Ugly blob or cultural treasure?

PRAGUE — Call it what you will: the Blob, the Octopus, the Eye — by any name the saga of the chosen library design refuses to die.

Officially known as The Eye Above Prague, the futuristic-looking library would have a malleable-looking shape bereft of corners, sides and sharp edges. Atop the eight-story building would be a cafe open to the public, with a huge window looking out over the city (hence the name).

Many Czechs like the design, unconventional as it might be. Architects laud its contribution to Prague's cultural scene and decry the city's lack of modern architecture. Everyone acknowledges the city needs more space for its expanding book collection. But this is not merely a question of art.

A political crusade, led by President Vaclav Klaus, seemingly scuppered the project last year. But the political forces that Klaus rallied to oppose the project could shift within the next year through parliamentary and city elections — potentially creating an opening for the resurrection of the so-called Blob.

“We have little modern architecture in Prague — the Dancing House, but it is the only one in the last 20 years,” said Vlastimil Jezek, the former director of the National Library, referring to a Frank Gehry design, sometimes called the Fred & Ginger building.

Jezek, who wrote a book last year about his battle to save the "Octopus," says that 20 years after the fall of communism there's something wrong with a country's democracy when the president's political machinery can overturn a legal competition.

An international jury unanimously selected the project, designed by architect Jan Kaplicky, from more than 350 entries in March 2007. Kaplicky died suddenly in January at the of age 71, on the day his second wife gave birth to their first child.

In the library's promotional book, Kaplicky wrote, “...the National library is a building of such importance that it can help return this country to Europe. That would be the greatest achievement — if the building not only worked as a library, but it also became one of the modern-time symbols of Prague.”

(Trailer of a documentary dedicated to the proposed National Library.)

His modern design initially met with mass approval. Varying accounts put public support for the project at 60 to 70 percent.

In an 80-page glossy book, "The Eye Above Prague, a Library for the Third Millennium," Prague Mayor Pavel Bem wrote: “The periods of flourishing of our metropolis have always been accompanied by original cultural, architectural and town-planning achievements that symbolized Prague's successes and showed in the masterpieces of Prague's architecture.”

Ironically Bem seems to have anticipated in his letter to the readers that not everyone would immediately like the plan, though he obviously didn't anticipate the most vociferous critic would be the president.

“I believe that in a few years time, the National Library will self-confidently, but also sensitively add to the Prague panorama and will become another admired piece of Prague architecture, fitting in the mosaic of styles ranging from the Romanesque, to the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, to the bold trends of modern architecture.”

About three months after the project's selection, Klaus first voiced his objections. He repeated them several times over the ensuing 18 months. Not long after his initial salvo, Bem — one of Klaus's most ardent disciples — did an about-face on the project.

In May 2007, during an apparent fit of intense pique, Klaus declared: “I am ready to use my body as a shield on the very spot, to prevent the construction.”

Martin Erva, a Klaus spokesman, didn't deny the president's antipathy for the project, but refused to discuss the president's views, saying they are well known.

Jezek said Bem gave him an ultimatum: kill the Kaplicky project or quit his job. He left his post in September.

In an e-mail exchange, mayoral spokesman Daniel Castvaj said Bem now opposes the project because the architectural competition wasn't conducted according to law.

But when pressed about what was illegal, and whether any criminal complaints or charges had been filed against former director Jezek, or any other organizers of the tender, Castvaj backpedaled.

He wrote in an e-mail that books shouldn't be stored underground, as is called for by Kaplicky's design. The "Future Systems proposal ignored this condition," he wrote.

Jezek said the selection process adhered to standards set forth by the International Union of Architects.

The one thing not in dispute is the library's urgent need for more space. Of the more than 6 million volumes and documents in its possession, more than two-thirds are already being kept in a depository about 10 miles away. Not only does retrieving those documents take 24 hours, but the depository itself is on the verge of overflowing, and so it is now being expanded in what has become the latest in a string of stop-gap measures.

With all the controversy over the physical appearance of Kaplicky's design, discussion of the library's functionality has been all but lost. Besides incorporating public space into the library, the design calls for a high-tech, high-speed book retrieval method.

The near fully automated retrieval system should deliver requested documents in three to five minutes from a storage vault designed to hold up to 10 million volumes, with an option to expand to 14 million, which should be adequate until 2050.

The functional aspects of the library, combined with the avant-garde appearance, were meant to be something special, not only for the visitors to the library but, indeed, for the city itself.

“One loss, of course, is for users of the library,” said Bohdana Stoklasova, director of library collections and services at the library. “But such a building would be a nice example of modern architecture. And I think not only the city of Prague but the Czech people need such an example, very much.”

A Kaplicky exhibit is running at London's Design Museum now through November.

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