Prague’s concrete paneláks aren’t finished yet.

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Having grown up under the tutelage of a father who went out of his way to avoid urban areas, and this being America, my exposure to urban settings began in 1985 during my first visit to Europe. Near the end of the trip on a bus into Leningrad, we rolled through acre after acre of high-rise Soviet suburbs; then in 1987 and 1989, I spent much of my travel time behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe.

To put it mildly, the world of panelák apartments (and their brethren outside Czechoslovakia) fascinated me. 

Khrushchyovka! The rise and fall of typical Soviet-era housing in Russia.

Gdansk and the Falowiecs: “Can Poland’s Faded Brutalist Architecture Be Redeemed?”

Berlin looks to Communist-era “slab buildings” to alleviate a housing shortage.

Seemingly everywhere, Havel’s “rabbit hutches” (see below) are making a comeback, even in Prague.

Prague’s Communist-Era Apartments Get a Second Life, by Feargus O’Sullivan (CityLab)

Outside the picturesque city center, Prague’s concrete panelák apartments solved a need for fast, modern housing in the Communist era. They’re still thriving today.

If you want to see where the average Prague resident lives, you’ll have to put in more effort than a quick trip around the city’s historic heart.

Jump on a tram heading out of the Czech capital’s tourist-filled center and pre-1914 tenements soon give way to something very different: large complexes of modernist apartment blocks, their concrete often brightly painted after recent renovations, looming over greenery set back from the main road. Look closely at these apparently endless tiers of blocks that provide a rampart around the city, and you’ll see they are composed of row after row of concrete panels that give this type of building its Czech name — panelák.

I took this photo from Castle Hill in Prague in 1989. You can see them clearly.

Back in 2012, I read a book about manufactured housing in the former Czechoslovakia, and reviewed it in my ON THE AVENUES column. 

It is reprinted here.

The late Vaclav Havel famously referred to them as “rabbit hutches,” and even today, more than two decades after the end of the Communist period, one-third of all Czechs inhabit pre-fabricated, modular housing blocks, particularly ones erected with increasing haste and decreasing art from the 1960’s through the 1980’s.

To stand on Castle Hill in the middle of architecturally glorious Prague and look outward toward the suburbs is to view what first appears to be a gray wall around the city. Actually, the wall is an optical illusion, a composite of these modular housing blocks in seemingly endless rows.

All across the former East Bloc, the Communist period witnessed the construction of high-rise housing units like these, quickly manufactured elemental housing that left travelers with an indelible image of a commensurately grim and manufactured life, but as Kimberly Elman Zarecor explains in her book, Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia, 1945-1960, the story was at least a bit different there.

Because Czechoslovakia was the industrial heartland of the deceased Austro-Hungarian Empire, its income levels and educational attainment were above the norm during the period between the wars. Avant-garde and modernist schools of architecture in German, Scandinavia and France were represented by Czechoslovak architects in their projects of the time, and overall, the future seemed bright for the country’s development as a stable, liberal democracy.

Successive Nazi and Soviet occupations deferred this dream for almost a half-century, with a lasting and sometimes quite ugly contribution to the area’s physical landscape.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, with a pressing need for housing reconstruction, and amid the forced imperative to organize the economy according to Communist principles of heavy industry, Czechosolvak architects fought gamely, for the most part as socialist loyalists, to retain their interwar aesthetic. There were some initial successes, but their influence steadily declined as Communist rule tightened and five-year production quotas submerged all other considerations.

After Stalin’s death put an end to the worst excesses of enforced socialist realism, which in practice meant emulating the Soviet dictator’s grandiose, leaden, Commie Gothic personal tastes, housing in Czechoslovakia became an exercise in the rapidity of modular manufacturing, with assembly-line construction far more utilitarian than any purpose-designed building, and on the cheap, with sloppily pre-cast concrete panels bolted together in stacks as high as engineering principles permitted.

Manufactured housing in Communist Czechoslovakia may have been inevitable, but Zarecor deftly shows that the route from free-form blueprint to rabbit hutch was more winding than commonly assumed, even if the end results were the same. What will the outskirts of Prague look like in twenty more years? I can only hope I’m still around to return there, and to experience the visceral reaction at another, perhaps less jarring, time.

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