New exhibition recreates communist era flat design

When you enter the gallery of the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague these days, it is as if you have stepped back in time. Students of the university have prepared an exhibition dedicated to the housing culture of the 1970s - the era that saw the most building of standardized housing estates all over communist Czechoslovakia. Indeed, panelaky - grey, pre-fabricated blocks of flats - are a prominent feature of almost every Czech city or town. I asked one of the curators of the exhibition, Pavel Vancat, to explain its title: Husakovo 3+1:

"Husakovo 3+1 is a connection of two basic realms of this exhibition. One is Husak - the prime minister and head of the Communist party in the 1970s in Czechoslovak Republic and 3+1 is the number of rooms in ordinary family flat in that time."

That means three bedrooms and a kitchen.

"Yes, three rooms and a kitchen."

The students recreated a typical 1970s panelak apartment, using exactly the same ground plan and typical furnishing, including all the details, such as wallpapers, kitchenware, toiletries, toys and even a TV broadcasting 1970s news. But the journey from the initial idea to realisation wasn't easy and required lengthy preparations. The organizers first had to search through home-decor magazines of that time to find the most typical things of the era. On the other hand, they wanted the flat to look as common as possible.

"It's quite difficult to recreate design which is ordinary, because the magazines show something which should be followed, which has a higher standard and better culture, which shows people how to live and how to furnish their homes. But we tried to search for something which couldn't in fact be found in the magazines."

The search for the objects themselves was probably the most adventurous part of the project.

"There were different ways of searching for them, starting in garbage containers in the streets and going over many advertisements on the web and poster campaigns in the panelak neighbourhoods and ending in family flats of our parents and so on."

The result is really convincing. When I entered the 3+1 or "triplusjednicka", as we call it, I was amazed how realistic it was. It immediately reminded me of my childhood, when I visited a school-friend at Jizak (or Jizni mesto), one of Prague's largest housing-estates. I was never quite sure which one of the grey "panelaks" was hers, because they all looked exactly the same.

I asked Pavel Vancat to give me a little tour through the fake apartment and comment on some of the most interesting features. We started in the living room where my attention was immediately captured by a huge set of cupboards and shelves covering one entire wall of the living room.

"The 'stena' - or the living room wall - is very typical of that time. It was something like a shop-window of every household. The wall and the couch and the armchairs made up the living room, which was the representative room for visitors. It somehow showed the taste and the social level of the family. They could have quite a poor children's room or bedroom but what they spent most money for was the living room and its representative character. What was also very common were the shelves where people put up eating services. It doesn't have any logic to put up the glasses and cups in your living room."

We are now standing in the kitchen. What would you like to point out here?

"This kitchen cupboard and in fact all the kitchen furniture, which is a special type called Astra and as I got to know a few minutes ago from a lady who was selling furniture at that time, this was a very exclusive piece. Normal panelak flats were furnished with models that were all the same for all the flats."

Were there some typical colours?

"The 1970s were quite a long time, but if you have to say what was quite typical it was autumn colours: colours from grey to brown, orange, these types of colours with different lights and different hue."

I also talked to some visitors at the exhibition who were searching all the rooms in the flat, pointing out things they remembered from their own childhood or that they still had at home. Somewhat surprisingly, the overwhelming sense in the gallery was that of nostalgia, regardless of the visitor's age.

"I was born in 1975 so I experienced these times. It's not that I like these things but it is about memories. Not that I would like to live here. But I remember some of the things from my grandma's and so on...."

"I was born in 1983 so I am quite young but I remember these interior designs from my grandma's flat and from my parents."

Are there any things that you still remember? That perhaps your parents still have at home? What did you notice when you came here?

"The toilet paper, because maybe we still have a piece at home."

Have you ever used it?

"Maybe when I was a child, I tried it. But it was very hard."

You first have to soften it in your hands....

"In every room I noticed a few things. For example this telephone or some furniture... And this horrible decoration..."

I think most of the people, especially those who were born later, don't really like these interiors.

"You are right that many people don't like it because they lived in this period and they connect these designs with the political situation. But for me it's a very nostalgic feeling and I like these designs. For example the paintings on the walls and the decorations are very nice."

Since most of the student curators were born in the 1970s themselves, they admit their project was to some extent driven by nostalgia. But their main objective, they say, was to attract attention to the 1970s. The housing culture shouldn't be ignored or forgotten because it reflects the specific political situation and the ideology of the era. Pavel Vancat says they were also careful to avoid any kind of glorification or irony:

"I think that works in art in general that every époque needs some distance to be valued and organise somehow. Second point is that this époque was difficult politically. So it was quite forgotten for the last fifteen years. Most of us were children at that time, so for us it is personally time which is innocent. We know of course how difficult the time was. We wanted to gain some better knowledge of the time and its background."

The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue, which elaborates in great detail on the housing culture of the 1970s era, dealing with such issues as town planning and its technical aspects, architecture design and aesthetics and mainly the everyday popular style of the era. It also features historical photos of the housing estates and its interiors.

As the young curators point out, the issue of panelak housing estates is still up-to-date, since about one third of the Czech population is currently living in these types of flats. The last communist housing-estates were completed just before the Velvet revolution in 1989. Since then, architects have had a free hand to design whatever they like, without being limited by state planning and budgets or by shortcomings of socialist technologies. The first thing that appeared in the early nineties were satellite towns, which are sometimes called "horizontal housing estates". But I guess it is up to other generations to assess their qualities.

The Husakovo 3+1 exhibition runs until 22nd October. If you take a fancy to some of the objects on display, you can attend an auction which takes place on the last day of the exhibition. But make sure to take enough money with you. The 1970s are definitely coming back into fashion.

Each Sunday, participants will be able to vote in our new series Hit of the Century, covering 100 years of music in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. (More)