Conferences: The beauty in Prague's 'ugly'
Hotels that date to communist era showcase striking architecture
Posted: March 13, 2013
Crowne Plaza's Congress Hall used to be a gym intended for use by army officers.
While awaiting the results of the most recent presidential election, then-candidate Miloš Zeman chose the conference center at Top Hotel - a converted communist-era apartment block in Prague 4 - as his home base. The days of overarching communist rule are long gone, yet its remnants -including Top Hotel and other oversized and what some call unsightly structures like it - still dot the panorama of the Czech capital. Though those who can remember living under the old regime may look upon the exteriors of these constructions with disgust, the interiors of hotels like the InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Praha and others reveal some of the period's best architecture and design.
Crowne Plaza - formerly the Hotel International - in Prague 6 is where it all began. Initiated as a building project in 1950, commissioned to a team of architects from the Military Building Design Institute, initially the hotel was intended as an army dormitory. Eventually, as Czechoslovakia was visited by numerous Soviet delegations and advisers, it became necessary to provide them with suitable, even royal accommodation. It was therefore decided the building, already under construction, would be a luxury hotel. As Crowne Plaza's Sales Manager Lukáš Kučera explains, the gym originally intended for army officers had to be converted into a convention hall with a bar situated in the place of a former storeroom containing gymnastic mattresses.
"The overall concept of the auditorium, including the shape of the windows and the remnants of various gymnastic apparatus still attached to the ceiling, left no room for doubts about the original function of the space," he says.
Despite the space's original intention, the hotel hosted the most prestigious and well-attended events for the public at the time. Kučera mentions the evenings of friendship and beer parties as part of the hotel's regular programs that once attracted visitors from all over Prague as being particularly popular.
The coffee lounge on the hotel's 11th floor also offered evening cabarets with can-can dancers and dinners, while the main ballroom hosted the annual Old Prague Balls, which used to be reserved for the citizens of Prague 6 on a preferential basis. According to the memories of the organizers of that time, these were so popular that the celebrations would often go on for two days on end. At the time when the TV series The Circus Humberto was a mainstay on Czechoslovak television, various animals - including young tigers, snakes, bears and even camels - were borrowed from a circus to be shown as an attraction. Besides the social events, the conference spaces were also leased for myriad party congresses and meetings.
The International, which at the time had the biggest capacity in the country, served as VIP accommodation for Soviet delegations for decades until 1974, when the Hotel InterContinental opened in Old Town. The new hotel attracted many guests: In 1975, Kurt Waldheim, general secretary of the United Nations, stayed there, as well as Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Minister Adam Malik. In 1978, the Canadian ice hockey team took over the seventh floor. That same year the first Czech man in space, Vladimír Remek, and his colleague Alexei Gubarev held a press conference at the hotel.
Despite their high-flying history, Prague's communist-era hotels are often considered unaesthetic from a modern perspective. One developer is considering tearing down another specimen, Hotel Praha, with the intention of building something more appealing. Klára Mergerová, who works for the Center for Central European Architecture, says Hotel Praha and other so-called eyesores like it should be preserved.
According to Mergerová, during the communist regime, the architects of these massive projects often cooperated with artists owing to a law requiring them to spend 4 percent of the budget on art. As a result, the architects invited artists who could not otherwise freely create to participate in the construction. "These buildings are quite famous for having beautiful interiors and art features inside, like glass chandeliers or glass walls that separate different rooms, sculptures and so on," Mergerová explains.
Mergerová, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in architecture history at the Czech Technical University in Prague, says the hotels serve as tangible relics of the time. For example, due to restrictions on materials, architects often had to use subpar plastics and metals for the ornate detailing they envisioned, which contrasts with the high-quality marble and stonemasonry seen in other parts of the building.
"It's really too easy to say, 'It's communist,' and destroy it," she says. "This is somehow what we got here, and we have to deal with it. It's part of our cultural heritage as well."
The "ugly" buildings make up an important part of the long history of European architecture. After the Velvet Revolution, design experts from around the world traveled to see these structures, understanding that the architects of the time made a particular evaluation of what the architectural level was in the rest of the world, emulating it in their own way.
Kasia Pilat can be reached at