Letter from Prague "Panelak" housing estates - the indelible heritage of communism

19-03-2005 | Martin Mikule

Prague is a city renowned for its historic architecture. Most of its visitors come to admire the little narrow streets, full of old houses, palaces and churches. But many do not venture to the suburbs. But if they did, they would be surprised how different a city can be. A great part of Prague's outskirts is made up of huge housing estates consisting of ugly tower blocks - the so-called panelaks.

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Panelak housing estates are one of the most visible parts of the heritage of communism. Even though some architecturally similar buildings were built even before the war, the main boom started in the 1960's and 1970's and they continued to be constructed in massive numbers until the end of communism.

The main goal of building these uniform housing estates was to provide housing at an acceptable price for huge numbers of citizens. Panelak blocks could be considered a symbol of an ideology that emphasised material equality and a collectivist style of life and they can be seen in most of the post-communist states today. Countries whose political systems were based on liberal values and individualism on the contrary developed a housing culture based more on family houses.

The effort to create uniform housing lead to the construction of a featureless, boring environment. The design of panelaks which initially looked for inspiration in the dignified functionalism of the 20s and 30s, gradually declined from bad to worse. But in the situation of a stagnant economy where demand for housing far exceeded supply, most people were grateful at least for the mediocre standards offered by the panelaks. They got used to the new environment. A lot of the panelaks' inhabitants proved enormous creativity in transforming their flats' interiors. The absence of a garden was solved by escaping to weekend cottages or chalets, which most of the families owned in the countryside. This kind of living became popular not only among people with low incomes, but also attracted the middle class who did not have many alternatives at the time. Even today, there are well off managers as well as a number of government ministers still living in panelak housing estates.

The fall of communism changed a lot in the life of these communities. The large housing estates which used to have only a single supermarket in their centre are now equipped with huge shopping malls, including a variety of services, as well as entertainment complexes. The old monotonous grey concrete buildings are changing colour and in many cases the bare walls are even adorned with works of art.

At the moment, there is a public debate going on how to deal with these aging buildings. Unlike some other countries, the Czech Republic has rejected the expensive demolition alternative and decided to renovate them to be used in future decades. The fact that these housing estates are inhabited by people of different social backgrounds seems to be a great advantage in this case - as it prevents them from becoming social ghettos.

But even though the environment of housing estates is gradually acquiring a happier face, it will never shake off its anonymous character. The panelaks' inhabitants hardly know their neighbours. Sometimes it is a great challenge to find a person you want to visit, living in this kind of concrete labyrinth. In spite of having a new coat, the panelak housing estates will always be a reminder of the arrogance with which they substituted old small neighbourhoods and villages.

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