Each of Prague’s quarters contributes to its famous diversity in its own way and offers a completely different experience. In today’s Spotlight we want to introduce you to a part of Prague that is a keystone for modern Czech cultural life, aptly dubbed by its inhabitants the “Independent Republic of Žižkov”.
It is hard to imagine today as you walk along the cobbled streets of central Žižkov, through the alleys of 19th century tenements with their graffiti, chic cafes, dingy public houses and little shops, but once there was nothing but grapes growing here, up and down the hills outside the walls of Prague. Just 140 years ago this was the Royal Vineyards, rustic farmland dotted with summer-houses and pubs for medieval day-trippers. You can still find some remnants of that history ‘next door’ in Vinohrady, where as the name promises, there is still at least one working vineyard, but certainly not here in Žižkov, the future of which was sealed forever by the Industrial Revolution.
The Royal Vineyards were urbanised overnight. In 1869 there were 292 people living there. By the 1880s there were 21,000, and ten years later, twice that many again.
Publisher Milan Polák has produced a series of books on the history and peculiarities of this special part of Prague.
“The emperor Franz Josef I promoted Žižkov to a township in 1881, and it was an independent town with its own powerhouse, gasworks, town hall of course and council until 1922. There was some small industry, for example Sellier & Bellot was the largest munitions works in the former Austro-Hungarian empire.
So most of the buildings in Žižkov were built as accommodation for workers?
“Yes, Žižkov was the most important residential area in Prague, where thousands of workers of big factories in the districts of Libeň and Vysočany had their homes. In 1922 [when the town was annexed into Prague] there were 1,204 inhabitants per hectare of settled ground living there. It was the highest population density in all of Prague.”
The sudden rise of the industrial suburb created the unique type of architecture that dominates the quarter today, four or five story residential buildings with beautiful 19th century facades with a sweaty, gritty feel to them that no amount of paint can take away. Zdeněk Lukeš is one of the Czech Republic’s leading architectural historians and described the harsh living conditions of Žižkov’s early days.
“There were many small companies and small factories, and some bigger ones of course, narrow streets, and this typical, we can say, ‘pauper’ kind of architecture: poor houses that are richly decorated from the outside but the real side is very poor, with systems of parallel balconies on the backs of the buildings – called ‘pavlače’ in Czech – which are very typical of the Žižkov area. There were very small apartments, very poor, just one or two rooms without kitchens, without toilets – toilets were on the balconies – and without kitchens. One part of one room would be dedicated as a kitchen.”
These features remain among the quirks of residential life in Žižkov today, where such flats are often converted into tiny studio apartments for students, sometimes still with shared lavatories, and the tiered balconies that were the poor inhabitants’ social hubs remain a distinctive feature of the quarter, beloved by Czech filmmakers. But like everywhere in Prague, a wealth of architectural styles came to town along with its changing fortunes. The 13-story Trade Unions Building (Dům odborových svazů) for example was hailed as a marvel of functionalism when it was finished in 1934, the first “skyscraper” in Prague and the only building in the city able to boast of new American air conditioning. But such new dreams came with mixed blessings.
The Trade Unions Building
Zdeněk Lukeš: “[The Trade Unions Building] was the dream of this generation of architects, most of whom were leftists and communists, to create something like a shining city with plans like those of Le Corbusier, a Swiss architect living in Paris, to create a super-modern town. And they dreamed of destroying all of the structures in Žižkov and replacing them with these monumental buildings and skyscrapers.
Why Žižkov, why would they not want to do this somewhere that was still undeveloped?
“Because of the quality of life. For them it was a symbol of capitalist industrial architecture, very poor, and therefore they hated it and wanted to create something super-modern. Fortunately it was never done, but the area was jeopardised by the communists at the end of the 80s, because they wanted to destroy the buildings. You have to imagine that most of the buildings in Žižkov then were in very bad condition, they were in state property and there was no maintenance. And so there were plans to destroy it and replace it with prefab blocks, and this was done to one part of Žižkov, and I think it’s the worst part.”
Žižkov television tower, photo: CzechTourism
There can be no argument as to the most lasting impression that the communist era left on Žižkov, that is, the colossal television tower that is often called one of the ugliest or the most fantastic structures in the world. There is much to be heard about this structure in Radio Prague’s archive; suffice to mention that its construction was completely unnecessary. With suitable television antennae on Petřín Hill, the only purpose of the tower was to override Western broadcasting signals, which was entirely irrelevant by the time it was completed in 1992.
Where people work hard they tend to play hard too, and that has always been the case in Žižkov. It has received the name “the Montmartre of Prague” not just for the hills but also for the notorious decadence and the proletariat milieu that drew artists, writers, musicians and ‘bohemians’ in general. When the Nobel Prize winning poet Jaroslav Seifert was growing up there before the First World War, there was a pub in every fourth building (today there is only one for every 122 Žižkovites). The raucous spirit of the place was committed to writing by Seifert, Jaroslav Hašek and many more, as was the crime – organised, drunk and impoverished – which spawned whole series of detective novels set in the heady alleyways and balconies of early 20th century Žižkov. An excellent literary example of where all these aspects of life in the quarter come together is Jaroslav Žák’s satire “Secrets from the Žižkov Underworld”. After building their own Statue of Liberty (‘Liberty’ being the surname of the Žižkov football coach), Žák tells the story of how the Žižkovites then go on to introduce prohibition – on non-alcoholic drinks that is. Most importantly, either from this book or from someone in the satiric literary came the important, hopefully immortal appellation “Svobodná republika Žižkov” – the Autonomous Republic of Žižkov, which enjoys a fervent loyalty today that goes back to the quarter’s 19th century founding. Milan Polák:
“Patriotic feeling has always been typical of inhabitants of Žižkov. You know that during the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire there was the very strong influence of Germans in Prague. One third of the population was Jewish, one third German, and one third Czech. But Žižkov was completely Czech. And for the Czechs of the end of the 19th century, the symbol of freedom was the Hussite movement, and this is why Žižkov is called Žižkov, after the leader of the movement Jan Žižka of Trocnov, and you can find many streets named after the great men of the Hussite movement, their hometowns and the battles they won.”
In 2001, on the occasion of an official visit of the EU ambassador, Žižkov took the opportunity to declare independence from the Czech Republic and negotiate accession to the European Union. Since then cars in the district, instead of the round CZ sticker have proudly displayed a capital ‘Ž’. It is all of course a joke and a continuation of the very Czech, and even more Žižkovian, ability to embrace the absurdities of life and run with them. Today as the Republic of Žižkov prospers it only becomes more and more a centre of cultural life with more and more ‘immigrants’ both from elsewhere in Prague and from other countries who swear their allegiance to it. Milan Polák says what he thinks are the three main staples of its lasting popularity.
“Žižkov has its own spirit – we say ‘genius loci’. You cannot find another district like Žižkov in all of Prague. A lot of poor people lived there over the long centuries, but on the other hand Žižkov lies near the centre of Prague, so today it has a good address for people who are working in the city. And the other thing that is typical of Žižkov is that there are many, many pubs, inns and restaurants. On each corner you can find a pub, and these are pubs of different grades, cheap pubs and exclusive clubs; it’s very interesting now.”