Prague uncovered: The iconic Metronome celebrates 30 years of relentlessly ticking into the future

The sculpture, intended as a temporary installation to promote a fair, was lowered into place by helicopter in 1991.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston
Published on 14.05.2021 15:20 (updated on 14.05.2021)

One of Prague’s iconic landmarks turns 30 years old. The 25-meter tall metronome in Letná was moved into place by a large helicopter on May 15, 1991, and was originally supposed to be a temporary installation.

It stands on the plinth that was build to support a statue of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The space had been empty since 1962, when the statue, which had become an embarrassment, was destroyed with a giant dynamite blast.

The plinth is hollow inside, and by the early 1990s it was in too poor a condition to support a crane. This made the installation by helicopter necessary.

People relax in front of the Metronome in 2019. (Photo: Raymond Johnston)
People relax in front of the Metronome in 2019. (Photo: Raymond Johnston)

The Metronome is visible from the edge of Old Town Square, looking down Pařížská Street, across Čechův most to the cliff of Letná park. The actual name of the artwork by sculptor Vratislav Novák is Time Machine (Stroj času), but that never caught on and it has been called the Metronome for its entire existence.

The machine driving the moving parts is mounted in a triangular pyramid. The pendulum, which swings 60 degrees, is balanced by a two-ton weight. Altogether, the sculpture weighs seven tons.

Novák, who passed away in 2014, graduated from Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, and since the 1960s has been known for his mobile sculptures and kinetic objects. For a long time he lived in a former church in the town of Rýnovice, and used a converted morgue as his artistic studio.

Metronome during the Prague Pride celebration in 2018. (Photo: Raymond Johnston)
Metronome during a Prague Pride celebration. (Photo: Raymond Johnston)

The Metronome was made to draw attention to the General Czechoslovak Exhibition (Všeobecná československá výstava),which opened on May 15, 1991. It marked the 100th anniversary of a similar exhibition the General Land Centennial Exhibition (Jubilejní zemská výstava v Praze), that opened May 15, 1891.

Many of the buildings at Výstaviště in Prague’s Holešovice district date to the 1891 fair. The neo-Baroque restaurant Hanavský Pavilion was also built for that exhibition and later moved to Letná, where it still stands.

While the original festival was a defining moment for Prague and Bohemia, the 1991 exhibition was not successful, and the organizing company ended in bankruptcy. The Metronome was never removed at the festival’s end, as had originally been planned. Lack of funds to rehire a helicopter likely played a part in decision to leave it in place.

A skateboarder defies a 2019 ban on entry to the area. (Photo: Raymond Johnston)
A skateboarder defies a 2019 ban on entry to the area. (Photo: Raymond Johnston)

The sculpture was intended to remind people of the passage of time and also serve a reminder of history, due to its location at the former Stalin's monument. The original idea for the sculpture as even more complex, but it couldn’t be implemented in 1991 for technical reasons.

A laser beam from Old Town Square was supposed to light up the Metronome, visually linking the historical past to the ever-ticking future. The concept was revived briefly as part of the 2013 Signal festival of light art, with a green laser beam shooting above Pařížská Street.

Since the early 1990s, the area around the metronome has been used by skateboarders and other young people as a place to congregate. The area had to be closed in September 2019 due to structural concerns about the former base for the stature, but many skateboarders went anyway as the place is associated with defying the rules.

A statue of Michael Jackson briefly stood just behind the Metronome in 1996 for the launch of the HIStory tour. Jackson’s concert took place on Letná Plain. Stalin also made an unexpected comeback behind the sculpture. In 2016, a Styrofoam replica of the statue, scaled down so it could look full size with camera tricks, was built on the original base by Czech Television. It was used for the film Monstrum, which told the story behind the making of the statue.

Mock-up of the Stalin statue behind the Metronome in 2016. (Photo: Raymond Johnston)
Mock-up of the Stalin statue behind the Metronome in 2016. (Photo: Raymond Johnston)

There was an effort in 2000 to declare artwork a cultural monument, but the Prague City Hall at the time opposed it, and in the end it wasn’t given landmark protection. In 2003, the Metronome was used to promote the Czech Republic’s European Union entry by oscillating between the words “yes” and “no.” The Czech Republic joined the EU on May 1, 2004.

Since 1995, the Metronome has been privately owned and operated by Pražská správa nemovitostí, which features it on their corporate logo. In 2020 the sculpture underwent a CZK 150 million renovation, with many part including some of the tubes in the swinging arm being replaced. In addition, there is ongoing maintenance every three weeks. PSN also has to pay the city to rent the land under the sculpture. In total, the annual operation of the Metronome costs some CZK 150,000.  

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