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Old January 9th, 2008, 10:41 AM   #1
hkskyline
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National Library, Prague

It's big, it's bold - but are the citizens of the Czech capital ready for this?
The London-based architect who was behind the Selfridges store in Birmingham and the media 'pod' at Lord's cricket ground won the contest to design a national library in his native Prague - but he has already run into fierce resistance to his futuristic plans
6 January 2008
The Observer



Great libraries are part of any civilised nation's self-identity. The classical manuscripts in Michelangelo's Biblioteca Laurenziana (which opened to the public in 1571) literally gave the Florentines ownership of the antiquity which so pre-occupied them. Then there was Paris's slowly evolving Bibliotheque Nationale and the British Museum of 1753. Washington's Library of Congress followed in 1800 and is probably the largest in the world, although the Lenin State Library in Moscow (formerly the Rumyantsev Museum Collection) is not far behind - in size, if not in readability.

So it is not, perhaps, surprising that plans for a new National Library in Prague are controversial. This will be the largest new building in the new Czech Republic, a country still by turns euphoric and anxious about recent upheavals. It is more than a book store: it is as much about democracy and prosperity as it is about books. Indeed, its designer, the Anglified Czech Jan Kaplicky, says, 'This building couldn't even be conceived in a dicatorship.' Just 40 years after the Soviet T-54 tanks grimly rolled in belching diesel and trailing dogma, Kaplicky intends to unroll a cheerful architectural spectacular of colourful globular modernismo all over a sacred part of historic Prague.

The site is Letenske Sady (Letna Park), just across the Vltava river from Kafka's old Jewish quarter where the paranoid author of the Bohemian ghetto worried that a 'cage went in search of a bird'. From the library site there are great views of the city's famous bridges; and there's revolutionary history here too. In 1962 a statue of Stalin was ceremoniously blown up. So, everybody is delighted that the Czechs are at last free to build, unconstrained by the suffocating conservatism of the Soviets or the equally suffocating folklorique inheritance of 'Magical Prague'. (In the Czech language, we are told, the word 'Praha' is feminine. . . like love, death and night.)

Well actually, no they are not. What with all this nocturnal love and death, they are passionate people. The Mayor doesn't like it. The current President of the Republic doesn't like it. Even the director of Prague's National Gallery (whom Kaplicky describes as a 'failed artist'), not however paid to be a professional philistine, says the striking conceit is too 'strong' for the delicate grain and texture of the historic quarter. Kaplicky says yah-boo and argues that the Saint Nicholas Church (1735 by Ignaz Dientzenhofer) had its enemies too. But Vaclav Havel is on-side. The poet-President said: 'I had the feeling that the eye of the library, blinking over the green of the park. . . could stand like an embodiment of the past centuries.' I am afraid the thing is, a lot of very influential people are keen for that same embodiment of the past centuries to remain just as it is without interruptions from modern architecture. The threat, Havel says, is that 'averageness and banality [will] triumph again'.

Kaplicky is determined that it will not. But then he is a determined person. He left Prague for London penniless shortly after the T-54s arrived in 1968, finding himself in Richard Rogers's studios in time to be an influence on the design of the epochal Pompidou Centre in Paris. He moved on to Norman Foster in time to be involved in the Willis Faber building in Ipswich, the design which made Foster's reputation. There is a pattern here. In 1981 Kaplicky was denounced as a pornographer because his architect's impressions featuring bikini-clad lovelies degraded women. In 1982 he founded Future Systems in London with his then wife Amanda Levete and has ever since prosecuted strikingly original, if not always entirely rational, building designs. His inspirations include aerospace and high technology and it is irresistible to see in his consistent infatuation with the slick lustre of machinery a neo-erotic yearning for the shiny, material things so cruelly denied him in his austere Soviet-era youth.

The National Library's enemies have called Kaplicky's design an 'octopus'. Enemies of interesting modern buildings often seek refuge in puerile nursery imagery - carbuncles, wirelesses, gherkins and so on - when they cannot organise credible arguments. Still, it is significant that Kaplicky chose an image of a jellyfish for the front endpapers of Phaidon's recent monograph on Future Systems. He takes his inspiration where he can: the Media Centre he designed at Lord's was inspired by naval architecture and had to be fabricated in a boatyard and shipped to the MCC grounds. Some cricket correspondents have complained about certain functional deficiencies in the Media Centre's operation, but no one has ever said it was boring. Kaplicky's astonishing Selfridges in Birmingham looks as though it has landed from outer space, much to the benefit of all too surly, down-to-earth Brum. A boldly organic, windowless blue conceit covered with reflective metal plates, it has caused the client some disruption to conventional methods of retailing, but remains the most remarkable monument of Birmingham's rebirth.

Prague had not many precedents for a National Library. There was a failed competition for a new building in 1960, but the city has since had to make do with the hangover of the Klementium (an 18th-century Jesuit college). But in 2004 Vlastimil Jezek arrived as new National Library director. Moved by ambition and purpose, Jezek organised an international design competition. This is the very stuff of architectural careers, and for Kaplicky finally to make his mark in his home city was an opportunity that involved chutzpah, revenge and pride. There was massive interest in this opportunity to make this pounds 50m monument in a much-loved city. Seven hundred and sixty architects registered interest and eventually there were over 350 entries. Fellow Anglo-Czech '68 escapee Eva Jiricna, as well as Zaha Hadid and Dominique Perrault were on the jury. Jiricna is a strict modernist; Hadid a globulist-geometrician and Perrault a builder of monuments.

Kaplicky's winning design was not so much a compromise between all three as a combination of them all. It is a 48m tall, irregular structure inspired, perhaps, by a handful of Play-Doh being splatted on to tarmac by an insurgent Russian military vehicle. A floppy jellyfish of coruscating triangular tiles sits above a podium of white marble. In photographs the tiles look green but are, in fact, champagne-coloured. Only 15 per cent of the glob is glazed for maximum thermal efficiency. Above ground are public spaces, reading rooms, ace caffs and so on, accessed by ramps. The 10 million books are consigned to a lightless, 15m deep undercroft served by the machines Karel Capek taught us to call robots (from the Czech for 'forced labour'). This automated retrieval system means readers can get access to the book of their choice within minutes; in the British Library, it can take weeks. Kaplicky's National Library is a monument not only to the new spirit in the Czech Republic, but to the interpretation of reading as a liberal, discursive, exploratory activity so nicely described in Alan Bennett's recent novella, The Uncommon Reader . You didn't have that under communism.

Never mind the local difficulties of Prague, with its doleful share of post-revolutionary fogeys: this is a difficult moment for libraries everywhere, now reaching the end of their natural life as institutions. Benedict's Rule explained that a 'biblioteca' was merely a book cupboard; only when rolls turned into codices and papyrus changed into vellum were standalone libraries called for. Obviously, the great libraries belong to the Gutenberg era. Now their practical role is under scrutiny. Colin St John Wilson spent his entire working life on the magnificent British Library only to find ink conceding to electrons before it was complete. They had a similar experience in Paris where Dominique Perrault built what became known as the TGB (for Tres Grande Bibliotheque) out in the Tolbiac suburbs of eastern Paris. Competely useless as a storage or research facility, its sole purpose was to be a monument for Mitterrand who died a few weeks after its opening in 1995.

Eva Jiricna says the mood in Prague is politicised and somewhat disillusioned. And Jan Kaplicky's design for the city's National Library would be a demanding one at any time. Context and subtlety mean less to Kaplicky than rhetoric and commitment. In some ways, the act of building a National Library in the age of the podcast is as quaint as wanting to preserve the colour-washed cottages and pantile roofs of old Prague. In other ways, Kaplicky's insistence on the most uncompromisingly technological interpretations of modernism is idiosyncratic. There is an enlarging taste for responsive, flexible buildings, adaptive to their environment and capable of reuse. This is not one of them. But, and it's a big one, how wonderfully exciting to see stuffy old Prague at last getting ready to see its first excellent building since the 18th century. 'A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone.'

In October, Kaplicky debated his design on Czech television with the Mayor of Prague. He seems to have won over the public: 12,000 people have signed a petition insisting it is built. Kaplicky told the influential architecture trade magazine, Building Design : 'I think there is a generation against it who grew up with communism and who don't have experience of democracy and tolerance.' I called to ask him what the position was at the beginning of 2008. He said 'It's going to be built'. Just before Christmas Kaplicky presented the design to the Deputies. Perhaps influenced by the success of the telly debate which, Kaplicky says, has people hooting in the street and the passport guys at the airport saying 'good luck' to him in English, the politicos have nodded it through. Kafka wrote: 'It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.' Quite so. Eva Jiricna added: 'The baby has been born and it will need a lot of care to turn into an adult of some integrity.' This amazing design is really and truly a part of Czech national identity.
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Old January 11th, 2008, 11:56 PM   #2
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HMMMM, Its nice, however the colours bring the rating down for me. Sorry but it is not very attractive from my point of view.
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Old January 12th, 2008, 01:01 AM   #3
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yich
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Old January 12th, 2008, 05:13 PM   #4
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When I first read the introduction and it said he was the person behind Selfridges in Birmingham, I was expecting something stunning. However I guess not!
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Old January 16th, 2008, 09:36 PM   #5
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In which part of the Prague is it planned?
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Old January 17th, 2008, 02:10 AM   #6
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The design's nice, but I don't like the colours.
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Old January 17th, 2008, 11:32 PM   #7
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looks like an alien ship landed
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Old January 18th, 2008, 06:32 AM   #8
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Satellite Photo of Location
http://www.nkp.cz/competition_library/ENfoto.htm
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Old January 18th, 2008, 10:35 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by zerokarma View Post
looks like an alien ship landed
Looks like a brain slug from Futurama
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Old January 19th, 2008, 08:37 AM   #10
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Not my style, actually the design is ugly.
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Old January 19th, 2008, 05:21 PM   #11
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Gallery of stage II. competition designs















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Old January 19th, 2008, 08:55 PM   #12
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Not a fan. I think its too organic looking. And the colors make it look like some kind of alien or a microscopic life blown up to building size.
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Old January 20th, 2008, 10:18 AM   #13
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Is modern architecture so plain and boring that we have to resort to these retarded and contorted shapes to make 'interesting' buildings? This is a really desperate attempt at creating a landmark. It seems like something that would belong in a travelling circus rather than a permanent home for a national library (unless they plan on taking it down within a decade).
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Old January 20th, 2008, 12:43 PM   #14
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The one I would have liked to have seen built is the second one of the competition designs.
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Old January 22nd, 2008, 12:09 PM   #15
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Weirdo. Not in the best sense of word.
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Old January 22nd, 2008, 04:01 PM   #16
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Looks like some alien slug monster.
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Old January 22nd, 2008, 05:06 PM   #17
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WTF? are they serious?
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Old January 25th, 2008, 12:47 AM   #18
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BUILD THAT CHEESE!
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Old January 25th, 2008, 01:27 AM   #19
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They should just stick with the Square one. Its bold but not over the top ridiculous.
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Old January 25th, 2008, 11:26 PM   #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hkskyline View Post
It's big, it's bold - but are the citizens of the Czech capital ready for this?



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