Opposition is mounting against the minister of culture’s decision to approve the demolition of an historical building on Prague’s famous Wenceslas Square as a groundswell of protest mounts against what are seen as opaque and corrupt development deals in the capital.
Prague’s historical buildings conservation watchdog, the Club for Old Prague (KZSP), had received just under 8,000 signatories to save the building by midday Monday after an Internet petition was launched May 30. Former President Václav Havel also fired off a protest letter to the minister overs fear an architectural “monster” would be erected in its place.
“Support has been exceptional. We did not expect this level of reaction. I think that it a reaction to all the other ongoing cases of this type in the city and an expression of the lack of confidence in the administration,” KZSP chairwoman Kateřina Bečková said.
KZSP and nonprofit public administration watchdog PragueWatch, which is partly funded by the Open Society Fund Praha, have organized a protest for Tuesday evening against Culture Minister Jiří Besser’s (TOP 09) decision.
For Praguewatch’s Martin Veselý, the minister’s decision over the Wenceslas Square building, which has no individual conservation protection but is part of the wider Prague conservation zone, risks giving developers’ a blank check to redevelop whole chunks of Prague’s most famous square. ‘This decision means that all the owners of the other 38 houses could say, “Why don’t we go ahead now and redevelop?”’
“It is one of 39 houses out of the total 58 houses on the square that have no individual protection. This decision means that all the owners of the other 38 houses could say, ‘Why don’t we go ahead now and redevelop?’ This is the real risk from this decision, ” he told Czech Position.
“We believe the existing building is historically interesting. It was redesigned in the 1920s by Bohumíl Kozák, one of the leaders of Czech modernism. It fits in well with the rest of the square — much better than the nine-floor building that is being proposed to replace it,” he added.
KZSP’s Bečková is concerned about a wider precedent: that structurally sound buildings anywhere in the country could be written off just because a developer has the clout to push for such a decision.
“We are worried that it could become a precedent. … It is a fully functioning building that has no fundamental flaws and could continue existing for many more decades. The conservation value of various buildings is quite a subjective issue , but in this instance the minister has decided that the claimed damage to the investor (of refusing his application) overrides the value of this building, ” she said.
The developer Václavské náměstí 19 a.s. wants to begin demolition in November this year and the planning documentation says the process will take seven and a half months. The chairman of Václavské náměstí 19 is British entrepreneur James Woolf, a long-time Prague resident and founder of the firm Flow East.
Railroaded by developers?
Bečková says the strong support to protect the threatened Wenceslas Square building is part of a wider public upsurge against recent planning decisions and steps that she says show no respect for historic buildings or conservation.
Demolition began at the end of May on a historical ice rink in the center of Prague at Štvanice, despite it being a partially protected building. After long-time neglect on the part of both the investor (who had a lease on the site) and local authorities, the argument was that the building had become a safety hazard and needed to be destroyed.
Conservationists are also fighting plans to redevelop of large swathe of land near the center of Prague that housed the city’s main rail freight depot, without regard to the many historical industrial buildings there. The Ministry of Culture has the final word on whether some of those buildings at the Žižkov freight station should be conserved.
Sekyra Group, the private developer that teamed up with Czech Railways (České dráhy) in the Žižkov Station Development joint venture to push for redevelopment of the site with accommodation for 15,000 people, a commercial center and offices, said in a news release in May that the functionalist main cargo building could not be conserved without putting at risk the whole redevelopment project. ‘City Hall only plays at conservation. The decisions are made according to other criteria.’
For Bečková, a sad common denominator in most of these cases is the willingness of Prague’s main City Council to accept the demands of developers. “City Hall only plays at conservation. The decisions are made according to other criteria. The National Conservation Office (NPÚ) often gives its decision in favor of conservation and then City Hall decides otherwise. Basically, investors are not prepared to respect the ideas of the NPÚ,” she said.
Bečková also laments the lack of the type of legislation existing in other European countries that would hit developers or councils that fail to protect historic buildings with punitive fines — and force them to take action.
The lack of much cash for conservation in the form of grants is another factor that has meant developers lean toward demolition rather than conservation as the cheaper option, she added.
Regarding the Wenceslas Square building, Bečková said that the groundswell of public protest might make the investor think again. Procedurally, there is still room for some technical procedures to be completed by the Prague 1 district before demolition can go ahead. Some hitches there could stall the process, she said.
Overall, Bečková is cautious whether the protests give rise to more optimism about the prospects for conservation of this and other buildings in a country packed with architectural jewels but often without the will or wherewithal to conserve them.
PragueWatch’s Veselý is more upbeat: “Demolition for the Wenceslas Square building has still not been approved, and there is still a possibility to stop it. People are now standing up and showing that they care. ”