Shaping Czech Culture
Through Architectural Design
“We have a right to live in a city which is not only well-functioning, but also aesthetically pleasing. We have the right to use public space without any unnecessary problems, and give access to all generations and disabled persons, while also creating a safe and architecturally well-designed environment.” — Milan Svoboda
Milan Svoboda is a landscape architect and urban planner, but his start in this line of work was more than unusual. He studied ecology and environmental protection at Charles University, but since completing his studies, he has devoted himself mostly to landscape architecture and urban planning. This change came about from a combination of limited professional opportunities in ecology (due to the former socialist regime) and thanks to his family ties in a forest planning company, where he began working in the sub-department of urban planning.
After the fall of communism, this department began focusing predominantly on forest planning, and consequently, the urban department was dissolved. Milan moved to another department which focused on the development of Plzeň, where he was tasked with landscape planning for the city.
In 1992, there was a directive for a new urban plan in Plzeň, to which Milan contributed mainly as a landscape architect, but he gradually moved up the ranks, being promoted to positions including project manager, deputy assistant, and, eventually, director of the institution. His career was finally determined after completing the necessary education and receiving authorisation from the Czech chamber of architects. He is the first person ever to become head of the chamber of architects without having a degree in architecture or engineering.
Despite working on urban planning, Milan has always infused his work with the knowledge gained from studying ecology. He has been involved in voluntary work in Plzeň, such as helping Green Treasure, which utilised funds from the city for environmental projects initiated by schools and non-profit organisations.
Milan worked in Plzeň until 2007. Then he left for Prague where he lived and worked for several years, but in 2015 he returned to Plzeň after being asked by the city’s municipality to work on a project named European Capital of Culture (ECOC). The project is an ongoing initiative started by the European Union, which entails bringing about social and economic benefits for a designated city within the EU through the organisation of various cultural events over the course of a calendar year. The higher aims of the project are to help foster urban regeneration, improve the city’s image, and raise its visibility and profile internationally. Under Milan’s leadership, Plzeň became the European Capital of Culture in 2015.
As an urban planner, Milan sees that a city should fulfil a number of basic functions such as access to clean water, electricity, sanitation, and transport. When all of these requirements are met, it should then focus on promoting culture as an activity. The strategy that existed and still exists in Plzeň focuses on tourism, innovation, entrepreneurism, and the overall appearance of the city — all of which are elements under the umbrella of culture. These cultural elements are what give appeal to any city, improving quality and allowing urban metropolises to flourish both socially and economically.
The main aim for Milan and representatives who were involved in the ECOC project was to engage the citizens of Plzeň and to expose them to a wider variety of culture. The project was a great success with citizens as it helped them to become more open-minded and Milan says, “When there was a punk concert, it’s not like they absolutely enjoyed it, but they didn’t mind. This is a sign of change … it wasn’t like that before.”
Milan continued, “Another thing that remained after the project is a department focusing on the urban development of the city, a new structure of people, say, which works alongside other cultural areas such as theatre and music festivals.”
In asking Svoboda to compare Plzeň and Prague on the topic of culture, he replied, “It is difficult to say. Prague has many more cultural opportunities. It has more people, more events, more everything. But the capital tends to commercialise the projects that are meant for the people, while Plzeň, perhaps due to its smaller size, or perhaps due to an unnamed factor, is able to retain the cultural essence of the event in its purest sense.”
Comparing Prague and Plzeň in terms of ecology, Milan replied, “Probably neither is at the forefront in this subject. There are cities which are much further ahead.” As an example, he mentioned Brno, which is currently working on a project aimed at conserving rainwater.
What, then, determines a city’s decision to develop new cultural and ecological projects, and see them through? Milan said, “All cities tend to have the incentive to create new projects whether cultural, ecological, or innovative, such as water conservation and green roofs. But the deciding factor is generally the political response from the party or leaders in office at the time.”
Brno, he said, received a lot of support from the municipality, financial and otherwise. He added that perhaps even Plzeň wouldn’t have become European Capital of Culture in 2015 had there been a different political agenda at the time.
However, the agenda of a city’s politicians can sometimes be toppled by the people. For example, in Plzeň, shortly before 2015, there was a dilapidated community centre which was destined to be destroyed. But before that happened, the building (“somehow,” Svoboda said) got into the hands of a private owner. He initially had plans to knock it down and build a new shopping centre, but with the traffic in Plzeň being very car-focused, this was a big worry for residents, because it would have put a strain on transport. The locals decided to campaign against it, which was possible due to an existing condition where public land had to be used in combination with the proposed shopping centre project. The people won and the shopping centre was not built, although it’s still an empty lot with no designated function today.
“This was something wonderful, because the citizens of Plzeň showed interest in what a city should look like,” said Milan. Plzeň provides basic amenities perfectly, such as infrastructure and media. However, the aesthetics of the urban environment are and have alw
ays been overlooked. Milan tried to hold architectural contests in Plzeň in an attempt to change this, but there wasn’t a great turnout. “The struggle is mostly to make it so that the quality of the construction is in the public’s interest. Today, the view is that it is in the public’s interest, but this is not officially a condition. There is no point in designing a building that doesn’t fit or is unable to function with others in the surrounding environment,” he said.
There is, however, a growing interest in public space, not only what it looks like, but also what’s in it. And this agenda can go with or against certain political agendas. What also helps is having architects in key city political positions. For the public it has helped to improve communication between themselves and politicians, leading to movements such as “Trash hero” or Žižkov’s own “Žižkov není Šiškov” (“Žižkov isn’t poo-town,” referring to dogs), which aims to create a more liveable public space and is even prepared to incentivise participants with rewards. These and other similar projects in the “lepsitrojka” movement are a great way to propagate public interest. It is therefore a combination of will and luck, in political terms, which will allow citizens to be involved in cities’ future.
By Michal Čapek