Housing Construction in Socialism: Interview with Katarína Andrášiová

Housing Construction in Socialism: Interview with Katarína Andrášiová

This interview is based on an article called “Bytová výstavba v socializme: Sídliská Bratislavského Ružinova v Reflexii Tvorcov” published in Žili sme v socializme I.: kapitoly z etnológie každodennosti (We Lived in Socialism: Chapter from the ethnology of everyday).  The interview further debunks the myths about living in the housing estates created during the communist period. The interview is also concerned with outlining the experience of architects with designing “sídliska” and their reflection of pursuing “creative spirit”.

You seem to strongly link the emergence and the quality of “sídliska” to the socialist ideology in Slovakia in the second half of the 20th century. You mention that in the eyes of socialist political leaders, “sídliska” had a primarily “materialist” function. Their construction was not based on ideas of creativity and individuality, but rather standardization. Such ideas and the monopoly of construction and manufacturing companies connected to the socialist era in Slovakia, often halted creativity of architects involved in construction of “sídliska”. Yet, you mention that “sídliska” were also an answer to an urgent housing shortage after a wave of urbanization that hit Slovakia after the end of the World War II. What importance do you give to this structural factor in restraining the space for creativity? Do you believe that the socialist ideology was the major “restrictor” of architectural creativity when building “sídliska”?

Residential complexes were built in response to an urgent need to build large numbers of flats after World War II. One way to build these housing estates quickly and cheaply was through typization, standardization, and unification of housing construction. Moreover, in comparison with Western Europe, urbanization in Slovakia took place particularly quickly. Architects have been a part of these processes of urbanization, standardization and unification. They also had to work on large housing ensemble projects in very limited conditions. It was mostly through the design of an environment of housing estates that architects were able to embrace their creative spirit. For example, architect Milučký used the rectangular principle as compositional and artistic intention in a project of Trávniky housing estate in Bratislava:

For the two districts we were given the types of finished houses that we could use. Other housing ensembles usually have some open green areas and playgrounds etc. Here, through the design, I have personally tried to bring in a humanistic and emotional aspect to the estate. The design has enabled a natural creation of parterres, where children can play. I also decided to bring large shapes, light and color to the free spaces in between the blocks (Milučký). 

Architects have further embraced their creativity in various original projects of communal, administrative, cultural or sport buildings or hospitals. However, their creative input was dependent mostly on their personal attitudes, opinions and motivation.

On a different note, do you think that the “materialist” position towards building “sídliska” and the need to work with certain technologies (like panels etc.) could have had any positive effects on the creative spirit of architects? How do you think creativity was practiced?

Panel technology was also used to save time as the panels can be worked with and assembled even in winter. However, architects often used the panel technology in combination with other technologies. For example, the dormitory designed by Juraj Hronec in Bratislava is composed of two sets of different materials. Its residential part is built from prefabricated panels but the administrative and social section of the dormitory is built from reinforced concrete. If architects saved part of the budget during construction, they were sometimes able to invest it in rather atypical components of panel buildings – such as more expensive facing, higher quality materials, or unusual entrance solutions and others.

In your work you cite Ilja Skoček who mentions that the standardization of paneláks and their “dullness” (plainness) lead to negative social effects. He says that “sídliska” are against the human nature: people crave for individuality, which “sídliska” suffocate. However, critiques of this opinion argue that many communist-era estates are well-planned, well-connected and well-provided for communities. In the end, sídliska “were places where many people grew up happily and well, learning to be the creative and independent, experiencing concrete as schoolyard rather than jungle and certainly not succumbing to the attempts to create new uniform”. What is your position concerning the social effects of living in sídliska and paneláky? Do you agree with the statement that living in monotone sídliska is indeed against human individuality?

I think that planning was really one of the strongest sides of socialism. However, the problem with many plans was that they remained unfinished. This is also true for the residential ensembles, which were built on a large scale. Due to the construction process of residential ensembles, the uniqueness of local environment was only mildly respected and embraced. I lived in one of the hosing ensembles, particularly in Petržalka in Bratislava, for fifteen years. Even today, when I occasionally come back there, I cannot identify with the place where I lived for years. It is a site of anonymity and strangeness. Still, I feel that this question should be directed at sociologists. I also think that residential ensembles cannot be evaluated equally. There are many residential ensembles of high quality that can compete with the current residential complexes quite well. This can be said for example about a residential ensemble Chrenová in Nitra, which was built between 1963 – 1965 by Michal Maximilián Scheer. The quality of residential ensembles really depended on the creativity and motivation of architects. 

Do you think that the occupants of sídliska in Slovakia perceive/connect them to the socialist era in which they were built?

I think it depends on age of the occupants. Older people, who have experienced the socialist construction of residential complexes and have lived in these complexes most of their life, necessarily associate this environment with different phases of their lives. Young people, who have not lived through the socialist era, can perceive the environment of residential ensembles objectively.  They do not connect “sídliska” with ideology.  I think they experience the link between residential ensembles and socialism only indirectly.

Nowadays, do you think that sídliska and paneláky can somehow become places of creation and architectural innovation?

“Sídliska” built in the era of socialism are still waiting for the “creative human touch”: the integration of natural elements and application of architectural creativity. This, however, needs to be done very sensibly. Nowadays, especially young people have the courage, insight and vision to bring in ideas that would be acceptable and applicable in the future.

This interview with Katarína Andrášiová was made in addition to our previously published piece called “Panel Stories: Public Lies & Private Lives in Paneláks and Sídlištěs” written by Benjamin Tallis, the Editor-in-Chief of New Perspectives.