Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A newly formed panel of 13 respected Czech architects aims to prevent bad planning decisions.
The problem with Prague is that it’s getting kind of ugly.
That might sound preposterous given the Czech capital’s famously photogenic looks. But recent developments proposed for the city have caused officials to step in and make sure Prague isn’t beaten senseless with the ugly stick. As of this month, all major construction projects in Prague will be screened by panel of 13 respected Czech architects (apparently, the world’s most irreligious country isn’t superstitious either). An article in the newspaper Lidove Noviny also notes that the city will be tightening up control of green space, vacant plots, and billboards.
This sounds like standard enough procedure, but there’s a strong sense that Prague’s guardians have lately been letting their vigilance slip. According to Lidove Noviny, recently green-lighted projects that should never have seen daylight include the fugly Don Giovanni Hotel, raising its turrets next to the city’s Jewish Cemetery, and the new Letňany Metro station, whose tolerable aesthetics get marked down for their location among green fields. There is also the case of a soon-to-arrive blob-shaped building in the city’s Victory Square that has already earned two nicknames: the “Stack of Pancakes” and the “Polar Bear.” Fortunately, Prague has swerved just in time to halt another controversial building project, the now-scrapped new National Library by architect Jan Kaplicky, which would have looked like something vomited up by a giant My Little Pony.
Prague’s planning problems are not just a question of aesthetics. The city is currently reeling from the bungling of a project to build Europe’s longest urban tunnel for motor vehicles. The Blanka Tunnel, still being excavated beneath the city’s beautiful Letna Hill (and messing it up royally in the process) has been criticized since work began, with critics fearing it would flood central Prague with cars. Now construction costs have reached an unanticipated 36 billion Czech Crowns (almost $1.8 billion), and with completion long overdue, the city has been chasing the contractor through the courts. With screw-ups like these sprinkled across the city, it’s no wonder Prague wants to tame its coltish developers.
But this is Prague, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. So overwhelmingly lovely are its older quarters that declaring a war on ugliness there is a bit like the Sahara declaring a war on puddles. Endless pastel palaces, copper domes, and wriggling alleys make old Prague look half like a painted Hollywood backdrop, half like an unfeasibly large cake. That such a cityscape has been preserved and embellished over the years is both a case of luck and a tribute to a Czech architectural tradition whose excellence continued into the 20th century.
Beyond the city’s core, however, it’s a different story. Outer Prague is substantially dominated by large, uniform, Communist-era blocks called Panelák, so named after the prefabricated concrete panels from which they are built. This doesn’t mean that outer Prague is necessarily such a bad place (this suburban Prague street view gives a reasonable idea of the modern city’s dense but green character). Large blocks like these are mainly free of the negative stigma they often have in Western European cities, partly because some of them are fairly well built. There is even a rather good online magazine called Panel Plus that gives aspirational Panelák dwellers decor ideas for making the best of their smallish apartments.
The marked contrast between the modern Panelák districts and the city’s core still gives Prague a certain Jekyll-and-Hyde quality that can skew planning decisions. This happens in other places: In Brussels, for example, the continuing preservation of the beautiful Grand Place area acted as a get-out-of-jail-free card for planners, giving them carte blanche to pour bucket after bucket of cement over other city neighborhoods. There’s a risk of a similar view taking hold in Prague—that if you can’t see it from Charles Bridge, it doesn’t matter. There’s a hint of this attitude in the long-term neglect of landmarks like the city’s Charles Square, a vast, historic but relatively un-touristed set piece currently beset by bad sidewalks, messy crossings, and rush-hour gridlock.
Prague’s new measures aren’t just in reaction to late action on bad planning, however. The city government is also plotting a new direction. It will soon introduce the Czech Republic’s first Low Emissions Zone to cut motor vehicle pollution. It has announced a competition to re-landscape parts of Letna Hill after the damage done by the Blanka Tunnel (criticized as a superficial, pre-election ploy by the Prague Chamber of Architects), while Charles Square is getting its narrow sidewalks widened and its wide car lanes narrowed. The city is even cracking down on that great menace to a well-functioning metropolis, Segway congestion.
Planners may have let through some dud projects in recent years, but all across Prague, if you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of a city getting a grip.