So Many Buildings, So Little Religion

I’ve long been intrigued by the relationship between people, space and place. In fact, my long term attachment to the hospitality and retail food service industry is directly attributable to my broad interest, but narrow understanding of this trio of abstractions.

With an established career in hospitality management, training and consultancy, others have at times raised an eyebrow when I explain I’m a student of urban, rural and environmental planning. The link is, I admit, not immediately obvious. I too have wondered if indeed there is any link, or anything at all from my professional background that might be regarded as relevant to my current field of study. But there is. Really, there is…

Restaurants in particular, and other other food service places play a unique role in our society. For me, these are ‘places’ in a similar way that home, school, or work-places [sic] are spaces that have meaning and purpose to each of us at different times throughout out lives. The unique, and to me, exciting thing about restaurants is that they transcend the typical understanding of place. They represent a nexus of people, space and events that are mostly joyful, celebratory or significant in people’s daily lives. In a way, restaurants, bars, cafes and pubs have come to replace more traditional places of congregation and celebration. Places we once used to congregate and reflect (and ask for forgiveness) have to many given way to places we go to meet friends and pontificate (and to forget perhaps, in the morning).

I’ve observed a fairly rapid change in the way people use restaurant and food service spaces over my career. But its only been recently that I’ve stopped to think about what this type of change means from a land use and community infrastructure prospective. Here, in Prague (Praha, Czech Republic), similar impacts are quite dramatic. And the future implications for cultural and historical heritage are significant.

Our architectural walking tour in the early evening was much like many of us expected. Neo-gothic this, Romanesque that. Prague is a beautiful city, this is undisputed. But I guess my expectations were raised by each of those presumptuous enough to tell me before I got here that I would love it. My expectations were, um… satisfied. Sorry Prague, but you have been a victim of your own success.

Toward the end of the tour, as we stood among the substantive structures that make up the Prague Castle and modern day Presidential residence and administrative quarters. We were told about how many of the buildings around us had little religious significance to the residents of modern Prague. We were told by Jerry (our guide) that although still in use, the Basilica holds a place of religious significance to fewer than 15% of the cities residents, and of course, the occasional Catholic tourist. Each other building of religious heritage was largely unused, and those that were had been converted to one form of tourism related attraction or another. These buildings it would seem, had outlived their usefulness.

So just what do you do with so many buildings of great architectural value, but such diminished community worth?

I don’t know. One of the academics on tour with us – let’s call her “JR” – asked me a related question along the way. Imagine if, in Australian cities we had buildings of similar architectural and historical value. What would happen to them? Given contemporary debates regarding our built heritage, would they be demolished to make way for high rise apartment buildings and car parks? Or would we, as those in Prague have done, turn them in to a museum and hope that somehow tourists will continue to understand the cultural context of each enough to keep paying a fee to visit and take photos?

At the rate were going in Australia though, it appears this won’t really be much of a problem. If you don’t allow a building or precinct to develop much in the way of historical value, and you knock it down and build something more functional and modern, this never really becomes a problem. That’s where the residents and administrators of Prague got it wrong, you see; they should have just knocked the buildings down back in the day and they wouldn’t have had to deal with the problem of maintaining their architectural, cultural and religious heritage at the behest of foreign tourists.

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