In a city as renowned for its historic buildings as Prague, urban change can often be hard to come by – which is why the announcement earlier this month that Zaha Hadid Architects will be designing a large complex of buildings around a railway station close to the city's historic center was big news. But is this the design that Prague needs? In this interview, originally published in Czech by Česká televize, Michaela Polakova speaks to Martin Barry, the Chairman of Prague-based NGO reSITE, for his analysis of how the design will impact the city's future.
Michaela Polakova: What is your opinion on the new Zaha Hadid Architects building in Prague?
Martin Barry: To me, it seems is too early to comment on the aesthetics of the buildings. We should focus on how the collection of buildings enhances the urban character of the city, and how they can improve the urban condition around the buildings. The city is a collection of buildings; the spaces between are what influence people’s lives; not so much the materials and forms of the architecture. That being said, this is a major development site and relatively large footprint of buildings from ZHA adjacent to the historic center of the city. So, we should pay close attention to how the designs develop. At present, it is clear that it is early and they need work.
It has been nearly 20 years since a private investor has hired an internationally known architect to design and construct a mixed-use building in Prague, since Frank Gehry designed Dancing House. My opinion is: it's about time. Prague will be a more real and livable city with a healthy mix of contemporary and historic buildings.
MP: Do you think it will have an impact on the value of the surrounding land? And, on life in the neighborhood?
MB: Yes. And, by the way, that is the natural course of development and change in cities. If one walks past the site on Na Florenci street today, you cannot argue it's a nice place to be. It’s a brownfield with fences and weeds. It’s neglected, it seems dangerous, it’s dark at night. There is no life on the street there other than business people going to-and-from the recently built, Jakub Cigler-designed Florentinum during working hours.
The current massing of the buildings is a bit off for me. This is partially a result of the architects not knowing whether the new Prague Building Regulations (zoning plan) would be adopted. For nearly two years, the architects were designing in a vacuum, without knowing what regulations to design to. This is a common problem in Prague now. Politicians have used building regulations and the proposed metropolitan plan as a political football. It’s very hard to design in that kind of environment. Now that the building regulations are tentatively approved, they will need to go back to the design, modify and make the massing work. Without studying the financials and building pro-forma, I think there should be a more balanced mix of flats, office space, cultural space and retail space there – if only to add more life and eyes on the street 24-hrs a day, 7-days per week.
If the developer improves the public space around the ZHA buildings, that will be a win-win for the City of Prague, us, and the investors. The new building regulations and IPR's public space manual pretty much dictate how the street can be designed so it is at a human scale.
The scale of the new buildings might be broken-down into smaller forms at the street level so that the connection between Masarykovo Train Station and Florenc Bus Station doesn't feel so lonely and the pedestrian so isolated. But again, the buildings are only one piece of the puzzle and this can be solved with the new regulations. The ZHA building is a great pilot project for those regulations. City leaders should be excited to test them!
MP: Are there any risks linked to that project?
MB: Yes. Nothing risked, nothing gained. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do major urban projects. There are risks in any major urban development project. The site is huge. Na Florenci feels longer than it really is.
There is a tendency in Prague to reject new buildings outright, before discussion and before revision. Whenever new buildings hit the main media outlets the public outcry begins. This doesn’t stop in popular media. Architects are even harsher on new buildings, particularly if the architect is foreign. It’s a tough environment. This is partially because there is virtually no public process. The city doesn’t really have a formal or legal mechanism to put the design through a public process and to accept comments from the public that the architects will need to accommodate. It is my understanding that the developer and architect have met with the City on this project, but it has not been debated with the public until it hit the papers. This is a bit of a problem. This would be a good time to implement a new public review process. I hope we can help with that, since we’re developing an online and offline process for this as we speak. It’s a huge problem in Prague, and in other cities. The public feels they don’t have a voice so when the project hits the street, the public criticism begins and usually remains unresolved, so a lot goes unheard. Frustration grows. The environment is sour. We should fix that.
If the city makes many demands of the investor, they need to be prepared to offer something in return. Transparently. No one ever does anything for free, especially in Prague. So, let’s have a formal and transparent process, just like in other developed cities.
MP: Do you think Prague is lacking this kind of buildings?
MB: Yes. A building designed by Zaha Hadid right next to the historical center in Prague could make an interesting architectural contrast and could set the stage for more international collaborations, which there are too few of in Prague. A ZHA building is not a silver bullet for anything. It must be done thoughtfully with a lot of input from the local architect, Jakub Cigler. Otherwise, we will have missed an opportunity. Regardless of who the architect is, building dense developments on brownfield sites in the city center fits with the Prague Institute for Planning and Development’s recommendations in the ongoing new metropolitan plan and Prague building regulations to build dense mixed-use developments in the city, not outside.
Moreover, many local experts complain that Prague has no vision. This kind of development can serve as a model for how city leaders might articulate a vision for a 21st century Prague, something that is notably and disturbingly absent. It can also be watched for how the private sector might work with the public and civic sector to develop other major sites in the city such as the Prague Bubny rail yards across the river.
MP: To you, is the budget of $270 million adequate or overpriced?
MB: Let’s remember – this is a compilation of buildings and urban infrastructure almost directly in the center of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. It is an incredibly important site. It has been designed by arguably one of the world’s most talented architecture studios. It will be expensive. Adding to the cost will be inefficiencies of the Czech bureaucracy. Among 32 advanced high-income countries in the OECD, the Czech Republic ranks last in the length of time and process to get a construction permit. Last. That’s right. When compared with all OECD countries, regardless of GDP, the Czech Republic does a bit better: #127, worse than Djibouti, and between Tanzania and Papua New Guinea. If Prague wants to compete in the modern economy, it needs to do better on this measure, at the very least. The City of Prague should do everything it can to make sure this project happens with public input but without major complication.
In this light, the cost seems inadequate. I’ve worked on individual market-rate residential towers in Manhattan that are twice as costly to build. I can’t claim expertise on local construction costs, but the sum seems entirely reasonable considering international norms for large-scale development projects. The market is good to build now. Credit and construction loans are basically free. The investors and city would be crazy not to build as quickly as they can – with adequate review by the community and process, of course.
MP: A project that is adjacent to a railway and a bus stations is the entrance gate to the city for travellers. Will this be a nice gate? Will the tourists appreciate it?
MB: It’s hard to say what tourists will appreciate, and it’s the wrong question to ask. Who cares what tourists will appreciate? Prague caters to this question all too often and we are left with a city-center emptied of real people, useful shops and cars parked on sidewalks since so many residents drive to work from outside the city. The center is gorgeous, but filled with tourists from Moscow and Miami on segways. If done properly, these buildings will stand hundreds of years from now. They have the potential to be European icons in an already iconic city. Make sure that they are integrated into the fabric of the city; make sure the investor contributes to the quality of the public space and urban cultural life; make sure it has an adequate mix of uses and includes cultural space for local residents; make sure locals can at least appreciate its contribution to the city, and make sure we improve the pedestrian environment from Republic Square to Florenc bus station. If all of that can be done, we all win. Tourists, too.
The question we should be asking is this: how can these buildings contribute to the cultural life, economic competitiveness and sustainability of Prague? And, how can we start a productive dialogue and public engagement process locally so people can positively contribute and not just complain and “architect bash.”
MP: Zaha Hadid and her studio is globally renowned for its opulent or even pretentious buildings. What about this example, do you find it appropriate?
MB: Many architects have criticized me for thinking this project should move ahead. Why would I a priori reject a project proposal (simply because of the investor and architect’s name), if I see an opportunity to improve urban space and connections in the city? The only thing I care about is the public space, an architecture that positively contributes to the urban experience and general improvements for us – Prague’s citizens. And, I want to make sure the investor understands the connection: a viable investment in the 21st century relies on citizen engagement. Given the scale of the project, this kind of engagement is unavoidable, I think. And for the architect haters – it’s easy to reject from the backseat. It’s hard work to compromise, negotiate and try to get a win for all sides. I’m in it for the hard work. Our mission at reSITE is centered on bridging the gaps between the community, the municipality and the developer. If everyone rejects a proposal before the discussion, it is mission impossible for us.
You know, a lot of the criticism so far has focused on the perceived, or real, lack of public space. I don’t think that is the problem. I am a landscape architect. My view of landscape is primarily focused on the intersection and interweaving of city and landscape, building and public space. We don't need more public space in this part Prague. We need higher quality public space, not more of it. If the streetscape feels good, has lots of people on it, not too many cars, shade from trees – who cares if it’s not all public space? Not me. I’d rather a lively street with nicely scaled squares, gardens to collect storm water, nice places to sit and active storefronts.
Some people have also complained that the buildings are too big. I do not believe it is too big. Come on. It's the center of the city – that is exactly where the density should be in cities. I don't understand the argument that we shouldn't have dense, big buildings in cities. What's the alternative – build them in the countryside? No thanks.
Obviously, I’m more concerned with the urban elements at this point – the connections across the rail yard, making a nice pedestrian atmosphere and connection to Florenc bus station and the hip Karlin neighborhood - the streetscape. In this sense, the project is thoughtful, not too big, even though I could imagine some of the forms being broken down a bit to a more human scale at the streetscape and a mixed-use typology if it works financially. The buildings merge the predominant urban morphology of Prague 1 and neighboring Prague 8. This is tough to do and I’m sure it was difficult for ZHA to agree to this. Frankly, I am surprised with the design of the actual buildings. The architecture is reasonable. Not opulent at all. In fact, it could be more inspiring for such an interesting site, though I can imagine the limitations in this context where even “normal” buildings don’t get approved and get harshly criticized by the strict neo-functionalist architectural community in Prague. These buildings will change through the design process but these early renderings indicate that we will get a relatively “normal” morphology.
Disclosure: The investor for this project, Penta Investments, is a sponsor of reSITE, a Prague-based nonprofit organization directed by Martin Barry. In this interview, Martin gives his personal and expert statement as a landscape architect.
Martin Barry is a landscape architect, and the Chairman of reSITE, Prague-based NGO on more livable cities. reSITE is the organizer of the 5th annual international conference reSITE 2016: Cities in Migration (June 16-17, Prague). As a former Associate at W Architecture in New York City where he worked 8 years, Martin led multi-disciplinary teams on complex landscape projects all over the globe, collaborating on urban waterfronts, parks, plazas and universities in the United States, Saudi Arabia, China, United Arab Emirates, Haiti, Canada, Europe and Mexico. With degrees in history, business, and landscape architecture, and spending his younger years training in various construction trades he is uniquely positioned to understand and manage the disparate forces on complex projects. Because of this diverse background, he is adept at negotiating the distinct and often competing perspectives between municipalities, architects, investors, cultural needs and communities. Martin is a Fulbright Scholar, and it was during his fellowship in the Czech Republic when he dreamed-up the idea to start reSITE. He is also a Fellow with the Design Trust for Public Space and is a Registered Landscape Architect in the United States who lectures about landscape architecture, urban design and collaboration at conferences and universities in the United States, Europe and Asia. Above all, he is committed to a human-centered design approach that focuses on quality urban investments that simultaneously benefit ecology, economy and culture for the next generation of urban dwellers.