The city of a hundred spires, the Golden City, the jewel of Bohemia…. all such soubriquets reflect the splendor of Prague’s celebrated architecture, from the Gothic fantasies of Peter Parler and Matthew of Arras to the grand neo-renaissance civic buildings and art nouveau apartments of the 19th century. And let’s face it, visitors and expats alike are thoroughly spoiled by the most stunning vistas at almost every turn.
Which is why the more unsightly buildings, that anywhere else on earth would seem just par for the course, seem to stick out like particularly sore thumbs – weeds in an otherwise immaculately-planted garden. We went to look at ten constructions we think are candidates for the accolade ‘Ugliest building in Prague’.
1) Kotva, Náměstí Republiky, Prague 1
Metro or tram: Náměstí Republiky
Náměstí Republiky is a real hodgepodge of experimental design, from the florid Obecní dům (which itself was already considered out of fashion as soon as it was built) to the new Palladium centre, a converted military barracks that looks like a cross between a toy fort and a blancmange. However, pride of place must go the monolithic, black-slatted Kotva store, one of the country’s first shopping malls, which still has a whiff of the old days about it despite attempts to tart it up. A few years ago a friend bought one of the world’s most uncomfortable sofas there. ‘Funny, it felt OK in the shop,’ she said. ‘Once at home, however, it hardened into a granite lump.’ A bit like the building, then.
2) O2 tower, Olšanská, Prague 3
Metro: Želivského; tram: Olšanská/Mezi hřbitovy
The ruin of many a photograph of the city’s dreaming spires, the O2 Tower is actually older than the neighboring Žižkov tower, and less inspiring by half. This stubby military-looking platform was erected in the seventies to act as an international switching centre in the pre-satellite era. Now owned by Telefonica, no amount of rebranding by O2 can detract from the fact that it is very ugly indeed. Appropriately, the nearest tram stop is Mezi hřbitovy (‘Between the cemeteries’) and that is, frankly, where this zombie of a building should be buried.
3) Žižkov Tower, Prague 3
Metro: Jiřího z Poděbrad; tram: Jiřího z Poděbrad/Lipanská
Since its erection in 1992, the 700-foot high Žižkov Telecom Tower has become so much part of our landscape that people barely notice it. For some, though, including CNN – who placed it fourth on their list – this gigantic rocket launch gantry ranks among the ugliest structures in the world. It’s a particular kind of ugliness, which, depending on your point of view, is either exacerbated or softened by the addition of David Černý’s black babies. In an attempt to make the place a more viable tourist attraction, the interior of the tower is currently being given a major overhaul, with top interior designer Julia Wimmer responsible for a makeover of the tower’s restaurant and other public spaces. Probably better to be on the inside….
4) Kulturní dům Eden, Vršovická, Prague 10
Tram stop: Slavia
In the 1930s, there was a pleasure park here with five miles of waterways, a helter skelter, and an entire Abyssinian village (presumably to give adventurous Praguers a taste of life in ‘the dark continent’). Old postcards show bebustled and behatted couples taking the air in a delightful Edwardian paradise. What replaced it was a triumph of communist-era blandness – a ‘house of culture’ with cinema, restaurant, and community hall now every bit as dilapidated as the system which inspired it. Unloved for many years, there was a recent plan to rebuild it as a football club house for Slavia and Bohemians 1905, but this scheme is currently on hold, leaving the place as tatty and tumbledown as ever.
5) Proposed National Library, Letná, Prague 6
Metro: Hradčanská; tram: Sparta
The late Jan Kaplický’s gigantic purple-and-gold octopus was to have been plonked on Letná hill, dramatically altering the spiky graph of the Hradčany skyline with its glistening ‘blobitectural’ curves. However, this controversial project didn’t get much further than the courts, when a rival architectural company accused the competition rules of having been flawed, and the project was quickly shelved. For fans of Kaplický (he also designed the ‘Silver Slug’ shopping centre in Birmingham, UK) who would like to see what the library might have looked like, there’s a bus-stop in Brno which is a miniature version of the proposed design.
6) The Prague Public Transport Central Dispatch Center, Na bojišti, Prague 2
Metro or tram: I. P. Pavlova
The main crime of the blockish DPP central dispatch building on Na bojišti is not so much its functionalist exterior as the height of the roof, completely at odds with that of its neoclassical neighbor on Na Bojisti, and of the pub U Kalicha opposite it, which is where the adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk began. Incidentally, the nearby Hotel da Vinci has a hideous kitch-hispanic portico, which we can only hope disappears in the current refurbishment.
7) Florenc Bus Station, Prague 8
Metro, tram or bus: Florenc
Despite the fact that bus stations all over the world tend to look and feel much the same, the Florenc example surely ranks with the most grim gateways to any city anywhere, let alone one as precious as Prague. ‘Confusing and ugly’ is the verdict of Rob Humphreys in the Rough Guide to Prague. The presence of an uncrossable road next door to the woefully-designed arrivals hall is just one reason for this place to be completely overhauled. Plans, anyone?
8) Strahov Stadium, Prague 6
Tram: Malovanka; bus Stadion Strahov
The Strahov stadium was once the largest-capacity sports arena in the world, and although it was designed in the First Republic, its association with the enforced sporting festivities known as the Spartakiady mean that it’s forever linked with the offensive Communist regime. Its crumbling structure is now a testament to those bad old days. The adjacent twin air-shafts for the Strahov tunnel are also prime candidates for our ugliness award. However, their recent use as a projection screen for Pilsner Urquell’s Phoenix beer campaign suggests that even concrete towers can be made temporarily beautiful.
9) Hotel Don Giovanni, Prague 3
Metro or tram: Želivského
This top-heavy postmodern galleon of a building just doesn’t know where it’s going: arabesque lanterns top a kitsch attempt at a mediaeval fortress, and the whole thing (like the Palladium centre) is done in what has been described as a schmaltzy pink. Its exposed location, deliberately chosen for ease of public transport, makes it visible from great distances, but the worst thing is the building’s proximity to Prague’s very own Cemetery Road. Franz Kafka, who lies buried only a few hundred yards away, must be turning in his grave. Despite all this, the hotel does get very good ratings on Trip Advisor and similar sites, and the ellipsoid lobby exhibits an interesting ‘whispering gallery’ effect.
10) Komerční Banka, Štefánikova, Prague 5
Metro: Andĕl; tram: Arbesovo náměstí
Nearly all of Karel Prager’s buildings have excited admiration or derision in equal measure, classic examples being the Federal Assembly at the top of Wenceslas Square (now the National Museum extension), and the so-called ‘bubble-wrap’ building for the National Theatre (now the Nova Scena). The least successful and most unsightly of all his designs, however, has to be the Komerční Banka in Smíchov. An octagonally-based structure, rising to form a truncated pyramid, it has absolutely no redeeming features. Unlike the theatre, this opaque, heavy, airless block looks like a brick version of Darth Vader’s helmet. It makes me weep every time I see it.
Well, that’s about it for now. There are, sadly, many more egregious examples than these. It may be that you disagree violently with this selection – in part or in whole. But ugliness, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder, and I am putting on my flak jacket now in anticipation of a hailstorm of abuse. If, on the other hand, you want to see the other side of the coin, why not visit The Prague Vitruvius?