When I first landed in the Czech Republic over a decade ago, it felt like I had just landed on a planet that was the perfect inverse of what I had just left behind. Gone was the Japanese pop culture of cultivated giddiness that burst forth from every public television monitor. Gone were the reassuring, blushing smiles of a thousand cartoon characters and the clockwork musical jingles that urged everything from fresh fish consumption to the safe pedestrian crossing of major thoroughfares. In their place was a clouded-over grayscale landscape typified by intense glares, artfully skeptical remarks over endless beers and Start brand cigarettes, and - of course - omnipresent columns of panelák, the prefabricated concrete apartment buildings that still stood as a relic of the nation’s previous existence as a satellite state of the Soviet Union. With the naïve romanticism of my youth, I felt that this melancholic terrain held out more possibilities for me to create and express than the neon-lit, high-tech hyperreality I had left behind. I was determined to find the ways in which people turned a character-less environment in on itself and persisted with humor and innovation. It seemed, at the time, an order of magnitude more interesting than continuing to document what could be done creatively within a culture of convenience and easy, round-the-clock access to the latest in technology.
Many years later, I am finally getting around to this. My new book-in-progress, provisionally titled “Drama Out of Concrete,” deals with the cultural history of a phenomenon that has been mostly passed over by students of culture and aesthetics in the West: the prefabricated apartment blocks of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. Practically anyone who has visited or inhabited this sprawling territory at any time within the modern age is familiar with these structures: though their names change from nation to nation, their external and internal features are strikingly similar, and as such are a testament to the leveling power of State socialism. With this in mind, writing a book on this subject presents a special challenge to me. The books I’ve written previously deal with forms of creativity that, though they might be difficult for many to make a personal connection to, are nevertheless forms that have one or several distinguishing features to them. Writing about bland pre-fabricated architecture, and the human communities that it was meant to shelter, means doing something very different - namely, it means trying to find moments of cultural distinction buried within a phenomenon that many observers see as the epitome of standardization and conformity. It means trying to find the moments in which fascinating outbursts of expressive evolution occurred in spite of being placed in a physical framework that was seemingly hostile to these aims.
At the same time, this study attempts to show not only how creativity occurred in spite of these environments, but because of them. More than a few unique subcultures have been the result of converting one’s technical, social, and environmental restrictions into the fuel for ideas that might not have come about in situations of comparative freedom to choose. The same elements that have made prefabricated panel buildings to be an object of derision have also been employed to create subcultural movements based on liberation (after all, isn’t the intense repetition of techno music analogous to the visual ‘rhythm in space’ of concrete apartment blocks?), and this book will not dare to suggest that emotional responses to these structures were as monolithic as the structures themselves appear to be. The curious phenomenon of “Ostalgia” - or romanticization of the dull certainties of the former “East” in the face of frightening new forms of social chaos - is just one possible form of attraction to these still-standing monuments to the culture of central planning.
The story of the Soviet-era ‘new towns’ and sprawling apartment complexes meshes with that of the “unofficial” or underground art world in a number of ways. One of the most captivating stories here is the history of using private spaces to serve the same function that public galleries or theatres would have served prior to official pronouncements that severely limited the scope of work that could be “officially” exhibited. The transformation of private apartments into everything from clandestine exhibition spaces to impromptu shops for illegal samizdat literature is a subject that is maybe worthy of a book all unto itself, although there is still more to discuss besides this. The circumstances that made for the sheer necessity of merging private and public space should not be forgotten in the globally networked present.
At the same time, the tower blocks have an uncanny allure that goes beyond their contemporary usage as canvases for elaborate graffiti murals. When being used as a backdrop in cinematic artworks like Ulrich Seidl’s Import / Export or Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, their presence as an element of stark contrast has become indispensable: these imposing clusters of grayness can have a visual effect similar to that of mountain ranges when they are used in stories about the struggle for self-determination. Many of the urban legends surrounding these structures are also worthy of telling, since they reveal moments in which authoritarian imposition of “new ways of life” only seemed to entrench traditional assumptions and even superstitions (I’m thinking here of the first high rise tower block constructed in Prague, which I’m told was associated with a number of ‘hauntings’ / paranormal phenomena such as blood seeping from its elevator shaft).
I’ve only begun conducting preliminary research towards a satisfactorily complete book, but already a number of “sub-stories” and plot twists have emerged in my attempt to outline the history of the prefabricated apartment blocks. The story of their construction alone is one of intense drama, seeing as it involved a seismic shift in lifestyle for those who were used to completely different modes of living. The story of how these buildings first came into existence is a turbulent one, in which famous visionaries like the architect Le Corbusier (who gives this book its working title) were engaged in impassioned ideological battles with the official planners of the Soviet Union. Behind the apparently eternal, ‘trapped in limbo’ industrial facade of these buildings is an engrossing tale of how they came into being, along with the struggle over how they were to be used once this happened, and the present debate over what to do with them in societies that are aching for a change and yet do not yet have the ability to make a “clean sweep” upgrade to another form of mass housing.
Much of this total story can be synthesized from a number of existing print sources, and so I’m actively looking for personal contacts who will be able to make this project more unique, personal, and surprising. If you have some experiences and insights that you feel shouldn’t be left out of this book, please contact me here - I’ll certainly look forward to hearing from you.