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Fred and Ginger and Frank

Renowned Southern California architect Frank O. Gehry has designed a new building in Prague, giving the electic-looking city a jolt of whimsy.

July 14, 1996|Dean E. Murphy | Dean E. Murphy is The Times' Warsaw bureau chief

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Dagmar Sedlakova's discerning nose turns up at the mention of the new building on Jiraskovo Square that was co-designed by Los Angeles-based architect Frank O. Gehry.

Her words are judicious, but they carry the reproach of a schoolmarm admonishing a band of truants. Disrespectful. Unsuitable. Where is the self-restraint?

"Prague is changing too quickly," Sedlakova lectures from her 18th century office in the heart of this medieval city. "We risk losing the spirit of our city. I am afraid it can't survive many more buildings like this one."

Sedlakova is a top pamatkar, or preservationist, in the Prague department of cultural and historic conservation, where new developments are scrutinized for compatibility and historic integrity. She and her 75 colleagues are sentries of the Old World--architects and art historians who are charged with protecting 11 centuries of building in the former Eastern Bloc's most stunning capital.

As Sedlakova tells it, the job has caused her mostly heartache in the freewheeling 1990s, as Prague has emerged from four decades of repressive Communist isolation only to be overrun by a free market that knows no bounds.

More than 50 million tourists jam the city's cobblestone streets each year, and big-spending Western investors roll through town like drunken cowboys trashing Dodge City. As a result, Sedlakova says, Prague's fairy-tale visage is left with an indelible black eye.

But as the debate over the $15-million Jiraskovo Square project illustrates, the line between sanctity and heresy in architecture is difficult to discern in a city where the late 20th century building frenzy follows a millennium-long tradition of municipal make-overs.

Sedlakova says that she knows where the line falls and that the Gehry building and a dozen or so other disputed projects are on the wrong side of it. Other prominent architects, however, say they are less certain and warn against sacrificing Prague's legendary architectural diversity in the elusive pursuit of historic purity.

"The city has been a sleeping beauty, and suddenly the prince arrived and we are alive again," said Ivan Plicka, director of foreign relations for the Prague municipal development authority. "But we are facing a completely new situation, and we still don't know how to react."

Prague's greatest capitalist expansion, during the mid-19th century, left it with splendid Neo-Renaissance tenement houses that were dolled up in later booms in prevailing Neo-Baroque, Neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau fashions. Thousand-year-old Romanesque rotundas and 80-year-old Cubist offices are cherished historic treasures. Even an acclaimed church from the 1970s has been afforded protection.

Where the pamatkar see travesty, proponents of construction see opportunity. The Gehry building, for example, has already become a draw for tourists and a mecca for young Czech architects. A chronic black eye, builders say, is a small price to pay for a rejuvenated city; the worst of the construction, in any event, has been far removed from the most historic neighborhoods, which are crowded into three square miles. "Why not?" said Zdenek Lukes, an architect on the staff of President Vaclav Havel, when asked about the Jiraskovo Square project. "The history of Prague is a never-ending story of new dominance in architecture, and we have entered a new period of the free market. There will be some bad construction, but to stop the process is to kill the city."

Situated on a magnificent riverfront road adorned by 19th century Art Nouveau apartment houses, the deconstructivist Gehry building is as inconspicuous as a punk rocker crashing high tea.

It has a twisting glass tower, pinched at the waist and slouching into an adjacent concrete tower, giving the building the popular nickname "Fred and Ginger" after the dancing duo of American movie fame. Gehry has objected to the Hollywood moniker for its kitschy connotations, but the name has stuck.

The roof over Fred is capped by a cupola of unruly metallic hair. Ginger's skirt flares over the sidewalk, and her concrete legs descend into what can best be described as a pedestrian obstacle course. The uneven windows ripple.

"Fred and Ginger" was approved by city officials after the design was modified 13 times and the developers collected 65 permissions. The building Is expected to open this month as offices for its owners, the Dutch insurance company Nationale-Nederlanden, 10 years after it was conceived.

Despite such scrutiny, Sedlakova will always regard "Fred and Ginger" as one that got away. Preservationists failed, she said, because city officials were "swept away by the revolutionary euphoria" that followed the collapse of communism. In keeping with the country's new enthusiasm for the free market, she said, city officials have come to believe that less regulation is better.

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