Archive for the ‘CEE Architecture & Urbanism’ Category

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Prejudiced and Prefabricated Judgements obscure the lives that were, are and can be lived in housing estates built during the communist period. Debunking these myths – these panel stories[1] – can help promote wider and deeper reflections on the communist period, postcommunist transition and the material politics of both the past and the present.

 

By Benjamin Tallis

Despite their best efforts neither jetset shock therapists nor home-grown dissidents and their various governmental inheritors have been able to make postcommunist transition a clean break with the past. Apparatchiks and functionaries were denounced and (occasionally) lustrated, only to re-appear as nomenklatura capitalists and even government ministers. Statues were removed, but the metronomic passing of time in their after-image triggers memory, not forgetting. Streets and metro stations were renamed, but we still know who Evropská and Dejvická used to be.

Evropska_Leninska

The persistent presence of the communist past is a key site of struggle for Czech (and Slovak) collective memory. Competing interpretations, both domestic and international, significantly impact the ways in which people can live today, how post-communist societies are structured and whom they are for. Material reminders of that time have come in for particular criticism and none more so than the paneláky, the concrete-panel blocks that make up the sídliště and sídlisky which became such prominent features of Czechoslovak socialist cities. While a nascent revisionism has begun, belatedly and hesitantly, to recognise the architectural quality and even (shock, horror!) beauty of Czech brutalist architecture, it tends to focus on particular marquee buildings (such as the Nova Scena of the National Theatre or the Nova Budova of the National Museum). Meanwhile the communist-era housing estates are still routinely damned from all sides.

However, recent research has shown that both domestic and international criticisms of the paneláky and sídliště are wide of the mark. Blinkered by ideology and blind to the plurality of panelák and project life lived both then and now, these flawed critiques are indicative of wider problems of both understanding and policy in postcommunism.

This essay sets out to debunk three of the most significant myths or ‘panel stories’ associated with communist era housing projects: (1) that paneláks and sídlištěs were a ‘communist’ idea that were imposed on Czechs and Slovaks from elsewhere; (2) that problems with high-density public housing are indicative of the futile and flawed pursuit of modernist and social-democratic goals; and (3) that people lived, live and will live badly in paneláks and sídlištěs.

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Tall Tales & Sweeping Judgements

Condemned by some at the time of their construction as “cement deserts” good only as “battle grounds for high-rise brats,[2]” the estates provide an all-too-easy synecdoche for the time of their building; “monotonous and repetitive, banal, inhuman […] poor in quality[3]” or most commonly (and lazily) “grey”[4] or at least “grayish.”[5] Normally nuanced and even-handed judges have been moved to unequivocal castigation of the aesthetics and morals of the ‘structural panel buildings’ that make up the vast majority of Czech housing constructed between 1955 and 1990. Sean Hanley of the UCL School for Slavonic and Eastern European Studies describes the “monster estates” as “hideous” and “awful,” and Václav Havel famously spoke of “undignified rabbit pens, slated for liquidation.”[6]

The controversy and criticism that continue to batter these concrete facades, from both home and abroad, reflects and reinforces a particular politics of memory, identity and belonging. It stems from a combination of blanket judgements on the communist period, teleological notions of neoliberal postcommunist ‘transition’ and particular (Western European and North American) experiences and ideological interpretations of high-density social housing.

Negative Czech judgements on paneláks in popular discourse and the statements of well-known figures seem to stem largely from the circumstances of their making – they were built by the communists and must therefore not only be bad, but are a malaise forced upon Czechs (and others) by unwelcome intruders and occupiers.[7] The popular and academic focus on the myriad crimes and appalling injustices of the communist regime have helped to support such views.

These are undoubtedly important stories that needed to be told about life in communism. However, they are not the only stories of that time and cannot be used to sustain uniformly negative views of an era in which, under trying circumstances, people continued to live, laugh, love, have children and make the homes in which they could grow up. The regime failed in its totalizing ambitions, but has been posthumously been granted success that it could have only dreamed of in a totalizing memory of the time that erases the positives of this painful past.

Similarly, while institutional design and the processes of re-adopting democratic politics, market economics and re-integrating to international institutional structures have been highly significant, they have often obscured lived experiences of transition, what came before and what may come after.[8] This blinkering, combined with the prefabricated opinions of many Americans and Western Europeans towards large scale public housing projects has allowed skewed views of the material and social conditions of sídliště life to dominate past and present.

After the fall of the wall, it was easy for incoming investors, advisors and other ‘tutors’, keen to school the ‘children of the revolution’ in their neoliberal ways, to tar the paneláky with the same brush as their own concrete jungles. They knew of the riots in Toxteth and Brixton and heard in the Sídlištěs the echoes of the doomed Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. The self-styled ‘tutors’ found eager prefects in the dissidents of the communist period, all too happy to run-down the remnants of a hated regime, often with little thought for the people who lived there. Unlike many dissidents and their quieter sympathisers, the Sídliště dwellers were not waiting for prime real estate to be restituted to them.

Many of these tutors also had a double interest in denigrating the communist past. It would both bolster their own superiority (and thus legitimacy as teachers) and enhance the case for neoliberal transition as a greater contrast to what had gone before, rather than a more social-democratic approach. Tearing down the old structures of ownership and usage was more feasible than destroying the paneláks themselves and raised the potential for Western-owned banks to introduce market rates to these rent-controlled worlds.

Social research conducted over the last two decades has questioned the basis for each of the criticisms leveled at Paneláks and sídlištěs, exposing them as mere ‘Panel Stories’. Challenging these stories and telling new tales of panelák life not only has specific relevance to these persecuted places but opens up the possibility of questioning the socio-political settlements of transition more widely. It can allow us to ask again what type of societies we want to build, who they are for and how they are constructed, as well to re-examine the various roles of the state, the market, the individual and the collective.

 

DSC_0020 Detail from building at  Sídliště Invalidovna, Prague

Panel Story 1: A Communist Idea, Imposed from Outside

Over the last five years, the writings of Kimberly Elman Zarecor have made a good deal of multidisciplinary Czech scholarship on paneláks and sídliště’s available to Anglophone audiences. Zarecor has exposed the double fallacy of claims that concrete tower blocks were a communist idea and that they were only accepted in Czechoslovakia under Soviet duress[9].

KEZar_CZ  Zarecor

Zarecor highlights how far from being imposed from outside, the specific circumstances of postwar Czechoslovakia spurred the continuation and development of interwar architectural practices and politics to accelerate and intensify, but not intitiate, the development of prefabricated structural panel housing in the communist era. The construction technology for Czech paneláks owed its development to the Building Department of the Baťa shoe company in Zlín, which had been experimenting before the war with prefabricated building technologies. The architects Hynek Adamec and Bohumil Kula had continued these experiments during the war and headed the projects on new structural panel housing at the time when the department was incorporated into the communist Stavoprojekt building co-ordination system. Despite Zlín having been renamed Gottwaldov after Czechoslovakia’s first communist leader, Zarecor points out that Adamec and Kula were still working in the same office when developing the first panelák – the G-building (named for Gottwaldov).

zlinBata

zlin_estate  zlin

Zlin, Bata building from Zlin.cz; Zlin  workers housing, pre-war brick (erasmusu.com) and post-war concrete (zippomaniac.fr) 

Far from following developments elsewhere, Czechs (and Slovaks) were actually ahead of the game in panel building. The crucial breakthrough – as Zarecor shows – came when an innovative solution was found to the problem of joining the concrete panels together in a stable way. The use of a series of steel ‘hooks’ and staples’ allowed for full exploitation of their structural properties and eliminated the need for an additional skeleton.[10] The pioneering architects who found this way previously worked for the feted (and avowedly capitalist) Baťa company and were actually continuing construction-technology research that had begun long before the communist takeover. It is also significant to note, however, that the ideas which inspired the social aspects of both the panelák and the sídliště can also be found in the first Czechoslovak Republic (as well as elsewhere).

The First Republic under the ‘Liberator-President’ and ‘philosopher king’ Tomas Garrigue Masaryk is widely hailed as the Czech golden age, a brief and glorious interlude of independence, after empire and before both Nazi occupation and Soviet subjugation. The wave of creativity in both culture and commerce that was unleashed during this time merits this golden reputation, with companies such as Baťa and Tatra stylishly propelling Czechoslovakia into the ranks of the top-six exporting economies in the world. The poetry of Vítězslav Nezval and Jaroslav Seifert; the painting of Frantisek Kupka, Jindřich Štyrský and – the already post-gender – Toyen; the buildings of local talents such as Josef Havlíček and Karel Honzík, Josef Fuchs and Oldřich Tyl, alongside those of proto-starchitects Adolf Loos and Mies van der Rohe, ensured that there was plentiful art to accompany the industry.

  teige_stavba_basen Teige teige_nejmensi

Karel Teige, Building and Poem (1927) & the Minimum Dwelling (1932).

However, like much of Europe at the time, the First Republic was also awash with radical Marxist ideas. A mixture of proactive idealism and reaction to the polarized living conditions of the time inspired those such as Nezval and Karel Teige – writer, architecture critic and ringleader of the radical Devetsil group – to rail against the inequalities and injustices they saw around them. They sought collective salvation through both art and industry, but saw that both should serve functional, social goals rather than being beholden to the monied mores of the market. Teige in particular struggled with the tension[11] between instrumental social function and liberating creative expression, but in architectural terms prioritized the former, arguing that beauty would spring from the minimal forms that would most efficiently serve their purpose.[12] Demanding that those at the sharp end of the housing crisis at the time receive only “the best of the best,” Teige publically upbraided Le Corbusier for abandoning such functional purity and effectively re-introducing decoration; he slammed Mies’ much-praised Tugendhat Villa as the “pinnacle of modern snobbery.”[13]

Villa Tugendhat exterior

Villa Tugendhat, Brno, from the guardian.com

It is therefore no wonder that Zarecor is able to draw a clear line between the construction of paneláks and sídlištěs in the communist period and social tendencies in First Republic Modernism, which were, however, also strongly connected to non-marxist Bauhaus figures such as Walter Groupius. Although Stavoprojekt, a state-run system of architecture and engineering offices, replaced private practice in the late 1940s and changed the profession profoundly, the vast housing estates in many Czech and Slovak cities are, in fact, the fulfillment of an interwar vision of modernity that emphasized the right to housing at a minimum standard over the artistic qualities of individual buildings (a debate that Teiger wrestled with and which continues to animate discussions over functionalism and modernism’s social purpose into the present).

Zarecor highlights intensified construction of Paneláks, as the Czech version of what she beautifully terms “Socialism with a Modernist face” in the wake of the success of the Czech pavilion at Expo ’58 – the Brussels Dream of ‘One Day in Czechoslovakia’. The socialist students of Karel Teige – notably Karel Janu, Jiři Stursa and Jiři Vozelinek – that rose to prominent positions in postwar Czechoslovak architecture helped shape the estates. However, so too did Havlíček, Honzík and other non-Marxists who continued to build for the new regime, sharing the common idea that building housing was a social good.[14]

 While it is almost certainly true that the scale and scope of panelák-based sídlištěs was greater in Czechoslovakia due to the communist takeover, it cannot be claimed that these architectures and urbanisms were imposed on Czechs from outside, nor that they were a communist-era idea. However, emphasizing the links, rather than the rupture, between the First republic and the Communist period goes against the currently dominant and highly Manichean politics of Czech collective memory that divides positive and negative in fairly bald temporal terms – 1918-38: Good; 1938-1989: Bad. 1989 onward: Good again (we hope).

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Panel Building at Hloubětín, Prague

Panel Story 2: High-Density Public Housing as Failed Socialist & Modernist Dreams

Dissident attacks on paneláks have resonated with wider narratives of neoliberal transition about the role of government in society and related attitudes toward public housing. The ‘End of History’ consensus that laissez-faire, (neo)liberal-market-democracy is the only way to govern chimed with hostility towards high-density public housing as architecturally flawed, naively irresponsible and ultimately dangerous social engineering. Scepticism of government born from bad experience of a particular regime has met ideological opposition to the state as such. The failure of social housing projects in the West has been conflated with the failure of state socialism in the second world with both used as evidence of dangerous burdens of utopian dreams.

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Buildings from Sídliště Invalidovna and Sídliště Cerveny Vrch, Prague

Such attacks generally eschew the controversialist, yet architecturally adventurous and open-minded iconoclasm of Charles Jencks.[15] They tend to prefer the offended traditionalism of Simon Jenkins, whilst retaining their mutual weakness for décor and ornament – eyebrows simultaneously arched and furrowed in facial gymnastics that Alec Guinness would be proud of. Crucially they often combine this aesthetic position with the selfish Hayekian/Friedmanite socio-economic Darwinism that seeks to entrench power for those who already have money and which, since ’89, has come disguised as freedom. A supposedly hard-headed pragmatism in which politics is disguised as economics; a refusal to be suckered into social dreaming. Often accompanied (in some quarters at least) by faux-rueful laments for the failure of stillborn social schemes that never had a chance, they are wheeled out time and again as evidence for why even marginally idealistic or minimally visionary social endeavours can never work.

Pruitt_Igoe

The Death of Modern Architecture

Long before Jencks famously used the dynamiting of this massive and ill-fated housing project to proclaim the death of Modern Architecture “on July 15, 1972 at 3:32pm or thereabouts” the Pruitt-Igoe story had come to symbolise the supposedly hopeless futility of well-intentioned social housing in the US. A recent documentary film, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,[16] exposes even this – the nadir of all the panel stories – as just that, a myth. The documentary, which takes an academically informed, socio-anthropological approach, effectively refutes the charges against the architecture of Pruitt-Igoe (and by implication against the principles of modernist-inflected high-rise and high-density public housing in general).[17] The joy with which the initial residents recall first moving in to the sufficiently spacious and well-appointed apartments (particularly in comparison to the slums where many had previously lived) is manifest. One resident – Ruby Russell – who moved into an apartment on the 11th floor coined the affectionate and memorable term “the poor man’s penthouse” to describe her apartment, while others describe the feelings of community, of safety and the possibility this provided for children to play and adults to live.

However, this was not to last. As the documentary shows as it details the total collapse of this housing project to the point where the police were afraid to enter and the tower blocks ended up being dynamited, this fate was largely pre-ordained. Cutbacks to the original design and the failure of the 1949 US Federal Housing Act to provide any maintenance money for such projects – requiring that such funds came from the rents paid by the low-income tenants – was the first nail in its coffin. Racism in both planning policy and the everyday practices of citizens continued de facto segregation policies long after they became de jure impermissible.[18] The combination of ‘white flight’, a declining city population (robbing it of necessary tax revenues to pay for essential services, including housing maintenance), the selling off of the downtown to property developers and official encouragement for sprawling suburban, low-density housing at the expense of the rotting urban core meant that the estate failed within grim socio-economic context. Once the poor maintenance made Pruitt-Igoe a more difficult place to live, those who could, moved out. Low occupancy rates further diminished the money available for upkeep and repairs, unleashing a vicious cycle of decline and degradation. As the documentary powerfully shows, this was not accidental. Rather, it was rather the result of the deliberate diminution of governmental power to act in a socially progressive manner in a politico-economic environment stacked against the most disadvantaged and predicated on the myth of the socially-unencumbered, all-consuming individual.

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parkhill_detail-online.com

robhoodgdns_theguardiancom

Park Hill, Sheffield, bdonline.com; the guardian.com and Robin Hood Gardens from detail-online.com

Significantly, the documentary specifically links the failure to support social housing to its associations with socialism, which both during the cold war and in the aftermath of ’89 made it ‘un-American’ and thus taboo in the US. While European experiences of public and social housing have not been as extreme as Pruitt-Igoe, the problems of housing estates such as Park Hill in Sheffield and Robin Hood Gardens in London, as well as many of the French banlieues can similarly not be blamed on their modernist (or, too-often, modernish) architecture, nor on the social intentions that inspired their construction. Rather, it was the failure to adequately address the underlying social conditions that prompted their creation and then the lack of conviction in backing the estates – with proper materials and maintenance – to provide (part of) the solution that sealed their fate.

That this lack of conviction held after the fall of the Berlin wall is not surprising. The very construction of such estates as a response to the demand for rapid urbanization and the ongoing postwar housing crisis in communist countries can be described after ’89 as “arrogant”[19] or dismissed as being “in the best traditions of vulgar Marxism” which apparently implies that, “the Communist regime believed that people were shaped by their environment.”[20]

It would be hard to think of a government – or indeed practically any other institution – that didn’t believe people were to at least some degree shaped by their environment. Indeed the prospect of people being impervious to their built environments would mean the end of architecture as anything more than art, or worse, decoration. When Sean Hanley claims that this substantiates his charge that the building of the paneláks was ideologically motivated, the point made by Michel Foucault and echoed by Slavoj Žižek that ideology is at its most powerful when it is most hidden, should also be considered in relation to the ‘pragmatic’, post-’89 treatment of social housing and the damage done more widely to ideas of social democracy and transformative governance by the collapse of communism and the neo-liberal consensus that filled the vacuum.

 

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Panel Building at Hloubětín

Panel Story 3: People Lived and Live Badly in Paneláks and Sídlištěs

The fall of Pruitt-Igoe, the Brixton and Toxteth riots and the postmodern malaise that long beset the Unité d’Habitation and its ilk have been particularly unkind to millions of Central & East Europeans. They have been forced to belatedly ‘learn’ that the places in which they grew up, laughed, loved, raised children, realized creative activities, plotted defiance, cohabitation, collaboration or escape and where they created their cosy dens[21], insulated to some degree from the party regime, were no longer appropriate for their lives as ‘New Europeans’.


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Sídliště Invalidovna

Crucially however, as even noted by critics[22] of the appearance and intentions of the paneláks, the social mix of the communist-era housing projects was very different than that of their counterparts in the West. In the second world, largte numbers of people from different walks of life and from varied social strata finding themselves (willingly or otherwise) thrust into high-rise neighbourhoods. This is partly due to the sheer number of people who live in such developments. Zarecor[23] quotes figures of 3.1 million people living in 1,165,000 apartment units in 80,000 paneláks in Czech Republic. With almost a third of the total population and nearly half the city of Prague living in paneláks, the issues facing postsocialist sídlištěs are, in most cases, very different than those experienced by residents in their deprived and marginalized western counterparts.

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Building at Sídliště Dablice

Many communist-era estates are well-planned. Well-connected and well-provided for communities: house-proud and successful places. Their abundant and well-kempt common spaces (leafy in summertime, albeit rendered climactically bare in winter) host a variety of public services and private activities and allow collective grandmothering in the ample and adventurous social space they provide for children. There was not the same stigma attached to living in these places and as the artist Eva Koťátková argues, these were places where many people grew up happily and well, learning to be the creative and independent, experiencing concrete as schoolyard rather than jungle and certainly not succumbing to the attempts to create new uniform ‘Socialist [Wo]Man’:

I was born in Prague, grew up in one of the typical grey block-houses on the periphery and went to school there. Many people find this kind of architecture awful or boring but I have a strong nostalgia connected with this place – a place of the most formative periods of my life. Many motifs appearing in my work have their origin in the time of my childhood and adolescence and in the specific atmosphere of this location.[24]

Koťátková’s comments are not the isolated opinion of a nostalgic or contrarian artist. Zarecor’s work also draws upon several academic studies that show consistently high levels of satisfaction with sídliště life. Research conducted in 2001 by Lux and Sunega showed that 64% of Czechs considered their accommodation ideal and only 11% planned to move within three years. Moreover, Zarecor also cites studies that show that this is not a new trend, with many sídliště residents recalling moving to their new Haviřov homes in the same excited and reverent terms that the Pruitt Igoe tenants did. Recent work by Eva Špačková and Martin Jemelka in the Hranice sídliště in Karvina also shows generally high degrees of satisfaction, although mixed with calls for further improvements relating to upkeep and noise issues. As Špačková put its in an interview with Zarecor:

Generally it is possible to say that the majority of imperfections in the housing development, according to the opinions of the residents, are not conditional on architectural solutions but rather on the unmaintained, disordered, and unsatisfactory control and commercial abuse of public space and the former civic facilities. [25]

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Hotel Kupa at Jižní Město

In a widely cited ethnographic study of the Prague sídlištěs at Jizni mesto and Jihozapadni Mesto, French anthropologist Laurent Bazac-Billaud concluded that people in paneláks generally know their neighbours and that both social and transport networks not only exist but also work.[26] Furthermore, Hanley repeats Bazac-Billaud’s finding that:

panelák life is based on a intense drive for privacy and individuality. Inside their standard panelák flats – identical in layout and to thousands of others the length and breadth of former Czechoslovakia – the key impulse of Czech panelák residents is to create their own private worlds.

This is still however not enough for Hanley who claims that “In a democratic society, [paneláks] would never have been built. Such hideous-looking, poorly planned public housing would quickly have attracted criticism and protest (as it did in the West). In a market economy, no one with any money would have invested a crown into a panelák flat.”


braodwaterfarm_trainwalksldn  broadwaterfarm

London’s Broadwater Farm Estate, from trainwalkslondon.com and flickr.com 

Hanley’s critique could be read as a dire warning about the potential fate of paneláks in the postcommunist period after the end of rent controls, although currently this has only happened in exceptional cases. In the town of Most, the semi-ghetto of Chanov carries the real echoes of Pruitt-Igoe, not in its architecture, but in the social neglect that led to the decay and near abandonment of this Roma-majority housing estate. Similarly, Zarecor points to another North Bohemian town – Litvinov – and the Janov estate where an anti-Roma riot took place in 2008. Research conducted by a team lead by the prominent geographer Luděk Sýkora showed that the situation in Janov had been exacerbated by the sale of municipal apartments to ‘investors’ who refused to invest in repairing or upgrading the buildings and rented the declining apartments to low-income Roma groups, helping to create social segregation and stoke racial tensions.[27]

Chanov_Most  pruittdecay_ghost of [ruittigie

Chanov, Most, from wikimapia.com; Pruitt-Igoe from Radiantwriting.hubpages.com

In many more cases however, the right-to-buy schemes allowed tenants to purchase their apartments affordably from municipalities and rent controls remained in place until recently. Right-to-buy schemes were balanced with incentives to form tenants associations and residents committees in order to be able to benefit from EU-funded refurbishment schemes. These schemes have largely consisted of the installation of new windows, doors, elevators and the application of fixed Styrofoam cladding directly to the outside of paneláks, which are then covered with plaster in order to improve insulation. Residents have then been able to choose from a variety of colours to repaint the new cladding, eliminating the darkness at the edge of town. However, transforming the dreaded grey into what Zarecor terms a ‘rainbow’ of colours threatens to create what Špačková terms “multi-coloured kitsch.” Zarecor too warns against the loss of architectonic detail such as the definable edges of panels or surface texture which give the buildings a sense of proportion and without which they risk becoming “cartoon likenesses in the shape of apartment buildings with undifferentiated surfaces.”

Popular with residents, these largely cosmetic renovations seem to please Hanley, who in a later piece states “After this beauty treatment the hideous grey paneláky look pretty civilized” passing in an augenblick, for Holland or Germany. This confirms Hanley’s mainstream hierarchical view of transition (where success equals imitation of the West), but also Zarecor’s observation that, if all that took was a lick of paint, then perhaps there wasn’t so much wrong with them in the first place.

DSC_1507

Sídliště Rajska Zahrada (Paradise Garden)

 Building New Panel Stories: Re-evaluating and reviving the realities beyond the myths

The difficulty of disentangling aesthetic judgements on ‘grey’ or ‘ugly’ panel buildings from their context in the politics of communist memory and the particular political economy of the post-89 world makes it unsurprising that they should provide rich material for visual artists with social sensibilities. That artists with praxis as different as Veronika Drahotová, Tomáš Džadoň, Patricie Fexová, Eva Koťátková and Katerina Šedá should find inspiration or fascination in these massive structures and micro-societies speaks to their significance as sites for the interaction of and negotiation between public and private, uniformity and individuality, enabling constraints and bounded freedoms.

The work of scholars such as Kimberly Zarecor, Eva Špačková, Laurent Bazac-Billaud and Luděk Sýkora, as well as the engagements of the aforementioned artists call into question what we know about paneláks and sídlištěs and the contexts in which we know it. This challenges the how we remember both the public politics and the private lives of communism and the ways they have been re-negotiated in transition. It questions the social relations that are possible on housing estates today and between the estates and elsewhere. In turn this prompts us to consider who we live with, how we want to do so and to what extent we can achieve that. It questions the underlying assumptions of post-communist societies and they ways these societies are constructed – now and in the future – as well as who they are for.

Paneláks and sídlištěs are too often seen merely as monumental milestones on the way to a future that was never built: as inconvenient reminders of a past that would be better forgotten or as hangovers of uneasy dreams. Zarecor rightly calls for the rehabilitation of paneláks, which would act as a catalyst for re-appraisals of other aspects of Czech society. If this is to happen, then the old myths of outside imposition, misdiagnosis of the ills of social programmes and social democracy need to be exposed. Fallacies of indignity and malicious attacks on panel dwellers need to be put to rest in order to better deal with real emergent inequity and emiseration. To start telling new panel stories, we need to experience and embrace the diversity and vibrancy of sídliště life, aesthetically and socially, from the clean neo-functionalist lines of the Invalidovna estate to Ďáblice’s open green spaces, Jižní Město’s thriving brewery and the panoramic views from the Hotel Kupa

DSC_0007 P1010917

jm_pivnicicz jiho_pivnizasilkacz (1)

 

This is a re-drafted version of a piece that was initially published hard copy in Vlak 4, Prague, London, New York, Melbourne, Paris, Amsterdam: Eqqus Press (2013) and is also featured in Abolishing Prague, ed. Louis Armand, Prague: Litteraria Pragensia (2014).

 

[1] The title refers to Věra Chytilová’s legendary film ‘Panel Story’ which provides a supposedly candid, but largely negative look at the early days of the Jižní Město housing estate.

[2] From the poem Jižní Město (South City) by Jiří Žáček, reproduced in From a Terrace in Prague, ed. Stephan Delbos (2011) Prague: Litteraria Pragensia

[3] As noted by Els de Vos’ (2012) review of Lynne Attwood’s Socialist Housing in the Eastern Bloc: Gender and Housing in Soviet Russia and Kimberly Elman Zarecor’s Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity, published in Technology and Culture, 53 (2), April 2012, pp. 465-469

[4] Sean Hanley (1999) ‘The Discrete Charm of the Czech Panelák, Central European Review http://www.ce-review.org/authorarchives/hanley_archive/hanley22old.html

[5] Ivan T. Berend as quoted in Zarecor (2012) Zarecor (2012) ‘Socialist Neighbourhoods after Socialism: The Past, Present and Future of Postwar Housing in the Czech Republic’, East European Politics and Societies, 26: 486

[6] http://www.praguepost.com/archivescontent/40712-still-standing.html

[7] De Vos (2012).

[8] e.g. Alison Stenning & Kathrin Hoerschelmann (2008) History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism? Antipode, 40(2): 312-335

[9] Zarecor (2009) ‘The Rainbow Edges: The Legacy of Communist Mass Housing and the Colorful Future of Czech Cities in Peggi Clouston, Ray Kinoshita Mann, Stephen Schreiber, eds. Without a Hitch – New Directions in Prefabricated Architecture. http://scholarworks.umass.edu/wood/2008/; Zarecor & Eva Špačková (2012) ‘Czech Paneláks are Disappearing, but the Housing Estates Remain’, Architecture & Town Planning (Architektur & Urbanizmus), 34: 288-301;

[10] For the fullest treatment of this, see Zarecor (2011) Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia 1945-1960, Pittsburgh University Press: Pittsburgh, PA.

[11] See for example Peter Zusi ‘s excellent (2004) ‘The Style of the Present: Karel Teige on Constructivism and Poetism’, Representations (88); & (2008) ‘Tendentious Modernism: Karel Teige’s path to Functionalism’, Slavic Review (67:4).

[12] e.g. Teige (2002[1932]) Nejmensi Byt (The Minimum Dwelling), MIT Press: Cambridge MA, trans Eric Dluhlosch

[13] Karel Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, p6.

[14] Zarecor (2011).

[15] Jencks (1991 [1977]) The Language of Postmodern Architecture, New York: Rizzoli

[16] The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011) dir. Chad Friedrichs.

[17] See for example Oscar Newman (1975) ‘Reactions to the Defensible Space Study & Some Further Findings’ International Journal of Mental Health vol 4(3):48-70.

[18] See also Elizabeth Birmingham (1999) ‘Refraining the Ruins: Pruitt-􏰅Igoe, structural racism, and African American rhetoric as a space for cultural critique, Western Journal of Communication, 63:3, 291-309

[19] Radio Prague’s Martin Mikule – http://www.radio.cz/en/section/letter/panelák-housing-estates-the-indelible-heritage-of-communism

[20] Sean Hanley (1999) ‘The Discrete Charm of the Czech Panelák, Central European Review, http://www.ce-review.org/authorarchives/hanley_archive/hanley22old.html

[21] See the Czech film Pelíšky (literally translated as ‘Cosy Dens’), directed by Jan Hřebejk.

[22] Sean Hanley specifically notes this in his 1999 piece.

[23] Zarecor (2012).

[24] Interview with Luigi Fassi in Koťátková ‘Documentation 2’

[25] Zarecor (2012).

[26] Hanley (1999) and Kristina Alda, writing for the Prague Daily Monitor both reference Bazac-Billaud’s work. http://praguemonitor.com/2009/10/27/praguescape-pink

[27] Sykora et al (2010), Rezidencni Segregace, Univerzita Karlova & Minesterstvo pro mnistni rozvoj v Ceske Republice.

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The Prague metro system’s design transcends the circumstances of its making, yet still provides a rich architecture of memory.

By Benjamin Tallis

Prague’s trams are its mechanised flaneurs; their scenic routes criss-cross the city in a dense meshwork that makes them a prominent feature of street-life in the Bohemian capital. For those leisured travellers with time on their hands there is no better way to ride the city. However, for those of us whose schedules and planning skills mean that we live more like futurists than flaneurs, getting there on time often means going underground.

Hidden beneath Prague’s richly layered material histories, the subway system, with its 61 stations and 65km of tracks is the 7th busiest in Europe, carrying more than 1.5 million passengers every day. This adds up to nearly 600m passenger rides per year: more in absolute terms than on either the Vienna or Berlin U-Bahns and, given Prague’s relatively low (1.25m) population, this makes it the best used metro system on the continent in per-capita terms.

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Begun and primarily built during the communist period, this massive public infrastructure project became one of the flagship projects of ‘Normalisation’ – the clamping-down on the public sphere that followed the crushing of the Prague Spring. The precarious Husák regime that sought to build socialism without a human face attempted to offset the loss of public-political possibilty by boosting material conditions. Increased consumption and enhanced infrastructure represented the politics of meagre promise, laced with threat.

Keen to show that ideology was no impediment to innovation, the regime invested heavily into architecture, prompting a flurry of public building. Brutalist shopping centres and high-modernist office buildings proliferated. Despite the popularity of these styles in the West, in Prague they continue to be associated with a distinct and ill-remembered, politically periodisable vision of how the future used to look. The tighter Soviet embrace of Czechoslovakia brought new technology and resources to bear on large infrastructure projects and it was with Russian help that a plan to take the tram underground was abandoned in favour of a building a proper subway system. This intervention allowed Prague to realise one of its recurring 20th century dreams[1] and become a genuine metro-polis, but like its overground counterparts it was realised in a style that became synonymous with the oppressive regime of the time.

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However, the metro system also provided the stage for one of Czech political performance art’s most famous actions: “on an escalator … turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me.” Jiří Kovanda’s attempt to provoke connections amidst atomisation and anomie was typical of attempts at low-key defiance of Normalisation’s numbing conformity. Like Havel’s contemporaneous Power of the Powerless, it suggested the fragility of the seemingly implacable post-totalitarian façade and the role that people would need to play to exploit its cracks.

After the revolution of 1989 many stations were renamed as the metro system shed its party nomenclature to become a velvet underground. Moskevská (Moscow station) became Anděl (Angel), while other socialist shibboleths were swapped for prosaic descriptions of location: Budovatelu (Builders [of the future]) became Chodov; Leninová became Dejvická, Kosomonatů became Háje, Družby (Friendship) became Opatov; more proudly, Gottwaldová (named for the first Czech Communist premier, Klement Gottwald) became Vyšehrad, the high castle that is a sacred site for Czech nationhood.

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(Photos from idnes.cz and ceskatelevize.cz)

The metro system recently celebrated its forty-first birthday and many new stations have been added in the last decade. However, it is the formal qualities – as well as the functional efficiency – of the older sections that continues to enchant. Entering the streamlined catacombs beneath Prague’s streets may mean sacrificing the breathtaking vistas afforded on certain tram routes, but in no way abandons aesthetic interest. Like the normalisation-era’s architectural flourishing above ground, the design of the metro – more modernist than the peoples’ palaces of Moscow or Petersburg – has stood the test of time. It transcends the loathed regime that made it and gives the lie to the notions that there was no creativity or quality production in the communist period, or that this era was somehow “post-cultural.”[2]

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Descending from the square at Náměstí Míru, with its art nouveau town houses and pitch-perfect neo-gothic church, toward the vanishing point of one of Europe’s longest escalators (87m length, 43m drop), is to allow oneself to be transported into a gleaming futuristic grotto. Filtered between thick set rectangular pillars, elegant in chrome and marble, passengers are greeted by the colourful, curving surfaces of the tunnel walls. Coloured rows of anodised aluminium tiles – silver, aquamarine, royal blue, aquamarine and amber-gold, provide a wonderful horizontal articulation and a dynamic modernist sheen. Concave and convex indentations and protrusions[3] in the tiles prevent heat warping, but also enhance the tension between motion and stillness that encapsulates the role of the station – a node in a fast moving network. The decor benignly (dis)orients passengers and helps immerse them in metroland as they are transported.

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photos from tuxboard.com

The majority of the stations on the Green ‘A’ line follow a similar pattern, distinguished by colour and the re-combination of modular components. The other lines have their own design identity. The Yellow ‘B’ line makes great use of reflecting and refracting surfaces, particularly visible in the chrome ‘lenses’ at Náměstí Republiky, the curved glass tiles at Jinonice and the . The Red ‘C’ line is plainer and was designed to provide a smooth transition from overground to underground,[4] generally employing wide central platforms and high ceilings. An exception is the dual-platformed, glass-walled Vyšehrad station from which trains are dispatched over a valley, encased in the belly of the Nusle bridge’s elegantly soaring concrete. The newer stations tend to be somewhat blander, although the elegant curves of Střížkov and Nemocnice Motol merit some attention. The stunning effects as coloured light plays on the chrome columns of Letňany’s platform space are in marked contrast to the rest of the station and its surroundings.

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Returning overground, Jože Plečnik’s famous Church of the Holy Heart (1929) dominates the square at Jiřího z Poděbrad. In front of the church stands an unusual structure – a distorted, tiled concrete cylinder, leaning and tapering before being opened and crowned by a series of chrome verticals, supporting what look like rusting venetian blinds. Around the corner, in the Svatopluk Čech gardens, another anomaly faces the monument to the 19th century Czech poet. An outcrop of angular, mosaic-tiled, micro towers, reaching, striving to their different flat-topped heights with the aid of sweeping, curvilinear chrome frontage, looking like something scalped from the head of a brutalist medusa.

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Resolutely functional, yet formed with the sculptural and material qualities of the best public art, these structures are just two of the many air vents that serve the Prague metro. They appear in sometimes-unlikely parts of the city and provide reminders of what lies beneath. These quiet monuments provide material-mnemonic links between the concrete estates of the periphery and the affably pretty inner suburbs and speak of the revenant presence of the past, even as their design transcends the conditions of their production.

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The best of Prague’s metro stations are gloriously encapsulated event architecture, while the air-vents often provide incongruously quotidian counterpoints that draw out the best in their surroundings. The now velvet underground and its above-ground eruptions are essential parts of Prague’s palimpsestuous psychogeography that disrupt all-too coherent narratives that oversimplify the recent past.

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[1] Previous plans for a Prague metro had been made in 1898 and 1926 –  http://metro.angrenost.cz/history.php

[2] As Milan Kundera claimed in his famous essay ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’ – http://www.ises.hu/webimages/files/Kundera_tragedy_of_Central_Europe.pdf

[3] Known locally as ‘breasts’ (prsy) and ‘anti-breasts’ (anti-prsy).

[4] Interview by Ryan Scott (2013) with Evžen Kyllar, one of the architects involved in the Metro design, along with Jaroslav Votruba and others. http://www.expats.cz/prague/article/prague-metro/secrets-of-the-prague-metro-part-2/

A version of this piece was originally published in The Modernist, Issue 8 – ‘Carried Away’ in 2013.

“At least they can’t divide the sky.

– [No], the sky divides first”

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Manfred and Rita, in Christa Wolf’s DDR novel Der Geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven), may have been discussing the problems of a nation, a city and a couple torn asunder by the Berlin Wall and all it stood for, but their words call to mind another symbolically divisive piece of architecture. The construction of the Prague TV Tower began more than 20 years after Rita’s gloomy response to Manfred’s forlorn optimism, but now, a further 20 years after its completion, it still divides opinion as it divides the Bohemian sky.

Looking across from the vantage points of Hradčany, visitors to Prague’s famed castle district visually retrace their routes across the city, eagerly picking out the gothic highlights of the old town, the neo-renaissance splendour of the national theatre and the crème-chantille of Malá Strana’s baroque. However, their affable ocular perambulations are disturbed by the tower, which sits on the opposite lip of the bowl that encircles Prague’s inner core. Both the size and shape of the tower – a 216m-high ideal home for an urban spaceman – are disconcerting for those seeking to lose themselves in dreamy, historical reverie.

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The TV Tower is one of Prague’s few genuine ‘cloudscrapers’ [2] and the only one in the ring of historic suburbs surrounding the inner core and, as such, is a dissonant presence. The high-point of Václav Aulický’s architectural oeuvre has attracted considerable derision, being named in a list of the ‘world’s 21 ugliest buildings’ by the Daily Telegraph and as the ‘2nd ugliest building in the world’ by tripadvisor.com, to which the Daily Mail added “As if Prague’s television tower was not ugly enough, it now sports statues of crawling babies on its exterior.” Local architect Martin Krise who is part of the ‘Club for Ancient Prague’ agreed, “the TV tower is a crime against the old town.”

But for me, it was love at first sight; a condition, which, in retrospect I can see was partly brought on by the circumstances of our meeting. Arriving on the late train from Berlin, without local currency and in need of abed, I was wandering through the decaying depths of the main station[3], when a Czech student, upon seeing my backpack, asked me if I was looking for a place to stay. This stranger’s kindness was not limited to a mumbled tip and a biro’d cross on a map, instead helping me get a metro ticket and guiding me to the Clown & Bard in Žižkov, which he had heard was a good place to stay.[4]

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Taking what I now know to be a slightly unusual route, we changed to the A-line and rode underground to Jiřího z Poděbrad. I was first struck by the expanse of the square, ringed by secession town houses, and by Jože Plečnik’s masterpiece, the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, but my eye was quickly drawn upwards. Rising, massive, yet elegant, was the TV Tower and the affect was instantaneous. I lost sight of the tower as we walked on towards the hostel through a five-storey valley of apartment buildings. Then we entered Škroupovo Náměstí, the peaceful circle where Václav Havel spoke to great effect in 1988 and, crossing the quiet garden in its centre, I looked to the right and there it was. In the space and time between the two squares, the Tower had drawn itself up to full height and, illuminated in the Prague night, I could get a clear look at what it was made of.

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The battleship-grey high-tech tubes, between which the pods of its three gantry-like decks are slung, the porthole and ribbon windows, the elongated cream hand grenade of its aerial mast reaching skyward, its climbing babies and its perfectly balanced asymmetry all played a part, and I would come to appreciate these aspects of the Tower over time. However it was the Tower’s sheer size and incongruity with its surroundings that impressed me most; the sheer chutzpah of doing that; there – exactly what Krise complained of! In a Herzogian moment of aesthetic ecstasy I had stopped in my tracks. My companion waited patiently before telling me that the tower had been built by the communists and while it was pretty unpopular, he liked it and was happy to see that I did too. We walked on to the hostel, where despite my offer of a beer by way of thanks, he had to go home and study. I’ve never seen him again, but I wish I could thank him.

I have subsequently spent a good part of the last decade living in the neighbourhoods around the TV Tower, which stands close to the border between ‘Red’ Žižkov, that formerly working class warren of bawdy pubs, and bourgeois Vinohrady with its broad boulevards, secession villas and charming cafés. Returning to Prague, the sight of the tower always brought an excited feeling of arrival, of coming home. Many nights I walked there: in the warmth of the summer after times with friends at the Riegrovy Sady beer garden, with the lazy air lapping slowly around its masts; in the winter, with biting cold and frozen breath, the ground crisp and unevenly reflecting the tower’s lights. The stillness, the preternatural silence, testify to the respect and wonder that the tower commands, of the shock and awe of approaching an architectural sublime.

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Innovations (tricolour lighting from 2006) and renovations (new interior, bar and restaurant) speak of an ongoing commitment, of a recognition of the need to deal productively with the tower as it is, as well as where (and when) it came from, and reflect a wider trend in negotiating Prague’s painful pasts. The Miminka, the terribly deformed enfants that artist David Černý attached to the tower add a further layer of reflection. The babies, with their television shaped heads, bisected by a deeply embossed barcode can be read as comment on what came after ‘89, on the strange contradictions of neoliberal ‘freedom’ and the consumption-entertainment nexus. While most of the babies appear to be making their way up the tower, some are heading the other way, having seen the view and decided to come back down.

It seems that even in applied critique, the tower divides opinion, but its functional magic and architectural daring are now combined with a sense of humour that softens its hubris without denting its pride. It is all that its critics and boosters say it is and as such lives up to its nickname “Jakeš’s finger” and so follows in a long Prague tradition, called into appropriately stark and beautiful relief by the surrealist poet Vítězslav Nezval.

Hundred-spired Prague
With the fingers of all saints
With the fingers of perjury
With the fingers of fire and hail
With the fingers of a musician
With the intoxicating fingers of women lying on their backs

With fingers touching the stars
On the abacus of night[5]

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This piece was initially published in Issue 10 of The Modernist, Published in Manchester by the Manchester Modernist Society in 2014. The final image is taken from http://www.jenniferlynking.com/2013/02/05/snow-charles-bridge-and-the-beauty-of-pragues-spires-in-winter/

[1] Cloudscrapers is the literal translation of the Czech word mrakodrapy which is used in the same way as ‘skyscrapers’ in English.

[2] Which has since been restored to stunning effect – bringing out the beauty in both Jan Bočan’s brutal high-tech fusion and Josef Fanta’s Art Nouveau original

[3] It was – and Geoff Berner agrees https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX8Ss0P7Bq8

[4] As fully translated in Stephan Delbos’ stunning collection ‘From a Terrace in Prague’ Litteraria Pragensia, 2011.

by Benjamin Tallis

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A tourist strolling down the right bank of the Vltava, contentedly absorbing the gothic and baroque splendour of Malá Strana and the Hradčany, might, a little further down the river, be forgiven for thinking ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ Downstream of the decorative Hanavský Pavilon, something that looks like it could be a modernist hermitage nestles in the trees at the Northern end of the Letna park, its minimal chic obtrusive among the expressive edifices of downtown Prague.

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The arcing glass and shining steel of the kidney-shaped, elevated gallery grab the viewer’s attention from the riverside, with the subtle grace of the glazed pedestal only becoming apparent upon closer inspection. In answer to the tourist’s question, this light triumph came from Brussels, although, despite the flags fluttering in front of it, this building has nothing to do with the EU. It dates from a time before the Belgian capital became synonymous with the administrative HQ of the European political project, when Brussels hosted the World’s Fair: Expo ’58.

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This cold-war Expo was a highly politically charged event, a symbolic showcase for the superpowers, keen to trumpet their technical prowess and trump the progress of those on the ‘other side’ of what had yet to become a wall. The ’58 Expo was also the first major international exhibition to be held since the end of World War 2 and, despite being planned in the dark days of the 1950s, it was a modernist materialisation of hope, giving snatched glimpses of better futures.

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Although held less than two years after the both the Suez crisis and the crushing of the Budapest uprising, the World’s Fair came in during a brief thaw in open hostilities, the lull before the storm of the proxy war in Congo and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Briefly it seemed that the cold war could be won by science and culture, by those who could not only divide heaven, but who could also harness technological progress to deliver better living.

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This was the time of both Sputnik and Saarinen, of Laika and the Lever Building; a time when Mad Men set about bringing the gains of Mutually Assured Destruction and the space race into mid-century living rooms. In the soviet bloc, Khrushchev’s 20th Congress denunciation had opened a narrow window of opportunity for architects and designers, as they were called upon to provide visual and material distance from the stodgy confections with which Boris Iofan and others had tried to sugar-coat tyranny.

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In Czechoslovakia, many of the golden generation of interwar architecture found under the new regime that they flew too close to the sun and so this rare possibility to reconnect to the international style was an alluring one. With the accent firmly on the modern, visitors to the Expo were invited to spend ‘One Day in Czechoslovakia,’ in an exposition that cracked the western-manufactured façade of communist-era culture being uniformly dull and grey.

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The light and voluminous spaces of František Cubr, Josef Hrubý and Zdeněk Pokorný’s pavilion set the scene for the most striking avant-garde theatre of the Expo. Josef Svoboda’s Polyekran (multiscreen) and Laterna Magika (magic lantern) combined projection and performance to stunning effect and stood proudly alongside the Corbusier –inspired Poeme Electronique as highlights of the festival. Function was not forgotten amidst these effervescent forms, with the pavilion’s elegant lines providing the backdrop to the best of contemporary Czechoslovak public and interior design, such as the classic T3 tram seat (heater included for those cold Prague winters) and the Hedgehog tea set.
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While the political focus was on the potential standoff between the neighbouring American and Soviet showgrounds, it was the Czechs and Slovaks who took home the prize for the best pavilion. But that wasn’t all they took home, as the beautiful, curving structure that now sits in the Letna orchards, was the pavilion restaurant, where millions of visitors made sure that their one day in Czechoslovakia included a pint of the original and best Pilsner.

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The Saaz-laden suds of Bohemia’s best-known export undoubtedly helped things go with a swing, but it was in successfully marrying such traditional craft with cutting edge technological achitecture, that the comfort with which interwar Czechoslovakia had ascended to the world’s cultural top-table.
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Unlike the American pavilion which rejected the “anonymity, uniformity and all the things that go to make up modernism[1]” or the confused Soviet pavilion which encased a thoroughly retrograde exhibition in a steel and glass shell, Czechoslovakia showed how modern architecture could both spur new socio-cultural possibilities and accommodate more traditional pursuits.

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At the end of the Expo, the restaurant was transported back to Prague and fulfilled this function throughout the communist era, including the repressive period of normalisation, where it must have been a mirage-like reminder, a sleek, shimmering and somewhat unreal reminder of what Czechs came to know as the Bruselský Sen (Brussels dream). In 1991 a fire destroyed the interior and like so many buildings realised under the socialist regime, it was not properly valued in the heady tumult of what followed.

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Today, although it is well signposted in the park, visitors cannot enter the restaurant building, as it is now the offices of an advertising company. The company found itself embroiled in controversy in 2008 when it ran the Prague Mayor’s unrealistic vanity campaign to bring the Olympics to Prague under the slogan ‘We are all on the National Team.’ This was parodied on the ‘Art Wall’ under the Expo restaurant by artivists Guma Guar who used the same artwork and slogan, but instead of lauding faux-noble equestrians perched ludicrously atop mountains, they applied it to well known Czech criminals.

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Is it too much to hope that the advertising agency would seek to show that they too are part of the national team and return this beautiful building to public use? In doing so, they would gain their greatest PR success and provide a welcome reminder of a time where modernist substance triumphed over superpower spin.

The text for this piece originally appeared in The Modernist – Issue 6: ‘Cuppa’ in December 2012


[1] ‘Citizens and Architects’, Architectural Forum, 110: January 1959


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by Benjamin Tallis

Appropriately sited on the corner of Aleja Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue) and Nowy Swiat (New World St), a red-hued mosaic celebrates the heroic resistance of the doomed 1944 Warsaw Rising, while its accompanying inscription offers a post-war rallying cry of unity “Caly Narod Buduje Swoja Stolica” (The Whole Nation Builds Our Capital). The familiar narrative of a shattered nation pulling together to rebuild in the aftermath of Second World War destruction is particularly poignant in Poland, where one in five people were killed, and especially visible in Warsaw, where nearly ninety percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed.

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However, although the capital did rise, phoenix-like, from the rubble in the spirit of the inscription, this is a deceptively simple cipher through which to read Warsaw’s urban form. The mosaic betrays the fault-lines which underlie the ‘miracle on the Vistula’ and which continue to cleave its urban canvas.

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It is too often imagined that communist-era urbanism must equate to grey uniformity, but anyone expecting Warszawa to offer monochrome monotony will be disappointed: this has always been a more diverse and upbeat place than Bowie’s Low lament might suggest. The particularity of Poland’s war experience and its aftermath, the periodic expansion and contraction of the meshes of communist power, internecine arguments over the past and the future and relations with the outside have all left their mark on Warsaw’s cityscape.

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Resentment towards the Red Army, which watched from across the Vistula as Warsaw was ripped apart, gave the post-‘Liberation’ communist regime a precarious hold on public affections. Rapid rebuilding was one way to cement the Party’s grip on power, inspiring Stakhanovite efforts from workers dreaming of providing “a home for everyone in Poland,” as Mateusz Birkut, the still-naïve hero of Andrzej Wajda’s film Man of Marble movingly relays. The whole nation also (re)built the capital in another way – bricks salvaged from the rubble of other Polish cities were sent to warsaw in order to accelerate the reconstruction of the ‘old’ town.[1]

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Histories of wounded pride and the prominent position of the Catholic church ensured that Warsaw’s old town rose from the ruins in record time. Even today however, the old-town churches don’t quite smell old enough. Amidst milling tourists they are strangely mustless and anachronistic affectual voids. The rebuilt ‘old’ reveals little about competing postwar visions of the ‘new’ apparent elsewhere in the city. As Architectural Historian Iwona Kurz notes, this was explicitly recognised at the time ” In the good, old film Adventure at Mariensztat, (directed by Leonard Buczkowski, 1954)  a leading female character dressed up in a folk costume, who has freshly arrived from a small village is sightseeing in Warsaw and she is bored to death with the sight of the reconstructed old town and Krakowskie Przemiesce. She prefers to go to a construction site which is bustling with activity.”[2]

The concurrent construction of the ‘Smyk’ department store and the Marszalkowska residential district showcased the competition between Modernist and Socialist-Realist styles that betrayed wider struggles. Smyk’s six elegantly glazed floors, with beveled, floating corners were unlike anything that had been built in Poland when it was unveiled in 1951. Amidst widespread condemnation from party hacks and their useful architectural idiots, it is a wonder that the Central Department Store was actually built. In Architektura, Jan Minorski wrote “This is an architecture devoid of any educational capacity [which] … just like the non-ideological architectural decadence of Loos’ and Corbusier’s Art Nouveau [shows] the ideology of ruling classes when their days are numbered.”[3] ‘The People’ however seemed to disagree, with 80,000 of them visiting the store in its first three days of opening.

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Meanwhile, only a few blocks away, between Plac Konstytucji and Plac Zbawiciela, a capital of capitals was rising. The thickset bombast of the Marszalkowska district would not look out of place in Kyiv or Moscow; hulking, sandy-coloured edifice complexes, decorated with classical colonnades and scant reliefs of workers, soldiers and peasants. This is the imagined community of the ‘whole nation’ that built the capitals atop the classical columns and which lend the area all the elegance of a borrowed suit.

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A similar conflict  plays out on Defilad Square, dominated by the massive Palace of Culture and Science (1955), – a ‘gift’ to people’s Poland from Josef Stalin. This Iofan-style wedding cake (locally nicknamed the ‘elephant in lingerie’), cuts an impressive and threatening figure, but softens as it is reflected in the windows of the Wars, Sawa and Junior shopping centres. These sleek ripostes to monumental folly were conceived in 1956 for “a Warsaw of the future, full of cars, helicopters, scooters, [of] quick life.”[4] Ironically however, delays meant that the shopping centres were only completed in 1970, as was the nearby Emilia furniture store, with its beautifully corrugated roof – an abstract wave topping out elegant linearity.

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Opening in the same year as the state massacre of protesting workers that precipitated the fall of Gomulka regime, these buildings seemingly presaged the relative openness of the Gierek period, with Western money and technology helping shape the beige banality of the Hotel Forum as well as the dramatic, swooping curves of the Central Station. Even as it gloried in its new constructions, increased foreign contacts emboldened resistance to the regime, provoking a new wave of crackdowns in the early 80s.

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The solidarity of workers, church and intellectuals in the face of martial law cracked the communist façade and the process of ‘transition’ opened the floodgates for Western capital to shape Poland’s capital, threatening to drown Warsaw’s modernist babies as it flushed out the socialist bathwater. The Palace’s skyline dominanace is now challenged by a crop of identikit office towers that signal a certain kind of belonging in the world of global flows and which blend into undulating CADishness at ground level. Everything is neon-sponsored, even the former party headquarters.

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Hipsters congregating in the colonnade bars of Marszalkowska render the columns more ironic than ionic, as yesterday’s worker-heroes look on uncomfortably between the adverts, while in Solec and Powisle, modernist buildings provide the backdrop for cool bars with endearingly warm welcomes. Yet this apparently easy coexistence belies the continued conflicts that will shape Warsaw’s future. In the shadow of the bland new skyscrapers, low-rise Emilia stands out, yet faces an uncertain future as developers wanting to destroy it compete with curators who have set about revivifying the space. Staging the exhibition ‘Warsaw under Construction’ (2012) in Emilia provided a focal point for resistance to the erasure of Warsaw’s socialist era modernism and has seen artists, activists and academics joining forces in the next battle for Warsaw: the battle for more nuanced memories of both the communist period and its modernist architecture.

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A version of this piece was originally published in ‘The Modernist’ issue 7 ‘Capital’ in March 2013 in Manchester.

[1] I am grateful to Stuart Shields for reminding of this!

[2] & [4] As quoted in Jerzy S. Majewski’s (2010) ‘Book of Walks: Landmarks of People’s Poland in Warsaw” which has been inspirational and invaluable for this piece.

[3] Architektura (1956), quoted in Majewski (2010).

BEYOND BORDERS?

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Creative Mornings invited to me to talk at the July instalment of their monthly breakfast lecture series. The month global CM theme for july was space and I spoke about borders, drawing on my research to discuss the ongoing relevance of borders, despite claims that we are moving towards a borderless world. Asking questions inspired by research into geopolitical borders allows us to consider borders more generally, as metaphor, heuristic or lens on the world and the ways we can live in it – apart and together.

The beautiful setting of the Piazetta courtyard at the National Theatre, the coffee and snacks laid on by the CM team and the glorious morning sunshine all helped things go with a swing. There were some really good comments and questions afterwards and met a lots of nice and interesting people. It was inspiring for me to see how many other people are interested in borders and how and why we make and break them.

Many thanks to Lenka, Lada & Jiri from Creative Mornings and to the excellent photographers who captured such interesting images of the event – Jakub Sodomka and Everbay Photography

Here is the link to the full video – beautifully produced by Jiri, Lenka, Lada & the crew … http://vimeo.com/71563085

You can watch the second half of the talk (on the more general/ conceptual aspects of bordering) here. The outline of the talks is included below

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Creative Mornings: Prague – Talk Outline

  • Space & Borders
    • Many thanks for the introduction and many thanks to Lenka, Lada and Jiri for inviting me to address this interesting – and, to me I have to say largely new – audience about a topic that is very close to my heart and which has changed the way that I look at the world, how we might go about being in it and indeed how we can change it …

 

  • As you know, the CM theme for this week is Space – so why borders?

 

  • They are one of the ways in which we divide space and make spaces into places  – which, as a brief definition are spaces that have acquired a particular or dominant meaning, although this is not uncontestable – On the other hand, spaces are yet to become places; other than in the sense that their very openness and lack of specific meaning makes them a particular kind of place – a space. Spaces, therefore, are (as yet unrealised) potential places, whereas places are the potential of a space exhausted – for now – in a particular set of meanings
  • In effect, they are one of the ways we make space meaningful
  • While space is open and full of possibility and potential, borders and the place or meaning making that they imply often seem to shut things down, to close things off, but I hope to be able to persuade you that that is not always the case & that understanding borders  – and why we need them – is an interesting and important way to understand how we live. Moreover, I will argue that these processes are actually necessary and desirable .
  • So, today, I will start by talking about borders as they are commonly understood – state borders – and particularly how they have changed over the last 25 years … and then go on to discuss how the research that I have been doing on this topic prompted me to think about borders more widely. I hope that in doing so, I will challenge some of your borders and prompt you to do likewise …

 

  • Post Cold War – Towards a Borderless World?
    • Much talk of a borderless world, a global village,
    • End of Superpower Conflict – Fall of Berlin Wall
    • Economic Globalisation
    • The internet and the comms revolution
    • Political Integration – such as the EU
    • The rise of global NGOs – the zeitgeistb seemed very much one of a world trying to become sans frontiers?
  • Specific Example – European Integration as Breaking Down Old Borders
    • Deepening – breaking down internal borders
      • Towards political union rather than old conflict or frozen fear
      • Completion of Single Market
      • Creation of Schengen Zone  (Area of Freedom, Justice & Security)
      • 4 Freedoms of Movement (Goods; Services; Capital; Labour)
  • Widening – extending the zone of this interior, this inside …
    • EU Eastern Enlargement (2004 & 2007)
    • European Neighbourhood Policy (2003)
    • Eastern Partnership (2009)
  • But … De-bordering or Re-bordering
    • Schengen: Trans European Networks of Control (Walters)
      • Roving Border Guard Teams – Irregular Migration
      • Mobile Customs Patrols – Smuggling & Trade Violations
      • Police Actions in Cities – Persistent Internal Control
      • Strengthen the Perimeter – Increased External Control
  • Enlargement: Exclusive Inclusion
    • Ostensible Widening – A Europe Whole & Free?
    • ‘Return to Europe’ or Creation of ‘Non-Core’ Europe-  derrida, habermas
    • Accession and Learning to be European – teachers and pupils – new rules, new borders …
    • Defining European-ness Through Membership & Conduct
      • Behaving like someone eles’s idea of what a European is
      • But with the potential to shape this in future
    • The End of Enlargement & The Limits of Europe?
  • ENP & EaP: Inclusive Exclusions
    • Ameliorating the Effects of the New Curtain – not iron, but paper and glass – the visa curtain – seems inclusive but to what extent?
    • Neighbours, Partners but not (Future) Members – borders again …
    • Is it about a Ring of Friends or a new Buffer Zone in which the EU Exports and outsources its Borders?
    • Desire for Closer Ties – Need for Labour & Access to Markets +
    • Fear of the East – Inward Migration & Cross Border Crime
    • But where is the east and how do we know – how has this changed over time – where is Eastern Europe – why do we here in Prague call ourselves central Europeans?
  • Borders as Geopolitical Phenomenon
    • Borders still exist just not (only) at the borders we used to know
    • Borders as Intersection of Security and Mobility
      • Security of what from what?
      • Mobility of what type for who?
        • is this chosen or forced? Is it the same for everyone – mob egs
    • What do they mandate, encourage, discourage or prevent?
    • What does this tell us about who and how we can be?
  • Leads to Wider Questions about Borders as Heuristic or Metaphor
    • Where are our borders?
      • As citizens, as men, women, heterosexuals, homosexuals, law abiders, criminals, entrepreneurs, conformists and creatives?
      • What are borders and what do they do?
        • Are all our borders about security and mobility
        • Perhaps they are also to do with probability and possibility, action and dream ..
        • How are borders created, confirmed or challenged?
          • Formal borders –legal, state, etc; informal borders – norms, conventions, habits, limits of imagination & creativity
          • All borders are artificial in the sense that they are social constructs
          • Doesn’t make them any less real but does mean that they can be contested and challenged,
          • How are borders policed or transgressed?
            • How are they enforced? How do we police ourselves in this regard?
            • How do they change over time?
            • Why do borders exist?
              • Why might we want them to?
  • Borders, Imposition and Desire
    • How and why are borders imposed?
      • Which borders can we think of as being imposed on us?
      • When do we want to be secure?
      • How and why is this accepted or resisted?
        • Do we accept all the borders that are imposed on us?
        • When do we want to be open or mobile?
        • How and why do we actually desire borders?
          • What borders do you desire or want to maintain?
          • Would you open the borders to your home? Your bedroom? Your body? Under what circumstances and how much ctrl do you have or want over this?
          • Who gets to make your borders?
            • You? Other people? Some combination of the two?
            • If we were to transgress the borders of language, we would struggle to make ourselves understood, but, over time words change their meaning in different context, become acceptable or unacceptable, but all of this relies on common understandings of them …
  • How do your borders relate to your identity and your horizons of possibility?
    • Your borders to a certain extent give you an idea of who you are
    • Repeated interaction with your borders gives you a sense of yuour current possibilities and limits
  • Borders, Identities, Orders
    • Identity – Your Borderscape
      • Access to different places and spaces
        • Nightclub example –
    • Belonging within a particular place (bounded by borders
    • Who gets to be there who doesn’t?
    • Who is in place and who is ‘out of place’
    • So, who gets to do what and who does not …
    • If borders relate to Identity then do we carry the border with us?
      • We trigger some of the borders that seem to spring up …
      • Zafer senocak – the border runs, right through my tongue
  • Orders – How we live with Others
    • What is a particular place for?
    • What are the activities that are supposed to take place there?
    • Where does that place stop and a new place start?
    • Who gets to decide that and how is it enforced?
    • Who gets to participate? Who is that place for
    • Spatial, Temporal and Social
      • How we can be in and make places
      • How we can change them or how we want to keep them as they are
      • What does it mean when borders are not just at the edge?
      • What is the history of a place, how has it changed over time?
      • How do power relations work in these contexts
      • How do borders and this access/ denial/ freedom/ oppression matrix work to make us who we are?
  • Bordering as Self & World Knowledge
    • How the world sees you
      • You know retty quickly if you are welcome or not
      • 1st/ 2nd class at the border – waiting or passing… at home or out of place?
      • How you see the world and yourself in it
        • Where can you go, what can you do, who can you be?
        • Is it where you would like to be …
        • Volker Braun – I’m still here but my country’s gone west …
        • How we can live and who we want to live with
          • Whose in and whose out?
          • How we can dream and imagine as well as how we stay grounded and practical
            • Possibility and durability – are we ready for total flux?
            • Borders as social and political
              • We do this together and so we have to rtecognise how power relations work, how we can ifluence or compel others and how they can do the same to us ..
              • How does going to palladium influence the situation of the homeless person
              • Borders connect us as well as divide us – relations of exclusion are still relations …
  • Beyond Borders?
    • Making Borders
      • Which borders do you help make
      • For creative types? Who is in, who is out?
      • Breaking Down Borders
        • How do you challenge your borders
        • How do you help other people challenge theirs’?
        • Knowing Borders
          • How do we know our borders?
          • How do we go about finding out?
          • This is the key to challenging those we want to challenges and to maintaining the bodrers that we want to keep.

Panel 1: Political Violence (0930 – 1050)

  • –  Simon Steffal: Mad, Bad or Misunderstood: Anders Breivik & The Depoliticisation of Political Violence
  • –  Courtney Lawrence: Sympathy for the Devil: The RAF and German Public Opinion
  • –  Kristina Ristovska: Balkan Jihad: Failed Securitisation & Psychopathology in Bosnia
  • –  Vendula Zenata: The PKK’s Victim Complex: Identity, Ideology & Political Violence in Turkey

Panel 2: Security Beyond Sovereignty? (1100 – 1215)

  • –  Pavel Petrakov: Inconsistent Humanitarians: Understanding Non-Intervention in Syria
  • –  Rachel Buckly: Crisis, what Crisis? Male (In)securities and the US Defence Establishment
  • –  Veronika Bumbalova: Welcome to the Desert of the Real(ists): Securitisation & Iran as Rogue State

Keynote Panel: The Politics of Researching Politics (1300-1420)

  • –  Xymena Kurowska & Benjamin Tallis ‘Chiasmatic Crossings: Reflexive Research Encounters in

    Central & Eastern Europe’

  • –  Japhy Wilson – ‘Sabotage of Development: The Researcher as Lacan’s ‘objet petit a’

     

  • Panel 4: Prague and the Material Politics of (Post)communisms
  • –  Petra Zezulkova: Urban Geographies of Transition & Transitions in Czech Urban Geographies
  • –  Alina Travinicheva: Who and What is Prague For and How is it Done?
  • –  Kate Kochkina: Panelaks as the New Versailles: Power & Play in Communist Housing Estates

Panel 5: Power Structures: Socio-Spatial & Material Politics

  • –  Tony Tucker: Powers of Architecture & Architectures of Power in 20th Century Prague
  • –  Iolanta Chopova: Unholy Lands: Architecture & Power in Israel & Palestine
  • –  Conor Plese: Riding the City: A Politics of Urban Cycling
  • –  Tomas Bendl: To Live & Die in LA: LA School vs. Hollywood Representations of Los Angeles

Contact: Benjamin.tallis@aauni.edu