Václav Havel’s Prague – a guided tour

Václav Havel, photo: Filip Jandourek

Václav Havel is probably the single most important figure in modern Czech history. Havel was born here in Prague and spent virtually his entire life in the capital. In this programme we will visit a number of spots in the city closely associated with the playwright, dissident and president. And for that we absolutely couldn’t have a better guide than the architect and writer Zdeněk Lukeš, who served under Havel at Prague Castle in the 1990s and in 2016 brought out the excellent guidebook Václav Havel’s Prague.

Václav Havel spent much of his life here at U Dvou tisíc,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Our tour begins where everything started for Havel, at the embankment Rašínovo nábřeží. There at number 78 is the Art Nouveau building U Dvou tisíc. The name translates as At Two Thousand and comes from the structure’s district number.

“The house was built in the year 1904 by his grandfather, who was a famous builder in Prague with the same name, Vácslav Havel, in the Art Nouveau style.

“It was considered by experts as one of the best examples of this type of architecture here. You can see its large windows, loggias and so on.

“Václav Havel was born here in the year 1936 and lived here until the late 1970s. He then moved to an apartment in another part of the city. But he came back again when he returned from prison in the late 1980s.”

Which was his flat?

“It was on the fourth floor of the house. Other friends of his also lived in the house, like the architect [Vlado] Milunic, who was responsible for the Dancing House, which is on the corner of the street.

“Also living there was his friend [Jiří] Sopko who was, and still is, a famous painter and a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts.”

Didn’t Mr. Milunic help convert this flat into two flats, one for Václav Havel and one for [his brother] Ivan?

Front door at U Dvou tisíc,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Yes. It was not so easy. The flat was large and they wanted to divide it into two parts. But then Václav decided to change address and I think that worked out fine for both brothers.”

Václav Havel had architecture in his blood in a way, didn’t he?

“Yes, of course, thanks to his grandfather, who was a famous builder, and also his father, again named Václav [Maria] Havel, who was also a builder and an architect.

“I must mention that the grandfather was also responsible for a famous multi-purpose building in the centre of the city, which is called the Lantern Palace [Lucerna Palác], combining a large concert hall with apartments, passages, shops, office spaces and so on.

“It was something like an example of a multi-purpose, modern palace in the centre of the city. That dates from 1906 to 1914.

“Then his father Václav Havel was responsible for another monument of modern architecture, the terrace restaurant known as the Barrandov Terraces, on a rock above the Vltava River.

“It was inspired by a similar restaurant in California, the Cliff House, and it is like a lighthouse above the city.”

Lucerna Palace,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
Do you know if Václav Havel took pride in the fact that his family shaped Prague in such a way? Lucerna is a great landmark and the Barrandov Terraces were very famous.

“I think he was proud of this. The problem was of course that all these properties of his grandfather and father were stolen by the Communists.

“But I think he felt something like responsibility in this regard. The property was re-privatised to the family after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, but then there were some problems connected with the process.

“That is why the Lucerna Palace, which is now owned by his sister-in-law, is still waiting for a sensitive restoration.

“So are the Barrandov Terraces, which were very famous in the interwar period.

“But now there is a chance that they will receive a sensitive restoration and that we will see the reconstruction of the original shape of that wonderful building.”

I presume Václav Havel’s apartment was a centre of the dissent under communism. But did he spend much time here after the Velvet Revolution, after 1989?

“Yes, he did. When he started as president of Czechoslovakia, and then the Czech Republic, he still lived here, with his wife Olga.

Barrandov Terraces,  photo: Barbora Němcová
“There was also a small office on the first floor, which was part of the presidential office. But naturally his official office was at the Castle, from 1989.”

You mentioned the Dancing House, beside his building here. What role did Havel play in the genesis of the Dancing House?

“I think that is also interesting. You must imagine that on the corner there was a neo-Baroque house from the beginning of the century which was totally destroyed during an American raid in February 1945.

“Then during the Communist period the lot stayed empty. Havel dreamed about the possibility of building something there like a culture centre with cafés, bars, libraries, exhibition spaces and so on.

“Then in the early 1990s the new owner of the lot – it was a Dutch company, Nationale Nederlanden, later ING – decided to build an office building with a café at the top.

“There were some plans for a new building by Mr. Milunic, who was a friend of Havel’s and lived in the same house.

“Then the Dutch company asked Milunic to collaborate on the definitive project – but with some famous architect.

The Dancing House stands beside U Dvou tisíc,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Milunic chose the famous Californian and Canadian architect Frank Owen Gehry and both of them then collaborated on the definitive plan of the house.

“I mentioned the wish of the president to have the house as a culture centre.

“Originally it was built as an office building. But the spaces are not so good for offices – and that is why ING later moved to another modern building.

“And the new owner of the house then converted the house for that function [as a culture centre].

“Today the building is of course something like an icon of contemporary architecture.”

The Functionalist Mánes building and adjacent Šítkov Tower,  photo: Barbora Němcová
A mere stone’s throw from U Dvou tisíc and the adjacent Dancing House is Mánes, a distinctive functionalist building that actually sits across a stream of the Vltava River. I myself recall Havel telling BBC television in the early 1990s that Mánes was his favourite building in Prague. But as we will hear from Zdeněk Lukeš, a 16th century water tower immediately adjacent to it has a rather sinister place in his story.

“I must speak briefly about the history of the building, which was built at the end of the 1920s by the famous architect Otakar Novotný as a multi-purpose building with an exhibition hall, a restaurant, bar and famous café, right on the bank of the river.

“This is one of the best examples of Functionalist architecture of that period.

“It is a horizontal white building connecting the island with the bank of the river.

“It was built in contrast to the Renaissance water tower, which is dark and vertical. It was a great idea. And the Mánes club was very popular.

“During the Velvet Revolution all architects and artists gathered together here in this building, because it was something like a centre of art.

“It was one of the information points during the Velvet Revolution. People could come and get some information about the massive demonstrations.

“Also young people, students, prepared banners here for the massive demonstrations on Václavské náměstí and at Letná.

“Václav Havel came here for the first time on I think Monday 20 November 1989, with his friends.

The StB secret police monitored Havel's home from the 16th century Šítkov Tower,  photo: Barbora Němcová
“They were something like the core of the newly founded Civic Forum. The first meeting of this group was held here.

“I was there too and it was very dramatic. Because nobody knew what the situation really was and there were some rumours of attacks on Prague by Russian tanks. So it was a dramatic situation. “

I understand this is the place where you yourself first met Václav Havel. What impression did he make on you during the first meeting?

“He was a very quiet man. If you imagine something like a strong revolutionary – absolutely not.

“He was very quiet, maybe more listening to the people around and then saying something. But not a typical head of a revolution [laughs].”

I have heard different things about this structure here, the Šítkov Tower. That there was some kind of an StB centre at the top of it that could have been used to monitor Havel’s house – but it maybe isn’t clear if it actually was used to monitor it.

“Yes. I was there, just after the Velvet Revolution. It was one of my wishes.

“You mentioned the Šítkov Tower, the Renaissance former water tower. I climbed to the top of the tower and there was a small chamber, an ugly space I must say [laughs].

“It was covered with something like ‘wallpaper’ from Rudé Právo, a Communist newspaper of that period.

“And there was a telescope leading to Havel’s house. The secret police watched his house and reported on all the house’s guests and who was entering.

“This is not a rumour – this is a real story.”

Café Slavia is located in the neo-Renaissance Lažan Palace,  photo: Ian Willoughby
It is a bitterly cold day in the Czech capital and Zdeněk Lukeš and I find some respite in one of Václav Havel’s many regular haunts over the decades, Café Slavia. Possibly Prague’s most famous café, Slavia is located in the Lažan Palace at the river end of Národní, directly across the street from the Czech National Theatre.

“We are sitting in a neo-Renaissance palace which had a famous café from the beginning of the century in the Art Nouveau style.

“It was redesigned during the 1930s in the Art Deco style but was then totally changed by the Communists.

“Now we are sitting in the space after restoration. It was very sensitively restored by my friend, the architect [Jiří] Špaček.

“It was the wish of President Havel to recreate the atmosphere of the 1930s,1940s and1950s.

“It is also interesting because he met his wife Olga for the first time here at Slavia.”

Who else would he have been meeting here? What kind of people would he have met here?

“During the 1950s he entered Slavia to see famous people, especially writers and painters, who he admired.

“For instance, Jiří Kolář, a famous poet and graphic artist who lived in Prague and then escaped to Paris.”

Artist and poet Jiří Kolář held court at a table beneath this neon lamp,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Did he not have his own table here at Slavia?

“Yes, he had a table here. It was close to the windows with a beautiful vista of Prague Castle and the landscape of the city. And it was very near to that neon light on the ceiling.

“It was a table of artists and the young Havel – he was then something like 22 years old – wished to be invited to Kolář’s table. And then one day it happened [laughs].

“The atmosphere here was very special. It was a meeting place for artists and was one of the most popular cafes in Prague.

“It was also on the corner of Národní Třída, which is a very important place for Havel’s destiny.

“On Národní Třída there were massive student protests against the Communist regime. That was the beginning of the Velvet Revolution after a brutal attack by the police.”

One question I have is: I’ve often heard that the Civic Forum was founded at the Laterna Magika theatre. Where exactly was that [at that time – it moved]?

“Laterna Magika was at the other end of this street. It was in a large palace from the early 1920s.

“The famous theatre Laterna Magika had been one of the most important attractions of the world Expo 1958 in Brussels.

Interior of Café Slavia,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“And the theatre was offered to the Civic Forum during the Velvet Revolution.

“That is why Václav Havel and his friends moved from Mánes to Laterna Magika during the second week of the Revolution, on Tuesday 21 November.”

And that was in the Adria Palace?

“Yes, the Adria Palace. The building was built by the Italian company Riunione Adriatica di Sicurta. It was also a very important multi-purpose building in the Art Deco style.”

Getting back to Slavia, is it the case that it was one of the few classic Prague cafés that remained open during communism?

“That’s right, yes. Most of these cafes were changed or closed during the Communist regime, of course because they were the meeting places for people like dissidents [laughs].

“That’s why they weren’t supported by the old regime, of course. But some survived – and Slavia was one of them.”

And is it the case that you yourself were involved in supervising the restoration job here?

“Yes. I was asked by Václav Havel to be responsible for a good restoration of the space. That’s why I collaborated with the architect Špaček.

Viktor Oliva's painting The Absinthe Drinker hangs at Café Slavia
“It was funny because we found some old pieces. One original lamp survived somewhere.

“And when we removed ceramic cladding from the wall we found some original details of the decorations – and that made it possible to reconstruct and restore the café.

“What also survived here is a famous picture of a drinker of absinthe, which is from the original Art Nouveau café.

“It was painted by the painter [Viktor] Oliva at the beginning of the last century.”

It must be very satisfying for you to be here today and see how wonderful Slavia looks and know that you played a part in it looking this way?

“Yes, of course. But maybe the atmosphere here is a little bit different than before, because today the café is full of tourists.

“People from artistic circles have moved to other spaces, such as Café Louvre, which is also very popular and connected with Karel Schwarzenberg, for instance.

“It has been another meeting space for artists and is now maybe more popular than Slavia is – Slavia is more of a tourist centre”

Prague Crossroads,  photo: Karlosak,  Creative Commons 3.0
From Slavia, Zdeněk Lukeš leads me down a warren of backstreets to Zlatá, a short and rather hidden lane in the Old Town that is home to the now deconsecrated St. Anne’s Church. This building, which originally dates from the year 927, is associated with the latter years of Václav Havel’s life. He commissioned the London-based architect Eva Jiřičná to convert it into the Prague Crossroads, an arts centre and meeting place with a stunning, largely bare interior. Standing outside, our guide delivers a fascinating history of the site.

“It’s a church with a very long history. Originally there was another church here, in the Romanesque style, of the Templar order.

“It was then replaced by the early Gothic Church of St. Anne.

“And there’s something really special about it – the timberwork in the roof is still late Gothic.

“The reason is that during the Hussite revolution all the nuns and monks in Prague were placed here in the church – it was something like a concentration camp.

“That’s why the roof survived. Because all the other churches were demolished by the Hussites, including St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the city’s main church.

“Then the church was rebuilt many times, in the Renaissance style and then in the Baroque style.

“Then in the 19th century the church was abolished and rebuilt into a print factory and partly devastated.

Church of St. Anne  (Prague Crossroads),  photo: Adam Zivner,  Creative Commons 3.0
“During the Communist regime it was a store for paper. The history of the space really is long and difficult.

“Václav Havel knew the church because it’s not far from the Theatre on the Balustrade. That’s why he decided to save it and initiated a sensitive restoration.

“It was hard work for the restorers because all the walls of the church’s nave were covered with frescoes from different periods, one on top of the other.

“There are early Gothic, late Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque frescoes, and they had to decide what was better to respect and what wasn’t.

“Then the space was refurbished with a high-tech style interior by the famous half-Czech, half-British architect Eva Jiřičná and decorated by artists like Bořek Šípek, Adriena Šimotová and others. Most of them were friends of Václav Havel’s.”

Zdeněk Lukeš | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International
Our tour of “Václav Havel’s Prague” concludes by a windy Charles Bridge, beneath the stunning vista of Prague Castle. Havel spent almost 13 years at the “Hrad” as Czechoslovak and later Czech president and is credited with turning the huge complex into a welcoming, vibrant place after four decades of grey Communist rule. Zdeněk Lukeš was part of Havel’s team at the Castle and clearly recalls the challenges of the early 1990s.

“You must imagine, the Castle was like a fortress. Everything was closed, excluding the courtyards.

“But all the gardens, the Stag Moat, the Royal Garden and so on, were closed.

“It was not possible to reach, for instance, very important monuments of the Castle area. It was a sad situation.

“Another problem was that many buildings were empty and closed totally.

“That is why Havel had the idea to open the Castle again to the people. That was the first task.

“There were no problems with the Royal Garden, it was very easy. It was only a question of opening the doors and inviting people to enter and see what was there.

“During the Communist regime there was a building known as the White House, the home of the president, right in the middle of the Royal Garden.

“But Havel refused to live there, which is of course why it was possible to open the garden.”

What about the interiors? What kind of interiors were left by Husák?

“There were many problems with the interiors of the Castle, because the taste of the Communists was absolutely terrible. Everything was made from plastic.

Stag Moat,  photo: Matěj Orlický,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“For instance, the study of the president and leader of the Communist Party, Husák, was ugly and terribly designed. That is why Havel refused to use the space.

“His first study was the very small room of the secretary of former president Husák.

“It was refurbished with furniture sent by the German president. Because his was the first official visit to the Castle. I think it was in January 1990.

“When he saw that terrible situation [laughs], he decided to help Havel.

“He sent us some pieces of modern furniture and also some replicas of Josef Hoffman’s Wiener Werkstaette furniture to refurbish the president’s spaces.

“Havel also brought pictures from his home by contemporary artists, mostly his friends.

“Then we asked the National Gallery to help us. This was of course a process of years.

“And we had a nickname for the process: ‘Opening the enchanted Castle’.”

Rolling Stones meet Václav Havel in August 1990 | Photo: ČT24
I see you are wearing a badge of the Rolling Stones. Didn’t the Stones contribute some lighting to the Castle?

“Yes, yes, they did. One of the symbols of the Velvet Revolution was a concert of the Rolling Stones, which was held in August 1990.

“And President Havel invited the members of the group to the Castle. We brought them to see some spaces and also mentioned problems with the illumination of the Spanish Hall.

“It is one of the most important spaces of the Castle, richly decorated during the period of Rudolph II and used for official ceremonies, concerts and so on.

“And Mick Jagger said, OK, I can help you, we have an expert on illumination for our shows – I will send him to the Castle.

“It was done and President Havel then got a special remote control for the lights with a red tongue, the symbol of the group.

“It was a wonderful gift from the Rolling Stones. And the concert in Strahov was wonderful. I think half a million people came. It was fantastic.”

Photo: Václav Havel Library
I’m sure in those days Havel was a big star, internationally. You must have shown a lot of world leaders and celebrities around the Castle with him?

“Yes, of course. Me and Eliška Fučíková, my friend, who is a great expert on Rudolphine art, were responsible for bringing Václav Havel’s visitors to see Prague and the Castle.

“Most of these tours were wonderful. Of course, they weren’t always with politicians but also with many artists and architects.

“I remember, for instance, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and many philosophers and great architects, like Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and many more.”

Zdeněk Lukeš's book Praha Václava Havla (Václav Havel’s Prague) was published in Czech last year by the Václav Havel Library. Library officials say an English version of the publication should be released in the course of 2017.