Interview with Serge Borenstein, CEO, Karlín Group

Of Visions and Partnerships

I was excited to meet Mr. Serge Borenstein, CEO of Karlín Group and the man who is primarily associated with the successful and innovative development of more than 400, 000 sq meters of Prague quarter Karlín. I belong to the generation that remembers how Karlín used to look shortly before the Velvet Revolution (and also after being badly affected by the floods in 2002), and so I can still recall the bad reputation that was associated with this rather “industrial, dirty and risky“ part of Prague. I was looking forward to meeting someone so visionary, who fell in love with this part of Prague instantly while flying over it in a journey from Prague to Karlovy Vary in the revolutionary year 1989. As an advocate of many forms of diversity, I was ready to discuss the advantages of a place that has a unique value in its “mixture of apartments, offices and wonderful places to relax”. And last but not least, I appreciated Mr. Borenstein´s activities in trying to not only improve the image of “developers”, but also in educating both public and civil servants about the trends and needs associated with latest in urban development.

Our interview obviously took place in Karlín Group´s offices in Karlín. I appreciated how central this area was, as it took me only 15 minutes to get there. Looking out of a window of the modern office building, sensitively built to fit with the old neighboring porch houses, seeing the busy street with cafés and people walking on it, I also succumbed to the genius loci of the place.

Mr. Borenstein, extremely busy and cautious of his time, sees himself as “an optimist, a born optimist and hoping to die like this day one day“. He responded quickly and addressed topics and challenges that far exceed the scope of architecture. It revealed the complexity of issues that urban development is connected to. Me being Czech and naturally avoiding conflicts, I enjoyed Mr. Borenstein´s answers and comments that were very straight forward and often critical.

Mr. Borenstein, you have witnessed development in the Czech Republic since the 1990s. How would you reflect the latest development here and in the world?

“I definitely see many great changes happening. New technologies, new means of communication, freedom of expression and freedom of movement can help a Europe that has become too conservative. Especially in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, where society used to be very homogenous, people now must adapt to the growing population of immigrants, not only refugees but foreigners coming to work and live, and this trend is irreversible. This being said, I strongly agree that the refugee problem should be solved in a much better, organized way. During the last few years, Europe has turned a blind eye to the refugee problem, which I consider to be one of the most important challenges we face. I do not perceive it as a religious conflict, but as a conflict between conservative forces who like to keep their advantages on one side, and supporters of progress who want to adapt to life today. Europe truly needs to change. There is no place for racism, and many cities (especially in the US) can serve as an example that different people can live together and prosper together in multicultural societies.”

If we discuss this conflict between conservatives and modernists with regards to Prague development, then two opposing views emerge: Those who want to preserve Prague as a medieval town ghetto, and those who want to build a modern city with a skyline of skyscrapers. How can these two opposing views be reconciled?

“But preserving the city does not necessarily mean being conservative and against development. It is true that the inner city of Prague is quite unique and should be preserved exactly as it is. There are enough places to develop around the center of Prague. Just take examples from cities like Shanghai or Beijing that protected the old part of the city and built new parts far from the center. In this case I cannot give examples from the US, as cities in the US do not have these old parts due to their rather recent history. However, protecting old monuments should not become a mantra against the development of a city.”

What is a model city that Prague should follow with regards to urban development?

“Well, I start with enlarging the perspective, as modern city development is not only about architecture. It is also about public transportation and circulation. And with regards to public transport, Czechs are still very much advanced. I am always amazed by the efficiency of Prague public transport which consists of the metro, trams and buses. Prague transportation is very efficient when compared to other cities. Besides Prague, my favorite city is London. I think London presents an interesting mix of conservative approach and modernity. You can find the most modern buildings neighboring old monasteries and museums and it works very well. Britons have done a marvelous job with regards to planning. One more thing that is worth noticing is the small details in the forms of ornaments or symbols that new buildings share with the neighboring monuments, so as to create a fit that feels very natural. Brits are extremely clever in handling these details, and that is why a totally modern building close to an old church does not look shocking but a quite natural fit. ”

Your nickname is Mr. Karlín. Are there any other particular locations that you wish your name to be associated with nowadays, apart from your current projects in Prague 2 or Prague 4 Modřany?

“It is interesting because I never wished to have this nickname, but it came and I accepted it. With regards to other areas of Prague, I feel very comfortable both driving and walking in Prague 7, and that is the area that I would like to help develop, as I continue working in the above mentioned parts of Prague.”

You mentioned that Karlín prices should be closer to the price range in Prague 1, given its prestige and central location. This statement did not bring you many supporters, because Czech people are quite price sensitive. Aren’t you afraid that the partnerships and community would disappear, and Karlín would become a ghost town like the centre of Prague?

“I really feel that Karlín is unique and I stick to the statement regarding its rising value. There are not many places like this in Prague where people can come to live, work and enjoy culture. Besides many cafés, restaurants and galleries, Karlín has a modern large theatre with seating occupancy for 2500 people and a modern concert hall. When you compare this to Prague 1, the office buildings in Prague 1 are not efficient. They do not have parking spaces, they are not easily accessible from the street. In Karlín, the fact that office buildings border residence buildings makes access much easier. When I started, I was told that I cannot mix office and residential. I wanted to prove that this diversity would work.”

Your aim is to improve the image of developers, and you even co-founded an association of developers that brought together your competitors, not only to improve their image but also the communication with authorities.

“I agree with you that the image of developers is bad in Czech Republic. But why is the image of developers so bad? It is because the communication is almost non-existent between the developers and authorities. Development in the city cannot be done without them. In reality, when one half of construction contracts come from the state, the situation is detrimental. The developer is perceived as an enemy. I do not feel welcome when I enter the office and talk to the authorities, and feel I always have to fight hard to push things forward, when I would much rather negotiate. The situation went too far when Mr. Stropnický declared that Prague does not need developers at all. If you consider that this is the person responsible for the development, then you see this is an aberration. The fact that I have developed more than 400, 000 sq meters in Karlín, and none of the openings were visited by representatives from the city, speaks for itself.”

What is your message to foreigners living in the Czech Republic?

Make an effort to understand the Czech mentality, the Czechs are not so expressive and warm hearted at first sight, as for example Italians, but gradually you can develop relationships that are very deep and long-lasting.

What is your message to Czechs?

I believe that Czechs should stand up for themselves more. Sometimes they should not accept the situation as it is, and fight for better solutions, especially in politics. You have a wonderful country, but you should also resist the temptation to become too nationalistic. It always surprised me how many Czech people were successful abroad in experts positions as architects, lawyers, doctors, artists. This trend can continue only if you continue to be open to the rest of the world, which brings our discussion from the beginning to full circle.”

Karlin Group Prague

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