Posts Tagged ‘Prague Architecture’

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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).

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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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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.

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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

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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.

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

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ignored
Czech Brutalist Architecture & The Politics of Material Memory in Postcommunism

Those in the aesthetic know have long recognized that there is much more to Prague than the dreamlike castle rising above the Baroque and Rococo confections that jostle for tourists’ attention in the picturesque old town. Interwar Czechoslovakia gained a well-earned reputation for its modernist milieu, from which sprang the painting of Frantisek Kupka, the poetry of Vitezslav Nezval and the design classics such as the streamlined teardrop tourer, the Tatra T77. Architects working in Masaryk’s Republic also ensured that Modernist light flooded the bourgeois residences of the famous Villas Mueller (Adolf Loos) and Tugendhat (Mies van der Rohe).

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In contrast to the folksy, myth-making and introspective imaginary of the ‘National Revival’, the nascent bi-national consciousness that emerged from the decline of decadent Kakania and the carnage of the First World War openly embraced the International Style. Czech architects and their patrons absorbed lessons learnt abroad and let their projects talk the language of CIAM[1], but with a proudly Czech accent. Of many possible examples, Oldřich Tyl and Josef Fuch’s Functionalist Trade-Fair Palace in Holesovice and Josef Havlíček and Karel Honzík’s Corbusian Pension Institute in Zizkov display a familiarity and comfort with the principles and practice of Modernist architecture that fuelled the urban utopianism of Tomas Bata’s “shiny phenomenon” in Zlin and reflected the confidence of a Republic, recognized as such for the first time, beginning to feel like it belonged in the world.

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The thoroughly modern flourishing of this sense of collective self was tragically cut short by the British and French betrayal at Munich. Chamberlain’s cruel condemnation of Czechoslovakia as ‘a faraway country of which we know little’, an expendable pawn in the cynical play of great-power politics, opened the door for Nazi annexation and occupation, ‘liberation’ by the Red Army and the subsequent slide into authoritarian communism. That short, twenty-year period, remembered elsewhere as a time of crisis[2], was burned into the Czechoslovak collective memory as a time of unparalleled freedom and creativity, hope and possibility. This was a time when the swirling forces of modernist creativity, such as those of Karel Teige’s Devětsil ensured that while this medium-sized, Central European country grew to become world’s 6th largest exporting economy, it was feted not only for its wares, but the way it wore them. The memory of this period has become crucial to historicized understandings of what followed as well as ideas of how to be, become and belong in the present, which has been both reflected and reinforced in the material memoryscape.

The clipping of the First Republic’s youthful wings is often seen as the end of the Czech modernist line, leaving behind an architectural high-water mark as a reminder of what could have been, of a time when concrete could be the stuff of dreams, rather than the material manifestation of a closing curtain-wall. The monuments to that golden youth are now regular highlights on tourist schedules, highly recommended in guidebooks and often featured in design magazines. Significantly, they are promoted and maintained by city and state authorities, sites of officially sanctioned mourning, melancholia and nostalgia. However, while such acclaim is richly deserved, the politics of material memory are never far from postcommunist surfaces. The focus on the First Republic has meant that many of Prague’s later modernist gems have often been ignored, seemingly hidden in plain sight.

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What Prague is For

Whereas Berlin is lauded for its TV Tower and Café Moskau and the former Soviet Union has seen its Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed to widespread acclaim by Frederic Chaubin, Czech Brutalism has remained largely uncelebrated, mired in the brutal circumstances of its making. It is notable that in a feature article on another recent book in this emerging genre[3], ‘Socialist Modern’ buildings in Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine and Georgia are mentioned, while the Czech Republic is conspicuous by its absence. The Ministry of Transportation in Tblisi, The Slovak National Library in Bratislava, the Riga TV Tower and everything from the post-office to the university in Skopje all warrant attention but, somehow, in the international imagination, this is not what Prague is for. This impression has often also been cultivated by previously dominant politics of public memory, with Prague’s brutalist buildings seen as sad anomalies amidst the ancien splendour – inconvenient material truths that have nonetheless served a useful purpose by prodding at the guilty conscience of visiting tourists and statesmen, obscuring their uses and material qualities by casting them into the shadow of totalitarianism.

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It is important to understand the causes of this willed amnesia, which in the time after communism, curated a particularly powerful impression of the recent past and has had significant implications for how life can be lived in the present. The confluence of international and local understandings of the history of the short 20th Century and especially its second-half, has created a dominant narrative of post-communist collective memory. This view sees 1989 as the inevitable victory of a superior western model that ended a period defined exclusively by oppression and suffering, thus condemning the lived experience of millions of people to the garbage heap of history and constructing them in the present as victims and damaged goods. In part, this has been tactical, helping to forge an understanding of a Czechs as ‘Central Europeans’ and thus deserving of a ‘return to Europe’, to the exclusion of those further East, condemned as oriental others, as non-EUropeans. Milan Kundera’s famous essay ‘The Kidnapped West’[4] is a prominent example of such an approach, asserting Central European belonging in a Western idea of Europe and grounding its legitimacy in the interwar period. Central Europe becomes the West’s jilted lover, banished to the Russian East, diverted from it’s ‘true’ path and facing a kidnapped present and a hijacked future. Ironically, although Kundera explicitly rejects Marx and Hegel’s version of History, he effectively espouses a Fukuyamian historicism avant le letter, albeit one that limits the teleology of a Western destiny of ‘Liberal-Market-Democracy’ to Western and Central Europeans and Americans

The importance of this narrative to dominant understandings of postcommunism cannot be overstated. Playing on the curtailed experience of democracy and linking this to the cultural flourishing of the First Republic, helped Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa (and others) ensure that the so-called ‘Return to Europe’ was institutionally concretised in accession to the European Union, although this very much on the EU’s terms[5]. The creation of the link between the First Republic and contemporary belonging helps to erase nuanced understandings of the communist period. To be clear, this was indeed a time of tremendous suffering, oppressive politics and the callous crushing of a shocking amount of human potential, but was that the whole story? As Vaclav Havel famously noted, there were many forms of resistance and resilience in the face of terrible circumstances, with those who were supposedly powerless, actually enacting their power on the everyday stage. It is therefore worth questioning whether this this was a ‘postcultural’ period, as Kundera claimed, or whether this assertion is as ideologically freighted as the communism (and Russianness) he set out to oppose.


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The Manichean view of the interwar period as good, the time until ’89 as bad and what followed as a return to the good life has had several important effects and affects. Following Kundera, this sees postcommunist ‘transition’ as a journey from point to point, from the “stolen European and capitalist past” to the predetermined ʻprogressiveʼ trajectory of the West[6]. However, once back on the same path, Central Europeans were seen to be behind and backward, frequently labeled either as ‘success stories’ or ‘laggards’[7] in imitating the always-already advanced West which they were benchmarked against, leading Juergen Habermas to denigrate the events of 1989 as “catching up revolutions.” Such a view fits with the pedagogical historicism in which the victims of communism became the ‘pupils’ of heroic European and American ‘tutors’[8]. This is also reflected in the patronizing Pentecostalism that styled these revolutions as a re-birth and that talks of ‘young democracies’ and the ‘children of 89’[9].

Hard Times in Soft Cities

Importantly for this discussion of the social meaning of architecture and its role in material memory, characterizations of the communist period as one of merely kidnap and theft ignore the complexity of lived experiences of the time leaving victim testimonies as the main mode of available and acceptable public speech regarding that time. Labelling art, architecture and literature of the time as ‘postcultural’ is a delegitimizing move that seeks to reify other types of culture and which supports unfairly totalizing accounts of communist experiences, a treatment all too common where communist-era cultural production is concerned. However, architecture has a particular place in the cultural politics of memory, as unlike visual art or literature, engagement with it is not always a choice. We all experience the material environments we live in and the buildings in which we live and work may not always be of our choosing. Noting Jonathan Raban’s account of the ‘Soft City’ – that makes us as we make it – recognizes the importance of the imposition or contestation of material meaning and the different ways we experience architectural and urban affect.

Czech Brutalist buildings were mainly built after the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring and have all too often become seen as the distinctly inhuman face of socialist ‘Normalisation’. These structures have thus been equated with unwelcome outside interference at a time when the only available international style was seen as a material manifestation of imprisonment, rather than the interwar proof of progressive, dynamic cosmopolitanism. Considering the very different reaction that Brutalist buildings have often inspired in the reunified Germany, it is important to note the significance of different understandings of the communist period there, as well as the impact of a very different (inter)war past. This may have contributed to a continued embrace of contemporary modernism throughout the post-war period, with the clear connection (and open competition) between building in the East and the West, reaffirming national connection by highlighting the falseness of enforced division. In Germany, as in many other places, Brutalism was understood as an architecture from within rather than one imposed from without, albeit with differing variations and connotations in the two halves of the divided nation. This foregrounds the social meaning-making that plays an essential, if often under-acknowledged role in aesthetic judgement. Thus, the marquee buildings of the Czechoslovak Normalisation period are often seen as all too closely entwined with authoritarian politics of the period, with their aesthetic, material and functional qualities and the complexity of their social meaning is too often ignored in this totalizing gaze.


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The communist period is often seen in the popular, Western imagination as ‘grey’ or ‘drab’, with ‘the people’ of the time eking out a meagre existence in a concrete-clad, shadowy half-light that is all too easily equated with run-down, large-scale housing projects. These descriptions, as well as the slights on key socialist-era buildings, continue to reverberate in the concrete estates – built then, but still lived-in now – many of which were realized in a brutalist vernacular: from the low rise ‘Solidarita’ in Strašnice and Karlin’s sleek ‘Invalidovna’, to the fleets of panel-buildings in Ďáblice and Jižní Město, they have been all too easily dismissed as mere communist blocks that signal second class-life in what was the second world.

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After ’89 these visions of how the future used to look no longer looked the part, as post-communist countries tried to shed their socialist skin and tried to emulate the West. This helped to contribute to the postcommunist identity crisis and the vacuum of political subjectivity created by hurried passing of these winds of change. Damning the buildings of that time has also helped to cast people who live in them today as poor relations, willfully forgetting that these were, and continue to be, the places where people grew up, loved, laughed and even enjoyed moments in ignorance or defiance of the party regime. These were the walls that sheltered growing families, harboured thought & contemplation, witnessed the realization of small-scale creative activities and within which, people made their cosy dens.

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Brutalism beyond Brutality

More recently however, as the post-historical utopianism of the neoliberalising global order has been buffeted by an economic crisis so prolongued that it has become the norm and as the realities of living by rules largely made elsewhere become clearer, it has been possible to detect mnemonic counter-currents in the Prague cityscape and beyond. Aesthetically and functionally, the designs of Karel Prager, Vladimir and Vera Machonin and others at the forefront of Czech brutalism, have stood the test of time and are starting to receive the local and international acclaim that they deserve. Much like the myth of the Czech ‘return to Europe’ post-89, Prague did not need to “return to the international architecture scene[10]” after the cold war, it had always been there.

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The re-appraisal of these previously neglected architectural jewels, which increasingly stand out amidst the banality of contemporary commercial construction is part of a wider contestation of the totalizing memory of the communist period and a new willingness to accept that not everything produced in this time was necessarily bad[11]. This points to the need to re-engage a past all too quickly jettisoned in the haste of transition, not to pardon or rehabilitate the communist regime, but to recognize the nuance and complexity of the lived experiences of that period, of the significant grey areas that people were required to operate in and the not so grey experiences they may have had in and around the buildings of the time. Reconsidering the architectures of that time and their place in contemporary urban life is a significant step in reclaiming the multiple singularities of the past and thus restoring the possibility of subjective authenticity, that sense of having been both then and now and being able to speak as fully as one can of both times and indeed to rescue the beautiful babies that were thrown out with the surfeit of bad bathwater.

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The former Czechoslovak Federal Assembly building (Prager, 1972) at the top of Wenceslas Square, which served as the post-89 headquarters Radio Free Europe has been fully refurbished to mark its transformation into ‘The New Building’ of the Czech National Museum. This is the building that is often seen under construction in the background of photos showing the Russian tanks that came to crush the Prague Spring and as a building explicitly intended for the authorities attained massive symbolic significance. That this architectural wonder was effectively given away to a foreign organization in the wake of the velvet revolution is also indicative of the politics of the time, as its gleaming resurgence at the heart of officially-sanctioned national memory. Another Prager building, the Nova Scena (1983) of the National Theatre, famous as the ‘Magic Lantern’ where roundtable talks were held during the seizure of power from the communist regime has gone from being derided as looking like “frozen piss”[12] to being lauded as a must-see site in the latest Prague guide from international tastemakers Wallpaper* magazine.

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Similarly, the Kotva[13] department store is a reassuringly solid presence opposite the pink crème chantille of the recent and hideously Disney-like Palladium shopping centre. Hotels such as the Intercontinental[14], and President[15] downtown and the Praha[16] and Pyramida[17] further out have long catered for tourists and conference-goers, while commercial buildings such as the Smichov Komercni Banka[18] and the Cube[19] office complex showing the range of brutal beauty in Prague. Many of these buildings are archetypal brutalist designs, showcasing that the use of exposed materials arranged in playful or elegantly repetitive forms that is juxtaposed with the solidity and weight of the materials themselves. This play of lightness and weight, elegance and solidity is often lost in the brutalist nomenclature which was coined for its use of Beton brut, rather than anything more sinister. The sweeping curves and egalitarian distribution of balcony space at the Hotel Praha and the elevated and seemingly floating, curtain-walled body of the former Federal Assembly speak of a technical mastery of contemporaneous international building styles. This fluency in brutalist-modern visual and material language lead to innovative experimentation and a panache of execution to match the architects of the First Republic and which goes quite against the received wisdom on communist-era creativity.

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Place-making: Palimpsest and Performativity

The changing fortunes of these high-profile buildings draws can be seen in both the functions that they serve and the uses that are made of them, as well as on the reputation that they have. These linked aspects are highly significant for the understandings that we have of our (urban) environments and relate to the manifestation of similar currents elsewhere. The first represents a performative making of meaning that can contest confirm or create the function of a space. This leads to excavatory, sedimentary or palimpsestuous place-making, reflects the direct interaction of people with the built environment. In Berlin, the transformation of the 3rd Reich Air Ministry building into the contemporary Federal Ministry of Finance and the re-invention of the Olympic stadium from shameful Nazi hangover to centerpiece of a new Germany, once again accepted as having a waveable flag are only two examples of such processes. There are also many examples of this in Prague, from the re-branding of Pankrac high-rises to the cynical corporate appropriation of the already appropriated ‘Máj’ shopping centre to make the indicatively named ‘My’ Narodni[20]. The controversy around the formal listing of this building also shows the often particularly bitter hatred of brutalist style buildings that is not the preserve of either Central Europe or postcommunist countries and which relates to the discourses that also inform architectural meaning-making.

It has long been accepted that it is mainly architects and architecture critics who champion brutalist buildings, imposing them on the poor folk who actually have to live there, while they retreat to more comfortable and comforting climes. It has been of continued delight to conservative commentators that the iconoclastic critic Charles Jencks declared that “Modern Architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32pm or thereabouts when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grace by dynamite.[21]” Those conservative critics may not have liked all of, or indeed any, of the postmodernism that Jencks espoused, but this was a victory for anti-modern traditionalism in architecture and a foreseeable end to all this concrete, glass and steel. Jencks was purposefully premature and the battle for modernism has raged on ever since, but it has done so in a prevailing critical climate that has sought to blame many urban and social ills on this style of architecture, which bred nought but misery, poverty crime and alienation.

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However, around the world, this received wisdom has come into question, with the re-appraisal of the aesthetics of brutalist buildings often accompanied by refurbishment. Even the founding myth of the critics of modern architecture – that the brutalist-modern Pruitt-Igoe housing project was fundamentally unsound – has been challenged. The recent documentary film ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth’ highlights the joy with which the first tenants embraced their new homes and foregrounds the lack of maintenance, willful ghettoisation by the city authorities and the poor socio-economic status of the occupants as the main causes of the degeneration of life on the estate, rather than seeing the architecture itself as the cause. Similarly, according to reports in the Czech media, anthropological research on Prague’s biggest housing estate at Jižní Město, revealed “strong social networks, plenty of greenery and decent public transportation[22]” and that this and other such areas had not become a low-income ghettoes in the course of transition. Among the signature buildings of Jižní Město are the linked towers of the Hotel Kupa, which recall London’s Trellick tower from the renowned British brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger.

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A City in Full

The revival in the fortunes of brutalist buildings in other parts of the world has coincided with the re-appraisal of Czech communist architectures, as it has seemingly been realized that they were not some aberrant form unique to authoritarian regimes, but that actually the embrace of this style by the skilled hands of Karel Prager and others was actually capable of producing beautiful, interesting buildings. While questions will always be raised about the politics of those who were able to build during this time, even non-party members like Prager, this picture is complicated by the continued activity of interwar architects such as Josef Havlíček and Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer in postwar Czechoslovakia. However, it should be recognized that the best brutalist buildings bear elegant witness to the resilience of cultural creativity that was able to flourish despite the adverse conditions of the time. Recognising the aesthetic value of these marquee buildings makes it harder to simply dismiss their everyday cousins in the housing estates, which is increasingly important in the increasing socio-economic Darwinism of a neoliberalising Europe where we should continue to assert that just because you don’t live in a villa doesn’t mean that you don’t belong here.

The rehabilitation of these material forms and their social meaning comes as part of a renewed willingness to properly reckon with the past in all its complexity, refusing the simplifying narratives of totalizing tyranny and victimhood in order to reclaim the uniquely Czech experiences of this time and to be thus better able to contextualise and understand them within wider narratives, which can then also be better challenged. This in turn may speak of a desire to re-assert political subjectivity and articulate a new way of being internationally Czech without either passively acquiescing to every outside demand or resorting to aggressively parochial populist nationalism. Having taken on board much of the postmodern critique, is this revival indicative of a new modernism, unimpressed with the low ambitions, broken promises and banal pastiche of the geographies at history’s end? In the context of ongoing and uneven economic hardship across Europe as well as resurgent public political activism we should be rightly wary of architecture instrumentalised to political purpose, but at the same time we cannot ignore the highly political causes and consequences of our material worlds and nor should we reject the possibilities that architecture holds with regard to being, belonging and becoming.

Too often, Prague is damned with faint praise: deliriously light entertainment for tourists passing between Europe’s sites of heavy, serious, real memory; a refuge from reality for introverted dreamers, trying to stay forever young, like the First Republic they idolize; in short, somewhere to visit, a nice place to play, a temporary refuge from the real business going on elsewhere. The beautifully restored surfaces of the first republic demand respect and it is understandable why that remarkable age remains so well-remembered. However, without the emergent reckoning with that which followed, a nostalgic melancholia would dominate the politics of Czech memory and obscure the opportunities and demands of the present, not only betraying the spirit of that past, but surrendering the present to the narratives of victimhood and pedagogy. The restoration of key buildings and the continued process of improving the housing estates as well as the increased number of exhibitions on Czech Brutalism and the discussion of the issues surrounding it in the media all point to a new engagement with unquiet ghosts that haunt the present.

Perhaps the belated blooming of Czech brutalism and the recent (and bizarre) decision to re-build the Berliner StadtSchloss (in place of the Palast der Republik) mark a passing of the mnemonic baton, to Bohemia, where Prague is shedding its berlin complex[23] and is demanding to be seen afresh, as a city in full. This is an urban landscape that runs the gamut of glamour and grit, a schwer site of work and memory, not only licht laughter and forgetting. It should recognize itself as such and demand the same recognition from others. Such recognition that would begin to challenge the hierarchies of inclusion that preclude real belonging and limit the ability of people to participate in determine their individual and collective futures.

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This essay was originally published in Vlak 3, May 2012 in Prague.

[1] Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne – International Congresses on Modern Architecture, from 1928-1959

[2] Carr, E.H. 2001. The twenty years’ crisis, 1919-1939: an introduction to the study of international relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave. Original edition, 1939.

[3] Roman Bezjak’s Socialist Modernism: Archeology of an Era, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011, as featured in Spiegel Online International, 07/29/2011

[4] ”The tragedy of Central Europe”, New York Review of Books, 26 April 1984, pp.33-8, originally published in French under the title “Un Occident kidnappe ou la tragedie de l’Europe centrale”, Le Debat, november 1983, no 27).

[5] e.g. Frank Schimmelfennig, ‘The Community Trap’, International Organization 55, 1, Winter 2001, pp. 47–80

[6] Stenning, Alison & Kathrin Hörschelmann (2008), ‘History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-Socialism?’ Antipode, 40(2): 312-335

[7] King, Charles (2000) ‘Post-Post-communist: Transition, Comparison, and the End of “Eastern Europe”’, World Politics, 53(1): 143-172; Moravcsik, Andrew & Vachudova, Milada (2003) ‘National Interests, State Power, and EU Enlargement’, East European Politics and Societies, 17(1): 42–57.

[8] Jacoby, Wade (2001) ‘Tutors and Pupils: International Organizations, Central European Elites, and Western Models’, Governance, 14(2): 169-200; Chandler, David (2006), Empire in Denial: The Politics of State Building, Pluto Press, London

[9] Garton Ash, Timothy (2009), ‘1989!’, New York Review of Books,  Volume 56, Number 17 http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23232

[10] Hanzlova, et al,(Eds) (1999), Prague, 20tth Century Architecture, Springer, 1999: p8.

[11] The Czech Newspaper Pravo! reported on 06/02/2012 that a group of Czech art experts (UM!) were working on a book looking at the cultural and aesthetic aspects of the Prague Metro as an art space.

[12] As quoted in ‘The Rough Guide to Prague’

[13] Machonin & Machoninova, 1975

[14] Filsak, Bubeníček & Švec, 1974

[15] Filsak, 1977

[16] Paroubek, Navrátil, Todl, Sedláček, 1981

[17] Cajthamlov & Cajthamalova, 1987

[18] Prager, 1992

[19] Fencl, Franc & Nováček, 1977

[20] Eisler, et al, 1976. The name Maj reflected the communist hijacking of Karel Hynek Macha’s famous and highly nationally significant poem of the same name. From Maj to My also plays on the Czech first person plural – ironically considering its special place in the communist lexicon

[21] Jencks, Charles (1977) The Language of Postmodern Architecture, Rizzoli, 1977 [1991]

[22] Kristina Alda, ‘Praguescape: In the Pink?’, Prague Daily Monitor, 27/10/2009

[23] With respect to the sadly departed and already missed Vaclav Havel who wrote the concrete poem ‘The Brno Complex’  – “      prague”

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Those in the aesthetic know have long recognized that there is much more to Prague than the dreamlike castle rising above the Baroque and Rococo confections that jostle for tourists’ attention in the picturesque old town. Interwar Czechoslovakia gained a well-earned reputation for its modernist milieu, from which sprang the painting of Frantisek Kupka, the poetry of Vitezslav Nezval and design classics such as the Tatra T77 teardrop tourer. Freed from the shackles of the crumbling Hapsburg empire, architects too ensured that Modernist light flooded the atrium of the trade-fair palace, the bourgeois residences of the Villas Mueller (Loos) and Tugendhat (Mies) and fuelled the urban utopianism of Tomas Bata’s “shiny phenomenon” in Zlin.

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This thoroughly modern flourishing was tragically cut short by the British and French betrayal of ‘a faraway country’ at Munich, opening the door for Nazi annexation and occupation, ‘liberation’ by the Red Army and the subsequent slide into authoritarian communism. For many, the clipping of the First Republic’s youthful wings marked the end of the Czech modernist line, leaving behind an architectural high-water mark as a reminder of what could have been, of a time when concrete could be the stuff of dreams, rather than the material manifestation of a closing curtain-wall.

The monuments to that golden youth are now regular highlights on tourist schedules, heavily featured in guidebooks and design magazines, promoted and maintained by city and state authorities. However, while such acclaim is richly deserved, the politics of material memory are never far from postcommunist surfaces. The focus on the First Republic has meant that many of Prague’s later modernist gems have been ignored, seemingly hidden in plain sight. Whereas Berlin is lauded for its TV Tower and Café Moskau and the former Soviet Union has seen its Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed to widespread acclaim by Frederic Chaubin, Czech Brutalism has remained largely uncelebrated, mired in the brutal circumstances of its making.

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Mainly built after the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring, Brutalist buildings have all too often become seen as the inhuman face of socialist ‘Normalisation’. In Germany, there was a clear connection (and open competition) between building in the East and the West, reaffirming connection through false division and situating Brutalism as an architecture from within. This was not the case in Czechoslovakia where Brutalism was often equated with unwelcome outside interference and a time when the only available international style was seen as a material indication of imprisonment, rather than the interwar proof of progressive, dynamic cosmopolitanism.

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Aesthetically and functionally however, the designs of Karel Prager, Vladimir and Vera Machonin and others, have stood the test of time and are starting to receive the local and international acclaim that they deserve. Much like the myth of the Czech ‘return to Europe’ post-89, Prague did not need to “return to the international architecture scene[1]” after the cold war, it had always been there. This realization has dawned as Czech brutalism not only begins takes its place in the international pantheon, but it increasingly stands out amidst the contemporary commercial banality.

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The former federal assembly building (Prager) at the top of Wenceslas Square has been fully refurbished to mark its highly symbolic transformation into part of the national museum and the Kotva department store (Machonin & Machoninova) is a reassuring presence opposite the recent and hideously Disney-like Palladium shopping centre. Hotels such as the Intercontinental and President downtown and the Praha and Pyramida further out have long catered for the Modern traveler, while commercial buildings such as the Smichov Komercni Banka and the Cube office complex showing the range of brutal beauty in Prague.

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The re-appraisal of these previously neglected architectural jewels is part of a wider contestation of the totalizing narrative of post-communist collective memory which sees the period from 1948-1989 as exclusively that of oppression and suffering, thus condemning the lived experience of millions of people to the garbage heap of history and constructing them in the present as victims and damaged goods. Damning the buildings of that time also helps cast people who live in them today as poor relations. These slights, born of the urge to forget, continue to reverberate in refurbished concrete estates, realized in a brutalist vernacular; from the low rise ‘Solidarity’ and sleek ‘Invalidovna’, to the fleets of panel-buildings in D’ablice and Jizni Mesto, they are all too easily dismissed as mere communist blocks. In the increasing socio-economic Darwinism of a neoliberalising Europe, it is important to assert that just because you don’t live in a villa doesn’t mean that you don’t belong here.

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Prague is often damned with faint praise: deliriously light entertainment for tourists passing between Europe’s sites of heavy, serious, real memory; a refuge from reality for introverted dreamers, trying to stay forever young, like the First Republic they idolize; in short, somewhere to visit, a nice place to play, a temporary refuge from the real business going on elsewhere. Perhaps the belated blooming of Czech brutalism and the recent (and bizarre) decision to re-build the Berliner StadtSchloss (in place of the Palast der Republik) mark a passing of the mnemonic baton, to Bohemia, where Prague is shedding its berlin complex[2] and is demanding to be seen afresh, as a city in full. This is an urban landscape that runs the gamut of glamour and grit, a schwer site of work and memory, not only licht laughter and forgetting.

 

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[1] Prague, 20tth Century Architecture, Hanzlova, Kohout, Srsnova, Slapeta, Ticha & Templ (Eds), Springer, 1999: p8.

[2] With respect to the sadly departed and already missed Vaclav Havel who wrote the concrete poem ‘The Brno Complex’  – “      prague”

This article was originally published in The Modernist – Issue 4: brutal – in March 2012
http://issuu.com/themodernist/docs/tm_no.4__brutal__07.2__issuu_

A longer, more developed version of this piece was published in Vlak 3 in May 2012
http://vlakmagazine.wordpress.com/current-issue/

The text of this piece is available here