Prague's main train station set for extensive renovation in coming years

I am standing in the main departure hall of Prague's main train station. Right to me a group of homeless men is staring into nowhere, drinking cheap wine ... fast food stands scattered around are offering rather overpriced refreshment. Not a welcoming sight ... Dark, dirty corners and hallways have given the main train station a bad reputation. It is now perceived as a dangerous and disgusting place. You wouldn't want to spend too much time here. It would be difficult to find a single person, local or foreign, who would be proud of this gateway to the Czech capital. This nightmare is soon to come to its end. The capital's biggest train station, which was built in the 70's, is to undergo a major refurbishment. If there are no delays it should kick off this autumn and in four years time it should resemble an airport hall and become a center of traveling as well as leisure time.

"They did a similar project with the train station in Rome, which has been completely refurbished. It is an example what should a station of the 21st century look like."

Says Ales Ondruj, the spokesperson of the Czech Railways, about Grandi Stazioni the Italian company that is going to reconstruct Prague's Hlavni nadrazi, or main train station.

"It looks more like a shopping mall, like a center of both traveling and other activities. Today it is not only about traveling; it is about meeting friends, going shopping, going to services like hairdressers, medical services, cinemas, and that is the way we would like to follow here in Prague. That is the reason why we have selected Grandi Stazioni."

According to the Italian company's plans the changes to the building itself are, apart from a new entry, not going to be recognizable from outside. The project includes a new car park on a roof of the station's new building, while in the historical part of the building the Art Noveau Fanta café has been promised a significant improvement, and will hopefully attract more visitors. By the way, the Fanta café gets its name from Josef Fanta; he was the architect of the station, which was completed in 1909.

Fanta caféFanta café The budget for the reconstruction comes to 28 million dollars. The project will be financed through the public private partnership system, with Grandi Stazioni set to get its investment back in the years to come from rents of the future high profile spaces.

"The benefit for Czech Railways is a modernized infrastructure, a modern station. This way of financing saves the company money which we can then put into the modernization of carriages and so on. The private partner gets its money back from the rent and Czech Railways has the benefit of having a modern infrastructure."

The modernization of Hlavni nadrazi has been a matter of discussion for some years. The inner areas of the spacious building are not a pretty sight and although positioned close to the center and on a busy metro line people avoid it. The main reason for this is groups of homeless people lingering in the halls and in the park in front of the building.

Architect Patrik Kotas, the brains behind the project and the author of the final plan believes that the modernization is going to stop the station being a haven for the homeless.

"Changing the environment at the main train station, changing its character and surrounding, is going to push away those groups - they will not feel comfortable there anymore. It is a paradox that these days it is the other way round, which is wrong; the main train station feels safe and comfortable to the homeless while the rest, the 95% of people who use the station as passengers, don't feel safe and comfortable at all."

Among other projects conceived by Patrik Kotas, are the metro station Rajska Zahrada, a colorful Barandov tram line and transport designs. Hlavni nadrazi is a question of prestige, he says.

"The main train station is the heart of the Czech rail network and it is a beautiful building. When I was a child I used to walk down Vinohradska Street, at the bottom of which there is a great view of the station. The sight of trains departing and arriving, those steel halls, engines and the Art Nouveau buildings by Fanta - that is something that has always stayed in my mind as one of the beautiful symbols of Prague."

The project is meant to restore the beauty of the original project in harmony with new contemporary elements. The difference between the two time periods should be easy to recognize, without either becoming dominant.

"It is obvious that we have different views on many things, but the main idea and the image of the project is more or less the same. I think that the main worry is the aim of Grandi Stazioni, which is to bring commercial elements to the main station. It might give rise to a fear that it will be turned into a shopping mall. But that is not going to happen. As long as I am a part of the project it isn't going to happen."

Photo: Grandi StazioniPhoto: Grandi Stazioni Says Patrik Kotas, about the co-operation with the architects who designed the original extension in the 70s. Under Czech law an original architect and a new architect have to agree on all changes to an existing design. One of the two architects who created the look of the main train station was Alena Sramkova What has she got to say about the co-operation with Patrik Kotas?

Photo: Grandi StazioniPhoto: Grandi Stazioni "It is not working very well but we are both trying. We have decided which walls are going to stay and which are going to be new and what they are going to look like. We are meeting again tomorrow and we are most likely going to argue again. It has been going on for two years now and it is always the same. We tell them what they have done wrong because they don't understand our point of view and ask them to do it again."

Says Alena Sramkova. After all the building of the main train station is 'her child'. In her opinion only four good buildings were built back in the 70's with the main train station as one of them. "I would like to see it listed among sights of historical interests," she says, "We should protect the architecture of 60s and 70s."

Photo: Grandi StazioniPhoto: Grandi Stazioni "Believe me, it is very painful work, for us as well as for the new designer. He cannot get his head around why certain things are the way they are, how they were made in a certain way, how we perceived it. He doesn't understand it because his approach to art is different. He is more interested in design, round shapes, ellipses - and would like to use more of those - but we are not willing to approve it. He should comply with our requests, but it is very hard for him."

Photo: Grandi StazioniPhoto: Grandi Stazioni The law is just one of many obstacles that might delay the whole reconstruction. But so far everybody seems to be optimistic and believes that in four years' time the halls of the main train station will offer both comfort and entertainment. As Patrik Kotas put it - people might even go to a train station for a date. Something difficult to imagine today.

"The main purpose is that there won't be groups of people that expect the same services as at a street market. What we want are clients similar to those at an airport. And for sure there should not be stands with sausages, bread and mustard served on plastic plates and beer in plastic cups."