Issue Story: Prague Marks 25 Years of Historical Preservation with UNESCO

By: Mary Carol Butterfield

Prague’s 25th anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is drawing attention to the successes and failures of historical preservation in the capital of the Czech Republic.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, is dedicated to celebrating and protecting properties and geographical sites around the world. However, while Prague has maintained its status as a World Heritage site, many believe the city still has a long way to go in ensuring the protection of the Historic Center of the city.

The Charles Bridge and the Castle Complex, seen in the background, are part of the protected Historic Center.

When UNESCO first launched the World Heritage Site program in 1972, the communist government in Czechoslovakia saw it as a capitalist movement and did not allow the country to participate. However, the fall of communism brought about a renewed interest in preserving Prague’s rich history. Since 1992, UNESCO has recognized the Historic Center of Prague for its architecture dating back to the Middle Ages. UNESCO describes Prague as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

“In the course of the 1100 years of its existence, Prague’s development can be documented in the architectural expression of many historical periods and their styles. The city is rich in outstanding monuments from all periods of its history,” stated the World Heritage Committee at their 2008 convention .

While UNESCO can provide expertise and financial assistance, the organization relies on the local government to assist in identifying buildings and areas in need of protection.

The Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord is
the focus of Prague 3’s next project with UNESCO.

Matěj Hoferek is an officer in the Department of Culture for the Prague 3 Municipal District. His work, which is focused within the district, encompasses a variety of landmarks from the Olšany Cemetery to the National War Memorial on Vitcov. As a second-tier municipality, Prague 3 works with City Hall and UNESCO on identifying buildings of historical significance and planning the most effective ways to protect and restore them.

“The most important things I approach are the preservation of local war tombs, monuments and buildings by renowned architects,” says Hoferek. “We focus on historical heritage in the city.”

Hoferek and representatives from other departments within the Prague 3 Municipal District meet with City Hall four times a year to discuss these sites of cultural and historical importance. As Hoferek prepares for the quarterly meeting, he is grateful for Prague’s relationship with UNESCO.

“Prague 3 is currently partnering up on registering the church on Jiriho z Podebrad Square into the UNESCO heritage with Slovenia,” says Hoferek.

The Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord was designed by famous Slovenian architect Josip Plecnik. UNESCO will help the Czech Republic partner with Slovenia to register the church and ensure its protection in the future.

While Hoferek is pleased with his department’s work, there are others who believe the city government needs to improve their approach to historical preservation.

The Club for Old Prague, or Klub Starou Prahu, has been advocating for historical preservation for over a century. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1900 and has continuously worked to protect monuments throughout the city since its inception. Veronika Vicherková has been a member since 2013.

“We want to protect the historical urbanistic structure of the town, which is the result of 1000 years of development and the growth of the city, quite unique within central Europe, as it was not damaged as much by the fights of World War II or redevelopment actions like many other European towns,” says Vicherková.

Unfortunately, that mission is easier to state than to accomplish.

“The Prague Metropolitan Plan is not ready still, and the rules are not strict enough. That brings confusion and makes the circumvention of the law possible,” says Vicherková.

UNESCO can provide financial support and guidance, but the Prague Institute of Development and Planning along with the Ministry of Regional Development must finalize the Metropolitan Plan for zoning rules and buildings guidelines to take effect.

Regina Loukotova is also frustrated with the current lack of rules. The rector of the Architectural Institute in Prague is an architect by trade and understands the importance of regulations in protecting the Historic Center.

“The rules you have as an architect or an investor or a developer are very vague,” says Loukotova. “On one side, that was the spirit of the 1950s, everyone should care about our heritage. On the other hand, people will destroy part of the houses or buildings because there are no strict rules.”

This lack of rules is a major difference between Prague and cities in nearby Italy and Austria. In Prague, many would like to rely on the spirit of pride and obligation to protect, but architects like Loukotova want to see specific guidelines on height limits, street line limits and percentage of buildable area.

The lack of guidelines and enforcement is not the only danger to historical preservation.

“Money and the greed,” says Vicherková, when asked about additional threats. “The will to exhaust maximum profit from property, monuments, and so on.”

Loukotova sees similar obstacles to achieving effective change. Administrators who do not have proper training in, or understanding of architecture, officials who get caught up in the details rather than looking at the big picture, and developers focused on profit rather than protection threaten the historic areas of the city, especially as Prague looks to address housing concerns.

This map shows the Historic Center of Prague with the sites on which students with the Architecture Institute of Prague will be working. (Courtesy of Regina Loukotova)

Prague is currently facing a housing crisis, which intensifies the need for the Metropolitan Plan to be finalized. Addressing the shortage of affordable apartments while preserving the integrity of protected areas is a top priority for Loukotova. At the end of May, the Architectural Institute in Prague will be partnering with other schools across Europe. Students from Edinburgh, Paris and Bordeaux will meet in Prague, get to know the city and develop a plan for building housing within the historic area. For Loukotova, this workshop is about more than a learning opportunity; it is about the future of historic cities like Prague.

“I believe in education,” says Lukotova. “I believe that the young people who are being educated at the moment, not just in Prague but outside the country as well, are bringing back their experience. I believe that with the young generation will come the change.”

As Lukotova explains, there are many approaches to historical preservation in Prague. Both City Hall and the Club for Old Prague have an extensive list of projects in need of attention, but UNESCO can only help accomplish so much. Government action is necessary to provide the rules to make these goals a reality.

Education of future leaders and action by current leaders is imperative to ensure Prague will be celebrating another milestone with UNESCO 25 more years down the road.