How is Architecture political? We all live in a large society, and the concept of community has been there for ages. Society has always had a multitude of responses to novel ideas. These ideas reach the political leaders, and some support it and some do not. Later on, due to evolution, new ideas come up again, and a similar process repeats. The Architecture that has evolved since centuries has looked different. 

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The same streets sometimes have a blend of modern and traditional structures. People’s views change and result in a change in the surroundings due to fluctuating economy, thoughts, and lifestyles. 

The politically inclined architecture of Czechoslovakia - Sheet1
Czechoslovakia_ ©Fostinum

Czechoslovakia’s Split

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Czechoslovakia, a former country that was inclusive of today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia, is a great example of a peaceful separation. Originating from the Austro-Hungarian province that split in 1918 after the first World War, the people in that region spoke two different but very similar languages. They were so similar that they interchanged them in television broadcasts many times, and everybody understood most of it.  

The politically inclined architecture of Czechoslovakia - Sheet3
Czech Republic_ ©CzechCenter

Being one of the prime cities in the world and known for its architecture, Czechoslovakia split harmoniously in 1993 in the effect of the Munich Pact after a 40-year Communist rule. The Munich Pact was, in a way, a form of relief for the people. It was a way to prevent war. 

Currently split as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both are diversified in terms of the Architecture they have to offer the world. With the Czech Republic hosting about 2000 castles and having the lowest unemployment rate, this record is the highest in all of Europe. 

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In 1948, the planners in Czechoslovakia slowly moved towards a standard and repetitive form, but instead ended up creating blocks that have historical connections like the courtyard. The actual beginning of the modernist style happened with Nikita Khrushchev. 

The Panelák

The politically inclined architecture of Czechoslovakia - Sheet2
Paneláks in Prague_ ©GettyImages

The political side of architecture at Prague can be attributed mainly to the Communist or Stalinist style that came into place after the Second World War. When one of the high-ranked secretaries, Nikita Khrushchev during that period disapproved of the ornamented style of architecture, this style started being constructed. 

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Perfectly reflecting the political stance of the period, Socialist Realism is another term associated with the Communist style as it does not promote a complicated meaning behind artwork or buildings and is more straightforward. The 16 storied high rises of this particular style were a combination of a traditional style with modern technology.

A Typical plan of a Panelák_ ©BloombergCityLab

The Bloomberg City Lab discusses one widely used model is the Panelák, which is a building type that is known famously in the Czech and Slovakian regions as it is representative of the Communist influence on housing. The prefabricated concrete panels are associated with this building typology which is instantly recognizable by its residents. A remnant of the Communist domination, one can find a row of these mixed-use buildings housing lower to middle-income groups in Prague easily. A typical panelák has an entry into the common space or the hall from which a direct opening is given to the bedroom, bathroom, and dining or living space. It seems as though the living space has the most privacy as the ‘inner space’. 

More than 3 million people were housed in the Paneláks, which was sort of the plan of that era. The leaders wanted to mass-produce buildings that would eventually become a city which was the common notion in a few other regions in Europe as well. These blocks offered relief for a lot of people who did not have proper housing, and even if they did, there was a dearth of basic facilities like electricity, a heating system, or even open space from the balconies in the new typology that were not common in the pre-war times. Since these ‘fancy’ features were not so prevalent then, residents considered them as gifts. Due to varied family sizes and requirements, experiences were different.

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These new buildings stand out against the older traditional buildings today and were different, and new to the people back then. Due to the thin wall structure made with a part of plastic, there isn’t a sense of privacy due to the loud chattering of one home reaching into other homes. Some of the dwellers describe the walls to be made out of paper. There simply were not enough flats to accommodate the growing demand, due to which they became congested. 

After the communist government dissolved, Paneláks’ property rights got transferred to people at very affordable prices, which made the situation worse due to the lack of proper defining rules. The flats in these buildings became makeshift spaces rather than homes where inhabitants repaired their own walls. The situation finally improved when Czechoslovakia split, and the property value increased. 

With the government’s help, the building conditions were improved and everybody in the nearby countries was competing with each other to renovate their version of a Communist space better. This brought back the lost attention of the Panelák, which even gave rise to the Slovak TV series, Panelák that aired from 2008 to 2017 and is the longest-running show in Slovakian history. 

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The politically inclined architecture of Czechoslovakia - Sheet4
Paneláks in Prague_ ©CzechCenter

The once in-demand Panelák where everybody wanted to live, and play became a temporary rental place to work and live before people moved to a better-equipped place. Moving on to some examples of Architecture that have resulted from a political point of view in Slovakia can be seen from the introduction of Romanesque Architecture to the widely seen contemporary buildings in the capital, Bratislava. The styles of Architecture and the transition are similar, just like the currency and languages of these two countries. 

References

  1. Czech Radio (2010). A look behind the thin walls of Czech Panelák apartment buildings. [online]. (Last updated 23 May 2010). Available at: A look behind the thin walls of Czech panelák apartment buildings | Radio Prague International [Accessed 27 July 2021].
  2. Bloomberg (2020). Prague’s Communist-Era Apartments Get a Second Life. [online]. (Last updated 30 September 2020). Available at: The History and Design Behind Prague’s Concrete Apartments – Bloomberg [Accessed 27 July 2021].
  3. The New York Times (1993). Czechoslovakia Breaks in Two, To Wide Regret. [online]. (Last updated 01 January 1993). Available at: Czechoslovakia Breaks in Two, To Wide Regret – The New York Times (nytimes.com) [Accessed 27 July 2021].
  4. Wikipedia. Czechoslovakia. [online]. (Last updated 28 July 2021). Available at: Czechoslovakia – Wikipedia [Accessed 27 July 2021].
Author

A believer in keeping the quirkiness alive, Harshini is an architect by profession, and a psychology fanatic by heart. With a strong interest in culture and the urban environment, she aims to bring them closer.

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