The lifespan of large prefabricated housing estates in post-communist cities: an international comparison Cover Image
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The lifespan of large prefabricated housing estates in post-communist cities: an international comparison
The lifespan of large prefabricated housing estates in post-communist cities: an international comparison

Author(s): Melinda Benkõ
Subject(s): Fine Arts / Performing Arts
Published by: Historický ústav SAV, v. v. i.
Keywords: Large prefabricated housing estate; post-Communist cities; comparative housing research; urban regeneration; sustainable urban development

Summary/Abstract: The future of large prefabricated housing estates is one of the key problems of sustainable urban development in post-Communist countries. In Western Europe, there are only 1.8 million such flats; in the countries, however, which lie between the former East Germany and the Russian Far East, there are more than 53 million panel flats, inhabited by approximately 170 million people. As globalised products of 20th century urbanism, these housing estates have widely different lives thanks to their position in economic and human geographies (on the global, national, regional and local scales), and even due to their built-up and natural environments. The majority of studies on large prefabricated housing estates focus on their economic and social aspects; this paper, therefore, intends to approach the subject from the vantage point of the built-up environment, analyzing the urban planning and design solutions while also attempting to understand and re-evaluate this modern urban fabric. In post-Communist countries there is often no other housing choice, since the buildings themselves stand up well; this type of housing remains predominant for a long time. The estimated proportion of prefabricated housing to the national housing stock varies between 15 and 70 % in view of the various Communist housing policies (for example, only 20 % of overall housing stock in Hungary, but more than 65 % in Lithuania). Also, cities have a different “panel” ratio according their previous development policies (for example, 30 % in Budapest, 40 % in Prague, 50 % in Vilnius, and over 80 % in some industrial cities). Although large housing estates appear to be identical from an exterior point of view, their individual stories and futures are ever more divergent.This paper compares three concrete examples – at the EU, national, city, and estate levels – in order to make the differences plain. The comparison of case studies allows us the opportunity to define the common and various pasts of these locales, their global (international and Soviet) and local (national and city) factors of development, as well as their existence today, confronted with special challenges. The case studies represent three parallel post-Communist lifespans from three different corners of the European Union: firstly, the Žirmūnai Housing Estate in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, which was one of the first large prefabricated estates to be built in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) at the end of the 1960s; secondly, the Havanna Housing Estate in the Hungarian capital Budapest, a result of the mass-production of the 1970s; and thirdly, one of the last housing estates to be constructed before the political and economic changes in the Democratic German Republic, Neu Ovenstedt in the city of Magdeburg. Beyond the stereotypic dissimilarities that exist between Western and Eastern European mass housing, our research is concerned with the actual situation within these post-Communist estates. Is it possible to define urban and architectural components in order to re-evaluate them while acknowledging the necessity of integrated regeneration that focuses on economic and social aspects? The study is based on the relevant international literature, corresponding data generated by international projects, site visits in 2013/14, historic and contemporary project analysis, and interviews made with actors in the renewal process.CHILDHOOD: ATTACHMENTThe standardisation and industrialisation of apartment buildings and the construction of large housing estates or new towns were global phenomena that seemed an efficient solution to the post-war housing shortage. Not only the politicians, but also the majority of engineers and urban planners were enthusiastic about utilising and developing modern international architectural and urban theory. The first technical experiments on concrete large-panel housing construction had already been proven successful in the 1920s, but it was only after the Second World War that this technology provided a real opportunity for mass housing. At that time, several large-panel systems were developed simultaneously in both Western (mainly in French, British and Scandinavian) and Soviet industry. Nikita Khrushchev began a large-scale housing program for Moscow in 1950; the Institute of Construction Engineering of the Academy of Architecture in the Soviet Union realised the first four-story frameless large-panel apartment buildings in Magnitogorsk by 1952. In the USSR, only 2 % of the housing construction was comprised of panel buildings in 1960, but ten years later, this ratio reached more than 40 %.In addition to the developing housing industry based upon this technical innovation, the combination of modern architecture and urbanism provided a stable theoretical background for the construction of housing estates. The CIAM, or International Congresses of Modern Architecture, which operated between 1928 and 1959, defined architecture as a social art, held discussions on the fundamentals of the modern functional city, and documented their ideas in the La Sarraz Declaration (1928) and in the Athens Charter (1933). Team 10, a group of architects that both developed and simultaneously criticised the work of the CIAM during the large-scale housing period between 1953 and 1981, stood at the vanguard of professional theory. Europe, was though, by that time, divided; certain architects from the Eastern Bloc could nonetheless remain active members in international projects. For example, the Hungarian architect and professor Charles Polónyi was one of the ten professionals in Team 10. Moreover, delegations from Communist countries participated in international conferences organised by the International Union of Architects (UIA), and libraries within Central and Eastern European universities acquired all the important journals (Architecture d’Aujourdhui, Urbanisme, Carré Bleu, Domus, Architectural Design, etc.). Apart from this, dissident professionals strove to maintain their network of contacts in-country: planners and architects from Central and Eastern Europe obtained internships and grants – in other words, possibilities to work and travel in Western Europe. Despite, after WWII, a politically and economically divided Europe, professional reflection on modern housing design and planning solutions remained fully international.After WWII, every country developed a large-scale housing construction program. In Communist countries, where everything was nationalised, new national planning, design, investment and construction entities were established. Developments followed the common Soviet system of five-year-plan project periods. For example, in Hungary, the beginning of the realization of large prefabricated housing estates is related to the second five-year-plan development project (1961 – 1965), the fifteen-year housing policy (1961 – 1975) and the new master plan of Budapest (completed in 1960). Everything was coordinated at the national level. Optimal density was defined between 300 – 500 residents per hectare to make urban infrastructure construction and maintenance costs efficient. Cities were planned and divided into modern functional zones. After the decision to adopt the methodology of the Soviet housing factories (the first began to produce in Budapest in 1965), planning and design were directed by norms, panel-house technology and national economic requirements. The results were homogeneous – in general, between 4- and 10-storey buildings with linear slabs or vertical towers containing small flats (the average size was approximately 48 m2), organized around by the 3.20 m panel structure. The period’s best planners and architects participated in the process, and the majority believed in this international modernity. They were satisfied with the result, creating modern homes for the human beings of the future.Besides the Zeitgeist, it is important to recognize the differences that characterise the large prefabricated housing estates within post-Communist countries. Just like the city as organism, housing estates share similar backgrounds, but their lives are varied. To reiterate, this paper is based on three examples: Vilnius, as part of former USSR with its first estate from the 1960s; Budapest, as the capital of “Goulash Communism” with one problematic mass product of 1970s; and Magdeburg, on the Western border of the former Communist bloc with one of the last prefabricated housing estates from the 1980s. And every child is beautiful…

  • Issue Year: 49/2015
  • Issue No: 3-4
  • Page Range: 180-197
  • Page Count: 18
  • Language: English