Petr Franta, architect - on public spaces, the face of Prague, and life in Montreal

Petr Franta

In today's edition Jan Velinger's guest is Czech-born architect Petr Franta. Based in Prague, Petr Franta is known around the world for his projects, which include the reconstruction and redesigning of such buildings as Prague's international airport, the first thing most visitors to the Czech Republic get to see; more recently completed by Petr Franta: an elegant and modern commercial centre called Palac Flora found smack in the fashionable Vinohrady district of the Czech capital.

Petr Franta
In the interview Jan began by asking Petr Franta - who lived in Canada for fifteen years - whether he thought Prague had changed a great deal architecturally during the 1990s.

"Well, I think it changed dramatically, not only new architecture but also all the renovations, reconstruction which went on, even whole city quarters. And, of course within the pattern of the pattern of the houses a new contemporary language of architecture, and I think the change is absolutely remarkable."

In your opinion, what are some positive trends within this transformation, though?

"For me, for my architecture, I really like this challenge of inserting contemporary language into the pattern of the Old Town, basically medieval - with all the styles, that's how Prague grew anyway, after Romanesque all the Gothic and the Baroque basically replaced or were side by side with the architecture of times before. And, I really take this as a challenge and I like similar architecture constructed in this spirit. For example, I like very much the recently finished Euro Palace at the bottom of Wenceslas Square, which I think is very successful from the urban point of view, in what it adds to the skyline of the Old Town and Wenceslas Square, as well as a statement that completely contemporary architecture belongs in the neighbourhood of old houses."

If Prague has moved generally in a positive direction since the fall of Communism, there has also been a negative aspect, hasn't there?

"Right, it's a sensitive theme, that's for sure. And, you know, the success of it is based on so many factors we can't name all of them here. But, the tourist industry is bringing also negative things like these souvenir shops and crappy "boxes" selling god knows what...You know."

Carrefour St. Denis
You lived in Montreal for many years, since 1977 - I wanted to ask you how important that experience was...

"Well, it was very important because I came there at the age of thirty. I was young enough to still change all the habits and everything. I came there as a political refugee, though it was my choice. But I couldn't come back."

How did Montreal strike you and what were some of the elements in terms of space, line, design, that you found inspiring, or found that you could work from?

"Well, I really liked the area along the river. The river created Montreal's atmosphere, together with the hill of course (Mount Royal), together with the cross - the sacral symbol - and when I came to Montreal I wandered many times along the river, along the old port with my sketching pad and I really liked these kinds of walks. Three years after my arrival there was a competition for the Old Port and I basically got the sketches I had already and I put it together as one proposal, one concept, and I won the competition. It was a little bit my starting point there as well, because colleagues and an involved public looked at me differently after that. It was a little bit my contribution how I saw this "new world", which had this "potential"."

During your time in Canada you also worked on many different buildings and proposals of course and you also worked on private residences. Did these buildings gain an added "Canadian" element?

Residence Laurent Cote
"I would say it differently. In the beginning of the 80s - with all those commissions turning old factories into residential lofts - my architecture and development from those times is about really thinking about "open space" in the concept. And, you know, even here in my studio I don't have many partitions. I guess that was the experience really: dealing with space, light, I can't forget, you know. It's a trend in Prague now, twenty years later."

You said that when you came to Canada you came for political reasons and there was no turning back. Now, when the fall of Communism came was it "inevitable" for you to return to Prague?

"Of course I had an office in Montreal. I saw the opportunity here - basically the whole country had to be rebuilt - a good opportunity for an architect. So I established an office here and for some time had offices in both cities, plus an association in New York, so it was a little bit schizophrenic. I was sort of commuting between those places. In '94 we won an international design competition for the airport here - and construction. It was a fast-track project, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day! Basically, I had a real problem getting back to Montreal! In '95 I had something like twelve plane tickets bought really, and I had to pay penalties and finally I only got there for Christmas, so basically I was "lured" in by this large and demanding project, and basically that decided things for me!"

One of the most visible and predominant trends in Prague has been the redevelopment of businesses and especially shopping areas - large shopping centres. Now, you yourself worked on the design of the new Palac Flora centre - it hasn't been open that long - what considerations were there in that project?

"This eminent area in Vinohrady has between 60,000 - 80, 000 people living there and basically, before the shopping centre was built, there was no service as such."

Flora Place
You can have a shopping centre and it can be an ordinary box of glass and metal. But you came with a design which is characteristic to your style...

"Right. I took lots of care that we got lots of top-light into this shopping centre, this indoor walk-way, through different kinds of skylights. There is a glazed dome in the centre of the project which is at the same time vertical communication through the building. I think that the top-light is really my scheme in all my projects. Another point is we played a lot with the greenery, which you can easily see in some of those cafes which are there. It was one of the conceptual things which we wanted to achieve."

What is more rewarding for you: when you have a structure which is, say, a private residence, which is appreciated by a few, or when you have a large commercial but also social space, like this one?

"It's true that I like much more to play with public spaces - my firm entered several urban competitions, because it's an expression of interest in the city I'm living in, working, creating and all that. It's much more rewarding if it's really part of the city after. Public spaces are also much more about responsibility - in a private house the owner can change a partition and okay has a bigger living room after, but with a public space you are basically responsible to millions of people. The general public."