Some destinations lure visitors with evocative phrases suitable for travel brochures: The fountains of Rome. The rooftops of Paris. The souks of Marrakesh.
The panelaks of Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital on the Danube, will never make the list. The term, though, is potent. And the sight is a marvel — assuming, under the category of the marvelous, that you count, as I do, the existence of the largest concentration of graceless concrete high-rise housing units ever to stomp across the landscape of a Central Europe country formerly under Communist control.
The word itself is a colloquial expression in Czech and Slovak, with roots in both languages’ more technical compound term for “panel house”: Prestressed and prefabricated, panelaks were rapidly assembled and cheaply built to solve a post-World War II housing crisis. They also expressed a basic aspect of Soviet ideology, providing egalitarian habitat for humanity — even if it was a humanity that couldn’t afford to complain about bad insulation, leaky windows, structural weaknesses and mechanical failures.
Hungarians and Poles have their own related words for similar complexes; the high-rises of Central Europe were, after all, once the Eastern Bloc rage. And the impulse to provide one-size-fits-all urban shelter can be seen everywhere around the globe from London council flats to Cabrini Green in Chicago, built between 1942 and 1962 and torn down between 1995 and 2011, and the infamous Pruitt-Igoe complex, first occupied in St. Louis in 1954 (designed by Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center), and demolished by dynamite and despair in 1972.
But in Europe, panelak prevails as the name for the buildings and all they signify because more of them were built in the former Czechoslovakia — in a boom that stretched from 1959 to 1995 — than any place else on what was once Soviet earth. Today, about a third of all Czechs and Slovaks, from all income brackets, still call their panelaks home. Some 130,000 residents live in the Bratislava complex alone, concentrated in the city’s Petrzalka district. […]