Stalin Plaza's Fight for the Future
31 Octover 2019
Text by Kevin Loo
Letná Park is a popular spot for Prague locals and tourists alike. It has unparalleled views of the city, a selection of relaxing beer gardens, and in the summertime, you can find people enjoying the peace and sunshine as an escape from city life. Right in the centre of Letná is an historic and often controversial spot known as Stalin Plaza. The former location of a huge Communist monument erected to honour Josef Stalin, the square and surrounding pedestrian areas have remained largely untouched since the monument’s dismantling in 1962.
Taking advantage of its concrete and granite surfaces, the location became a haven for skateboarders to practice their skills and learn new tricks. In more recent years, local group Containall also saw the opportunity to open a pop-up bar and host concert events. Covered in graffiti and repurposed concrete slabs, Stalin Plaza has become a symbol for the urban revitalisation and transformation of Prague’s youth culture.
Over the decades, Stalin Plaza cyclically hits the news headlines. In September 2019, Stalin Plaza once again captured public attention due to reports of it being ‘at risk of collapse’. The city of Prague ordered its closure for structural refurbishment. Stalin plaza regulars rallied to the cause, fearing a step towards developments of the area into something commercial or mainstream. An impromptu event called ‘Save Stalin Plaza’ was hosted to gather signatures for a petition to keep Stalin as a cultural heritage spot.
While organisers concede that structural refurbishments are necessary, they believe this is just one step towards an uncertain future for Stalin Plaza. We spoke to Prague 7 local skateboarding hero and professional architect Martin Hrouda about his history with Stalin Plaza, life in the Czech skating community, the politics of the situation, and what he thinks about the ongoing fight for the soul of Stalin Plaza.
DD: Ahoj Martin! Tell us a bit about yourself and your involvement with Stalin.
I’m a skate architect interested in the combination of architecture and skateboarding. I am 29 years old and I was born in Prague 7. I’ve lived here all my life, besides my time spent abroad studying. I am also a founding member of U/U Studio, which focuses on the design of the public spaces associated with skateboarding. I’ve been using Stalin Plaza since I was 13 years old. It might sound like a cliché, but I would even call it my second home because my high school was 5 minutes away from Stalin, and I used to go there every afternoon. Through this plaza, I met really interesting people that shaped me and my life and who I am right now. I think I found my best friends there, who I’m in contact with still. I really feel some kind of connection with this place, since it’s from my teenage years.
DD: Even at a young age, did you realise the historical and cultural significance of Stalin Plaza? Or was it just a place for skating for you?
M: That’s a good question actually. I think for many people from my generation, they don’t realise what happened there and why it was built. From my skater perspective, I just found this place and started to use it. We just wanted to skate it in our way. We enjoyed that we could meet non-skaters there too. I remember my friends and I would also go for a beer there because the view there is magnificent.
To be honest, the fact that it is a Communist monument, it didn’t affect my experience of going there. But later on, it was more about the realisation that it was something that was part of Czech history. After the revolution, after 1990, it’s kind of cool that it stayed there and they put a metronome there that ticks east to west - it connects east Europe and west Europe. I think I noticed that, that it’s a symbol of that era after the revolution. A symbol of freedom. I think it’s cool that they left it free without touching the place. They just let it be to live its life.
Whenever I bring my friends, foreigners in Prague, of course I bring them to Stalin. I always explain to them there used to be a huge statue, it was destroyed, and they built this metronome... they are so amazed by this story, “Wow you still have it? You keep it for cultural heritage?”
Since the statue is down now and because of the history of young people using it almost immediately, it’s a perfect representation of freedom.
DD: I also do almost the exact same thing when I have my visitors. I point out the history and now point out how it’s like ‘anything goes’ kind of.
M: Yeah! But also architecturally, it is so well designed. Of course, I have no connection with Communism or Stalin, but thinking of me being on the street [in downtown Prague] and looking up to this hill and seeing this giant statue... it must have been so monumental.
DD: That was the point right? For it to be seen.
M: Yeah, to be seen with these stairs going up from both sides. And now it’s a metronome as a representation of freedom. It’s just a really cool design, including the location, right opposite the city centre, above the river. And it has the best view of Prague, if not one of the best views in the world.
DD: You said that as a young skater you were very connected with public spaces. At what age did you realise you were interested in architecture? Was it because of skating that you were interested in buildings? Or was it a coincidence?
M: I think skating influenced me. As a skater you see and use public space differently than others. When you ride in the streets you feel every little thing and how is it designed, if you can transit in the city on your board easily. It is a good architecture lesson straight from the streets for skaters and therefore I think that skaters have a trained eye for a well designed public space. They can feel it, if the place is well designed and has its vibe and then they enjoy it using it. I was always thinking about buildings and constructions, public spaces [from a young age]. Also, my mother works in this field too.
DD: Can you give an update on what’s happened in the past month or so at Stalin. Why is it such big news in the skating community?
M: Stalin is a place that has a lot of vibration and energy, with all these young people going there. Lately it’s getting to be more and more popular.
It started around ten years ago, but every election, someone takes this place and says something about it. Like, “Let’s build a museum here, or an aquarium here. We’re going to do this, this, this, this…”
I think it’s easy [for politicians] to take this spot and say, “I’m going to change it” because it already has this energy. People will talk about it immediately, “Oh they want to touch Stalin, they want to touch this place that is already a cultural heritage”.
For politicians, the news will spread immediately because of how cool Stalin is, and how controversial it is. It’s really easy to say, “I’m going to change something”, and many people will be against it. They always try to do this to make themselves shine, you know? Playing politics.
Even in the summer, when it’s really popular, Containall is there and it’s a huge gathering of young people. This summer, at the bottom of Stalin when I was there, there were like 300 kids, 15 or 16, drinking, smoking, playing loud music, and I thought, “Whatever, everyone’s having fun”, in fact I was glad that finally the bottom part is alive!
And of course, out of 300 people, someone will do something. So there was a fight over a bag and a skateboarder...but come on, this shit happens everywhere if you have a massive group of people. But this story spread out so fast. WIthin two days, it was in every newspaper. Also, it was summer, so they didn’t have anything else to write about [laughs]...
But that’s what I’m trying to say. If you say something publicly about Stalin, it will immediately catch the national attention.
I remember maybe 10 or 15 years ago there was the first talk of opening an aquarium there. The skaters also did a petition then, and I remember I was young, and just thought “Oh no, they’re destroying my Stalin”. At the time, I didn’t see behind the fence that it was all just politics. But I remember that even Václav Havel was walking around with his dog, also saying “Save Stalin”. He signed the petition and helped us. I thought, “Wow that’s so cool, even people like Václav Havel came out to support us.”
Now that I’m older, and I work in the public field with our skate parks, I can feel the politics and how it works. I immediately knew that when they closed Stalin this summer, Containall will be finished. I could feel the politics coming: someone needs to be seen, someone needs to do something... and of course, they just closed it day by day.
So in my head I was like, OK right now there will be some battle that someone will start up, maybe supported by some developers. However, Čižinský (Jan, mayor of Prague 7), and Zdeněk Hřib, the mayor of Prague, they want to keep the place as it is, so luckily there are these guys on our side.
DD: They performed some inspections right? What was their conclusion on the structure? Why did they close Stalin so suddenly?
Of course we know that after 15 years, we know that [Stalin] is structurally bad. The foundations and the support constructions below the plaza...but no one is doing anything about it. Then suddenly they were like, OK we’re closing it.
After suddenly closing, they partly opened [the upstairs plaza]. Čižinský did a second structural survey, although The Klokner Institute from Czech Technical University said it was a bit of a rush.
And so Čižinský was there with Klokner. They went there, they did a three day check. They concluded that it is in bad condition, but not so much that it would fall down immediately. So they just put up some fences on the top at the places where they knew the places below are in a really bad condition.
It looks really funny. You could be in this spot, and there are just barriers randomly placed. Skaters are still there. And the police check if you are going over the barriers or not. And the stairs are open, and the view is open. So it’s already occupied actually.
But just two weeks before, day by day, they were warning, “Hey, it’s falling down!”. The whole of Czech Republic knew, “Stalin is going down”. But it’s not true. One week after, and our politicians are saying, “Hey no rush”.
I think that in these cases Stalin is just abused by politics.
DD: The petition that was last month, was that for the check? Or was it to ensure it doesn’t develop further into a shopping centre or aquarium or something like that?
M: Yeah of course. We are aware of that, that the foundations are in a really bad condition. I’ve been skating there for 15 years. Also there are tours there (into the basement structure) and you can see the really bad conditions. Through the ceiling, you can even see the daylight through the granite cubes in some spots [from the underground]. I think it shouldn’t be like this! We are aware of that, and somehow it needs to be solved, someone has to put some money into it and repair it.
However, the petition simply asks: if it’s in a really bad condition, close it for as long as it needs to be closed, but don’t touch the genealogy, don’t touch the heritage of this place. Keep it like it is. Just reinforce the foundation. And don’t do some stupid museums or some silly designs, or some random developer’s project.
Of course it must be really hard, because it’s one of the best places in Prague and that is why is this place so temping for developers, and for people not interested in, I don’t want to say skate culture, because Stalin is so much more than skate culture...
DD: Maybe more just urban youth culture.
M: Yeah, city, urban youth culture. If they don’t see it, for them it’s really tempting to use the place. “Hey there are just some skater junkies smoking weed. Young people are drinking there and just fighting between each other “
Even this fight in summer, it was just a stupid thing, but it was all over Czech. You know I was getting calls at work, from some construction contacts in Brno, not involved in skating at all, and they would ask me, “Hey, I heard you guys are fighting in Prague now?” I’m like “How the f--k do you know that?!”
It also plays for these people who want to create something, to build something new to make money and profit. All these things people know in Czech Republic - young people smoking there, just fighting each other, they are just destroying the best location in Prague, it’s falling down in the foundations, there is no future...they don’t see behind it, what the place is about, so I think it’s just easy for them to say these arguments.
And if you will not explain why it is important, and why Prague needs to have a place like this, luckily the politics right now that is in the lead, they feel that it’s right, so they will fight for it.
DD: Why has no one been taking care of Stalin though?
M: I think it’s a general problem in Czech. Like, how the f--k can a pedestrian bridge in Troja fall down? We don’t correctly repair things here. Because it’s expensive, and it’s not so visible, so politicians have other things to care about than repairs…
We want to be Western Europe, or we call ourselves in this sphere, and then you know a bridge falls down. That’s why everyone is super worried about Stalin as if it’s going to fall down any minute.
DD: Is the skating community optimistic about the future of Stalin?
M: Actually, I think not. I think it’s just starting. About 15 years ago, it was the same situation, the skate group is quite a tight community, we were fighting then... and nothing has changed. And no money was put into it. And now, you can see it’s in a really bad condition, in fact worse and worse because no one has put anything in it.
I just get nervous when I think about people fighting in Stalin, creating a bad reputation. Good for these guys who want to change it, and close it day by day without explanation.
Of course we want to think optimistically and a few skaters started a group, which is informed about what is happening and are in contact with the municipality. It is easier to get organised through social media and skaters stick together. I think it’s just the beginning of a long fight. And it’s not just about skaters, but the whole city has to understand how important is this place, and how important it is for Prague as a city.
But from the examples from all around the world (London Southbank, LA Courthouse, NYC Tompkins square, Lyon Hotel de Ville and many more) you can see it is possible to save places like this. It requires a lot of work and explanation, but it is possible.
But there is also the famous Philly Love park, which was unfortunately destroyed and replaced by a bad designed public space.
DD: It’s a unique use of communal public space that’s for sure. What about the tribal nature of these groups of city youths? Do skaters actually like the fact that now it’s full of non-skaters?
M: Skaters like the plaza because it’s not a skatepark, or skatepark-style of skating. The intersection with people, it’s kind of part of the game, you’re in the street and you need to hustle in the city. You like to be observed, and maybe you get some applause if you do a trick... it gives a good vibe, a good feeling. Not just to be behind the fence in a skate park and doing tricks for yourselves.
I think if it gets really overcrowded, some of the skaters might be upset, but most of them enjoy it. Like the moment when it’s a nice summer evening, people drinking here, enjoying our skate spot, it’s not ours of course, but we kind of live in peace in one place. They have a free public performance, you get a beautiful view, skaters are there…. You can choose what you want. It also brings creativity to the place, to do tricks there and express yourself.
I think it’s funny, too, because I remember when people first started playing inline hockey there. I remember thinking to myself. “Oh no inline skaters, the skateboarders are just going to destroy them. They’re just going to kick them out immediately.” But you know, they came in with really deep respect, just starting on the side some small goals, starting to play there every Sunday. And now they’ve been doing it for like five years. And all the skaters are cool with it.
We say hi to each other, and they are also not angry if you skate or if you intersect where they’re playing, and we’re not angry if the ball comes to our area. There is some mutual respect there. They enjoy the fact that they can play there.
The platform that is just behind the metronome, with the cubes, there is no granite, but there are some cubes, so you can’t skate there people are just walking there going to the view, and this plaza could be used for some other stuff like, other sport, performance, dancing or music. I think it would be cool to see more stuff like that at Stalin. There is a lot of space to be used, not just for skaters. I think skaters got the park, but if it could be used by someone else, I think it would just help with the place, to bring other communities together.
DD: What do you hope for the future of Stalin? As a skater, as an architect, as a Prague 7 local?
M: Just keep it like this. Open, public space. I would like to see more people actively using it than just the skaters. I think people shouldn’t be so, I don’t know if they’re afraid of skaters? I think they are actually [laughs] .
I would like to see more activities than just skateboarding. I think it can also help skaters to understand that we don’t own the place. We can learn how to respect others through this.
Containall really helped with the cultural events. And even the basement down there could be used, it’s really huge. Could be used as some gallery or something if they renovate it.
But simply keep it as it is, but to open it up to more people. Don’t change it for its amazing cultural heritage.
DD: Why does a city like Prague need a place like Stalin? How would you convince people who aren’t skaters or necessarily so engaged in urban youth culture?
It is important for a city to have a square with no boundaries and no regulations. People can shape this free area to their needs, be creative about how to use this place. It is that freedom which should attract people to come here, observe and enjoy this area. Nobody tells them how this place should be used, you feel free with no restrictions. That’s why these places are special.