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Praguescape: Unrealised utopia

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Before ugly sprawling panel estates such as Bohnice and Jižní Město, Prague had Invalidovna. Today a sadly neglected pocket of neo-functionalism on the edge of Karlín, the complex was a bold experiment in socialist housing upon its completion in 1965. For a while at least, it offered some of the most sought-after modern flats in the city.

Designed by a team of architects led by Josef Polák at the state-run Pražský projektový ústav, the buildings made use of the latest materials and technologies, which included a sort of panel block building kit, allowing for multiple interior layouts and long rows of ribbon windows. A total of 1,260 flats, built on what was once a 13-hectare military training ground, were intended to house some 4,200 people, according to a recent article in Stavební fórum.

In keeping with the stark pragmatism espoused by the likes of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, the Invalidovna project, as depicted in period visualisations, looks cold and austere. If the place seems relatively pleasant and lived-in these days, it is probably despite rather than because of the architects’ best intentions.

It’s a testament to the fact that concrete and orderliness cannot suppress the natural lively chaos of communities. Lush vegetation has overtaken public areas between the buildings, with tall poplars and spruce trees obscuring large sections of the decrepit facades. Mismatched laundry adds colour to the otherwise uniform balconies, teenagers loll about on broken benches, and dog walkers hold impromptu tête-à-têtes on blistered footpaths.

On paper, Invalidovna was meant to pave the way for future Czechoslovak housing complexes. But, like so many utopian projects, its full scale was never fully realised and what was constructed became sort of a curiosity, a foretaste of what could have been. By the 1970s, with the housing shortage becoming acute, panel high-rise projects were going up on the outskirts of Czechoslovak cities at an alarming rate, often without much planning. The resulting communities were little more than vast swaths of concrete, detached from city life, often devoid of even basic services such as shops, restaurants and recreational parks.

Invalidovna didn’t have this problem. The complex included a supermarket, as well as an outdoor shopping area protected from the elements with a roof. There was also a post office, restaurant, a kindergarten and a school. Only the school and the supermarket, now Albert, remain today. In 1970 the towering Hotel Olympik was added to the mix, its name a reflection of Prague city officials’ hopes at the time of hosting the 1980 summer Olympics.

The pinnacle of the Invalidovna experiment was Hotelový dům – by locals called simply “hotelák” – an 11-storey aluminium-clad structure that was to function as something between an apartment building and a hotel. All flats were fully (and almost identically) furnished and everyone’s laundry washed in a common laundry room. The building also had 24-hour security and a cleaning service. It was comfortable, easy living and, somewhat predictably, accessible mainly to those with connections in the right places.

To say that hotelák, which was given cultural landmark status in 2001, is in a sorry state today is an understatement. The facade is grimy and stained; the concrete pillars on which the building stands are overgrown with weeds.

Pražská správa nemovitostí, the building’s current owner, is now preparing to launch a reconstruction, which will need to respect hotelák’s landmark status. On a recent afternoon, construction workers were milling about the building’s beat-up ground-floor lobby, carrying out containers of broken furniture and kitchen units – at one time the height of Czechoslovak functional interior design – in order to prepare the flats for reconstruction.

But while hotelák’s fate seems secure, the future of the rest of the Invalidovna housing development is less certain. Some of the facades have been repaired; most have not. Chances are the complex will forever remain an ill-preserved time capsule, a testimony to Czechoslovak architects’ early good intentions.

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