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Praguescape: Time travel at Kotva

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Kotva (COURTESY): Kotva's exterior makes use of raw industrial material like concrete, metal and glass. (COURTESY)Kotva’s exterior makes use of raw industrial material like concrete, metal and glass. (COURTESY)

To some it’s a sinfully ugly relic of the socialist regime; to others it’s a bold, important structure that stands apart from the bland architecture produced in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. Both groups are probably right.

Today the Kotva building at Prague’s náměstí Republiky is, above all, something like a time capsule of another era, even as it undergoes gradual transformation. Markland, the Irish company that owns the building, has been reconstructing its interiors since last year.

But does Kotva deserve landmark status? Should its reconstruction be guided by preservationists? Architectural historian Rostislav Švácha, who has helped the Tesco building on Národní třída be declared a landmark, certainly thinks so. When the Cultural Ministry officially added the Tesco building (formerly known as Máj) to its list of landmarks in 2007, Švácha said in a series of interviews that Kotva should follow suit. Speaking to Mladá front Dnes, he characterised Kotva’s style as “approaching new brutalism” and noted that as such it belongs among Prague’s rare and valuable buildings.

While Kotva’s exterior appears cold and detached from its surroundings, there is something musty and nostalgic about the space inside. It could be the dingy, grim fluorescent lights, or the preserved colour scheme on every floor. If you take the escalator up to the second or third floor, you’ll find that even the clothing shops carry items that somehow seem outdated. It remains one of the best places in Prague to buy traditional Czech-made berets.

Kotva (COURTESY): Under communism, the Kotva department store was meant to showcase the Czechoslovakia's prosperity. (COURTESY)Under communism, the Kotva department store was meant to showcase Czechoslovakia’s prosperity. (COURTESY)Upon its completion in 1975, Kotva was the biggest department store in the country. As such, it was celebrated by the regime, intended to showcase the country’s prosperity and the modern shopping opportunities afforded by the socialist system.

And yet, paradoxically, the building was one of the most western structures built here during that decade. It was constructed by a Swedish company at a time when virtually all construction was done by Czechoslovak state companies. And its creators, Věra Machoninová and Vladimír Machonin, belonged among the the boldest architects of their generation, responsible for such projects as hotel Thermal in Karlovy Vary and the Czechoslovak embassy in Berlin.

Five stories tall, with a layout composed of several interlocking hexagons, Kotva is a dark, severe building, its steel and concrete skeleton covered in dark brown plates of ridged metal and large planes of glass.

For now the original appearance of the exterior remains, although in an interview with E15, Markland’s director for central Europe said the company would like to eventually add more windows to the facade and make it look “more attractive”. The interior, meanwhile, will be undergoing more significant changes.

That’s probably a good thing. Kotva clearly needs to be modernised, if only to try to withstand the competition from the Palladium, the mega-mall across the street. Aside from Kotva’s ground floor, all of its levels remain devoid of shoppers even at busy times of the day. The space on each floor is entirely open, with no divisions for individual shops. But what the building gains in economic potential, it will lose in its value as a historical time capsule. Let’s hope they at least keep the beret counter open.

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