Architecture: And now for a softly-softly revolution: Prague, classic city of Baroque and Gothic, must not be too radical as it modernises itself, says Kenneth Powell

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The Independent Culture
Had Neville Chamberlain not given Hitler carte blanche to invade Czechoslovakia, Prague might have seen the first blitzkrieg of the Second World War. But the Czechs were betrayed and their capital, the classic city of Baroque and Gothic, remained physically intact, although architects, like everyone else, became servants of an oppressive state.

Today, following the 'velvet revolution' of 1989, one of Europe's most pressing architectural challenges concerns the future of Prague. Can the demands of capitalism and tourism be accommodated without destroying the beauty of one of Europe's architecturally most complete and coherent cities?

A current cause for debate in Prague is the office building rising on a riverside site to designs by the American superstar architect Frank Gehry. The general feeling is that Prague does not need an architecture rooted in (as many Czechs see it) indiscipline, self-indulgence and Disneyesque effects. Neither does it need schemes like that designed for the main railway station by Britain's John Seifert - a clump of office towers squatting over the tracks.

Yet for the Czechs, modern architecture and design are associated with the birth of their country. Czech Modernism emerged naturally from the romantic, national style of the pre-1914 years and from Cubism. Modern Czech architecture became widely admired internationally during the Thirties. Havlicek and Honzik's Pension Building of 1928-33 - 'the white cathedral of Prague', as one English visitor described it - was an international Modernist icon. Modern houses, some designed by Adolf Loos and Mart Stam, proliferated in the hills overlooking the city, notably in the artistic colony at Baba.

The former Trade Fair building (1924- 28) by Tyl and Fuchs, much admired by Le Corbusier, has been well converted into a modern art gallery. Yet, ironically in a city in which 'heritage' is a major industry, many modern classics face neglect and mutilation. Moreover, it is not clear whether the protection given to older historic buildings by the Communist regime will continue: there is mounting pressure to demolish and redevelop.

Prague saw plenty of new development in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, as the Communists equipped the city with big hotels, conference centres, a metro system and all the trappings of modern urban life. The results were often disastrous. Among the worst examples are the massive and brutal InterContinental Hotel on the edge of the Old Town or the late-Eighties Atrium Hotel a few blocks distant. More hotels are planned. This is inevitable. Prague is being deluged with millions of visitors.

The new Four Seasons Hotel will sit uncomfortably close to the 15th-century Charles Bridge, while the Don Giovanni Hotel will overlook Kafka's grave in the New Jewish Cemetery. Local critics, of whom Vladimir Slapeta, head of the architecture school at the Technical University, is one of the most forceful, have condemned the German-backed Don Giovanni project as a banal intrusion. Slapeta hopes that Prague's architects will emerge as a powerful force against inappropriate development. 'Under Communism, architects lost their voice and became mere functionaries,' he says.

But what sort of architecture is appropriate in Prague? There seems to be little scope for new buildings in the central core. Robert Collingwood, of the British practice Jestico & Whiles, which has an office in Prague, believes that the priority is restoring and updating existing buildings, so many of which bear the scars of a half-century of neglect. Collingwood is currently working on a project to rehabilitate a run-down quarter behind Old Town Square as flats and offices. He believes that history and new design can co-exist. 'There's scope for good modern work in a historic context - to falsify the past would be to betray the traditions of this city.'

As in Britain, the key issues should be seen in terms of form and content, not mere style. Interestingly, the Prince of Wales, who has a strong interest in the city, and architects such as Sir Norman Foster and Sir Richard Rogers can find common cause. Prince Charles is to become joint chairman, alongside President Vaclav Havel, of a conference and series of events in aid of the Prague Heritage Fund.

Prague is traditionally a city of mixed uses, with apartments over shops and offices, but the inner-city population is dropping as developers opt for purely commercial schemes. As Prague confronts traffic congestion and pollution, it can learn from other cities' mistakes: in other words, abandon plans for new roads and concentrate resources into its already efficient public transport system.

Prague will learn little to its advantage by copying what cities such as London have done to themselves. It can learn most by looking to its own heritage which, apart from Gothic and Baroque buildings, is also rich in Art Nouveau, Cubism and Modernism. As one young architect told me: 'We must look back to look forward'. In the process, the Czechs, I predict, will again take their place at the centre of Europe's architectural scene.

(Photograph omitted)