Nusle Bridge: concrete giant which fell victim to politics of Cold War

Nuselsky most

Most foreign visitors associate the Czech capital with the city's 14th century architectural jewel - Charles Bridge. But a mile away is another, rather newer structure - the massive Nusle Bridge. Opened in 1973, it plays a crucial role in the capital's transport system: almost all north-south traffic flowing through Prague is carried across it. But as Radio Prague's Rob Cameron reports, the gargantuan bridge fell victim to Cold War politics, and unfortunately seems to have a hypnotic attraction for suicidal Czechs.

Nuselsky Most - Nusle Bridge. It's just under half a kilometre long, forty metres high in places and consists of 20,000 cubic metres of reinforced concrete. It's an absolutely huge structure; it sweeps across the Nusle Valley, connecting the districts of Pankrac, in front of us, and Karlov, where we've standing now. It carries six lanes of traffic as well as Prague's metro in and out of the city centre.

With me is the man who designed it, architect Stanislav Hubicka. There are a number of legends about Nusle Bridge. One that I've heard is that just as Baron Haussmann built wide boulevards in Paris after 1871 to make it easier to put down future revolutions, so Nusle Bridge was built to facilitate the entry of Soviet tanks into Prague to put down another Prague Spring of 1968, if another were to occur. Is that true Stanislav?

"Well, as far as I remember, the bridge was tested with tanks - a huge number of tanks. But that was simply a way of making sure the bridge could withstand the impact of heavy traffic. It was decided that the most reliable way to test the dynamics of the bridge was to drive 80-ton Soviet tanks across it. But whether this test was really part of a covert military plan to put down some kind of future conflict - the answer is I don't know. But I certainly wouldn't rule it out."

Whether the story is true or not, it wasn't the only time Nusle Bridge fell victim to Cold War politics. But this time it wasn't Russian tanks, but Russian trains.

Stanislav Hubicka designed his bridge to carry Swedish-made metro carriages. At the last minute, however, the Communist authorities decided only Russian ones would do. The problem was that the Russian carriages were twice as heavy as the Swedish ones. It was a decision which was to cause serious problems for the bridge, and Stanislav Hubicka is still bitter about it to this day.

"I very glad you asked me about that. For me personally it came as a huge blow. The Swedish trains weighed 30 tons. The Russian ones weighed more than twice as much, and were also higher. So for a start we had to completely redesign the platforms. And the heavier trains also caused structural damage to the bridge, which later had to be reinforced with a steel frame."

Most Praguers know Nusle bridge as "Suicide Bridge" - unfortunately it's where many people come to end their lives, and several hundred have done so since it was built. How does that make you feel?

"Well, of course it's very unpleasant, and I have to admit that never in a million years did it occur to us that we'd have this problem. After several years we put together a group of experts to find ways of preventing people from jumping off it. We eventually came up with the idea of hanging nets underneath the sides of the bridge, to catch people if they jumped. But the city council rejected the idea as unrealistic - they thought they wouldn't be able to get the people out of the nets. In the end they decided to build these extra-high fences, but of course it hasn't stopped the suicides - people just climb over them. I don't like saying this, but basically there's no solution."

When you look out at this bridge, what do you feel? Do you come here sometimes just to look at it?

"Yes I do. I think back to how we got together and solved so many problems, problems which seemed insurmountable at the time. I think back to the team of people who worked with me on the bridge, the people who believed we could do it - and they were in the minority, believe me. It gives me great pleasure to look at it. And it's also a great comfort to think that when I'm gone, the bridge will still be here."