When it comes to moving between floors in Prague's taller buildings, there are more options than just elevators, escalators, and the stairs. The paternoster, an unusual early variant on the elevator, is still in wide use throughout the Czech Republic.
If you've ever repeatedly pushed the button to call an elevator, then you'll be familiar with the problem - with so many floors to serve, one compartment can only move so many people so quickly, and pushing the button three or eight or twenty times will never make an elevator come faster.
But there is a solution to the problem. It's been around since 1884 and it's called a paternoster, or cyclic elevator.
Never seen one before? Imagine two elevator shafts side by side. Now take away the doors. In the shaft to the right, a stream of wooden cabins moves slowly, endlessly upwards. In the left shaft, at the same velocity, cabins flow downwards. Some of them are occupied, by businessmen, secretaries, repair men, office workers, dogs, and children. Each cabin, as it passes by, is a life-sized display case of the people you see every day.
Ready? Let's get on.
"Most paternosters were made mostly in first half of 20th century, during the first Czechoslovak republic, a time when the Czech lands experienced a golden age. And this building, the Lucerna, is a shining example of that type of architecture. And we can also count its paternoster as a good example."
That's David Kabele, a paternoster enthusiast living in Prague. Recently Mr. Kabele and I took a ride on the cyclic elevator in the Lucerna building, a few steps from Wenceslas Square.
"This one is from 1974, but it's a reconstruction of a much earlier one from the first republic, from about 1925. Actually, we didn't pick the prettiest example, since it was rebuilt in the Communist era."
Although the Communists' aesthetic brutality scarred paternosters as much as any other area of Czech life, Communism paradoxically left the country with a particularly rich endowment of these machines.
Kabele: "For example in Germany and Great Britain - where paternosters were invented, by the way - tons of paternosters were closed in the second half of the 20th century because they're supposedly dangerous. But here they remained because the Communist government wasn't very afraid of European standards and norms. It was only in the 1990s that they started shutting some down, although fortunately that trend has abated and many are preserved and have been restored more or less as historical artifacts."
In total, there are about 70 of these exquisite dinosaurs scattered throughout the Czech Republic, most of them in the capital. Over the past 12 months, Kabele has been systematically visiting and logging data on each of Prague's paternosters, and posting pictures on his website, paternoster.archii.cz.
While many paternosters are off limits in private buildings, some are open to the public: such as the one in the YMCA Palace in Nove Mesto, or another in the exquisitely restored district office of Prague 7. And the Czech Technical University has three paternosters.
"I'm Karel Sedlak, owner of the firm liftservis. We repair elevators and paternosters, and we're the only firm that does wholesale paternoster reconstruction."
In the basement of the Czech Technical University's mechanical faculty, the metal skeletons of 13 paternoster cabins have been laid out on the floor. Karel Sedlak's team of workers is taking apart the entire paternoster here. In a few weeks they'll clad the cabins with new walls and put it all back together again.
"Today we're doing piece by piece reconstruction of the paternoster. That means changing the suspension organs, changing suspension wheels, replacement of machinery and wood, and recoating the whole thing. It'll all take close to 4 months. Yeah, it takes a lot of time to get all the parts made and put in place. But it should last then about 40 or 50 years."
But in half a century, there may be no cyclic lifts in this country. Fear of violating European norms has already prompted the closure of dozens of paternosters. David Kabele says the media has exaggerated the bureaucratic wrath of Brussels, but Matti Jyrkinen of the KONE elevator company, which maintains a number of paternosters in Prague, says the machines will have to die out one day.
"We have in Europe so called lift directive which strictly forbids new paternosters. And I think that's good news even if I personally like paternosters. But from a safety point of view they are too old and too dangerous."
Neither Jyrkinen nor Sedlak nor Kabele can recall any serious paternoster injuries in Prague in recent years. But in 2005, a tourist visiting Lucerna panicked as she reached the top of the line. As the compartment pulled away from the fourth floor, she got a limb caught in the narrowing gap between the bottom of the cabin and the ceiling of the top floor, triggering the machine to come to an immediate halt. The tourist was unharmed, but the paternoster was out of commission for 3 months.
Matti Jyrkinen: "Yes there must be this safety device. But it's not so sensitive that before it stops the paternoster, your arm or your leg can be already broken. So that's the biggest risk. I am 100% sure that a well-maintained paternoster will have these safety equipment in place and they are working, but it's a question of, let's say 1 cm - if it doesn't stop immediately something can be already broken!
"Paternosters must be maintained quite frequently because they're very mechanical equipments not high tech equipments quite old technology, it requires lots of laprification, you have to mainly check safety equipment. We're not doing daily, but weekly do checkups for paternosters."
It's enough to make you reach for a paternoster rosary- those religious worry beads that gave the machine its name in the first place, thanks to the way they move around and around and around in a loop.
As David Kabele and I approached the top floor in Lucerna, the machine got suddenly noisier, and there was a sign saying we should disembark. We ignored it.
Kabele: "People are sometimes scared they might get turned upside down as the cabin reaches the top and begins its descent. They think they'll come out with their heads on the ground!"
Nothing of the sort happened. For eight or ten seconds we stood in darkness, passing directly in front of the engine room. The only illumination came from tiny rays of light that seeped through the fingers of the gears that keep Lucerna's paternoster running. Then, like a ball thrown into the air, our cabin reached its apex and we began to descend - with our feet firmly on the ground and our heads right side up.
"Of course paternosters have their spiritual side, now we're getting closer to philosophy than history. It's said paternosters put human life in perspective. Look, we're going around on this paternoster for the sixth time, and that's really how it is in real life. Sometimes things look down, and you try to just hold on to what you have. And then, your path makes a sudden u-turn and you're going up again, and everything looks great until before you've even noticed, you make another u-turn and head back down."
And sometimes you stand in the darkness somewhere between up and down, or
down and up, not knowing which way you're going. At those times, the only
thing to do is to touch the walls, take a deep breath, and enjoy the growl
of turning gears.
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