Recently I took the metro to the end of the C-line and emerged to find myself in the midst of a pastel-coloured concrete candy land: blocks upon blocks of pale blue, baby pink, peach and improbably sunny shades of yellow. Some building facades even had stripes or artfully scattered geometrical patterns.
Jižní Město, the country’s biggest panel housing estate, which lies southeast of Prague’s city centre, just celebrated its 33rd anniversary, and I was curious to see what had changed. The last five years of its existence were devoted to revitalisation, in part subsidised by EU funds, with the aim of making it more liveable. This was the place that once epitomised the dehumanised face of socialist housing. Upon construction in 1976, it was essentially a giant residence factory, with rows of uniformly grey high-rises, no sidewalks, little greenery and few playgrounds or social amenities. It was cut off from the rest of the city, built in haste and with little planning on a muddy field. Famously, in Věra Chytilová’s 1979 film Panel Story, the inhabitants of Jižní Město were so alienated from their surroundings that they didn’t even know the name of their street.
On a sunny afternoon three decades later, the place appeared like any other decent neighbourhood: mothers jogging by with aerodynamic baby prams, emo teenagers lolling about on benches sharing cigarettes, a middle-aged man vomiting on a well-maintained patch of lawn, kids stocking up on candy in the local grocery shop. But the backdrop of looming pastel facades made this peaceful normality seem somehow grotesque. When you paint a monstrously large block of panel flats pink, does it become less monstrous? It remains a huge mass of concrete, the apartments inside are still small and identical, and the roads alongside it are still busy and difficult to cross.
Of course, that’s an outsider’s perspective. Dozens of studies have been conducted on such housing estates, including this one, and some indicate that panel living is not so bad. In the late 1990s, the French anthropologist Laurent Bazac-Billaud studied Jižní město and found that the conditions were quite favourable, with strong social networks, plenty of greenery and decent public transportation. That’s reassuring, given that roughly one-third of Czechs and one-half of Praguers live in panel houses. Also reassuring is that, despite warnings from some sociologists, in the Czech Republic these estates have not become ghettos inhabited mainly by low-income and welfare families. The middle class has not moved out, and, since many of the flats are now privately owned and passed on from generation to generation, young families with children live there alongside the pensioners who moved in during the panel building boom three decades ago. And housing co-ops and local town halls are using EU and government funds to repair the poorly constructed buildings. For the most part, this means improving insulation to minimise heat loss, replacing windows and – the most visible change – painting the facades in bright colours according to often intricate schemes. About one-fifth of the country’s 750,000 panel apartments have been repaired so far.
But transforming places such as Jižní Město into vibrant communities can’t be just about restoring individual buildings and painting them pink. Some of the problems associated with panel neighbourhoods are larger than the sum of their parts. According to the urban theoretician Václav Cílek, the best way to revive the country’s large housing estates is by filling in the existing dead spaces. This means introducing variety: building lower structures among the high rises, with high-end apartments to bring in younger people with money to spend, opening shops on the floor level of buildings to help create street life, and improving transportation options so that the community wouldn’t be so cut off from the city centre.
And although Jižní Město now has a handful of small shops on the ground level of some of its buildings, there are still few places that could entice passersby to linger. The nearest shopping complex is called Eden, and to get there on foot usually means navigating a series of concrete underpasses and overpasses or crossing busy streets with few traffic lights. So most people drive or take the bus. From the window, they can marvel at the colour-co-ordinated panel facades along the way.