Prague: outdoor museum among skyscrapers?

7.2.2010 - Prague

The situation in Prague is very serious. In a sense, Prague is at a crossroads, and decision making is taking place just now for which direction its future constructional and urbanistic development will proceed. Opinion of you, renowned specialists with rich experience, and respected representatives of a world institution, is extremely valuable in this decision making, and, within the meaning of the international Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Heritage it is, after all, also necessary.

Prague was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1992. Since then, we have been witnesses of contradictory events. A number of important monuments was sensitively reconstructed and is cared for, and further similar actions are under preparation. The Capital City of Prague emphasises, for example, reconstruction of the Charles Bridge, introduction of gas lighting in the historic centre, exchange of statues on the Bridge Tower, reconstruction of the Fürstenberg Garden, and other excellent projects.

On the other hand, there is a serious problem that neither the Prague Heritage Site management plan nor the historic centre regulation plan was prepared in the course of the last 15 years. In this respect, the Prague Land Use Plan is completely insufficient, because it is drawn up on a too large scale, and it does not enable, for example, regulation of the height of buildings or specific parameters of the individual buildings. This situation creates an environment where appearance of the city is not determined by a publicly available strategy which can be influenced by various groups of city users as well as by general public, but by partial decisions of officials based on their secret agreements with investors and developers. The process is fully non-transparent and, by all accounts, massive corruption is obviously taking place therein, too.

Besides Prague successes in the area of conservation care, it is necessary to mention also unsuccessful actions and numerous serious failures. For example, extensive destruction of roof landscape is taking place in the historic centre, because of conversions and extensions of loft areas of houses into official and housing units. Underground garages are being planned or under construction in many places of the historic centre. In recent years, a number of buildings was insensitively converted into offices, hotels, and restaurants, and their inner layout, as well as many valuable architectonic elements, were destroyed. It is possible to mention, for example, construction of the Holiday Inn hotel on the Vltava river bank, partial demolition of Heger brickyard in Kampa, or construction of the Palladium shopping centre in the Republic Square, to name a few.

In addition to devastation of the Prague architecture, we are alarmed also by the fact that our city is gradually and more and more being converted into an outdoor museum for tourists, a scene lacking life and focusing on immediate commercial effect only. The centre of Prague is becoming depopulated, and the city is slowly loosing its authenticity, natural structure and functions. This increases the pressure on further adaptation of buildings to commercial activities concentrating on foreign visitors.

An indicator of the current situation of Prague is the fact that Prague, which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities of the world, ended on the 73rd place only in the quality of life survey carried out by the organisation Mercer Human Resource Consulting among inhabitants of 215 world cities annually. This gives an account of disappointment of the inhabitants with the development of the capital city and of high number of problems they are wrestling with. The city is beautiful, but it does not offer high-quality life.

In Prague today, many discussions are taking place that the historic city cannot be preserved in unchanged form, that we need the current architecture and buildings which will represent our time in the future. This is undoubtedly true. However, at the same time, it is also true that a success in construction of a high-quality contemporary building was not achieved in Prague yet. Attempts to place new buildings into the territory of the Prague Heritage Site have ended catastrophically – It is sufficient to look at the office building on the Charles Square, shopping centre Myslbek, or planned project of development of the vacant space next to Tesco department store in the National street.

We regard projects of construction of high-rise buildings in the historic centre of Prague, or in its protective zone, as the height of commercial intentions which would destroy the current unique values of our city, and change its nature forever. Approximately since 2000 we perceive efforts to surround the centre of Prague by high-rise buildings which would offer nice view of the historic city. However, this idea has its reverse side, because the historic centre, and, especially, elevated places, such as Petřín or Prague Castle, will offer only view of a number of more or less successful towers on the city horizon.

We consider statements about the "present-day counterbalance of the Prague Castle" as dangerous, because they confirm that construction of new city dominants, and suppression of the historic ones, is planned. Commercial interest in this construction, and pressures of investors on implementation of the individual projects, are enormous. For illustration, we can mention the announced price of a luxury flat in the highest floor of the planned residential house Epoque (the “V” building) in the Pankrác plain, which should reach 100 million Czech crowns (3.8 million eur).

The Epoque projects in the Pankrác plain are not the only threat to the Prague skyline. The investors presented a project of construction of two 150-metres-high tower buildings in Holešovice, which would thus rise above towers of the St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle. Construction of high-rise buildings is planned also in Modřany, and, possibly, other, yet unpublished, projects are under preparation, too. In fact, permission of construction of high-rise buildings in Pankrác would become material, as well as legal, precedent for decision-making concerning other buildings. The Pankrác plain is located in the buffer zone of the Prague Heritage Site, where no new dominant buildings were permitted yet, and unwritten moratorium concerning this kind of buildings applied here until now. If one permit is issued, other investors will refer to it, and, by course of the Czech legislation, they will be entitled to issuance of a building permit.

In this connection, we have to point out that the Czech Republic authorities have completely failed in the process of permitting the construction of Epoque buildings in the Pankrác plain. The World Heritage Committee was not informed about the key plan influencing the panorama and scale of the city. By this, the Czech Republic breached the international convention.

The present situation is not satisfactory, in particular because of the fact that the Czech Republic does not regard the statements concerning construction of the high-rise buildings, issued hitherto by international institutions, seriously at all. In March 2007, UNESCO and ICOMOS experts visited Prague. They called for reassessment of the construction projects in the Pankrác plain, and recommended reduction of the height of the planned buildings. Further, the experts expressed their opinion to that effect that Prague's communication with the public is insufficient, and that the projects should be amended in order that the lower part of the planned buildings offered space usable by local inhabitants. In May 2007, Michael Petzet, President of ICOMOS International, sent a letter to Pavel Bém, Mayor of Prague, asking him to stop the process of permitting the construction of Epoque buildings. In July 2007, the World Heritage Committee expressed its opinion to the problem. It expressed serious concern because of the proposed projects in the buffer zone of the Prague Heritage Site, and called for reassessment of these plans.

None of that happened. Both the Capital City of Prague and the Ministry of Culture claim that the above-mentioned statements of experts are nothing serious for Prague. Allegedly, the planned construction in the Pankrác plain does not interfere with any of the protected values of Prague, and the procedure of review of the situation from UNESCO and ICOMOS is said to be a mere formality.

Nothing changed also in the relations of the authorities to the public. Citizens of the Czech Republic, and even of Prague itself, are not informed about the plans under preparation, public discussion is not taking place, and, according to our information, experts with different opinions were not involved in preparation of the conceptions. All documents have been prepared in secrecy.

The authorities did not stop the permitting procedures, and they continue with them. At the present time, the City Part Prague 4 is conducting the zoning permission procedure. We are afraid that, with the highest likeliness, the authority will have issued its decision before the World Heritage Committee will have the possibility to express its opinion to the problem on its next regular meeting.

There are emerging even speculations, expressed by leading representatives of the city and state, whether it is advantageous or necessary for Prague to stay in the World Heritage List.

In spite of the fact that our organisations are engaged, predominantly, in protection of the environment, we regard as its inseparable part in Prague not only nature as such, but also architecture, landscape character, human scale of the city, its visual beauty, and quality of public spaces. We consider defence of these values as part of our mission. Last but not least, we advocate the right of citizens to express their opinions and objections and to participate in decision-making processes.

Considerable hopes of no small part of Prague's inhabitants and experts, as well as media, are pinned on your mission. We know that you cannot order the Czech Republic to do anything, and that a big portion of responsibility and work rests with us, our authorities, and our politicians. In spite of that, your visit is very important, and your opinion is expected impatiently. In Prague, there is a custom that politicians and authorities make their decisions, in most cases, according to their own aims and priorities, and they can ignore objections of the public. Through that, irreversible damaging of public interests and generally accepted values often takes place, because of personal economic or political aims. Now, when a battle is fought for values and further development of Prague which does not belong to us only, but is a world heritage, this can be different, at last.

We appreciate interest of UNESCO and ICOMOS in Prague and believe that the opinion of the World Heritage Committee, which will result from the conclusions of the monitoring mission, will help Prague to choose the right compromise between its development and protection of unique universal values.

A letter of this content was handed over to director of World Heritage Center Mr. Francisco Bandarin and representative of ICOMOS International Mr. Bruno Maldoner, who participated in reactive monitoring mission in Prague and they are investigating whether Czech republic cares adequately of Prague, inscribed on World Heritage List.

Letter is signed by: Arnika (Martin Skalský), Atelier for the Environment (Petr Kužvart), Civic Association of Pankrac (Marie Janoušková), Citizens Afflicted by North-south Artery, (Alžběta Rejchrtová) and Pankrac Society (Zdeněk Holeček).


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