Archive for February, 2015

“At least they can’t divide the sky.

– [No], the sky divides first”

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Manfred and Rita, in Christa Wolf’s DDR novel Der Geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven), may have been discussing the problems of a nation, a city and a couple torn asunder by the Berlin Wall and all it stood for, but their words call to mind another symbolically divisive piece of architecture. The construction of the Prague TV Tower began more than 20 years after Rita’s gloomy response to Manfred’s forlorn optimism, but now, a further 20 years after its completion, it still divides opinion as it divides the Bohemian sky.

Looking across from the vantage points of Hradčany, visitors to Prague’s famed castle district visually retrace their routes across the city, eagerly picking out the gothic highlights of the old town, the neo-renaissance splendour of the national theatre and the crème-chantille of Malá Strana’s baroque. However, their affable ocular perambulations are disturbed by the tower, which sits on the opposite lip of the bowl that encircles Prague’s inner core. Both the size and shape of the tower – a 216m-high ideal home for an urban spaceman – are disconcerting for those seeking to lose themselves in dreamy, historical reverie.

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The TV Tower is one of Prague’s few genuine ‘cloudscrapers’ [2] and the only one in the ring of historic suburbs surrounding the inner core and, as such, is a dissonant presence. The high-point of Václav Aulický’s architectural oeuvre has attracted considerable derision, being named in a list of the ‘world’s 21 ugliest buildings’ by the Daily Telegraph and as the ‘2nd ugliest building in the world’ by tripadvisor.com, to which the Daily Mail added “As if Prague’s television tower was not ugly enough, it now sports statues of crawling babies on its exterior.” Local architect Martin Krise who is part of the ‘Club for Ancient Prague’ agreed, “the TV tower is a crime against the old town.”

But for me, it was love at first sight; a condition, which, in retrospect I can see was partly brought on by the circumstances of our meeting. Arriving on the late train from Berlin, without local currency and in need of abed, I was wandering through the decaying depths of the main station[3], when a Czech student, upon seeing my backpack, asked me if I was looking for a place to stay. This stranger’s kindness was not limited to a mumbled tip and a biro’d cross on a map, instead helping me get a metro ticket and guiding me to the Clown & Bard in Žižkov, which he had heard was a good place to stay.[4]

churchtower

Taking what I now know to be a slightly unusual route, we changed to the A-line and rode underground to Jiřího z Poděbrad. I was first struck by the expanse of the square, ringed by secession town houses, and by Jože Plečnik’s masterpiece, the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, but my eye was quickly drawn upwards. Rising, massive, yet elegant, was the TV Tower and the affect was instantaneous. I lost sight of the tower as we walked on towards the hostel through a five-storey valley of apartment buildings. Then we entered Škroupovo Náměstí, the peaceful circle where Václav Havel spoke to great effect in 1988 and, crossing the quiet garden in its centre, I looked to the right and there it was. In the space and time between the two squares, the Tower had drawn itself up to full height and, illuminated in the Prague night, I could get a clear look at what it was made of.

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The battleship-grey high-tech tubes, between which the pods of its three gantry-like decks are slung, the porthole and ribbon windows, the elongated cream hand grenade of its aerial mast reaching skyward, its climbing babies and its perfectly balanced asymmetry all played a part, and I would come to appreciate these aspects of the Tower over time. However it was the Tower’s sheer size and incongruity with its surroundings that impressed me most; the sheer chutzpah of doing that; there – exactly what Krise complained of! In a Herzogian moment of aesthetic ecstasy I had stopped in my tracks. My companion waited patiently before telling me that the tower had been built by the communists and while it was pretty unpopular, he liked it and was happy to see that I did too. We walked on to the hostel, where despite my offer of a beer by way of thanks, he had to go home and study. I’ve never seen him again, but I wish I could thank him.

I have subsequently spent a good part of the last decade living in the neighbourhoods around the TV Tower, which stands close to the border between ‘Red’ Žižkov, that formerly working class warren of bawdy pubs, and bourgeois Vinohrady with its broad boulevards, secession villas and charming cafés. Returning to Prague, the sight of the tower always brought an excited feeling of arrival, of coming home. Many nights I walked there: in the warmth of the summer after times with friends at the Riegrovy Sady beer garden, with the lazy air lapping slowly around its masts; in the winter, with biting cold and frozen breath, the ground crisp and unevenly reflecting the tower’s lights. The stillness, the preternatural silence, testify to the respect and wonder that the tower commands, of the shock and awe of approaching an architectural sublime.

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Innovations (tricolour lighting from 2006) and renovations (new interior, bar and restaurant) speak of an ongoing commitment, of a recognition of the need to deal productively with the tower as it is, as well as where (and when) it came from, and reflect a wider trend in negotiating Prague’s painful pasts. The Miminka, the terribly deformed enfants that artist David Černý attached to the tower add a further layer of reflection. The babies, with their television shaped heads, bisected by a deeply embossed barcode can be read as comment on what came after ‘89, on the strange contradictions of neoliberal ‘freedom’ and the consumption-entertainment nexus. While most of the babies appear to be making their way up the tower, some are heading the other way, having seen the view and decided to come back down.

It seems that even in applied critique, the tower divides opinion, but its functional magic and architectural daring are now combined with a sense of humour that softens its hubris without denting its pride. It is all that its critics and boosters say it is and as such lives up to its nickname “Jakeš’s finger” and so follows in a long Prague tradition, called into appropriately stark and beautiful relief by the surrealist poet Vítězslav Nezval.

Hundred-spired Prague
With the fingers of all saints
With the fingers of perjury
With the fingers of fire and hail
With the fingers of a musician
With the intoxicating fingers of women lying on their backs

With fingers touching the stars
On the abacus of night[5]

     Prague_030612_-043 a-prague-beauty-2

This piece was initially published in Issue 10 of The Modernist, Published in Manchester by the Manchester Modernist Society in 2014. The final image is taken from http://www.jenniferlynking.com/2013/02/05/snow-charles-bridge-and-the-beauty-of-pragues-spires-in-winter/

[1] Cloudscrapers is the literal translation of the Czech word mrakodrapy which is used in the same way as ‘skyscrapers’ in English.

[2] Which has since been restored to stunning effect – bringing out the beauty in both Jan Bočan’s brutal high-tech fusion and Josef Fanta’s Art Nouveau original

[3] It was – and Geoff Berner agrees https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX8Ss0P7Bq8

[4] As fully translated in Stephan Delbos’ stunning collection ‘From a Terrace in Prague’ Litteraria Pragensia, 2011.

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