Future of precious plot in Old Town Square debated

15-11-2006

Undeterred by the onset of winter weather, hordes of tourists swirl in eddies around the Old Town Square—in front of the famous Astronomical Clock, by the carts selling sausages and cups of hot wine, down the passages lined with stalls crammed top to bottom with knickknacks and gewgaws. It is a site that is as rich in art and history as it is bustling with activity. This place is one of Prague's nerve centers, the beating heart of the old city.

Old Town Square, photo: CzechTourismOld Town Square, photo: CzechTourism Undeterred by the onset of winter weather, hordes of tourists swirl in eddies around the Old Town Square—in front of the famous Astronomical Clock, by the carts selling sausages and cups of hot wine, down the passages lined with stalls crammed top to bottom with knickknacks and gewgaws.

It is a site that is as rich in art and history as it is bustling with activity. This place is one of Prague's nerve centers, the beating heart of the old city.

Architect and urban planner Martin Krise of the Club for Ancient Prague says the square has been a meeting place and a center for commerce throughout its long history.

"This is the middle of Prague of course," he says. "It was the oldest settlement around here, partly Czech or Slavonic, partly German on this side, partly French on this side. It was a place for merchandise. There was big trade here. All the goods of the early medieval times—slave trade and other items."

Around the square the town grew. Its economic vibrancy made it the choice location for a new town hall, which was founded in 1338 and served as the seat of Old Town's administration. In 1364, the tower housing the Astronomical Clock was joined to the chapel behind. The whole Old Town complex was revamped in a Gothic style during the next century. But the buildings behind the clock tower were almost entirely destroyed by tanks during the Nazis' retreat in May of 1945.

In place of the razed structures the patch of land on the eastern part of the site is now home to a few rows of small maple trees—leaves now burning bright gold—and rows of benches facing the square. On two sides of the site's perimeter are wooden stalls where tourists browse souvenirs.

Old Town Square itself has remained a commercial hub. Visitors aim cameras at the stately buildings, peruse the shops selling Bohemian crystal and marionettes, and stop to dine under the awnings of the square's myriad restaurants. Horse-drawn carriages circle round the statue of Jan Hus and line up alongside the patch of land where the town hall stood before its 1945 destruction.

Just before the elections last month, city officials announced that a committee would be drawing up guidelines for a new competition to design a building or monument on the plot.

Mr Krise has entered three contests to fill the space, the first as a student in the early sixties.

"What is important is to know what to build here," he says. "And I am afraid that it was said—the idea to build here—by the new City Council about three weeks before the elections. So it was such a, let's say, propaganda idea. So I am afraid the City Council doesn't know what to build here."

Both National Gallery Director Milan Knizak and Mr Krise say that determining the function of the building presents one of the most difficult challenges. An area chock full of stores and restaurants hardly needs a new shopping complex. And what to put in a site that is so integral to the city's identity?

"The problem is that nobody knows what is supposed to be there, and the place is so precious, so symbolic and magic for Czech people," Knizak says. "And not only for Czech people, for tourists, for everybody. It's in the heart of Prague, with the famous clock, and the historical events, which happened here. Therefore, it's very difficult to fill that place."

A long stream of fruitless competitions took place during the last century. Mr Knizak says consensus could not be reached around one idea during the last competition, which was in the late 1980s.

"Not even one project was good enough to find general support," he says. "On the other hand, because it was all conservative, it was also boring. The Czech society on one hand sees the boring proposals for the town hall, on the other hand the society or the people who represent the society were not strong and brave enough to accept something which is kind of strange and new."

To demonstrate the tensions inherent in building on such a piece of prime and precious real estate, Knizak recalls a 1910 proposal by architect Josef Gocar that included plans for a ziggurat style shopping tower.

"It was really fantastic; but they didn't do it in that time because it was too far out," he says. "They said, 'It's foreign architecture, it's not Czech enough, and blah, blah.' A similar situation is now. The average proposals are boring, and the exceptional are not respected."

Blacksmith Jiri Hovorka forges a replica of a medieval knife at a stand in the corner of the site of the former town hall. He says construction would likely disrupt his business, but that's not the main reason he prefers the site's current state.

"I think it should stay like this because it's very pretty--it makes it wide open and more free instead of a building," he says.

"I think in 1992 or 1993 they were thinking about making some kind of three-dimensional project here and it was standing here for a few days. I don't know exactly which year it was, but it didn't look so nice. It was before this park was here," Hovorka says. "And my opinion is they should just leave it like that. If they do it, they should be nicer, like in an old shape, like Middle Age. It should be corresponding to the old stuff here. It shouldn't be something extremely new or different like the Dancing House over by the river there."

Dancing HouseDancing House The Dancing House—a dual effort between Croation architect Vlado Milunic and Canadian-American Frank Gehry—stirred up some debate when it was built in the mid-nineties.

But some Praguers are open to the idea of mixing new architecture with old. After all, Old Town Square is a panoply of styles already—Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings stand side-by-side. Prague resident Martin Tomcu looks to the example of another European city that has blended modern construction with traditional buildings.

"I visited Paris ten years ago and the best place in Paris for me is La Defense," he said. "This is modern architecture in Paris. I hope in Prague in future something building like Paris."

Even Mr Krise of the Club for Ancient Prague is open to a more modern construction, but he thinks it will take a miracle to find just the right plan and just the right person to execute it.

"I don't think there will be a decision because it should be a miracle--it's really a spot for a miracle," Krise says. "It's not for some normal ... it must happen. And the coincidence of some genius, some jury which will find it...."

Both Mr Krise and Mr Knizak forecast an inconclusive outcome for any upcoming competition. If they're right, the space behind the astronomical clock will remain what it is for now—a spot under the maple trees to rest from sightseeing, enjoy a Czech treat and watch the crowds of people in the busy heart of Prague.

15-11-2006