The transformation of Prague's Lesser Quarter


Few tourists to Prague fail to visit the Lesser Quarter and it is one of the favourite haunts of Praguers as well. As soon as the sun comes out Charles Bridge - which leads to the Lesser Quarter - fills with people out for a stroll, with street painters and musicians who want to make some money off the tourists. It is a charming sight, but it is no longer the real thing. The old atmosphere of the Lesser Quarter, when artists and painters actually lived there, is long gone. I talked to Josef Stulc, chief conservationist at the State Institute for Preservation of Historical Monuments about how the Lesser Quarter has changed in the last hundred years or so.

"The Lesser Quarter, as it was over one hundred years ago with its atmosphere and inhabitants, is very well described in the works of the famous Czech writer Jan Neruda. Apart from its great beauty and historic value, the Lesser Quarter had a very special, mixed brand of inhabitants. What was fascinating was the combination of the high aristocracy who lived in beautiful baroque palaces /they no longer enjoyed political power but had great social prestige/ next to ordinary people - poor artists, greengrocers, landlords. This mix created a very specific society and a very special atmosphere. Of course these times are long gone but even I can remember -from my young days, say in the 60s or early 70s -the Lesser Quarter inhabited by ordinary people. Up until the 60s it was not considered a very fashionable address -so ordinary people lived here. But in the 70s this gradually changed and it became very fashionable.

Well known artists moved there but above all it became home to the nouveau riche - the people who got wealthy on the black market during the communist years. This process continued after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The quarter became highly fashionable and the number of permanent residents decreased rapidly. Now only extremely rich people can live here. No more artists, but the nouveau riche. People who live here simply because it is fashionable and a great many of whom have absolutely no appreciation of what is beautiful and moving about the place. Another big change is the fact that large parts of the Lesser Quarter were quite recently turned into offices. The seats of both Houses of Parliament are now there. Very large areas have thus been converted into administrative buildings. The tradition started already in the First Republic when some of the palaces were put at the disposal of various foreign embassies -the British, American, French, Italian and so on. In recent years this process took a very swift course - especially when the seats of both houses of Parliament were moved to the Lesser Quarter. They now occupy entire blocks of buildings between the Lesser Quarter Square and the streets Snemovni and Tomasska .The Senate occupies the Valdstein Palace complex, which is the most important early baroque structure not only in Prague but perhaps in the whole of central Europe. It is true that the Senate made part of the complex - primarily the beautiful gardens - accessible to the public, but nonetheless the complex was converted into administrative buildings and offices which is a great pity.

The third factor which completely alters the character of the Lesser Quarter is the tourist industry. Many of the old houses are being converted into hotels and every available space is being used. Cellars are being converted into pubs - not always the traditional wine cellars and beer pubs as we knew them - but pubs -such as the Irish pub -which have nothing to do with the genius loci of the Lesser Quarter. Attics are being transformed into modern flats or offices. From a conservationist's point of view this mutilates the formerly very poetic roof landscape of the Lesser Quarter. Unfortunately, these changes are irreversible. "

Now, you are the country's leading conservationist. Change is inevitable but to a certain extent it could be channeled. How would you like the Lesser Quarter to be transformed - ideally?

"Well -ideally - although it is not practicable - I would like the Lesser Quarter to become a place for ordinary people to live in. But it is beyond our capacity to influence this. It is turning now into a quarter of offices and a very small number of very exclusive flats for very rich people."

So the architecture is the only thing that remains- the atmosphere is gone?

"Yes, the architecture - with some unwelcome changes - remains, but it is filled with a completely different spirit and that makes me very sad. The only thing we can do at this point is to prevent the architecture from being mutilated and even that is an enormous task. "