The concrete apartment blocks of communist Eastern Europe evoke both nostalgia and legacies of suffering; now their future is in question
A few months ago, news broke in Russia that the government planned to raze almost 8,000 apartment buildings in Moscow and relocate their residents into newer structures. Although the plan sounds like both a logistical and a social disaster, not to mention a mass infringement on the individual rights of the city’s residents, I must admit that my first reaction was (almost embarrassingly) to take the side of the authorities.
In Russia and Bulgaria, they call them Panelki; in the former East Germany, they’re Plattenbauen. Although I’m hard-pressed to find an official English term for these prefabricated concrete structures, roughly translated, they’re “panel buildings,” apartment blocks put together on site from concrete panels poured and pre-stressed in nearby factories.
These panel buildings first appeared in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev in the late 1950s as a quick and cheap way to relocate families in increasingly overcrowded communal apartments, especially in the big cities. The forced industrialization of the USSR was already well underway, and urban populations exploded as the government relocated people to work in its newly opened factories. Because the communist ideal was tied to metropolitan living, apartment blocks rose even in the more sparsely populated areas, consolidating previously scattered residents into a single building.
In many ways, these buildings were a Cold War response to the American (read: capitalist) suburbs cropping up at the same time. While suburbs in the US focused on the success of the individual through ownership of a single-family detached house, the Eastern Bloc’s ideal living situation was clearly the opposite — as many public spaces as possible, and the smaller the private space, the better. And if everyone lives in the exact same (always tiny) apartment, that clearly means that the social classes are no longer relevant, right?
Just as the panel buildings themselves were a cheap bastardization of the utopian ideals of Brutalist architecture (à la Le Corbusier), the communities formed around these buildings were a haphazard and diluted version of the ideals of communism itself. By the time the panel buildings started cropping up on the outskirts of Sofia, the new neighborhoods that were supposed to include all their residents’ basic needs — a grocery store, restaurants, daycare, schools — were completely absent; many remained unbuilt for years.