The Republic of Žižkov, Pt. II: 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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?
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