Painting the Grey Away: Why Colour is Important in Czech and Slovak “Paneláky”

Isabelle argues for the importance of colour in Czech and Slovak “Paneláky” housing, and reflects on its political connotations.

In 1948, after many attempts at resistance, Czechoslovakia finally succumbed to the pressure of communist rule — an event that would bring about more than four decades of intense nationalisation, militarisation, and repression of individual freedoms. It was during this time that the need for quick, cheap housing, which would properly accommodate the growing population, was addressed in the form of paneláky.

 

For Czechs and Slovaks alike, the “panelák” is an all too familiar form of housing for the population’s majority. Traditionally, paneláky refers to a minimalistic, prefabricated style of housing blocks which were designed for mass-accommodation, often extending for great expanses of length and height. Such paneláky, under variational names, can still be widely observed in other former members of the Eastern Bloc like Poland, where they are referred to as bloki, or in Russia where they are referred to as khrushchevkas.

 

Even though the inner living quarters of paneláky during communism could very well evoke memories containing warmer, nostalgic sentiments of, say, your “babka”’s (grandma) steaming pot of guláš, a splayed game of German-suited cards accompanied, perhaps, by a recently stubbed cigarette, or the light-hearted adventures of Krtek the mole on the square television screen, the exterior undeniably hinted at starker, communist underpinnings: one often characterised by flat, grey facades.

 

Typical paneláky during communism (in the winter)

 

The homogeneously drab facades of such cost-efficient blocks on the one hand alluded to communism’s economical utility and social equality; yet on the other, it symbolised the political repression of religion, speech, and general expression. In recent decades, however, endeavours have been made to revitalise many of these grey exteriors, and efface their haunting past in a singularly notable way— through colour. Following the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the grey tower blocks which had long dominated Czechoslovak skylines became gradually replaced by a man-made rainbow; anything ranging from pastel pinks to lurid greens now came to greet Czech and Slovak residents who entered their familiar panelák after a day’s work.

 

The aesthetic superiority of such colourful changes is certainly subjective and open to debate. While some, like myself, feel emotionally drained by dull-coloured environments and so heartily welcome the vibrancy and visual stimulation of such refurbished paneláky, others prefer the utilitarian simplicity and futuristic appeal of a more exposed, grey-cement exterior.

 

Certainly, the colourful development pays heed to a politically significant moment of transition; one which quite literally paints away the ideological dullness of communism. Although colour as an aesthetic choice is arguably insignificant, merely symbolising ideological liberty, I believe that colour is rendered significant in its psychological effect because it also actively sustains the post-communist ideal of liberty by way of colour psychology.

 

The same view, only 25 years later

 

My reasoning for this belief stems from the psychological repercussions associated with visual monotony. In a journal article, Frank H. Mahnke, who has extensively researched environmental colour psychology, writes that people run the risk of under stimulation in a visually monotonous environment. Under stimulation in architectural environments, he continues, has been correlated with a general excess of emotional response, manifesting in symptoms like restlessness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Residents of paneláky are constantly exposed to their architectural environments — for example, during walks down the block to the local “lekáreň” (pharmacy), in after-school games on the ubiquitous, globe-shaped climbing frame with the neighbourhood kids, or even while pinning up laundry to the line on the balcony. In the backdrop of an inorganically monotone scene, I imagine that people would, during such activities, be somewhat more likely to act in emotional excess out of a self-preservative need to substitute for the lack of stimulation from their external world.

 

In a more extreme analogy, the overwhelming builds of many paneláky could simulate a form of solitary confinement where one feels virtually enclosed, and correspondingly crazed, by the unadorned, grey walls which tower over the self – likened further to a perpetual seasonal depression of grey walls which seemingly imitate grey skies. Such uncolorful conditions can easily foster depressive symptoms like loneliness and graveness, and encourage a breeding ground for “Gopnik” (think “squatting Slavs” who drink lots of vodka and notoriously enjoy unlawful hobbies) -esque behaviours. This is a development confirmed in heightened rates of drinking, suicide, and violence in the Eastern Bloc during the height of communist rule, and exacerbated by public anxieties and insecurities relating to the political condition.

 

Modern-day paneláky as taken from my grandparents’ balcony

 

The newly painted exteriors of paneláky in the contemporary era provide substance for the mind, keeping one mentally active, engaged, and “sane” on their daily excursions to town. Although some, including my own “Babi” (granny), find the new colours to be garish, most Czechs and Slovaks find it adds a refreshing touch of life to their environment. The diversity of colours, although stylistically debatable, altogether complements the diversity of opinions freely shared and expressed today by citizens over the ashes of a republic that punished church-goers like my “Dedo” (grandpa), severely restricted any travel out of its borders, and killed political dissidents in total apathy. Architectural environments and politics can truly act hand-in-hand, and ultimately, the pair may prove colour as a potential litmus test for us to subtly assess the political stability and state of a given nation, such as former Czechoslovakia, both in history and in present time.

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