National Theatre set for extensive facelift

National Theatre

Prague’s National Theatre is one of the most important cultural institutions in the Czech Republic. Located by the River Vltava at the end of Narodni trida, the 19th century Neo-Renaissance building, with its distinctive gilded cupola, is also one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks. But today it is landmark in need of a facelift. Some work has already begun on the roof, while the main reconstruction work on its facades will get underway in around a year and a half’s time.

On a terrace just below the roof, on an absolutely freezing day last week, I learned all about the renovation project from the general director of the National Theatre, Ondrej Cerny.

“The National Theatre, it’s necessary to say, is one of the buildings in the Czech Republic which is really…monitored by people – they really want to know what the situation of the building is.

National Theatre
“We can say that it’s not very bad, it’s not a catastrophic situation, but we know now that it needs reconstruction. The interior spaces of the National Theatre are in fact OK. But the façade really needs complex reconstruction.

“Just now we are starting, with the roof and with the trigas [statues of three-horse carriages]. It is the symbol of National Theatre, and one of the symbols of the Czech nation, in fact.

“We started just now and it will be ready in the middle of next year. Just now we are preparing the project with the Ministry of Culture. We expect, probably, that we will start reconstruction in 2009 and it will take probably three years.”

Above us here is the famous gold dome of the National Theatre. Is it true that’s being removed, temporarily?

“Yes, it’s the case that we will be half a year without this gold on the roof of the National Theatre. That could be a bit…frustrating for the citizens of the Czech Republic. Therefore we should speak about it and say that we don’t want to destroy the National Theatre, but we want to conserve all of its monuments.”

How are you financing this project? I’m sure it’s an expensive undertaking to do such an extensive reconstruction.

“I think that the National Theatre is one of the buildings which are by the Ministry of Culture…taken as one of the main historical buildings. And the Ministry of Culture has a really big interest in this reconstruction.

“We expect therefore that we will come to a solution regarding the money. The approximate cost is around 160 million crowns and just now we are speaking to the ministry and preparing the project. And I hope that the state budget will have the money for this reconstruction.”

Will the theatre look exactly the same after you have finished this work, or are you planning some changes?

“The theatre will look the same. That means the façade will be the old façade, the colour will be the same as today. In fact we are preparing the situation that the National Theatre will look as old as it is. We really don’t want or need to make some changes.”

Fire of the National Theatre in 1881
The opening of the Czech National Theatre in June 1881 was a milestone in the Czech National Revival. However, just two months later the building was destroyed by fire, in what was regarded as a national disaster. A collection was held around the country to rebuild the National Theatre, and it was reopened in November 1883. Today does it still have broader significance? Or is important only to Prague’s theatre-going public? Ondrej Cerny continues:

“We have three segments of the public. One is the citizens of Prague, another is foreigners and tourists. But the third segment are people from the whole of the Czech Republic, who want to see the National Theatre, who want to go there. Till this time it is very important for the thinking of the people and the identification with the nation. Therefore I think Czech citizens feel a connection to the National Theatre.”

National Theatre
The theatre is I think around 120 years old – do you think it will still be here in its present form in another 120 years?

“Yes, sure, I think it must be here. It’s one of the stable elements of our identity, and I think the politicians know it, and the citizens know it too. Therefore we should plan and we should have a look at the building, because the theatre that is performed there is another thing. We should look at the building in a very long-term perspective, because the National Theatre should be here forever.”