There are people enthusiastically visiting old monuments, castles, ruins, chateaux, urban reservations. And then there are also those who see no less charm in the not-so-ancient buildings associated with the Industrial Revolution and the Industrial Age. They prefer to crawl through old factories, climb up chimneys and scaffoldings, and cheer over the successful reconstruction of a screw factory or a brewery. Those are the industrial gems that the Czech Republic boasts to a great extent.
In just a few days, on 2 August, the Open House Prague festival will be launched, during which we can visit many buildings and see them through "different eyes" and from a different perspective. Not only will you be able to see places where you normally won‘t be allowed to go, but you will also have the chance to enjoy a rich accompanying programme, including an expert section. Guided walks through Prague, debates or rides on historical vehicles should not be missed. On the weekend of 7 August, the gates of the buildings that are normally off-limits to ordinary visitors will open for two days.
The Czech Republic doesn’t treat its industrial wealth with much respect. Given that our region could be described as an industrial power (until 1948 or so), this wealth is truly a fabulous one. Yet, the demise of our industrial jewels comes often hand in hand with arbitrary and insensitive demolitions or modifications of absolutely unique buildings, purposive rampages of developers or city or municipal councils, as well as our population's complicated relationship to industrial cultural monuments. Look at the criminal demolitions of the Prague-Těšnov railway station, the Podbaba malt plant, the Rustonka in Karlín, the Praga car factory in Libeň and many others - and that's all just within Prague!
A great appreciation goes to all those who helped these very successful buildings to be rebuilt – not only to the architects, but especially to those who found a meaningful and profitable use for them.
In the recent past, the prevailing principle in the approach to technical monuments was to let them deteriorate and then demolish them. On the other hand, the awareness of the value of industrial heritage has seen a slow change for the better.
"As developers, we try to take our industrial heritage into account in our projects. The number of such projects and whether there could be more of them surely is a question. On the other hand, it has to be said that the preservation of these heritage buildings, which is in the public interest, is more or less a financial burden on private entities, so it is no wonder that they do not feel very motivated, unless the building is truly exceptional and 'marketable'. At the same time, age is often mistaken for quality. We need to distinguish between quality historic buildings and mediocre ones, and to weigh the benefits of preservation against the potential for future development, the potential for what can be created on the vacant site,"
In recent years, the increasing number of renovations and conversions of historically valuable industrial buildings suggests a glimpse of better times ahead. So let's get to know at least part of what is still left in Prague.
One of the still preserved factory complexes in Kolbenova Street in Vysočany is largely inhabited by artists who set up their studios on the upper floors above the production halls. Traces of artistic activities can be seen throughout the whole complex - a pair of legendary Praga V3S trucks painted white, large-scale paintings and graffiti, peculiar mobile objects used as monkey bars or fitness equipment, all of that surrounded by the structures and building elements of the old factory. Pragovka includes a gallery, a concert space and an excellent café, while a permanent bierfest offering a range of beers from craft breweries together with unusual and exotic dishes takes place nearby. Characteristic, 41-metre-high brick chimney with a water tank oversees the whole area.
Following the events in Pragovka is worth it - on selected dates you can tour the production halls, sometimes even the studios of local artists. One of these dates should be the 7th and 8th of August, when Prague's otherwise inaccessible spaces are opened to the public as part of the Open Prague House event.
The water towers visibly demonstrate the changes in the approach to the architecture of industrial buildings over the last century. We are not saying that the shiny hydro-globe does not possess its charm, but if we compare it with the neo-renaissance Letná water tower or a similar structure in Korunní Street in Vinohrady, the points for "artistic impression" are clearly given out.
Unfortunately, not all of the old water towers are open to the public. In some cases this is understandable - for example, the Michle water tower by architect Kotěra, however unique from the outside, is actually just an empty tube inside with a closed metal tank on top. Others are privately owned and converted to housing, like the tower in Davídkova Street in Libeň. There is also housing in the Vinohrady water tower, the gallery of which could be visited until recently. However, one of Prague's most beautiful vantage points is now unfortunately inaccessible.
In the 1920s, a monumental neo-classical waterworks complex by architect Antonín Engel was built on the banks of the Vltava River in Podolí. Today, the functional filtration station and a spare drinking water source building house the Museum of Prague Water Management, which can be visited by appointment.
The view of the interior of the filtration station through the glass wall of the museum, which is nicknamed "Engel's Cathedral", is especially worth seeing. The minimum number of visitors is 4; the entrance fee is slightly over 100 CZK per person over six years of age.
Close to the Podolí waterworks are a swimming stadium, a bicycle path, interesting confectioneries (e.g. the Puro gelato ice cream parlor in Výtoň), restaurants (the famous Podolka), the Yellow Spa Park (Žluté lázně) with a swimming pool and a rich summer cultural programme and other pleasant urban amenities.
The Letná Water Tower is an undisputed landmark of Letná, although it is somewhat hidden in a side street. The final reconstruction of the former water tower is the work of Petr Hájek Architects Studio. Walls of this complex dating back to the second half of the 19th century hide a space for children and young people, and the highest habitable floor houses a free community library. Although it will certainly not replace the Letná library that never came into being, it is a pleasant oasis not only for the citizens of Prague 7.
The reconstruction of the complex surrounding the Water Tower on Letná began in November 2016 and took two years. It was financed by the Municipal District of Prague 7, which paid CZK 62 million, of which the City Hall received CZK 38 million from the capital from European funds. The water tower was officially opened on 30 May 2018.
"We prepared for the Letná tower reconstruction project in the same way as we do for the reconstruction of any historical monument - we studied building and historical research, restoration prospects and historical records. Then we received the client's requirements as to what must be in the building, i.e. the children and youth leisure centre and the kindergarten, to which we added our own ideas: a library, the chimney periscope, a green garden and other features surrounding the tower,"
The historic pump house directly in front of the tower entrance was renovated as well. The listed pump from the 1880s originally stood in Prague 2. It has been given a new coat of paint and two lamps that were formerly part of it have also been restored.
To this day, the Letná Waterworks complex has undergone many reconstructions. The technical buildings, including the steam engine room, have been removed and replaced by two-storey extensions, which serve as a youth centre. A Foucault pendulum is installed in the hall of the main staircase to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth on its axis. An experiment of this kind was first presented in 1850, shortly before the Letná Waterworks was founded.
The top accessible gallery offers magnificent panoramic views of the whole city. In the past, they were much wider, but the surrounding urban development limited them. That is why Petr Hájek Architects Studio decided to install a periscope in the chimney of the water pumping steam engine, which restored the faraway views in a completely unconventional way - the powerful optics and electronic guidance allows to view not only the city skyline, but also the starry sky and celestial objects.
"In my opinion, the truss is pretty interesting as well, but unfortunately it is not accessible. There is a bullet hole from World War II, bells and a clock. It's a place with a great atmosphere, where you can feel a touch of the tower's history. I believe the water tower definitely should be visited,"
The topmost space, where the main water reservoir was originally located, now houses a community hall for exhibitions and social events, equipped with an elevating floor and an exhibition system with lights. The tower gallery, the periscope observation booth and the operating staircase to the roof, where the clockwork and bells are located, are also accessible from here. Another interesting feature is a preserved bullet hole in the beam structure, probably from World War II.
The distinctive six-storey building from 1888 stands out in Korunovační Street right next to Letná Square. On the fifth floor, twenty meters above the ground, there is a viewing gallery, accessible during the opening hours of the local library and charged according to the ticket price of the current exhibition (usually rather symbolic). The tower also offers tours of the entire complex, which are best booked in advance. There is a periscope that provides an unobstructed view of various Prague monuments and the tower also hosts theatre performances for children and adults.
The architectural concept of the Letná Waterworks and its surroundings preserves all the aspects of history that have shaped the place up to the present day. They do not contradict each other, but sensitively correspond to each other, down to the smallest detail. Side by side, we find a 19th-century faux-bois window, a 1950s door and state-of-the-art aluminium windows, Bakelite, brass and steel fittings. Spending a weekend afternoon in Letná, whether alone or with the family, takes on a new dimension thanks to this project.
Braník pumping station pushed water into the Michle water tower, supplying the surrounding area as far as Vršovice. The building, designed by architect Jan Kotěra, was finished in 1907 and its history, especially in recent times, is dramatic. This expensively renovated building was damaged by floods several times and now houses a hobby centre with a large playground and one of the largest rope climbing centres in Europe. Entry is possible between 9 am and 8 pm. The entertainment complex on Vltavanů 229 also houses the family-run Korkorán restaurant and café with a wide range of food and drinks and its own confectionery production, where you can also enjoy the sensitively reconstructed industrial design.
The complex is situated close to the Vltava River and its surrounding in-line and cycle paths, making it an ideal stop on a family cycling trip. There is a roller skate rental and a golf course within easy reach. An interesting diversion from the route would certainly be a visit to the nearby former Braník brewery, which has recently undergone a complete reconstruction and which now houses, among other things, the recommended Moucha microbrewery.
Unlikely as it may seem, Prague's sewage network has only recently celebrated its centenary. It's best not to imagine what Prague's streets looked like before then. Prague's sewer system was designed by British engineer William Lindley at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and he managed to do it so well that most of it is still in successful use today. A significant part of this system is the sewage treatment plant in Bubeneč, which was closed in 1967, but most of the equipment is still in place. Parts of the cleaned sewer main can be toured on foot; smaller flooded areas are accessible with a guide on rafts. If you are lucky, you may catch a ride on the ferryman's barge, which reveals other unknown and inaccessible areas of Prague's sewer system. And those who are even luckier can take part in a secured climb up one of the two brick chimneys towering on the sides of the structure.
The tour includes the still-functioning steam engine room of the sewage treatment plant. Opening hours should be checked on the treatment plant's website (staracistirna.cz). The admission fee is CZK180 for an adult and CZK 90 for a child; family tickets are also available, but prices are tiered according to the type of experience. The venue also includes a cosy café and a bar called Stokabar ("the Sewer Bar").
The distinctive Art Nouveau architecture, along with the wide range of opportunities to discover the beauty of the scenic industrial area, makes for an enticing trip that will appeal to children and adults alike.
A lot of literature is being published about industrial buildings; unfortunately more about those that have already been demolished. However, there is still the question of whether it would not be worth creating some kind of registry of these buildings – a registry of industrial cultural heritage with clear qualitative classification.
"It would certainly be worth it to create a registry that would be done on an expert level, so that the heritage status of the buildings is undeniable and not subject to short-term social tendencies. Subsequently, these categories would need to be well classified and identified in terms of conservation priorities. In cases of truly unique sites with a high priority for protecting the state and, by extension, the regions and towns should be prepared to actively participate in the process and contribute to finding a way for its reconversion. The contribution can be financial, but it can also be a commitment to use the building in an appropriate, functional way, which may not always be as effective as in the private sector. The private sector should see the state/counties/cities as a partner that makes sense to work with. This should prevent truly culturally valuable industrial buildings from becoming an economic scare for developers. An ideal form of cooperation for these reconversion projects could be a public-private partnership,"
For average buildings, we should consider what their protection will bring and whether the cost of protection won't block or hinder the process of restoration of the wider area, in which case it might be enough to only preserve a certain element of it or just reflect the site in the form of a free interpretation by the new architecture. On the other hand, a number of old, not so valuable industrial sites should once and for all be assigned for redevelopment. This would give new architecture a chance to be created, with the potential to become a "culturally valuable building" for the generations of our children and grandchildren.
"It also takes a lot of political and professional courage to take this step. It is sad how often in the course of planning a project, the idea of giving a building that has been forgotten for decades a landmark status suddenly arises, which sets bureaucratic machinery in motion for several years, where, in the end, expertise is the last thing that matters,"
In general, the wide respectability of such a set of protected objects would require professional independence and using the same standards for all. Regeneration projects themselves often last more than one parliamentary term, not to mention the subsequent life cycle of the building. We should also be frugal and realistic about the number of those truly unique and more deserving of protection. Excessive protection in terms of the quantity and quality of buildings can also have devastating consequences both for the buildings themselves and for their surroundings.
Well, there's still the inaccessible industrial. Enclosed and guarded, crumbling factories and other industrial buildings beckon with their unexplored nature, hiding many exciting secrets, watched over by vigilant security guards, bear-sized dogs and sophisticated alarm systems. Yes, those exist too. Some are easy to infiltrate, others almost impossible. They're here, beckoning to connoisseurs of industrial architecture and unconventional experiences. So why not take advantage of the Open House Prague festival, which starts on August 2, and explore beyond your everyday life a bit?