MASS housing construction in Slovakia, at least in terms of how it is now generally perceived by the public, was very closely connected with the pre-1989 communist regime, under which the lives of Slovaks were tightly controlled by the totalitarian power of the state. But mass construction of prefabricated buildings for residential housing – the building of huge housing estates – was also an answer to changing social and economic conditions after World War II, new technologies available to the construction industry, and the conviction of many architects of that time that every person had the right to some kind of roof over one’s head. And it was not only Czechoslovakia that responded to these forces in this way: many other countries launched mass construction schemes in the aftermath of the war.
While some architects talk about the need to protect the most successful mass housing estates built in Slovakia, others argue that it is really impossible to authentically preserve the buildings or their original design characteristics. But both sides do agree that there is a need to map, scrutinise and evaluate the housing estates that sprouted in post-war Czechoslovakia. This challenge was taken up by the authors of a recent book titled Bratislava Atlas Sídlisk (Bratislava Atlas of Mass Housing), with the subtitle Vitajte v panelstory! (Welcome to the Prefab Story!), published in Slovak and English by the Slovart publishing house.
The Slovak Spectator spoke with Henrieta Moravčíková, an expert in Slovak architectural history and the head of the team of authors about the goals, collection of data and findings encompassed in the book.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Why did you write this book and who is it for?
Henrieta Moravčíková (HM): We wrote the book because we consider it important to deal with the legacy of modern architecture in the form of the prefab housing estates because this legacy is still subject to very strong myths and particularly during the 1990s it received huge criticism. It seemed to us that now is the proper time to discuss this topic in a very rational and analytical way, without useless emotions.
Regarding potential readers, we hope that it will be interesting for a very wide circle of people. Historians as well as architects will find detailed information, but at the same time I think the book is very important for mayors and councils of individual districts of Bratislava and those making future plans for the city. Students will also find this book useful as it is an excellent textbook about a large part of our recent history. And we also shared a funny thought within our team that this book should not be missing from the libraries of every resident living in an estate – at least those who have a library.
TSS: Why did you write the book in English as well?
HM: We were sure about this from the very beginning because housing estates as town structures are a very topical theme around the world. This is not because of new insulation or the changing colours of the walls of these housing estates but because it is an issue of modern towns – and a housing estate is a modern town. We have always believed that we would enter the international discussion by writing this book.
That is also why we thought it important to publish it as soon as possible because this topic is hot now and we have a chance to offer something from our experience to this international discussion.
TSS: Do you think that housing estates will continue to be part of residential housing?
HM: This concept is certainly not dead even if, of course, its development reflects current times. After all, new suburbs are still being built. We can criticise it but we cannot mark it as dead.
TSS: Did mass housing construction in Slovakia differ from other countries?
HM: This is a paradox. Even though we lived behind the Iron Curtain, the historical situations are literally parallel. Maybe housing estates began to be criticised earlier in Western countries than here and even some consequences were drawn. There are some differences here, of course. When the last housing estates in Bratislava were being constructed in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, they were not being built to such an extent in the Western world any longer. This was simply the image of our authoritarian regime. On the other hand, how urban structure and the layout of flats changed was happening in parallel around the entire world. All western European countries have similar housing estates or a similar legacy and they can also be found in South America as well as Mexico, just to mention a few areas. Millions of people around the world live in prefab buildings and in housing estates.
TSS: Did anything particularly surprise you during your research?
HM: Actually no, as mass housing construction is not an unfamiliar topic for us. But what was very surprising for us, in the positive meaning of the word, was that we managed to discover who the architects were of several buildings, something we had not expected. This is very important for our history of architecture: to know who designed these housing estates, when and under what circumstances.
TSS: How easy was it to search the archives?
HM: This was extremely difficult. Actually, much archival material does not exist any more. An awful thing happened in our country: all the big design institutes that ceased to exist at the beginning of 1990s destroyed all their archives, often including unique drawings and plans. These are enormous losses and we felt the loss very much during our work. Often we had to take information only from period literature because we did not have the original materials, architectural drawings. Architects themselves were also getting rid of their drawings because they considered their work on these buildings to be an embarrassing aspect of their careers. This was their response to the huge wave of criticism of mass housing construction.
It is as if we tried to delete this from our history, which in the end is characteristic for us – what we do not like in our past we very quickly delete. So in this respect the process was very demanding but fortunately a lot of these architects are still alive so we managed to collect some information via ‘oral history’.
TSS: Are the mass housing estates worthy of protection or renovation?
HM: This is a good question. It is difficult to say whether we should protect them all in some way. I rather think that the approach should be selective, and that it is really important to distinguish those buildings and estates that are interesting and suitable for further development from those which should be transformed, rather than keeping them in their current condition. I believe that this is what we succeeded to do in the book – we clearly showed which places have prospects and what their potential is and on the other hand, things that should be changed.
TSS: Which Bratislava housing estates have prospects?
HM: Unambiguously it is Ružinov. This is a really a well-designed housing estate that is vital, where nothing new needs to be built, that is perfect as it is.
TSS: Doesn’t Ružinov suffer from densification, with the addition of new buildings that were not part of the original design of the overall housing estate?
HM: Certainly it suffers, because this is a housing estate whose principal value lies in its open space and it is necessary to sensitively approach the issue of densification. On the contrary, the incompleteness of Petržalka makes it very vital and suitable for further construction and development – but it must not be done wildly, rather very well planned. There are also some housing estates that have crossed the densification line and it would be very difficult to resuscitate them. For example, Dlhé Diely is very problematic and additional construction there increases architectural density in a way that actually contradicts the original idea of this urban space.
TSS: Do you plan to map housing estates in other Slovak towns as well?
HM: It is a dilemma whether to deal with this legacy so thoroughly. We chose Bratislava because this was the place where most experiments were done, where most housing estates were constructed and where the best concepts were. What happened in other towns, without making any negative connotations, was a kind of derivative of what happened in Bratislava. For that reason, I do not see a need to analyse everything. If doing so would contribute to a local patriotism or help in searching for our identity, then certainly yes. But this is not a task for a central institution like the Slovak Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Construction and Architecture. Perhaps this could be undertaken by locals – architectural enthusiasts and others.
20. Feb 2012 at 0:00 | Jana Liptáková