If the Soviet Bloc prefab craze seems absurd, it did solve a housing crisis
Once, way back in the depths of the 20th century, there was a very simple means of solving housing crises. It didn’t involve ‘informality’, it didn’t entail ‘letting developers build’, and it had, at least in the most brute quantitative terms, spectacular successes. It was best summed up by an anecdote credited to an unnamed British soldier, quoted by the late National Treasure and erstwhile Most Dangerous Man in Britain, Tony Benn, in the film The Spirit of ‘45, thus: ‘we’ve been using factories to make weapons to kill Germans with, why can’t we use them to build housing and hospitals?’ Cue industrialised housing, where factories were literally turned over from the making of bombs to the making of prefabricated housing. The half-hearted British experience, from the (still popular) single-family prefab to the collapse of the kit-of-parts tower Ronan Point, is notorious. Elsewhere, this was the entire history of post-war housing.
Although the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries were not the inventors of industrialised housing – it has a long history, and was used en masse by such disparate countries as Sweden and France – they deployed it on a greater scale than anywhere else on earth. From the 1950s onwards, nearly all housing (75 per cent of all Soviet stock by 1991) had been constructed from industrially produced concrete panels slotted together, with such a degree of automation – production lines and gantry cranes eliminating much of the need for on-site labour, let alone ‘craftsmanship’. The other countries in the Soviet sphere of influence adopted similar construction projects, so you can have remarkably similar housing appearing in Rostock and Ulan Bator. Although the results are easily criticised for their homogeneity, uniformity or monolithic appearance, the ‘look’ of each district can be deceptive. One set of 10-storey slabs with open spaces between could be a thriving, desirable area, with schools, clinics and public transport better than anywhere in Britain; another may be a grim, gradually subsiding post-industrial waste with rotting joints and minus infrastructure or facilities.
Some effort from the late 1960s onwards was put into making sure the style was varied, even if the construction technology remained identical. Sometimes this was literally a matter of applied ornament – in the Caucasian and Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, many of the panels came with precast louvres, brise-soleil and Brutalo-Islamic detail; elsewhere, mosaics on revolutionary or national themes enlivened the blank compositions. In other places, the attempts to enliven the slabs were more serious. At the Šeškinė estate in Vilnius, curved rather than rectilinear panels were placed in irregular patterns on the blocks, giving them a dashing, Mendelsohn-goes-steampunk appearance; similarly, in Wrocław, in Poland, the factories produced convex and concave béton brut segments, producing expressionistic, dynamic facades.
All this was CIAM urbanism, variants on the ‘blocks in space’ formula, but the housing programme of East Germany went far beyond that in the 1980s. East Berlin is full of examples of prefab Pomo, sparked by the conservation movement that emerged in that era in strange parallel to that of West Berlin. Gaps in streets of turn-of-the-century tenements were filled in with new concrete flats that followed the streetline, boasting shops on the ground floor and factory-made Mansard roofs. This was taken to an extreme in the Nikolaiviertel district, where the same corrugated concrete panels usually stacked up into towers and slabs were now to be found forming courtyards, colonnades and gables, in a bizarre industrialised fantasy of Old Berlin, framing a clutch of preserved or reconstructed buildings.
All this may sound faintly absurd, but it did end an enormous housing crisis inherited from war and underdevelopment. While some countries, such as Czechoslovakia or Germany were already reasonably well-off, much of the Bloc lived in slums or age-old rural poverty in 1945, and by 1990 most of it was decently housed, with clean, sound and virtually free housing. For all the obvious failures of the system in consumer goods, this was a hugely impressive achievement. By the 1980s, panel-building was even becoming eclectic. However, it was deeply reliant on an enormous state apparatus. Countries that were more decentralised, such as Yugoslavia, actually suffered from a greater problem with housing than poorer countries like Bulgaria, simply because housing was meant to be provided by self-managed worker-run industries, which left those not in industrial work out of the equation; accordingly, it was the Communist country with the largest informal settlements.
On its own terms – solving a problem, fast – industrialised housing in the Warsaw Pact countries is one of the few real housing successes of the last century. Now, after blocks in many countries have been insulated and painted in pastel colours, they’re in better condition than many in the West. They were originally, and today sometimes still are, much more mixed in employment and class than council housing became from the ’70s on. So if it was so successful, why would suggesting a Soviet solution to the housing crisis in, say, the UK, seem so absurd? Partly because of that totalitarian, forbidding, relentless appearance, no doubt, but also because of what made it possible – the nationalisation of land, and factories committed to a central plan. No think-tank is going to advocate that anytime soon.
Owen Hatherley’s new book, Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings, was published by Allen Lane in June 2015
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