Shared Layers of History – Urban Phenomena of Post-Communist Cities #4

After the fall of communism, we had to learn how to shop and sell, how to build and how to lead an everyday life in a completely new realm. It does not matter if we are in Belgrade, Warsaw, Berlin or Bratislava – our cities are layered with history and scarred with the changes

One cannot understand the post-communist attitude towards sharing without knowing the twisted history and numerous transformations involved in the perspective. Presented here is our selection of socio-urban phenomena that helps explain – and hopefully offers a more detailed picture of – today’s public spaces.

DISPUTE ABOUT THE EYE ON PRAGUE

One of the most revolutionary symbols of changes in Prague is Letná hill. Built on a plateau above the Vltava River, it is directly connected to the Prague Castle. In 1955, a large monument of Stalin was erected at the edge of park which in 1962 was ceremoniously blown up and later, the site served for some important demonstrations during the Velvet Revolution.

After the transformation of 1989, it seemed that everybody was delighted to be, at last, free to build – unconstrained by the suffocating conservatism of the Soviets or the equally suffocating folkloric inheritance of “Magical Prague”. And so, in 2006, the National Library of the Czech Republic announced an international architectural competition for the design and construction of a new National Library building. “The first Czech international competition and the first competition in a free country,” as said the renowned Czech architect and founder of the London-based Future Systems, Jan Kaplický, who won with a concept that has come to be known as the „Blob” or the „Octopus”. But winning an architectural competition is not synonymous with the realization and implementation of the project; in this particular case, it was the beginning of a battle over Letná hill which lasted longer than two years. The Prague mayor, Pavel Bém, initially supported the Blob, but later he changed his position, claiming that the project would not be suitable for Letná; a similar thought process was followed by numerous municipal and government representatives. Insofar as former President Havel supported it and then current President Klaus opposed it, this architectural discussion took on the form of a political dispute. A special committee was appointed to settle whether the project had, in fact, won the competition fairly, while the public discussion continued including organized happenings and various petitions. Nearly two years after the publication of the results, the then minister of culture cancelled the project, siting a supposed lack of resources. Unfortunately, in 2009, Kaplický died suddenly. The students organized a manifestation in favour of the National Library, and the supporters filled the entirety of Staromestske namesti.

The design and building process was supposed to be followed by documentarist Olga Špátová, but because of the complicated story of the competition, then the political debate around it and then sudden death of Jan Kaplický – the movie has told the story of a Czech phenomenon – the battle for the library. It premiered in April 2010 with a title “Eye on Prague”.

Today, the Letná plain is still empty. The National Library hasn’t been built, and the society is left with an undesirable taste in their mouths – who makes the decisions? Somehow the new socio-political reality is still in line with the principle of „we know better how it looks”, better than the international experts even. Right after battling one regime, we ended up in a better one, but still a regime with no possibility for sharing the power and decisiveness.


This article was published in Magazyn Miasta / Cities Magazine # 1/17  – our special international issue released as a part of Shared Cities: Creative Momentum (SCCM) project. You can read more about the project here. You can download PDF version of the issue for free here.