When I first went to the Soviet Union (in all my ignorance), I was amazed that everyone in Moscow lived in what I called “housing projects.” The Russians called them “houses” (doma), but they weren’t houses as I understood them at all. They were huge, multi-story, cookie-cutter apartment blocks, one standing right next to the other for miles. “Why?” I asked myself.
Kimberly Zarecor‘s wonderful Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia, 1945-1960 (Pittsburgh UP, 2011) goes a long way in providing an answer, and it’s a surprising one. As she shows, socialism and architectural modernism were tightly linked even before the Second World War. This was true in the Soviet Union, of course, but it was also true throughout much of Europe–especially in Czechoslovakia. The avante guard of Czech architects were enthralled with modernism, just as they were (with some exceptions) enthralled with the promise of communism. They believed modernism provided a template for a truly socialist architecture, particularly in the sphere of housing. Once the communists came to power after the war, the Czech architects were given the opportunity to realize the dream of building that truly socialist built environment. The result was the “panel house”: pre-fab apartment blocks built in factories, transported to sites, and then assembled. They were strikingly modern in terms of design, construction techniques and materials. Over time, the panel-house vision was compromised: by Socialist Realism, by economic contraints, by corruption and politics. But if you travel to the Czech Republic today, you can still see excellent examples of modernist panel houses in more or less pure form. Let Kimberly Zarecor be you guide.