The Lasting Significance of Eastern Bloc Architecture, According to Its Inhabitants

The authors of a new photography book, “The Tenants,” which portrays the remaining residents of prefab panel blocks, explain why the austere housing estates are postwar relics worth preservation.
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The monolithic high-rise complexes built around the former Eastern Bloc after World War II go by different names across Central and Eastern Europe, including panelák (Czech Republic and Slovakia), wielka płyta (Poland), panelki (Bulgaria), panelky (Ukraine), plattenbau (Germany), and panel’niy dom (Russia). Rapidly assembled and cheaply built to provide mass housing for expanding city populations in postwar socialist countries, the prefabricated, prestressed concrete towers expressed a basic aspect of Soviet ideology that emphasized egalitarianism, collectivism, uniformity, and function—but they often featured structural weaknesses such as bad insulation and leaky windows as the result of financial issues and rushed construction. The prefab panel blocks have faced further degradation due to lack of preservation and gradual wear and tear since the fall of Soviet communism. Still, the unadorned residential complexes—which house a largely aging population—serve as towering relics of a poignant era.

A new photography book from David Navarro and Martyna Sobecka of Zupagrafika, an independent publisher and graphic design studio in Poland, documents 40 of these concrete-slab housing projects in 37 different cities of the former Eastern Bloc and ex-Yugoslavia, from Berlin to Kyiv and Tallinn. The Tenants portrays the inhabitants of these complexes holding cut-and-fold paper models of the prefab panel blocks where they live. (The photos were taken by Navarro, Sobecka, and a number of contributing photographers between 2012 and 2022.) Dwell spoke to Navarro and Sobecka about their takeaways from the decade-long project, including what we stand to lose if these prefab panel blocks deteriorate, whether by neglect to upkeep them or destruction in war.

Barbara, a resident of the Plac Grunwaldzki estate in Wrocław, Poland, is one of many inhabitants of the postwar prefabricated panel blocks featured in The Tenants. "I was one of the first tenants here," she says. "I absolutely love my flat on the fourth floor. I have three spacious rooms with a small kitchen. The only disadvantage are the pigeons, oh dear! The renovation looks pretty and clean on the outside but they didn’t lay ceramics on the balcony floors, as they promised."

Barbara, a resident of the Plac Grunwaldzki estate in Wrocław, Poland, is one of many inhabitants of the postwar prefabricated panel blocks featured in The Tenants. "I was one of the first tenants here," she says. "I absolutely love my flat on the fourth floor. I have three spacious rooms with a small kitchen. The only disadvantage are the pigeons, oh dear! The renovation looks pretty and clean on the outside but they didn’t lay ceramics on the balcony floors, as they promised."

Dwell: How did you find the residents you photographed and featured for The Tenants?

David Navarro and Martyna Sobecka: In 2012, during our first shoot with the paper model of the Orła Białego Estate in Poznań, Poland, one of the residents approached us and shared the story of the life she had lived there. She kindly agreed to be photographed holding our paper model in front of her flat. Since then, we continued to take portraits of the inhabitants of these buildings. We’d approach them in front of their houses while shooting on-site and ask for their story. In recent years, we also invited local photographers to contribute to The Tenants. They made it possible for the book to include some areas that would’ve been out of reach for us otherwise, especially during the pandemic.

"These panelak houses were built very quickly so that people had places to live," says Josef, a resident of the Jižní Město estate in Prague, Czech Republic, featured in The Tenants. "Everybody liked it here. Then the Velvet Revolution came and they wanted to tear them down; if they had demolished them, we would not have homes today."

"These panelak houses were built very quickly so that people had places to live," says Josef, a resident of the Jižní Město estate in Prague, Czech Republic, featured in The Tenants. "Everybody liked it here. Then the Velvet Revolution came and they wanted to tear them down; if they had demolished them, we would not have homes today."

What were your impressions of the prefabricated panel blocks you visited and photographed for the book?

We live and work in Poland, therefore, the architecture of the socialist era, or the ‘PRL’ (Polish People’s Republic), is still present in our everyday lives. The cities in Poland are surrounded by huge prefabricated panel block estates that are home to hundreds of thousands of people. Martyna was born in the mid-1980s, and, like many folks from this generation, was raised in a wielka płyta estate. We see the buildings featured in our books as the antiheroes of modern architecture—these postwar housing estates might often be viewed as homogeneous, gray masses of concrete, but rich diversity can be found in their design and urban planning. 

Oksana, a resident of the Obolon housing estate in Kyiv, Ukraine, holds a replica of the high-rise complex in The Tenants. The residential buildings, also known as The Chamomiles and Corn Cobs, were designed in 1981 and built in the northern Obolonskyi District using monolithic framework technology. The towers are 17 and 22 floors high and provide more than 200 residences in total. 

Oksana, a resident of the Obolon housing estate in Kyiv, Ukraine, holds a replica of the high-rise complex in The Tenants. The residential buildings, also known as The Chamomiles and Corn Cobs, were designed in 1981 and built in the northern Obolonskyi District using monolithic framework technology. The towers are 17 and 22 floors high and provide more than 200 residences in total. 

What did you learn by speaking with the residents of these mass housing complexes?

We learned a lot from the people whose everyday lives revolve around the ‘sleeping districts’ [a nickname for urban micro-districts built during the Soviet era]. It was gripping to discover how uniform their feelings were about the estates they inhabit. From the former East Germany to Siberia, and all the way through Kazakhstan to the Baltic states, the residents would unanimously praise the large green spaces, children’s playgrounds, and public transport, and frequently complain about the technical state of the buildings, such as poor thermal insulation or maintenance.

Sykhiv resident Nadya stands in front of the housing complex where she lives in Chervonoyi Kalyny Ave, which is part of the southern Sykhivskyi District, the largest residential area in Lviv, Ukraine. The district was constructed between the 1970s and 1980s to house local industry workers and their families. It was built from symmetrical rows of L-shaped prefabricated panel blocks clad with distinct blue tiles.

Sykhiv resident Nadya stands in front of the housing complex where she lives in Chervonoyi Kalyny Ave, which is part of the southern Sykhivskyi District, the largest residential area in Lviv, Ukraine. The district was constructed between the 1970s and 1980s to house local industry workers and their families. It was built from symmetrical rows of L-shaped prefabricated panel blocks clad with distinct blue tiles.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine puts the country’s remaining panelky at risk of destruction. Do you know the status of the featured buildings and residents in Lviv and Kyiv?

The postwar modernist architecture in Ukraine is particularly in danger, especially in residential areas that are targets of Russian bombing. Ironically, many of the prefab housing estates that are now being destroyed were built in response to a huge housing shortage after World War II. We remain in touch with the contributing photographer in Kyiv named Tatiana who took a photo of Oksana, a resident of the high-rise tower block in the Obolon district. Although, the streets of Obolon were raided on the onset of the Russian invasion on Ukraine, as of now, we know the towers that appear in the book are still standing, and Oksana and Tatiana are safe and remain in Kyiv. The residential areas in Lviv that are featured in the book have not been shelled.  

"These buildings are old and well constructed," says Divna, a resident of the Eastern City Gate complex in Belgrade, Serbia, who appears in the book. "They are the statues of Belgrade."

"These buildings are old and well constructed," says Divna, a resident of the Eastern City Gate complex in Belgrade, Serbia, who appears in the book. "They are the statues of Belgrade."

Christin, a resident of the Berliner Querplatte in Berlin, Germany, stands in front of the complex where she lives with a cut-and-fold replica. The Tenants documents 40 prefabricated panel blocks in 37 different cities of the former Eastern Bloc and ex-Yugoslavia, from Berlin to Kyiv and Tallinn.

Christin, a resident of the Berliner Querplatte in Berlin, Germany, stands in front of the complex where she lives with a cut-and-fold replica. The Tenants documents 40 prefabricated panel blocks in 37 different cities of the former Eastern Bloc and ex-Yugoslavia, from Berlin to Kyiv and Tallinn.

What do you hope audiences take away from the book? 

We started publishing illustrated, interactive books on postwar modernism in response to a rapid disappearance of this type of architecture that has been either demolished or thoughtlessly renovated. Many of those structures reflect the dreams and ideals of a controversial era. With The Tenants, we want the readers to see the human faces behind the concrete facades. As we write in the book: ‘The modernist estates erected in Central and Eastern Europe to provide quick and cheap housing after World War II are now over 60 years old and their future is uncertain. While some are being renovated and others have been prematurely demolished, their tenants remain undaunted. They have lived through their golden years and darker times; they are the estates.’

The Tenants: Concrete Portraits of the Former Eastern Bloc
For the last decade, Zupagrafika has documented the housing estates erected in Central and Eastern Europe, still perceived by many as ‘eyesores,’ through photographs and illustrated paper models.

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