Nesting dolls, drawers, lamps: Prefab panel estates have become an inspiration for designers from Poland or Slovakia. Rachel Ling looks at what is behind these projects.
While absentmindedly browsing design blogs, two projects, taking inspiration from the post-war mass housing of Eastern Europe, recently caught my eye and got me thinking. Both projects recreate or reimagine these icons of the communist past. Curious to find out what it was about housing blocks that interested these designers, I decided to ask the designers themselves.
The first project to pique my interest was a series of pre-cut pre-folded colourful cardboard ‘blokoshka’, from Polish creative design firm Zupagrafika. The blocks – which take inspiration from the “sleeping districts” of Moscow, plattenbau constructions of East Berlin, Warsaw estates built over the ruins of the old ghetto, and the panelak blocks in Prague – are made to resemble Russian nesting dolls.
Since opening in 2012 the studio has created several series of paper cut-out architecture that have led to the creation of Blokoshka (see for example Eastern Block and Brutal London). David Navarro from Zupagrafika commented:
“From the beginning we started to document in the form of illustrated paper cut-outs the modernist blocks of the city that we live and work in – Poznan, Poland. We focused mainly on prefab panel estates before they were thermo-modernized, losing their original facades. We start understanding the obscure beauty of those blocks, once they start disappearing from our urban environment. With our designs, we make an attempt at cataloging modernist architecture at risk of extinction which, depending on its location, takes place in different forms – might it be demolition in England or thermo-modernization in Poland.
“As a graphic design studio we appreciate the composition of those buildings’ facades and perceive them as pieces of art. The repetition of the patterns, that have been touched by the passing of time makes the facades unique, full of amazing textures, colours and movement, like a hypnotic dance of concrete, which we look at every day however, but don’t seem to really notice. Some people are struck by sunrises, we however, appreciate the power of modernist architecture.”
Another design studio which appreciates modernist architecture is Studio Laššák, creator of Panelak, a series of furniture inspired by the prefab panel blocks found in Slovakia. The panel blocks have been reimagined as a chest of drawers and even a lamp. I asked designer Marian Laššák what it is about these panel blocks that interests and inspires him.
“The phenomenon of panel houses and residential areas creates an integral part of visual memory in countries of Eastern Europe. This fact influenced the lives of generations and it brings meaning which is ever changing according to individual stories of every one of us. For many people prefabs are a symbol of involuntary housing in social conditions that bring specific qualities connected with this fact. What fascinates me is the contrast between the functional, modernistic and unified concept of the same type of flats in many countries as opposed to the many stories of the people living in them, that are all different. This topic is closely related to my life, like many other peoples’.”
Indeed, housing is so intimately connected to each and every one of our lives, yet it is so easy to overlook. I think these two projects reveal the beauty and simplicity of modernist architecture and connect with so many people who haved lived in housing blocks like these or just appreciate their design. But I was curious as to why there currently seems to be a resurgence in the interest in modernist housing blocks in the design world after such a long period of neglect – both physically but also in terms of being overlooked and discredited. Is it nostalgia or just a fad? As David from Zupagrafika suggested, many such housing blocks have undergone a process of modernisation and nostalgia for the way things were is natural.
Marian Laššák comments: “I think it is because of nostalgia and because now is the time so see this topic from some distance. The prefabs are not seen in their original appearance anymore. They were renovated and people see them in a different context now. The original appearance that is connected with negative associations is now just part of history in most places. The second thing is that renovations are being made in a wild way, with crazy colors and very kitschy creations on facades, so people are asking if this is not even worse. So, I think prefabs, like everything that is disappearing in time, is becoming more attractive because we try to make a link to history. From there an interest is developing that we can see in art and strongly in graphic design…
“Prefabs have finished their real life in our countries, but we can see other places, for example in some parts in Russia, where prefabs are still in their original context and the people who live there have a different experience – real experience far away from how we see it and I think they would not have a sense to see it like art, because it is too pragmatic for them without the distance of time. They live it, we do not anymore.”
So the distance that has now been placed between the inhabitants of these cities and the realities of everyday life under communism is perhaps what has enabled this re-examination or re-evaluation of post-war mass housing in Eastern Europe. Additionally modernisation and the threat of demolition increase the sense of loss and nostalgia, and together these factors have sparked an interest among designers. Finally, looking beyond these projects as a design trend, David Navarro highlights the wider debate:
“The increasing interest in the housing blocks is definitely positive as it highlights the debate about them. Trends come and go, but the debate was there before and will be after, and surely will help in developing urban solutions for preserving those buildings as part of our heritage and stop perceiving them as a shameful reminiscence of an unrealized dream of urban utopia.”