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Immured in History

August 8, 2007

Prague as a City of Walls

On September 7, 1994, Pink Floyd performed in the Czech Republic for the first time. Hundreds of thousands of Czechs turned up at Prague’s vast Strahov Stadium to witness an event which Q magazine later described as “the biggest musical spectacle Czechoslovakia has ever seen.” The audience responded rapturously throughout, but Another Brick In The Wall was the concert’s undeniable emotional highpoint. “The crowd went crazy,” recalls concertgoer Katerina Baglio. “Young people especially loved this song because it was just a little bit rebellious.” For an audience that had up until only five years previously lived behind the Berlin Wall, a structure erected by the hard-line Communist regime to ensure that western pop music, among other evils, wouldn’t poison the people, this snarling anthem against “thought control” carried particular significance.

Walls seem to resonate powerfully with the Czech people. From the impenetrability of the ramparts in Kafka’s 1922 novel “The Castle,” to the hapless hero in animator Jan Svankmajer’s surrealist 1968 short, “The Apartment,” who opens a window only to find a solid brick wall beyond, Czech culture is packed with images of oppressive, impenetrable façades. But while memories of life under communism still fester in the minds of many Czechs today, walls don’t always represent imprisonment. A closer look at some of the Czech capital’s most interesting vertical surfaces reveals less about the country’s legacy of intractability and subjugation than about its fascination with porosity and change.

No façade embodies the idea of mutability more overtly than the southern wall (or “Grotto”) of the Wallenstein Garden. Built around 1630 as part of Gen. Albrecht von Wallenstein’s palace complex in central Prague, the wall is one of the most incongruous sights in a city full of architectural incongruities. From a distance, the Mannerist structure resembles calcified oatmeal. But up close, the stalactite-like, lime stucco fingers morph into grotesque living forms like grinning human faces and squatting frogs. In wild contrast to the orderly lawns, tinkling fountains and mythological-themed frescoes that dominate the rest of the garden, the wall suggests a world of secrets, illusions and constantly shifting shapes.
Unlike the fluid Wallenstein Grotto, the ramparts of Prague Castle look forbiddingly solid. However, the castle walls have evolved over time to reflect the changing symbolism of the buildings they encase.

The most revealing alterations date back to the previous two centuries, during Bohemia’s transition from being an outcrop of the Hapsburg Empire to independence. After the Czechs challenged Hapsburg rule in the 1848 Revolution, Emperor Franz Joseph I constructed high fortifications on the southern side of the castle to protect it from Prague’s riotous citizens. When the monarchy finally fell, giving birth to Czechoslovakia in 1918, the fledgling state’s first president, Tomás Masaryk, enlisted the help of Slovene architect Josip Plecnik to renovate the castle. One of Plecnik’s most symbolic tasks was to lower the southern walls. “The castle was widely hated as an emblem of Austrian arrogance,” says Czech architecture historian Zdenek Luke. “The public praised Masaryk’s decision in 1921 to lower the fortifications and reconnect the castle with the city.”

History hasn’t always had such a positive impact on the façades of Prague. The Lennon Wall, located in Prague’s leafy diplomatic quarter, has undergone so much transformation in the 27 years since Czech dissidents first co-opted it as a monument to the late singer, that its symbolic message has become largely meaningless. When Lennon, whom Prague’s subculture regarded as a pacifist hero, was murdered in 1980, a group of Prague youths created a mock grave for their icon and began writing free-speech and anti-Communist slogans on the wall. New graffiti regularly appeared despite the efforts of the police to whitewash over the paint and install surveillance cameras and security guards. “On the anniversary of John’s death, kids would come to the wall, light candles and sing Beatles songs,” recalls Milos Curík, a former jazz and pop-music impresario who now leads cultural tours of Prague. “It was a peaceful protest against the Communist regime, but police covered over the inscriptions and made arrests.”

The original motifs have long since vanished. Today, the wall has become less a shrine to Lennon’s legacy than a venue for tourists and disgruntled teens to vent in vaguely holistic ways. Slogans like “la felicidad existe” and “I am you, and you are me, as you are we” collide with images of smoking guns and giant, be-fanged rabbits brandishing placards inscribed with words of revenge. “Someone recently painted over Yoko Ono’s autograph as well as a beautiful picture of John created by a student from the Fine Art Academy,” says Mr. Curík. “Today it seems that kids from all over the world think it’s more important to leave their ‘message’ instead of respecting what’s already been put on the wall.”

If the Lennon Wall illustrates a mutating relationship, for better and for worse, between Prague and its past, the city’s new flood walls represent a flexible approach to safeguarding its future. When Prague’s worst floods in 200 years swept through the city in August 2002, causing destruction in many neighborhoods, a series of mobile aluminum foldable walls designed to be mounted at short notice on pre-installed tracks saved the historic Old Town and Josefov districts from extensive damage. Rescue workers dubbed the barrier the “Wall of Hope” because it saved dozens of important monuments from ruin. Prague won’t complete its 3.25 billion Czech korunas ($159.7 million) citywide flood control system (combining mobile barriers for central Prague and dikes, concrete walls and iron gates for the outskirts) until 2008. Yet these invisible walls, whose only proof of existence is the narrow aluminum tracking snaking along Prague’s streets, send out a subtle yet powerful message about the city’s readiness to respond to change.

A barrier that can be erected and disassembled in mere hours might be the ultimate symbol for the changing face of modern Prague—for Czech walls are often obliterated as fast as they are built. When, in 1999, authorities in the northern town of Usti Nad Labem covertly built a wall to separate Czech homeowners from gypsy tenement dwellers across the street, public outcry led to the wall’s swift fall. Popular mythologies surrounding ex-President Vaclav Havel’s rise to power similarly encompass the tearing down of ramparts to bring about change. “I came across as a fairy-tale hero,” Mr. Havel has said, “a boy who, in the name of good, beat his head against the wall of a castle inhabited by evil kings, until the wall fell down and he himself became king.” Far from being symbols of stasis and unfluctuating power, Prague’s walls are eminently penetrable, constantly evolving emblems of change.


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