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Czech Republic: Architect Vladimir Milunic And His Dancing Building

By Naida Skrbic and Jan Cleave

Prague, 13 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Strolling across Prague's Jiraskuv Bridge, many a tourist has taken photos of the famous Hradcany and the islands anchored in the majestic Vltava River. But today, camera lenses are frequently pointed in the opposite direction -- toward a modern building at the eastern end of the bridge.

Opened last June, that building is dubbed "Fred and Ginger," an allusion to the famous American actors-cum-dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It has become a popular landmark in the Czech capital and won "Time" magazine's award for the best design of 1996. The New York-based publication called the building "the new Prague, just as Charles Bridge is the old. Like Fred, it has some stunning moves; like Ginger, it's a lot of fun."

Croatian-born Vladimir Milunic, who has lived in Prague for almost 30 years, worked on the design for the building with the well-known American architect Frank Gehry.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic Service, Milunic said the starting point was a sketch he had made in 1990.

"My idea was to combine into one building two parts that would be in mutual contradiction, in dialogue, like plus and minus, husband and wife, yin and yang." From this idea, the two architects developed a design consisting of two towers: "one static and the other dynamic, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers," Milunic explains.

The tower depicting Fred is an upright concrete construction sporting a "top hat," while the "Ginger" tower is made of steel and glass and has swirling contours that suggest the dancer's billowing dress. Built on a site where an American bomber pilot mistakenly dropped his cargo of explosives in February 1945, the "Fred and Ginger" building stands next door to a Jugendstil apartment house where both Milunic and Czech President Vaclav Havel lived before the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

"Everything began when I was living in Havel's house," Milunic recalls. "In 1986, when Havel was still in and out of prison, he asked me to divide his apartment into two halves, one for his brother Ivan and the other for himself. And in 1986, we talked about the possibility of building a house on the corner, which had been empty since the end of the war.... When Havel became president, he commissioned me to make a preliminary study for the house, and by 1990 I had finished the design."

Milunic was then contacted by a representative of the Dutch insurance company Nationale Nederlanden, which had bought the bomb site and, according to the Croatian-born architect, wanted to show it could build "something intelligent in such a complex context." It was agreed that Milunic, who at the time was little known, would work together with an internationally recognized architect.

Frank Gehry, who is known for his thought-provoking designs, was enlisted and met with Milunic for the first time in Geneva in 1992. Over the following two years, the two men worked together "long distance" -- Gehry in California and Milunic in Prague -- on the $13 million project.

Milunic was born in Zagreb in 1941. He first went to Prague at 16 to finish high school and stayed on to study architecture at Charles University. Following his graduation in 1966, he spent three years in Paris and then returned to Prague to work in a state-run architect's office. Today, he has his own studio in the Czech capital, whose architectural splendors are admired by millions of tourists each year.

Milunic is wary of the dangers of "fast construction," which, he told RFE/RL, "either damaged or completely erased" many West European cities in the post-war building boom. Under the communists, Prague was saved such a fate because the only buildings constructed during that period were large apartment houses -- or "panelaks" -- on the city's periphery. "Now we have foreign investors coming with a lot of money who want to build as many things as they can," Milunic notes.

But while many foreign companies may worry more about the pace and costs of construction than about what is constructed, this was not the case with Nationale Nederlanden and the "Fred and Ginger" building. Milunic explains that one of his friends convinced the Dutch that investing in such a building was "not a waste of money." He says that Nationale Nederlanden sees the building as its "calling card" and not simply as a base from where to make money.

"Fred and Ginger" is likely to be Milunic's own calling card for many years to come. The architect has been surprised by the positive response to his design, particularly at an exhibition held in the Prague district that granted the construction license for "Fred and Ginger."

"We had a visitor's book, which gave us quite a surprise," he recalls. "We expected that only 50 percent of the people would be in favor of the building. However, it turned out that 70 percent were for and only 16 percent against."