Nový Hlavák’s Design Aided by Virtual Reality

Using virtual reality in the Nový Hlavák project to renovate Prague’s Main Train Station gave architects new ways of seeing the whole area, and it was used to present the best proposals.

The gateway to Prague for many people will be transformed. The park in front of Hlavní nádraží (the Main Train Station) known quite infamously as Prague’s Sherwood will undergo renovations along with the terminal building, adding a tramway stop on the Muzeum – Bolzanova line. The goal of the project dubbed Nový Hlavák is to create a solution that will be functional in its urban role while being pleasing and welcoming in terms of architecture and in relation to its environment.

To find a comprehensive solution, the City of Prague, the Prague Transport Company (DPP), and the national railway infrastructure company Správa železnic called a competition that led to 26 submissions from the Czech Republic and abroad. In September 2022, a commission chose five architectural teams to advance to the next round. The field was then whittled down to three finalists at the end of the year, which are now fine-tuning their proposals and incorporating comments. A contract for the project should be signed by July of this year.

The Task

The Prague Institute of Planning and Development (IPR) sought a solution to presenting the extensive and varied terrain included in the Nový Hlavák project to foreign architects. The area around the station is rather complicated and marked by changing elevations. The presentation of the area proved to be problematic. It’s normal to create physical 3D models in smaller scales. However, this model has its limits in terms of its size, and it wasn’t the ideal solution for the Nový Hlavák project. “In order to see anything on the model of the park, it would have to be rather large. The proposal includes the new terminal, which would still be too small in a large model of the park, and the architects wouldn’t be able to present their plans in detail,” Jakub Hendrych from IPR explained. The institute is operating the competition for the city and DPP while also being a member of the evaluation commission. The City of Prague, DPP, and Správa železnic thus decided to work with the Virtuplex.

The Solution

In the project’s first phase, developers from the Virtuplex transposed the entire area encompassing the Nový Hlavák project as it is today into virtual reality. This covers the area from Wenceslas Square to the Masaryk Train Station. It also includes Prague’s trunk road and the old Fanta station building and its immediate surroundings that complete the authenticity of the scene. The model adds the future tramway and the connections to the surrounding projects being prepared or under construction. The developers put the most emphasis on creating terrain that had major changes in elevation throughout the location. In all, the Virtuplex team spent nearly three months preparing the visuals.

The five teams of architects selected were then able to walk through virtual versions of the entire area. Being able to shrink the view to any scale allowed the competitors a singular view of the entire space, allowing the architects to understand in detail the various elements and the space as a whole. It also opened views of the entire park that in reality are covered by thick bushes. Furthermore, instead of taking several minutes to move from place to place, they could teleport to a spot in the blink of an eye.

“We saw the individual teams explore the project while discussing various details. Virtual reality provides a completely different way of looking at the space and understanding it. 3D models are to a certain extent similar, but virtual reality is on another level. You can understand the space better when you can freely move about it with just goggles on your head,” architect Hendrych said.

The second phase of the project includes transposing the proposals from the three teams shortlisted by a blue-ribbon jury last December into virtual reality. These virtual proposals will then be presented to the commission at the Virtuplex in March. This means the teams won’t need to make traditional 3D models that in this case could not be very precise because of the size. Individual commission members will be able to stroll around the proposals, ask about specific details, and form a solid opinion. They will also check if the project on paper matches the one in VR.

“We’re very proud of our work with Prague’s City Hall, and we’re very pleased we can participate ithe renovation of such an important public space as the park in front of the city’s main train station and its immediate surroundings,” the Virtuplex’s Lenka Kriššáková said.