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Now you see it

Inconsistencies are rife in preserving historic architecture in Prague

Posted: September 13, 2006

By Stephen Weeks

Question: When is a historic building not a historic building?

Answer: When it's 90 percent not there.

For nearly a year now, anyone passing through náměstí Republiky cannot have failed to notice the gradual mauling of the old Josef Barracks building and the huge billboard showing in computer-graphic splendor the five-galleried shopping mall it will become: The Palladium Shopping Center. It is clear now that part of the barracks' outside walls will survive — and precious little else.

In the middle of all this, in what's destined to be the mall's vast underground car park (but wasn't Prague 1's policy to discourage cars into the city center?), last year's archaeological excavation uncovered a huge complex of medieval buildings.

Here, just outside the Old Town's medieval walls, were the metal workshops, brothels, after-gate-closing inns — all the things that were more comfortable outside the town's authority than inside it.

This unparalleled group of remains was carefully revealed, measured and photographed, then scooped-up by mechanical diggers and its site lost forever in the concrete of commerce.

To crown it all, what will survive of the outside walls of the old barracks will be painted pink. It will look like Liberace's wedding cake, not the robust stone color that the original architect had conceived — a castellated fortress in the heart of the city.

All this is odd when the archdiocese of Prague wanted to use the attic of a building it owned to accommodate a priest but was told that such a use "would damage the integrity of the house." The entire roof of the old barracks is gone. Funny how conservation relaxes when large amounts of money are in play.

However, the recent case of the Rondo-Cubist building that partly collapsed on Vodičkova street, just off Wenceslas Square, during construction of an adjacent project brought out so much public feeling that the conservation authorities dug their heels in ... although perhaps a little too late.

The building in question was part of a new (yes, shopping) development — in fact, the only old building to survive on the site. Revealingly, all the glossy graphics of the project only showed the new bits: The classic Czech Cubist facade was depicted in twilight shadow if it was shown at all. Not surprisingly, the developers suddenly announced that the Cubist structure was unsound — and that it could fall at any moment.

A lot of the back of the building had already been demolished, yet there were no props for the facade. Yet, at this last minute, the conservation authorities prevailed. The facade, at least, will be kept (although if it does mysteriously collapse, or even if it is deliberately demolished, the maximum fine is only 10,000 Kč [$455]).

But is keeping a facade actually preserving a building? What about its entire character, as expressed through its old rooms, its passages and staircases, its courts? Sadly, the country is full of buildings that aren't what they seem: churches and synagogues that are no longer those; castles that aren't castles but madhouses, special schools, prisons; fine villas that are low-grade apartment houses.

Apart from the Prague Castle complex, the city doesn't have a single palace one can just visit as a palace.

Not helping this is stucco. Most of Central Europe's buildings are stuccoed; this means that a bit of plaster over the cracks and a lick of paint render any building as good as new. Add to this quite a bit of the Germanic passion for neatness and order, and you have the Bohemian recipe for conservation: Knock out the bumps, give it a re-spray and — Hey presto! Your building is soon in new, showroom condition again.

Look around Prague and you will see what I mean. Sadly, the city was more romantic in the 1970s, when decay had not been arrested, and if you look at pictures of the streets in the 18th and 19th centuries, romantic decay was common then, too. The World According To Dulux, Wickes or Baumax is a recent phenomenon.

In his recent book The Fall and Rise of Conservation, Czech authority Tomáš Hájek writes a philosophy of conservation. At the top of page 129 is a photograph of an old farm building, part of a chateau complex. It is long and barnlike, its roof-ridge twisted with age and covered with ancient tiles of many hues, baked long ago in a wood-fired kiln.

Below this is a photograph of a building of similar size — a barrack hard and angular, its line-level, straight-ridged roof of monotonous, factory-mechanical tiles broken with wide horizontal dormer windows (whereas the building above showed the sort of dormers such buildings used to have).

Below the pictures is a surprising caption. It states that these are, in fact, before-and-after pictures — and that the bottom picture demonstrates "an example of successful conservation."

The other day I was re-reading Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (the 'K,' by the way, stands for Klapka; he had some Czech roots or association). In the novel, his narrator passes by the estate wall of Hampton Court, where it bounds the Thames.

He observes: "I never pass it without feeling better for the sight of it. Such a mellow, bright, sweet old wall; what a charming picture it would make, with the lichen creeping here, and the moss growing there, a shy young vine peeping over the top at this spot, to see what is going on upon the busy river, and the sober old ivy clustering a little further down! There are 50 shades and tints and hues in every 10 yards of that old wall."

Its beauty is in its age, and its age is in evidence. Now you see it!

— Stephen Weeks is a writer and conservationist. He can be reached at stephen.c@stles.org

By Stephen Weeks

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