Fears for Prague's Charles Bridge


PRAGUE, Czech Republic — In 2002, record-setting floods turned the Vltava River — which cuts through the center of the Czech capital — into a rampaging watercourse. It nearly destroyed the blackened stone bridge that is the country's most recognizable landmark.

But shoring up the 650-year-old span is provoking a storm of protest from preservationists who charge that shoddy workmanship is making the statue-laden bridge more susceptible to damage or collapse.

Petr Sefl, a member of the Association for the Protection and Development of the Cultural Heritage of the Czech Republic, is among the critics.

“The Charles Bridge is the most important historical heritage monument in the Czech country and must be cared for for future generations with maximal respect of the authenticity,” Sefl said. “There are two problems. One is aesthetic and one is technical.”

The bridge's sandstone construction makes erosion a constant threat. But many here, including officials at the Czech Ministry of Culture, say too many old stones have been replaced and a failure to adhere to the original joints is altering the World Heritage site's appearance and potentially weakening it structurally.

Jan Knezinek, director of the Heritage Fund Department for the city of Prague, which is responsible for maintenance of the city's treasure trove of historic sites, says a botched renovation carried out during the 1970s by the country's Communist overseers is compounding the problem.

"The second [current] part of the renovation had provoked controversy because the public could see visible changes," he said. "The third phase consists of evaluating the more than 50,000 stones that comprise the bridge, which will take 15 to 20 years."

It's a mere blip in the life span of the nearly 1,700-foot-long Gothic structure. Construction on the Charles Bridge began in 1357 and was completed more than 40 years later, early in the 15th century. The work began under the auspices of King Charles IV, though he did not live to see its completion, dying in 1378.

For centuries it was simply called the Stone Bridge, taking on the moniker Charles 140 years ago.

Its sweeping arches were an engineering marvel at the time. Using some 50,000 Bohemian sandstones, the bridge joined Prague’s Starometska (Old Town) with Malostrana (Small Town).

The 30 or so Baroque statues which adorn the balustrade of the bridge did not come along until the turn of the 17th century.

Over the course of its 600-year history, the bridge has borne witness to at least one epic military battle, public executions and a series of devastating floods.

In more recent years, it has made numerous cameo appearances in pop culture, including movies, novels and music videos:

Today the bridge hums with the presence of painters, photographers, musicians and tourists.

Sefl and others said that renovations should maintain the bridge's historical integrity. As he walks over the bridge he points to cracks in the fresh masonry and dollops of concrete where there should be repaired stonework as proof of the shoddy — cost-saving — workmanship

A regional commission agreed, fining the city of Prague, which is responsible for maintaining the bridge and contracting out the renovation work, the equivalent of $200,000.

“The bridge needs to be elastic because there is tension,” Sefl said. “Winter, water, cold and ice — in a few years the Charles Bridge could be destroyed by a catastrophe.”

Indeed, it appears that the only thing the critics do not agree on is who to blame.

The city and the state historical institute both have come under fire for failed oversight, while the contractor is faulted by turn for its failure to properly finish the work.

Pavel Kamenik, a spokesman for SMP, the contractor, said his company was not to blame for perceived shortcomings in the $10-million renovation.

“We had instructions confirmed by the historical preservationist’s office,” he wrote in an email.

“Civil engineers, architects, historical preservationists and other experts were cooperating on the project from the very beginning.”

Kamenik (a name that is, ironically, Czech for “stonemason”) said SMP followed instructions given to them “by the team of experts," that included representatives from Faculty of Science, historical preservationists and representatives from the city of Prague.

“We discovered that it was very well insulated and that there was no water getting in,” said Knezinek, the head of the city's preservation department. “So we are very satisfied with the first part of the work they did and that is all I have to say to it."

After a brief pause, he added: "We're not so far very satisfied with the masonry work and exchanging [replacing] the stone blocks.”