The Svět Palace: Libeň’s decrepit famous landmark
The constructivist Svět Palace was for many decades the focal point of community life in Prague’s Libeň neighbourhood. Known as Libeň’s answer to the Lucerna Palace, Svět appeared in several works by the famous author Bohumil Hrabal, who was a frequent visitor himself. Listed as a cultural monument, the palace has unfortunately met a sad fate in recent years, having fallen into disrepair under a severely neglectful owner.
The Svět Palace stands on the edge of a leafy square not far down the road from the Palmovka metro station, in an area that is off the beaten path of most mainstream Prague tourist tours. Although it is difficult to tell from looking at it nowadays, the now shabby palace was once by far the most important building around.
It was designed and constructed in the early 1930s by architect František Havlena, who was hired for the project by the Svět family, a clan of local landowners with deep roots in Libeň. Specifically, the palace was the brainchild of Ladislav Svět, who received the plot of land on which the building was later built as a wedding gift. Originally, a simple farmhouse had stood there.
The fact that the word “svět” literally means world in Czech sometimes misleads people into believing that this is where the palace’s name originated. Michal Švarc, a member of the Prague 8 municipal assembly, told Radio Prague more about the building’s origins.
“People used to say that Ladislav Svět had grand ambitions and wanted to show the world that he was worthy of his name. That is why he built a big palace, which in the end really made him go bankrupt, as he was unable to pay the mortgage on it. The building was then taken over by the insurance company which had provided the loan.”
The project to build in Libeň a large modern palace that could equal the Lucerna on Wenceslas Square was certainly an ambitious undertaking. Michal Švarc told Radio Prague that part of what made the Svět Palace special was its location in Libeň, then a somewhat peripheral neighbourhood, far from the glimmering lights of the city centre.
“The palace was built in the constructivist style and has a reinforced concrete frame. It is really interesting, especially because it was built at a time when Libeň was a working-class neighbourhood. Still, it was constructed as a grandiose building, not just with a commercial and residential function, but also as a representative space where the people of Libeň could gather.”
The construction of the Svět Palace was complicated by adverse environmental factors. The site was located in lower Libeň, an area that had historically been filled with wetlands and therefore had a moist, sandy subsoil. The lower levels of any new building were under threat of being flooded by water. As Švarc explains, the palace’s builders dealt with the risk of flooding by constructing what was in effect a large lead tub of water underneath the building’s foundations.
“Architect Havlen built the lead tub, which was very complicated and costly, to give the building stability and to prevent groundwater from soaking in. As both the palace basement and the cinema are below the water levels of the nearby Vltava and Rokytka rivers.”
However, the plan to insulate the Svět Palace did not completely work, and the cinema often had to be closed due to flooding. One such flooding incident was beautifully depicted by Bohumil Hrabal in his novella Něžný barbar (translated as Gentle Barbarian in English). In it, the famous Czech author and erstwhile Libeň resident describes an ironic scene in which movie-goers watch the 1933 film Deluge while sitting knee deep in water. Although fictionalised, Hrabal’s story points to the very real flooding problems of the cinema.
Despite its leaky foundations, the Svět Palace gradually became a staple of the neighbourhood’s social life. Like Prague’s other modern palaces, it was multifunctional, complete with shops, a restaurant, café as well as a dancehall. The cinema was for a time the largest in Prague. Another popular feature was the “Automat Svět”, a buffet restaurant on the palace’s ground floor. Bohumil Hrabal was among the frequent patrons, and the establishment even appeared in two of the writer’s short stories. Michal Švarc explains that both appeared in the 1960s film Perličky na dně (Pearls of the Deep), which was an anthology of Hrabal’s stories.
“The eponymously named Automat Svět was directed by Věra Chytilová and featured Hrabal’s friend Vladimír Boudník and the restaurant bartender Ms Linková, both playing themselves. Hrabal himself can also be seen in a few shots. The other story, entitled Romance, was shot outside of the palace as well as in the cinema foyer.”
Interestingly, Automat Svět also appeared in the 1989 film adaptation of Gentle Barbarian, in which Czech actor Bolek Polívka starred in the main role.
Many locals view the 1960s and 1970s as a sort of golden era for the Svět Palace, which was then regularly visited by virtually all of Libeň’s residents. Michal Švarc, who grew up in the neighbourhood, told Radio Prague about the special appeal that the palace had for locals in those days.
“The palace made us, people from the periphery, feel like we were living in the heart of the city. I think the comparison to Lucerna is pretty accurate, although we did not have a big multifunctional hall like Lucerna does. Still, all aspects of our social life took place in the palace. Besides the cinema, most weddings and other family celebrations were held here, as well as different meetings. The palace also had a library. Our dads would send us here with pitchers to get them beer, and so on.”
Today, the Svět Palace is, unfortunately, just a shell of its former self, having fallen into serious disrepair during the last few decades. The parts of the palace that used to house the cinema and other establishments are now completely abandoned. All that remains to be seen are the shuttered windows of the former storefronts.
According to Michal Švarc, the reasons for the palace’s current desolate state go back a long way. The building was nationalised in 1959 and afterwards managed by municipal authorities, who invested little resources and effort into basic maintenance. The structure was thus in a very poor state by the time of the 1989 regime change. After that, the association of flat owners who still lived on the palace’s upper floors sought to repair the building but were unable to find an investor willing to put up the 15 million crowns necessary for the reconstruction.
After a brief interlude during which it was owned by a bank, the Svět Palace was in 1998 sold to Italian businessman Antonio Crispino. However, despite repeated lofty promises to several municipal governments, Crispino has done nothing to improve the condition of the palace. Michal Švarc explains.
“Crispino’s ownership of the palace has had a couple of phases. The first was connected to the 2002 floods, when the cinema and the whole ground floor of the building was underwater. Crispino decided that he wanted the building demolished. He declared it uninhabitable and requested a demolition permit, which was predictably not granted. The second phase started in 2008, when he decided to start a reconstruction. However, what we have seen since then has been more like a Potemkin’s reconstruction.”
As Michal Švarc points out, the reconstruction has made little headway since it was supposed to have begun some 15 years ago. While the façade has been repaired and some windows replaced, the interiors of the palace are said to be in a catastrophic state. Puzzlingly, the owner has refused to even enter negotiations to sell, even though the construction company Metrostav promised to offer a virtually blank check for the cultural monument. Under the current circumstances, things are unlikely to get better any time soon. The Svět Palace has thus sadly suffered a fate similar to, for example, the abandoned Vyšehrad Train Station, another valuable building that has become dilapidated under a neglectful owner. Nonetheless, Michal Švarc says that he is not giving up hope that the building may one day be restored under changed ownership.
“You know, hope dies last. Obviously, nobody is here forever. According to what Mr. Crispino’s lawyers have told us, his daughter is looking to immediately sell everything once she receives her inheritance. And every sale brings with it the chance that the next owner will not be such a rascal as Mr Crispino.”
In conclusion, only time will tell whether the palace will ever be at least partly returned to its former glory. Until then, the works of Bohumil Hrabal and their film adaptations will be the only ways one can experience the old Libeň, which had the Svět Palace at its centre.