Prague Vltava

RFE/RL waves goodbye to Parliament building

July 29, 2009

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty gives a tour of its new digs in Prague 10

It has been nearly three months since Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) finished moving into its new headquarters on the outskirts of Prague’s city center. Recently, the media conglomerate, which broadcasts to 20 countries in 28 languages, opened its doors to a handful of local reporters, giving them a rare glimpse inside its 24-hour news operation.

Security measures were beginning to pose logistical problems at the old communist-era Parliament building off Wenceslas Square, where RFE/RL had been stationed since it moved to the Czech capital in 1995, prompting the decision to relocate.

The new building, located in Prague 10’s Strašnice neighborhood, was developed by Orco Property Group to RFE/RL’s strict specifications, which, according to lead architect Vincent Marani, were “the size of two phone books.” RFE/RL, funded by the U.S. Congress, will pay $5.4 million (99.3 million Kč) annually to lease the building, reports Petra Zdeňková, Orco’s communications and public relations director. The rent will go up to $6.1 million in the fourth year of the 15-year lease.

The project, which broke ground in late 2006, was completed on schedule last December. The 24-hour nature of RFE/RL’s operation, however, meant staff and facilities were moved at strategic times to avoid interrupting its different programs.

Some employees were apprehensive about the move from a site so conveniently located right in the center of the city. People had become attached to the old, familiar building, but it was also dark and without air conditioning.

Julian Knapp, the deputy director of communications, compares the move to buying a car, enthusing that the new building compares favorably on every front. His feelings are echoed by his colleagues, many of whom felt right at home in the new space.

Set back from the road along busy Vinohradská street, the building is accessed via a manned security gate equipped with airport-style security measures. Visitors traverse a grassy area before reaching the imposing rectangular building. Its structure features large granite supports melded into its four corners, which house studios and elevators. RFE/RL’s studio pods, resembling small portable buildings, were brought over from the old site, so the design of the new building had to accommodate them.

Glass facades connect these granite corners. Cigler Marani Architects, the local firm that drew up the building plans, says this design detail is symbolic: The corners represent RFE/RL’s strength, and the glass represents its transparency. A sail-like canvas structure at the front of the building, symbolizing light and freedom, takes this concept a step further.

One of the most imposing features of the building’s interior is its newsroom. Located on the ground floor, the room’s ceiling stretches to the very top of the five-story edifice, culminating in a glass roof that can be shielded by automatic sliding sun sheets. The architects convinced financiers that such a layout would help create a more united building. This quiet space has been acoustically designed with wooden panels to absorb noise. The calmness is augmented by soft furnishings and a stylish glass staircase, leading to the other floors.

A clever space-conscious design sees the main restaurant equipped with sliding walls that can be opened up into an auditorium when needed.

The interiors of the restaurant and the café on the top floor were designed by Studio PHA, a Prague-based company. The café, in particular, has been a big hit. It opens onto a large rooftop deck with an expansive view of Olšanské cemetery’s quiet, green surroundings.

This highly prized deck actually came about by accident. The architects found themselves with a couple of extra square meters that needed to be used and decided to build this rooftop retreat, which offers workers an outdoor space that is still able to be protected by tight security measures.

The building’s thoughtfully designed décor features relaxing browns, light greens, grays, wood-finishes and clocks that stand at right angles, rather than flat against the walls.

Perhaps the most striking touch is the journalistic photos that line almost every corridor, reflecting a special meaning for each individual department. Photos of riots and burnt-out buildings are interspersed with life-affirming, humorous images: people grinning at each other from shop counters and RFE/RL employees packing up leaflets that were dropped by balloon into former Eastern bloc countries.

The building has been designed to maximize the use of natural light. A false ceiling houses the air system, which uses cutting-edge VAV (Variable Air Volume) technology that takes in fresh air from the outside and circulates it throughout the building.

Also crucial are the self-contained generators and back-up systems that allow the building to keep running on its own energy for a number of days if needed. A raised floor provides full access to all cabling.

Underneath the building, there’s space for storage and deliveries, which could be converted into more parking space at a later date. Meanwhile, there are 70 parking spots currently available and convenient public transport – the building is located a stone’s throw from Želivského metro station and is also accessible by a number of trams.

Cigler Marani Architects, the building’s creators, have been responsible for other noteworthy buildings – both internationally and locally – including the Luxembourg Plaza in Vinohrady and The Park in Chodov. The studio was also tapped to redesign Wenceslas Square, the COPA Centrum on Národní třída and the Waltrovka development in Prague 5.

By far, though, the RFE/RL project proved to be among the most challenging. It took five years alone to find the perfect spot. RFE/RL representatives say they looked at about 30 different locations before making up their minds. While Cigler Marani Architects was essentially working for Orco, the company that owns the building and leases the premises to RFE/RL, architects were also working closely with the media giant, which required that the building meet its strict security and broadcasting requirements. In fact, multiple design teams were involved – Cigler Marani Architects and other contractors, brought on by RFE/RL to ensure specifications were met.

“If you are a key stakeholder,” explains RFE/RL’s Knapp, “that’s standard practice.” Knapp says his organization hired several contractors to “check the progress” of various aspects and stages of development.

When asked about the total cost of the project, Knapp defers the question to Zdeňková, who declines to answer.

“I know we have never issued that,” she says. “I’m not sure if we can issue that. I think that it’s part of the confidentiality of the contract.”

Knapp notes that RFE/RL decided to seek out a developer rather than foot the total cost of the project because the arrangement best suited its budgetary needs.

The building clearly meets the current requirements of RFE/RL, which has a history of broadcasting to troubled areas where the need for freedom of information is greatest. When communism toppled, it gradually ceased operations in countries deemed sufficiently democratic.

Achieving universal freedom is the organization’s ultimate goal, so its greatest hope is to reach a stage where it no longer needs to exist, Knapp says. Should that happen, the building has been designed in such a way that it could easily be converted into office space at a future date. However, world democracy is a tenuous thing, so RFE/RL has an option to renew its lease twice.

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