Zizkov TV tower

Zizkov TV tower

Rising like a futuristic space ship above the old working class quarter of Zizkov, is one of Prague's most interesting, if controversial, buildings - Zizkov TV tower. The TV tower is, at 216 metres, the tallest building in the city, and they say on a clear day it can be seen from a full 100 kilometres away. Often regarded as a relic of the communist era, Zizkov TV tower wasn't actually completed until ten years ago, in 1992.

Though some people - myself included, I have to admit - look upon the rocket-like TV tower with affection - it's safe to say most Prague residents regard it as an inappropriately located eyesore. Among its strongest critics is architect Martin Krise of the Club for Ancient Prague.

"The TV tower is a crime against the old town, or the historical town, as it's very tall and on the horizon of the town, the value of which is that it has in scale very small spires and roofs and trees and hills."

When it was first built, was there a big debate about it?

"There wasn't such a big debate about it because it was in a time when no debates were taking place. It was said to be inevitable because of the broadcasting of television. I was partly involved in the debate because I was of course against it. There was such a bitter discussion about it in the rooms of the Prague architects' association, where my colleagues accused me of not being collegial to the architect who did the project of the tower."

The architect in question, Vaclav Aulicky, says 20 potential sites for the tower were considered - including Petrin hill and the site of the current Corinthia Towers hotel - and that Zizkov was simply the most suitable location. Construction work on the tower - which began in 1985 - was halted for a year and a half after the Velvet Revolution, while tests were done to determine if the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the tower posed a health risk to people in the vicinity. While the tower passed those tests, its architect Vaclav Aulicky says agreement can never be reached when it comes to the question of aesthetics.

"It's like a bridge or a tunnel. It simply serves a function in terms of radio and television communications. Some people like it, some don't. The more orthodox somebody is from preservationist perspective, the more they are against it. On the other hand, the more modernist people are in their outlook, the more positive their attitude to the tower is."

Zizkov TV tower stands on the site of a former Jewish cemetery, and many people are under the impression that the cemetery was moved in order to make room for it. Not so, says Martin Krise.

"The Jewish cemetery was removed before it, because it was a public park, and the Jewish cemetery was put in one corner. So the Jewish cemetery was spoiled many years earlier."

So it wasn't connected with the TV tower itself?

"It wasn't, no. The place was empty."

The lift in the Zizkov TV tower goes at an incredible 4 metres a second, and has two stops, a restaurant at 66 metres and a look-out deck almost 30 metres higher, where I spoke to a couple from Minnesota.

Man: "We've been in Prague now for four or five days. We've been waiting to get up into the tower and this is the first relatively clear day that we've had. So we're happy to be up here and it's just amazing."

Have you spotted many places you know?

Woman: "Hradcany, the Castle. We've been up there a couple of times and enjoying the view from up there, so we've been able to recognise many of the churches. It's been wonderful. The view here is spectacular, the city is spectacular."

Architect Vaclav Aulicky says similar towers in other countries gave him the inspiration to include birds-eye viewing areas for the public.

"The height of such a building allows for a panoramic view. The view of the historical and most attractive parts Prague is both unusual and really interesting. When you sit in the viewing cafe or the higher lookout cabin, in front of you there is a classic vista from Vysehrad to Bohnice, and the view of Prague Castle is simply ideal."

The garish decor in the restaurant at Zizkov TV tower is one reason that many visitors assume the building is from the 1970s, and it has to be said that the restaurant's food is far from spectacular, although the view is breathtaking. But what is it like working almost 70 metres off the ground in surely one of the highest work places in the city?

Manager: "The height doesn't bother me. I'm don't have claustrophobia, in the lift or anywhere else in the tower. It's just somewhere that's higher than other places. I simply take it as my place of work, and I don't think its such a big deal that it's so high."

Waiter: "It's definitely a different kind of job than working in some normal restaurant at ground level. When you look down on Prague it's very pretty. People enjoy it a lot, though a lot of Praguers don't know much about it and think it's terribly expensive."

Though the building is known as Zizkov TV tower, the name reflects only one part of the building's function. Vaclav Aulicky again.

"Not many people know this, but the name 'Prague TV Tower' is slightly misleading. Only the red-and-white-striped cylinder at the peak of the tower actually broadcasts television stations, the four domestic channels. The 60-metre-long white part below that is actually a facade which covers other antenna systems, mostly FM radio broadcasting and mobile communications networks."

Mr Aulicky believes that many people who used to hate the tower have grown used to it over the years. One thing is certain, however - it would be hard to find anybody who does not like an unusual art installation which currently adorns the construction. When Prague was a European City of Culture in 2000, the young Czech sculptor David Cerny put up around a dozen statues of huge black babies on the tower. The popular statues were taken down but have since been put back, and are due to remain in place for 10 or 20 years. Mr Aulicky is all for the sculptures.

"The idea of putting up the babies was David Cerny's, it wasn't my idea I have to admit. David Cerny was looking for a place for his babies - 'computer babies' as I call them. I've got to say I was really into the idea because I like his work a lot. The idea of combining those 'computer babies' with a technical building - I can't imagine anything better! I helped him a lot when it came to actually affixing the babies to the tower, and I really hope they stay there."

Speaking a few kilometres away from the TV tower at Letna plain, preservationist Martin Krise said he believed David Cerny's art had improved the appearance of the building.

"Now it's slightly changed you see, because those small toddlers which look from this distance like some small fleas..."

These are the famous black babies...

"Those are black babies who are climbing the tower. It improves it a little bit because it changes this tower to a little joke. But from my point of view, and from the same point of view of Mr Cerny, who is the author of those toddlers, it would be nice to light the rocket and fire it away."