The concept of utopia is used in both academic and non-academic discourse, while it's clear definition is disappearing. Usage in different contexts paired with boundaries that are dissolving and transforming due to the very nature of utopia adds to the predicament. In general, utopia can be described as heaven on Earth or an unreal reality, but it is most often described as an ideal place in the legal, political, and social system. A fictional place where everything is perfect. In the classical utopian texts of Thomas More (1978), Tommaso Campanella (1979), Robert Owen (1960), and Charles Fourier (1983) the utopia is described as a city that represents the centre of social and industrial progress and cultural maturity. It is a perfectly designed and constructed space that allows the existence of a perfect society (Vacková 2010).
Studies of post-socialist cities describe the concept of utopia much more clearly. Utopian, which stands for an ideal and at the same time unattainable, or, the opposite, failed and dystopic, often refers to a socialist city or its parts. A socialist city is the city of the future. It is portrayed as healthy, clean, sunlit, and green. In addition to an unwavering belief in technological progress, it also demonstrates a belief in the cultural development of the new man (Veselý 2014: 81). Thus, the socialist city offers a vision of a better, technologically advanced future, a place of abundance for a modern socialist man, where people are equal and learn to coexist. From what we know from history, our socialist cities have not reached this point, which can be explained by the theory of utopia and ideology by Karl Mannheim (1991). According to Mannheim, both represent a certain interpretation of reality, a form of false consciousness. On one hand, utopias are produced by the groups that currently lack power, on the other hand, ideology is used by ruling groups to stabilize social reality. Utopists, therefore, seek to change the social and power conditions (Vacková 2010). For Mannheim (1991), it is relatively complicated to distinguish between ideological and utopian cognition of the world; the boundary between these two concepts is vague, obscure, and often also volatile. Ideology transforms into utopia and vice versa by changing the point of view, by changing the historical perspective. That which is understood as utopia today can become a reality in the future. Rather than a type, it is a level (Vacková 2009: 10-20) or a degree of utopism.
Contemporary authors perceive socialist cities similarly and often reference housing estates as a typical example of socialist utopian construction. Rubin (2007; 2016) demonstrates on the example of a Berlin housing estate the utopian concept of the ideal society that is connected with such dwellings, but also their dystopian character, caused by the unlimited and all-pervading power of the state (Rubin 2016). Similarly, Dunu (2018: 127) describes socialist precast concrete estates as either a courageous yet unsuccessful utopia or, conversely, a dystopia with a flash of hope in its essence, even though he immediately rejects this disparity as purely theoretical. In reality, the issue is very complex, and one shall not encounter absolute polarities,therefore dividing reality into utopia and dystopia for the sake of its description is irrelevant. He proposes to consider the relationship between utopia and dystopia not as opposites, but as two sides of the same coin. The following text focuses on the question of the utopia / dystopia / ideology of a socialist city, how it has transformed throughout history, and in what state can it be found today.
1. The concept of utopia
The origin of socialist utopia (or dystopia) was not at all accidental, nor was it the result of socialist politics. The development of this utopia was, in fact, linked to the philosophical ideas associated with the end of the 19th century. What we have experienced in the last century can be described as the culmination and spatial embodiment of long-term socio-political aspirations (Dunu 2018: 119).
The idea of social housing for workers or socially disadvantaged people has been emerging in Europe since the end of the 19th century when the first unique housing projects appeared. The first city-funded social housing for poor families in what is now Slovakia appeared in 1913 (Moravčíková 2011). Its purpose was to provide affordable housing and ensure a particular standard of living providing a healthy environment for those who could not reach it on their own. However, precast concrete panel structures are not an invention of post-war socialist governments. One of the first precast concrete structures in Europe emerged in the Netherlands and Germany in the early decades of the 20th century, followed by France and Scandinavia. In Czechoslovakia, precast concrete technology was also tested in the interwar period by the Baťa company (Zarecor 2011).
The left-wing oriented interwar avant-garde movement formulated The Athens Charter in the 1930s, which described the principles of architectural modernity. For the avant-garde architects of this period, the question of public housing was crucial. They dealt with issues of providing dignified, hygienic, economically, and environmentally acceptable housing for all people living in the ever-expanding cities. Nonetheless, these utopian ideas did not flourish at the time and are remembered only as solitary projects, agitation texts, and experiments (Šimáček, Szczyrba, Andráško, Kunc 2015).
Left-wing ideas of architectural modernity have finally evolved into an ideology in the post-war years, made possible mainly by the state ownership of the land and the industries. Architects applied the principles of the Athens Charter particularly in the planning of housing estates, where they, for example, tried to divide a town into zones based on their function – residence, work, relaxation, and transport. They further expanded the concept by removing the classic city streets and explored the concept of a vertical garden town (Howard 1902) with its own centre offering services and civic facilities (Janto 2015). Both architects and politicians were very optimistic about the future and believed in the possibility of an egalitarian society. However, the housing situation in emerging socialist states was unenviable. Creating a classless society and an ideal city was definitely a problem, but solving the housing shortage proved even more difficult. Not only did the aftermath of the war reveal a critical shortage of flats, but most of the existing flats were in an unsatisfactory hygienic condition. In East Germany, more than 60% of flats didn’t include showers and toilets (Sammartino 2018). The situation was similar in Hungary (Molnar 2013) and Czechoslovakia, where approximately half of the flats had running water and one third had a toilet. At the same time, all the flats were overpopulated, even according to the heretofore hygiene standards (Veselý 2014). It was therefore necessary to resolve the housing crisis quickly, efficiently, and ideologically correct. The idea of an affordable and functional living has been maturing in Europe for half a century, into what would become a mass construction of housing for the general public, not just a working class. The housing crisis affected the entire society and solving it also created an opportunity to eliminate class differences. After a short wave of experiments at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s, a typical construction of panel housing estates began with the use of industrialization, prefabrication, standardization, and modernization. Mostly modest and unfortunate housing estates were the result of several requirements: equality and the increase of living, spatial and hygienic standards of the inhabitants (Veselý 2014). The concept of universality has proven to be the best method for the practical implementation of large-scale production, but also to be one of the most problematic aspects. The need for flats, mass production, and the demand for equality of basic living conditions meant that the question of housing became the main subject of the architecture of the 20th century (Moravčíková 2012) and that it became an integral part of socialist ideology.
At the same time, at the very beginning of the realization of the housing projects, the true nature of a utopia, that is, its unattainability became apparent.
"It is evident that in practice, the construction of panel housing estates fell behind the noble goals of inter-war modernist urbanism in many respects. Not only was the project impossible because of poor economic situation in the Czechoslovak state, but at the same time it was not the primary goal for any of the governments, which sought to overcome the serious housing crisis as quickly and cheaply as possible" (Veselý 2014)
In addition, architects had no previous experience in this type of construction work and therefore had to base their concepts on theoretical hypotheses that did not correspond to reality. Different partial solutions appeared to be very attractive and desirable, but practical applications soon showed that some problems were removed only to be replaced with the new ones (Šimáček, Szczyrba, Andráško, Kunc 2015). The whole construction of the housing estates was often accompanied by problems such as lack of resources or material and labour shortages and construction delays. Often, the first inhabitants had to wait several years for the completion of the infrastructure and services. Even today, some of the originally planned civic facilities remain unfinished (Veselý 2014; Zarecor 2017). Instead of utopian garden towns, a "special mixture of industrialism, socialist principles and principles of modern architecture" (Musil 2002: 281) created a housing estate, criticized mainly for its monotony, constructional and design errors, monofunctionality and therefore the lack of service (Janto 2015). Even the ideas of affordable housing and equality between the people have not been fully achieved. As described by Szelényi (1983), the pace of housing construction in large industrial cities fell behind urbanization, and the flat was still a precious commodity during the 1980s, mostly accessible only to middle-class members, intelligentsia, professionals, and people with acquaintances, contrary to all declarations claiming the better affordability for all.
Or what a utopia could look like after experiencing the disappointment of socialism? Editors of the KAJET Journal explore this question in more detail in the thematic issue devoted to socialist utopia/dystopia (2018). According to Mannheim's (1991) concept of utopia, one could expect that, after the collapse of the communist regimes, the ruling ideologies will once again gradually turn towards utopia. The idea of affordable, state-guaranteed and hygienic housing will, over the years, become a utopian form of false consciousness and people will demand a change in social reality. However, such a vision does not seem to be widely shared, even though our society faces another housing crisis. The collective utopia of communism has been demystified and fragmented into countless private utopias. The desire for a utopian society has fallen apart. While there existed notions ofan achievable ideal future in the past, the social imagination has changed in time. The ideas of socialist utopia evaporated and became a ghost. Post-Communism is now, paradoxically, anti-utopian and completely deprived of prospects (Mogos 2018).
Chelcea and Druţǎ (2016) claim that the post-socialist capitalism, which we currently experience, is not built on ruins of communism, but has been raised and maintained by the powerful victors of the economic transformation who use communism as a scarecrow to discipline the workforce and force them to give up their claims for social justice (Poenaru 2013; Simonica 2012). The actual and prestigious socialist past is now "zombielike" (hence the term ‚zombie socialism‘) and works as an "ideological antioxidant" (Žižek 2001 in Chelcea and Druţǎ 2016) or, more precisely, as a "utopian antioxidant". What do we need to do to be able to re-imagine the East European future (Mogos 2018)? The first option would be to refrain from using terms such as post-communism and post-socialism (Ferenčuhová 2016; Gentile 2017). This concept makes it impossible for us to see our cities in their continuity and historical context (Ferenčuhová 2016, Hirt 2016) and thus inhibits our ability to perceive the utopia of affordable housing as something that existed before socialism and should exist after it. The concept of post-socialist city inadvertently creates artificial limits for our imagination (Gentile 2017). Ruling classes and power elites promote an antisocialist interpretation of reality where it is impossible to reflect critically on the socialist housing policy, its contradictions, its ideals or its consequences due to aversion to socialism.
One won’t get close to understanding the current housing crisis and its possible origins while swaying between the nostalgia left by the previous regime and the total rejection of it. Kahl (2003 in Sammartino 2018) writes that the 1970’s housing crisis in East Germany was so bad that people subjected all their personal lives to an attempt to get an apartment - they married or divorced, had children, or rather didn’t have children, changed their jobs. Today, young people find themselves in a similar situation where they often have no choice but to take a mortgage and for 30 years submit their lifestyle to the repayment schedule. Then there is another group of inhabitants who don’t event reach the rental housing (due to discrimination, high deposit for the apartment, etc.), live in hygienically unsuitable conditions or on the street. In our society, homelessness is something normal and generally accepted. In an effort to solve this problem, the unique utopians encounter a wave of resistance – the righteous anger of residents, who feel that nobody cares about their housing problems (e.g., the Rapid Re-housing project in Brno). Hence, what does the long-dead utopia of available housing and the associated historical experience offer in terms of solution? First of all, it suggests that the problem of housing is not only related to homelessness, but it also affects much wider society. There is, however, no universal solution because different people have different needs, preferences and lifestyles that need to be taken into account. Nonetheless, we can base our work on plenty of up-to-date housing research projects and analyses (such as Samec 2018, Sunega, Lux 2018) that can help steer us from forming unrealistic plans.
Utopia of affordable housing in the sense of a shared vision is possible if we don’t let ourselves be discouraged by the memory of socialist dystopia / unfinished utopia / ideology embodied in panel housing estates, but if we find inspiration in it. The dystopia tells us more about our own limits than the nature of an unattained utopia (Naum 2018). We should therefore actively involve our imagination and picture a possible better world and how to achieve it, taking into account our limits. Yes, the housing estates have their faults, but so do we.