an area of music.”

Vegtral on the corner of Keramická and Čechova,  photo: Ian Willoughby

From Café Alchymista it’s a short walk to Vegtral, a popular and lively restaurant and bar with outdoor seating. It is perhaps 50 metres from the block where Zdeněk Lukeš has lived all his life – and the architect is a regular.

“This place I love. There’s a connection with people walking on the street and the position is perfect. You are on the corner of two streets.

“The cuisine is Spanish, as far as I know. It’s vegetarian food. And they have very good beer.”

We’re on the corner of Keramická and Čechova. And Čechova is where you have lived all your life, is that right?

“Yes, I was born here, at one end of the street. And then I moved when I was 27 to another building. I exchanged number 29 for number 17.

“So I’ve been here from my childhood until today – and I think that’s good.”

It’s very unusual to meet somebody who has lived all their life in the same place. What has that given you?

“Of course, if you have been in one place the whole of your life you meet people around and have fixed friends.

Zdeněk Lukeš | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“You have many possibilities – you can stop in your beloved pub, after a tennis match for instance or after a job. Everything is stable here.”

What was your childhood like here?

“It was fine. There were many opportunities to play in the parks. And also the building where I lived was very interesting.

“There was a kindergarten in the building and it was connected with the studio of my father, who was a sculptor. Everything was in one place.

“There were very interesting people around – many artists. My father brought me very often to the studios of his friends in many buildings on this street and the other streets.”

Were both of your parents sculptors or artists?

“Yes, both of my parents were sculptors. My mother focused on portraits, of very interesting people, who I had the chance to meet in my childhood.

“And my father collaborated with architects. He made, for instance, fountains or sculptures in the grounds of schools and other types of buildings.”

What did it look like when you were a child? I presume there were far fewer cars, for example.

The traffic policeman in the story used to drink at Pod Lipami,  which was then a pub and is now a cafe,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“There were six or seven cars on the street. It was absolutely incomparable with today. When I come home in the evenings it’s very difficult to find a place to park.

“There are only around six garages on this street. We had a car. A very nice Aero, a streamlined sports car owned by my mother. The colours were white and red. It was a convertible.”

Also you were telling me a wonderful story earlier about how here at Letenské náměstí there used to a police officer directing the traffic.

“Yes, there were no traffic lights and they preferred to have a man who could right the situation.

“But the traffic is very complicated here – there are about six streets.

“He was a fat man and he used to interrupt his work for a minute every hour and stopped for a glass of beer in a nearby pub, Pod Lipami. It was fantastic to see him.”

Did the traffic get progressively crazier during the day, the more he drank? Were there more problems?

“There were absolutely no problems. He was something like a dancer among the cars and trams. It was wonderful to see him.”

From Vegtral, Mr. Lukeš and I walk across the main crossroads at Letenské náměstí toward Letenské sady, a long and extensive park overlooking the Vltava. There, on a windy early afternoon, he is scheduled to play a match on the clay courts of LTC, the second oldest tennis club Prague.

Club house and courts at LTC tennis club,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I played tennis here from my childhood until I was, I don’t know, 20 and now I play here again, because my friend is the head of the club today and we play every week.

“It’s a nice place, because we are on the edge of Letná park. You can see the old tennis club here – it’s not in perfect condition.

“It was built during the 1970s. The clubhouse, which has a restaurant, is a small wooden cabin, we could say. It was created by the famous Czech architect Bohumil Kozák.

“This is just one of the wonderful places here in Letná.

“Opposite us here you can see two large buildings. One is the Museum of Agriculture and the second one is the Technical Museum.

“It’s also connected with my life, because I worked there for 10 years in the history of architecture archives.”

And you were telling me you also went to secondary school just here.

“Yes, the secondary school is just around the corner. It’s a nice modern building.

“Also it was maybe the best period of my life. It was just around 1968, though everything ended with the Russian occupation, of course.

“But that period was very nice. Also the school was a nice place – and just five minutes or so from my house, which was also perfect.

Zdeněk Lukeš's old grammar school,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Everything is very close at Letná.”

Also not far from here there was for some period an infamous statue of Stalin. Do you remember that time?

“Yes, I remember it from my childhood. It was destroyed in 1962, when I was eight years old.

“What was curious was there was a large space under the monument, something like a big cellar.

“Originally they planned to create there something like a mausoleum for the leader of the Czech Communist Party, Klement Gottwald, with a glass coffin.

“But then they decided to do it at Vítkov instead and the place stayed empty and was used as a potato store. A very curious end of this idea [laughs].

“In 1962 they destroyed the statue and replaced it with a flat area on the top, without anything.

“And it was then decorated during the massive demonstrations against the Communist regime at the end of the 1980s.

“Students created a ‘Liberty Bell’ from plaster on the top. It was then replaced by a pendulum measuring the time of freedom, which is still there.”

The Stalin statue was blown up. It was enormous, made of concrete…

“Actually, it was concrete and granite. The statue itself was created from granite blocks, but the pedestal was of course made of concrete.”

Do you recall the actual demolition of the statue?

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

“I was out of Prague in that period and when I came back with my parents the space was empty [laughs].

“It was a surprise to me because there were no official comments about it. There was nothing in the newspapers.

“It was done during the night. The first attempt wasn’t successful: Only the knee and elbow of the Stalin statue were destroyed.

“They had a second attempt during the next night and then demolished everything.

“I had my first opportunity to get into the space under the monument in 1989, just after the Velvet Revolution.

“There was still a big pile of small pieces of stone and all of us tried to find, for instance, Stalin’s bottom or finger or nose [laughs].

“But it was all in small particles and it wasn’t possible to find something like that.”

Now that spot is occupied by a metronome, as you mentioned. Isn't there some connection between the metronome and Havel?

“No. There was a connection between the Liberty Bell, the students’ piece there, and Havel.

“Because when Havel was elected president, the American president, George Bush senior, came to Prague and had a speech on Wenceslas Square and he brought a small model of the Liberty Bell.

“The history is very interesting. The first Liberty Bell, a very big one, was created in the US at the beginning of the 1920s and sent to President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

Metronome at Letná plain,  photo: Štěpánka Budková

“When I was started to work at Prague Castle in Mr. Havel’s office somebody sent me a letter…

“Because the original Liberty Bell had disappeared during the Communist period and nobody knew where it could be.

“And an old lady wrote me a letter saying that her father, who had been a builder, had once mentioned that he had hung the bell at the top of the tower in St. Anthony’s Church in Holešovice.

“So I climbed the tower and I found the bell, which was covered with special paint to cover the inscription on the bell.

“That’s how we had the chance to find the real Liberty Bell that Woodrow Wilson sent to Czechoslovakia after 1918.

“And later Mr. Bush gave Havel a small copy of this bell – and that bell was right on the desk in his office.”

In that case, do you know how the metronome came about? Was it produced by some artist?

“Yes, the metronome was created by Mr. [Vratislav] Novák, who was professor at the School of Applied Arts after 1989.

“He made it as advertising for a show that was held at the Prague exhibition grounds in Bubeneč.

“It was the anniversary of the big exhibition of 1891. It was 100 years after.

“It was something like advertising for that exhibition. If you look at the metronome there are still inscriptions on it and one of them could tell you the story – that it’s connected with that exhibition.”