I’m pleased to feature the second of two posts by Ben Austwick on Prague’s post-war public housing. You should also read Ben’s earlier posts on the Amsterdam School, 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.
In part one of my essay on communist housing in Prague, I looked at prefabricated concrete construction and the central role Czechoslovakia played in its development. As the technology was refined, Czechoslovakia was able to speed up its rehousing programme, building large estates on the outskirts of its towns and cities. In part two of my essay, I will be looking at Prague’s communist housing estates.
The first of these estates – sídlište in Czech – were built in the early 1960s. I visited two from this era, Krc in southern Prague and Malešice in the west. The five-storey blocks of Krc retain socialist realist elements that belie their age, with grand, austere classical doorways and pitched roofs with crenellated decorations. In a layout that was to become familiar, roads are kept to the rear side of the blocks with paths winding through landscaped grounds at the front. There were mature trees, planted when the blocks were constructed, so many that the open spaces felt like woodland. The blocks are painted in bright yellows and blues, with the occasional one in plain brown render, applied over the concrete panels but yet to be painted.
Krc was probably my favourite of the sídlište I visited, the solid, well-built blocks obviously from a more careful era than some of the later ones I saw, mature trees as tall as the buildings themselves submerging the estate in woodland, winding paths and benches sat in dappled shade. Malešice in the west was similar, five-storey blocks nestling amongst the trees, and I saw a couple of rare, raw blocks of concrete panels amongst the cladding, clean and pristine and possibly in the middle of renovation. The cladding of concrete panels in render began in the late communist era.
As in the West, grey concrete went out of fashion in the 1970s and there was a move away from standardisation to individualism. It started with subdued browns and burgundies, then brightly-painted balconies, moving towards brightly painted blocks in the 1980s, a process that sped up with the end of communism and the era’s reaction against anything reminiscent of that past. It is rare now to see visible concrete panels or even unpainted render, pastel blues, pinks and yellows being the most popular colours. Although not exclusively a Czechoslovakian phenomenon, as in other areas of social housing construction Czechoslovakia does seem to be a pioneer. The suburbs of Budapest are overwhelmingly grey and concrete in comparison. Relative wealth no doubt plays a part.
The five storey blocks of Krc and Malešice are very much of their era. In the Soviet Union a massive programme of social housing construction in the 1960s built millions of flats in ’Khrushchyovka‘ (named after Khrushchev, the then leader of the Soviet Union), five-storey concrete panel blocks that still dominate the towns and cities. It is interesting that despite Czechoslovakia’s innovation in this area, in many ways ahead of the West, the Soviet Union employed a French company to build the panel factories and guide construction. The Czech economy was simply too small to take on such a gigantic programme. This shows that despite Churchill’s rhetoric of an ’Iron Curtain‘ separating the communist East and capitalist West, which unfortunately has very much informed our view of East-West relations in this period, there was considerable cooperation in solving a housing crisis that affected the whole continent. Academics and engineers in Czechoslovakia, Scandinavia, France and even the United States exchanged ideas and attended each other’s conferences, and there is evidence of this cooperation everywhere. For example, the Uni-Serco temporary prefabricated bungalows that Britain built as a short-term solution to the housing crisis after World War II draw on Czechoslovakian and Scandanavian design.
It is in this light that we must see the rapid progress of panelák technology in the 1960s. By the latter half of the decade, giant blocks containing hundreds of units were being built. The largest, on Zelenohorská in Staré Bohnice, is 300m long with 18 entrance doors. I visited Nové Dáblice in the northern suburbs, where similar gigantic slabs stretch at right angles from an arterial road, parkland, sports pitches and community buildings filling the gaps in between.
These blocks still carry echoes of socialist-realism in their plain lines which, along with rows of chimneys for the communal heating systems, plant them firmly before the next phase of panelák building, which was to dispense with all superfluous trim. It was the logical end point of a process that had increasingly moved away from architecture into industrial design.
I visited two of communist Czechoslovakia’s later housing developments while I was in Prague. The first, Jižní Mesto on the eastern outskirts, is famous as the setting for Panelstory, Vera Chytilová’s 1980 film drama concentrating on life in a Prague sídlište. This is an important film for anyone interested in communist housing, being the only one to escape the censors while being made, although it wasn’t long before it was banned.
Jižní Město © Ben Austwick
Panelstory focuses on community relationships with Jižní Mesto as a backdrop, but we do learn some things about the estate – that people were moved in when it was half built, having to cross building sites and climb wooden crates to get to their doors; that there was a five year waiting list for families to move in, and waiting lists to register with a doctor as amenities lagged behind housebuilding; that flats were let partly furnished, with cookers and fitted kitchens; that some of the fittings were of poor quality, with doors and windows being flimsy and unpredictable. Mainly though the themes of Panelstory are the universal ones of their time – urban alienation, the isolation and domestic drudgery of women, the anonymity of the new housing.
As the date of the film attests, Jižní Mesto was built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the high-rise building boom in the UK was over. It is vast, housing 100,000 people. Blocks are large, but not as large as the 1960s blocks of Nové Dáblice. New building techniques added plastics to the concrete, allowing for more rapid, lightweight construction, but also meaning poorer sound insulation. They are very plain, as Czech communist social housing reached an end stage of uniformity and utility. It is hard to imagine how oppressive this huge estate would be in grey concrete panels, although by the time they were built it is likely that an application of render and paint wouldn’t have been far away – although from the lessons of Panelstory, this may have taken some time to complete. The estate is now mainly painted yellow, green pale blue and salmon pink, but I saw some bare concrete panels.
On a summer morning it was quiet and empty with lawns of parched grass between the blocks – none of the mature trees of the older sídlište. I walked a small circuit westwards of Háje metro station and was surprised that the estate ended within a short distance, disappearing into woodland. Maps show that it rises again beyond this, contradicting the idea of a vast, uniform expanse. Planning was obviously a concern. Nevertheless Jižní Mesto was the least successful of the estates I visited, although that being the result of its construction in the late stages of Czech communism was contradicted by a visit to two other late 1970s-early 1980s sídlište, Nové Butovice and Hurka on the western outskirts.
The time of day undoubtedly helped. I walked out of Nové Butovice metro station in the evening sun among commuters hurrying home to their flats, and the place felt like a busy, living community. It is also beautifully planned: the metro station opens onto a narrow plaza between commercial premises topped by panelák blocks, the striking modernist Slunecní Church in the distance, painted the same pastel blue as the paneláks.
Between Lužiny and Hurka stations, the B line of the Prague metro crosses a valley in a stunning red tube of a viaduct, built in 1990 just after the fall of communism, briefly leaving one hillside and disappearing into another. It passes over a man-made lake surrounded by parkland, which on this summer evening was filled with families. Panelák blocks in pastel shades surround, one with the date of construction – 1979 – stencilled below the roof like the nineteenth-century buildings of the city centre.
It’s here that the end of communism mingles with the architecture of the period after, not as radical a change as you might think. Investment in the far-flung concrete suburbs marks the Czech Republic’s attitude to its communist housing stock and invites comparison to the West. The communist nations of Eastern Europe were not the only ones to use system-built mass housing. In Britain, the 1960s and 1970s saw the building of similar estates using similar construction techniques. The mixture of social and construction problems these estates suffered led to abandonment and demolition from the 1980s onward. In Prague this hasn’t happened; the sídlište have been kept and renovated.
In Britain, there were significant construction problems in panel system housing, often the result of subcontractors cutting corners, for example not using the requisite number of bolts to tie panels. As examined in Adam Curtis’s early film The Great British Housing Disaster, the buildings were seen as beyond saving and demolition as the only answer.
Why this didn’t happen in the former Czechoslovakia could be down to a number of reasons. There is the possibility that they were better constructed, not being subject to the convoluted chain of subcontracting that allowed the corner-cutting and outright corruption seen in Britain. While the sídlište certainly had their problems, soundproofing being the most notorious, that they are still standing shows they weren’t as badly built as Britain’s were perceived to have been.
This perception is important, as the demonisation of Britain’s council estates saw some perfectly decent ones demolished along with the badly built. As still seen today, local authorities in league with property developers are often keen to redevelop social housing into something more profitable, and there can be pressure from private companies to demolish and rebuild just for the sake of it, paid as they are for doing so.
The pressure to do this might not be as strong in the Czech Republic. It isn’t as wealthy as Britain and there may be more of a need to make do. A much bigger proportion of Czechs are housed in system-built estates – 3.1 million out of 10.5 million, in 1,165,000 apartments in 80,000 blocks – and their large scale demolition might just not be practical. Whatever the reason, Prague’s sídlište were renovated, transport links improved and new business and shopping areas built, as around Nové Butovice metro station. They followed a very different trajectory to Britain’s shunned, abandoned then demolished estates.
The most important legacy of this is a proliferation of cheap, good quality, well-connected housing in a large, desirable city, at odds with much of Western Europe and particularly in our opposing example, Britain. In the communist era, rents were as low as 1.6 percent of family expenses in 1958 and were never higher than 5 percent. They are still kept cheap by rent controls. Studies have shown that Czechs like their prefabricated homes, a 2001 survey finding that 64 percent of panelák residents thought their accommodation was ‘ideal‘. Even Panelstory ends on a positive note, as a woman gazes at the sun setting over the tower blocks and says she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
After decades of undesirability, Prague’s panelák blocks are also becoming fashionable, something Czechs in the era of Panelstory would find very hard to believe. This is part of a phenomenon that has seen British Victorian housing, hated and demolished en masse in the post-war era, become desirable from the 1970s onwards; and good quality modernism, hated in the 1980s, become desirable in the present day. Nostalgia, historical interest, the demolition of the worst examples and the renovation of others, contribute to a phenomenon of rehabilitation so common as to seem inevitable and ubiquitous. That something so formerly hated as Prague’s mass communist housing should now be the subject of exhibitions, blogs and interior design shoots should be noted in planning and herald a less wasteful approach to regeneration.
The extraordinary scale of panelák building, and the urgency it was embarked on not just in construction but in theory, science and design can provide lessons in a new era of chronic housing shortage. Perhaps more controversially, the subservience of architecture to design could be re-examined, and ideas of mass prefabricated housing revisited using modern technology. While anonymous high-rise estates are far from the pinnacle of what is possible in architecture, decades of underinvestment have not left us in a position to be choosy, and I would certainly prefer to live in one than my insecure, substandard and overpriced privately-rented home. The political will to do this is another thing altogether – but as we have seen, it is possible.
With special thanks to Luise, Lubi, Theo and Freda
Ben Austwick is a social housing surveyor in East London. His writing is available on his blog benaustwickart.blogspot.co.uk and photography on Instagram @benaustwick.
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)