Prague’s Wenceslas Square has always been where the cultural, political, and—as uninspired as it might be—the commercial come together.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, the former “Horse Market” was the verifiable salon of the city, a spot for high society to meet and mingle. In 1969, it was the site of student Jan Palach’s protest of the country’s Soviet occupation, when he, unforgettably, lit himself on fire. And in 1989, it was where hundreds of thousands gathered during the Velvet Revolution, which would go on to take down communism in then-Czechoslovakia. It was home to important companies and publishing houses, and up until the last part of the 20th century considered the center of Prague.
But today, after decades of careless upkeep that’s put the commercial ahead of the cultural, Wenceslas Square is where tourists go to blow their budget. Meanwhile, locals wonder if they’ll ever be able to reclaim their once dynamic and diverse space.
At one end of Wenceslas Square, the patron saint of the Czech nation Wenceslas I—cast rather imposingly in bronze—watches over his domain as vacationers takes selfies with him. On the two sides, eateries and shops draw in pedestrians while vendors throughout hawk mediocre grilled sausages.
Just as Times Square is to New Yorkers, Wenceslas Square is the place Praguers love to hate. “If I don’t have to, I don’t go there,” says Kristýna Doubková, who works at a software company in the city.
“There are many street artists driving me [wild], like this guy with a horse head playing the piano, or the living statues making weird sounds,” says Doubková, 30, who recently moved out of the trendy Flora neighborhood in Prague’s Vinohrady district in search of a quieter locale. “Not that many actual Prague residents go to Wenceslas Square very often.”
Another Praguer, 41-year-old Jessica Hankiewicz, says she avoids going to Wenceslas Square “at all costs,” calling it “a general assault to the senses.”
“There are always people handing out flyers for tourists. There are... roasting sausage stands everywhere and there is loud music pouring out of the many overpriced shops,” says Hankiewicz. “It is the opposite of the quaint, winding lanes that are so typical in Prague.”
Like Doubková and Hankiewicz, most locals say they don’t know what reason they’d have to go to Wenceslas Square. Besides the occasional trip, taken reluctantly for practical purposes, why would they bother to spend time in such an unenjoyable space? City planners have yet to come up with an adequate answer, giving rise to other, more debaucherous pastimes.
Wenceslas Square satisfies all kinds of vices, from the commonplace to the illicit. It is the place to find an endless supply of marked-up Pilsner Urquell and heroin.
Locals say there are several reasons Wenceslas Square has become such an unappealing part of the city. One is the absence of tramways, which were removed in the ‘70s and replaced by a highway and the subway. While there are two metro stations near the square, there is no incentive for Praguers to actually exit them. “They stay underground. No one goes up,” says Lenka Kudlackova, a Czech architect who has lived in Prague for 10 years. “If you do go upstairs, you leave as soon as you can because there are a lot of drug dealers and people trying to get tourists into nightclubs.”
Another problem is the square’s drab pedestrian area. “There is a pedestrian zone in the middle of the square. It’s not finished. On some parts there’s grass, on some parts there’s concrete,” says Kudlackova. “From my point of view, there’s nothing there to invite people in.”
But the biggest barrier of all might be that the square is not actually a square. It’s a 2,500-by-200 foot boulevard, bisected horizontally—and somewhat awkwardly—at one end by a highway, cutting off the National Museum from the rest of the space.
Designers have proposed plan after plan to remedy the square’s identity crisis, suggesting everything from building parking garages and bringing back the streetcars, to introducing more terraces and greenery. Locals say a lack of political will has meant that none of these plans have gained momentum. “Public projects are always a problem around here,” Kudlackova says.
City officials blame the Czech Republic’s complicated building laws, public space administration, and construction permits—the latter of which is indeed ranked 130 out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business list.
In 2005, the city launched a public design competition for Wenceslas Square’s overhaul, but the winning proposal has yet to be realized. That proposal, created by architectural firm Cigler Marani, calls for the square’s simplification, taking inspiration from its pre-’70s look. Cigler’s plan reduces car traffic, reintroduces streetcars to the lower end, sets up more outdoor furniture, and limits outdoor advertising.
The Prague Institute of Planning and Development (IPR)—the organization in charge of the city’s public spaces— intends on carrying out much of Cigler’s proposal, using it as a starting point to fully renovate the square by the end of 2019.
IPR will also minimize the height difference between the square’s pavement and the adjacent roadway to 2-to-3 cm, making it easier for pedestrians to move around, as well as increase terrace seating, install more free wifi, and position charging stations for cell phones and electric vehicles.
The renovation will be conducted in two stages, says IPR spokesperson Marek VáchaI, the first beginning in 2018 and focusing on the square’s lower end, and the second tackling the upper end, where the statue and museum stand.
Residents, though, worry about the price tag. “I am skeptical because a reconstruction as huge as this would mean a lot of money—a lot of money out of people's pockets,” Doubková says. Indeed, Vácha estimates the total cost to reach $4 million, which he says will be paid by City Hall.
But costs aside, residents have other reservations about the square’s revitalization. They wonder if it will be effective in drawing locals back into the space and whether it can do justice to such a proud revolutionary legacy.
Like other public squares in the former Soviet Bloc, Wenceslas Square’s impending redesign calls into question whether and how urban planners can properly balance its historical significance with its modern-day role. Ultimately, they ask, what is Wenceslas Square’s purpose? Is it a cultural space or a commercial center? Can it be both?
The architects behind the proposal think it can. “Finding a balance between commercial and cultural identity is the key,” says architect Petr Kučera. “It is possible to successfully combine both identities together. They need each other and complement each other. The most important is to set clear rules and regulations of outdoor activities, both commercial and noncommercial.”
City officials agree. “Both functions are equally important and interconnected in Wenceslas Square,” says Prague Mayor Adriana Krnáčová in an email. “I am convinced that the planned reconstruction of Wenceslas Square will bring back the social and business boulevard and will also attract locals.”
In the meantime, the square’s deep symbolic value carries on. Thousands of Czechs gathered there last November to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Hundreds rallied in January in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington.
“When there is something important happening, the people are still going to demonstrate on Wenceslas Square,” Kudlackova says.