Friday, 10 December 2010

Žižkov Television Tower

Talk of the festive season, Christmas markets and the sharp drop in temperatures always makes me think of Prague. In our relatively carefree, childless days, Mrs S and our friends Tina and Steve took a trip to Prague just before Christmas in 2003 and it was everything that I hoped it would be, and more; that city has subsequently become indivisible from my thoughts of the Christmas season.

I soaked up the festive atmosphere, the Gothic architecture and the quintessentially Eastern European modernist design of the subway platforms with unbridled enthusiasm. So what if we also had to spend a night in the airport when heavy snowfall – initially beautifully and silently draped across the city – later brought everything unexpectedly to a standstill, including all fights; so what if the tensions of queuing all night for replacement flights meant I got into a spat with a similarly-disgruntled Latvian in the early hours of the morning; so what if it was the holiday where I may or may not have drunkenly pissed in a dustbin in the hotel toilets (after taking the opportunity to gorge on the free drinks in the executive lounge all the details thereafter became a little sketchy, though I still maintain it was someone else).

The point is that whenever I think of Christmas, I think of the wintry chill and icy splendour of Prague. Whenever I visit an ersatz Christmas market in this country I think of the infinitely more authentic market we visited in Staré Město; whenever the biting cold in late December makes me crave hot chocolate, I think of the small café we four huddled in on the other side of the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) at the base of the steps leading up to the majestic Hradčany palace complex. I understand that Prague is beautiful in the summer, but that wouldn't be the Prague I would want to remember.

Much as I loved the impressive antediluvian squares, bridges, spires and buildings, my favourite structure in Prague lies some way out from the main tourist centre. Taking the subway out to Žižkov, a mostly residential area not frequented by mainstream tourist footfall and certainly not gentrified like other areas of the city; well at least it wasn't in 2003. The central reason for visiting this relatively unassuming urban area, apart from seeing rusty old Ladas and run-down apartment buildings is the Žižkov Television Tower.

The Žižkov Television Tower has a simplistic design that evokes classic Communist post-War attempts at some sort of futuristic modernity; all told, with its double layer of curved-edge rectangular pods in the top third of the main tower, and its trio of cylindrical legs (one containing the tiny lift that takes visitors to the top), it looks like something that Hanna-Barbera would have conceived for The Jetsons. Of course it looks dated now, like it no doubt did at the time of its construction between 1985 and 1992, and it certainly wasn't at all popular with Prague purists when it opened, given its imposing, high position above the city and the fact that they built the tower on an old Jewish cemetery. I like to think of it as being a bit like our dear old BT Tower, just a whole lot funkier.

The views from certain angles in the viewing galleries afford, in many senses, the best views of Prague. Tourists may well elect to view the city at close quarters from, say, the Malá Strana bridge tower or Old Town Hall in Staré Město, but for me the Žižkov Television Tower gives a greater context and long-range perspective on this city.

If you recall the Saturday evening British TV sci-fi series The Tripods, you'd be forgiven for getting a slightly fearful sensation at the sight of the external profile of the building, a feeling which is altogether heightened by David Černý's permanent Miminka art installation from 2001 – ascending upward on the legs of the tower are several statues of crawling babies. It's quirky and not altogether right, but once you transcend the oddness (and recollections of a certain withdrawal scene from Trainspotting) it's fun.

As I've said here before, tall buildings are divisive, much more so in a city where the only other tall buildings are sacred and centuries-old religious structures, but whichever way you look at it, the Žižkov Television Tower is delightfully contrarian and wonderfully strange; a perverse thing of otherworldly elegance in a city with abundant charm already.

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