Renovation of famous landmark dogged by controversy

No landmark in Prague is more famous than the 14th century Charles Bridge, which has undergone major renovation over the last two years - a project that has come under unparalleled scrutiny and also criticism. On one side, representatives of the city as well as the firm conducting the repairs say the project is slowly but surely nearing successful completion; on the other, activists - including a newly-founded civic association - say critical mistakes were made, resulting in damages to the historic bridge. One thing is certain: when it comes to the 230 million crown project, emotions run high.

Preparations for the overhaul were years in the making: the last time Charles Bridge saw extensive repairs was in the 1970s, under Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime, repairs which specialists say were only a partial success. This time, things had to be different, explains Jiří Petrák, the head of the Czech branch of Mott MacDonald, overseeing the current reconstruction. But he admits the going has not been easy. The reason? First and foremost what was at stake was not a facelift to the bridge but key structural repairs. These included the crucial use of new waterproofing to stop water seepage (that had been causing damage to the structure itself). Jiří Petrák explains:

“I am a bridge engineer and certainly I look at this as the most important historic engineering structure in Central Europe. We look at it from this point of view and knew that we had a duty to rehabilitate the bridge and preserve it for future generations. So we had to look carefully at engineering aspects: a major problem was certainly structural integrity. We took all precautions to protect the bridge against flood waters and anything that could undermine its foundations. There is nothing now, no high water, which could break the bridge. It is perfectly secure.”

The second phase of reconstruction, the repair or replacement of some 60,000 sandstone ashlars, has been equally demanding, if for different reasons. Each ancient sandstone had to be evaluated individually for damages – from flaking to disintegration to growth deposits, to find whether the stone could remain or whether it needed to be replaced. The difficulty was, one: finding new samples en par with the superior sandstone used in the structure, and two: matching new industrially-cut stones to the originals.

Point blank, that is something that has not been seen as successful and which has come under focused criticism: in 2008 an inspection team from the Culture Ministry confirmed alarming news: that some stones that were part of the bridge’s balustrade had been damaged, saying the authenticity of the cultural heritage site had been compromised. In some cases, stones had been poorly-matched and poorly-fitted. Also, there was the additional charge that a needlessly high number of original stones, still in fair condition, had been removed without sufficient explanation. Jiří Petrák, by contrast, insists every stone was well-documented and removed only for good reason. In his view? Some of the criticism of repairs has missed the bigger picture, namely that some steps now – which can appear brutal (for instance, jackhammers at times have been used) - were necessary to undue poor decisions taken back in the 1970s:

“It has been taken out of context: in our view, the low quality repairs in the 1970s did similar work as we do today, but in low quality. They were using very strong cement mortars with very soft sandstone. So now, when we have to disconnect everything, it becomes very difficult. The stones are bound by much stronger mortar. Certainly, we use diamond saws to try and separate the stones but because the mortar is so strong, it isn’t always easy. But to our critics I would say we are genuinely doing our best.”

But many, such as the newly-founded association for historic preservation, known as ASORKD, aren’t buying it, saying damage to the bridge is tangible even to the layman’s eye. It is not, they say, the contractors’ or contract supervisor’s fault, but allege the blame lies elsewhere, higher up, with Charles Bridge’s owner, the City of Prague, followed by City Hall as a decision-making body. All which gave the green-light for reconstruction to go ahead. The group said that should never have been the case, given that key protocol in the renovation of such sites - advance planning, an historic/construction study and further assessments as well as later supervision were allegedly never maintained. According to the group, city hall broke several laws in the process; certainly earlier this year, the city’s department for the preservation of monuments confirmed that a number of key steps had been ignored. It fined itself just over 50,000 crowns. The association’s spokesman Martin J. Kadrman says if proper preparations had been conducted, it could have led to a more conservative approach in restoring the bridge.

“Who is to blame… For one, the city which did not meet its requirement by law to care for the historic monument and prevent damages. Two, City Hall, which did not oversee the renovation, and in last place the National Heritage Institute who it took two years to put forward a recommendation that the project be stopped. Renovation on the bridge began before it was known how it could even be conducted. That has led to the current situation. Even a layman can recognise the damage that has been done.”

The association has since launched a petition already signed by more than 3,000 people to put a stop to the process, but Mr Kadrman admits it has been difficult to get some people on board. Many simply can’t believe that repairs on such a major site – perhaps THE most important site in this country – could be so badly mishandled:

“We have problems convincing some people because some people think we’re joking. They find it inconceivable that this is how anyone would approach repairs of a national site. Everything you look at has been poorly handled, including the balustrade, because it was not overseen. That is why we need the project to be stopped. If it isn’t, we’ll all be very unpleasantly surprised in a year’s time.”

Since then the group has filed charges with the police against a so-called unknown perpetrator for alleged damage to the site and has promised to keep stepping up the pressure. City Hall, meanwhile, has rejected the group’s criticism and said that as far as reconstruction was concerned, the overall quality was high and that any mistakes have long since been remedied.

Will Praguers experience a rude awakening when major renovations wrap up? Bridge engineer Jiří Petrák says definitely not, stressing that the critics will be proven wrong. He stresses all involved are aware of the huge cultural importance of Charles Bridge and makes clear he has never felt greater honour - or responsibility.

“I appreciate to be able to help Charles Bridge and for me to participate is the highest reward in my bridge engineering career. I feel we have been criticised for some steps along the way that are still on-going. The bridge is not finished. When we hand it over to the client and to the public, I think these kinds of comments will disappear.”