Few Prague landmarks reflect the city’s political landscape as poignantly as the former Federal Assembly building on Wenceslas Square. The structure that once housed the Prague Stock Exchange, one of the most potent symbols of capitalist 1930s Czechoslovakia, became the seat of the country’s communist government just 15 years later, only to be converted into the headquarters of Radio Free Europe, the purveyor of democracy, in 1995, six years after the Velvet Revolution. It’s modern Czech history in a nutshell.
Even after 1989 important laws were passed here, including one that ended the central role of the Communist Party in the Czech government. Politicians such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush Sr and Queen Elizabeth have passed through its doors. The building’s newest role will be as a cultural venue operated by the National Museum, which took over the structure this June, four months after Radio Free Europe moved its headquarters to Hagibor, Prague 10.
The former Federal Assembly building was built from 1966 to 1972 as an extension of the Prague Stock Exchange, erected in 1935 based on a design by the Czech architect Jaroslav Rössler. The new part was a long horizontal truss structure, pneumatically raised over the older building. The effect was that of two perfectly fitting puzzle pieces about to come together, forever suspended in space. The stark stone facade of the stock exchange provided solid grounding for the lighter, but equally austere Federal Assembly addition. It was designed by Karel Prager and was, at the time, the costliest project in downtown. It was also one of the most controversial, with preservationists opposed to the ultramodern structure erected in city’s historical centre, just metres away from stately National Museum and the ornate Prague State Opera building.
The Federal Assembly never did fit in with its surroundings and arguably, neither did the original stock exchange building, but by the early 1970s preservationists had other things to worry about. The six-lane magistrála, completed between 1973 and 1978, sliced off the top of the Wenceslas Square, separating the National Museum, the State Opera, as well as the Federal Assembly from downtown Prague. With traffic passing on either side, the Federal Assembly came to resemble an island, detached from its surroundings, much like the Normalisation-era Communist government housed inside grew increasing detached from the Czech people. Although the building has cultural landmark status, it will probably take a while yet before it sheds the stigma acquired under the communist regime. National Museum director Michal Lukeš told journalists recently that Prager considered the possibility that the building might serve other functions in the future and thus designed the interiors in a way that make it easily convertible to a cultural venue. But for most Czechs over 30, it must be difficult to separate the building’s form from its original function.
Perhaps that will start to change now that it’s become part of the National Museum. The building officially opens 16 September. As of mid-August, visitors can take part in guided tours every Saturday. Since taking over the building, the museum built a shop and cafe on the ground floor, in part furnished by furniture once used in the Federal Assembly. Also planned is a 42-metre long tunnel that will connect the building to the National Museum’s main headquarters at the top of Wenceslas Square. The CZK 50 million project is to be completed between 2011 and 2015 when the building will undergo an extensive CZK 3.8 billion reconstruction. Before that happens, the building will take one more step to mark its new role: This November it will receive a new name, selected from among public suggestions.