Stage managing Prague Castle - Zdeněk Lukeš remembers Václav Havel

Zdeněk Lukeš

When Václav Havel came to Prague Castle, it meant a complete upheaval not only of the old system of governance, but also of the way things were run at the historical seat of the president itself. One of those who has been at Prague Castle since the very outset of that period is architect and art historian Zdeněk Lukeš, who worked closely with Václav Havel on revamping the castle and shared in the exuberance of the early administration. Speaking here with Christian Falvey, he recalled working with Mr Havel in the Civic Forum, the first post-Communist political movement.

“It was very interesting to me, because he was a very quiet man, but he was at the centre of everything there, at Laterna Magika. It was a very special place with a very special atmosphere, and he was very much respected by everyone. He was a very strong person, very quiet, but when he said something it was very important for that moment.”

He was very energetic in those early days…

“But also tired, because it was a course a hard time for all of us, with negotiations day and night, and it was not easy to stay fit during that hard period. But I think he was fantastic.”

Did he invite you personally to come to work at the castle, or how did that come about?

I was invited by his collaborator and advisor Miroslav Masák. During 1990 I was invited to be involved in some projects in the “Prague Castle Revitalisation Process”, that was the official name, but the unofficial name was “opening the enchanted castle”, because most of the spaces here at Prague Castle were closed at the time and it was necessary to think how to open them to the public and how to use them for better functions, to create new galleries, concert spaces, and practical things like restaurants, bars cafes and so on.”

And Mr Havel was very involved in this process.

“Very involved, very involved. I think one of the reasons was that his father and grandfather were architects and structural engineers who had been responsible for important monuments in Prague. For that reason, Václav Havel was surrounded by architecture from the beginnings, because he was born in a house designed by his grandfather. And another reason was that Havel wanted to open the castle to the public, to invite people and create something like a cultural centre here at the castle.”

Which is completely a part of his personality in general as regards openness and breaking down walls.

Václav Havel
“Yes. I think he was in a situation very similar to that of Mr Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, who came to Prague Castle after the establishment of the state in 1918 and the castle was in very bad condition: empty, dilapidated partly, and it was necessary to reequip it and open it to the people, to destroy the fortifications and so on. So I think the situation after 1989 was very similar. The only spaces accessible to tourists and other people were the courtyards, one part of the Old Royal Palace, and one of the smallest gardens. And that was all; a huge area had to be revitalised anew – according to the Guinness book of records, the largest permanent seat of a head of state in the world.”

Václav Havel had very clear aesthetic principles – you can see them at work in a lot of the documentaries about him, where he complains about the way his podium looks or about what kind of vase is in what place…

“Because he was connected with theatre life and so he was a little bit of a stage manager.”

Can you give an example?

“I think when we were preparing the big meeting of politicians here at Prague Castle in 2001, maybe you remember, I think all the important heads of state came to Prague for about two days and the meetings were held here, partly in the Spanish Hall partly in Vladislav Hall, two of the most important spaces of the castle. And Václav Havel arranged all the details of the meeting, including the passing from one hall to another, through the castle area, and he wanted to surprise the guests with pieces of architecture or design or pictures by our leading artists. It was interesting.”

Can you tell me more about the atmosphere in Prague Castle during the early days of the administration, and to what extent did Václav Havel himself contribute to it?

The Spanish Hall,  photo: CzechTourism
“I think it was very special, very different from any atmosphere in any centre of power in any state in the world. Because all of us… we were amateurs. We were not experts in protocol and so on. And on the other hand there were famous people coming here to feel the atmosphere with a leader who was a former dissident and playwright and was now a head of state. So the atmosphere was very curious for many people.

“One example was the way Václav Havel was a little bit shocked by the confined atmosphere of protocol, and so he decided to have so-called sweater days one day a week, I think it was Thursday, and we had to dress in sweaters rather than in jackets, ties and bowties and so on. And then it was nice that we had all these opportunities to stroll through the castle area with him and to discuss all the possibilities for how to use a garden, how to open this or connect that part of Prague Castle with another part and so on.”

And he enjoyed this decision making process, rather than leaving it to others…

“Yes, yes, especially in the first period of his term, afterwards, after his illness, the situation changed a bit.”

The last time we spoke you told me about the time the Rolling Stones were here and Havel and the rest of you had to crawl onto the public balcony through a window because you couldn’t find the key…

“Yes and there were other interesting meetings, Bruce Springsteen, who I gave a tour of the Castle, or Joan Baez, who tried to sing in each of the rooms of the Old Royal Palace to check the acoustics of the old gothic spaces. It was fascinating. Michal Jackson and the Rolling Stones. Once I remember being in Havel’s office, helping with the decoration on a Sunday afternoon, and this lady came in. I was a bit shocked to see that it was Jacqueline Kennedy, there alone. We took her to the Vikarka pub opposite the cathedral. Prince Charles, who it was very interesting to see enter the former prison cell of Václav Havel, which is now a luxury hotel.”

Prague Castle
Was he nervous about meeting these foreign celebrities in the beginning?

“Yeah I think he was a little bit nervous, but on the other hand he was a very, very nice man, and for that reason all of these meetings were very nice. He was very modest. And because of that it was possible to speak with him on any topic you could imagine, he was very open, and so it was very nice to have a boss like Václav Havel, who was open to any ideas on how to improve the castle area, or to present contemporary art there.”

He was famous for his modesty, but he is also often referred to m, even today, as having been a reluctant politician, which I’m not sure is actually true; he seemed to rather enjoy his role in leading and helping shape the Czech Republic. What is your opinion on that?

“I think there were two faces of Václav Havel: the modest one – how would you say it – a man full of doubt who had problems defining himself as he knew he was not a politician. On the other hand, Václav Havel was a strong state leader with clear ideas. And of course he was a bit idealistic, but also he was a man who wanted to help dissidents in other countries… He was not a simple man, but more complicated..."