Prefab housing estates

Time for Talking Point, and today Olga Szantova looks at one of the many problems connected with housing, the future of the prefabricated apartment buildings scattered throughout the Czech Republic. They're all alike, all of them ugly and all of them are starting to fall apart.

O: About one third of all the apartments in this country are in buildings made out of prefabricated concrete panels, most of them dating back to the 60s and 70s. The same panels were produced in factories, and distributed throughout the country, so we ended up with the same, exactly the same drab apartment buildings everywhere, in the outskirts of cities, small towns, even in villages. It was a fast and cheap way of getting over the housing shortage, and that was just about the only thing taken into consideration. All the apartments were the same, but in a philosophy that stressed the 1absolute equality of one and all, not much wrong was seen in that uniformity. It took a lot of imagination and work to turn those apartments into real homes. In some cases people succeeded. But the real problem is that these buildings as such are aging and while the concrete panels are practically indestructible, the joins between them are cracking, the roofs are leaking, some balconies are dangerously near to falling off - the buildings show the result of practically no maintenance throughout the years. It's not only a Czech problem, mass prefab construction was carried out throughout the world, but in the Soviet bloc there was much more of it, and the problem is much bigger here. Visiting Prague a few days ago was Jeno Kajdocsi, a Hungarian architect, who builds new housing for those who can afford to move out of the prefab buildings.

A: The best thing would be just to blow up all those prefabricated blocks, get rid of them, they're an eye-sore. But neither we in Hungary, nor you in the Czech Republic, can afford to do that.

O: The Czech deputy minister of local development, Architect Karel Hejtmanek disagrees.

B: Proclamations like "Let's pull all those buildings down" are naive, unrealistic. These buildings and the housing estates where they are standing have to be improved, and of course it's not going to be a short nor easy process. But there are examples, including many from abroad, that it can be done.

O: But couldn't the money be spent much better in building new houses? Of course much of that is being done by individuals and cooperatives, but the state budget is involved, too. Isn't it a waste to put part of the money available for housing into the reconstruction of prefabricated apartment blocks?

B: Out of this year's budget the Ministry for Local Development is spending 2.2 billion crowns on the construction of new apartment buildings, and only just over a quarter of that on the reconstruction of prefabricated houses. But that's only about a third of the amount that will be spent on saving those old buildings. When people see that things are being done, they join the effort, so do local authorities, and once the state has paid for repairs to the leaking roofs and things like that, people start chipping in and take much more interest themselves, so some 70 percent of the money spent comes from other than state sources.

O: It's a fact that many people have done miracles with their apartments.

O: But not everybody has and is taking such care of their apartments. Many Czechs tend to be more interested in their chatas, their cottages out in the country, than in their homes. I think it's the result of all those years when you were expected to be uniform, not very different from your neighbors. The only place people felt they could be themselves and show their initiative were those chatas. Often they built them themselves and did all the maintenance, they spent weekends painting, repairing, just working on the one site that was their own. Much less energy, and finances, for that matter, went into their actual homes, their apartments. That mentality is now slowly changing, people are showing less interest in chatas, and showing more interest in their apartments.

O: We've been talking about individual buildings, but there's the problem of the housing estates where most of these prefabricated blocks stand. They were built in whole groups, which made supplying water, gas and electricity cheaper. The biggest prefab housing estate is Prague's Jizni mesto - Southern Town, which consists of one thousand prefabricated apartment blocks, many of them huge, tall buildings. And there's practically nothing else there. People come in the evenings and in the morning they leave for work in other parts of the city. Just old people and children back from school are there during the day - the place is deserted with all the obvious results - above all, a high crime rate, but also a lot of devastation, broken windows, graffiti.

B: I don't see anything wrong in the fact that so many housing estates were built. If you look at the original plans for these sites, from the 60s and 70s, they included the infrastructure to make these estates places where people would really live, not just come to sleep. But there never was enough money to build all the cultural and shopping centers, the parks and the rest. All we have to do now is finish those projects, and put in the infrastructure. It's going to take time, and the state can't do it all. People will have to learn not to expect everything to be given to them, they'll have to chip in.

O: People who want to, and can invest, will have a tendency to build their own homes, to move out of the estates, which could lead to their eventually turning into apartments for the needy, and eventually, into slums.

B: It's not as bad as that by far. We haven't had signs of housing estates turning into slums, and I don't think it's going to happen. There are some housing estates you could call slums, but that was caused from the start, when the state put certain groups of people all together in one area, but has nothing to do with estates turning into slums because people are moving out.

O: The deputy minister for local development is quite confident in that respect.

B: The number of people living in prefabricated buildings hasn't changed, people are not moving out of those houses. New construction work, newly built houses only mean that the old apartments are less crowded. It's helping those families where two generations lived in one apartment, the parents and their married son with his wife, for example. Not even all those cases have been solved, even today some 10 percent of all households still consist of two families.

O: Which isn't so bad when there is plenty of room, but apartments in prefab buildings are small. Hopefully, the new construction will take the stress off and help make life in the estates easier. Many people who live there say they can make nice homes.

Author: Olga Szantová
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