Thursday, 30 May 2013

Život paneláku

On the estate: Somewhat defeats cliches about "urban decay" 

'Into the Wild'

In both our guidebooks the huge residential district of Prague 4 is described as a "wilderness of panelaks". In terms of sheer numbers, they're right. Nonetheless the coincidence of metaphor is telling. Why, when talking about a completely artificial domestic environment, is 'wilderness' thought appropriate? Echoes of the concrete jungle? Well, we're a long way from Brooklyn. 'Wilderness' suggests verdant spectacle, energy and wonder, not the anonymity and obvious architectural conformity of the socialist housing estate. We wouldn't even describe most European forests as wildernesses. It's a bit like me calling my underwear a loin cloth, which frankly it isn't. It's from Primark. 

Panelak, strictly speaking, refers to any pre-fab housing slotted together from panels of concrete. It is a phenomenon that had its genesis in the interwar republic, but the archetypal panelak dates from after the end of World War II. An image richly associated with the former socialist bloc is that of the grey fourteen storey monolith, assaulted by sleety winds in the midst of some post-feudal abyss. The enduringly popular Russian TV film Irony of Fate has some of the most magnificent, snowy footage of these beasts. Indeed, so indistinguishable are the Russian blocks that the film's central romantic conceit is premised on a man's ability to walk into a woman's flat and believe it's his own. However, the phenomenon of pre-fab housing doesn't entirely coincide with this more colossal image. It's also worth recalling, when scanning images of condemned or failing housing blocks in eastern Europe, that the West's dalliance with futurism led to similarly grand social experiments at perhaps greater social cost.

Poster for The Irony of Fate (1976)Ryazanov 
Click here to see the full movie with English subs:

To what extent is it possible, even desirable, today to disentangle eastern Europe's pre-fab housing from its web of grizzly connotations? For Eric Dluhosch, professor of architecture at MiT, the urban environment of the Czech Republic is "the exact antithesis" of the "utopia of collective dwelling" and "one of the most depressing collections of banality" ever built in the Czech lands. A familiar criticism, and not one without some justification. If their supposed redeeming grace was their very utilitarianism - that is, the elevation of the ability to 'get the job done' relative to any aesthetic considerations - many fail on even that score. Shoddy design combines with shoddy building work. Everything is at once half-mended and half-broken, stranded in a state of partly functioning limbo, the victim of an infernal cycle of ad hoc repairs. But the imagined doom of urban Czechs masks a more variegated story, which actually contains some limited successes.
Our 'hood

A Socialist Butlin's

The socialist housing estate (sídliště in Czech) has attained a certain iconic status, advertised in our own flat by a black and white image of an East German woman dwarfed by the scowling, granite-faced blocks around her. At the peculiar distance at which the photo is taken, she is rendered anonymous, while the blocks themselves acquire a mysterious, shadowy character of their own. Despite its partly nostalgic character, however, we need only look out our window to see a startlingly similar thing. In fact the East German variety is almost identical to our own. My fondness aside, it's true that the utopia of collective living remains - woefully - unrealized. We inhabit the lowest type of block, a mere four storeys, which stands on the border of a more literal wilderness of panelaks: the housing estate where we live has more trees than cars. It's dense with them: long, tall rows recede behind gently swaying evergreens. It's the first place to feel flush with spring. In places the roots of the largest and oldest trees, planted at the same time the panelaks were built, have ripped the concrete. For me it's a magical place, exuding the air of a Butlin's holiday camp: cheap housing, lush greenery, and secluded playgrounds for the kids. The occasional family wanders quietly to a car. A few dogs sniff at overgrown flower-beds. Its overriding characteristic, perhaps against its designers' intentions, is privacy. The great branches of the trees fracture irreparably the view of prying eyes. A tangle of high hedgerows and wheelie-bins provides cover for dog-walkers. In spring there is an explosion of life. The estate is dense with blossom. More fantastic, however, are the garish neon-blues and sun-yellows and deep-ochres the blocks have all been painted. They glow with a sombre energy through the foliage, garish aliens landed in some American backwater.
Blocks retreat behind greenery

All Mod Cons

Panelaks make up the larger part of the Czech housing stock, and therefore embody the idea of home for a great many. Their dismissal as aesthetic banalities and environmental and social bludgeons is rooted in two tendencies, themselves incorporated in a certain type of sympathetic western arrogance: the first emphasises the general cultural and social impoverishment of 'the East' along with its 'stunted' economic development; the second is aesthetically disdainful of any architecture besides that representing pre-modern imperial spectacle. Thus while mammoth housing estates are ugly blights, no one questions the right to existence of the endless country manors that dot the Czech and Slovak landscapes, if only for their sheer opulence. These tendencies feed the condescension of a west European audience eager to discover the eccentricities of the former socialist bloc. The same tendencies have spawned irreverent museums to Communism across the land. This phenomenon, in turn, compounds the feeling of marginalization that comes from having a globally fawned over historical city centre tucked in the embrace of a vast patchwork of prosaic residential and business districts. Many Czechs now accept without complaint that Prague's city centre is a no-go area. 

It is in fact unfair to say that the only areas of interest for visitors to Prague are the Hradčany (Castle District), Malá Strana (Little Quarter) and Staré Město (Old Town). Functionalism and Cubism, as inter-war architectural forms peculiar to Central Europe, are amply exemplified, and have been duly celebrated, outside of the tourist hub (although the most significant example of the latter is deemed to be U Černé Matky Boží in Staré Město, a number of private houses in Prague 6 are also good examples, while the best example of Czech formalism is the Veletržní Palac across the river in Holešovice). However, the "spirit of modernity" evidenced in functionalism and cubism is usually celebrated as part of an irretrievably lost world, which only briefly came up for air before the fall of the great European shadow. This heralded a "half-century of darkness," according to architect and journalist Stephan Templ: "The end of the modern era."

If a central concern of central European intellectuals has been the region's premature withdrawal from the progress of modern, liberal Europe (the 'Great March' as Milan Kundera calls it), another focus has been a more amorphous dread of the "iron cage" of total bureaucratic administration. Both are grounded in an anxiety about the modern, even if they contradict one another in the direction of their fears. The former mourns the absence of 'sophisticated', modern consciousness (a la the West); the latter despairs at the encroachment of a very modern, rationalised mode of administration. Recall Kafka's The Castle: an ignorant, staid Bohemian village is cowed by a Hapsburgian monolithic state, at once mystical and bureaucratically domineering. Meanwhile, the fear of a transformation of artistic production into a mere technical practice pervades attitudes to panelak suburbia. For the central European intellectual, modernity threatened to extinguish the creativity and independence of the artist (a trope uniting such diverse thinkers and writers as Kafka, Max Weber, Heidegger, and Adorno). Immediately after the war, the utopia of socialist housing wasn't feared for its grotesque inefficiencies and failings, but precisely for its (potentially) extraordinary success.

Karel Teige, Collage no.26, 1936: surrealism meets functionalism

Karel Tiege: Surrealism Meets Functionalism on the Estate

Karel Tiege, the star of Czech functionalism, can be seen as a bridge between pre- and postwar ideas about the social function of architecture. For Tiege the monumentalism of Le Corbusier merely reproduced old bourgeois values in different forms. Tiege started out advocating a synthesis of everyday pleasures and architectural utilitarianism - a functionalism of desires. The scale would be modest, human and, therefore, the project itself attentive to real needs. Yet he was simultaneously an articulate proponent of modernist innovation, particularly of the "metaphysics of space" of formalism. He was at home with both conctructivism and le Corbusier, thus attaining a rare status: a politically radical, left wing modernist whose ideological and aesthetic commitments were at once materialist and experimental; utilitarian and sublime. Such were the contradictory tendencies at play in the central European intellectual world of the time. What perhaps marks Tiege out from his peers is the way he reversed the cultural tendency towards social pessimism. It is hard to imagine, say, Weber or Adorno basing a utopia of collective housing on the notion of "poetism" - a slightly hippyish expression of the desire to connect "love and evil" to everyday living spaces. Tiege's optimism was expressed in the hope for a dialectical fusion, or at least transplant, of the antagonistic relationship between art and technology so dreaded by the pessimistic central European intellect:

Constructivism wanted to overcome the dualism between art and technology and simplified its task by reducing art to a new technical craft... Architecture remains a sphere that belongs both to material and spiritual culture.1

Surely, then, it was architecture that possessed the unique facility to overcome this separation, and to celebrate technical production as a free cultural practice, no longer governed by the blighting laws imposed on it by the logics of capitalist accumulation and surplus realisation? Architecture, in a new social order, would be the expression of a "synthesis" of "technological, sociological and psychological factors of life."2 Such attempts to dodge technical rationality through abstraction, through recourse to a marvelous vision implemented by enlightened artists, are profoundly vulnerable to distortion. Tiege did not live to see the imposition of the pre-fab phenomenon on the Czech lands, but the irony of a centralized, bureaucratic state embarking on massive building projects; a brutalized, authoritarian version of his own humanist vision, might not have escaped him. Socialist utilitarianism in fact expresses a vapid metaphysical formalism - identical blocks designed to be infinitely reproducible anywhere, any time. Tiege's grand synthesis of a materialism of desires and an experimental metaphysics of design would be supplanted, once the Communists gained power, by the bare utility of needs and an infinitely reproducible, one-size-fits-all design (Tiege, despite being a vocal supporter of the Communist Party, was silenced following the establishment of a Stalinist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia). While the West went on to produce doomed monuments to the future in the sky, it was the socialist Bloc that ventured down the road of pure, plastic consumption. The result was a depressingly monotonous landscape. But one hardly devoid of its own, peculiar resonances.

Suburbs of Fear by Karel Koplimet

Invisible Threats

Suburbs of Fear (exhibited in Tallinn in 2012) by Estonian artist Karel Koplimet captures perfectly the hidden malice of a typical housing estate. First, the viewer is met with a scale model of a typical estate, which sits on a platform in the centre of a darkened room. It is lit by model street lamps. An uninhabited park sits at the rear of two housing blocks. Videoed cars fly by in silhouette, intermittently lighting up the whole set. A series of tiny cameras records images from the estate, which are then projected in black and white onto a screen in an adjacent room. Somehow the partial reality of the model estate is transformed on screen into a sinister nocturnal world. As the projector cuts between images from different cameras, the play of shadows created by the street lights causes irregular, angular blind-spots to emerge: places where nameless, unidentifiable enemies lurk. Our eyes are drawn to flashes of light, the occasional flicker of a passing car, the distorted shadows of tree branches. Though no people are strictly visible, there are hidden presences everywhere. We imbue the shadows with life. Even the so-called "rational environment"of the contemporary housing estate accrues nightmarish libidinal fixations on the part of its inhabitants.

O slušnosti, Sibrt, 2012

Compounded Exclusion

Of course, not all these 'threats' are fantasised. While Prague 4 houses a largely professional (overwhelmingly white) class untroubled by inequality, some Czech estates are outright ghettos. Chanov, an estate just outside the city of Most, represents a catastrophic failure not only of socialist attempts to house Roma people, but of the post-Communist governments' failures at supporting them. Stemming from Communist attempts to 'integrate' and 'normalise' Roma communities, the Chanov sídliště has become a typical poverty trap, isolated from the rest of the city and abandoned by wealthier denizens. The strategy of governments since the fall of Communism has been to keep the place just liveable while doing nothing to change deepening patterns of social segregation of the entire Roma population. A report by a 'community-building' NGO stated that in 2000 the 1600 inhabitants of Chanov were left without hot water and legal electricity, which had been cut off by private suppliers due to indebtedness. In the documentary 'On Decency' (O slušnosti, Sibrt, 2012) 'respectable' white families in Litvinov's Janov neighbourhood bemoan the 'antisocial' Roma 'menace' to a backdrop of far-right street marches. reported a (largely unsuccessful) far-right march through Chanov. Local Roma and anti-fascist activists turned out in greater numbers, peacefully protesting the presence of the far-right in their neighbourhood. This apparent 'social decomposition', actually the systematic alienation and ghettoisation of Roma people, is partly a perverse result of the rational planning of the socialist era. Rational planning's historical legacy has not been the creation of model dwellings, but a laying of the foundations of a social system of segregation in which whole built environments can be judged successes or failures. While my estate prospers, proof that 'decent' modern housing needn't fortify or unconditionally privatise itself in gated communities, others, neglected by the new middle classes, flounder, the real victims of a combination of socialist planning, capitalist inequality and gross exploitation.

1Tiege, The Minimum Dwelling, 27
2ibid., 28

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