Wenceslas Square perks up thanks to Adopt-a-Bench programme

Photo: archive of Association for Wenceslas Square

If you’ve recently visited Prague’s Wenceslas Square you may have noticed that the dilapidated benches on the town’s main square have been undergoing a transformation. The driving force behind this change is an association whose goal it is to improve the appearance of the square and make it an oasis for pedestrians in the bustling city centre. I spoke to Jan Adámek, chairman of the Association for Wenceslas Square, about a project that has generated huge public support and in which firms and individuals have been invited to “adopt” a bench on the town’s main square.

Wenceslas Square,  photo: CzechTourism
“The idea was to bring something eye-catching, something interesting and something that would bring an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity and a nice environment to Wenceslas Square. And the quality of benches was very poor, so what we did –in the course of two hours, early in the morning, we repainted all 83 benches on Wenceslas Square a brown colour and it immediately looked so much better. And after that we had a brainstorming session and the idea emerged that we would like to give space to young artists so that each artist could take one two or three benches and turn them into a piece of art in a public space –a piece of art which would still be a bench but would be very different from the others, would still be usable as a bench but would look a bit different.”

But that failed to come about. Why was that?

“That was because we went to the Heritage Office to ask for approval and then also to the Institute for City Planning and Development and both of these organizations said –no, guys, this is too much, this is a heritage protected area, this is Wenceslas Square and you can’t do things like that here. And they said if you want to change the benches we will give you approval but only for the time period until the reconstruction of Wenceslas Square and the transformation of the bench will have to be very slight, meaning that the shape and size and colour will be very close to their present state.”

Photo: archive of Association for Wenceslas Square
In other words –nothing crazy…

“Yes, nothing eye-catching, very conservative. You can do it guys, but very conservatively. That was the message. And then there was the new law, because the new law defines a bench completely differently from the old one. And these benches are from the 60s and 70s…”

Excuse me, the law defines a bench?!

“Yes, please. The European law and the Czech law defines a bench –in terms of safety, the height of the seating plate, etc. etc. so it was not easy to make a bench that would fulfil all the standards required of a bench today.”

So that’s when you came up with the idea of asking the public, asking people to adopt a bench on Wenceslas Square and help finance the change.

“Yes, that’s when we thought –so what do we do now? And many of us, the members of the Association for Wenceslas Square, were interested in adopting a bench. We said, yes, we are able to pay for one, two or maybe even more benches so that the square looks nicer. And we thought that making an appeal to the public would be a good idea because the price is roughly 7,400 Czech crowns and when you multiply that by 83 then you get a sum that is not easy for our association to raise. So the idea was that we would find a patron for each bench and this patron can then have some influence on what it would look like. Each bench has a quotation in Czech and English and the name of the person quoted. The patron can pick a quotation they like as well as have their name on the bench, be it an individual or company.”

“Each bench has a quotation in Czech and English and the name of the person quoted.”

So the patron can choose the quote as well as the person quoted?

“Exactly, but there is a committee which gives final approval to the quote selected. We produced a list of 100 quotations which we thought were universal enough and from which we thought patrons could pick one to their liking. But this didn’t work 100 percent, so some of the patrons made their selection from this list, some found a different quote and some even created their own quotation.”

So what kind of quotations can we see and who are the people most quoted?

“Well at the moment we have finished restoring about forty benches out of the 83 benches on Wenceslas Square and you can easily see which are new and which are old –if you come to Wenceslas Square you will see it in a sec. And the quotations are very different –there are not many authors that get more than one quote but I would say that president Vaclav Havel, Albert Einstein and Oscar Wilde are the most quoted.”

And how has the public responded to this? Do people think it is a good idea, how many offers have you received?

“We got an unbelievable response from the public. It was extremely positive and suddenly everyone wanted to have their own bench on Wenceslas Square. So we sold 43 benches by the end of June, now we are taking a break, and by the end of August we would like to sort out the rest. And I have to say that we have double or triple the number of offers we need. People like them, they like the fact that they are new and shiny and a brighter colour. What is good about this is that if you have time and are passing that way you see the benches, read the quotations and it makes you stop for a minute in this hectic life and reflect on the quotation that is there.”

“The response from the public was great -suddenly everyone wanted to have their own bench on Wenceslas Square.”

What are your other ventures on Prague’s Wenceslas Square?

“Well, our association was set up twelve years ago with the aim of bringing back Wenceslas Square to the people, to people who want to visit the square, spend time here shopping, eating and having a good time. Unfortunately, Wenceslas Square is not looking its best and the association wants to address the things that shouldn’t be happening.”

Such as?

“Such as drug-peddling. There are addicts taking drugs, sometimes they engage in petty theft to have money for more drugs and so on. There are also night-clubs which station employees outside to draw in visitors so they pester passers-by in the evenings. This does not create a good impression.”

And cars and garbage are other issues?

“Yes, there are no cars parked at the lower end of Wenceslas Square, but at the top end of the square there is still a lot of traffic and we would like to get rid of the traffic, get rid of the parked cars, make the place more quiet and not so dusty, in short a nicer place for anyone who wants to sit down on a bench and rest for a moment.”

So ideally, what is your vision of Wenceslas Square in the years to come –more greenery, more seating arrangements?

Jan Adámek,  photo: archive of Association for Wenceslas Square
“The idea is the following – getting rid of the cars, planting more trees on Wenceslas Square, putting in place two water fountains and connecting the square with Vinohradská street and the National Museum which are now divided by a highway. So this is what we would like to get rid of and we would like to have more benches, more places where you can relax, maybe free wi-fi, so that people have all the more reason to come here and more areas for mothers with children and prams so that they can come and rest here –to make it restful and more attractive for visitors.”

What is your cooperation with Prague City Hall like in this respect?

“There has been a big development in terms of this relationship. We cooperate with the Prague 1 municipality and Prague City Hall and the longer we are “on the market” let’s say, the longer we are engaged in a discussion with politicians and local representatives the better connection we have and the higher value we have for them and a little bit more power. So at the moment the relationships are good. We are, on the one hand, opponents but on the other we are bringing solutions –we are not only criticizing everything because everything is wrong –that is definitely not the case. We are members of the Committee for the Reconstruction of Wenceslas Square and we are in weekly communication with everyone meeting with the mayor, councillors and the mayor of Prague 1 as well, etc. “

So you are seeing results. You are happy with the way things are working?

Photo: archive of Association for Wenceslas Square
“Yes, we are happy, I must say that the difference is huge because when I started serving as chairman nine years ago nobody wanted to talk to any association. We were nothing. We didn’t mean anything, so the only way was that we were constantly there, every week twice a week, we came and talked about Wenceslas Square and then the door opened a little bit and also the environment in the Czech society has changes and politicians understand that they need associations in order to move things forward.”

When do you think Wenceslas Square will look the way you want it to look?

“This is a very difficult question. Ideally, I would say ten to twelve years. The reconstruction of the lower part of Wenceslas Square will probably happen in 2017 and a reconstruction of the upperpart could take say ten years more. So if it is completed in ten to twelve years I would consider that great news for everyone.”