In all of the Eastern Bloc, time and economic constraints led to prefabricated panels, creating mostly identical blocks, mostly grey, though sometimes gifted with over-washed looking colors. The grey is easy to figure out, as, being the color of the material used, it was the cheapest and easiest way. But the colors? That meant painting over an added layer of stucco. A little more effort, to make the buildings welcoming and friendly to the new dwellers. Maybe so that the cramped living conditions awaiting them, or the inevitable problems of quality, would seem less frustrating. The slight differences in styles (shape, numbers of apartments, height, windows, colors, etc.) are the product of various architectural and design tryouts to find the perfect balance between a fast pace of construction, cheap materials, maximizing of the space available, evolving trends, new knowledge and methods, and trying to please the population and convince it of the benefits of socialist housing. That is why a walk through New Belgrade offers a wide range of apartment block styles. There is also the fact that not all blocks were built by the state; a solution to the high cost of production became, at one point, to encourage private constructions, so that the burden of housing a growing urban population would be shared (see John Sillince’s book, Housing Policies in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union). This is all to say that it would be wrong to assume that socialist cities’ suburbs were exclusively grey!
And even in the realm of grey, an impressive variety of styles and defying-gravity structures can be observed. These are apartment blocks as well as other buildings such as bus stop, administrative centers, museums, hotels, monuments. Brutalist architecture is anything but boring! If I can’t convince people it is beautiful, they must at least concede it is impressive.
Back to the Balkan peninsula and modern day: a tangible socialist legacy is the thousands of apartment blocks, mostly grey. For many they are a painful reminder of the limitations of the regime, and everything that it stood for. And this is part of the debate on preservation vs destruction that I will discuss later. In the meantime, a pleasant alternative is the re-appropriation of those buildings. Tirana, Albania’s capital city, is a wonderful example of how a communist past doesn’t have to be a burden, and doesn’t keep a city frozen in time. Architectural structures can be modified so that they carry a legacy in a peaceful way, such as do refurbished buildings, or cafés installed in former residential or administrative spaces.
Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister, and former mayor of Tirana, has done a lot to get rid of the sinister atmosphere conveyed by grey buildings. At the beginning of the 2000s, he mandated them painted in bright colors, which was very well received. Other recent actions in this line of thought include turning a former brutalist museum to Hoxha, now abandoned, into a center for the youth, which will give a new purpose to a symbol of the former regime. Re-appropriating buildings, by painting them or giving them new functions, keeps them alive, preserves them, while bringing them into the present. They are still the remnants of a political era, which I think is important to preserve as it is a part of history, even if it is not a happy one. But the colors on the socialist blocks now make them a symbol of hope for the future, by turning a sad legacy for today into a joyful legacy for tomorrow.