Prague’s Hlavní nádraží or Main Station was once a dank and depressing place, not somewhere you’d wish to linger a moment longer than necessary. Over the past few years, however, it’s undergone a 50-million-euro makeover at the hands of the Italian firm Grandi Stazioni. On Thursday the presidents of Italy and the Czech Republic snipped the ceremonial tape on the station’s new concourse.
It’s a little-known fact that Czech rulers as far back as Emperor Rudolf II have drafted in Italian craftsmen to work on major building projects. So the workmen of Grandi Stazioni, who’ve been transforming Prague’s Main Station for ten years, are continuing a fine tradition, and seem to have done a fine job. Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano was even on hand to cut the tape with President Václav Klaus, taking time out from the government crisis. He spoke briefly to reporters:
“The first transformation happened back in the 1970s, when this departure hall was built and linked up to the new metro line. This is basically the first major renovation since then. And I think that all rail passengers most definitely deserve it.”
To call what happened in the 1970s a ‘transformation’ is a diplomatic description of one of the greatest architectural crimes committed against Prague in the 20th century. Communist central planners took one of the city’s finest art nouveau buildings – the work of architect Josef Fanta, who redesigned the original Franz Josef station in 1909 – and drove a six-lane motorway right in front of it. Underneath it, they built a nightmarish new hall lined with futuristic red metal panels, the low ceilings creating a fair impression of hell, its garish walls coated with grease from fast food stands selling sausages.
The hot dog stands and the unpleasant odours are now gone, replaced by swanky boutiques and fast food outlets. The red panels have been spruced up, and now give off a pleasant, warm light. Outside the station, however, the park once dubbed ‘Sherwood’ for the chances of being mugged in it is still there, and it’s still rather seedy. So what will happen to it? Grandi Stazioni’s Martin Hamšík spoke to Czech Radio’s Jaroslav Skalický:
“We’re not actually responsible for the park itself, but we are working very closely with Prague 1 City Council, which has promised to renovate the park. This is so important, because when a traveller or tourist arrives and sees a beautifully restored station and then walks out into a park which isn’t too nice to look at, it’s not a very good calling card for the city.”
Grandi Stazioni will collect rent on Hlavní nádraží for the next thirty years, a lucrative prospect as the 64 shops and restaurants will serve 100,000 passengers each day. After the main hall the next step is to renovating the art nouveau Fanta’s Cafe, once the ticket office. The six-lane highway, however, will stay for now – a proposal to put the whole stretch of road underground was deemed too expensive.
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