Thursday, 20 September 2018

Praguescape: Building up

By Kristina Alda | Prague Daily Monitor |
16 June 2009

The battle over Prague's skyline is far from over, even after UNESCO decided last year that erecting high-rises in Pankrác would not harm the city's heritage zone. Earlier this month Lidové noviny reported that Arnika, a local environmental group that has been trying to stop the Pankrác project from the very beginning, is planning to send a complaint to UNESCO. Arnika argues that in greenlighting the project, City Hall failed to meet recommendations made by international experts. One of these was to decrease the height of the buildings to around 60-70 metres. City representatives argue, however, that the height limit was merely a suggestion, noting that it would be wrong for UNESCO to adopt the role of Prague's top urban planner.

Developer ECM is preparing to build a 104-metre tower that will house residential flats, to be called City Epoque Residence, and City Epoque Hotel, a 75-metre building. Its application for zoning changes was granted by City Hall late last year.

Unlike some historical cities, Prague doesn't have any law restricting the height of new buildings. The Castle, perched on the slopes of Hradčany, comfortably looms over everything.

One of the main arguments against the Pankrác project was that it would jeopardise Prague's place on the UNESCO World Heritage List, where the capital has been since 1992. This argument suffered a blow last year. Pankrác project critics met with UNESCO representatives and were assured that, at least for the time being, the planned high-rises would not threaten Prague's status. As recently as two years ago, UNESCO expressed concern over the project, which would stand some 5 kilometres from the centre but would still fall within the city's heritage zone.

It's true that the tall buildings would irrevocably change the Prague skyline. But the case would have been the same with Kaplický's National Library building, which had wide public support. The panorama over Prague, moreover, is no longer the pristine conglomeration of storybook spires and red roofs it was a couple of decades ago. If you look down from Petřín hill you will see blocks of panel high-rises off in the distance. And let us not forget the once-hated Žižkov TV tower, the bold, naked shape of which seems today like an integral part of the city's face.

Preservationists are right to keep a watchful eye over planned projects. Prague has had its share of banal contemporary buildings that failed to integrate well within the historical city. Hotel Don Giovanni in Vinohrady and Myslbek on Na Přikopech come to mind.

But it would be wrong to react to past flops by sealing Prague into a sort of architectural time capsule. The city, after all, is a living organism, not a museum vault. The rich cityscape, with centuries upon centuries of disparate architectural styles, calls for careful planning. But at the same time, its mishmash of styles is what makes downtown so charming.

Skyscrapers are complicated, full of contradictions. Built by people who are not afraid to dream big, they are pragmatic structures that make efficient use of expensive properties. And, like gothic cathedrals before them, it seems skyscrapers are always striving to reach higher and touch the unattainable.

The race for the tallest skyscraper began soon after the Home Insurance Building – considered by many the world's first skyscraper – was erected in 1885 in Chicago. It had only 10 stories, but its structural steel frame opened up possibilities for ever taller and taller buildings. Today the highest complete skyscraper is the 449-metre Taipei 101 in Taiwan. It will soon be overtaken by Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which will tower higher than 600 metres and is slated for completion at the end of this year.

Prague will never join the race for the tallest building. But maybe a few Prague-size skyscrapers wouldn't hurt. Maybe rather than destroying the skyline, they would make it more complete.

Kristina Alda is the Monitor's managing editor. She likes writing about buildings and public space.
You can reach her at kristina@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.