Vacant Space Manual for Prague – City of a Hundred Spires and Countless Vacancies
Manuál k nevyužitému prostoru v Praze byl vytvořen v rámci projektu Vacant Central Europe, který v roce 2013 finančně podpořil Visegrad Fund. Projekt vznikl z iniciativy budapešťského Centra současné maďarské architektury KÉK (HU) a ve spolupráci s organizacemi Bec Zmiana (PL) Napraw Sobie Miasto (PL), 4AM Fórum (CZ), Archimera (SK) a PBlog (SK).
Vacancies are like different moments in life; emerging and disappearing as time goes by. The more time passes, the more of them see the light of day, but only a few seem to last. Prague also exists in time, an ancient city that has lasted over a thousand years. And as time changes, the city changes with it, building the new while leaving spaces – vacant – behind. In Prague, a wide variety of vacant spaces can be found, from feudalism and the industrial revolution, to soviet dominion and today’s contemporary capitalism. From abandoned baroque mansions to underused factories, empty flats or office spaces, each had left a mark in a different time and different part of the city. They all had different destinies and some of them eventually found new uses.
Vacant space in Prague has undergone a huge transformation during the past approximately half a century. While the central planning and shortage economy during communism produced a huge amount of vacancies in the historic core, where various ancient buildings were neglected due to massive concentration of development in peripheral residential and industrial zones, the current political-economic system has been mainly producing vacancies through real estate speculation and overbuilding.
After the Velvet revolution in 1989, Prague experienced a boom of property development due to the city’s new found role as a metropolis being integrated into the global capitalist market; a role that was further enhanced by Prague’s particular charm which worked as an enticement for foreign investors and companies. With the transition from planned to market economies, most property in the city came under private or municipal ownership. Unlike Budapest, a big proportion of Prague’s housing stock was subject to restitution, which considerably affected the residential structure of the historic core; residential buildings inhabited by several households and other types of property suddenly became owned by the heirs of their pre-WW2 owners. Other property came under the management of the new democratically elected municipal government.
For the new owners and managers of property, particularly in the highly lucrative part of the city, it was very hard to resist the pressure of commercial interests and the prospect of financial gain, causing many cases of speculative development to emerge. These speculations have now become characteristic of Prague’s vacancies. In a city such as Prague, where every square meter is in high demand, you’d be hard pressed to find a better way of explaining the existence of empty buildings in a monument preserve protected by UNESCO, or the coexistence of the historic core and extensive brownfields that sit right next to it. Many vacant plots of land, as well as empty solitary buildings, are being underused simply in the interest of exploiting the invisible hand of the market. And many vacancies are still being built in the interest of this market, and its future crisis.
From the perspective of spatial distribution, vacancies in Prague are sprinkled all over the city. They exist as solitary houses, undeveloped lots and brownfields, technical infrastructure and public works buildings, as well as old yards, basements and cellars, warehouses, abandoned shops, or empty apartments and offices. There is a bit of everything and the list does not end here. The most notorious examples of vacancies are large buildings under heritage protection, where the economic interests of private owners are in conflict with the interests of the public and heritage protection. In cases where the public and professionals challenge certain insensitive redevelopment plans, it is often easier to let the old property decay, intending to tear it down at a latter date by proclaiming its reconstruction impossible when the building comes into a state of complete disrepair. The most famous examples of such proceedings in Prague include the building of a former steam spa on Apolinářská street in Prague 2, the historical baroque mansion known as Cibulka in the Košíře neighborhoud in Prague 5, and the historical villa Petynka in the Břevnov neighbourhood in Prague 6. However, similar examples are countless, including vacant property under municipal ownership.
The most obvious vacancies are several centrally located brownfields that fall under the category of the so-called “large development areas”. In the inner city, we can find the railway yards in the Smíchov and Holešovice neighbourhoods (Prague 5 and 8) and the Masarykovo railway station in the historical core of Prague 1. These large plots with a history that reaches to the pre-WW2 era have remained underused since the cessation of the totalitarian regime. In the meantime, they have changed ownership several times, along with the planned development. Despite the turbulent ownership and planning evolution, building on these plots is still limited by the development enclosure. Officially this is due to the conception of their future use not having been verified by detailed land-use planning documentation and supporting land-use planning information; the main prerequisites for building to start. But in a city famous among developers for its clientelism, it would be foolish to think that these are the only reasons – the 2008 economic crisis has certainly played a role here too. Nonetheless, the current owners, big development companies such as Sekyra Group, Orco, or Masaryk Station Development, have already presented the public with visualizations of the projects they plan to build on these lots, all of which use ludicrously oversized dimensions and have never undergone a consultation process with the public.
With regards to the brownfields found in the inner city where the development enclosures do not apply, a few vacancies of industrial character can be found in the old docks of the rapidly gentrifying Holešovice neighbourhood (Prague 7), north-east from the Bubny brownfield, as well as in the predominantly gentrified Karlín neighbourhood (Prague 8), a former industrial zone which in the past principally served the engineering production of the ČKD company. The same company had spawned more vacant spaces in north-eastern Prague’s Vysočany neighbourhood (Prague 9). In the Nusle neighbourhood (Prague 4), a former brewery under heritage protection takes up considerable space and is now due to be demolished and replaced by luxurious residential housing.
Apart from a few other smaller-scale brownfields, it is worth mentioning the freight train station in Žižkov, known as Nákladové nádraží Žižkov, which is located in the centre of the Prague 3 district. The development of this extremely attractive plot of land has been the subject of lively debates due to vigorous attempts of the professional public to save the main building, an example of functionalist architecture from 1936. Since the development enclosure had been lifted from this area by the City Development Authority, the land’s owners, Žižkov Station Development (a company founded by the Sekyra Group and ČD – Czech Railways) and a consortium of the Discovery Group and Grainger Trust companies presented several plans for commercial development in the area, some of which have included high-density high-rise development. Thanks to a change of political representation in the district the building has finally been declared a cultural heritage site. While the northern part of the brownfield will likely soon undergo oversized commercial development (already being opposed by the public), its considerable part in the south now has a potential to serve something more beneficial for the city.
Figure 1: Overview of 15 large development areas in the capital city of Prague
It is nonetheless interesting and paradoxical that the most prevalent vacant spaces are the ones that are being built now or have been erected in the most recent era. The capitalist economy is prone to overbuilding, and post-communist urban environment was hungry for development. With the approaching turn of the millennium, Prague called for new up-to-date offices and retail spaces, as well as modern residential dwellings, etc. Somehow, this development boom still continues despite the fact that the offer now exceeds the demand, and many spaces remain vacant.
This can be attributed to multiple mechanisms that take place in contemporary Prague. Over the past 20 years, many citizens have fled to the suburbia, accomplishing their “American dream” and leaving their crowded dwellings in the peripheral high-rise housing estates behind. The outskirts of the city are covered by countless warehouses, wholesalers, supermarkets and shopping malls, out of which some have already gone out of business as newer ones are being built closer to the city centre. Despite the 2008 economic crisis, or maybe because of it, the unfettered development continues, producing masses of built environment that one day will be completely redundant – or, hopefully, available for new, alternative uses.
1.1 The right to a creative use of vacant spaces
As regards the possibility of creatively reusing vacant spaces, there is a considerable difference between public and private space. What they share in common is the fact that none of them can be legally used for cultural and innovative purposes without permission.
The use of public space is managed by individual municipal districts, out of which each has a department that deals with transportation and other related issues. This department has a special section which deals specifically with the occupation of public space (“zábor veřejného prostranství”). Any kind of use, be it commercial or non-commercial, has to be reported and granted permission by the municipal district. The use is not free of charge –users must pay a fee to the municipal district as well as rent to the owner of the space, which are usually authorities responsible for transport communications or greenery. Free of charge use of public space is allowed only for busking, although there are some restrictions on cultural production in the historical core.
To understand the use of nonpublic vacant space one must first review some basic information concerning vacant spaces and their legal (but partly also mental) relationship to their owners. Ownership here plays a crucial role, since in the context of the Czech capital, private ownership quickly became one of the most preached and professed values of the new political-economic regime. Unrestrained accumulation of private ownership is seen as the symbol of freedom and democracy by many Czechs, while other forms of ownership and various regulations tend to be perceived as attributes of the totality which nobody wants to come back. As a result, there is no such thing as “an abandoned property” in the current Czech law. All property in Prague belongs to an owner (in fact, public space too), be it a private owner, the municipality (and related authorities), or the state. Private owners have a full and free right to dispose of their property the way they want to, including leaving the property dormant to decay. Due to this fact, any kind of alternative use of a vacant space strictly depends on the will of its owner, and all uses of property unauthorised by the owner are treated as trespassing. The current Czech law does not operate with the term “squatting” and squatters have therefore never had any legal protection under Czech law. Private owners on the other hand enjoy a very efficient, almost sacrosanct protection.
As a result, negotiations with private owners regarding alternative uses of their property are typically very unequal. Cases where negotiations result in the owner’s consent to an alternative/creative/innovative use are usually only the ones which are in favour of the owner and his interests. Alternative uses of vacant spaces are typically agreed upon only if the owner is for example currently unable to find a more profitable use (wealthier tenants or investors) for his/her property, or if the prospect of alternative use comes with other incentives, such as the protection of the building from thieves or unwelcomed occupants, improvement of the building’s (or the owner’s) image and reputation, or the owner’s hidden intention to accelerate the building’s decay or the tenants’ displacement. Most negotiations between “alternative users” and private owners take various forms of temporary barter, which give the owner a significant proportion of control over the use of his/her property and the ability to dispose of it on the basis of his/her current needs (e.g. the ability to displace the tenants in case of an unexpected business opportunity, etc.)
People interested in alternative/creative/innovative reuses of vacant spaces in Prague, or various activists who criticise the lack of affordable housing in Prauge, often challenge the fact that private owners in the Czech Republic have almost unlimited rights and very low responsibility for the social context of their ownership. Extremely low property taxes further facilitate their ability to accumulate private ownership without contributing anything to the community. The owners’ only duty is to ensure that their property and its use do not threaten other people (e.g. when their building is in bad condition and crumbling). In such cases the municipal construction authority can demand rectification, such as the installation of safety nets that prevent walls from falling on pedestrians. In cases of buildings under heritage protection, inappropriate care can also be fined by the Prague City Hall Heritage Department. Unfortunately, fines are typically not high enough to encourage certain private owners, especially companies that dispose of large capital assets, to take proactive steps in improving the condition of their property. There is also no legal tool that can be used to force the owner to start using his/her property. Furthermore, frequent fines sometimes lead owners’ to resell their property, which further complicates heritage protection and negotiations with the authorities, as well as prolonging the building’s vacancy.
The new civil code, which will apply starting January 1st 2014, will introduces the principle of the so-called „dereliction“, defining a situation where owners don’t care for their property (house or land) with an intention to get rid of it. According to the new civil code, such property can be taken away from the owner in favour of the municipality. In cases where the owner raises a claim upon his/her ownership, the court will demand evidence that the property has not been abandoned and that the owner has exercised his or her proprietorship. There is however no exact definition of the way proprietorship should be exercised or the date from which the length of vacancy should be measured. Legal proceedings concerning the “dereliction” will likely be lengthy and complicated. In cases of lucrative property in Prague, it may also lead to a multiplication of reselling and repurchasing of the property by its owners.
Even if the municipality finally wins a battle over a neglected property, there is no guarantee that the building will be available for new creative reuses. In fact, even municipalities own a considerable amount of underused property. If such cases are to be challenged, it has to be proven that the owner (or commissioned administrator – municipal districts) does not perform the duties that result from the Act No. 131/2000 Coll. on the Capital City of Prague. Unfortunately, the description of these duties is not very specific. Also, “dereliction” in case of municipal property is relatively hard to prove (e.g. in cases of property that serve strategic purposes).
The city nonetheless often speculates with its property just like private owners. This is another reason why the city is sometimes reluctant to provide the public with information about municipal property available for various creative reuses; not only does it have other schemes for a buildings’ future use, but it also attempts to withhold information about the extent of idle municipal property from the public. Sometimes even municipally owned listed buildings can be neglected, in which case the city can be fined by the municipal heritage department. This system is, however, quite tricky. Despite the fact that the department exercises some state power, the city’s executive board has the power to change its organizational structure and to name its heads. As a result, bureaucrats responsible for heritage protection typically pursue the same political orientation and interests as the municipal leadership. Therefore the battle over heritage protection, use of vacant space, and creativity in the city still lasts and will likely continue for a long time.
Figure 2: Pohořelec – squatters‘ attempt to call attention to historical monuments falling victim to speculative practices
1.2 The Praguewatch map of vacancies in Prague
The idea to create an internet map of vacant spaces in Prague fit very well into the activities of the Prague based civil association Praguewatch. Since Praguewatch is concerned with a bigger internet mapping project which had been initiated prior to the Vacant Central Europe project, the map of vacancies in Prague is not an independent map that exists on its own but come into being as part of an already existing map (www.praguewatch.cz). The main objective of this map is to map all problematic issues and contested cases in Prague’s urban development and provide critical analysis, be it from architectural, historical, social, legal, environmental, or other points of view. The original mapping project, whose creation in 2010 was supported by the Open Society Fund Praha, uses the Ushahidi platform for crowdmapping.
The map of vacant spaces was therefore created in the form of an additional category on the already existing map that is categorized by a variety of issues. Along with the category of vacant spaces, the map includes the following categories: Praha ekologická (environmental issues), Praha občanská (citizenship issues), Praha politická a administrativní (political and administrative issues), Praha mobilní (transportation issues), Praha kulturní (cultural issues), Praha sociální (social issues), Pražské úřední aktuality (official updates), Z médií (information from media) and Pražská demoliční tour (damaged and demolished buildings in the Prague monument preserve). These categories can overlap with one or more other categories, for instance, when a building is abandoned, but is also on the list of cultural heritage sites and part of public debates, or if it is related to transportation, such as the Masarykovo railway station. Each issue/case on the map is accompanied by its description. New cases/issues and their descriptions can be added to the map by the public, however, each one of them has to be reviewed and confirmed by the map’s administrators in order to prevent the map from becoming a source of misleading information or disinformation, as well as attempting to keep a certain degree of unity and comprehension in the form of all descriptions.
Figure 3: The map of vacant spaces in Prague by Praguewatch
1.3 Case studies of vacant properties and creative and innovative reuses:
Prague is full of vacant spaces and probably the most interesting are the ones that have been creatively reused or where attempts have been made for such reuse.
Squats: If we look back into the history of Prague, we cannot ignore certain projects from its golden era of squatting in the 1990s. Unfortunately, all squatting projects were violently terminated by the authorities, and the current atmosphere around squatting is very hostile. At the moment, there is only one semi-legal squat in Prague.
In Czech history the most renowned squat was the Ladronka squat, a municipally owned farm estate in Prague 6 occupied by the members of the Anarchist Federation, and transformed into an autonomous socio-cultural and ecological centre. The project survived for seven years, but over time declined as the squatters got tired of negotiations with the Municipality. The negotiations surprisingly resulted in a contract concerning the squatters’ rights and duties in relation to the occupied building, but further cooperation ended in failure as the authorities never legalized the autonomous centre, fearing its political orientation. Accompanied by many protests and demonstrations, the squat was violently evicted in 2000, sold to a private company and rebuilt into a commercial recreational centre. Another significant squatters’ project was initiated in 1995 by a group called Medáci in the old part of Střešovice neighborhood in Prague 6. Receiving verbal consent of the neighbouring residents, a group of young people disillusioned by the unavailability of affordable housing occupied three abandoned historical working-class houses. The project extensively engaged in the grassroots development of the local community, nature protection, support for noncommercial culture, monument preservation etc. The occupied houses played the role of a local community centre, involving also children, seniors, the homeless and people with mental disabilities. The attempts to legalize the squat did now work out as the local authorities sold the buildings and evicted the squat by means of a security agency.
The longest existing squat in Czechia (1998 – 2009) was the autonomous center Milada, an abandoned villa in the Trója neighborhood. The building did not officially exist due to its removal from the real estate cadastre, which came about as a result of a planned demolition of the building in the past. Although officially nonexistent and abandoned for several decades, the villa was administrated by the Institute for the Research of Information. The police raided the squat several times, finally succeeding in June 2009 when the building was again registered in the real estate cadastre. Contemporary Minister of human rights arranged temporary housing for the squatters in a half-empty building in the Truhlářská street in the historic core. The building was being speculated with and its owner was suspected of intending to get rid of the remaining tenants, as the building was planned for commercial redevelopment. For one year part of the house functioned as a lively centrally located communal centre known as Truhla, which served for grassroots cultural activities and community gatherings (involving bike repairs workshops, communal cooking, discussions, screenings, art and sports classes, exhibitions and concerts in the basement [figure etc.), something very unique in the commercialised and touristified city centre. Not surprisingly, the squatters and tenants made friends, outsmarting the owner and his plans. The squatters nonetheless had to leave after their one-year contract ran out.
The one year period of the squatters’ residence in the city centre was very important in terms of developing and testing new ways of gaining access to a new vacant space. In one year, the squatters had zero success in negotiating with various private owners. They also tried to raise awareness about the high number of underused buildings in the city by organizing a spectacular protest occupation of the historical building of the former steam spa in Apolinářská Street in Prague 2. The building had long been (and still is) in the state of disrepair. The occupiers were consequently evicted by a special commando and charged with trespassing. After a more than 15 month proceeding, the city court decided that the occupation could not be considered a criminal act, also recognising that the building had not been taken care of by the owner for a considerable period of time.
Currently, a number of former occupiers of the squats listed above have found a refuge in Cibulka, a historical baroque mansion in Košíře neighbourhood in Prague 5. In this case the owner, which is a travel agency Autoturist, fails to fix the property according to the demands of the preservationists. The squatters are now allowed to use the property (according to some opinions the owner is hoping it would speed up the dereliction) in consequence of several events. The agreement between the squatters and Autoturist was achieved thanks to the involvement of the civil organization A2 and its initiative Oživte si barák (Enliven Your House), whose aim is to raise public awareness of the number of decaying historical buildings in Prague. Under the squatters’ administration the building has served as an independent cultural centre with a regular weekend program.
Vacant space and the creative class: In comparison to the squatters, members of the creative class in Prague have a much easier access to vacant spaces. In that sense Prague is no different from other major cities. Artists, creative professionals and students are willing to pay rent and do not challenge the status quo of the society in the same way the squatters do. Some of them even welcome the possibility of cooperating with commercial interests. And there are others, that don’t demand anyone’s permission for their spontaneous activities in various vacant spaces. Here are just a few interesting examples of creatively reused spaces in Prague, divided into two groups: longer-term projects and one-off projects.
1. Longer-term projects:
Trafačka is an alternative cultural and art centre with gallery spaces and art studios, established by a group of artists in a dilapidated former electrical transformer station on Kurta Konráda street in Libeň, Prague 9. The industrial space is especially suitable for large-scale art pieces and occasional cultural events, including performing art. Trafačka is also connected to an old residential corner building, which mainly serves as studios. Both spaces belong to the PSN, a company engaged with property investment and management, which is currently unable to use the property in a more profitable way. The space is ran non-commercially, although the barter between the owner and the artists is clearly very mercantile – the artists play the role of custodians and their presence and activities significantly improve the local disconsolate neighbourhood. It is likely that the project won’t last much longer, as the owner does not invest into its’ repairs and in fact plans to demolish it in the future.
Karlín Studios is an art centre in a building within a former factory complex of ČKD in Křižíkova steet in Karlín, Prague 8. The space is leased out by the development company Karlín Real Estate Group, which is responsible for the gentrification of the centre’s surroundings. In order to function as an art centre, approximately 80 000 Euro had to be invested into the building’s reconstruction. Currently it contains two galleries and several art studios. The artists have to pay rent, but part of the rent is also paid in the form of art pieces. The co-owners are aware of the creative potential of art for the economy and development and Karlín Studios is probably the best example of culture-led redevelopment in Prague, although most people in the area don’t know about it. The building is still planned for future commercial redevelopment; the artists are only temporary “custodians”.
Figure 4: Karlín Studios
Klubovna is a non-commercial independent student club located in a municipally owned building of a former nursery on Generála Píky Street in Prague 6. The club is operated by a student civil group Povaleč, who managed to gain the right to use the derelict building in a selection procedure launched by the Municipality of Prague 6. The program of Klubovna is focused on art youth music, theatre, film screenings, workshops, flea markets etc. Despite the club’s benefits for the local youth community, the approach of the local authorities towards the club is very biased. Most of them don’t really approve of it; the students won their lease only thanks to the support by a few young councilors at the city hall.
Bubenská is a huge heritage building of the former electricity company next to a busy junction of the expressways Bubenská and Nábřeží Kapitána Jaroše in Holešovice neighbourhood, Prague 7. The building belongs to Orco Real Estate Group, which now leases the building to artists and other creative professionals. In 2009, after the building got vacated by its main lessee, the Česká Spořitelna bank, Orco was unable to find a new lessee, supposedly due to low standards unsatisfactory for rich clients and outdated aesthetics of the interior. The building could not be updated due to its heritage protection. The functionalist style on the other hand appealed to the creative professionals and Orco reoriented its focus towards this new type of clientele. Nowadays many offices in the building are rented out to various NGOs, architects, artists etc., the ground floor also serves for the publisher of an art magazine and cultural events, including exhibitions, concerts etc. The owner is allegedly pleased by the fact that his creative lessees have upgraded the image of the building on the market; on the other hand it is obvious that these current lessees will be displaced in favor of a richer client interested in leasing the space.
Figure 5: Orco – Bubenská
2. One-off projects:
4+4 dny v pohybu is an annual festival of contemporary art, each year held in various different premises, typically a combination of official cultural venues and other unusual spaces, typically various underused buildings or industrial spaces. The festival consists of performing arts, exhibitions, games, discussions, guided tours etc. During almost 18 years of its existence, the festival has used the premises of the waste-water purifying plant in Bubeneč, industrial halls ČKD in Karlín, former brewery in Holešovice, a former brick factory in the Šárecké valley, or a former dental clinic in Jungmannova street and others. Each year, the organizers have to look for new spaces and negotiate with new owners, both private and municipal. Despite the good tradition and professionalism of the festival, the negotiations tend to be quite challenging.
CODE:MODE is a fashion fair of independent designers and artists. It was held several times in the Karlín Hall, one of the former industrial ČKD halls, which unfortunately recently underwent redevelopment. The fair has also been held at the riverfront, on the Střelecký island on the Vltava river, in the Bubenská space (described above) and in an empty residential building in Karlín.
Figure 6: CODE:MODE in the Karlín Hall
Festival Květy zla (Flower of Evil) was an event held at the freight train station Nákladové nádraží Žižkov in May 2011 as part of an exhibition Veřejný zájem (Public Interest). The organizers of the festival arranged an improvised stage on one of the railway platforms within the complex of the freight station. The unauthorised and spontaneously held set of concerts was attended by approximately one hundred people. The message behind the concert was a critique of the possible demolition of the whole industrial complex.
1.4 Proposals for innovative reuses of vacant properties
Prague is big city with a huge creative potential. There are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands people with a sense for creativity, innovativeness and experimentation. Lots of people have countless ideas and ambitions. The city certainly does not suffer from lack of ideas in terms of creative reuse of various vacant spaces. But Prague mainly lacks the following: political will and bureaucratic flexibility; less regulations and obstacles for the creative public, and more regulations and requirements for the private owners; bigger transparency of the way the city handles municipal property. On top of that, the city would benefit from a much bigger involvement of culture in strategic planning and more financial support for various local initiatives, including the pop-up ones. If some the above listed aspects of the use of vacant space undergo certain reform, a huge variety of changes could happen. To give a few examples, the freight train station in Žižkov could for instance serve as a film archive, (which has already been proposed by the National Film Archive itself), the brownfield in Hradčanská metro stop could be turned into a food market, or the steam spa in Apolinářská street could become a communal cultural centre. The few remaining old factory buildings in the city should be saved and kept for cultural events which require grimy industrial aesthetics, such as art exhibitions, site-specific theatre, or alternative music shows. Empty window shops in the city could be used as pop-up shops or a democratic space for sharing grassroots information, messages, statements etc. Instead of being redeveloped into a luxurious residence, the former brewery in Nusle would be more useful as a university campus with dormitories, student clubs, canteens and a library. Smaller-scale vacant spaces all around the city could turn into rehearsal rooms and local community centres. Plots of vacant land and various ruins should be, at least temporarily, used for guerrilla gardening, or turn into more official community gardens and outdoor exhibition places. Some dilapidated buildings might be used as graffiti walls, skate parks, or festival sites. In order to enhance the local community in Prague, which in fact does not quite exist, all available and easily accessible vacant spaces should be used for different kinds of communal and social services, such as bike repairs workshops or various low-cost eateries. Sometime all that is needed is an alternative little corner to sit down and hang out for a while – maybe onto a thrown out sofa, or improvised seats, accompanied by a pile of books that someone put away. Sometimes all that a vacant space needs is a bit of original decoration – it can be decorated with all kinds of spare materials, clothing, old furniture, toys, tires, newspaper etc. The fact that we cannot do these things already is mainly due to structural reasons. But big part of it is also due to people being lazy – lazy to deal with the authorities. And often also confused – not even sure where to start. This is what the following chapter will be about!
1.5 Ideas for a toolkit
So what exactly should we do first in case we want to use a vacant space for creative purposes?
1) We should think about the project we want to do and then look for an ideal spot for such project, or the other way round. We should also know what materials and equipment, or how much money we will need for our project. There is no point in trying to find a suitable space unless we have thought about this.
2) Once we know what we are doing and where we are doing it, as well as where we are going to find everything else we need for our project, we should know whether we want to do the project spontaneously without anyone’s permission, or whether we need our project to be authorised by the owner or the authorities. It is good to remember that squatting is generally highly repressed in the Czech Republic, even a short unauthorised occupation will be regarded as trespassing.
3) In case we decide for a spontaneous activity, we must think about our strategy – how can we do it so that we don’t get arrested or fined? How do we do it so that people don’t notice us or do not get the feeling that we are doing something illegal? Or how do we do it so that people actually support us?
4) If we decide for a more permanent use or something more official, we must find out who is the owner of the space. Remember! In Prague people worship the ownership!!!
5) In order to find the owner, we use the cadastre of real estate in the Czech Republic, called “Katastr nemovitostí“. The register of the cadastre can be found at the website of The Czech Office for Surveying, Mapping and Cadastre (Český úřad zeměměřičský a katastrální).
6) In order to find the property we are interested in, we must know its address – the name of the neighbourhood and the building’s registry number. Buildings (or entrances) in the Czech Republic have two numbers: the smaller one that goes by twos is usually the orientation number and the bigger one is often the registry number (číslo popisné). If we know the address, we click on “vyhledat stavbu” (search building) at the cadastre website, than we fill in the name of the city, the name of the neighborhood, and the registry number of the building. After pressing “vyhledat” (search), we receive the name of the owner.
7) If the owner is private, we have to try to find him/her/its contact via google. If we are not successful, we visit the building and try to look up the owner. Than we try to negotiate about our idea for a creative reuse. We must be prepared that in most cases the owner is not even interested in talking to us, not to mention meet our wishes. For that purpose it is always a good idea to have an attractive plan that the owner might find appealing and potentially beneficial for his own interests. Not that this is cool, but somehow we need to be convincing. If we get refused, we repeat the whole search again.
8) If the building we want to use is municipally owned, we should find out what institution of municipal district administers the particular building. We try to contact them – generally it is much better to pay a personal visit to the head of the institution. In case of municipal districts, it is probably advisable to pay a visit to the department that deals with municipal property (majetkový odbor).
9) If we want to use public space, we have to remember that no public space belongs to nobody. In fact, even though the space is considered public, it often has to be leased out by the institution in charge of its management and keeping. For this purpose we should visit the town hall of the respective district and visit the office that deals with the occupation of public space (zábor veřejného prostranství), typically it is part of the transport department, sometimes connected also with the department of land-use planning. In some districts organizing cultural events is for free, in others a fee has to be paid, on top of paying a rent to the institution in charge of the premises we are interested in using.
Author: Michaela Pixová