Prague’s Industrial Palace and Exhibition Grounds

25-02-2009

In today’s Spotlight we look at the history of Výstaviště - Prague’s Exhibition Grounds founded in the late 19th century but used to this day for fairs, exhibitions, concerts and other activities. Every year, Výstaviště, which is found at the edge of Bubeneč’s Stromovka Park and the Prague district of Holešovice, continually draws tens of thousands of visitors, both from the Czech Republic and from abroad. Its centerpiece is the 19th century Industrial Palace – an architectural gem that was partly destroyed by fire last year.

What is the palace’s history? The building, whose left wing will need to be completely rebuilt, was first completed in 1891, part of the newly-founded Exhibition Grounds in time for Prague’s Jubilee Exhibition, celebrating Czech industry and technological innovation. Architectural historian Zdeněk Lukeš:

“It was inspired by the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889. The most important structures at that exhibition were of course the Eiffel Tower. It was a great inspiration for our architects and engineers and they even built their own small copy of the Eiffel Tower on Petřín Hill and the Industrial Palace. It was an iron construction, one of the first in Prague, in the centre of the exhibition area, surrounded by about a hundred other pavilions. Most of those were destroyed in later periods, but the Industrial Palace survived.”

The palace was designed by architect Bedřich Munzberger but is not an example of Art Nouveau, as commonly believed. Zdeněk Lukeš again:

“Of course, the new Art Nouveau style made use of iron structures: the first Art Nouveau architect, Victor Horta of Belgium created his first famous building using steel. It was possible to use iron to create floral or vegetable motifs. And that’s why the beginning of Art Nouveau is connected with iron. But the Industrial Palace was built two years before Horta’s first structures. It is not Art Nouveau, but an example of Late Historicism.”

Munzberger made use of skeletal steel structures and glass to create a building that was symmetrical, with two wings, two towers, which were richly decorated with niches featuring emperors of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, later destroyed. The central tower was also iron, featuring a clock, and was topped by a royal crown. It is this tower, 51 metres above the ground, which is the building’s most dominant feature. During the 1891 Jubilee Exhibition the building drew wide praise, and was compared to other great 19th century Czech buildings such as the Rudolfinum concert hall and the National Theatre. Examples of heavy industry – from factory machinery to locomotives could be viewed inside. And not just that: a few years after opening the site also featured a building which inspired a show on folk architecture.

“Česká chalupa was something like a copy of typical folk Bohemian house, designed by Jan Koula, and maybe was inspiration for the next big show, a folk exhibition of the Slavic lands in 1895. It was a chance to show the public typical Slavic houses, including folk architecture from the Medieval or Baroque periods. The show featured either copies or original buildings transported to Prague.”

Shows at the palace and the rest of the exhibition grounds proved immensely popular, with the next significant date being 1908.

“The exhibition area provided generations of architects the possibility of taking risks, to show something new, something special as it allowed for the construction of buildings intended for one function only: the exhibition. Paradoxically, some survived to this day. One of the most important shows was in 1908, when Jan Kotěra – one of the most important architects of his day – was able to show examples of modernism. But after that the site slowly fell into neglect. A new centre of modern architecture was created in Brno in 1928, and nothing new at the Prague site was added.”

Under Communism, the role of the palace and surroundings declined further, although the site was used for political meetings. But Socialist Realist elements were soon added, negatively impacting the space. Architectural historian Zdeněk Lukeš is in favor of those being removed, saying the building should be restored to its original state. In his view, there is no better opportunity than now – when the palace’s left wing, destroyed by last year’s blaze, will need to be rebuilt. The city of Prague is aiming for a replica to replace the destroyed wing by 2013, (estimated at a cost of around 1 billion crowns). Zdeněk Lukeš again:

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK “My recommendation is to destroy all the additions from the 1950s and to recreate the palace with all the original decorations, including the original emperors and crown, during the reconstruction of the wing.”

And while the left wing was completely consumed in the fire, reconstruction in this case should not be difficult, for a number of reasons:

“I don’t think it will be a problem to make a copy of the original: the remaining wing is similar and we have a lot of documentation and original or copies of the original plans plus photographs and more. I don’t think it will be a problem, and I am sure this wing will be erected again.”

The remaining parts of the building, meanwhile, remain in operation, the site of dozens of exhibitions each year. Radovan Ježovič is the marketing director for Incheba, the firm which has held the lease for the exhibition grounds since 2000.

“We do between 40 – 50 exhibitions per year. Among the most frequented is a motorcycle show which saw 65,000 visitors last time, or Holiday World focusing on tourism. Other fairs organised by other companies include a well-known book fair and one focusing on advertising.”

The city is now pressing the firm to sign an addendum on its contract to oversee the reconstruction of the palace, but the company has not yet done so, sparking speculation the city could terminate the lease. Its marketing director says the matter is still under negotiation.

Despite the complications, the rest of the palace remains in operation, a worthy destination, especially when combined with walks through Stromovka or visits to the nearby National Gallery.

25-02-2009