East Europe tries to redo gray legacy of socialism Ugly housing units blight landscape

March 25, 1993|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Lukas Hromadko surveys the lin of identical gray concrete buildings that make up his neighborhood, and spits with disgust.

"Everything here's the same," the 15-year-old says of his community, known as Prague's South Town. "You go from one building to the next and you can't even tell the difference. It doesn't change a bit. They should blow the whole place up."

Like nearly half of Prague's residents and millions of other people around Eastern Europe, Lukas lives in what Czechs and Slovaks call a "panelak" -- the faceless, uniform legacy of four decades of socialist-planned housing.

"Look at this. There's just nothing. Over there they were supposed to build something -- a school or a community center," he says, sweeping his hand across a vista that could be on the outskirts of any city from eastern Berlin to Bucharest. "But there's just concrete and steel rods. It's been that way for more than 10 years."

Now, three years after the arrival of democracy in Eastern Europe, officials in dozens of cities are looking into ways to make the panelaks more livable.

The logic of the box-like buildings, clustered in huge developments, fit perfectly into the Communist world view. The structures, often 12- or 15-stories tall, were assembled from prefabricated concrete panels. If the factory could produce enough window panels, door panels and wall panels, thousands of citizens could be stuffed into scores of identical towers.

"In the late '60s and early '70s our Communist government was absolutely crazy about this idea," says Zygmunt Stepinski, publisher of Murator, a Polish monthly magazine about housing and building. "It was to solve the whole housing problem in 10 years."

On paper, the plan was not unreasonable. The apartments were relatively quick and inexpensive to build, and the housing estates were designed to include parks, schools, shopping and community centers, public transportation -- all of the amenities needed for a comfortable and convenient life.

But as often as not, as soon as the apartment buildings were finished, planners and builders moved on to other matters and forgot the amenities. Swimming pools and gyms never were built, planned parks and lawns became parking lots or mudflats with a couple of spindly trees poking out, and most of the nearby stores provided only the most basic necessities.

"These housing estates are inhuman today and have no real urban atmosphere," said Szabolcs Pataky, Hungary's deputy state secretary for building affairs.

"The question is how to create a real urban environment."

The first step, which Mr. Pataky says Hungary took nearly five years ago, is to stop building the panelaks, at least in their present form. For the most part, Poland also has stopped construction. The Czech and Slovak republics are no longer starting new projects, although finishing those that were begun before 1989 will take another several years.

Improving the often substandard construction of existing buildings is another step that must precede any other action, says Henryk Drzewiecki, Warsaw's chief architect, who oversees the total urban design of the city. The buildings are poorly insulated, he says, and wind often whips through the cracks where wall panels meet floors and ceilings.

"For us the most important thing is how to save energy," he said. "Energy escapes in large amounts because the panels are badly insulated."

Making the housing estates more livable in an aesthetic sense will prove considerably more difficult. Some proposals would replace the flat tops with pitched roofs, while others would tear down the top couple of floors of some of the buildings in a development to give the area more variety.

In one Warsaw neighborhood, residents of the ground floor apartments have been given the garden space in front of the buildings. It is hoped this will eliminate the no-man's-land that separates the apartments from the street.

In some Prague areas, officials want to extend the ground floor of the buildings out to the street and create commercial space.

But others say aesthetic concerns are minor compared to other problems.

First, officials should concentrate on making them more livable, says Stephen Mullin, an official in England's department of the environment who has dealt with similar problems in the United Kingdom.

"I've seen a lot of money wasted on pitched roofs for tall blocks of flats," he said at a recent conference on housing in Prague. "We have found that what the residents of these estates really want are good repairs, maintenance, sensible use of the spaces between them and effective access to transportation."

A number of experiments are looking into ways to use prefabricated construction, but to do it better and to give the buildings more variety. And most importantly, say many experts, the buildings shouldn't be gathered into soulless mass developments.

"Prefabrication is not so bad if you proceed from a good design," said Warsaw's Drzewiecki.

Still, for many of the residents, both the housing estates and the panelaks in them are an eyesore that would best be forgotten.

Jindra Spitalska, a 14-year resident of Prague's South Town says she only lives there because she has no other choice.

"There's nothing they can do with the panelaks," Mrs. Spitalska said. "They should just tear the whole thing down and start over."

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