Vol 0, No 22
22 February 1999
B E T W E E N T H E L I N E S:
The discreet charm of the Czech panelak
'A panelak? Oh no, I simply couldn't live in one, not now...' My wife's friend was discussing the ins-and-outs of buying a new flat. Getting enough money together is a real headache, and besides, she doesn't quite know what she really wants. But, like many younger, more affluent Czechs, she knows quite definitely what she does not want. She would no more live in a panelak, than she would live in a tent on the beach. Tactless of me to even suggest it.
Panelak was one of the first words I learned in Czech. It refers to high-rise multi-storey blocks of flats, constructed of pre-fabricated, pre-stressed concrete panels, which dot the country. The panelak can be seen in its full, awful glory in the monster estates, which surround Prague and other large cities. However, it can be found in some numbers in even the smallest Czech towns. According to the statistics, about one in three Czechs live in one, although, as readers will have gathered from my faux pas, they are not exactly sought after by the rich and status-conscious.
Like many Western visitors to former Communist countries, one of the first things that struck me about former Czechoslovakia was the size and number of high-rise, concrete estates. When, after accidentally getting the wrong bus, I saw my first panelak estate at close quarters, I thought I had landed on the moon. Towering concrete block after towering concrete block, running like artificial canyons in all directions as far as the eye could see. Did human life really exist here? Where were all the muggers and drug dealers hiding?
When, later, I lived on the self-same estate, I realised, of course, that I had misjudged the panelak and its inhabitants. While in the West such housing projects are often dumping ground for the poor, ethnic minorities and the unemployed, overflowing with social problems of all kinds. Such were the social levelling and housing policies of the Communist regime in the Czech lands, however, that a surgeon, a tram driver and a newly released convict might easily find themselves sharing the same landing. Czech politicians wanting to stress their humility and ordinariness never fail to stress that they too still live in a panelak on a high rise estate (and sometimes, it is even true). The panelak is, in short, home to Mr and Mrs Average.
Mr and Mrs Average and their dachshund, that is.
Panelak dwellers have to endure a variety of curious and irritating social phenomena. Inside or outside, public or private, there simply is not much space on these estates. One is invariably woken up each morning by a dawn chorus of dog owners, all desperately cajoling their badly-trained pets to get a move on, so they can go to work.
The French social anthropologist, Laurent Bazac-Billaut has carried out a detailed ethnographical study of this panelak nation, based upon research in Jizni mesto estate on the south-eastern outskirts of Prague. Despite the cliches about the anonymity of these over grown 'rabbit hutches', M Bazac-Billaut concludes, the quality of life on panelak estates is, in fact, often better than it might first appear. People generally do have some idea who their neighbours are. Social networks do exist. Public transport does run regularly. Fresh air and the closeness of some form of countryside are some compensation for a lack of facilities at hand.
Despite this, a major finding of M. Bazac-Billaut's research is that panelak life is based on a intense drive for privacy and individuality. Inside their standard panelak flats - identical in layout and to thousands of others the length and breadth of former Czechoslovakia - the key impulse of Czech panelak residents is to create their own private worlds.
However, when you live (quite literally) on top of one another, such healthy individualism does have its problems. As shelves go up, parquet floors go down and plastic mock brick linings are added to hallways, power tools reverberate deafeningly throughout the building across the nation - much to the infuriation of lazier residents less enamoured of do-it-yourself (this author for one). To judge from the crime reports in the Czech papers, disputes between panelak neighbours seem to be relatively rare, although personally, I am surprised that more enthusiastic weekend handymen are not battered by their outraged neighbours. It is a source of bafflement, and occasionally murderous rage, to me, why, for example, Mr Novak, the inoffensive-looking young engineer upstairs, seems intent on noisily transforming his 50 metre square fifth floor flat into something resembling a log cabin.
Despite the snobbery of wanna-be yuppies, it would be wrong to think that all Czechs utterly and unreservedly hate their panelak. For many Czechs a panelak was their first independent family home. Others were brought up on and lived all their lives on a particular high rise estate. They hate the panelak in principle, but Jizni mesto (or wherever) will always hold a special place in their hearts. Home, as they say, is where the heart is. Everyone knows the apocryphal tale of the millionaire, who still lives in a panelak. And, of course, as high-rise blocks in the former Communist countries go, Czech panelaks are indeed relatively warm, well-constructed and in a certain sense spacious. Flats in the former Soviet Union are, for example, about two-thirds the size and shockingly jerrybuilt by comparison.
But, despite the panelaks' human dimension, there is no getting away from one thing. In a democratic society, they 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 panelak flat.
Despite what one might think, panelaks were not particularly cheap, or even quick, to build. No, the rationale for them was always Partly ideological. In the best traditions of vulgar Marxism, the Communist regime believed that people were shaped by their environment. New uniform socialist housing, it reasoned, would produce a new uniform Socialist Man shorn of bourgeois individualism. Building socialism meant building panelaks (plus, of course, the minimal facilities of school, health centre, police station and prefabricated concrete pub.) And, of course, with some trusty citizen in place as warden for each block, anyone not suitably affected by their environment could be more easily spied on and punished if they lived in a state-owned panelak.
Of course, Czechoslovakia's Communist regime went down the plughole of history a decade ago. Slogans about Peace and Socialism disappeared from the rooftops. Statutes of Lenin and Klement Gottwald the 'first Worker-President of Czechoslovakia' were carted off to be melted down. But, despite advertising hoardings and Austrian supermarket chains not to mention the irrepressible but respectable individualism of a legion of Czech dog-owners and do-it-yourself enthusiasts, the panelak will endure as a lasting, quite literally towering, monument to the non-achievements of socialism.
Sean Hanley, 22 February 1999
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