Citizens' associations contacted UNESCO because of skyscrapers in Pankrác

1.3.2006 - Prague

The Czech Republic breaks the obligations it undertook in the time when the UNESCO organisation inscribed Prague on the World Cultural Heritage List. This is claimed by Arnika, Ateliér pro životní prostředí (Studio for the Environment), Občanská iniciativa Pankráce (Citizens Initiative of Pankrác), and several other citizens associations which have filed a complaint, which is now heading for the UNESCO headquarters (1). In the complaint, they draw attention to the project „City“ (2) of the developer company ECM, planning construction of two new skyscrapers in the Pankrác plain, in the protective zone of the Prague conservation area. According to the citizens associations, the skyscrapers could result in deletion of Prague from the UNESCO list, and endangering of international reputation of the Czech Republic. This fear is shared also by experts on urban conservation.

„One of the reasons why Prague was inscribed on the World Cultural Heritage List was its preserved historic panorama. While the greater part of the European metropolises is dominated by new buildings made of glass and concrete, Prague is, even after centuries, still the city of towers,“ says Martin Skalský, head of the Centre for Citizens Support of the Arnika Association. „According to the international agreement, the Czech Republic is obliged to discuss all projects, which could change the Prague panorama, with the UNESCO headquarters. This was not done in the case of the skyscrapers. Preparation of the project of the Pankrác „City“ is carried out on the sly. Because of that, we considered necessary to inform the Paris UNESCO headquarters about the impending devastation of identity of our city,“ explains Skalský.

According to Doc. Josef Štulc, president of the Czech National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and, until quite recently, the main conservator of the National Conservation Institute, the threat of deletion of Prague from the UNESCO list is very serious for the Czech Republic. „Not long ago, Vienna was facing a similar international scandal (3). The city applied for inscription on the UNESCO list, and, simultaneously, it permitted construction of high-rise buildings near the railway station Wien Mitte. The town hall had to spend huge financial means on compensation of investors and cancellation of the project. Only after that, the World Heritage Committee agreed with granting of the status of a UNESCO monument. At the present time, a completely identical situation exists in Cologne (4), which was included in the list of endangered UNESCO monuments because of construction of skyscrapers in optical contact with the famous cathedral,“ said Štulc, according to whom the situation requires a quick action. „If discussions about deletion of Prague from the UNESCO list are started, it will seriously damage reputation of the Czech Republic in the world. By that, we would send a signal that we are not able to take care of our cultural heritage, and that we do not comply with voluntarily undertaken international obligations.“

The citizens associations contacted the UNESCO headquarters only after they had exhausted all possibilities at the level of the Czech Republic. „We have tried to defend protection of historic cultural values of Prague in administrative proceedings, but unfortunately, completely unsuccessfully so far,“ said Judr. Ondřej Tošner, lawyer of Ateliér pro životní prostředí. „The Department of Protection of Monuments of the Prague Metropolitan Authority is conducting administrative proceedings concerning the both Epoque high-rise buildings, but it did not inform the citizens associations about it at all. Thus, we do not even know whether a decision was made, and, if so, what the decision was. Ateliér pro životní prostředí filed an appeal against the procedures of the Metropolitan Authority to the Ministry of Culture. From that time, more than four months have passed already, and within this whole period the Metropolitan Authority has not handed over the administration file to the Ministry, although the deadline of one month is set for this by the law. The new management of the Ministry of Culture has begun to solve the problem, but we are afraid that it could be too late. The investor aims already to obtain issuance of the planning permission,“ said the lawyer.

Chairwoman of Občanská iniciativa Pankráce, Marie Janoušková, says that the aim of the complaint of the citizens associations to UNESCO is not to disable completion of development of the Pankrác plain. „Naturally, we do not wish that the Pankrác plain remains in its present state. Now, it is a shame of the city. Moreover, one of the most lucrative plots of land in the whole Prague are located here. However, the new buildings must respect Prague standards and qualities. In an ideal case, they should also meet the needs of local inhabitants. Unfortunately, the investors offered only projects of second-class architectural quality as yet, the only motive of which is quick financial profit and effort to be visible from wide surroundings. If the skyscrapers are constructed, a few companies will make a big profit. However, the whole Prague, including us, who live in Pankrác, will pay for their profit,“ explained Janoušková the standpoint of her association.

According to architect Vlado Milunić, author of, for example, the famous Dancing House, there exists a universally acceptable solution, but management of the city has not paid attention to such proposals as yet. „Construction of high-rise buildings on the plateau of the Pankrác plain was an obvious town planning mistake of the 1970s. Today, we can rectify it, for example, by construction of new buildings optically heightening the horizon. If buildings having a half, or, at most, two thirds of height of the three existing high-rise buildings were constructed in the space among them, the mass of the skyscrapers will not make such adverse impression any more.“ Milunić is afraid that if the two new „Epoque“ skyscrapers were constructed in Pankrác, it would create a dangerous precedent for other investors. „Within the following decade, further high-rise building could appear on the Prague horizon, and, thus, the unique Prague identity would be lost forever.“

Copy of the letter of citizens associations to UNESCO

2) City Project The idea of the „City“ project of the developer company ECM is based on so-called Masterplan - a town planning study of an American architect Richard Meier of 2000. Within the framework of development of the Pankrác plain to the „City“, the former building of the Czech Radio (City Tower) should be reconstructed, and close to the former Motokov building (City Empiria), two new high﷓rise buildings - City Epoque - should be constructed. One of these buildings should serve as a residential house, second one as a hotel.

City Project/ECM

Masterplan of Richard Meier

3) Vienna was inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List in 2001. In 2004, the project „Wien-Mitte“ was created, which expected construction of a new administrative centre - namely, high-rise buildings - near the Vienna main railway station. In spite of the fact that, in contract with Prague, panorama of the city was not subject to urban conservation in Vienna, the project of skyscrapers construction caused outrage. The international UNESCO Commission suspended validity of inscription of Vienna on the list, and the threat of complete deletion of the city from the list existed. The Vienna town hall started intensive negotiations with the investors, who already had a legal right to carry out the construction at that time (they obtained a building permit), and it stopped the project at the expense of probably high financial compensations. Thus, only one of the three planned buildings was completed, which was already under construction at the time of the incident. Afterwards, the town hall prepared, moreover, a long-term plan of conservation of the historic centre of the city. Only after that the UNESCO Commission restored the position of Vienna in the World List.

More information: Vienna page on the UNESCO website

4) Cologne The famous Cologne cathedral, constructed between 1248 and 1880, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List in 1996. According to the justification of the ICOMOS Committee, „the cathedral has an exceptional artificial value, and is a testimony to the strength of Christian belief in Europe“. In 2004, a plan for construction of high-rise administration buildings in the area of the ICE-terminal was presented. Although the new buildings should be located almost four kilometres from the cathedral, and no protective conservation zone of the cathedral was declared, the project arose a massive tide of indignation. The UNESCO Commission stated that the construction endangers „the view integrity of the cultural monument“ - the planned buildings would be higher than towers of the unique cathedral. Subsequently, the Commission inscribed the Cologne cathedral on the List of World Cultural Heritage in Danger. Recently, Cologne has been threatened by complete deletion from the UNESCO List.

More information: Cologne page on the UNESCO website


Arnika - Center for Citizen`s Support - Marek Jehlička

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