“Paneláks” – home for many Czechs, but what does the future hold?

Photo: Vít Pohanka

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.

Paneláky are not as grey as they used to be,  photo: Vít Pohanka
There are only a few icons of life in the former Eastern Bloc as omnipresent as the square-shaped blocks of flats known as “paneláky”. Czechoslovakia, like most other European countries, suffered from a serious housing shortage after World War II. To address this issue, millions of flats were built using prefabricated parts – “panely” in Czech. Thus “panelák” became the name for blocks of flats that dominated large housing estates in cities and towns, big and small. These were hailed by the communist media as near miracles of the socialist construction industry.

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:

Photo: Anna Kottová / Czech Radio
“We also attempted to pursue this direction of individualized housing projects. But then normalization started as a reaction to the Prague Spring of 1968. The Czech construction industry returned to the typified construction of large complexes that did not give designers any chance to adapt them to individual local needs. They simply were not allowed to break that grey monotony and uniformity of the socialist housing estates. All this led to the tendency in Czech society to view the panelák as something sub-standard and with disrespect.”

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.”

Jan Kasl,  photo: Ian Willoughby
The biggest problem is the relatively short life-span of the blocks of prefabricated parts. When they were built, it was generally assumed that they would be inhabited for two or three generations. Then new and more permanent forms of housing would be developed. This simply did not happen.

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:

Chánov,  photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
“It will be necessary to find large financial reserves. Most of the large cooperatives that used to administer these estates have disbanded which is a problem. They would be able to deal with this problem, as they normally do in other countries, in Scandinavia and Germany, for example. A cooperative with, say 5000 flats, is able to gradually build new flats, move the occupants from the aging buildings and take care of their careful demolition.”

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.