Ruins of the past or simply the innocent victim of anti-communism?
Arguments and controversy in the Czech Republic over the impending demolition of the historic five-star hotel in Prague 6, a remarkable example of modern architecture, but evidently, also an uncomfortable symbol of the post 1968 “normalisation”.
However, public protests do not seem to have discouraged the new owner, tycoon Petr Kellner, who has decided to dismantle the large hotel – no longer in operation since last January and that has become quite derelict in recent years – and build an elite private school in this exclusive residential area, Hanspaulka Hill.
Of course, not everybody in the Country agrees with the decision of tearing it down, and there are also many who argue that Hotel Prague deserves greater respect. Among them, also an Italian expert, architect Ottaviano Maria Razetto, who declares that he is literally taken aback: “It is surprising that behind this scheme there is billionaire Petr Kellner, whom one might expect would act as a kind of cultural guide, comparable to the enlightened figures of the past. We would have expected him to preserve the building, and not decide to demolish it”.
A bit of history
Opened in 1981, during the years of the regime, the hotel was used as a luxurious confidential residence, available to very special guests of the then Czechoslovakia. They were often delegations from the countries of the Warsaw Pact, and normally, leaders of communist parties coming from abroad. Unmistakable for its undulated and elongated shape, the building stands on the hill of Hanspaulka, a few miles west from the centre of Prague. All around are villas built by the wealthy Prague bourgeoisie of the 1920s, then occupied, after the advent of the regime, by the communist nomenclature. In one of these prestigious residences, still lives 92 year old Milouš Jakeš, the last General Secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, sent into retirement during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Then there are a number of owners, who had their confiscated villas returned to them, and also the new rich of post 1989 Prague, who bought them quite recently. A quiet area par excellence, with hardly anybody in the street, except for a few dogs growling behind the fence. Prague’s mass tourist destination lies elsewhere.
The former hotel is surrounded by a park – nearly nine acres – that slopes gently down to Evropská street, the artery that leads to the airport. It is almost impossible to peek inside due to a mighty wall, which in some places is five feet high.
In those days it must have been the top of modernity and security.
The architectural competition set up to choose the best project took place in 1971, just three years after the end of the Prague Spring. The idea was to create a building that would give the world a demonstration of the high level of architecture and technology achieved by the communist regime. The result was an imposing hotel, with a spectacular staircase leading to the splendid halls with their extremely luxurious furnishings and inevitable Bohemia crystal chandeliers made by the best glass craftsmen.
Five floors, for a total of 136 rooms, all with a panoramic view of the Prague Castle, and 51 suites, including the huge 400 square meter Presidential apartment, which also hosted the dreaded Leonid Brezhnev. In more recent times – after 1989 when the structure started operating as a normal hotel – the American actor Tom Cruise lodged here during the shooting in 1996 of the film “Mission: Impossible”.
Because of its non-central location, in recent years, it has been used regularly by the Czech National football team as a retreat. Memorable is the scandal of 2007, when taking advantage of the privacy offered by the Hotel Praha, the players organized a red-light party, involving a group of prostitutes. A paparazzo managed to capture the arrival of the girls as well as a few scenes of the party, and this created a big row and an affront to the prestige of the Hotel. It was especially an insult to the image of confidence and reservation that had always distinguished the hotel.
When it was built, it cost an enormous sum, amounting to 800 million crowns (more than 32 million Euro of today). However, we do not know how much Kellner paid for it, but it was certainly a lot, also in consideration of the amount of debts it had accumulated in recent years, when the previous managers insisted on running it as a hotel. The city is now full of luxury hotels and the Praha, standing all alone at the top of the hill, was no longer able to face the competition that was coming from other facilities, located in the old town, and thus more suitable for tourists.
The Open Gate in place of the Praha Hotel
Kellner – the Czech business yeti, as he is defined for his notorious reservedness and the entrepreneurial greed of his PPF Group – bought it just two months ago. One of his spokespersons, from the outset, has ruled out the possibility of restoring it to its original destination as a hotel.
At first, it was believed that Kellner wanted to build a luxury residential project, but then the announcement was made that the hotel would be razed to the ground and be built in the lower slope of the hill, closer to the public transport system – the new Open Gate premises, the (primary up to high school) private school founded by the Kellner Family Foundation.
For several years now, the Institute foresees a particular mix of students: one part – “the minority”, as the school representatives point out – are the sons of well-off families, who can afford the expensive tuition fees, while the others are students with exceptional abilities and intelligence, but from needy families. For these, the Kellner Family Foundation pays all the costs.
There are also some who argue that the real estate development project is still not well defined and, that once the hotel has been brought down, it will be possible in the future to build a certain number of villas in the most panoramic part of the park.
The fact is that the Ministry of Culture, last spring, rejected the request that the Hotel Praha building should be safeguarded, and so far, all protests on the part of those who want to save it, have not achieved their purpose. A protest rally was also held recently, with the participation of dozens of people, perhaps a hundred. Those involved were obviously not nostalgics of the pre 1989 regime, but mostly experts in architecture, many of them students, as well as a large number of young people, convinced that this building – for better or for worse – is now part of Prague’s history, and that it is not correct to raze it to the ground.
“There are many reasons for protecting it, from an historic point of view and the indisputable architectural aspect of the building”, says architect Razetto. “It is sufficient to observe the curve with which the hotel literally embraces the landscape below, almost ideally, as if it wanted to merge with the natural inclination of the ground below that leads one to discover what – thirty years later – the most famous contemporary architects – from Zaha Hadid to Peter Eisenman – are designing all over the worldwide today. Hotel Praha is, at the same time, an example of first class architecture, especially of great historic value, but is also, paradoxically, a historical symbol of an era we wish to remove”.
As a matter of fact, the Czech business yeti has no intention of listening to reason. He has asked that the demolition work be carried out during the coming winter. The orders of the business yeti seem to be: “Stop looking to the past and the ghosts of communism”. And it is thus unlikely that the Hotel Praha will be able to live on until next spring.
by Giovanni Usai