To blob or not to blob

21-10-2007

Citizens of Prague, and probably of the entire Czech Republic as well, are enjoying a rare moment of what pioneers of civil society came to call the public debate. In spite of the fact that in its recent history the country has had to consider some crucial decisions - joining NATO, becoming part of the EU, sending troops to Iraq, and more recently the possible positioning of American anti-missile radar base and Czech candidacy to host the Olympic Games - none of these truly serious topics seemed to have captured the public imagination as much as the design and the location of a planned new National Library building, also known as 'the blob'.

Every day now, and with an increasing frequency, the public learns about the most cogent arguments for or against the new National Library building. It is supposed to be erected on Letna Plain, right on the edge of Prague's historical centre and across the Vltava from the Old Town and about one kilometre from the Prague Castle as the crow flies. It might have been the proximity to the seat of the Czech president together with its futuristic design that first prompted President Vaclav Klaus to reject the new library saying he would prevent its construction with his own body.

Although Mr Klaus has abstained from commenting on the building ever since, his negative stance seemed to have inspired the City Council to reject the building, despite its originally having been in favour of it. But their plans for Letna Plain are no less conservative. The large plain with an adjacent park was once the location of a monument to Stalin and the venue of 1st of May parades held by the communists should accommodate an aquarium. According to the plans backed by Prague City Hall, the aquarium will be located in the foundations of the former Stalin monument. And there is yet another plan to put Letna's open space to an appropriate use. The football stadium on the plain's northern end which is now the home ground of Sparta Prague should be pulled down so that a new National Football Stadium for 35 000 spectators could be built on its site.

These contending intentions have provoked reactions from people from virtually all walks of life. There is a petition in support of the new National Library and there is another petition against it. Prague Mayor Pavel Bem said he liked the design of the library but would prefer its location elsewhere while former president Vaclav Havel has warned that banality could prevail over originality. Architects have come up with a pro-blob petition for other architects (and the public) to sign; a theatre in Prague has organized another anti-blob petition. A local Green Party organisation is against the aquarium and football stadium, yet support the blob and one of the Czech TV stations aired a debate between Mayor Pavel Bem and Jan Kaplicky, the author of the new National Library building. And, lastly the mayor of Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic, said that if Prague is too posh to house the blob, it could just as well be built in the Moravian capital.

All this is rather difficult and exhausting to follow, hard as we try to bring you all the latest Czech events including the blob-related mania. But whether or not Prague's Letna Plain will boast the new library building, its trace in the city's memory is there to stay. Wonder what petition Kafka would sign.

21-10-2007