Prague's boring modern architecture

Dancing House

“I’m standing outside “Tančicí Dům” or “Dancing House” which is on the waterfront of the Vltava river pretty much in the centre of Prague. This is quite an unusual building for the centre of Prague because it is a modern building – it was designed by the Californian architect Frank O. Gehry. The spot on which it is built was bombed during WWII by Allied troops by mistake – they thought they were bombing Dresden. The location then remained an empty spot until after the Velvet Revolution. The building is actually located right next to the former flat of Václav Havel, the dissident-turned-president. And for a long time, Václav Havel hoped that something unusual and interesting would be built here - a house of culture of sorts, which didn’t quite turn out to be the case as it is in fact an office building. But the point is that this is only one of a very few new buildings in Prague which could be said to be of any kind of architectural distinction. It divided people when it was first built – some loved it, others hated it. So what I am asking in the programme today is – why is there not more interesting new architecture in Prague?”

I went to visit architectural expert Zdeněk Lukeš, in his office within Prague Castle – the location being an example of the classical architecture that Prague is famous for – and began by asking him whether the historical core of the city actually negated new and interesting architecture cropping up.

“I think that it is possible to have new and quality architecture in the centre of Prague. The Dancing House is once example that worked very well and I think that similar buildings should appear around the historical core. But sadly, there is very little of this at the moment.”

And what was his assessment of the current state of new architecture in Prague?

“Sadly, the majority of new buildings in Prague are decidedly average. There are a number of reasons why. The population is very conservative and add to that the very bad experiences of the communist times when many buildings were in a state of disrepair and other areas such as Žižkov were levelled to the ground to make way for panel apartment buildings, so people remain wary and kind of blame the architects as being responsible for the devastation of that era.”

Žižkov TV tower
Yet, perhaps ironically, it is some of the more striking communist-era architecture that can be described as the most interesting, even twenty years after the Velvet Revolution. One such example is the notorious Television Tower, a huge structure built in order to drown out Western transmissions. A few years ago, artist David Černý added a modern twist with the placement of several baby-like figures crawling up the structure. It was a very rare example of overt modernism in this conservative city. I met with David Černý in a noisy pub, and asked for his take on Prague’s modern architecture.

“In a certain way it is a public scare of something new. When the minds of the people were destroyed for forty years by the Russian way of thinking, and the importation of the Russian way of building – I am talking about what was actually going on at the time in Russia – of course they were infected. And you won’t wipe that out within ten years.”

David Černý
There is also a clear generational divide, which has been highlighted by the controversy over the proposed “blob” design of the new National Library. Simply put, most young people are for it, while older people are largely opposed. Added together, all this would seem to suggest that compared to say Berlin, with its overtly classical-meets-modernist approach, Prague’s artists and architects face an uphill struggle. David Černý again:

“I know that in Berlin and in other metropolises, it is much easier to work, and the projects which people are trying to put together are welcome because the government and the city government both know that they have to attract people to come there. There is no conception to attract people to come here and of course, the tourist numbers are falling.”

I asked Černý why so many of Prague’s new buildings appear to be what critics would describe as boring identikit glass and steel:

“Those buildings are basically built with a view to getting a return on investment within five years or so. And if the developer knows that they have to grease some palms just to get building permission – it is all connected and really rotten.”

So asides from the “Dancing House” are there actually any notable post-communist buildings in Prague at all? I put this question to Zdeněk Lukeš:

“Certainly the most interesting new buildings in Prague are those designed by renowned foreign architects. Nouvel’s Golden Angel is one such example. This is an office complex which was built around eight years ago in Smíchov and was designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. But in this case, you can kind of tell that they didn’t have enough money and that they were trying to cut back on costs.”

Mr Lukeš also cited two other examples:

“Another interesting building is Corso in the Karlín district of Prague. The Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill built a new hi-tech interior within the area of an old factory building, and this led to an interesting tension between the old architecture and the new. Also in Karlín, there is an interesting new administrative building called Danube, which is shaped like a steam-boat and lies right by the Vltava river. This was designed by the well-known architects Kohn-Pederson-Fox.”

David Černý, who himself came up with some of Prague’s more historically symbolic iconography – such as the Trabant with legs and the Soviet tank painted pink – both of which were ultimately and sadly removed from their respective locations – is openly contemptuous of the people whose responsibility it is to shape Prague’s architectural outlook.

“Prague 5 is a typical example of how the architecture here works. That was a big development site, and instead of doing something interesting, they just gave it away to developers. And it was a huge area.”

And Černý has another example, that of the Dívčí Hrady Prokopské Údolí, a revered green area just outside Prague.

“The last beautiful green part of the city, they are trying to change it into a building site, which is totally unacceptable. It is a typical example of the arrogance of our officials. Of course, they get thousands of protests, but they don’t care.”

So does it come down to a lack of vision?

“Of course there is no vision here. I mean, Jesus, you must be kidding! They don’t know what the word means!”