On Thursday a joint reactive mission of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) arrives in Prague. The experts will examine how the Czech Republic cares for the historic core of its capital city which ranks among cultural monuments of world-wide significance. The mission has been initiated by the City Hall’s plans to permit the construction of skyscrapers which are to form a new dominant of Prague. The visit can easily turn into an international scandal since city officials have already been working on a building permit for the controversial high-rises. A threat arises that construction might be approved before UNESCO adopts its position.
“The Construction Office for Prague 4 has been conducting zoning proceedings without having a UNESCO statement on such a dramatic intervention into Prague’s skyline,“ confirmed attorney Petr Kužvart from the Studio for the Environment . “The proceedings are contrary to the Czech Republic’s international obligations. We perceive this as an effort to misinterpret and downplay UNESCO’s misgivings,” added the attorney. The two high-rises called Epoque have not undergone the Environmental Impact Assessment procedure. The authorities have also neglected the negative position of the National Institute for the Protection and Conservation of Monuments and Sites.
Martin Skalský from Arnika also worries that Prague wants to circumvent UNESCO. “Last year experts from these world organizations expressed their attitude towards skyscrapers. They issued a number of recommendations; however, these have not been met by the Czech authorities which on the other hand continue to approve the controversial buildings. The projects have not been altered in any way,” said Skalský. According to him UNESCO wanted Prague to open a public discussion on the future of the city which, however, has not started. “Background information is not available, decision-making is not transparent and the City Hall has been hiding even banal information,” summed up Skalský
The UNESCO committee dealt with the situation in Prague in the summer of 2007 and voiced “serious concern over the planned construction of high-rise buildings in the buffer zone of the Prague Historical Town Reserve which could have an impact on Prague’s visual integrity.” The committee appealed to the Czech Republic “to reconsider the building projects” and demanded that “new projects respect the outstanding universal value of the city.”
The UNESCO/ICOMOS reactive mission arrives in Prague to find out how the Czech Republic complied with their requirements. The Czech authorities will submit to its members three documents: a report describing the state of conservation of Prague’ s historical centre, a study of criteria under which new high-rises could be built in the capital city and the third document assessing whether Prague still maintains its “outstanding universal value”. An information embargo has been imposed on all three documents.
The citizens’ associations have been pleased with UNESCO’s attitude toward them. “The World Heritage Centre Director himself expressed a wish to meet us. We appreciate that and feel that they are really interested in the current problems of Prague, unfortunately this cannot be said about some Czech institutions,” commented Marie Janoušková, chairwoman of Pankrác Citizens’ Initiative. “We do not follow narrow group interests, but we attach great significance to preserving the city’s values for its inhabitants, visitors and future generations,” concluded Janoušková.
(1) What is on the agenda of the UNESCO/ ICOMOS mission?
Skyscrapers will not be the only issue to figure on the agenda of the joint reactive mission of UNESCO and ICOMOS which is to arrive in Prague this Thursday. However, the Pankrác Plain with two proposed high-rises: one 100 meters and the other 75 metres tall is not the only place where such buildings are to rise. Two 150 metres tall towers are intended to be built in Holešovice and developers plan further skyscrapers in Modřany.
In addition to the Prague skyline threatened by intended high-rises the international mission will focus on other issues such as insensitive flat additions into roof spaces in the Lesser Town and Old Town. These damage the city roofscape, one of the most admired unique features of Prague architecture. The experts will also focus on insensitive conversion of historic buildings and other problems.
The fact that the mission is led by World Heritage Centre Director Francesco Bandarin is a proof that UNESCO has been paying extraordinary attention to Prague issues. The experts will not express their opinions on the issues on the spot, they will be just collecting information meeting with all interested groups including critics of the planned projects and the current situation in the Prague Historical Town Reserve. In conclusion of the mission the experts and the Czech Ministry of Culture will issue a short joint statement. By March 15, 2008 the monitoring mission will have prepared an official report which will be submitted at the UNESCO committee July session in Quebec, Canada. Only there this world organization will adopt a decision on the situation in Prague. If a harmful impact of the planned high-rises is proved Prague might be put on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
(2) From first UNESCO Visit – One Year On: Prague Has Done Almost Nothing
UNESCO experts dealt with the project on the construction of high-rises on the Pankrác Plain for the first time in January 2007. Around that time the Prague City Hall issued a document called “Recommendations of Dr. - Ing. Irene Wiese - von Ofen on the Pankrác Plain Project” which sets forth a number of tasks:
- Holding workshops with the participation of representatives of the City, UNESCO, ICOMOS, developers, architects and other professionals.
- Defining a list of places in the zoning plan where high-rises might be erected and setting the city’s priorities and clear-cut rules and terms for construction in designated territories.
- Defining places where new urban centres might originate.
- The Capital City of Prague and its municipal districts should assume the role of a communicator between the local community and developers. It is essential to explain all aspects of the project and inform local communities about positive impacts of new construction.
- Emphasizing in communication that the Pankrác Plain is a prominent place and therefore construction here has to be broadly discussed.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee’ s decision of July 2007 states: “The World Heritage Committee requests the Czech Republic to reconsider current building projects as to their impacts on the World Heritage property’s Outstanding Universal Value and also requests that any new construction projects respect the Outstanding Universal Value and important views to and from property:”
The Czech authorities have not actually met any of these recommendations, they have just prepared expert background documents for the international monitoring mission.
(3) Approval Proceedings On Two Epoque High-rises Currently Under Way
The hearing where final objections to the project can be raised is scheduled for March 13 and 14, though it is quite obvious that by that time the World Heritage Committee’s statement will not be available. Decision on the construction of high-rises will thus be issued before their impact on Prague’s skyline is objectively evaluated.