Essays

The Intimate Past and Uncertain Future of Soviet Concrete Architecture

The concrete apartment blocks of formerly communist Eastern Europe evoke both nostalgia and legacies of suffering; now their future is in question.

Rear entrance of a residential building in Sofia, Bulgaria, 2009 (photo: Alphaadversativum, via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The apartment buildings in question are those hideous concrete structures that sprang up like mushrooms in the postwar period across the whole of communist Eastern Europe. I thought people might be happy to see these eyesores — and the memories of the Khrushchev era and the dystopian realities of communism that went with them — finally meet their demise. I grew up in a family from Sofia, Bulgaria and Yerevan, Armenia; I’ve heard my fair share of complaints about these behemoths. Having lived my early childhood and several extended stays in Sofia inside a one-room apartment in one of these buildings, I’ve also experienced them first-hand.

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.

Panel building in the Lyulin neighborhood of Sofia, 2009 (photo: Alphaadversativum, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

When I was born, my parents took me home to an apartment on the fourth floor of a then brand-new panel building in the Darvenitsa neighborhood of Sofia. (Darvenitsa is a fabricated residential neighborhood consisting of a few dozen of these buildings, built from the 1960s through the ‘80s over a previously existing village.) After years of bureaucracy, the local officials had finally relocated my parents to their own one-room apartment in the 1980s. Once everyone moved into the new building, it was still a couple of years before the authorities connected a heating system and phone lines. Residents sloshed through the mud to get home, as the streets had yet to be paved.

Apart from problems familiar to anyone who has lived in a poor country (or for that matter a poor area in a rich country) — tiny living areas, missing doors, broken elevators, random periods without heat or running water, etc. — I recall situations over the years that seemed to be particular to these artificial neighborhoods of concrete block buildings.

Façade of a residential building in Sofia, 2009 (photo: Alphaadversativum, via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the biggest problems was navigation and simply trying to tell the buildings apart. Although they’re all technically numbered, there is no logic to it. Building #4 could be next door to #21, with #3 a ten-minute walk to the opposite side of the neighborhood. And because there were often alleys instead of streets, and these were mostly unnamed, or at least unmarked, there was no way to know where you were going unless you were in your own neighborhood. And even then, you’re often only aware of the building numbers that are either right next door or where your friends live. (Now, Google Maps has largely mapped everything, which is a godsend.)

Several years ago, while I was walking from my family’s Sofia apartment, which my parents were able to buy after the collapse of communism, to the metro stop, I saw a couple of neighborhood kids playing basketball on an overgrown court; all of a sudden, the hoop teetered and fell right on one of the kids. When I called the ambulance, I was unable to tell the dispatcher the number of the apartment block nearest to the accident, even through I took the same route to the metro every morning that summer.

The amount of public space in between the buildings is also striking. Ideally, there would be green lawns for kids to play soccer and benches for their grandparents to gossip, but most of the expansive space between apartment buildings was either used for parking or overgrown with weeds. (In the ’90s, it was where packs of homeless dogs attacked old people carrying groceries.)

Although the panel buildings and their neighborhoods still have some problems, they now boast all the amenities promised so many years ago — schools, restaurants and beer gardens, grocery stores, easy access to public transportation, doctors’ offices. Trees have grown around the concrete buildings, creating shade and breaking up the large open spaces in between. No one ever expected these buildings to last this long (they appear to be more resilient than some of the newer structures cropping up around the city), and at this point, they’ve become so ingrained in the post-communist landscape that it would be hard to convince people to let them go.

The origin stories of the panel buildings in Darvenitsa, and all over the former Eastern Bloc, have slowly passed into the realm of history. Residents are proud of living in the same buildings that were once almost universally despised. My family finally sold our apartment last year, to a young woman who remodeled the whole interior and is still very excited to live there. In an ironic twist, it seems to have taken a healthy dose of capitalist individualism to rehabilitate a failed communist utopia.

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