Less than an hour's drive from Prague and overlooked by castles and churches, Usti's aesthetic troubles began when Communist central planners constructed a massive chemical factory and chlorine plant in the centre of the town. For 30 years the modernisation of Usti was relentless. Eighteenth- and 19th-century buildings were pulled down and replaced by new apartment blocks and hotels.
For a while the living was good. Industry boomed and factories spread along the valley. Now Usti is suffering. Industry is not as competitive as it was, pollution is a problem, and
the buildings, once symbols of a modern social system in action, are now little more than stained and politically inappropiate concrete eyesores. Unsurprisingly, the people of Usti no longer want a factory as a town centre.
Rehabilitating this urban landscape and re-zoning factories and residential areas is a complex, difficult and hefty task. Yet it has been seized with relish by two young architects, Roman Koucky and Michal Sramek. Koucky is a member of the Golden Eagles, who came into being to stage an exhibition in 1984 when all the members were still at university. The exhibition never happened but the group kept going and the members took it upon themselves to ask questions of the state and challenge the accepted way of doing things.
Another member of the group, Michal Kohout, established the Golden School of Architecture as a dissident act just before the 1989 revolution. He explains: 'We set up a 'school' in the evenings which was really just a place for people to meet and talk. It gave people of our generation the chance to meet the kind of people who were never allowed to teach at the official schools. It says something that most of the people we had at the Golden School got official positions very quickly after the revolution.'
Kohout, Koucky and a third Golden Eagle, Jaroslav Zima, also made it their business to ask awkward questions of the authorities. As Koucky says: 'The three of us started writing letters that would criticise something very particular.'
When, immediately after the revolution, a new city architect was appointed in Prague, the Golden Eagles were quick to raise questions with him. He told them: 'If you think you can do better, show us.' So they did. The Eagles created a plan for the regeneration of Smichov, a solid industrial working-class district of Prague. So good was this scheme that it caught the attention of the mayor of Usti, Lukas Masin, and Usti's city architect, Jan Jehcik.
Masin, Jehcik and the Eagles met. On the advice of the Eagles the entire city architect's department was sacked and Usti became the first town in the new Czech Republic to stop using system-built 'panel blocks' for its state housing schemes. That was two years ago. Today there are plans for a graceful new bridge over the Labem (Elbe) and for the reclamation of the old town centre, which will include the cobbling of the town square.
The sole surviving public statue of the pre-Communist era will be remounted. In somewhere other than an ex-Communist industrial town, such demands for a return to the values and symbols of the past might smack of reactionary nostalgia. In Usti, the idea simply makes sense.
As Jehcik says: 'Our generation has not had a chance to try our hand at urbanism - so it's a learning process for us all. But the government asks us why we want to carry out a scheme like the plan for the centre, which they say is not necessary.
'Our answer is that it is necessary. Our plans are not just cosmetic, they are about people's lives and feelings.'
Golden Eagles also publish 'Zlaty Rez' ('Golden Section'), an architecture and
design magazine in Czech adn English.
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