Letná in the Spotlight
The District Timed by the Ticking of the Metronome
Nothing rushes in Letná, neither the trams nor the people. They are moving at the leisurely pace dictated by the Metronome, which nods approvingly at everything that is happening on the right bank of the Vltava. Life here means gardens, unhurried streets, and homemade food in a myriad of cafés. The name Letná itself (previously Leteň) translates as “the sunny height,” and it really is – a pastel yellow hill, covered in greenery and full of art, that is especially popular with the owners of fanciful moustaches and drinkers of soy milk flat whites.
In The Past
The quarter of Letná exists only in the imagination of its inhabitants – legally the district does not exist. The name of the district is actually Holešovice (formerly Holešovice-Bubny), and Letná was originally the name of the hill overlooking Prague’s historic centre and the Vltava River next to Prague Castle. However, nobody argues with the locals, who consider the buildings from Strossmayerovo square up to Sparta stadium a separate district. We will not argue with them either, so an independent depiction of Holešovice – which undoubtedly also deserves to be in the spotlight – can be expected in a future issue.
Letná is embraced on both sides by the parks Stromovka and Letenský Gardens, and this is where the story of the district begins. The enormous open space that later became Letenský Gardens was originally home to a military and sports exercise area. Various stadiums were also built here during and after the 19th century. However, there were no people living in the area at that time. In 1885, Holešovice-Bubny was incorporated into the city which gave them access to money for infrastructural development, loans etc. The building that helped initiate mass settlement was the water tower, which was completed in 1888. Since then, many artists, sculptors, architects, designers, and in fact, everybody who revolved around the Academy of Fine Arts, began to flock to Letná.
The hill of Letná has always attracted magnificence. King Přemysl Otakar II held a coronation feast here in 1261, which is reflected in the name of one of the streets and the tram stop Korunovační. The same place became infamous 700 years later for its greatest sculptural achievement or its greatest atrocity – the Stalin monument. This colossus, designed by Otakar Švec in the 1950s, stood above Prague, looking out over the city from a 15m pedestal, as tall as a five-storey building.
The designer of the monument, which was mockingly called the “Meat Queue,” committed suicide two weeks before the unveiling. Some argue that he could not bear for his name to be forever associated with something so monstrous and hated by the nation. Some pieces of the Meat Queue are still thought to be at the bottom of the Vltava, after the monument was demolished in 1962 with the help of 2,000kg of explosives. However, the vast majority of the ruins were thrown into the enormous underground space under the statue. It was originally intended to serve as a Stalin Museum, but in the end, it became his symbolic grave. From late 1989 until October 1990, the space served as a live music club for underground bands, and after that, it became a location for the first independent radio station, Radio Stalin (later renamed Radio 1). Now the spaces are completely closed, except for special events such as occasional tours or public movie showings in the summer.
Few of Letná’s place names refer back to a history of struggle. Instead, artistic merit has always been celebrated. Letná was and is known as the Republic of Artists or Letenský Montmartre for its elevated location and infinite cafés and pubs full of creative types.
Letná is famous for the many creative spaces hidden from prying eyes – walking along the northern border of Letná (from the Stromovka side) one can stumble upon a multitude of buildings boasting huge windows. These are mostly the former, and sometimes current, studios of painters, sculptors, and graphic artists, with coffee houses or secret galleries such as Artrafika also hiding among them.
The southern border is guarded by another art space, a gallery that everyone can see, but that not many people know about. It’s called Artwall and it’s located on the retaining wall of Letenský Gardens. In the late 1990s, the American artist Barbara Benish had the idea of using this space (previously used for communist propaganda) to present contemporary art. The first ever project that came to life there was Flower Power in 2000.
Life here is lived as if the whole world were crammed into a few streets and houses. One need never leave Letná, because everything you might want is at your disposal – a cinema and a theatre, a handful of museums and galleries, and an abundance of cafes, specialty shops, and hidden gardens, where everybody is welcome. Letná is very hospitable; this is a place to settle with your family, a place to have one too many with your newfound mates, as well as a place for cultural enrichment, whether it is finding out about the greatest inventions in agriculture or about 101 replacements for everybody’s favourite drink in The Coffee Museum. In return, Letná requires nothing more than for residents and visitors to be open-minded and young at heart.
Those who have lived in Letná their whole life follow the same pace as newcomers. People here embrace change and are unafraid to take matters into their own hands, applying their self-governing principles to their cultural life – the heads of all the art spaces in Prague 7 get together once a quarter to solve everyday problems and discuss the future of the district.
Kateřina Ebelová is the granddaughter of a student of the Czech sculptor Myslbek. As well as being a sculptor herself, she’s the founder of Café Alchemista and therefore responsible for some of the most delicious homemade cakes in Prague. She is a regular participant in the quarterly art discussion meetings, where she represents her gallery, Scarabeus, and the Museum of Coffee and Marionettes.
“For us, the most important thing is always the community, the chance to connect with people. We help each other when organising new events, or those like Máme otevřeno (“We are open”) and Letenský Masopust. We try to get as many creative people as possible from Prague 7 involved, that’s how the artistic community grows so strong.”
This close, creative community plays a certain role in the prosperity of local businesses – since people have the feeling that everything is within reach and don’t leave the hill, they are not afraid to try out new places and spots, which often become popular and rarely close down. People feel compelled to contribute to the growth of this already thriving area.
“Letná is like a luxurious little village where everybody knows everybody and all kinds of people are welcomed,” said Klára, the owner of the designer gift shop CoverOver, while simultaneously greeting a customer in French. “We have been living in Letná for ten years. We managed a little private nursery before, but we felt like a little inspiration in the form of a design studio was missing.“
Needless to say, Letná is compact and hyped up. It is loved for being dog-friendly, vegan-friendly, and environmentally friendly. But it wasn’t always like that, nor will it stay that way. Some consider living here a necessity, which creates a high demand for apartments. The influx of new tenants and the rise in prices are making rental fees unaffordable for established artists who are being forced to leave their studios for somewhere cheaper.
Meanwhile, far from eyes blinded by the love of Letná, hide dilapidated houses, where a sneeze might be enough to bring bricks down on a resident’s head. Walk down Veverkova, Ovenecká, Čechova, or Šmeralova, and you’ll catch sight of places that don’t seem to fit the reputation of the most sought-after postcode in Prague.
One can only fear for the future of Letná as Prague’s coolest area. Two extensive construction projects are in progress: the seven-storey Hotel Letná next to the Sparta stadium, and Letna Obchodni Centrum (OC) – a shopping centre next to the National Gallery. Letná disposes one to a slow pace, so a buzzing shopping centre, coupled with a hotel full of fussy tourists, threatens to disrupt that rhythm. Nevertheless, residents are not discouraged.
Letná has much more to offer than a handful of brunch spots, an afternoon in the park, and an evening at a vernisáž. No other district in Prague is as inviting and as eager to take your cares away. The locals say, “Letná letí – Letná flies by.” They might have gotten it from the breezy, laid-back atmosphere on the streets and from each other.
Photos By Julie Orlova