Fab prefabs: a look at the panelaky

Communist-era housing in the Czech Republic is typified by the apartment buildings known in Czech as "panelaky," or panel buildings. While the communist system that bore them fell thirteen years ago, the panelaky remain living monuments to socialist realism - housing projects for the masses that aimed to promote socialist development.

To be sure, the panelaky continue to promote one thing: ridicule. Many deride the panelaky for their drab, dull and monotonous design. The concrete constructions can be of an enormous size, but they do not inspire awe in the same way that other parts of the Czech Republic's architectural heritage do. Not that these are something typically Czech, either: you can find panelaky all over the former East Bloc, and in the former Czechoslovakia you can find the same sort of panelak in different cities and towns.

While many continue to cringe at the mention of the word, there are some who are fascinated by the panelaky. One of those people is Kimberly Elman, a doctoral student from the School of Architecture at Columbia University in New York City. She is writing her doctoral thesis on the development of housing model types in Czechoslovakia in the 1940s and 1950s.

Today Kimberly takes us on a tour of the housing estates in Prague's Pankrac quarter, where some of the first panelaky in Czechoslovakia were built. But before we start, let's have Kimberly give us a definition of exactly what a panelak is:

"Well, a panelak actually is a general term for a number of different styles of technology, one of which is a building that is actually built completely out of panels. There is no structural frame or skeleton to the building, and they build it from the bottom up. Sort of like a Lincoln log house, where the panels all lock into each other at the corners, and so you build up from that. Another different way that people use the word panelak is to refer to buildings that actually do have a structural frame, but where the façade clearly is made out of panels. So this is a different kind of technology. It allowed them to build higher, a little bit, later. So panelak is a general term that they use in the Czech Republic for these buildings where the facades are panels, and they don't necessarily refer to the interior structure always. But the true panelak is one in which there is no structural frame."

We're standing here in front of a panelak in Pacovska Street in Pankrac. Could you tell me a bit about this example?

"This example is one of the first panelaky that was built in the country. It's a design from Gottwaldov - what is now Zlin. The architects built the first one in Gottwaldov in 1954, and then the same design was used here in Prague in 1955. The panelak is five stories high, and it has two staircases. It's a small building: I think that there are only maybe about twenty apartments in each building, and they're rather large sized apartments. There is no real detailing, they are in a socialist realist style, but they have decorations along the top cornice. But, other than that, there is almost no decoration on the building."

While panelaky are symbolic of the communist era, the changes that have been made to them since the fall of communism also reflect the economic, political and social changes that have taken place in the Czech Republic after 1989. Panelaky are more colourful now: of the one we just visited - which is in fact two apartment buildings joined together - one side was recently repainted aqua blue and camel brown, and the other forest green and mustard brown. I asked Kimberly how the colour schemes of the buildings are now decided:

"The painting of the panelaky is the most common thing that I see now when I go around to the housing estates that I'm looking at. People think that if you put a new coat of paint on them, they make them somehow look better, and they feel better about the building. I have found colours like pink and green and pastel blue, and all different kinds of colours. I think it's just a personal choice, and in this particular case I think that somebody was a little colour blind because the colours are terrible! But I think that people just want their buildings to look like their expectation, what they see downtown in Prague. They see so many pastel colours, and they don't want to live in a building that has this kind of strange grey-brown colour that most old panelaky have. You'll see a lot of buildings now that have stripes and patterns on them, with pink and green... People I think just want something bright in their life, because they feel like the buildings are really drab."

Can you tell me how these buildings have changed since the fall of communism? How have people renovated them? You mentioned the colours, first of all, but what else has been done to them to make them, let's say, less communist and more fitting with the Czech Republic of the 1990s?

"One thing that they did was they improved a lot of the interior features: they replaced elevators and they put more insulation on the building, because one of the biggest problems was water leakage and drafty windows. When these buildings were made the panels were made with the windows inside of them, so in order to fix the windows you would have to actually take them out of the panel, sort of pop them out and replace them with a new one. But it's a complicated process because the panel itself is the structure of the wall, so if you take the window out you can possibly damage the structure. So the buildings needed a lot of infrastructural repair."

Just down the road from the Budejovicka housing estate that we just visited is a later collection of panelaky built in the early 1960s, which are part of the Pankrac I housing estate.

"These buildings represent a next-generation-type of panelak building. They're much more in the spirit of the kind of avant garde interwar modernism that people might be familiar with from figures like Hannes Meyer or Ludwig Hilbesheimer. They were German architects who were envisioning these modern cities of long, very pristine white blocks that were low rises but sort of went off into the distance, at a kind of infinite length. And this was the imagination of a modern city where things weren't dirty and everybody had lots of air and light. For me, Pankrac I, which was built in the early sixties - so it's about six or eight years later than the development we were just at - represents a much more typically modern view of what a panel building could be. The windows are very large and the façade is very clean. All of the detailing, even on the cornice, has been completely taken off in this case. Most apartments have large windows and even have a terrace. The buildings are spaced so that everybody gets great sunlight, and in between each of the buildings are these beautiful green areas. I think that these kinds of buildings are really a different kind of urbanism than what we see somewhere in the United States, for example, until much later. They are really a vision of urbanism where people would have a comfortable lifestyle and would live close to the city centre, but they would have lots of space."

From what you are saying, Kimberly, you seem to quite like these buildings. But we tend to hear a lot of criticism of them. Why do you like them so much?

"I haven't lived in one, so I can't say that I know them intimately from the inside. But I think that people tend not to appreciate the fact that they do have so much light and space and air. And as somebody who has lived in New York City, I really appreciate that aspect of them. I think that one problem with them is that historically people have been crammed into the apartments, so an apartment that today we might feel would be comfortable for a couple or comfortable for a couple with a small child, maybe twenty years ago a family of five - even with grown children - would have been expected to live inside of these apartments. So I think a lot of the problem isn't actually with the architecture of the apartment itself, but it was rather the expectation of how many people were supposed to live in them, or what kind of services would be available to you. Of course, now you're near this big commercial centre here in Pankrac, and you have the metro down the street. And of course the metro wasn't built until the late sixties and into the early seventies, and so before that people would have relied on trams and buses. So maybe life here appears more comfortable now, and part of the complaints are from people who know what it used to be like."

So the panelaky we have seen today have come off with a rather positive evaluation. But it is one thing to paint the buildings or to renovate them inside; it is another matter if the whole building itself was made on the cheap and is of a poor quality, which will only lead to greater problems in the future. I asked Kimberly about the oft made criticism that the panelaky are poorly constructed, and if the panelaky we have spoken about are capable of providing safe housing for years to come:

"They are only forty years old, and don't I think the mythology that they're about to fall down is really true. I think that when people actually see them - and they go inside and they look and they see how strong or safe they actually feel inside - I don't think that they worry that they are panelaky. I think that the newest panelaky in Prague from the eighties and even the early nineties are the ones to really worry about, because the quality of the materials was so bad, and there is a potential that those buildings are actually going to have some serious problems. But buildings from the early sixties... I think they still hold up to a pretty high quality of technology."