Thursday, 20 September 2018

Praguescape: Hotelisation

By Kristina Alda | Prague Daily Monitor |
18 August 2009

Walking through downtown Prague, one could easily come under the impression that, aside from the ubiquitous shops selling Bohemian crystal, marionettes and absinthe, most buildings house high-end hotels. Immaculately preserved historical facades conceal an industry of contemporary comfort. And while some of the buildings were originally built for accommodation, many more are reconstructed properties: former shopping galleries, restaurants, private houses. This homogeneity is starting to make the streets of Prague a bit dull.

The city centre now has some 650 hotels. The accommodations boom that took off in the early 1990s has hardly slowed down. This is surprising given the current economic conditions. Economists are beginning to offer glimmers of hope that the end of the recession is in sight, true enough, but the crippled tourism industry isn't expected to recover anytime soon. Hotel operators are experiencing their worst slump in years. Prague hotels have seen a 15% drop in guest numbers in the first quarter. Tourist arrivals have fallen by some 17% this year and tourism revenues fell by 30% in 2008, as Prague Monitor Magazine reported last month.

It almost seems as though developers are paying no heed to the statistics, or perhaps are optimistically anticipating future seasons. The boom continues. The latest project that aims to convert an existing building into a hotel is the Bílá labuť building on Wenceslas Square, located near the National Museum. Pending permission from the Prague 1 town hall, the once-famous department store will be converted into a 60-room three-star hotel. It is slated to open in 2010.

Bílá labuť isn't the only new hotel planned in downtown. Nearby on Senovážné náměstí, Prague 1 officials just approved the construction of a four-star hotel. A new structure will go up on the square, and, together with two existing buildings, will house 233 double rooms. Then there is Hotel Sheraton Prague Charles Square opened near Karlovo náměstí this spring. And not too long before that, Kempinski hotel officially opened its doors on Hybernská street, near náměstí Republiky.

In the case of Senovážné náměstí, one could hope that a high-end hotel could help revitalise the area, which, despite its central location, is now a bit of a dead space, with few pedestrians passing through.

But the problem with hotels is that they function much like self-contained organisms. While shops, markets and restaurants help connect the ground floor of a building to the street, hotels maintain a strict division, complete with gatekeepers in the form of valets and receptionists. More often than not, hotels are enclosed private spaces that contribute little to the social interaction in surrounding public spaces. Except, perhaps, for the occasional group of valise-toting guests waiting for a taxi in front of the lobby. (Luckily, in the case of Bílá labuť the ground floor shops will remain; the hotel proper will occupy the top four floors.)

But I can't help but wonder what would happen if the saturation of hotels in Prague's centre were to continue increasing at the current pace. What would happen to street life in downtown Prague if the majority of its buildings were used by tourists and no permanent residents lived there? It could become what architectural historian Zdeněk Lukeš warns against: a museum of carefully-preserved historical facades. In an interview several years ago, geologist and philosopher Václav Cílek called tourists "thieves of atmosphere". Unlike residents, who are forced to interact with the city on a deeper level, he argued, tourists merely take things: pictures, souvenirs, experiences and contribute nothing in return – aside from the billions of crowns they spend, of course.

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.