It's a Mall World After All

Built on a historic site on the edge of the Old Town, the Palladium shopping center divides opinions

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

Tereza Havelková grew up wearing third-generation hand-me-downs sent from distant relatives in Vienna.

Havelková, a 32-year-old professor of theatre at New York University in Prague, also recalls that her "mother and grandmother would sew and knit clothes for us."

The clothing available at stores in the country at the time was shoddy, ugly, and extremely limited in selection, Havelková said. And although her family was not poor by local standards, discretionary spending on fashion was nearly impossible. Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia meant all too often going without new clothes.

Since the demise of Communism in 1989, though, Czechs have feverishly embraced consumerism, leading to the construction of dozens of massive shopping complexes in the country.

Controversial Location 
One of the newest examples is Palladium, a 7.5 billion CZK ($413 million) shopping mall specializing in luxury goods that opened in late October in the nation's capital.

The mall is the country's largest, with over 200 stores and restaurants clotting its 115,000 square meters (1,237,849 square feet) of retail space -- an area equivalent to 21 American football fields.

It's also the most controversially placed.

The mall, mimicking the shape of the medieval fortress upon whose ruins it was built, stands on the cusp of Prague's Old Town, steps from the 15th-century Powder Tower (Prasná brána) and the Art Nouveau Obecní dum (Municipal House). Yet despite its anachronistic location, most Praguers have quickly accepted this new shopping center -- and many have come to embrace it.

'Something New'
Pavla Večeřová, a 28-year-old secretary shopping in Palladium on a Sunday afternoon, said she liked the new commercial center. "It's kind of funky -- it's something new," she said.

The mall claims stores such as Marks & Spencer, C&A, and Kenvelo among its 170 retailers. It also boasts a diverse selection of restaurants, from a combination steakhouse/burger joint, a revolving sushi bar, and an establishment named LA Finger Food.

"I think the new mall is better, because it's nicer," said Vladimír Standl, 35, near Kotva, the comparatively proletariat department store erected in the 1970s and now dwarfed by the Palladium just across the street. "[Kotva] is not interesting so we never come here."

The giant mall, however, is not without its critics.

'We're Not America'
Petra Baboková, 22, expressed her distaste for Palladium while walking through it with two friends from out of town.

"In the center of Prague, it's not nice. It's not Prague anymore," she said, standing outside Palladium's two-story H&M clothing store. "It's like America and we're not America."

Ondřej Dub, a marketer for the O2 telephone company, agreed. Commercial malls, he said, don't belong in the heart of Prague -- especially when there are plenty of smaller stores nearby for people to shop at.

"It's not the right thing that should be in this place," he said, gazing up from the bottom floor into the open-air expanse at the heart of the mall.

Some architects are saying the same thing.

Egregious Offenses
Zdeněk Lukeš, an expert with the presidential office's national heritage department, said the new mall just doesn't belong in its location.

"I think that the scale of this new shopping center is too big for this building complex and this area on the edge of the historic center of Prague," he said.

But it could be much worse, he said.

Other Czech shopping centers have committed far more egregious offenses to the local landscape, according to Lukeš.

The Velký Špalíček complex in Brno, for example, replaced a group of medieval homes in the center of the city with a mall that includes a movie theater and a convention center.

And while Lukeš regrets the loss of the Palladium space, he finds the mall much more acceptable than the building's previous function -- a worn-down Communist-era army barracks.

Swarms of Shoppers
Meanwhile, the mall's central location has brought in swarms of shoppers.

On a Thursday morning, the five-story mall was filled with hundreds of people wandering from one store to another. Some carried shopping bags; other seemed content to simply stare in awe at the scale of the place.

It may be the biggest, but the Palladium complex is only one of many shopping centers around Prague.

Within the city limits, new malls seem to spring up every year like wildflowers; three were completed in 2005 alone.

In addition, dozens of massive hypermarkets -- a combination of supermarket and department store -- have popped up around the city since 1989.

The 'Mall Years' 
But why do Czechs seem so willing to embrace these conspicuous examples of consumerism?

"You've got to remember, shoppers in the Czech Republic and Eastern European countries have been rather different historically, and now they've got new opportunities," said Paul Dudman, a consultant in the Prague office of the commercial realty firm Cushman & Wakefield.

Havelková, for her part, has adjusted quite well to the Czech Republic's "mall years" -- to the point where the opening of a shopping megalopolis is nothing too exciting. She hasn't made it to Palladium yet.

"Maybe I'll go after Christmas to see the sales," she said, "but I wouldn't go just to see the new shopping mall."

Magdalena Pražáková, stopping by Palladium to try and find one shop among its 170 stores, agreed with Dudman's assessment.

"I don't know how it is in foreign countries, but here it's still quite new," she said. "Fifteen years is not very much time to get used to it. I still don't understand why people spend so much."

The Czech Dream
Trying to understand the Czech fascination with shopping was the motivation behind Český sen (The Czech Dream), a 2004 documentary made by two local film students.

The filmmakers commissioned an advertising agency to create a campaign for an entirely fictional hypermarket.

"Don't come," the advertisements teased -- and 2,000 people showed up for the grand opening, only to find a false store façade and themselves the victims of an elaborate hoax.

Surging Economy 
The surging consumption is also tied in with the rapid growth of the Czech economy.

Since 1989, the state has become one of the most affluent post-Communist countries in Europe; the country's GDP reached a record real growth rate of 6.4 percent in 2006, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook.

During that time, Poland's GDP grew by 4.1 percent and Hungary's by 3.9 percent.

In comparison, Austria's GDP increased by only 3.3 percent.

Average GDP per capita is at 80 percent of the average in the 27-member European Union, putting it ahead of older EU members like Portugal.

'Normal European People'
Czechs, however, don't see their embrace of capitalist culture as particularly different from anyone else's.

"I don't think the enthusiasm is any different [than what you'd find] in Germany or France or the UK -- or indeed North America," said Dudman.

The lines of shoppers often seen at the grand openings of new Czech malls or hypermarkets, he said, are no different than the lines formed when Wal-Mart bought out stores in the UK then rebranded and reopened them.

Many Czechs tend to see things the same way.

"People around the world love shopping," Večeřová said, shifting the shopping bags in her hand. "It doesn’t depend on communism. We are normal European people now."

Will Sabel Courtney is a junior at New York University studying journalism and anthropology. He is from Stowe, Vermont.

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