Will architect's death mean new life for Prague’s 'Octopus' library?

17th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

Despite international fame, the London-based Jan Kaplicky drew mixed support for his octopus-shaped plan for Prague's new national library, which reluctant officials saw as a grotesque intrusion in the historic capital.

Prague -- Critics say it looks like "frog spit" and the Czech president vowed to block the project "with his own body," but all that may now change with the sudden death of radical Czech architect Jan Kaplicky.

Despite international fame, the London-based Kaplicky drew mixed support for his octopus-shaped plan for Prague's new national library, which reluctant officials saw as a grotesque intrusion in the historic capital.

"It's a dispute between an idea and the establishment," said Oscar-winning Czech film director Jan Sverak, who backs the plan chosen by an international jury.

The architect, who left for the British capital after the 1968 Soviet invasion, has worked on ground-breaking projects like the spacecraft-like media centre at Lord's cricket ground in London and the Pompidou Center in Paris. But the "Blob" as it’s dubbed, would have been his first project back home.

"At last Prague will see something new, something very contemporary," said Kaplicky's close friend and fellow architect Pavel Bobek.

With the "Octopus," Kaplicky lived up to his reputation as an uncompromising visionary and driving force in new architecture -- a nine-storey, 45 metre-high (148 feet) champagne-coloured edifice with a large "eye." It was designed for Letna hill overlooking Prague, not far from Prague Castle and the picturesque city centre.

But the plan hit a wall of rejection from Prague's right-wing city council, triggering heated debate in a capital passionate about its mediaeval, Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nouveau and Cubist heritage but lukewarm about contemporary architecture.

Only three, big-name projects -- by Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Ricardo Bofill -- have altered Prague's cityscape in the last two decades.

President Vaclav Klaus, the spiritual chief of staunch Czech right-wingers, led criticism, saying he was ready "to prevent its construction with his own body."

In the end, city hall dropped the new library project.

But Kaplicky's unexpected death, at age 71 on a Prague street in January hours after the birth of his daughter, has revived interest. A student initiative on the online social network Facebook drew some 2,000 people to an unusual rally in central Prague last month in support of the "Octopus."

With the 1989 Velvet Revolution long past, Czechs rarely take to the street, notably to promote cultural freedoms. The last time was in 2000-2001 when journalists and intellectuals demanded the resignation of the public TV service head, who was seen as an ally of then parliament speaker -- ironically Vaclav Klaus.

"Our primary goal is to show our support for the national library, but above all we want to fight meddling politicians," said one of the rally's organisers, Jan Libicek.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg was among the demonstrators. "Prague is beautiful but it is not a sealed tin," he said, adding: "Kaplicky's project is prodigious."

In another initiative last month, 300 people, including film director Sverak, built a model of the library from second-hand books on Letna hill.

We must "persuade the elected officials" to start the project, said Sverak, "and this will be a tough job, because they are a dead set."

Earlier this month, Prague mayor and Klaus follower Pavel Bem gave a hint of a possible concession.

"The 'Octopus' or 'Blob' design is interesting, extremely attractive from the architectural point of view but it can't stand on Letna," he said, without elaborating.

A pro-Octopus petition has been started by one of Bem's predecessors, architect Jan Kasl who stepped down as mayor in 2002 to protest what he called right-wing councillors "catering to their personal interests rather than to those of their fellow citizens".

The international jury saw the technical parameters of Kaplicky's library as a strong point, including a large underground space for 10 million books, a lecture hall and study areas.

Its supporters include the former head of the national library Vlastimil Jezek, who was sacked in the row over the "Blob."

He said the current facility, a former Jesuit college completed in 1723 in the Clementinum palace in Prague's centre, was outdated. "We've known that the Clementinum is unfit for at least a century. We must act."

Like others, Jezek is also upset that the country has no building by its native son, whose landmark works include the aluminium Selfridges store in England's central city of Birmingham and the Maserati Museum in Modena, Italy.

Anything but dull, Kaplicky often drew inspiration from natural or anatomical forms such as spider webs, butterfly wings or fish scales.

With octopus tentacles, he has had little luck so far.


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