Architect Prager gets exhibit in one of his own buildings

Communist-era architect Karel Prager is undergoing reappraisal with an exhibit offering a glimpse of his unrealized projects

Federal Assembly chamber, 1968 | na serveru Lidovky.cz | aktuální zprávy Federal Assembly chamber, 1968 | foto: Studio Gama archiveČeská pozice
Federal Assembly chamber, 1968

The former Czechoslovak Federal Assembly, just off the top of the Czech capital’s Wencelsas Square, is the most important building by the divisive architect Karel Prager (1923–2001). It was the site of the Prague Stock Exchange before the original 1930s structure was incorporated into Prager’s monumental new building — part of which stands above it on tall, gray stilts — at the end of the 1960s.

Given its location between the National Museum and the State Opera, an old joke had it that the Federal Assembly, where Communist Party deputies would “vote” for pre-approved legislation, was mid-way between a museum and a theater.

Genuine business did take place there after the Velvet Revolution; one of the chamber’s most significant moments was the decision in 1992 to dissolve Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the following year. The building was later home to the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, before being taken over by the National Museum in 2009.

The “building above a building” is currently home to an exhibition dedicated to its designer titles City Above the City – The Vision of Karel Prager. “The biggest item on show is without doubt the building itself,” says the museum’s director, Michal Lukeš. The exhibition also features reproductions of designs for the Federal Assembly, computer animation, and models and plans for a number of unrealized projects, some of which are strikingly futuristic.

The Federal Assembly was in the news recently when Prague Mayor Bohuslav Svoboda (Civic Democrat, ODS), suggested Prager’s extension could be torn down. While few have taken the idea seriously (the whole building has been protected since 2000), it does point to a strong distaste many of the city’s residents feel towards the imposing steel and concrete structure.

“In my opinion, that is mainly because people associate it with the previous regime,” Lenka Lednická, the curator of City Above the City and an art historian at the Center for Central European Architecture, told Czech Position. “It’s linked to the [old] regime because it was where the Parliament sat, so the antipathy to the building is perhaps related to antipathy to the regime,” she says. “Another factor is that it was always closed to the public.”

Lednická says, with time, however, views have begun to change. “It’s nearly 40 years since the building was completed [in 1973] and the current generation is starting to look at the old Federal Assembly, and Prager’s work in general, with respect,” she says. “His buildings have become very popular.”

Rapper spurs reappraisal

Vladimír 518, a successful Prague-born hip hop musician and graphic artist in his early 30s, has been instrumental in this development. A key moment in the ongoing reappraisal of Prager was a multimedia show he and two colleagues performed in 2009. It projected plans, drawings, and 3D models of the architect’s buildings onto a high wall in the very chamber where Czechoslovak deputies sat for two decades.

“Karel Prager is, in my opinion, the number one architect of his generation — he’s the king,” the rapper told Czech Position, admitting that he himself had also disliked the architect’s work until he was around 20 years old.

“My hatred turned to interest, and then love. Those buildings are really powerful,” says Vladimír 518, who developed a passion for architecture during his years as a graffiti artist. “They’re not easy to take in, and that’s the reason people don’t like them. They’re like a punch in the head.”

The rapper takes issue with the fact that some regard Prager as a “communist” architect. “He was never in the party — it’s important to say that. The party tolerated him because he was the most capable architect,” he says. “He was a workaholic and a bulldozer who applied the techniques he saw in magazines and was also a technical innovator himself; he was a visionary.”  

As well as the former Federal Assembly, Prager made the biggest impact on the Czech capital with his design for the National Theater’s glass-walled, ice cube-like Nová scéna (New Stage) on Národní street, which contrasts greatly with the adjacent main National Theater, which opened in 1883. 

His other works in Prague include the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry in Petřiny; the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics in Holešovice; and what is today a branch of the bank Komerční banka in Smíchov. Perhaps more surprisingly, the architect was also involved in the renovation of the neo-Renaissance Rudolfinum in the Old Town.

Back to the future

However, it is Karel Prager’s plans for unrealized projects — copies of which visitors can take away on free information sheets — that for many are the real draw at the City Above the City exhibition.

Among them are a roof extension over Prague’s Main Railway Station; a complete reimagining of the Těšnov area near Florenc metro station; a building near Vltavská metro station that would have been a landmark on the “magistrala” highway that cuts through the heart of the city; and a very ambitious, experimental apartment complex for the Košíře valley in Prague 5.

Lednická says the latter project was rubber-stamped by the communist authorities in the 1970s, but was not implemented due to high costs and a lack of sufficiently skilled engineers. “But it was definitely thought through completely,” the curator says. “They could have started building it the next day.”

The plans for Košíře were based on the architect’s interest in megastructures: futuristic buildings towering up to 200 meters above the surrounding terrain and featuring horizontal steel and reinforced concrete “bridges” placed above one another (Prager had tested out this technique on the Federal Assembly). Support would have come from poles as much as 80 meters apart.  

The design of the megastructures’ interiors was also remarkably advanced: they featured housing units that could be assembled and changed according to requirements, and as well as flats housed cultural and sports amenities, even educational facilities. In a sense, they were like a whole town within one towering complex — the city above the city of the show’s title.

“I have to admit that my favorite buildings are those that were never built, like the superstructures intended for Košíře,” says Vladimír 518. “They’re radical, great — it’s levitating architecture.”

City Above the City The Vision of Karel Prager
The National Museum’s New Building
Vinohradská 1
Praha 1
Until April 17

Ian Willoughby is a Prague-based freelance writer