By Friday afternoon last week it was just a heap of sooty rubble. Only an iron gate, singed and bent out of shape, and jagged slabs of ornate facade recalled the structure that stood here less than 24 hours earlier.
Even as firefighters continued clearing the cordoned-off area, dozens of oglers streamed onto the exhibition grounds, straining to get a good look over the barriers. Traces of smoke lingered in the air and stung their eyes; it looked as though people were weeping over the toppled landmark.
The left wing of Prague’s Industrial Palace caught fire Thursday evening and crumbled just two hours later. The cause remains under investigation – police haven’t yet ruled out arson – but already, debate has broken out over who will pay for the estimated CZK 1 billion damage.
City Hall owns the building and is responsible for the repairs, but it is Incheba, a company that leased the palace from the city, that is entitled to the insurance money. So although the building is insured for CZK 2.5 billion, it’s unclear whether any of the insurance money will go directly toward repairs.
Preservationists are already lamenting that no repairs will ever fully restore the original character of this art nouveau structure. To me, though, the building’s character lies primarily in its function as the stage set for the city’s myriad shows. A venue for concerts, trade fairs and exhibitions, to anyone who grew up in Prague, the Industrial Palace is above all the gateway to the city’s oldest fairgrounds and the site of St Mathew’s fair (Matějská pouť).
Stately with its clock tower and oxidized copper cupolas, from March through April the palace’s main function is to provide a respectable facade for the kitsch and the cacophony that moves into the sprawling park behind the historical complex. Nausea-inducing carnival rides, shooting galleries, souvenir stands and vendors selling sickly-sweet pink cotton candy, as the air vibrates with the worst imaginable assortment of Czech disco hits: a gruesome spectacle or a captivating show – you decide. But when you are eight years old, it can seem like the most exciting place on Earth. The Industrial Palace’s instantly recognisable silhouette, clearly visible from afar, bolsters the feeling of anticipation as you approach the grounds.
From its inception in 1891, the Industrial Palace was intended as a place for shows, fairs, trade fairs and recreation. That tradition was put on hold when communist authorities renamed the building as the Congress Palace in 1948 and used it as a venue for party meetings. They named the surrounding grounds Park kultury a oddechu Julia Fučíka (Julius Fučík park of culture and repose) in homage to the communist-idolised 1930s Czechoslovak journalist. The palace’s original name and function was only restored 41 years later after the Velvet Revolution, and the 1990s saw a resurgence of trade fairs there.
The annual St Mathew’s fairs, held on the park property since 1963, remained one of the few constants in the country’s tumultuous history. Flamboyant tackiness never goes out of style or falls out of government favour. It’s good to know that even now as the Industrial Palace awaits costly reconstruction, behind the building’s marred facade, the show will go on.
Kristina Alda can be reached at [email protected]