“Paneláks” – home for many Czechs, but what does the future hold?
Every third Czech lives in a „panelák“. These blocks of flats made of prefabricated parts are a typical feature of all the former Soviet satellite countries. They were built to last only for two or three generations. Now, their inhabitants are doing their best to prolong their life-span. However, they still pose a serious housing problem for the future.
Prefabricated housing was used in large projects all over post-war Europe. However, West European countries soon realized the danger presented by creating large urban areas, of low quality, cheaply built uniform flats. They started to disperse such housing estates and adapt them to local needs and traditions. East of the Iron Curtain, these trends drew attention in the relatively free 1960s. But as the attempt to reform socialism in Czechoslovakia in 1968 was crushed by the Soviet Red Army, so were ideas that the socialist “panelák” should also have a human face. Professor Jiří Witzany is a former rector of the Czech Technical University. He spent most of his professional life dealing with the problems and future of prefabricated construction technology:
There have always been predictions, that these housing estates will become underprivileged ghettos, centers of social unrest. For architect Jan Kasl, ex-mayor of Prague, this was one dark vision that luckily did not come true:
“I think we are lucky that we do not have any housing estates that would present a social and safety problem. Here in Prague, you will not find notorious complexes such as Chánov in Northern Bohemia, which is partially devasted by neglect and partially empty. Our housing estates are quite well integrated into the rest of the city. However, it is true that some of them are nicer and easier to reach by public transport, others are slightly shabbier. If I were to name some of the best ones, I would probably name Solidarita – or Solidarity – an estate that was built after World War II traditionally from bricks. Then perhaps Kobylisy and also Petřiny. These were among the first to be built from the prefabricated parts and the housing is rather primitive. But they have an excellent location. People who live close to the Metro in Petřiny are very happy.”
So now, about a third of the Czech population still lives in “paneláky”. In Prague, the ratio is even higher, some 44 percent. Many of them were not planned to be inhabited in the third millennium. Most of the flats were sold to their tenants in the 1990s and this privatization put the responsibility for the maintenance and future rehousing on the occupants themselves. Jan Kasl sees this as a potential source of trouble for the future:
“That is perhaps a more problematic aspect of the estates. If you privatize 250 flats in a 12-floor „panelák“ with 12 entrances, it becomes a problem. The legislation does not say exactly who is going to be responsible for the necessary repairs and renovations. Such a big block of so many flats is simply difficult to effectively administer.”
Some sort of government intervention will be needed – local or more probably national:
To sum it up: yes, there are some really nice housing estates in Prague and other Czech cities. The majority of them, however, are not so nice and have a limited life-span. Whether the Czechs like it or not, they will have to deal with the problems that this type of housing ultimately poses.