Repair of Prague’s legendary Charles Bridge sparks complaints renovation work went wrong

By Karel Janicek, AP
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Czech repair of famed Charles Bridge faces protest

PRAGUE — Built like a mighty fortress, Charles Bridge has survived floods and fires over the past 650 years. But conservationists are warning that the storied span linking Prague’s two oldest neighborhoods might succumb to a different threat — renovation.

There is no question the bridge, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, needs a makeover. The last major fix in the mid-1970s failed to achieve its goal of protecting it from rainfall and snow, and since then the Czech capital’s miserable weather has left its mark.

Several of the bridge’s statues already are faux-Baroque copies — replacements of originals worn down by the weather. A glance at the worn and darkened surface of the sandstone blocks gives only a hint of the destruction wrought by moisture inside.

Mayor Pavel Bem says the 222 million koruna ($11.7 million; euro8.6 million) renovation, commissioned by the city government, was urgently needed due to the bridge’s “catastrophic condition” caused by water leaking into the structure.

But as workers hew at the massive structure over the Vlatava River with pneumatic drills, critics say they may be doing more harm then good by replacing many of the ancient sandstone blocks with newly cut pieces.

Still to come is the second stage tackling the most valuable parts of the bridge, including pillars, in a project estimated to last a decade. Critics aghast at the harm they say already has been done are pushing for a pause before it begins so a damage control plan can be drawn up.

The company doing the repairs says only stones beyond saving are being removed and insists it is respecting the bridge’s historic significance. But prominent critics — including the Culture Ministry — question that commitment.

An October 2008 a ministry report warned that renovations had “significantly damaged the authenticity” of the bridge since starting the previous year. Last month, Jiri Varhanik, head of the ministry’s Monument Inspectorate which produced the report said more care is being exercised now but the original damage remains unfixed.

“The shape and size of newly made blocks don’t correspond with the original ones,” the report said. “The irreplaceable aesthetic and artistic value of the monument has been essentially affected.”

Other significant voices have also joined in the criticism.

“Charles Bridge is not just one of the 274 national heritage monuments in the country,” said Nadezda Goryczkova, director general of the National Institute for the Protection and Conservation of Monuments and Sites, which is supervising the restoration.

“It is considered a national icon.”

Goryczkova and Varhanik say Prague City Hall and the construction company involved erred in not plotting out each step of the renovation process beforehand.

Company officials don’t see a problem.

“You always have to find a compromise between the historic value of a stone and its capacity to function properly in the future,” said Pavel Kamenik, a director of the SMP CZ company carrying out the project. “The question is who is to guarantee the stones are in such shape that we won’t be forced to repair them in few years again?”

Kamenik says that while some 44 percent of the stones have been replaced halfway through the project, that was less than expected. Critics dispute his figure.

“We’re talking about a hundred stones, if not more,” says Martin Kadrman, one of those who launched the Save Charles Bridge initiative. Kadrman reckons that at least 70 percent of the blocks now in place are new and some of the original ones cannot be accounted for.

“It’s shocking that it’s impossible to find where the medieval stones disappeared,” he said. “They repair it as if it were an ordinary highway bridge.”

Goryczkova, too, says a “massive number” of stones were replaced.

Kamenik in turn says his company has detailed records about each stone. Only 10 had to be destroyed, and separate documents have been written up for each one of those, he says.

The bridge’s construction began in 1357 under Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor known as the father of the Czech nation. Over the centuries, 30 mostly Baroque statues of saints were erected on the bridge’s Gothic balustrade.

The statue of the legendary Czech knight Bruncvik, standing alone on one of the bridge’s pillars is among the notable sculptures. Legend has it that his magical sword was buried in the bridge and would be swung at times of great national tribulation by St. Wenceslas, Bohemia’s patron saint.

It may not be time for Wenceslas, but the bridge dispute is assuming major proportions.

Kadrman’s group filed a criminal complaint last month as part of efforts to discover what happened to missing stones. City Hall may be fined up to 4 million koruna ($211,000; euro155,000) if a regional authority agrees with the Culture Ministry that municipal officials did not take proper care in approving and monitoring the renovations.

Jan Knezinek, the head of the city’s monument care department, says Prague is not at fault and has followed the advice of Goryczkova’s conservation department.

Amid the swelling dispute, nearly 50,000 people have signed an online petition requesting that work stop immediately until procedures are reviewed. Among them is Jurg Schweizer, until last year the chief conservationist for the Swiss canton of Bern.

“This ‘restoration’ has been done in a very unprofessional way,” Schweizer said in an e-mail message sent to the AP. “Too many stones had been changed, instead of restoring. The new stones don’t fit and don’t respect the original joints.”

Any fears tourists may boycott an adulterated Charles Bridge seem unfounded, however.

“I think the bridge is beautiful,” said Annie Schwartz, a 20-year-old student of psychology from New York City, who was taking a walk across the monument with two friends despite cold winds and snow.

“If they don’t renovate, it would be destroyed. It’s better to conserve what’s left,” she said.

Jahn reported from Vienna.

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