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The East: Housing Remains Communism's Most Striking Legacy

  • Jeremy Bransten



Prague, 12 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- From Berlin to Vladivostok, the Iron Curtain fell quickly. But many of the legacies of the Communist age have proven far more durable than the old political order.

And among the most enduring reminders of that time are the millions of pre-fabricated apartment buildings -- often grouped together to form huge satellite cities -- that have become an indelible part of the post-Soviet urban landscape.

It was actually the Scandinavians, who in the 1960s perfected the technology for building housing estates out of pre-assembled concrete blocks. But after a few attempts at building model high-rise suburbs for the masses, the panel-block method was largely abandoned in Scandinavia. The theories of such leading Western architects as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, who taught that urban communities could be planned from start to finish on a mass scale, were gradually abandoned -- not just in Scandinavia, but eventually, throughout much of Western Europe.

City planners began to worry about the detrimental effect that these concrete mazes would have on their inhabitants. Not only did the complexes lack much surrounding infrastructure, making them little more than dormitory suburbs, but the sheer scale of these housing projects promoted anonymity, discouraging the formation of real neighborhoods. It all added up to a quick recipe for rising crime and premature decay.

And decay they did, because the panels -- so easy to put up -- were also found not to be very durable.

But just as Scandinavian and other Western countries stopped building high-rise, pre-fabricated suburbs, their Eastern counterparts took up the cause with enthusiasm. The panel-block method of construction proved a perfect match for the centrally planned Socialist economies, providing a cheap way of building thousands of housing units a year, according to an unchanging formula. The panel components allowed builders to vary the number of storeys -- from five in smaller cities to 25 in some capitals, such as Moscow, but in all other respects, the estates were all built according to a single plan.

As in other sectors of the Socialist economy, quantity rather than quality, was the by-word. Much as factories competed with each other to see who could roll out the most tons of steel, so too did cities and builders compete to see who could put up the highest number of square meters of apartment space per year.

Heinz Willumat, an urban planner with the Berlin Senate's department of housing notes: "Panel technology was not just a technology but rather a doctrine of the entire state. It was considered that the housing problem could only be solved by building such housing estates."

As a result, according to Willumat's calculations, some 170 million people across the former East Bloc -- 34 million of them in Central Europe alone -- now live in panel-block housing estates.

Experts say the estates are a ticking time-bomb, both from a physical standpoint and a psychological one.

As the Scandinavians theorized three decades ago, the building of huge high-rise estates did lead to the formation of urban ghettoes plagued by high crime and decay, most notably in France and England.

This has not yet happened across most of Eastern Europe. Unlike in Western Europe, where such centrally-planned suburbs often began as welfare projects for low-income families, panel-block housing in the East was more egalitarian. As Willumat puts it: "A specific feature of these settlements in the East is that they are composed primarily of middle-class, well educated people. This is the biggest difference between these areas in the West and East."

But Willumat and other specialists have no doubt that if something is not done to regenerate these suburbs soon, richer families will start to move away, starting a cycle of decline, much like in the West.

Of equal concern is the physical decline of these estates. A year ago, a balcony fell from a panel apartment in Prague. Luckily, no one was injured. But experts say it's only a matter of time before similar accidents start to happen on a regular basis. City authorities in St. Petersburg have already started removing balconies from some older panel apartments as a precautionary measure.

Ivan Prikryl, head of the Association of Czech and Moravian Cooperatives, explains some of the physical problems of panel-apartment buildings: "The fact is that the panels are welded together by metal joints -- and they are corroding. If you look at the base of a high-rise building, the temperature differences in the summer and winter are not that great....But if you look at the top, in the winter's it's -10 Celsius and in the summer it's +40 Celsius, if the sun is shining. So the building constantly expands and contracts. In the laboratory, scientists estimate that these welded joints can take -- and it's a matter of debate -- maybe 30 or 40 contractions. But one day the joint will come loose. You'll be lying in bed with your wife and the panel covering your apartment will have fallen into the street below."

Most experts agree that the cinder-block core of these panel buildings is almost indestructible. But the joints holding the panels will eventually have to be replaced. In addition, the high-rises' flat roofs are unsuited to European climate conditions and often leak prematurely. Water pipes, electrical wiring and elevators all need servicing or replacing.

As if this weren't enough, panel apartments, as anyone who has lived in them knows, are huge energy wasters. The outside walls are not properly insulated, windows and doors often don't shut properly. Most are centrally heated and do not allow individuals to regulate their own heat supply.

The projected cost of re-outfitting Eastern Europe's panel apartments to ensure their continued viability is about 1/3 that of building new housing. This makes it a far better alternative than knocking them down. But it is still a substantial investment.

Paradoxically, the fall of Communism across the region has added a whole host of other problems that similar estates in Western estates do not have to face: among them, restitution and privatization issues.

The cities of Prague and Berlin, whose eastern half was rebuilt under the GDR's Communist regime after World War II, serve as contrasting illustrations of how to address the problem. From the point of view of panel-block housing, East Berlin and Prague started from similar positions at the start of this decade. But have since taken divergent paths, which may provide some answers to other communities searching for a way out of this concrete labyrinth.

In East Berlin, government and community planners, working together, have used state and private money to maximum effect. Much remains to be done before the city's drab, utilitarian suburbs are fully transformed, but regeneration is well underway. In Prague, by contrast, city officials' rejection of coordinated planning, together with piecemeal privatization, has brought stagnation.

This is part one of a five-part RFE/RL series on housing in Eastern Europe and the United States.
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