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Prague’s complex exterior

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Touring the city’s communist architecture

Like many young bloods preparing to move to the former Eastern bloc, I spent many nights prior to my departure praying that my city of choice, Prague, was not an ugly, run-down relic of that bygone era of central planning.

As an urban American, I have seen my share of architectural monstrosities, not the least of all being a criminal attempt at “modern” 1970s architecture on my pristine and well-preserved 18th century college campus. I justified these architectural mishaps as the result of enterprising trial and error, not of authoritarianism. They were, in effect, nothing in comparison to the horrendous block building that I had heard dotted central Europe. The prospect of a city teeming with Soviet functionality the likes of which someone of my tender, post-Soviet age had only read about in Brave New World was truly frightening.

My fears were not alleviated by my relatives, born on the wrong end of the Cold War, who upon hearing my plans to move to Prague would exclaim: “Czechoslovakia! Oy! Why would you ever want to travel to that ugly part of Europe? I hear France is lovely.” Defensively, I would murmur something about Prague’s rich Jewish history and quickly change the topic.

As reality would have it, the center of Prague is as gorgeous. The downtown is something of a Disneyland for Americans, who are denied Renaissance architecture in their own country. Walk a couple blocks away from Wenceslas Square, however, and you will witness a brick and mortar lesson in Prague’s complexity.

The Tesco My store on Národní třída, a six story graven image of Prague’s post-1989 economic revival, was for me, a young homesick Philadelphian barely out of college, a comforting reminder of the America I had just left. I stumbled across the building one dull afternoon, in search of some food to quell my TEFL-induced delirium. As I stood amazed by the availability of cheap Levis in central Europe, I couldn’t help but feel a swell of American pride in knowing that “we” had won in the marketplace of ideas. Well, well, well, Marshal Stalin, I thought to myself, I’m surrounded in a sea of blue jeans, with no red in sight!

Walking out of the building, buoyed by the likeness of Czech consumer culture to my own, I noticed something startling about the building; it looked less like a modern mall and more like an industrial palace. Just an ugly anomaly in the Golden City, I thought to myself. I felt a certain sense of satisfaction in having ventured out into “real Prague”. I imagined myself telling my friends, with the arrogant air of an insider, that while Old Town Square was nice, they couldn’t actually claim to have seen Prague without first visiting the delightfully ugly buildings.

After that first encounter, I passed the Tesco My hundreds of times without giving it any thought, except in noting that it is a pug-like building (cute in its ugliness) that provided me a cheap source of beer and sausage. Weeks later, I learned something about the building that greatly perplexed me. The Tesco My, as it turns out, is a culturally protected landmark; a pristine example of that Soviet architectural style that I had been taught to hate. When the owner of the Tesco proposed tearing down the building in 2007, communist architecture enthusiasts came out en masse in protest. The mere existence of a communist architecture enthusiast baffled me, as did the irony of a bustling capitalistic Eden housed within a monument to Prague’s collectivist past.

The Tesco My provided me with valuable insight into Prague: the city’s architecture is brimming with complexity. Capitalistic ventures exist and thrive under a Soviet-era exterior. One way or another, the Czechs have found a way to discover value in an architectural facade that contrasts greatly with their current socio-economic worldview. As an American, this confused me tremendously.

How could the Czechs, so infamously victimized by communist authoritarianism, find any value in the architectural expressions of their oppressors? This confusion marked in me a fundamental lack of understanding of the complex ways that the Czechs engage their history. My arrogantly narrow view led me to the conclusion that communist architecture is inherently bad. This narrowness of mind could not possible reflect the complexity of Prague’s architectural history. Determined to enhance my understanding, I called the Centre for Central European Architecture, looking for answers.

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