Coping with Communism's Grim Legacy of High-Rise Buildings

Article excerpt

WITHIN a single month, fire broke out at three prefabricated residential tower blocks in Budapest, caused by leaking gas pipes, faulty electrical wiring and in one case a suicide attempt. Such tragedies occurring at the vast high-rise housing estates built in the days of command culture are increasingly frequent up and down Hungary and much of the formerly Communist states of Eastern Europe. They claim many lives, make many more residents homeless and highlight an enormous architectural and social issue.

From the grey ports lining the Baltic coastline all the way to the slums of Vladivostok on the Pacific, these great suburbs raised to glorify Soviet power must be modernized before they create more problems than they were once intended to solve, say town planners across this newly independent region. Some of the buildings house as many as 1,500 individual dwellings. These virtually indestructible, high-rise settlements, frequently infested with crime and vermin, remain sprawling monuments of a widely despised bygone age. Their residents are seeking new ways to live with them.

The prosperous former East Berlin, which is already part of the European Union (EU), has thrown some DM14bn ($6.2bn) at the problem, and largely solved it through an imaginative urban renewal scheme. Moscow and most of the other neglected cities of formerly communist-dominated Europe have managed at best to postpone the issue. Innovative Budapest has set about erecting an affordable approach to coping with that depressing and dangerous architectural heritage.

Not surprisingly, the Hungarian housing finance model originates from the residents themselves. It may well hold out a solution for much of the region.

Originally built to alleviate an appalling housing shortage after the ruinous Second World War, these uniform suburbs were once used to support claims for the superiority of central economic and social planning over all alternative models. Shabbily assembled at great haste and little expense, at first they proved politically successful. Huge populations were given housing in the modern settlements as a reward for docile acquiescence in a generally hated social system. Principles of 'socialist architecture' were adopted by radical town planners for the subsidized mass housing estates built at that time even in London and Paris.

People who worried about irrecoverable architectural losses when graceful neighbourhoods had to give way to the impersonal new developments were dismissed as sentimental reactionaries. Vast populations found themselves arbitrarily resettled, torn from their well established, supportive old communities.

`These people were totally unprepared for the isolation among strangers that was awaiting them,' relates Dr. Mary Balazs, a clinical psychologist who has spent decades treating what she describes as 'the resulting cases of depression. Eventually the suicide rates began to rise, the most extreme among the many signs of stress displayed by people lacking other escape routes from their pre-fabricated lives assembled without regard to their needs.'

By the late 1980s when the construction of 'socialist' housing estates had reached its peak, Hungary's national per capita suicide rate had also become the highest in the world -- to decline again by a stunning 30 per cent following the corresponding decline and collapse of communist rule. Official social and psychological surveys in the past carefully refrained from exploring a link between suicide and the high-rise estates. But a great deal of anecdotal evidence has stubbornly associated the two, at least in the public mind.

A lot of statistical research data also link suicide with these grim pre-fab estates. Most of the 4,000 Hungarians who took their lives last year in this country of just 10 million, and the 40,000 known to have attempted to do so, suffered from clinical depression, says Dr. …