Spaces hold memories. Buildings and objects bear the marks of their use, of their encounters with the weather, with other objects and with people. These imprints can be read like stories, they are a form of language through which they speak to us. They are not stories made of words, but of tactile imprints, embodied memories: here a crumbling wall, here a scratch in concrete, here a worn-out pavement dented and slippery from the thousands of footsteps. Touching these textures with one’s hand or feeling the steps in the muscles of the leg as we climb them, is a form of dialogue with a place, an engagement that goes beyond the intellectual.
“When we feel a piece of iron, we say: this is iron; we satisfy ourselves with a word and nothing more. Between iron and hand a conflict of preconscious force-though-sentiment takes place. Perhaps there is more thought in the fingertips and the iron than in the brain that prides itself on observing the phenomenon.” Said the Italian Futurist F T Marinetti.
We are involved in this kind of dialogue all the time, even when paying little attention to it. Yet there are times when our focus may shift, like when visiting a new city, or an area which somehow resonates, or jars, and we are intrigued and come close to the wall, to poke a finger into the plaster, marvelling at the experience.
Our own thoughts, dreams and mental processes become enmeshed in textures of walls, coded in steps, as we stride across courtyards, pass half open doorways, from which cooler air drifts, bringing fragrance of different eras. The way our interior worlds and exterior spaces are interwoven together has long been a preoccupation of mine. This is why I am so very fond of Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, which captures the essence of this knowing so acutely, so perfectly.
“Not only our memories, but the things we have forgotten are housed. Our soul is an abode. And by remembering “houses” and “rooms”, we learn to “abide” within ourselves. Now everything become clear, the house images move in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them”.
Our childhood is mapped onto the architecture of the house we grew up in, the city or landscape we frequented, creating a kind of intimacy which makes it hard to separate the inner from the outer, the subjective from the objective.
Yet right now, while still in the midst of a pandemic, many spaces have become inaccessible to us. Galleries and museum are still shut in most European countries, although perhaps not by the time you read this article. Instead, number of meetings, encounters and new experiences happen online, in a kind of unanchored free-floating non space. They cannot be encoded through movement within a space. They are static, two dimensional. I recently noticed that such events, whether symposia or presentations, become soon unreal, as if half imagined. Memories unhoused.
This is why I became so excited to be asked to write about the new physical location for the Prague Quadrennial, the stage for its 2023 manifestation.
The history of this place, an old slaughterhouse, is rich and layered and quite literally, visceral. It came into existence in 1895, because of the pressing need to create a centralised location to slaughter animals and process and sell meat. At the time it was a progressive and ambitious project, a kind of city within a city, an area covering nearly 11 hectares, with its own infrastructure. This included a rail line which transported animals all the way into the complex, various stables to sort through them, slaughterhouses, halls for processing the meat, as well as huge cold storages with cooling systems provided by Škoda manufacturer. The complex had its own water supply as well as sewage system and also its own fire station. Because this was also about business, it included a meat auction house and a bank. The project was led by the architect Josef Srdínko, a name close to the Czech word for heart (in this context less of a Valentine’s card rendition, more of a sacrificial offering), and the buildings were designed in an Art Nouveau and neo-renaissance styles, with a striking brick red and white colour palette.
The location was chosen in Holešovice, very close to the Vltava river. One of the reasons for the choice behind this particular location within the city was that the prevailing winds from west to east ensured that the stench of meat and blood was taken away from the city centre. This is the same reason why in London the affluent area became west, while east was for the poor.
As the city of Prague expanded over time, the slaughterhouse was relocated further afield. The year 1983 marked the end of its particular function and seen a transformation of the area into a fruit and vegetable market. I remember visiting the market in the 1980s and purchasing there my black guinea-pig which I called Lucian. It must have been around 1985.
In the 1990s, the area remained a general market, housing a mixture of stalls, including a techno club, post office and all kinds of other convenience stores. The Prague Vietnamese community was not only selling cheap goods here, but also celebrated here their major festivities. In 2002 the area was damage caused by floods and the marks of this are still apparent on many of the buildings. Finally, many years on, the city of Prague has decided to renovate the area and turn it into an exciting arts district.
In order to write this article, which hopes to give a sense of the genius loci, my plan was to come and visit it, to explore it and experience it directly. To record my impressions, to feel the textures with my fingertips, to measure my steps, feel the cobble stones, appreciate the wind bringing various odours and describe all this to you. To engage with the place in an equal dialogue through all the senses.
But this was not to be. Instead, I am still in London, unable to simply hop on a plane, in the way the old life enabled me, to be elsewhere almost instantly. The physical distances have stretched, becoming more real perhaps. I have therefore decided to incorporate this reality into this narrative: after all, this is the way we live now.
Equipped with some of the historical knowledge and some information about the debate which is currently happening regarding the pros and cons of a regeneration, I want to convey to you here the sensory reality and atmosphere of the place, as it feels right now, in spring 2021. My experience will be mediated to me via a small camera on my phone, pixilated moving images of spaces described to me by Markéta Fantová and Magda Brožíková, as they take on the role of my human sensors, transmitting their sensory experience to me in words and images.
We have arrived. I get a sense of a confusing web of buildings as they take me around this city within a city. Soon I am quite disoriented, as my experience of the place is conveyed to me by a shaky facetime video and voice of Markéta and Magda describing what they see and feel. Where did we come from? Apparently from the back, an area that Markéta calls the Dead City. It is a cold and windy day especially given it is already the end of April. The area is relatively quiet because the Czech Republic is still in the grip of the pandemic, although things are slowly easing.
My immediate sense of the place is one of contradictions: some already renovated buildings give me an impression of things to come. Other spaces remind me of my childhood in this city under the communist regime, where little money was put into upkeep and most buildings were an echo of their past glory, crumbling and grey.
Yet I am intrigued. I like this rawness, the place is full of cracks and gaps, which allow one to explore the deeper layers and narratives, to be free in choosing how to relate to it, rather than being presented with one single version. Even at distance, this is clear to me.
We find ourselves walking through one of the cobbled streets and I glimpse the grass and weeds peeking in between the stones. The architecture is striking in its white and burgundy colouring, with each building wearing a blue and white oval shaped sign, like a large medallion bearing its number.
Markéta points out a tall glass building, which she guesses has been added later on, as it doesn’t visually fit with the rest of the architectural style. Through the walls we can see a large hall with plenty of day light pouring in from all sides. Markéta describes it as an airport hangar. From out here, it reminds me of one of those dilapidated spaces left in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
I ask about the smell: There is an industrial stench, smell Markéta labels as one of 90s, also an odour of dust and engines. But as we approach the large central square, which divides the dead city from the living one, we are greeted by a mixture of scent of various foods and spices drifting from nearby restaurants and stalls selling all kinds of stuff, from various foods to clothes, much of it currently sold by the local Vietnamese community.
We step inside a Norma shop, which currently occupies one of the great halls. Its interior is lit by strip lights and is filled with plastic compartments displaying cheap goods in over saturated colour packaging, all laid out like strange theatre props for some postmodern play. The sounds inside the hall echo. I close my eyes. Now Norma has disappeared. Instead, we find ourselves within an enclosed space, a large room that is white and silent. I look up. There is an unexpected oval shaped opening in the ceiling, bringing light from the above floor. We walk up the stairs and discover an expansive, beautifully renovated hall just below the roof. It has high whitewashed walls and exposed wooden beams as well as large windows bringing in floods of natural light.
Little further on, in the next room, we spot a miniature door in the wall: “Thus the miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world” states Bachalerd in a chapter which celebrates miniature and explores how small things allow the imagination to expand. As if on a prompt, Magda steps closer, ready to open the tiny door…
Somehow, we find ourselves outside. Everything is transformed. The sun is back and the air feels pleasant. Our eyes are drawn to the warm colours of recently renovated buildings sporting fashionable tones of ochre, brick red and dark pink. The light has accentuated the tactility of the surfaces, bringing out texture and relief in great detail. Everything around us has gained a clarity of sharpness and appears all the more immediate for it: Like a camera that has been focused or a zoom lens having been pulled. “To use a magnifying glass is to pay attention, but isn’t paying attention already having a magnifying glass? Attention by itself is an enlarging glass” points out the great phenomenologist of the poetic imagination.
We pass a small shop where beautifully laid out treats tempt us. There are ice cream cones covered in tiny colourful beads and ice creams and sorbets in various flavours on display, savoury snacks including the traditional garnished open sandwiches (called chlebíček) and plentitude of sweet delights with abundance of whipped cream and butter, some covered in glazed berries, while others are decorated with lemon and mint. But there is also a choice of dairy alternatives: a sure sign that the metropolitan elites have arrived. The pleasures of gastronomy, quality coffee and wine are all part of this transforming identity: there is a cooking school, an excellent Vietnamese restaurant, wine shop, bakery, organic foods shop. But equally, there is a tobacconist, chemist, hardware and electric stores, shoe repair, locksmith, “knife clinic”, car wash, bicycle shop, bicycle service, fitness and nutrition, vet…Enough it seems to cater to one’s every need, including also those of one’s pet or mode of transport. There is also a marketing agency, team building agency, creative incubator for business start-ups, an art gallery and an experimental theatre.
The essential is commingling with the superfluous, the necessary with the luxurious, the layered past with future aspirations, capitalist consumerism with alternative and perhaps even subversive tendencies, all of which are embodied not only in these spaces but also the people who come here to use them. There is a palpable sense of energy released through these contradicting forces which animates the environment.
I turn my magnifying glass downward, to what is beneath the feet: My human sensors report the rhythm of cobble stones, often interrupted with mixture of concrete and gravel. I am told everything is patched up here, perhaps out of a need for coherence. The place is full of signs describing what is and isn’t allowed, industrial gates, barred windows, pipes, as well as metal spikes, designed to put off pigeons from landing. It is an architecture with permanent goosebumps. This kind of industrial land is familiar to me from my filmic explorations of Wormwood, a liminal land in London’s North West: It appears that the more uncertain of its identity a place is, the more need there is to label and instruct. Sometimes the results can become quite surreal.
We find ourselves back in the dead city and stop by n. 7, where there is an array of cheap goods for sale: patterned carpets, artificial flowers including plastic ivy, as well as brightly coloured gift-wrapping paper and wheeled shopping bags. This building houses an experimental theatre and space called simply Jatka 78 (Slaughterhouse 78). Normally this area is buzzing with life, with busy bars and cafes and filled with music and performance.
I am being taken to the main entrance. We are now outside the gates and I am shown two large statues of bulls high up on a plinth, one on each side of the entrance. Apparently one of them symbolises the market while the other one the slaughterhouse. The difference between the two is hardly noticeable but crucial: One of the bulls is pierced by a spear.
An air current brings a cocktail of odours: car exhausts mixed with sewage, old mouldy interiors, deep and pleasantly muddy smell of the river, as well as the higher notes of spring, sneeze inducing pollen, fruits and vegetables grown further afield and brought here to be sold, in a large market hall, which we enter, drawn in by the fragrance. The sensory impressions mix, the echoing sounds of people’s voices merge with the colours and textures of fruits and vegetables and the scents of spices and herbs. Coffee stalls, a meat stall, a bright yellow inflatable banana floating above. Few people here and there, all wearing their compulsory masks.
A female voice lures us as it drifts across the open spaces, inviting us to try dumplings made of potato pastry, which can be purchased next to the tram station. The city within a city also has its own internal communication system via a megaphone. I am back again in my pre-internet childhood.
We stop and look around. Markéta mentions an entrance into the underground. Not here, but just around the corner. Apparently, this is where the cellars are. It’s where the cattle were taken from the trains, to be chained before being allocated into their stables. We cannot go and see these underground spaces right now, so they remain invisible to me. “Unimaginable things that can only be thought of” Bachelard says when he muses about the phenomenology of the hidden. Although I cannot see them, the awareness of the hidden transforms my perception of the known. This complex is no longer just a set of buildings but a living organism, its sewage system a digestive track, as the buildings’ hidden viscera merges with the flesh and bone of the animal sacrifice that has been performed here for decades.
The city of Prague is planning an ambitious regeneration project, that will result in a renovation of all the buildings which are now part of an industrial heritage. What is being proposed appears enticing at first glance. Beautifully restored buildings, new art galleries, more cafes and more restaurants. I watch the computer-generated visualisation on the market’s website, showcasing a slick urban area, full of happy and (eternally) young CGI people spending their well-earned time enjoying themselves.
But CGI world is a clinical space. It is also an inhospitable place for memory. CGI cannot be inhabited and for that reason it cannot house the past. Memories find their home in the porousness and vulnerability of material reality and organic life. Real places can never become CGI versions of life, just like a ‘zoom room’ cannot ever become a real space with chairs on which bodies rest, a room with four corners towards which one can walk to encounter a stranger and start a conversation, which may transform their relationship to the here and now.
Zoom room remains an abstraction.
This place is not. It is concrete. And stone. And brick. And asphalt. And wood, soil, flesh, guts, blood and bone. It is soaked with memory, which has been piling up here, oozing in for decades.
The past may not always be visible to the naked eye. But even the hidden speaks. Or, especially the hidden speaks. Often viscerally, bypassing the conscious mind.
Tereza Stehlíková, May 2021