From Bohemian Baroque to Eastern Bloc
Modern Prague and Czech Design
Back in 1983, Prague was melancholy and grey, yet princely with palaces of peeling stucco. A complex elusive city, in turn glorious and gloomy, so keenly evoked in the novels of Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera and Ivan Klima, however obliquely they wrote of it. Passers by looked longingly at my guide to Vienna, until I hid it my bag, realising this was tactless, since they could not travel to Vienna. I stayed the Art Deco Europa hotel, which had seen better days (now being restored) and there was the requisite lady on the landing, spying on the guests and in the bedroom the telephone lines disappeared into the wall; they were tapped.
Going down stairs one evening to listen to the quartet playing the 'Blue Danube' I got chatting to a Czech student and after a while and the music stopped abruptly, the foyer was surrounded by police and they arrested my new found friend. Maybe for talking to foreigners; maybe it was simply an elaborate charade? I will never know. Other young men asked me if I could smuggle them over the border in the boot of our capacious car, but my companion refused; he did not want to be arrested either. So we took them for spins round the city with 'Culture Club' on full volume, softening the blow of not being able to stuff them in the boot. Then there was the food ; very little of it. Just like Albert Camus, who vomited involuntarily in the streets, food came smothered with an indigestible black sauce laced with cumin, even the ubiquitous dumplings, and made me bilious too.
Some three decades on I found Prague, proud of its heritage, rather than ignoring it, the city had had a facelift and everyones faces, before tense and careworn had changed too, mostly smily happy faces. It was as if a giant paintbrush had swept over the the city with a fresh coat of paint.
Gliding down the streets of Prague, listening to Carla Bruni on the taxis' radio, now pristine palaces gleamed with white and yellow stucco and sgraffitto, Corinthian capitals garlanded with grapes and ponderous caryatids flexing their muscles have been restored and the cupolas freshly gilded. Of course Prague is still a magnificent farrago, where no one building bears any resemblance to the others along the street, all the facades are different, from Bohemian Baroque to Eastern bloc (still blackened concrete ), Art Nouveau or Art deco, one of the finest exponents of the former, Alfonse Mucha, once lived here. And down beneath the existing foundations there are Romanesque remains, while the Gothic church spires still rise defiantly above the sky line. Prague is a palimpsest , nothing has been wiped off its slate and it has become metropolitan since the non violent 'Velvet Revolution of 1989, valiantly led by the playwright Vaclav Havel, the President incumbent. As Tim Garton Ash observed , having witnessed and written about the iron curtain being cut down everywhere, said "In Poland it took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks:Perhaps in Czechoslvakia it will take ten days" and he was almost spot on . In less than a month an elected parliament was established, its members, rehabilitated intellectuals and dissidents; nuclear scientists and philosophers alike had been relegated to shovelling furnaces and sweeping the streets, or worse incarcerated (and then freed post revolution) under the yoke of repressive Communist rule, during which, anyone of any note was demoted and voices of dissent were silenced and imprisoned.
So you can imagine my excitement when being invited by the Czech Tourist board on an extensive tour of the new state of the art Prague, bursting with such fine restaurants and bars, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Manhattan; until the food comes along mind; more about that later. Slick designer hotels are at times eccentric, take Fusion , a former bank, painted black blackboard style through out; (guests should all be given a piece of chalk, ) with vending machines of contraceptives and noxious cocktails , has Emperor size beds to sleep eight. The mind boggles.... orgiastic or what? or a love room in 50 shades of grey; hence the vending machines. There are even communist style bedrooms where the bed, bedside table and wardrobe are all one utilitarian piece of furniture; lest anyone hangers for the Soviet years, when the largest known statue of Stalin dominated the city park, and has been replaced with a metronome by the Situationist David Cerny, who also painted the commemorative Soviet tank day glow pink, when the Soviets invaded , in the aftermath of the Prague spring in 1968.
Upon my arrival I was offered a glass of champagne, I demurred, would I prefer vodka? The Czechs also drink beer like water, a left over habit from when the water was unsafe to drink.
Prague has long been immersed in the occult and spells still linger down the dark alleyways, it seems the ghosts of the courtly alchemists have never left. In turns febrile or quiet with barely a soul on the streets once you leave the old quarter bustling with tourists, the city may have eluded me had I not had two energetic informative guides, Jana and Eva, and I probably would have been mugged walking down the wrong street late at night.
Many of the noble families have come trickling back to Prague, including a Prince I once knew, to claim their palaces, however the restitution of their property came with one proviso; that their families had NOT collaborated with the Nazis in War II. In the Communist years they were requisitioned by the state and lay in a state of disrepair.
Our first foray was to see the Frank Gehry Dancing House, Fred and Ginger (not one of Gehry's best) it did not look like the duo dancing at all, sufice to say; it is a whirligig, spiralling up 8 storeys to no great effect, except for a panorama of the city of a hundred spires on the banks of the river Vltava, shot with silver as the city turns gold in the sunset. In the softening light and lengthening shadows, Praha comes into its own and even the forbidding Prague castle transforms into a fairy-tale one.
We descended the dancing house and thence to Gallery CZD, a design studio of graphic designers and typographers, plus the Papelote stationary store, all of which the Czechs excel at. Our entourage, that included a taciturn Russian from Pravda, who just took photographs of pints of beer , did not utter a sound until she erupted into laughter when we got to the 'Love room' at the Fusion hotel, a Roman, who claimed that Italians don't read any more ... .not even newspapers, a Swede, a German, a Dutch blogger and two Spaniards. Promptly at 7 we supped, for the Czechs eat early, presumably to digest the vast quantities of tough over cooked meat they eat, such as pork with eggs and ham on top. The uber cool supper hub , Dynamo , had pretty tables and chairs of polished veneer. The Roman looked askance at my spaghetti and tofu, and for desert we were served a scoop of vanilla ice cream that had been deep fried in breadcrumbs and caraway seeds.
We walked off the ice cream rissoles over the Charles bridge to the Signal light festival with holograms bouncing off ornate palace facades in sync with hard core techno music. The strobe lights lit up flocks of starlings in silvery ribbons across the night sky; that was the best part, though not intentional; a little of Prague's fleeting magic.
The next day we went up country into Bohemia proper, densely forested , to Jablonec, a handsome town of Art Nouveau mansions and a glass making and bead emporium. Forget 'beads to India' they are glass blown in vast quantities here and the town keeps Indians threaded in miles of beads .
Here they specialise in chandeliers too, and other virtuoso crystal cutting, like the Preciosa company, who guard their chemical formulas zealously, like the glass makers in Murano, who could only leave the island on pain of death in order to keep the arcanum safe and secret.
The Museum of Glass and Jewellery is a Czech cubist building, displaying all manner of glass, from mountains of beads to the finely wrought jewellery.
Back in Prague we went soaring up the most hated building in central Europe. The Zizkov T.V tower was erected on top of a flattened Jewish cemetery, during the Communist regime in order to block all foreign airwaves, and is now a swanky bar with Russian champagne fountains and lethal dry ice cocktails with a vertiginous view of the city, so high, it began to sway gently in the strong winds. It is also a one bedroom hotel, not for the faint hearted, I would have an existential crisis waking up 90 meters up above the city. Crawling up the tiers were giant babies; the Situationist David Cerny again, he pops up all over Prague, at ground level, there were more big babies near the Charles bridge while his effigy of Sigmund Freud hangs from a rooftop nearby.
Another day looking at Czech design outlets, Artel, (run by Karen Feldman, who has written a hilarious guide to Prague, illustrated with vintage photographs,) Gallery Kubista, a show case for Czech cubism and Pavilion; admiring their flair, for conjuring up a lamp stand out of a tree trunk to designing what we know so well, the hardwearing geometric fabric that graces all the London Transport seats . Dox is an impressive contemporary art space converted from an old disused factory where they were hanging 'This Place' a brave exhibition of 12 photographers, among them Nick Waplington, Thomas Struth and the greatest Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, tackling the thorny or perhaps I should say barbed wire issue of Israel and the West Bank. On another floor there was an inspired show of a Czech architect Martin Rajnis, innovative Ziggurat tower structures and giant chalet type dwellings, all made from sustainable materials. While their previous installation had been a veritable China wall of books, filling the gallery to the brim. Prague is back in its rightful place, on the central European axis, as a city of great creative endeavour.