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Red sky at night delights but heads remain in the clouds

Sitting on the airline from Prague to Vienna after a dull and rainy day, a man squeezed into the seat next to me and announced that he was moving to be able to see the sun's last glory as we rose above the clouds. He talked of his new seat as being an airborne leisure centre and himself as a tourist. Who knows what he was dreaming about as we passed through the cloud layer to reveal a dying red ember, a reminder of the Prague day that had remained shapeless since breakfast. Was he Czech or Viennese? Was he leaving home or going home? That glimpse of the sun was his reward for a day in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, a day bereft of sunshine.

Beauty is Prague's problem. It creates reverence which is difficult to overcome. I have met the mayor, the city architect, the heritage department and numerous other people in the past 48 hours, and all are labouring over the recently published 'strategic plan'which carefully maps out a future for the city. It evaluates the city's potential since the dramatic change of 1989 in terms that appear to ignore its existence before that date.

Prague has existed for hundreds of years, served by a river which doubles as a transport artery and a source of life-giving liquid. It has been moulded by different peoples and different regimes. It has known bohemian culture and high culture. It has shared architects such as Plecniki with Vienna and Ljubljana. It has contributed to 20th-century architecture, absorbed communism and rejected it. It has witnessed human joy and emotion. It has created history.Yet, in 2001, it would appear that history started in 1989.

A child born in that year would be only 12, about to enter the first years of rebellion. If humans had previous existences, think what a rebellious child who could remember previous lives could contribute. Testing with wisdom.

The strategic plan refers to history, but only in the sense of a historic built fabric that deserves to be protected. In fact, UNESCO has given blanket protection to the city, covering it in aspic and forcing cowboy western investors to its edge. The city does not learn from its history - it is swallowed by it.

The plan outlines guidelines for involving the people in future plans for the metropolis, but only after putting in place a rigid framework for making contributions. It talks of Prague as though it were any other city in western Europe, with the same objectives of business, balance, sustainability, protection, security and education. Nowhere does it talk about beauty or the possibility of actions that would create an even more beautiful place that it is at present. It is as though beauty belongs to history and the present can fend for itself - and more than likely, lose. Prague has the possibility of rewriting these rules.

It could declare itself the first city to develop itself on the basis of a beauty which will be allprovocative; after all, it has infrastructural beauty already. Why should transport policy not be determined by artists and visual dynamics by poets? Architects would contribute on the strength of the beauty of their concepts. Delight would be the measure of success. The people would judge.

Such a place would ultimately create its own wealth because people respond to the 'beautiful'by wanting to be there. Please do not destroy Prague by normalising it. Create it by recognising the potential of its abnormality.

My neighbour on the plane, who had spent the day in one of Prague's less beautiful new developments - supposedly a symbol of an emerging, prosperous city - delighted in retreating into the clouds and the last vestiges of sunshine.

WA, from a table at Restaurant Arther, Vienna

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