The Republic of Žižkov, Pt. II: Palác Akropolis

Palác Akropolis, photo: archive of Palác Akropolis

Our weekly Spotlight programme features the places in the Czech Republic that you should know about; if you’re interested in Prague’s arts scene, cultural idiosyncrasies and unique nightlife, then you’ll doubtless find yourself in Žižkov - and Palace Akropolis is the place to start.

Palác Akropolis,  photo: archive of Palác Akropolis
Giving you a full taste of the phenomenon of ‘Akropolis’ pushes the limits of radio. Its goodness is multilayered: there’s the rich old history of the venue, and the one-of-a-kind position it holds in post-revolution Czech cultural life, then there’s its enticing griminess and under-worldliness that that can’t but leave you with the impression that you’ve entered a secret Prague underground known only to a privileged few.

That feeling is of course entirely mistaken. Every Czech travel guide there is registers Akropolis amongst its hot spots, and it remains a cultural epicentre despite everything that post-revolution entrepreneurialism has thrown in the same direction in the last 15 years. Amid all the music and cultural institutions that have risen and fallen in the last 20 years, Akropolis has held its own through some kind of unusual aphrodisiac. The recipe for that is an inimitable mix of acclaimed indie performances, unique interior art that makes an atmosphere that transcends trendiness, and the unabashed grunginess that befits a place that’s there for art, drink, sex and dancing, in whatever order you like.

Akropolis director Lubomír Schmidtmajer and I agree, that base ingredient is the symbiotic relationship Akropolis shares with its neighbourhood, Žižkov: it’s hard to imagine one without the other.

“We try to have a close relationship to Žižkov, and really the majority of the people who work here are Žižkovites; we try to keep the two together. Žižkov was originally a very proletariat neighbourhood, which started to change in the 1990s and kind of regenerate into a sort of Prague Montmartre, for comparison’s sake at least. More and more it is becoming a quarter where there are a lot of foreigners, lots of artists…. I guess that’s the best way to describe it.”

Going back in time now, why ‘Palace Akropolis’? Because it’s on a steep hill, for one thing. And more importantly, because when it was built in 1927 as an upscale, middle-class residential building with a theatre in its bowels, it was actually intended to be a centre of cultural life for the big urban quarter that was changing as rapidly as it had emerged. In those early days there would have been up to 430 seated visitors there watching cabaret and amateur theatre, piano playing and the last silent films of the era.

Palác Akropolis,  photo: archive of Palác Akropolis
Akropolis was designed and built by a WWI legionnaire and architect Rudolf V. Svoboda for himself and other legionnaires. Svoboda built several buildings in Žižkov in the last days of Art Deco, of which Palác Akropolis is the best known. Once there was an interior full of romantic paintings celebrating the founding of Czechoslovakia, which was no longer customary in the late 1920s but fitting for a bunch of veterans. Downstairs was a café, famed for its excellent coffee, of which it served 14 types. The theatre flourished, and its troupe included some of the best actors of the First Republic, who were just starting out at the venue such as Zita Kabátová, Rudolf Hrušinský, and later František Filipovský. Jeroným Janíček is a well known radio presenter who has also edited a book on the history of Akropolis:

“Once Filipovský finished here, one of the subsidiaries of Supraphon moved in and they were making needles for gramophones here. That went on for about 10 years and then this became a storeroom for fabric, then a storeroom for potatoes, and it gradually just became an enormous rubbish dump. When Klíma and Vorel cut the lock and went in to Akropolis in 1989 they found not only a huge amount of junk but also soggy walls, and they say the ceilings were collapsing. And today, it’s a gorgeous place.”

The old café at Kubelíkova 27 became, after the war, a canteen for cheap meals for seniors, and later for the workers building the television tower around the corner. Luckily for Prague’s wonderful artistic environment, it did not stay that way for ever. In 1996, the interior of Akropolis was turned into a work of art by one of the country’s best known contemporary sculptors, the wildly inventive František Skála. Architectural historian Zdeněk Lukeš describes the interior of Akropolis:

“Skála takes a lot of inspiration from all kinds of natural motifs, like forest driftwoods, for example, or items made out of wood that might not even have any function but that are quite interesting. Here you see some kind of aquarium, full of strangely remarkable devices that I guess used to be parts of little machines, but we don’t even know their original function. These kinds of things give a special kind of elegance, and altogether they combine to make a peculiar kind of mosaic.”

With the Akropolis interior, Skála has made a kind of neo-Art Nouveau – nouvel art noveau perhaps – and like I said before, it’s one of the things that keeps Akropolis from ever going out of style. So many Prague publicans put so much money making a place nice, and it’s considered tasteless in a few years. So many of Prague’s once wonderfully artsy joints on the other hand, have vested their trust in a “cool” artist – who really was, and that, I guess, says it all. Akropolis has found a happy medium in Skála’s subtle but subtly striking work. Like ‘old’ Art Nouveau, the whole place has a feeling of having been somehow grown out of nature, but instead of being amidst the forest and the tendrils, like in the 1910s, Akropolis is more like a dark but colourful bunker with roots peaking through to form bars and tables and faces on the walls.

The mainstay of Akropolis for the young Czechs who come one generation after another and the steady flow of foreigners looking for Prague’s cultural underbelly, is the music.

“What we try to do is bring in things that are not too widespread or that other theatres and clubs don’t do much. We try to discover new things from abroad, and where the Czech scene is concerned we try to support quality young artists who don’t have support elsewhere. So those are really our main focuses.”

And that’s a plan that has paid off, as culture journalist Marek Gregor says:

“One thing that Akropolis really was the first in the country to do was to work systematically with dramaturgy and bring attractive, modern European music to the Czech Republic. The other interesting thing about Akropolis, even if it’s not exactly my cup of tea, is that it was practically the first venue in the Czech Republic to start working with ‘world music’. Those are probably the two basic things in which Akropolis was the most sophisticated, and through which it de facto defined the terrain for what goes on in the Czech Republic.”

What kinds of things would you never see at Palác Akropolis, was a question I put to the stage manager Michal Hons.

“[laughs] Michal David. He was never here. He was never here.”

So, pop, you mean.

“That’s brutal, socialistic pop; that’s never been here.”

Otherwise anything goes?

“Akropolis is a place for all kinds of art, so everything you can imagine has been here. And that’s the power of the venue, because we are able to make really nice, and really different concerts and shows, exhibitions… As I remember, we had a snowboard ramp in here once, from this side over here, the snowboarders were jumping. We’ve had bikes in here, et cetera. It’s great.”

What do you like most about your job?

“I’m here for the theatre, but my heart is in the music. So for me it’s the music and the gigs of such great bands as Beautiful; some of the best shows I’ve seen here were Paradise Lost, Sepultura, HiM was here, Apollo 440. Really great shows.”

Photo: archive of Palác Akropolis