Národní třída: prominent Prague boulevard that has witnessed history

Twenty-one years ago on Wednesday, on November 17, 1989, a student march was brutally attacked by the police in Prague’s Národní Street; that event sparked a public revolt against the regime and eventually led to the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. In today’s special programme, we walk along Národní Street, or Národní třída, a remarkable boulevard which is home to the National Theatre, a jazz club where Bill Clinton played, and some of the city’s greatest cafés: a street where history was made two decades ago.

Some 10,000 people, mostly students, reached Národní by 7 PM on Friday, November 17, 1989. By then, they were aware that the march, planned as a commemoration of a Nazi crackdown on Czech universities, had become much more than that.

One of the people in the crowd was a young English teacher, Markéta Kolářová, who joined the march with her husband on the day of their wedding anniversary.

“By that point, people were very much aware of what was going on. They were leaning out of their windows in some buildings, many of them were offices. I remember that the windows of the new building of the National Theatre were full of actors waving and showing the victory sign, giving us the thumbs up. There also used to be a wine restaurant in the cloister, and people came out into the street and waved and cheered, and their reactions were pretty much positive.”

National Theatre
Long before that day, Národní, or National Street, was already one of the most important arteries of the Czech capital. Looking from the river, Národní třída begins with Národní divadlo, or the National Theatre, which is where I met Martin Krise from the Club for Ancient Prague.

“This is the start of the street because from here you can see the Prague panorama, the Vltava River and the islands, and the National Theatre which is the most important building here. We are now standing in a yard behind the theatre and looking at the new buildings that were added to the National Theatre in the 1980s, and this here is an old yard between the new buildings and the old cloister.”

The street as such is not that old. Like many other European capitals, Prague got rid of its city walls in the mid 19th century, making way for unparalleled development. Národní třída was then known as Neue Allee, or New Alley.

Café Louvre,  photo: www.cafelouvre.cz
I met architecture historian Zdeněk Lukeš at another of the street’s institutions, the renowned Café Louvre. Over a latté and a raspberry cake, Mr Lukeš told me that with the demolition of the city walls, enough space was cleared for decades of construction.

“It was naturally a great opportunity for the best architects of Prague and Vienna to design some significant buildings here on the ring, and also on nearby Wenceslas Square. That’s why that from the late 19th century, luxury neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque houses were built here, as well as important Art Nouveau palaces. Then, in the interwar period, they also built some great Functionalist architecture.”

The iconic building of the National Theatre, glowing with gold, was a great symbol of Czech nationalism. The theatre, inaugurated in June 1881, attested to the wealth and confidence of the emerging Czech bourgeoisie.

National Theatre
“The National Theatre is one of best examples of historicism in architecture. It was very much inspired by the Viennese Opera, and its location was very important: very close to the Vltava, on the edge of the bank, and at the beginning of Národní třída. But the lot was not so large, which made it difficult to design the building. But I think the authors – Josef Zítek and Josef Schulz – succeeded and created the best example of Prague’s 19th century architecture.”

The strategic location of the theatre changed the nature of the whole street. Prague at the time had about 180,000 inhabitants and although most of them were Czechs, the German language and culture was still dominant. The new street therefore became the Czechs’ favourite promenade. Martin Krise again.

“Národní Street became the mall frequented by Czechs. There were Germans, Czechs and Jews living in Prague. The Germans walked on Na Příkopě, a bit further away, while the Czech would meet here, on the ‘national’ boulevard.”

Národní Street
And with people came shops, cafes, theatres, and bars. Zdeněk Lukeš describes the kind of buildings that emerged in and around Národní at the time.

“The typical palace from that era was a multi-purpose building, connected with corridors connecting it to the buildings around it, creating hidden ‘inner’ streets with shops, and cafes on the first floor. That was very typical. It also performed cultural functions, and had cinemas, theatres and bars in the basement. It had two or three floors of offices, and luxury apartments on top floors. It was very similar to palaces on the Viennese Ring from the same period, or buildings in Paris, London and so on.”

Among all the newly-constructed palaces and the buzz of the city, one building stood out then as it stands now that had been there even before the street was created. In the 17th century, members of the Roman Catholic order of the Ursulines arrived in Prague, and eventually settled outside the Old Town, right behind the city walls.

Church of St Ursula
“The street was built on the border between Prague’s Old and New Towns. At that time, the street which is now called Národní, was only a ditch, the end of one town, and the start of the other. So the cloister was first built outside town, as it was usual in Prague and elsewhere in the Czech lands.”

The convent of the Ursuline Sisters is right next to the National Theatre. The Baroque complex, which includes the church of St Ursula, was once home to as many as 40 nuns, while today there are seven. One of them is Sister Kateřina, who showed me around.

“The sisters bought a house that used to be here before. Prior to that, the sisters lived Na Újezdě, on the other side of the river. But they became rather famous, and the house was too small, so they bought the house here, from the Příchovský family.”

The order of the Ursulines is devoted to education; the sisters run a nearby kindergarten and an elementary school. But Sister Katřina says they do more than that.

“We don’t focus only on education. We also work with young people, and for example help them with find their vocation.”

Don’t you find it difficult, or distracting, to live in the centre of the city?

“You see, we have been here for centuries, and we have a connection with this place. It’s also convenient to live in the centre.”

But the nuns’ presence at Národní did not go uninterrupted. Soon after the communist coup of 1948, the sisters were forced to leave, and the state confiscated the convent. In 1957, it became the home of the Institute of Endocrinology. Its erstwhile head, Professor Luboslav Stárka, joined the institute as a young doctor soon after it was established, and has worked there ever since. He says he has always enjoyed the privilege of working in such an exceptional place.

“Next to us is the National Theatre, and there’s a church on the other side. Across the street is the Czech Academy of Sciences, and next to it, there used to be an important publishing house called Československý spisovatel. On the corner, there is Café Slavia and the FAMU film school.

“So you could walk along the street and meet various personalities of the Czech intellectual elite. At the same time, you were in the centre of the city, but when you look out of my window here, you see the beautiful and tranquil convent gardens.”

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the shock of the communist rule became to wear off, little by little. It was at that time that Národní caught a second breath, as well. The nightlife probably wasn’t as lively as in the decadent 1920s, but something was in the air.

New Stage
“In the early 1960s, Národní looked different but I would say the atmosphere was charged with potential. The presence of the Československý spisovatel publishing house, located in a beautiful Art Nouveau building, gave the street a special feel. It wasn’t just that you could meet prominent writers in the street; but Czechoslovak writers at that time moulded the country’s politics to a great extent.”

Professor Stárka was unhappy when in 1984 the New Stage was added to the historical building of the National Theatre, and blocked his view. He was not alone. Many thought the massive glass cube out of place, and lacking respect for its environment. But initial plans for a more modest structure had been dropped after theatre managers changed their minds over its purpose.

The New Stage now features some interesting experimental art shows but its appearance, which some have likened to a “half-sucked candy”, still works as deterrent. However, Zdeněk Lukeš says that young people are slowly learning to appreciate it.

“Thanks to the idea of famous Czech glassmaker, Professor Libenský, who covered the whole building with glass panels, the building looks quite good. What is interesting is that towards the end of communism, people hated it as an example of arrogant communist architecture. But now it’s little different because the young generation of architects think of it as of an example of perhaps arrogant but interesting architecture. But I think the interior is terrible, and the acoustics is not so good.”

Národní Street boasts another famous monument of the communist era, albeit a more successful one. In 1975, the Máj department store opened at the corner of Národní and Spálená, with a minimalist design and a number of great technical details. These include bare ceilings, a see-through rear façade and a total of 13 lifts that could fit entire trucks with goods.

”This is a symbol of my generation of architects. It was designed by a group of young architects around Karel Hubáček, a leading figure of that period and the creator of the famous Ještěd TV tower. Those young, angry men designed a department story that looks like a department store, without decorations, in very simple forms, but on the other hand, very far from the brutal communist architecture of the period, with some nice details, mostly inside.”

Máj, spelled M A J, is a poetic Czech word for May. The store is still there today. After a brief spell as a K-Mart, it became part of the Tesco chain in 1996. The building recently underwent a complete renovation, and is now called My, spelled M Y. To discuss the overhaul, I sat down with managing director Marcus Chipchase at a fruit bar on My’s third floor.

“The idea was to bring a multi-branded department store concept here, one that’s not intimidating. You can shop on different levels, you don’t have to go from one boutique to another, you can choose from different brands. And we wanted to allow people to shop in a traditional department story with a multi-branded concept.”

In 2007, the building was listed as a national monument, which meant any renovation would have to follow stricter rules. Mr Chipchase says they worked with the architects who created the original plans to avoid any problems.

“We actually worked with the three architects who designed the building very closely, so what we did inside and outside was acceptable to them and the city so it does give you extra complications but that’s what you have to do in the centre of a beautiful city like Prague.”

Who came up with the idea to call it “My”, in English spelling, which is really a nice touch?

“Well, we did some marker research on this and really, the name came from our customers. We had a shortlist of about five different names. They all had to meet certain criteria; they had to be simple, easy to remember, and international because we use the same brand in other countries.

“And we liked the connection with Máj, although the pronunciation in Czech is different of course. We liked it had a meaning in Czech as well as in English. And we liked the fact that it sort of hearted back to the time when this location was called Máj, as in May.”

There are several cafés in and around the department store, and many more all along the street. You can even get an espresso served by a real Italian. But there two venues that have always been natural pit stops: Café Louvre, established in 1901 and revived in the 1990s, and Café Slavia.

Václav Havel
Since it first opened in 1881, the same year as the theatre across the streets, generation of writers, actors, journalists and students have sat under the “Absinthe Drinker”, a 1900 painting by Viktor Oliva. Under communism, it was also a favourite haunt of some opposition figures, including Václav Havel. At Slavia, I met with Vladimír Hanzel, at one time a close collaborator of the former president.

“Václav Havel used to live on what was then called Engels and is now Rašín Embankment, next to the Dancing House. We would usually meet at this fish restaurant, called Na Rybárně, which was just around the corner, or at a restaurant down by the river which is now called Vltava. Havel and others, particularly the young ones, would also often go to Café Slavia, which was famous for being frequented by well-known personalities such as Jaroslav Seifert and Jiří Kolář.”

Vladimír Hanzel happened to be the first to tell the future president about what happened at Národní on November 17. He says Slavia was never his favourite hangout, although he likes how the café was renovated in the 1990s.

“I would say that it now has more of a First Republic look than before. The character has been preserved, it’s very similar, you can tell if you look at some details, like that glowing green clock over there. But it was not possible to get back the famous painting “Absinthe Drinker”, by Viktor Oliva. Someone from Prague City Hall apparently took it, so they had to get a replica of the painting that used to hang here.”

In 1998, then president Havel brought then US first lady Hillary Clinton to Slavia when she came to his Forum 2000 Conference in Prague. Four years earlier, he skipped the café with President Bill Clinton on their way to the Reduta jazz club, located in the same building as Café Louvre. In the club, Mr Havel gave his guest a saxophone, and the American president did not resist.

The audience at Reduta included Czech jazz legend Josef Vejvoda, who first performed in the club in 1963. He says that Czech fans seem to have abandoned Reduta since then.

“Reduta is and has been the most famous jazz club in central Europe. It was fantastic; we played for a lot of Czech students and other people. But it has changed since the revolution: the cover and drinks are too expensive now. When I play here, I always ask the audience how many people understand Czech. Sometimes, there is nobody, sometimes there is one, two or three. That’s the biggest difference.”

From left: Hrabal,  Havel and Clinton | Photo: Jiří Jírů
As for Mr Clinton’s performance, Josef Vejvoda has probably heard better sax players.

“President Havel invited me, it was a nice surprise, so I was here, listening. Not every president plays jazz. Bill Clinton did, it was not extraordinary, but he played My Funny Valentine and he got a Czech instrument.

“But I compare him to our current president, Mr Klaus, and I’m glad we have a president who really likes jazz. Show me another president who every month holds jazz concerts at the castle. I think it’s something very special.”

If you enter Národní from Wenceslas Square, you are unlikely to miss the magnificent Adria Palace, towering at the corner. This Italian-inspired gem of Prague’s Art Deco was designed as the city’s branch of an Italian insurance firm. In the usual fashion, it was also a theatre venue, and later home to the famous Laterna Magika; but the palace entered history in November 1989. Zdeněk Lukeš was there to see it all.

“The basement of the palace, formerly a theatre, was the headquarters of the Civic Forum. That was established after the student march of November 17, 1989. Its leading figure was Václav Havel, the future president, his friends from the opposition and Charter 77 signatories joined in. I had a chance to work there for two months; it was a very interesting time of course, a time of permanent negotiations between the communists and the dissidents.”

Ever since Národní emerged as a street, each period left its trace here. Is there room for today’s architects to leave their marks in the street as well?

“Yes, of course. We have one very good example of contemporary architecture which erected only two years ago – the Metropol Hotel which is just adjacent to the Louvre Café where we are sitting now. It’s a modern hotel designed by a talented young architect, Marek Chalupa, on a narrow lot, with a high-tech façade. But there are some more opportunities coming up. There is a vacant lot at Národní with Mikulandská streets, which has been empty for years. I was a member of jury in a competition for new luxury hotel about five years ago. But you know, with the crisis, the plans got postponed. Maybe we’ll see in the future.”

Unlike the grey and gloomy street of the communist era, Národní today is very lively; most of the building have seen renovation and gotten new facades. There are new shops and cafés – a new Apple Store just opened at the end of the street.

But crowds no longer line up for new books every Thursday, or for tickets to Reduta or Viola, a famous poetry café with readings and performances. Those who experienced the atmosphere it had back then say the street is missing something. One of them is Martin Krise, from the Club for Ancient Prague.

“It was a great street, you know, it was really the street of culture. There was this Metro-palace, this underground dancing hall, there was Viola, as you mentioned, with the famous performances, the National Theatre… So it was really a very important place. It still is, but I’d say on a little lower level than before. The houses look better, they are painted and there are new shops, but in the 1960s, I think it was more cultural. Even thought the culture was oppressed, it was more cultural than now.”

Whatever the future might hold for this prominent Prague boulevard, it will remain the site for one of the most significant milestones in modern Czech history. Markéta Kolářová, who marched through the street in November 1989 along with thousands of others, says she will never forget the place where the hopes of her generation came true.

“I think I will always remember it when I walk on Národní because was without any hesitation, I can say that day was one of the most important days in my life, along with the birth of both my children, and these kinds of things. Because that was a really big day of hope for all of us, and a great thing that happened, although we never expected that something like that would happen in our lifetimes. So we are grateful, and I will always remember it.”