Prague Dries Off
Published: May 2009
By Peter S. Green
After last summer's devastating floods, Czechs are wondering whether renovations will add insult to injury.
Vsehrdova Street, on Prague's Kampa Island, is a jumble of 17th-century architecture, low-rise buildings whose Baroque façades lean precariously over the cobblestoned street. But the faint brownish-green line that runs at shoulder height along the walls belongs to a more recent era: it's the high-water mark left by last August's floods, which submerged parts of Prague's historic center as well as dozens of landmark towns along the Vltava and Elbe rivers.
Some building owners on Kampa are leaving the sodden façades in place, letting the damp winter air slowly dry the centuries-old layers of paint and plaster and the two-foot-thick masonry walls beneath. Less patient landlords have chipped away at the exteriors to help the masonry dry. A few have slapped on a new coat of plaster, or even concrete—to the horror of preservationists.
The water and muck may be gone from Prague's medieval streets, and nearly all of the city's cultural attractions may have reopened, but some of the damage is just now emerging. "A lot
of people are destroying original façades that survived four or five floods over the centuries," says Richard Biegel, a young architectural historian who runs the Club for Old Prague. He worries that a growing taste for concrete stucco and shiny, low-maintenance acrylic paints is threatening the authenticity of Kampa's old buildings. Long before the disaster, his group of architects and preservationists frequently battled city hall to stop insensitive reconstructions and renovations in Prague's historic core. Now, it seems, the conflict between developers and preservationists is even more intense. As Czechs continue to mop up, many are wondering how their cultural heritage will survive both the floods and the rush to rebuild.
Prague should have been better prepared when the swollen waters of the Vltava reached the city, on August 12: the damage upstream had been in the news for days. But disagreements between the river's keepers and the hapless mayor had stalled work on flood barriers, and the western suburbs, farther up the river from the city center, were inundated. A wall of interlocking aluminum panels was quickly erected along the low-lying embankment in the heart of the Old Town. That kept the waters from the Jewish Quarter and the Old Town Square, whose Astronomical Clock has ticked almost ceaselessly for nearly 600 years.
But the cash-strapped city government never appropriated the money for a similar barrier to protect the Baroque Mala Strana district across the river, which includes Kampa Island. There, small houses and grand palaces alike were slowly flooded: first basements, then ground floors. Finally, as sirens urged residents to evacuate even the upper stories, a racing tide of brown water rushed into the city center, filling Kampa and reaching almost to the top of the steel arches and stone vaults of the Vltava's six major bridges. Mala Strana was also invaded by water leaking from rain-choked Petrin Hill to the west. The river reached its highest level since the 16th century, causing several billion dollars in damage across the region.
Six months later, most hotels and restaurants in Prague are open again, with the notable exception of the new Four Seasons Hotel, closed at least until June for structural repairs. Visitors are returning to the Old Jewish Cemetery, Charles Bridge, the galleries and museums. Relief funds are flowing in from donors such as the VIA Foundation, a Czech charity, and the New York-based Foundation for a Civil Society (to contribute, visit www.floods.cz). But much remains to be done. The 13th-century Old-New Synagogue sank slightly and requires extensive stabilization. The Kampa Museum of 20th-century Czech art won't reopen until later this year. A museum honoring Bedrich Smetana, the great Czech composer, was all but washed away by the Vltava, the river he famously celebrated in song. The Karlin Musical Theater, Prague's main venue for musical comedies, may collapse due to damaged foundations.
Dozens of refrigerated trucks sit in a factory parking lot outside Prague, holding some of the municipal library's most valuable historic books and manuscripts, which were soaked in the mess and frozen for safekeeping. If the Czech government can raise the funds, special drying machines may be able to save the manuscripts from further damage. And the central military archives, whose files still held clues to thousands of unsolved crimes from the Nazi occupation and the Communist era, were drenched—halting, perhaps permanently, the search for justice.
Prague's vibrant arts scene included nearly 60 small theaters; most were located in basements, and many were devastated. Among the casualties was the Theater at the Laundry (Divadlo na Pradle) in Mala Strana, built in 1924 by a group of avant-garde artists that in its time included Smetana and fellow composer Antonin Dvorak. "The stage buckled like an ocean wave," says Petr Hruska, the theater's director. "We had to throw out everything that was made of wood." The theater's art gallery and the Czech Museum of Popular Music, both quartered in an enfilade of basement rooms, were completely destroyed. Hruska estimates that it will be more than two years before the theater raises its curtain again.
Many preservationists, however, are looking beyond immediate repairs. "There is a danger that Prague really could lose its character," Biegel says. "I'm concerned that profiteers will knock down buildings they think are too small, and build others." Even before the flood, large swaths of Prague and other historic Czech cities had been painted in shiny colors, and historic details touched up to look "as good as new." With the disaster bringing yet more reconstruction to the historic center, the question is how to rebuild tastefully.
Michal Ajvaz, a novelist known for his magical-realist tales of Prague, says he fears the floods have damaged more than buildings. Long before last August, he says, the authentic Prague had fled the winding streets of the touristed center to neighborhoods even Kafka and the Golem hardly knew. In Karlin, a 19th-century working-class district just east of the city center, "the atmosphere had a special sleepy fatigue," he says. "But it held a
certain tension that would sometimes erupt" in the pubs and narrow streets. Prague's equivalent to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Karlin was characterized by crumbling apartment buildings; 100-year-old factories, their smokestacks idle since the fall of Communism; pawnshops, shoemakers, and an antique furniture bazaar.
All that is rapidly vanishing. More than 40 aging apartment houses in Karlin were rendered uninhabitable when the sandy soil beneath them receded with the floodwaters. Real estate developers are looking to fill the vacant spaces with glass-fronted apartment and office blocks. All the money being eagerly handed out for reconstruction by insurance companies and the government is making Karlin's gentrification even more likely.
It's not only Prague that is endangered. Dozens of well-preserved towns across the countryside now face a similar threat. In Cesky Krumlov, a small medieval town that was flooded by 10 feet of water, preservationists are fighting a rear-guard action against a tide of kitschy renovations.
"The worst damage to the town was done not by the flood but afterward, by people who threw out the old wood floors and knocked the plaster off their walls because they thought they would dry faster," says Martin Serak, former chief preservationist of Krumlov—a position the city abolished a year before the flood. "A stone wall covered in plaster tells a house's history, how it was built and lived in over the centuries."
Krumlov's remarkable assemblage of houses, dating from Gothic times to the early 19th century, inspired Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele to do some of his best work. But even before the flood, the town was making aesthetic compromises. Old houses had become anodyne hotels with neon-bright electric signs. "Tourists come for the monuments, but as the owners make money from the tourists, they try to improve their houses," Serak says. "Bit by bit, it destroys the whole reason people visit." The floods, he says, will speed up the process.
"The fashion today is new, imitation, like a stage set," Serak says, pointing out the gaudier paints, straighter walls, plasterboard interiors, and linoleum flooring of some buildings redone before the floods. "It really is a problem of Central European and German taste," he adds. "People want everything perfect. In Italy, they don't care so much about perfection. They'd rather sit in a café all afternoon and drink wine. The Germans—and now the Czechs—would rather spend all day repairing their façades."
Serak takes me to the edge of town to see the remains of a series of 17th-century stone bridges so worn into the fabric of the countryside that locals seem not to notice their age. After they were damaged in the flood, the army erected steel combat bridges over the broken spans. Serak says the district highway authority is unlikely to find the money to restore the original structures. Instead, the old bridges will probably be replaced with simple concrete or steel ones—another piece of history lost.
Krumlov officials seem unconcerned with the harm that careless renovations may do the city's character. Chief engineer Lumir Lusicky accuses preservationists of caring more about buildings than people: "This is the twenty-first century and the buildings have to live. We can't make this city into a museum." Besides, he asks plaintively, "Why does everybody ask me about the old buildings?The floods washed away our sports center and soccer field, too."
Farther downstream, the waters swamped forgotten treasures like Veltrusy, a Baroque-and-Rococo summer palace built by Count Vaclav Antonin Chotek, a wealthy entrepreneur, and his son Rudolf, an imperial courtier. This impressive pile has a red stucco façade and radiating wings dominated by a soaring central cupola. Its 300-acre landscaped grounds—which include a deer park and follies alongside the Elbe—were among the largest and best-preserved in Europe. Fallen trees still litter the ground, and 40 of the 60 deer fled or were drowned. The soaked frescoes on the château's ground floor may have to be replaced, or simply removed. What's worse, the penny-pinching count used mud bricks in the less-visible parts of his columned château, presenting the curator, art historian Eva Hajkova, with a dilemma: if the damp bricks freeze and split over the winter, she will have to replace them with poured concrete—as long as the state has the money.
The Czech government has dozens of castles like Veltrusy to worry about, however, and nothing approaching the $6 million or $7 million Hajkova estimates it will take to restore just one castle to its original state.
Besides, like the dozens of similar hidden gems in the Czech countryside, Veltrusy will take a back seat to Prague, Krumlov, and other heavily touristed destinations. Here, as elsewhere in this soggy country, the temptation is strong to save money and fix the damage in a way that may compromise historical authenticity. At risk are not just the old buildings themselves, but also a crucial source of Czech identity. "If we don't invest more money and care in protecting our monuments," Hajkova says, "the next generation won't have any connection to their history."