Czech prefab housing gets museum billing

Tell Me a Panel Story

For the curators, Prague's Jižní Město (South City) epitomizes the 'Technocratic Phase' of prefab construction, with some of the worst trends in panel housing of the 1970s and early-1980s. During this period, the motto seemed to be quantity over quality. This photo was taken by Jaromír Čejka.
Another of the several Jaromír Čejka images of Prague's largest panel-housing estate, Jižní Město (South City), from the late-'70s and early-'80s.
One of the first sections of the exhibition is dedicated to Socialist-Realism from the early 1950s, and this mural shows the original plans for redesigning the city of Ostrava, the center of the Czech iron and steel industry. Photo by Mark Baker.
A picture of prefabricated housing blocks from 1960 by Czech painter Vlastimil Beneš (1919-81). Photo by Mark Baker.

Judging by the tone of the explanatory materials of the Museum of Decorative Arts' new exhibition on postwar, prefab housing, “Bydliště: panelové sídliště (Residence: Prefab Estate),” the curators obviously knew they were stepping into a controversial subject in the Czech Republic: the Communist legacy concerning public housing.

From 1948 until the late-1980s, the Communist regime constructed millions of residential apartments in big and small towns around Czechoslovakia to help ease a post-World War II housing crisis that lasted, in one form or another, until the fall of Communism in 1989. The majority of these apartments were built as massive, freestanding blocks of multiple apartment units, stacked one on top of the other. The state construction companies made copious (and often indiscriminate) use of industrial, assembly-line techniques that emerged in the postwar years and relied heavily on prefab concrete panels as the main building material.

The prevailing local attitude the past couple of decades toward these buildings has not been overwhelmingly positive. While many concede the beneficial role of these “panel estates” in helping people to obtain their own homes, many would also agree the overall experiment in mass construction has been something of a disaster. Not only do bland, cookie-cutter apartment blocks surround nearly every city in the country, but their institutional drabness has somehow seeped into the national psyche. I don’t want to get too Margaret Mead here, but in addition to destroying historic towns and villages and despoiling the natural environment, these oversized housing projects have also homogenized the culture somewhat and stunted the national spirit.

Or maybe not.

It took a while for planners and builders to perfect the 'art' of constructing a block completely from concrete panels. Indeed, it wasn't until 1954, during the 'Pioneering Phase,' that the first all-panel apartment building was finished, in the eastern Czech city of Gottwaldov (now Zlín). Photo by Mark Baker.
A highly stylized interior from the 'Invalidovna' project in Prague. Invalidovna was typical of what the museum calls the 'Pioneering Phase,' through the 1950s. It was during this period that new panel-construction techniques were developed and selectively implemented. Photo by Mark Baker.
Socialist-Realism imagery was typically used in everyday objects, like toys and glassware, to subtly reinforce the primacy of the workers in society. You can't see it clearly here, but images of workers are etched into this glass vase on display. Photo by Mark Baker.
Throughout the Communist period, construction workers building the new apartment blocks were heralded as heroes of society, working hard to solve the country's housing shortage. Photo by Mark Baker.

And that’s where this exhibition steps in.

The organizers seem to view themselves as a kind of tonic -- a needed corrective to balance out this mainly one-sided national narrative on Communist-era housing. While they concede that the prefabricated estates have many “resolute opponents,” at the same time they acknowledge the startling statistic that one in three Czechs still lives in these buildings (more than 20 years after the last one was built). And not only that, many residents are now reinvesting in their panel apartments and ensuring that these remain a significant part of the urban landscape. This speaks loads in favor of the buildings.

In the words of the curators: “For this reason alone, it is necessary to learn to live with our heritage of prefabricated housing. In other words, we need to examine [the architecture] thoroughly to uncover its overlooked qualities, and also try to compensate for the deficiencies and weak points.”

The exhibition builds on the work of teams of researchers, who studied the most important prefab housing projects in the country, spanning all four decades from the end of the war to the fall of Communism. The researchers identified what they consider to be six distinct phases of prefab construction, with each phase characterized by specific political and economic factors, as well as changing technical developments in panel construction.

A typical piece of art from the time celebrating the heroic efforts of workers, a hallmark of the Socialist-Realism phase of art and architecture of the early 1950s. Photo by Mark Baker.
You'll see this poster, advertising the Museum of Decorative Arts' exhibition on postwar, prefab residential construction, all around town these days. The show runs to May 20. Photo by Mark Baker.
The curators dubbed the late 1950s and '60s as the 'Beautiful Phase' of Socialist housing. I'm not sure the name works for the buildings, but I do love this classy porcelain set designed for the Czechoslovak pavilion of the Brussels '58 World's Fair. Photo by Mark Baker.
A typical propaganda poster from the 1960s exhorting the nation to solve the housing shortage by building an additional 1.2 million apartments by 1970. Photo by Mark Baker.

So, what's the verdict?

I think the exhibition is largely successful. While not all of the six phases are supported equally well by the materials on hand -- and the various building periods don't always line up neatly with changing political and economic factors -- I (personally) learned a lot and will never look at these buildings in quite the same way again. I would never have guessed there might be a period historians would label the "Beautiful Phase" for these massive housing projects -- but beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, as they say, and they might just have a point here.

But rather than describe the exhibition, I’ll simply note below the various periods and flesh them out with a few paragraphs. To readers: if you decide to go see the exhibition (or have already seen it), please leave your impressions in the comment section below. The text here weaves in commentary by the museum with some of my own thoughts and reactions:

Archaic Phase (1945-50)

The first period the curators identify lasted from the end of World War II until about 1950. In the immediate aftermath of the war, architects attempted to resurrect some of the basic tenets of interwar Functionalism (clean design, smaller scale, modern materials), but the Communist coup of February 1948 interjected a dose of uncertainty into this model, and the period’s legacy is not strong.

Socialist-Realism (1948-54)

Starting from around 1950, architects came under heavy political pressure from the Soviet Union to follow the models and methods used there. As the exhibitors put it: local architects were required to announce their allegiance to the new “joyful” and monumental architecture of “Soviet Socialist-Realism.”

Socialist-Realism was a clear departure from interwar Functionalism, both in terms of the massive scale of the projects (see the photo of plans for Ostrava) and in the use of external decorative elements, such as reliefs on building facades, to glorify the accomplishments of workers and peasants in Communist society. The death of Stalin in 1953 and the uncertainty that followed ultimately put an end to this relatively short-lived movement and not many Socialist-Realism projects were ever built.

Pioneering Phase (1954-63)

The 1950s saw dramatic improvements in panel technology, and these were gradually incorporated into the country’s housing construction as the decade progressed. The exhibitors note that typical for this “pioneering phase” was the rejection of the decorative elements that characterized Socialist-Realism architecture, “in favor of a stricter and more exacting application of industrial technologies.”

It was during this time, in 1954, that the country’s first full-panel-construction apartment block, labeled type G40, was completed, in the city of Gottwaldov (now Zlín, see photo), in the eastern part of the Czech Republic.

Another poster from the 1960s to rally the country to put an end to the persisting housing crisis once and for all by 1970. Photo by Mark Baker.
This montage of various public housing estates around the country from the 1960s shows off elements of the 'Beautiful Phase,' when designers incorporated artistic elements to humanize the apartment blocks. Photo by Mark Baker.
To make way for the new high-rise apartment blocks, older historic homes were often razed. Here, photographer Iren Stehli (b 1953) documents the destruction of houses on Žerotínova street in the late 1970s.
This photo by Iren Stehli (b 1953) shows the demolition of houses on Žerotínova street in the late 1970s. Older homes often had to be pulled down to make way for the new high-rise apartment blocks.

Now here's where the exhibition gets good (or jumps the shark, depending on your point of view):

Beautiful Phase (1960-70)

The 1960s, generally, are considered to have been a good decade for Czechoslovakia. Not only did the political system loosen up a bit to allow for more open discussion, but architects felt freer to humanize the big blocks of residential apartments. They did this by incorporating external decorative elements (fountains and sculptures) that softened the buildings' impact, and  by adding shopping centers, schools, medical clinics and other public services into the designs.

This is my favorite phase, by the way, and I’ve always been attracted to the futuristic, abstract sculptures and reliefs that dot many of these 1960s’ housing estates (and that are now often in such dreadful states of disrepair). For an example, see the photo here of the sculpture of a "blossom," by Jaroslav Vacek, from the Pankrác housing estate in Prague in 1971.

This part of the exhibition also features some nice examples of textiles and interior furnishings from the period -- and a porcelain set (see photo) from the Czechoslovak pavilion of the Brussels ’58 World Fair, which inspired so many artists and sculptors of its day.

Technocratic Phase (1970-83)

The liberalism and openness that characterized the 1960s came to an end in the summer of 1968, with the Warsaw Pact invasion in August that year. Not only did the invasion put a dramatic end to the democratic experiments underway at the time,  but it also exposed supporters of the liberalization -- including scores of the country’s best planners and architects. Lots of these people were expelled from the Communist Party and lost their jobs. (In an earlier blog post, I write how my own Czech translator and fixer from the 1980s, Arnold, lost his job and standing after 1968).

In the aftermath of the invasion, the decade of the 1970s saw massive investments in public housing, but with a decided emphasis on quantity over quality. It was during this time that many formerly green-field sites were transformed into nearly free-standing cities, with populations often exceeding 10,000 people. In terms of design, many of the same plans were replicated across the country, lending the projects a deadening sense of uniformity.

Prague’s “Jižní Město” (South City), the city’s biggest housing estate with something like 90,000 people, was built then. To this day, it remains a national metaphor for the ills of public housing carried out on such a massive scale. It was the subject of Czech film director Věra Chytilová’s tragicomic film, “Panelstory,” from 1979.

Postmodern Phase (1983-89)

The curators identify a final phase of public-housing construction, which they term “postmodern,” though they don’t illustrate it very convincingly with examples of actual projects. Basically, the idea was that economic stagnation in the early-1980s led to a slowdown in the building of massive housing estates. This allowed architects and planners, instead, to design on a smaller scale and incorporate older, more-traditional urban elements, such as historical street patterns, fences, gates and parks, that earlier generations of planners had rejected as overly bourgeois.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a prefab housing project that fits this description, but I'll take their word for it.

The exhibition runs to May 20. The Museum of Decorative Arts is located at ul 17. listopadu 2, in Prague's Old Town. The museum is open Tue-Sun from 10am to 6pm.

 

Another photo showing off the 'Beautiful Phase' -- in this case, from the Lesná housing complex in Brno. Photo by Mark Baker.
The exhibition highlights several pictures by Czech photographer Jaromír Čejka, who achieved fame with his stark black-and-white photos of day-to-day life in Prague under Communism. Photo by Mark Baker.
The sculpture of a 'blossom' by Jaroslav Vacek is from the Pankrac housing estate in Prague in 1971. Pieces of public art like this were hallmarks of the 'Beautiful Phase.' Photo credit: Zdeněk Voženílek.
While the general museum still appears to be under renovation, the restoration work has been completed on the beautiful turn-of-the-20th-century murals that line the museum's stairways. Photo by Mark Baker.
The exhibition ends in the lobby of the fourth floor, where visitors are treated to an incongruous bust of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I. You don't actually see Franz Joseph in Prague much. The security guard said that under the monarchy, museums were required to display a bust of the emperor on their fourth floors. This sounds too strange to be true. Photo by Mark Baker.
One of the treats of a visit to the museum is the view out over the Old Jewish Cemetery from the back window. I'm told the best view -- or at least it used to be the best view -- is from the women's bathroom. Photo by Mark Baker.

Comments

  1. I understand the animus — especially in the destruction of older buildings to create the panelaks. (These tensions are at the center, for instance, of Vaclav Havel’s play Redevelopment.) A visit to the Jižní M?sto area in 1992 also gave me a sense of how anonymizing and alienating the surroundings might be on a larger scale.

    But as a resident of a panelak in my first year in (then) Czechoslovakia, I found the apartment itself to be better than anything I had lived in during my student and early young professional phase. Also, all the homes I entered that were located in panelaks were extraordinarily cozy and welcoming. That the exteriors could be grim and uninviting was understood, but behind each family’s door was a different and tidy world of their own creation.

    This exhibit sounds marvelous. In adding nuance and complexity, it’s done its job.

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Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker