"Octopus" skewered on political harpoon as Kaplicky, Bem square up for TV clash

Das siegreiche Projekt der Nationalbibliothek in Prag

What started as a revolutionary architectural design has now become a full-blown political dispute...or should that be farce? Jan Kaplicky's design for a new National Library building a few hundred metres from Prague Castle was controversial from the beginning, but the issue no longer has people divided so much as at each other's throats.

In an architectural jewel such as Prague, unorthodox designs for new buildings will always be controversial. But the furore surrounding the futuristic green-and-purple design for a new National Library - officially called "An Eye Over Prague" but nicknamed "The Octopus" and now "The Blob" - appears to have transcended a debate about aesthetics to become a political cause celebre.

At the centre of the dispute are Mr Kaplicky, the Czech-born head of British architects Future Systems, and the Civic Democrat mayor of Prague Pavel Bem. Mr Bem was among the project's supporters when the design won an international competition six months ago. But since then he's become one of its greatest critics, saying the Civic Democrat-controlled city council will not allow the Octopus to be built on Letna Plain because it would ruin the panorama of Prague. Critics attribute his U-turn to his close relationship with President Vaclav Klaus, who hates the Blob with a passion and doesn't want it in his back yard.

That political interference has angered several well-known architects, who have mobilised in the Blob's defence. They've drawn up a petition that's been signed by a number of leading figures in the field, including the architect, actor and comedian David Vavra, who had this to say to Czech Television:

"Understanding Kaplicky's design isn't just a matter of looking at one drawing and making up your mind. You have to have an understanding of the type of architecture that isn't all right-angles and straight lines."

On Thursday evening Mr Kaplicky will meet Mr Bem in a live televised debate, broadcast not on Czech Television - the usual forum for such highbrow matters, but the commercial station TV Nova. Aesthetics as mass entertainment.

But what of the Octopus itself? Mr Kaplicky has rejected suggestions of lopping off a few storeys or changing the building's colour. Other cities - Brno, Bratislava, even Edinburgh - have reportedly expressed interest in the design. The architect has warned darkly that what was Prague's first major international architectural competition is potentially its last. But it's looking less and less likely that a green and purple Blob will rise on Letna Plain.