Inspired by JohnnyO’s sleuthing into Sutro Tower’s missing antenna, I figured I would interrupt normal programming around here (which, let’s face it, has started to resemble an inane cabaret lately, what with children wearing bacon suits and animals giving each other piggy-backs) to do a post on communist Prague’s answer to the Sutro Tower – the Ivan Drago to its Rocky Balboa, if you will – the Žižkov Television Tower:
One thing the Žižkov Television Tower (pronounced ‘zhISH-kof tel-uh-VIZ-yon TAUU-err’, hereon referred to as ZTT) has that the Sutro Tower doesn’t have is an observation deck, which allows it membership status into something adorable called The World Federation of Great Towers. In fact, if you go up to the observation deck of the ZTT, you’ll see a number of framed photos on the walls of other kindred members of the WFGT, which is pretty cute.
Another thing that differentiates the ZTT is its confounding placement smack in the middle of an old residential neighborhood (it’s hard to compare Prague and SF neighborhoods exactly, but it would be like if Sutro Tower sprung out of the ground at the corner of Folsom and 18th). This gives it a very different sense of proximity than the Sutro Tower, which is essentially marooned on a remote hilltop overlooking a Twin Peaks neighborhood that no one has ever had a single interesting thing to say about.
This jarring proximity provoked a lot of the initial resistance to the tower when construction began in 1985. Note that you can’t really say that there was ‘outcry’ of protest back then since nobody was allowed to publicly protest much of anything under communism, so it was really more of a pent-up in-cry, but there was a lot of it nonetheless. Mainly, the tower was seen an imposition of communist triumphalism on a modest, more old-fashioned neighborhood, a clumsy gesture of imperial egotism and arrogance. As if to remove any last possible hint of delicacy, moreover, the tower was built right over a very old Jewish cemetery, which now looks meekly pushed to one side (note: there’s a widespread belief that the tower planners actually moved the cemetery themselves, but a considerable dissenting voice claims that it had already been moved earlier).
Nowadays, the tower is fairly popular, as the jarring contrast between old and kitschy-new is seen as quirky and likable. I guess I can see both sides of this argument. Meaning, I really like the tower, but I can also picture myself being horrified if I’d lived in the neighborhood at the start of construction, both by the aesthetic and cultural implications of it. Which all goes to show that if you’re running a city, maybe you’re better off just doing stuff and counting on the public to acclimate to it, rather than trying to run things according to the maddening processes of consensus-building and ballot initiatives that exist in San Francisco and result in a city repeatedly voting to demolish, rebuild and repeal the same freeway in successive votes. On the other hand, Czech’s communist government was overthrown before they could see the completion of this tower, so maybe it is better to stick with the milquetoast, coalition-building approach after all.
A lot of the protest around the ZTT also had to do with health concerns, so much so that construction was actually halted for a year after the Velvet Revolution so that tests could be performed to reassure the surrounding community that the broadcast signals emanating from the tower had no adverse effects. As far as I know, there was no reason to suspect any kind of health impact from the broadcast signals other than the one quite sufficient reason that it was being built by the local communist government, who had such a poor record on environmental issues that it often seemed as though they were trying to create unhealthy living conditions on purpose. So, on the one hand, I think you can’t really blame the citizens of 1980s Czechoslovakia for instinctually doubting the safety-mindedness of their leaders in any undertaking. With that said, it often seems like communities will come up with somewhat farfetched public safety concerns when they’re faced with something they don’t like but don’t know how else to verbalize their dislike for. In the 1973 news clipping that JohnnyO liked to about the Sutro Tower, for example, there’s some guy who’s trying to claim that the tower is a threat to fall over and land on a nearby school.
Then, there are the Babies:
There’s not much to say about the Babies that hasn’t already been said. Installed by sculptor David Černy in 2000, they started out as a temporary exhibit but became a permanent part of the structure by public demand. I used to think that they were perhaps a commentary on the health concerns that originally centered around the tower, but then found out that Černy had already been creating these babies (his ‘technology babies’) for a while before he got this commission, so they in fact had nothing to do with the tower per se. Pretty much every tourist who has ever been in Žižkov has taken a photo exactly like the one above, by the way.
From the observation deck, you get a fun 360 degree view from a height of some 600 feet, at which point the city basically dissolves into a sea of orange tiled roofs with the occasional castle spire or church tower poking through in the distance. You can also clearly appreciate the way that the blocks of flats are built around entire blocks with fairly large courtyards inside:
(Note: these two photos are not taken from the tower – lame, I know, but the thick reflective glass around the observatory makes it hard to take decent pictures, so these give a better idea of what you see. These were taken on an elevated bridge about 2 miles away).
Technically, the most impressive feature of the building is the elevators, which travel 4 meters a second, and look like this:
On the other hand, the lamest aspect of the tower is the restaurant, which is decked out in iron curtain-style colors and decor, features diffident iron curtain-era service, and is probably largely responsible for the widespread misconception among visitors that the tower was built in the 70s rather than late 80s/early 90s. Nevertheless, I chose this as the place to propose to my then-girlfriend, party because I wanted us to be able to have a personal happy association with this ubiquitous spot that you can see from hundreds of kilometers away. Of course, if she had said no, then it would have become a ubiquitous reminder of heartbreaking rejection, which would have been awkward… but, fortunately, that’s not what happened. The only awkward part was trying to come up with an explanation for why I wanted to take her up to this touristy place where we would never normally go for dinner. To do so, I claimed that a phony astrological phenomenon – ‘the refraction of Saturn’- was happening and that we should go eat in the restaurant so we would be able to see it. Worked like a charm. Heh heh.
Finally, the tower looks really cool at night: