Monolithic high-rise complexes were built around the former Eastern Bloc after World War II with various names across Central and Eastern Europe, including painting (Czech Republic and Slovakia), Wilka Pieta (Poland), Banky (Bulgaria), Banky (Ukraine), Plattenbau (Germany), and panel’niy dom (Russia). Quickly assembled to provide communal housing for expanding urban populations in post-war socialist countries, prefabricated and strained concrete towers expressed a key aspect of Soviet ideology that emphasized equality, collectivism, standardization, and function—but they were often marked by structural weaknesses such as poor insulation and leakage Windows as a result of financial problems and a rush in construction. Prefabricated slab blocks have faced further deterioration due to lack of preservation and gradual erosion since the fall of Soviet communism. However, the undecorated apartment complexes – which housed a large number of elderly residents – act as high-rise monuments of an influential era.
A new photo book from David Navarro and Martyna Sobecka of Zupagrafika, an independent publisher and graphic design studio in Poland, documents 40 such concrete slab housing projects in 37 different cities of the former Eastern Bloc and former Yugoslavia, from Berlin to Kyiv and Tallinn. tenants Residents of these compounds are depicted holding paper models cut and folded from prefabricated slab blocks where they live. (Photos were taken by Navarro, Sobecka, and a number of contributing photographers between 2012 and 2022.) Doyle spoke to Navarro and Sobecka about the takeaway from the decade-long project, including what we stand to lose if the prefab panels deteriorate. Whether by neglecting its preservation or destruction in war.
Live: How did you find the residents you photographed and appeared to them? tenants?
David Navarro and Martina Subica: In 2012, during our first photo session with the paper model of the Orła Biaego estate in Pozna, Poland, a resident approached us and shared the story of the life lived there. She kindly agreed to be photographed holding our paper form in front of her apartment. Since then, we have continued to take pictures of the residents of these buildings. We would approach them in front of their homes during the shooting at the site and ask about their story. In recent years, we have also invited local photographers to contribute to tenants. They made it possible for the book to include some areas that would otherwise have been out of reach for us, especially during the pandemic.
What are your impressions of the finished slab blocks that you visited and photographed for the book?
We live and work in Poland, thus, the architecture of the socialist era, or ‘PRL’ (Polish People’s Republic), is still present in our daily lives. Cities in Poland are surrounded by huge prefabricated panel buildings that are inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people. Martina was born in the mid-1980s, and like many people of this generation, she grew up in a Wilka Pieta Property. We see the buildings featured in our books as anti-modern architecture – these post-war apartment blocks are often thought of as monolithic gray blocks of concrete, but a rich diversity can be found in their design and urban planning.
What did you learn from speaking with the residents of these collective housing complexes?
We’ve learned a lot from people whose daily lives revolve around ‘sleeping zones’. [a nickname for urban micro-districts built during the Soviet era]. It was exciting to find out how united their feelings were about the properties they inhabited. From the former East Germany to Siberia, and all the way through Kazakhstan to the Baltic states, residents unanimously praised the large green spaces, children’s playgrounds and public transportation, often complaining about the technical condition of the buildings, such as poor thermal insulation or maintenance.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sets the rest of the country Banky at risk of being destroyed. Do you know the condition of the characteristic buildings and residents of Lviv and Kiev?
Modernist architecture in post-war Ukraine is particularly at risk, particularly in residential areas under Russian bombardment. Ironically, many of the prefab apartment buildings now being destroyed were built in response to a massive housing shortage after World War II. We are still in contact with the contributing photographer in Kyiv named Tatiana who took the picture of Oksana, a resident of the high-rise in the Obolon region. Although the streets of Opolon were attacked at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so far we know that the towers that appear in the book are still standing, that Oksana and Tatiana are safe and remain in Kyiv. Residential areas of Lviv given in the book were not bombed.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the book?
We have begun publishing interactive illustrated books on post-war modernity in response to the rapid disappearance of this type of architecture that has been thoughtlessly demolished or renovated. Many of these structures reflect the dreams and ideals of a controversial era. with tenantsWe want readers to see the human faces behind the concrete facades. As we write in the book: “Properties built in Central and Eastern Europe to provide quick and cheap housing after World War II are now over 60 years old and their future uncertain. While some are being renovated and some have been prematurely demolished, tenants remain unsuspecting. They lived through their golden years and dark times. They are real estate.