Thousands sign petition against planned demolition of building on Wenceslas Square

Photo: CTK

The planned demolition of an Art Nouveau building on Prague’s Wenceslas Square is drawing increasing opposition in the form of an on-line petition, while seeing hundreds take part in a protest meeting on Tuesday on the square itself. The building in question, 1601 Opletalova, is not itself a heritage site but is located within a protected area. The owners and developers want to tear the structure down (as well as gut the interiors of two adjacent buildings) to make room for a new commercial centre. Other than the petition, few obstacles stand in their way: both City Hall and the culture minister, Jiří Besser, have already given the green light.

The building at 1601 Opletalova, photo: Kristýna Maková
Earlier I spoke to Professor Richard Biegel, of the Club for Old Prague, who strongly opposes the decision.

“I think it is a very surprising decision because it sets a terrible precedent regarding heritage in Prague, especially patrimony protected or defended by UNESCO. In fact, the preservation of monuments was invented exactly for cases like this one. In this case, it means that buildings that are not protected as individual monuments could be destroyed. They are pretending that they have a right to demolish this, although I think four or five times they were warned that demolition was not possible.”

An earlier decision by City Hall was reversed but was upheld by the culture minister. Why do you think he has taken this decision?

“Why... that’s a very good question but I don’t know. What is certain is that this is a decision that benefits the owners and developers. I am afraid that the minister was under great pressure and maybe he failed. I don’t know but that’s my explanation. But it’s a big precedent which shows how weak the protection of monuments is in Prague.”

The protest on Wenceslas Square, June 7 2011, photo: CTK
If we come back to the building at 1601 Opletalova: some experts, for example the well-known architectural historian Zdeněk Lukeš, have stressed that the building was changed several times in the early 20th century and that if it had retained its original 19th century appearance it would have been more valuable or worth saving. Do you think he has a point?

“This argument is pure nonsense. The value of the building is in its second phase in the 1920s, when changes were made by architect Kozák and Mr Lukeš of course knows this.”

If we look at the design that is supposed to go up... there are many modern buildings or renovation projects on Wenceslas Square... Do you see any positives at all in the new building?

“You know, the building which stands there now is a very good example of a kind of synthesis of styles including classicism. It fits in very well on the square because it respects the National Museum which dominates the top. Of course you have examples of modern architecture on or just off the square, Euro Palác would be a good one, and bringing in new designs is possible; but not to replace a building as quality as the one on the corner of Opletalova street.”

There was also some controversy over the design of the new building: do we know what the final proposal looks like?

The design of the planned building, photo: Chapman Taylor
“Well, we saw many versions: one was absolutely huge in terms of size, two or three time bigger than buildings around it. Then they changed it. But all of the designs were superficial I think. They tried to do a nice design but not architecturally, only as a commercial space and there’s still the problem of the planned tower on top which juts out. I think the developers can just do what they want and that’s very dangerous.”

Some 11,000 have reportedly signed the petition against the demolition, and opposition has been voiced by former president Václav Havel. Although the culture minister’s decision is final, opponents like Mr Biegel hope to drive up further opposition in the hopes that a breakthrough is still possible.