10/2012: Autumn in Prague

This autumn – or late summer, perhaps – urban historians gathered in Prague for the 11th international EAUH conference. The biennial conferences have grown to be among the most important events in urban history not only for European urban historians but also globally. The first one was organized in 1992 in Amsterdam with a small group of enthusiasts. My first was the one in Venice in 1998. This year, Prague’s eighty sessions and some 700 participants meant an overflow of choices of interesting research topics. It was a pleasure to get together with old friends and colleagues and meet new ones. Urban historians in Finland were well represented. The sessions sprouted new ideas for books and research projects.

Prague Old Town early Sunday morning.

The discussions were, again, the best part of the conference, as in Ghent two years ago and Lyon four years ago. One of the interesting discussions involved the question of what urban historians should be working on more. Studies focusing on phenomena, events and leaders need to be complemented with research on processes, on changes over longer periods of time. Also, some urban histories seem to be void of contexts. For example, we have missed the discipline of law from our multidisciplinary community of urban historians.

In the final plenary session, one of the speakers emphasized the significance of the broader audiences. Urban history cannot be only about addressing other urban historians. We need to reach out to citizens, to decision-makers and to experts in other fields. This was one of the goals of the session that Donatella Calabi and I had organized, on Ways of Communicating Urban History. City museums and new kinds of urban history books are just part of the story. Urban history is our history.

One of the ambitious steps forward within urban history was the opening of the website that connects all the organizations, institutions and societies under the umbrella of urban history and urban historians. Go and see: www.eauh.eu. Our Society – one of the oldest of its kind in Europe, established in 1999 – is now accessible to a broader audience than we could hope for before. It is also the reason why I am writing my column in English. This is my welcome to the visitors to our website.


Prague, then? I went there long ago when it was called Praha, but it was another city, another country, another Europe, another me. In the 1970s, we chose it because of 1968, but I cannot recall what exactly we expected. Once there, experiences of the socialist reality seemed overwhelming. The main boulevard, Vaclavske namésti, was blocked by cars, smaller streets were more silent. The old city with medieval and Baroque layers appeared untouched by modernization, evidence of lacking funds, we thought.

The streetscape was unattractive, the palaces, elegant urban architecture and standard office buildings blurred into a uniformity of dilapidation and sad grayness. The dim street lights reminded me of the Vienna of Orson Welles. Further out, the housing area that we visited was a realization of the model suburb in scale, tens of identical high rise element blocks in endless rows. We rented a car to see Plzen, and on our way back found a newly constructed motorway, completely empty, as if reserved just for our car. It was eerie.

The atmosphere in the city then felt slightly uncomfortable. In restaurants and cafes I had to rely on my German to be understood. The guide at the Castle seemed hostile, mentioning treasures stolen in 1648 during the Thirty Years’ War and still held in Stockholm, but when he learned that we came from Helsinki, he warmed instantly. We had the opportunity to see the model of the old city, constructed by Antonín Langweil in the 1830s; it was impressive. The Embassy organized a rendez-vous for the Finnish group of students to meet Prague students. From the evening, I remember the discussion on political systems, the locals defending the capitalist system and most of the visitors the socialist one. In my mind’s eye I can still see the demolition of a fine 1930s example of functionalism at the corner of Vaclavske namésti and Na Príkope, to start constructing the city’s first metro line.

Prague today was a new city for me. Almost nothing that I encountered was like it had been on my earlier visit. Many of the streets in the old town and around it are now pedestrianized. The townscape resembled those of so many other cities in Central Europe, and finding identifying characteristics proved slightly difficult until I started to read the tiny plaques with street names in Czech. Without exception, the buildings in the most popular area were in prime condition; this made everything look different. The 600-year old astronomical clock had retained its power to attract crowds. The heart of Prague, the Old Town Square, had a ribbon of restaurants at its edge. It reminded me of the cafes at Piazza Navona in Rome or next to the Roman Arena in Verona.

The spirit of the center of Prague was completely changed. Tourists filled the narrow streets, cafes, shops and restaurants, the famous sites and the less famous ones. International brands and chain shops dominated the street views. English was the lingua franca of the tourist areas. Our friend in Prague took us to her favorite bistro, hidden around the corner from the trodden tourist track and with a strong local flavor. The wall exhibition of historical bicycles, including even a tandem one over a hundred years old, was enticing. The flood of tourists made the Old Town of Prague seem like Venice during the daytime. It made me ask what makes Prague Prague.


Tämän vuoden kaupunkitutkimuskolumnien aikaisempiin vuosiin verraten harva tahti on pääosin ollut seurausta Seuran hallituksen jäsenten aktiviteeteista muilla rintamilla mutta yhtä kaikki kaupunkitutkimuksen piirissä, perheasioiden lisäksi. Vuotuiset Kaupunkitutkimuksen päivät olivat tänä vuonna meidän vastuullamme ja päiville osallistui taas runsaasti kaupunkitutkijoita ja kaupunkitutkimuksesta kiinnostuneita.

Seuran hallituksen piirissä on tänä vuonna valmistumassa useampikin väitöskirjatutkimuksen käsikirjoitus, kirja, kansainvälinen tieteellinen artikkeli ja tärkeitä vaiheita tutkimuksista. Jotkut ovat aloittaneet uusissa työtehtävissä. Meistä moni järjesti session kaupunkihistorian konferenssissa Prahassa – muita konferensseja, seminaareja, kollokvioita ja opetustoimintaa mainitsematta. Seuran piirissä olemme myös vahvistaneet toimintaa jo pitkään suunnitelluin vierailuin jäsenten ehdottamiin kohteisiin, keväällä Eduskunnan taidekokoelmaan ja äsken Vuosaaren satamaan. Seuran verkkosivutkin ovat saaneet hienon uuden ilmeen. Tästä on hyvä jatkaa yhdessä.


Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna