hidden europe 15

Of carbuncles and communist memories: Prague

by Mark Baker


Is it better to remember the communist period in Prague or merely to bury it? Guest contributor Mark Baker reports on the debate about the future of two Prague department stores that evoke a few too many memories for some folk.

Department stores are often the place to catch the flavour of a foreign city. Be it Stockmann in Helsinki, with its famous clock, or Clerys in Dublin with Irish trade union leader Jim Larkin standing with outstretched hands on his plinth outside the shop in O'Connell Street, department stores are urban icons. Some department stores become the very symbols of national identity - think El Corte Inglés: the name may mean 'The English Cut', but the store is as Spanish as sangría and tapas. Galeries Lafayette is quintessential France, even when it ventures abroad.

Some European department stores are architectural gems in their own right. In the eastern German town of Görlitz, the Karstadt department store is a ine example of German Jugendstil. But department stores are not just for architectural historians. Many are cutting edge essays in postmodernity. Consider the assertive new Selfridges department store in the English city of Birmingham, a high-tech futuristic fantasy designed by architect Jan Kaplicky. Yet back in Kaplicky's native Prague, there are some heated architectural debates about what to do with the department stores of an earlier era. Mark Baker reports from the Czech capital.

Prague's Kotva department store may just be the ugliest building ever built in the Czech Republic. It dates from the nineteen- seventies and was hailed at the time as a fine Czech example of 'brutalism' - a genre inspired by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. The Prague building pandered to the prevailing ideological demands of communism.

In fact, by nearly any measure, the Kotva building is a classic carbuncle.

Start with the exterior. It is a hulking, darkbrown box, on some sides entirely devoid of windows. The facade, on closer inspection, looks to be made of some type of corrugated sheet metal.

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