The changing face of panelaky

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Hundreds of thousands of Czechs live in "panelaky" - the concrete panel apartment buildings that were constructed during the communist era. These buildings are often criticised for being depressingly drab and poorly constructed, but life in them has generally improved since the fall of communism - and some people think that life in a panelak is still the way to go.

The panelaky inspired a song from 1991 by the Czech group Brontosauri - but many would maintain that these examples of socialist realist architecture have inspired little else. The panelaky are often derided for being unaesthetic and unoriginal: their brown or grey facades blot the urban landscape all over Central and East Europe, and in cities and towns in the Czech Republic you can pretty much find the same sort of panelak wherever you go.

One of the collections of panelaky closest to the centre of Prague is at the housing estate Pankrac I, which was constructed in the early 1960s. I recently visited it with Kimberly Elman, a doctoral student from the School of Architecture at Columbia University in New York City. She is currently in the Czech Republic researching the communist-era housing estates for her doctoral thesis, and I asked her why she thought that some people are still attracted to life in a panelak:

"Well, I think that people still really appreciate the proximity of these buildings to the city centre. And I think that there is a lot of potential because of the way that the buildings are constructed, for beautiful, open-planned - almost like loft-style - apartments. What people do a lot of times when they come into these apartments is they tear down the interior walls, because many of them are not actually structural. They are very thin, kind of fibreboard walls, and you just take them out. And then you have these beautiful, big, open, sunny apartments, and you put in a new bathroom and a new kitchen, and you have a great apartment. I think that people appreciate that aspect of them, particularly young people with new families or just married couples. A panelak isn't such a bad thing: it's certainly better than your family's apartment, and having to live with your parents."

Since the fall of communism, the economic transition in the Czech Republic has also effected a change in panelak life. New products have emerged on the market which are intended to make life in a panelak apartment more comfortable. The facades of some panelaky have been painted in brighter colours, new lifts have been installed, and people have replaced their old kitchens and bathrooms with a better quality setup. Kimberly Elman again:

"Many, many panelaks have new bathrooms and kitchens, because they were built with living cores that were kitchens and bathrooms and toilets all together. After communism, people knew that they could basically take that whole thing out and replace it with the kind of bathroom and kitchen that they wanted. So I think that that's one of the most common repairs. And, actually, there is a magazine called "Panel Story" that is especially devoted to replacing the bathroom in your panelak. It's a free magazine that is sponsored by bathroom product companies that want you to refit your panelak with their products. And there are special pictures showing what you can do with your panelak."