Some years ago I was living in a concrete flatblock in Olomouc. Matthew, an English guy from London, came to visit and looked out of the living-room window. “If this was London, mate, I’d ask you what the fuck you was doing living here,” was his considered way of praising the view, which was chiefly of the almost identical flatblock opposite.
“It isn’t.” I’ve always had a way with words…
But from his point of view, I could see what he meant. Apart from some of the more fashionable parts of London, where there have been flats for centuries, the English seem to be uniquely unhappy about the notion of living up in the sky; just look at how low and sprawling English cities are when you compare them to their equivalents elsewhere. You don’t even have to cross water; tenements are far more part of life in Scottish cities than they have ever been in England. And you don’t have to go as far as the ex-Soviet bloc; there are flatblocks all over Europe. But perhaps the quintessence of the genre is to be found east of the former Iron Curtain.
Of course, the real heavyweights are to be found in the megalopolises of the former Soviet Union. There’s a well-loved film, called ‘The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!’, in which the uniformity of flatblock existence plays a central role; a guy gets fantastically drunk in Moscow and is put onto a plane to Leningrad by mistake. There he takes a taxi. The name of the street where he wants to go in Moscow has a doppelganger in Leningrad; not only does the street look the same but the flatblock does too. His key fits the door of the flat and inside it’s similar enough to the one in Moscow for him not to notice the difference. So he goes to sleep. What happens next isn’t important here. What is important is the sheer scale of the uniformity that makes the idea possible and so funny.
Little countries like this one, which has a total population rather less than Moscow, can’t compete in size terms, but there are some impressive displays up and down the land, such as Prague’s Jižní Město:
and just over the Slovak border, Bratislava’s Petržalka:
In fact, you can find ‘panelák’ flatblocks pretty much everywhere. And unlike England, where a lot of people wouldn’t dream of living in one, here there isn’t that kind of stigma and, as the News of the World used to say, all human life is here.
A lot of them were built in the twenty years before the revolution of 1989 and they tend to reflect the priorities of that time, convenient housing for young families being high on the list. So what you tend to find is kids’ playgrounds, kindergartens, schools, health centres, public transport and the like, and a good thing that is. They’re solid, there are no maintenance worries, there are often communal laundry facilities, the hot water never stops flowing, and in winter the heating is all-amps-on-11, so much so that a lot of people I’ve met seem to regard it as a kind of human right to be able to parade around the place in their undies when it’s minus fifteen outside. And there’s a lot more space than you might think; Czechs often tell me how shocked they are at how tiny English houses and the rooms in them often are. In fact, a panelák
is a lot like a street of terraced houses
that follows the y-axis rather than the x-axis: same amount of space; same uniformity from outside; same lack thereof from inside. Just no individual yards or gardens.
On the minus side, they aren’t what you could call quiet and they don’t deal well with hot weather. They’re like saunas in summer, and all that concrete means they don’t cool down much at night either. If you open the windows, your slumbers are likely to be fitful, what with late-night revellers returning home and sharing their joys with the neighbourhood and the merry whooping of car alarms. And one thing they were most certainly not designed for was the way car ownership patterns have changed. In 1996, finding a parking place was a struggle; nowadays, I’m told it’s become routine to double-park but leave the handbrake off so that the people whose vehicles you’re blocking can move your car out of the way if they need to leave before you do.
On balance, though, paneláks are going out of fashion. It seems to be the dream of most Czechs to live in what they call a ‘family house’, and there’s a frenzy of construction is going on, not just in towns and cities but within pretty much every village within a certain radius of them. So, slowly but surely, those with the wherewithal to join the rural bourgeoisie are doing so, those without are staying put. But there’s still a long way to go before living in one becomes a negative statement about the kind of person you are; vertical sink estates they ain’t.