Věra Chytilová’s film Panelstory is essential viewing for planners and housing professionals. Made in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1979, it shows residents (not) adjusting to life in a new high rise estate. While the prefabricated panels are swung by huge cranes through space against a blue sky, on the ground women struggle to push prams and buggies through the mud on their way to join the queue at the clinic.
Having lived in this estate for a week in the mid-1980s and visited it many times, I had to go and see the film. The English title, Preab Story, is a misleading translation, as “prefabs” were a distinctive one-storey early post-war form of temporary housing. “Periperal Housing Estate Story” would be a better title for the UK. Paneláky in Czech refers to the prefabricated high rise estates. They were built as permanent dwellings around the edges of the cities and many of the towns in the 1980s. This was during what was officially known as the Normalisation period, after troops from fraternal Warsaw Block countries had crushed the Prague Spring in August 1968.
The paneláky were a key part of the Communist government’s attempt to barter social consent through addressing the endemic housing shortage. The contrast between the grand vision, ruthless order and monumental scale of Prague’s new Jižní Město (Southern City) and the narrow, unheroic and chaotic lives of the new tenants and the construction workers is a recurrent visual theme of the film, though by no means the only one. As in all Chytilová’s films, gender is central to the visual narrative.
There is only passing reference to the process of designing the estate and the houses – when a woman visiting her new flat complains that the radiator is in the wrong place as you can’t then fit a table in: she observes that the architect was probably a man. However we see plenty of the construction process – men at work, or watching other men at work with big diggers, cranes and steamrollers. But they work harder at avoiding work than doing work, so that they can moonlight, enjoy foaming glasses of beer in the pub or the pleasures of lonely women isolated in their new dream homes.
The slapdash construction is the outcome of overambitious house completion targets set for the workforce and the entrenched expertise of the labour force in delivering with the minimum personal effort and inconvenience. The women are left to cope with the dysfunctional results. There are gaping sockets, lifts that break down, an erratic water supply, but the fretful activity on the ground is contrasted with the serene views from on high in which people are invisible as the mega-district is rolled out across the landscape below.
The allocation of tenancies is touched upon obliquely but with effect. Most of the households are couples with young children, though often the male partner is a distant figure. There is an old man who used to live in the countryside and a louche actor, short of money and “between parts”, but the most fascinating insight is from one women whom we glimpse at times furtively looking out of the window of her flat. When the maintenance men eventually knock on her door to do the final snagging work she shoos them away; she seems to have got the flat through some unofficial means and wants nothing to do with officialdom. In a prescient comment for the future of social housing, and not just in this part of Europe, one of the men muses that “If we just gave them the houses and left them to sort it out for themselves we’d have none of the complaints.”
When there is an emergency but the local housing office is closed, a young boy responds by chucking a brick through the window.
A film to see
If you get a chance you should go and see it. You can view the trailer here. Panelstory is not just about how not to do top-down town planning and housing management, nor is it reducible to a critique of life under Normalisation, or to a characterisation of men as feckless slobs, though you can read all of these into it. There are no central characters, no real plotline – rather a collages of images of people leading disoriented lives, knowing few people, trusting even less, and then likely to be let down by them. The opening sequence sets the tone, as a taxi tries to find block number something like 2764 – I can’t remember the number and, like me, none of the people asked know it either. Today about 80,000 people live in Jižní Město.
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