On demolition, power of money, and official stamps

The media has recently informed about the possible demolition of three buildings. All of these buildings have something in common – their architectural significance and futile attempts to get them on a certain list of the ministry which would save them from demolition hammers, excavators, and bulldozers.

The media spent most of the time covering the issue of thehouse no. 1601/II, n. 47 on Wenceslas Square, which is supposed to be replaced by a new office building. The second building which has captivated some attention is Hotel Praha which was bought by Petr Kellner’s business empire. It is rumored that he wants to build there a school and a park closed to the public. The third one, and unfortunately, the least known case is the destiny of the train station in Havířov, which is supposed to be replaced by a new terminal partly paid for by the city hall money and mostly by subsidies from the EU funds. What connects these three buildings is the futile fight of fans of modern architecture, urbanism and common sense to preserve these buildings not only by getting them on the list of cultural heritage of the Ministry of Culture.

Let us look at the most overlooked building – the train station in Havířov, which is one of the last examples of the so-called “Brussels style” from the break of the 1950s and 1960s. The old terminal is a great example of the good things that originated in former Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. The building, designed by architect Josef Hrejsemnou, is dominated by a glass façade, ceiling which has a form of an op-art decoration and a great indoor space with an elegantly sloping staircase. However, memories of the famous 1960s with their unique design do not have a place in the current plans of the Havířov city hall. The train station hall is supposed to be torn down and replaced by a bus and train terminal which will be built a little bit farther from the original building. The city hall claims that it will be a “dignified” entrance to the town. It will rather be another monument of local political limitation and this one will be, unfortunately, in a place which cannot boast with glorious history or local memory.

The house on Wenceslas Square no. 1601/II is not suitable as it has too many walls and too little variable space. Our ancestors’ ideas about working space unfortunately do not meet developers’ ideas about office buildings as profitable goods. The house itself is not exceptional but it carries a great deal of history of the place where it was built. To build something else instead of it just because the investor will make a lot of money is mad. The house stands on a place which is not trivial as a whole. It is located on one of the corners of Wenceslas Square, not far from Myslbek’s St. Wenceslas. The destiny of the house no. 1601/II also clearly illustrates where the salami tactics of small compromises to the developers and their requirements from the side of Prague’s conservationists and also clerks from the Ministry of Culture leads. It is not only the conservationists with their funny competences and the expert public who is losing the game here. It is also our society as such. Nothing has to be masked anymore as it was the case of the buildings in the lower part of Wenceslas Square. Only their facades were left and the inner parts were completely rebuilt but from outside, they look like original historical houses. Nobody has to pretend anything anymore – houses in the upper part of Wenceslas Square will be simply torn down. And there will be more of them than you would think.

Let us move from the busy square in the center of Prague to a residential area with the view of the Prague Castle. Hotel Praha has been here since the 1980s, and quite unjustly, it has gained a label of being “Communist”. Yes, it was a building that was supported directly by the Communist Party and it was used for accommodating foreign visitors before and after 1989. And yes, with the vigor of late modernism, it was set in the landscape where it would probably never be placed today. However, it is a building which has exceptional architectural qualities. Its interiors were decorated by significant glassmakers, artists, and designers. Thanks to the current owner, these probably do not exist in the spaces for which they were created. The elegant lines of the hotel terraces are exactly the thing which makes architecture different from developers’ buildings. From big Prague hotels from that time, the building of Hotel Praha is the best and it could be compared to the contemporary production at least in the Eastern European block. It used to be a hotel where you could not get without an invitation. It will be replaced by a park where you will also not get without an invitation.

What do these buildings have in common? Futile efforts of their admirers to get them on the ministerial list. Official stamp is here, in central and eastern Europe, still the last defense line before the power of money. It needs to be said, that this line is quite penetrable, especially at the time when the Ministry is lead by an infamous small-town teacher in resignation. This creates a paradoxical situation, when the ministry, which is sometimes called the ministry of reconstruction according to the amounts of money which it donates on renovating tangible cultural heritage, approves completely uncivilized practices. These three buildings will thus end exactly like the department store Ještěd in Liberec – one of the iconic buildings of the Liberec studio SIAL, which was replaced by a shopping center several years ago.

The sad news about the state of governing in our country is that the ministry cannot do anything else except strictly following the administrative procedure. It is not able to initiate and facilitate discussion about the way of protection and further development of culture. For a long time, it has been only an official undertaker with a round stamp in its hand. Once it disconnects literary journals from the machines which keep them somewhere between life and clinical death; now it signs demolition orders.

The main point of this report on uncivilized conditions is the fact that the stamp and only the stamp is the thing which can save some buildings and can force developers to change or adjust their plans. The sad news about the state of public space in the Czech Republic is that we are not able to create such environment, in which the image of earned money or received subsidies would make way to more permanent values. It is sad news that protests from experts and general public and petitions with many signatures cannot move the arrogance and wantonness of the richest.

published: 11. 8. 2013