Is Prague successfully preserving its architectural heritage?

St Vitus' Cathedral

Over the past decade or so, visitors have been flocking to Prague in ever-increasing numbers. Many of them have been attracted by tales of the city's beautiful, well-preserved architecture, which embraces many different styles ranging from the imposing gothic grandeur of St Vitus' Cathedral to the baroque opulence of St. Nicholas' Church. This upsurge in tourism has resulted in a swathe of development projects across the Czech capital aimed at meeting the demands of visitors to the city. Critics say such initiatives pose a threat to the architectural splendour of Prague, which is what brings so many people here in the first place.

Charles Bridge
Radio Prague asked some tourists on Prague's Charles Bridge whether they thought the city still lived up to its reputation as one of the architectural jewels of Europe.

"It's a wonderful city. The architecture's beautiful and all of the buildings are absolutely beautiful. I didn't imagine they could be so wonderful. It's so well preserved as well."

"For me, it's a nice place. I think it's clean and I like the architecture. There are a lot more different styles compared to what we have in Paris."

"What we've seen so far has been very nice. It's very pretty and compact. The city's to be well kept. It's very nice."

"I just love all the old buildings and all the different colours as well as the different heights of all the buildings and the way they all slot together. It's just so alien to what England is like. The centre is just so beautiful. I particularly like the [Charles] bridge - all the edges at the end of the bridge are beautiful. The bits I've seen so far are beautiful."

Mala Strana
"I think it's beautiful. Everyone told me it was and I definitely agree with them. Its antiquity is beautiful. I love the churches mostly and the theatre buildings as well as the Charles Bridge. It's a little funny walking somewhere like Wenceslas Square, where there's all these old buildings with signs for McDonalds or Go-Go bars. It does seem kind of awkward. I'm sure the business owners are happy, because they want to make money and you can't keep things old for ever, but at the same time it's kind of sad to see things starting to look how they do in American or Western European Cities."

Ironically, as that last comment illustrates, Prague's burgeoning success as a tourist destination is something of a double-edged sword.

As businesses and investors rush to cash in on the tourism boom, Prague finds itself in the grip of massive development with entrepreneurs building hotels, restaurants and other facilities to cater for the seemingly endless stream of tourists now descending on the Czech capital.

This development has many local residents worried. Some say that it is turning the city's traditional beauty spots like the Mala Strana district and the Old Town Square into characterless "Disneyland" attractions.

Jakub Cigler is an architect whose firm has just won a tender to revamp Prague's main thoroughfare Wenceslas Square, yet another major project planned for the city. He says the rapid development of Prague after years of neglect under communism is raising some urgent questions as to what direction the city's architecture should take in the future:

"There is a lack of some concept or vision as to what Prague should be. Should it be something like Venice - just a city in which nothing new happens with just tourists coming to the hotels and so on? Or is it a city that is developing, as it has been doing now for 1000 years already."

Martin Krise is also an architect who is concerned about the direction in which Prague is headed. As a member of the Club for Ancient Prague, which was founded over a century ago to protect the city's beautiful buildings and monuments, he says some recent developments do make him fearful for Prague's architectural heritage:

"You know the problem of monumental care is even older than our club. So I don't think the situation will be solved quickly. And Prague is fortunate enough that there are still some monuments that are not spoiled. And there are absolutely brilliant examples of how to breathe new life into buildings. On the other hand, there are buildings in Letna, for example, which have only got a façade and behind it there are different windows, ventilation, staircases, lifts garages, and so on. Inside they are practically new buildings and this is rubbish."

Although Prague's municipal authorities are in charge of protecting the city's historical buildings, they are advised by conservationists at the National Conservation Institute. These conservationists or "pamatkari" as they are known are meant to work with local authorities and investors on development in listed areas and to make recommendations regarding the preservation of notable architectural features.

The pamatkari have come under intense scrutiny recently after it came to light that a significant portion of the city's ancient fortification known as the Hunger Wall, which dates back to the reign of Charles IV, was destroyed by a developer during the construction of a new hotel.

Mishaps like these mean that the pamatkari don't exactly enjoy the best of reputations. Considering that many of these conservationists often have to rely on poorly paid civil servants while doing their work, Jakub Cigler says it is hardly surprising that some architecturally dubious projects have been given the green light in recent years.

"It's about the quality of the people themselves. There are exceptionally good people working there, but I think that the general staff of these departments suffer from a lack of adequate education. They are not able to distinguish quality from average or bad proposals. I think this is where the problem lies - recognizing what is good and what is bad."

Given these criticisms, it is perhaps not surprising that the new Czech culture minister Vitezslav Jandak has recently fired all the conservationists working at the National Conservation Institute. In an unusual step he has said that all the pamatkari who were dismissed can reapply for their jobs, but that they must undergo a strict selection process before being hired.

This measure could indicate that the minister is attempting to weed out any incompetent officials during this selection process by ensuring only pamatkari with the right qualifications are rehired.

If that is the case, it's certainly a move Jakub Cigler would welcome:

Dancing Building
"I think the monument protection here is at quite a good level, but greater experts are needed to recognize what should be protected. A monument isn't just something old. It must also be seen to have some quality. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding between architects and pamatkari. They feel everything old must be protected, while architects think only the good things must be protected."

Despite this perceived conservatism among the city authorities, there have still been some extremely modern developments in Prague's historical centre, such as the award-winning Dancing Building by internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry. Jakub Cigler says inventive architectural projects like this are also important to Prague's heritage, which shouldn't just be about fossilising the past but reviving the city's longstanding reputation for architectural innovation:

"There were lots of rumours about the dancing building and how it would destroy Prague and so on. As an architect I'm not a great fan of Frank Gehry, but I respect this building as good architecture and I think it definitely doesn't damage Prague. I think the point to remember is that Prague has always been a mixture of various styles, which have always been original - original gothic, original baroque, original renaissance buildings and so on. I hope this will continue. In my opinion it would be bad if Prague begins producing kitschy buildings that repeat some styles in a bad way. So I think it would be nice if we had good original buildings in Prague in the future, not just copies of something."