My 15-Minute City: Nové Město, Prague
Describing or delineating a 15-minute city in Prague is an interesting challenge, because it resonates with thoughts and impressions I initially had here, after arriving in late August 2021. At first, as my wife and I spent a frantic week looking for an apartment, the city seemed huge, as big as Manhattan, maybe, or Brooklyn, where we lived previously. It seemed big in a good way. There were so many varied parts.
But as I got to know the city over the subsequent months, it shrank pleasantly around me. I realized that in a 15-minute walk, I could get to the edge of the old town, the Staré město, the spiritual heart of the city. I could walk across a bridge over the Vltava river to the Smichov area on the other side. I could to Wenceslas Square, where several hundred thousand people gathered a few days ago to protest Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. It’s the political heart of the city, where the Nazis staged rallies during their occupation in World War II, and where, in 1989, Václav Havel addressed the packed square (which is really more of a long street) at the height of the “Velvet Revolution,” helping topple communism here. I could get to Vinorhady, the elegant neighborhood of grand apartment buildings and parks, up the hill from Wenceslas Square. And this is just through walking. If I included tram travel, I could get almost everywhere in 15 minutes.
My wife and I live in the lower half of the “new town,” or Nové město. It, which includes Wenceslas Square, was laid out in the mid 1300s by Charles IV, who did almost everything important in the city. Charles established a new city outside the walls of the old city. So “new town” (Nové město) is still what the area is called and its formal delineation, even though it is 650 years old. The old town dates back to the 9th century.
Outside this historic core lies the really new Prague, contemporary Prague. It’s the Prague of highways and road tunnels and shopping malls, suburban style office buildings and Ikeas. It’s here where the bulk of Prague’s 1.3 million people live. Several hundred thousand live in the historic center, depending on where you draw the line. In looking up this data, I discovered that the population in the older sections of the city ha dropped dramatically in the last 40 years, starting even before Communism ended in 1989.
For this essay, I will confine my 15 minutes to what I can reach on foot, and I will exclude old town and Wenceslas Square, even though I can reach both if I walk fast, because they’re big subjects of their own. Instead, I will confine myself to what I can easily reach, around my apartment, and I’ll try to give a flavor of this town that, I confess, I have fallen in love with. It’s old, interesting, and in its grand—and often very sad—history, it has the physical embodiment that allows a culture to be born and grow.
Dumplings, Beer, and Talk: The Corner Restaurant
The restaurant Na Křižovatce is hard to pronounce, even if, like me, you’ve been studying Czech. I won’t even try to sound it out. But I will give a hint in that the second letter “ř” is pronounced like a soft “z” in English, with some sort of trill sound in front of it. So the restaurant name is intimidating, and to some degree its interior is, too, because it’s a very local place. All types jam in there for lunch, and activitiy continues well into the late evening. It’s located on my block, below and to one side of my third-floor apartment. It has been my best introduction to Czech culture and cuisine.
At lunch, an unsmiling waitress delivers plate after plate of steaming Czech favorites, at ridiculously low prices. Lunch in Czechia is a main meal, and so people sit down to plates of meat in gravy and Czech-style dumplings, which are more like sliced matzoh balls. I take my place now, even though it was initially hard to get the waitresses to notice me or give me a table.
It’s at night, though, after the dinner hour, that Na Křižovatce really shines. I walk by and see people sitting at the bare tables, just chatting, usually with a beer in front of them. There is no music playing. I’ve noticed this Czech custom now at many restaurants and bars around town. People come and just sit and talk. Na Křižovatce has several small interconnected rooms, and several times I have seen a table with people singing to acoustic guitars. I have seen card-playing. But mostly I hear conversation. I don’t know where this Czech custom started, or whether it will survive Netflix. I theorize it may have strengthened during Communism from 1948 to 1989, when there wasn’t so much to do. But whatever its origin, I hope it lasts.
The 19th Century City—and Vinohrady
Can the imitation be better than the real thing? In the 1850s, Baron Von Haussmann blew the mind of the city planning world with his modernization of Paris, including his new avenues on the Right Bank, lined with ornate apartment buildings, all the same height and style. For the next two generations, at least, cities from Boston to Cairo imitated Haussmann’s Paris. Prague did, too. I sometimes think Prague has more Parisian-style apartment buildings than the actual City of Lights. I can see them on both sides of the Vltava River as I look around.
The finest examples are in Vinohrady, a new section of the city that sits up on a hill and was created in the late 19th century. As Barcelona did with its “ensanche” by Cerdà i Sunyer, creating its famous harmonious blocks, so Prague did in this new section. The name comes because it was originally a vineyard, thus the word “vino” in its name. A fair number of vines with wine-producing grapes still survive in one of the large parks there.
Cities are like stock markets: they tend to rise suddenly during booms and bubbles. Clearly, something was happening in Prague between about 1895 to 1905. That’s when most of them, particularly the really ornate ones, seem to have gone up. In Vinohrady, you see block after block of ornate apartment buildings, clearly competing in their ornament and detail and fenestration. The apartment buildings here are the grandest in the city. Sometimes when I walk here I say it’s my favorite part of Prague. It’s known for having a lot of expats, but not so many that it’s overwhelming.
To Adorn Is Divine
The sinewy arm, the alert eye, and the fulsome bosom have not adorned many new buildings in any city that I know of. It’s a shame, because even though I love modern architecture, which converted the world to the merits of revealing structure and cleanness of lines, I find I respond emotionally to all the adornment on so many of the buildings here. This ornament usually borrows from the natural world and can take the form of trees and flowers and animals. But most of all it uses the human form, in all its possibilities.
I find myself thinking about all that architecture gave up when it collectively decided to abandon the human figure. It is simply so expressive, and can convey a range of emotions. Representations of men, women, and children, particularly women, sit or stand in a variety of positions and places on buildings here. But one of the most common, which I put a selection of here, is appearing to hold up a doorway, a balcony or often the entire building itself. No lazy bone statues here! I love the gentle humor in these, and the humanity. Whatever social signifier of status they might have once held, now they are simply amusing.
I would like to learn more about the techniques used to make them. Are they from molds? Hand-carved? So far, I haven’t found a book or an expert to tell me.
The Dancing House Is an Awkward Partner
This building by Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry was an instant hit when it opened in 1996. It symbolized to many the openness of the new, post-Communist era, where Prague and the Czech Republic had rejoined the rest of the world and were ready to try anything. It was originally known as Fred and Ginger, but to me not a convincing argument, it was changed to the Dancing House. It is construction as ornament, rather than ornament on construction. The entire building resembles a human figure. I’ve long loved Gehry’s architecture, and I loved this building at first, from a distance.
But seeing it up close, I wonder if it works that well as a building or a place. Although it occupies a prime street corner on the river, the city in its great wisdom has surrounded it with heavy traffic and tram streets. These make it unpleasant to walk near, or to cross a street to it. The other factor is that the building achieves much of its power by extending out into the sidewalk, breaking the street wall. To me this is cheating, urbanistically. But I’m not pronouncing any final judgment. I haven’t lived or worked in it, although I ate dinner at the fancy restaurant on top, which was fine and had a great view. The building certainly works as an icon. The question is, does it work as anything else?
All Steeples Great and Small
Brooklyn, where I moved from, is or was known as the City of Churches, whose spires you could see dotting the landscape before all the tall condos were built. Prague has a lot of spires, too, both religious and secular. In centuries past, it was one of the ways to distinguish a building as special. So churches have steeples here, but so also does the tower on the Charles Bridge and the old City Hall at Old Town Square.
What I note and love about the steeples here is that they are usually one big steeple surrounded by mini-steeples. I have been up in some of the steeples, and often they create a niche on a balcony, where you can have an even greater view with a larger radius of the city below. The one here is on a church not far from my apartment.
A Swoopy Steeple
In my first few weeks here, this unusual swoopy steeple caught my eye repeatedly. It appeared to be two intersecting parabolas. Was there some medieval modernist? I eventually found out the steeple was part of the Emmaus Monastery, which dates back to the 14th century. Up close, I could see the swooping steeple was made of concrete, not hand-crafted as I had originally thought. What happened was that an errant American bomber in World War II destroyed much of the church. In the 1960s, the church was rebuilt with this daring and original steeple.
Glass and Steel
Right next to the Emmaus Monastery—on its grounds, in fact—are these aging modernist glass-and-steel boxes, clearly in need of cleaning and renovation. They were designed by Czech architect Karel Prager, who designed some of the most significant new (there’s that adjective again) buildings in postwar Prague under Communism. His other buildings include the new National Theater, which sits beside the magnificent 19th century one; and the new National Museum building, first used as the Federal Assembly building, which sits beside the ornate 19th century National Museum. One of these glass boxes houses the Prague Institute of Planning and Development (IPR), the city’s planning agency, which seems appropriate. I had some personal experience with these buildings because I wasn’t having any luck reaching IPR by email or phone, so I finally walked over to its headquarters so I could buttonhole someone. It took me a while to find a front door, but otherwise my experience was OK.
Prager’s work is often called Brutalist, but these rectangular buildings seem more like classic Modernism to me. They are attractive, although they would be much more so if they were cleaned up. Without looking into it conclusively, I suspect there is a somewhat tortured history to their development. They were built under the Communist government, which apparently had seized the monastery’s land. Then the monastery and its land were returned in the 1990s under the restitution acts to the Benedictine order, but with these glass boxes on part of the property.
The Highway and the City
Cars cruise by the new building, designed by Karel Prager, of the National Museum. In the distance you can see the train sheds of the city’s central station.
The highway crosses in front of, and cuts off, the city’s grand National Museum, which sits at the top of Wenceslas Square.
Countless American cities suffered the indignities of highways being cut through their bellies. You might think that Prague, being under a Communist government, would have avoided these wounds. But it turns out bad ideas travel as easily as good ones. In the 1970s, Prague city leaders created a big highway across the city, elevated in sections, sunken in others. It slashes right across and in front of three great 19th century buildings: the mammoth central train station, the State Opera house, and the National Museum. Also in its path is the addition to the National Museum, designed by Prager. The highway was built in congruence with the city’s metro system, which was opened in the 1970s.
Particularly egregious is the section in front of the grand National Museum, built in the late 19th century. The museum sits at the top of Wenceslas Square, the city’s largest and most important public space. But when you walk to the museum, you find a highway streaming with cars, one difficult to cross. The damage doesn’t end here. The roadway continues through town and becomes a high-speed, one-way, suburban-style boulevard in the middle of the city, then shoots out of town and joins up with the D1 freeway. The road and its companion road going the opposite direction create a barrier to a walkable, human-scale city.
Prague is exploring how to undo this damage. A few years ago, the IPR hired famed urbanist Jan Gehl and his team to study the situation and work out a fix. But it’s hard. The highway and its companion roadways are melded into the fabric of the city.
Which is better: a wonderful network of bike lanes and bicycle-friendly regulation, or an amazing network of trams that go almost everywhere one would take a bike within the city? Prague has the best tram system I’ve ever experienced. At several stops near my door, I can go just about anywhere within the city. Usually there are multiple options because the system is so extensive. Almost every major street—except for the traffic roads I mentioned—have a tram line. (I wrote about the system here in Governing magazine.)
But its rails and the trams themselves make bicycling more difficult. The system’s rails can easily catch a wheel, and the long heavy trams must be scary to bike beside or in front of. I certainly haven’t tried it. I support both biking and trams, but here in Prague, I don’t see how you can have both. Maybe the Scandinavians have figured out a way. Personally, even though I’ve long been a bike firster, I would choose the trams over a more bike-friendly city.
The View: The Castle and the City
I can’t walk to Prague Castle, a giant complex, in 15 minutes, but I can see it. When I first gazed at it, I mistook the enormous cathedral in the middle of it for the castle itself. I expected the castle to soar upward, like the one in the Disney logo. All the bland, boxy buildings around the Cathedral just looked like bland, boxy buildings to me. Turns out they were the castle part. Or should I say palace?
Up close, these off-white buildings have more personality. It’s also clear how enormous the place is. It’s said to be the largest castle complex in the world, several times larger than Buckingham Palace in England, which is similarly horizontal and boxy rather than upward in its form. The palace buildings of Prague got a renaissance makeover a few centuries back, which accounts in part for their (to me) boring exterior.
The castle or palace gets a huge number of tourists, but it’s still the seat of government and home of the president. It’s hard to overstate its importance politically and culturally. The city began when the first castle was built here in the 9th century. Holding it has been a sign of power. Just in the 20th century, the government of the Austrian-Hungarian emperor has been here; the new state of Czechoslovakia; the Nazis during World War II; the Communists; and the new state of Czechia, which had the “velvet divorce” with its neighbor Slovakia. Its presence is a reassuring sign of stability in this old, beautiful city.
All photos by the author.