National Library to have new building by Jan Kaplicky

Photo: CTK

Prague is famous for its mix of architectural styles, and you can sometimes meet centuries of different architecture in just one street. The city is not particularly well-known for modern architecture - but that should change in a few years, with the completion of an extremely unusual building by the Czech-born, London-based architect Jan Kaplicky.

Photo: CTK
Here on Letna plain there is currently an empty space. But in a few years it should contain one of the most inventive examples of modern architecture in Europe - a new Czech National Library building. It is designed by world renowned Czech-born architect Jan Kaplicky, who has come up with a most futuristic design: a huge green and purple jellyfish, with a big glass eye overlooking the city. Eva Jiricna is the head of the jury which selected Kaplicky's design. At a ceremony to announce the tender winner, she told me why.

"Personally I think that because it is an individual statement which hasn't got any comparison. I've never seen a building which would have been approached from a similar angle, which would have handled the brief in a fashion as this particular project has done. I am completely, totally astonished how much invention, how much effort and how much of the talent have actually been married in this statement. Of course, it is a journey, it is not the final appearance of what we might expect for Prague in three or four year's time. But it is the most promising architectural statement which we had, and it was pretty obvious from day one that this project had a long way to go, and it managed to go all the way through up to the top."

Due to lack of space, the National Library had been considering building a new building since the 1980s. The competition eventually started in June 2006; in October the participants submitted their projects and eight of them were asked to work on them for another four months. The competition took place according to the rules of the International Union of Architects (UIA) and the whole procedure of judging and selecting the best project was anonymous. The London-based winner Jan Kaplicky - who has never had a building realised in his home country - confessed that it was the most important event in his life.

Jan Kaplicky,  photo: CTK
"It's not the biggest building, but it's most complicated building. And, as I said before, it's closing the circle I started here and may be coming back - and that's what's so nice about it. There was a lot of resentment here in a way, but obviously not any more."

What kind of resentment?

"Oh, that's not important today... Well, they don't like people who don't live here, somehow. It's changing, I'm sure, but slowly... But now it's all done, new things start, and in a three-years time we should speak again and see the new building."

So you think that the general public will adopt a positive attitude towards the new building?

"I don't know. You will see the papers tomorrow, that's the first reaction. It's easy to talk, it's easy to criticize, more difficult it is to build, to design. They can judge on the day it will be finished. That will be the judgment day."

Did the fact that you are of Czech origin play any important role?

"You mean now, on this day? Well, it's only a small world, architecture is a small world. But it is the National Library, so...yes, it is important. It is also a sentimental journey for me, there's no doubt about that."

I mean, did it help you in any way? You know the construction site better, perhaps, than the others, you know the city well...

"No, you have some sentiments in that respect, and that's what's so important. You can better judge some situations, but not everything. The most important thing I think about is that this will put the Czech Republic into the world of European architecture, I hope. But I think it will and that's what's most important."

Are you happy that the projects were judged in an anonymous way?

"Of course."

Does it make you more proud?

"I'm sure some of them recognized... Unfortunately, in this case, we are too well known at a certain moment. I don't know. I honestly don't know. I still don't know who those other people are, those seven.

Photo: CTK
But it doesn't matter any more, even if you know the other seven people, because you are judging something else. You're judging the functionality of the thing, I suppose very much."

Back in 1955, Jan Kaplicky was not admitted to the Czech Technical University. Later he graduated from the College of Applied Arts and Architecture in Prague and in 1968 left Czechoslovakia for Britain, where, in 1978, he founded Future Systems, an architectural and design studio.

The new library building is very far form being 'conservative', but it will not change Prague's skyline too much, as it should be only nine storeys high. In the underground depository, there should be as many as ten million books and readers should be able to get any of them within three to five minutes.