The news article may have captured an important event. Or it may have been just another case of a headline writer making something sexy out of humdrum daily life. Either way, it caught my eye and is something I’ll keep an eye on.
The article “A Czech first: Panelák demolished for esthetic reasons” tells how the small Czech city of Havlíčkův Brod decided to tear down a small four-story apartment building because it spoiled the view in the historic town center. A city councilor thinks this is first time such a demolition has happened purely on urbanistic grounds in that region, maybe in the country.
The panelák is a defining feature of life in the Czech lands and the other ex-socialist countries. Apartment blocks built of precast concrete panels are dotted across the urban and village scene like giant toys. Most are finished in unpainted concrete, which is a material that does not age particularly well. Small ones are unsightly, big ones, monumentally ugly. However, the first paneláks were far from the featureless gray monoliths of the 1970s and ’80s. One of the first apartment buildings to exploit the panel system appeared in Prague in the 1950s adorned with neo-renaissance stylistic bits and strange, thin arches on the roof. At a time when many Czech town dwellers lived in cramped apartments with shared toilets in the halls (a very few such unreconstructed buildings survive in old town centers), prefab construction provided a cheap, fast way to expand the housing stock and improve living standards for many people.
As an architecture critic wrote in a different context in the New York Review of Books recently, “There is no sadder tale in the annals of architecture than the virtual disappearance of … publicly sponsored housing. The provision of decent dwellings for all people was a cardinal tenet of the reform movements that arose throughout the industrialized world during the late nineteenth century …” The provision of decent public housing is indeed a noble ideal, but it can be taken too far, and that arguably is what happened in many socialist countries. In Czechoslovakia, the whimsical touches on the first prefab apartments soon disappeared as cookie-cutter apartment blocks sprang up everywhere, even in small villages, often placed on heights seemingly so as to ruin the view. According to the second Lidové noviny article cited above, panel construction made up almost 99 percent of all new apartment units built in 1985.
All in all, Havlíčkův Brod’s decision to tear down a panelák was a good one. But there will though be no escape from the legacy of the panelák for decades to come. Today more than 3 million out of 10 million Czechs live in paneláks, and half of those buildings are more than 35 years old, not far off their predicted lifespan of 40-50 years. That presages a huge demand for replacement housing over the next decade or two. We are likely to see new waves of apartment construction like that of the 1970s and ’80s, if on a smaller scale. This has been happening for a decade or so in Prague. Sometimes it seems that this city is one huge building site. Older structures are constantly being noisily upgraded, and new apartment houses spring up like mushrooms to absorb the apparently inexhaustible demand for more housing. Once the old panelák blocks start to be replaced by (I predict) only slightly less ugly new ones, the building boom will begin all over again.
Photo: A small panel-construction apartment house in Teplice, Czech Republic. Creative Commons licensed photo by Teplice.