UNESCO recommendation gives hope to opponents of new skyscrapers


Experts from UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, meeting in New Zealand last week, suggested Prague should reconsider the planned construction of several new skyscrapers in the district of Pankrac. The Committee said plans should respect the skyline of Prague's historic centre, which was one of the main reasons Prague was included on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

With its thousands of square metres of potential building ground, Pankrac Plain has always attracted builders and investors. During the socialist era, it was to become an administrative and leisure centre for people from the nearby housing estates, but in the end, three individually standing skyscrapers is all that has been left from those times. The buildings were nicknamed "vykotlane zuby" ("hollow teeth"), which they resemble when you look at the skyline from Prague Castle. One of those buildings is the shell of what was to become the main centre of the former Czechoslovak Radio. Its construction started in 1976 but the building has never been finished. At 109 metres, it remains the highest building in the Czech Republic.

In recent years, skyscrapers have become a hot issue again. An investor presented a radical plan to develop Pankrac Plain; this includes completion of the abandoned Radio centre, and building, among other things, the two skyscrapers which prompted the present dispute with UNESCO. Investors argue that with three high-rise buildings already standing on the horizon, it doesn't really matter if they are joined by a few more. But many conservationists and a number of civic associations disagree. Martin Skalsky is the chairman of the Centre for Citizen Support of the Arnika environmental NGO.

"We follow the case since we were established about six years ago and from our point of view it's a kind of model case of Prague because the construction of Pankrac Plain violates the urban plan of Prague and it causes environmental problems in the city and it also impacts the citizen in the area of Prague 4 so we are trying to solve it because there are a lot of similar cases like this so we would like to show the broader problem of the city."

With a popular and cheap market place already razed to the ground to be replaced with a modern shopping centre with thousands of parking places, and dozens of administrative buildings cropping up in the surrounding area, the historical skyline may not be the main concern of the people who live in Pankrac. Vit Janousek, vice-chairman of the Obcanska iniciativa Pankrace civic association believes that offices are not what people from the neighbourhood really need.

Martin Skalsky
"We think that our inhabitants need civil services and small shops and they need not only high-rise buildings with offices. Because these offices can only bring the high volume of transport and we think this volume of transport will have impact to air pollution situation and high acoustic level."

If the investors go ahead with their plan, Prague risks being included on UNESCO's World Heritage in Danger list or being deleted from the list of World Heritage Sites. Vienna faced a similar problem in 2004 when it planned a construction of skyscrapers near the city's main railway station. Its inscription on the World Heritage site was held up and it was renewed only after changes to the building plan were made. With the latest news from New Zealand, civil activists, like Martin Skalsky, finally have a reason to believe that their appeal to UNESCO may bear some fruit after all:

"In last five years or six years we had negotiations with all the governmental authorities and the city of Prague and ministry of culture and none of them was interested to solve the problem and to really do something in this case. So we believe that UNESCO is the last authority that we could address with this problem. It is most likely they will issue some statement that will criticize the project and we hope that it will really stop it but so far it is not really clear."

Whatever the final word from UNESCO will be, one thing is clear. It will definitely take a few more years before the people from Pankrac will live to see some silence. With prices of real estate steadily rising, it is unlikely that investors will miss a chance to make the best of the vast building grounds just within eyeshot from the historical centre of Prague.