Built at the end of the 1980s to host communist party gatherings, Prague’s Congress Centre was the pride of the communist leadership. However, within years of building it, the communists lost power and the centre never became fully functional. In 2000 it hosted a summit of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but soon ran into debt and now finds itself on the verge of bankruptcy.
The monstrously huge glass-and-chrome congress centre was a legacy of the old days – oversize, impractical and hard to maintain. Moreover it lacked the technology needed for it to host international seminars and congresses. In 1995 the Czech Republic won a bid to host the 2000 IMF and World Bank summit. To reconstruct the 14-year-old building for the event, City Hall borrowed some five billion crowns. Despite the modernization the centre has never been used to its full potential and now it finds itself on the verge of bankruptcy, with a debt of over two billion crowns to be paid off by the end of 2014.
Architectural historian Zdeněk Lukeš says the Palace of Culture, as it was called, never overcame the stigma of being a communist party monument.
“It was a military project and from the architectural point of view of it was a similar type of building such as buildings in London, Germany or the Finlandia Palace in Helsinki by Alvar Alto. So it was nothing special. We could say it is an example of brutalism of the 1970s and 80s. The building was not popular for two reasons: because of its function as a palace for communist meeting and because it was really huge on the horizon of Prague, especially if you looked at it from Prague Castle.”
The Prague City Council has promised the centre a financial injection of 100 million crowns and is now looking for a way to keep the Congress Centre afloat without having to sell one of its most lucrative pieces of real estate. Milan Richter is deputy mayor of Prague:
“Within two weeks we want to announce a tender to restructure the debt in a way that would allow the city to keep the main congress building. The current debt dates back to the 2000 IFF and World Bank meeting. It must have been clear then that the Congress Centre would not be able to pay off the high interest payments in the future. Now we have to deal with the situation.”
The City of Prague is also planning to sell off some parts of the property, including the adjoining Business Centre and the Holiday Inn hotel. Some people argue that Prague has never been a destination for congress tourism and the situation is not likely to change. So wouldn’t it be better to pull the building down? Zdeněk Lukeš again:
“I think it would be better to reconstruct the building completely: to respect what is functional and to rebuild what is not functional. The main problem of the building is its maintenance, because it is extremely expensive. But I think that every large city needs some large meeting centre for important congresses and concerts.”
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