Panelaks: Prague’s communist legacy

By ALICE ZHAO

Panelak buildings in the south part of Prague. (Photo: Alice Zhao)

PRAGUE – It was 4 p. m. Tereza Hronová took the metro back to her home at the southern outskirts of Prague in Chodov. Compared to the pristine palaces and gothic churches along the narrow cobblestoned streets in historic Prague, this neighborhood seems to be a silent rebuttal against the stereotype of the fairy-tale-looking Czech capital: Concrete blocks stand row by row into the vast emptiness,  gloomily gray in the January wind.

As a girl growing up in Prague, Tereza has spent 19 years in the one of the apartment squeezing in the huge forests of the uniform blocks. Panelak, that is how the locals name those huge cubes.

Being a communist heritage, the panelaks were first built by the government to provide housing at an acceptable price for huge numbers of citizens. In the past, people were assigned to the panelaks for their life. After the revolution, government began to sell the houses to individuals. Today, 70 percent of the Prague locals reside in the panelaks.

“Only the rich foreigners live in the city center,” Tereza said while she was entering the lift. She pressed 3. There, on the third floor was the apartment her father bought in the early 1990’s.

Bathroom in Tereza's panelak home. (Photo: Alice Zhao)

Inside of the apartment, the bathroom came at the left side of the corridor leading to the two rooms, one for Tereza, the other for her divorced parents. Tereza said her parents still live in the same room as neither side wants to buy or rent a new apartment. The bathroom was well-equipped the same as other bathrooms anywhere else except that the wall appeared wet due to water leakage.

Tereza sitting at her room. (Photo: Alice Zhao)

Tereza’s room was neatly positioned with a single-sized bed, a study table with a book shelf, an electronic keyboard, a wardrobe and a pile of some colorful boxes. The boxes were filled with Tereza’s little treasures from her childhood.

Lucka, a manager at a restaurant living in a 68㎡ panelak apartment with her daughter, pays CZK10,000(around US495 dollars) a month for the rent. “It is like any normal apartment in Prague, because it is ordinary,” Lucka said. She said the service was good that she could get any problems fixed within a day.

A panelak school building near Haje, south side of Prague. (Photo: Alice Zhao)

The panelak buildings are also used for schools, hospitals, hotels and other functions, especially in the suburb area.

The building of the panelaks is a political move in the time of socialism, which ended in 1989. New buildings are springing up in the suburb but the quality is different.

Veronika Zrnikova, an architect based in Prague, said urbanism of those panelaks areas is quite good as public transportation and services are well provided.

Tereza is moving out from the panelak in two weeks. An organization she works for is providing her a dormitory in the city center. “I am happy to finally live elsewhere though I have to give up my privacy sharing the dorm with others,” Tereza said. When she moves out, her room will embrace a new comer – Tereza mother, who probably will be as happy as Tereza to finally change a place.

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3 Responses to Panelaks: Prague’s communist legacy

  1. Daniel says:

    Interesting post. The postwar phenomenon of large apartment blocks on huge estates – “Blocks of flats” in the UK – is not confined to communist countries of course. Many non-communist countries keen to rehouse low-income people from poor-quality housing to something decent invested in estates of large blocks and towers, either in the inner city or sometimes at the edges (as in Paris and Glasgow). The idea of selling off the subsidised state-built housing to its occupants is, so far as I am aware, something originating here in the UK, beginning in the early 1980s under the premiership of Mrs Thatcher (the ‘right to buy’ scheme).

  2. Robin Ewing says:

    very interesting and good use of color setting up the contrast between the historic image of Prague and the big blocks of flats most people live in. What percentage of people own their apartments or are most like Tereza paying rent? How do people feel about living there? Do they want something better or are they happy? This is a great start but would love to see you take it even further!

  3. Jim Kay says:

    From my one visit to Prague, I’d say there are quite a few buildings in the center city that reflect Soviet era architecture. It isn’t only seen in the outer areas.

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