I’m pleased to feature another guest post from Ben Austwick who also contributed two fine posts on the Amsterdam School earlier in the blog, Expressionism and Experimentation and A New Model for Living. Ben is a social housing surveyor in East London. His writing is available on his blog benaustwickart.blogspot.co.uk and photography on Instagram @benaustwick. He’s on Twitter @benaustwickart.
Prague survived World War Two with a rich architectural heritage. Its famous medieval centre is ringed with nineteenth-century apartment blocks, decorated in plaster reliefs, statues and ornate stonework. Art deco gems are scattered amongst them, along with examples of two rarer schools of architecture, Cubism and Constructivism. Architects from Jože Plecnik to Frank Gehry have iconic buildings here, and the city’s architecture is a major tourist draw.
However, around half of Prague’s population live in the communist-built concrete tower blocks that make up much of the city’s suburbs. Long derided and ignored, history and hindsight invite a deeper study and even appreciation some thirty years after the last ones were built. There are lessons for the present day housing crisis in their rapid planning and construction, one of Eastern European communism’s few positive legacies, and their recent rehabilitation nods to long-term trends in architecture that should be given more credence in planning and urban regeneration.
The Czechoslovakian Communist Party came to power in the 1946 free elections, winning 38 percent of the vote in the only democratic communist victory in post-war Europe. Inevitably, it consolidated its power by banning opposition parties, and by 1948 Czechoslovakia was a dictatorship. As in much of Europe, these early post-war years were marred by a chronic housing shortage. In Prague, families shared rooms in dilapidated nineteenth-century apartments, and migrant workers from the poverty-stricken countryside slept in parks and under cars in the streets. It was one of the most urgent problems facing the country.
Czechoslovakia was an advanced industrialised nation, and the communist government inherited a sophisticated research and development complex as well as the industrial base to carry out a large-scale housebuilding programme. The Department for Cast and Prefabricated Buildings, established in Zlin in 1940, had developed a prefabricated concrete panel type of building construction – the panelák – in 1943. Further work had been stopped by war, but the communists were keen to continue research where they saw the possibility of an innovative solution to the housing crisis. The problems of cost and speed could be solved by the use of the factory production line, as they had in other industries.
Renamed the Department of Prefabricated Buildings, the department worked with the might of a nationalised building industry behind it. The first experimental buildings were built in Zlin where it was based. Three-storey housing units, with large balconies to ease the transition from the traditional house, were built using prefabricated concrete frames. Skilled builders were still needed on site to infill the frames with brick, and the units had to be held together with wire and scaffolding until the roof was put on. It was haphazard and expensive, but clearly an early stage in a process that would be refined.
Czechoslovakia wasn’t alone in researching the possibilities of prefabricated building. The field was led by France, which began construction of the world’s first housing estate of prefabricated concrete panels (later to become infamous as a Holocaust transit camp) at Drancy in 1929. The Scandinavian countries, which had a history of prefabricated wooden construction, also had programmes. There was a considerable exchange of ideas between the countries at conferences and through academic journals, despite the divide between Eastern and Western Europe.
An early Prague scheme was the 1200 unit Solidarita project of two-storey terraced houses, still standing in the suburb of Strašnice. Solidarita was influenced by developments in modern housing outside Czechoslovakia, in particular the Præstehaven estate in Aarhus, Denmark. By 1949 Czechoslovakia had developed standard requirements for floor area and living space, which translated into standardisation of materials such as concrete panels and fittings to be mass produced in factories. These two-storey terraces are typical of early, experimental prefabricated concrete housing, as structural issues were tested and monitored.
The development of prefabricated housing signalled a move away from architecture into design, something earlier modernist movements such as Bauhaus had aimed for but never quite achieved. The need to build rapidly at low cost led logically to the development of standardised, interchangeable parts that could be manufactured on production lines. Everything from brick sizes to the socialist-realist decorations that can be seen on some of the earliest blocks was standardised.
The Minister of Building Industry, Emanuel Šlechta had lived in the United States in the 1920s and was a specialist in mass production, having studied Fordism and Taylorism – pioneering time-and-motion theories that gave rise to the production line and the space-saving kitchen – and seen their application in industry. As material innovations were made, so were organisational ones. A flow construction technique was developed, where workers were given repetitive tasks in a moving assembly line from the factory all the way to the construction site – a precursor of the now ubiquitous just-in-time stock control method developed in Japan in the 1960s. Investment in new housing was high and considerable support was given to research and development. These innovations were concerned with the scale of the housing crisis and possible long-term savings more than short-term cost, and the need to house large amounts of people quickly.
These developments culminated in the BA system, named after Bratislava, where it was developed by Vladimír Karfík. Pre-stressed concrete frames were infilled with lightweight, reinforced concrete panels, fastened together with steel bolts. Weight was supported by the exterior walls, allowing for flexible floor space with no load-bearing internal walls, developed so the system could be used in industrial buildings as well as housing. The BA system was a breakthrough in the development of prefabricated housing, and can be considered the first true panelák system. It rapidly led to a boom in housing construction.
The first panelák block was built at 771 U Prefy, in Dáblice on the outskirts of Prague. It is easily missed, an unassuming building in a village separated from the suburbs by a couple of miles of country roads. Like most of Prague’s paneláks, the once visible concrete panels are concealed by recently applied render and a coat of brightly coloured paint, and it would be unremarkable but for the decorative roof details and the classical forms of the windows and doors. But unremarkable is a feature of panelák architecture, which was to eschew any decoration and individualism in later years, focused solely on the need to house people.
This early building is small, just three stories high and the size of a large house. Blocks like this were built as infill in the centre of Czechoslovakian cities, an ad hoc approach that suited a still developing technology. I didn’t see any in central Prague, a compact inner city that escaped wartime bombing. Any that were built may have been lost to post-communist redevelopment.
We have to go forward a few years and a few miles out into the suburbs for the next examples of panelák architecture. These are the sídlište, the estates that grew around Prague as panelák technology improved. I will be visiting these in part two.
With special thanks to Luise, Lubi, Theo and Freda
Owen Hatherley, Landscapes of Communism (Penguin 2015)
John Jordan, ‘Industrialised Building in Eastern Europe’, Architects’ Journal, 1967
Maros Krivý, ‘Greyness and Colour Desires: the Chromatic Politics of the Panelák in Late-Socialist and Post-Socialist Czechoslovakia’, Journal of Architecture, 2015
Maros Krivý, ‘Postmodernism or Socialist Realism? The Architecture of Housing Estates in Late Socialist Czechoslovakia’, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 2016
Karel Storch, ‘Stages in the Industrialisation of Building’, Architects’ Journal, 1967
Jirí Voženílek, ‘Prague’s Future’, Architects’ Journal, 1967
Kimberley Elman Zarecor, Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia 1945-1960 (University of Pittsburgh Press 2011)
Sarah Borufka, A Look Behind the Thin Walls of Czech Panelák Apartment Buildings (2010)
Benjamin Tallis, Panel Stories: Public Lies and Private Lives in Paneláks and Sídlištes (2015)
Vera Chytilová, Panelstory (1980)
Adam Curtis, Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster (1984)