Lessons from collective houses, or on the shoulders of giants

  • Vladimír Čech, Eduard Jukl, Výzkum bydlení úřednictva, Veřejné mínění II, 1947-1948, s. 6-8
  • Jiří Čepelák, Dělnictvo hutních závodů, Praha 1949
  • Hubert Guzik ed., Bydlet spolu: kolektivní domy v českých zemích a Evropě ve 20. století, Řevnice 2017
  • Hubert Guzik, Čtyři cesty ke koldomu: kolektivní bydlení - utopie české architektury 1900-1989, Praha 2014
  • Václav Hilský, Nové způsoby bydlení, Stavebnictví III, 1947, s. 56-59
  • Ota Klein, Krize emocionality, Sociologický časopis V, 1969 , s. 129-149
  • Marek Kopeć, Helena Doudová, Ondřej Dušek, Baugruppe!: manual, Praha 2015
  • Libuše Macková, O kolektivních domech dnes, Domov I, 1960, s. 35-39
  • Libuše Macková, Zkušenosti s bydlením v kolektivních domech, Architektura ČSR XIX, 1960, s. 191-196
  • Jiří Musil, Demografická situace kolektivních domů, Architektura ČSR XIX, 1960, s. 196-199
  • Jiří Musil, K otázce bydlení rodin s dětmi ve výškových domech, Architektura ČSR XXIV, 1965, s. 71-716
  • Otakar Nový, Reálný obraz, Literární noviny IX, 1960, s. 9
  • Julius Šif, O některých provozních a ekonomických otázkách kolektivních domů, Architektura ČSR XVIII, 1959, s. 37-38
  • Rostislav Švácha, Funkcionalistická tvorba architekta Václava Hilského, Umění XLIII, 1995, s. 134-148
  • B. Ulrich, Podnikový patriotismus, Československý průmysl IV, 1948, s. 54-55
  • Vladimír Wynnyczuk, K některým společenským problémům bydlení v kolektivních domech, Architektura ČSR XVIII, 1959, s. 36-37
  • Jenyka Zacharová, Obytné skupiny a jejich vybevení, Domov III, 1962, s. 52-54


Lessons from collective houses, or on the shoulders of giants

Architecture theorist Karel Teige came up with the idea of collective houses consisting of living units for single individuals in the 1920s. This radical model, inspired by the Soviet Union, ultimately did not catch on in Czechoslovakia. Collective houses, called “koldom”, which grew up in the Wallachia and Ore mountains regions after the Second World War, were already conceived differently.

Architects Jiří Voženílek in Zlín and Václav Hilský and Evžen Linhart in Litvínov intended their designs to be for the so-called nuclear family, where a household consisted of a pair of adults of productive age and their immature children. The apartments, which were above standard for their time, were complemented by a wide variety of social spaces and service facilities under one roof: dining room, crèche, kindergarten, gymnasium, clubhouse, and rooms for hobby groups.

In both cases, this idea came "from above", from industrial enterprises. The concept of a family koldom for Baťa employees originated in the company's construction department during the protectorate, namely as an attempt to prevent the disintegration of a cohesive employee community during the anticipated post-war chaos and crisis of confidence. [Guzik 2014]

Miloš Svitavský, the first post-war director of the Litvínov chemical plant, adopted the same concept. [Švácha 1995] The architects of the local koldom studied the practical operation of similar buildings during two visits to Sweden in 1946. As Václav Hilský wrote about the collective house in Stockholm's Marieberg district: While studying this building, I wasn't interested all that much in the overall operation of the house but more in how satisfied were the residents with life there. I asked them and all of them expressed high satisfaction with living in a collective house." [Hilský 1947]

The variety of facilities in the collective houses in Zlín and Litvínov surpassed that of Stockholm, and yet it did not meet the needs and wishes of the residents. In 1959, a sociological survey took place in both koldoms, when experts from the Research Institute of Construction and Architecture (VÚVA) examined the opinions of the members of a fifth of the households. The conclusions were unequivocal: "The experience of mutually planned complementing of the individual and collective components of living (…) is not good: none of the devices works as and to the extent the authors proposed." [Macková 1960a] The reality seemed to confirm the objections of the opponents of the collective housing, who immediately after the war criticised the builders for not having any sociological analyses before the Czechoslovak koldom proposals.

What was actually behind the failure of koldoms? Was it an insufficient analysis of the real wishes and needs of future residents? Or rather, ignoring the macroeconomic possibilities of the state and the limits of the family budgets of individual families? To what extent did the cultural dynamism and the increase in aspirations of the people of Czechoslovakia affect the life of collectives? And finally: what role did the size of the two buildings play in communal living?

In Czechoslovakia in the late 1950s, a debate flared up about the prospective forms of socialist housing. One of the frequent arguments, which, after all, formed the leitmotif of Czech reflections on collective housing since the time of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, was about the liberation of women from the "double shift". [Guzik 2017] Women in employment - the builders and architects thought - would no longer want to spend the second shift tending the family hearth every day, which was supposed to guarantee the demand for services available under one roof. However, these predictions soon ran into economic realities. At the end of the 1950s, in almost 75% of households in both koldoms, both spouses were employed. [Macková 1960b] Nevertheless, working-class families could often not afford to fully-use paid services. Although eating in the dining hall was mandatory in Zlín (which was regulated by the lease agreement), not even half of all residents regularly ate there. This is not surprising, given the income inequality between women and men, where during state socialism the average earnings of female workers were up to 40% lower than those of men. In reality, working-class families did not have a double salary at their disposal, but statistically only 1.6 of a man's salary. On the other hand, the "price of services" - as Libuše Macková from VÚVA aptly commented on the situation - "can (...) never be reduced so that it does not exceed the overhead costs of a household that provides its own operation". [Macková 1960a]

That the failure of the Czechoslovak koldoms was due to ill-conceived economic calculations can be illustrated by another example: even before food stamps were abolished in 1953, the state allocation was not even enough to take three meals a day from the koldoms' canteens. However, the high cost of living in koldoms was not only a domestic feature: the same problems were faced by similar Swedish or French implementations, whose residents mostly belonged to the middle-income strata of society.

It was the same in the so-called hotel-type houses, which began to emerge in Czechoslovakia at the turn of the 1960s and which were a kind of variant of koldoms for unmarried workers. Initially, these houses (called "hoteláks") offered a number of services: changing bed linen, cleaning apartments, daily delivery of purchases, and mass catering. Gradually, however, the facilities became fewer, as the residents simply could not afford such comfort. In addition to the monetary economy, the economy of time also played a role here: having lunch in the koldom was often inconvenient in terms of time for the workers in a situation where the canteen was right at hand in the plant.

In neither of the koldoms was cohabitation with other relatives within the family apartment considered. Instead of a joint economy of an extended family, whose members would provide daily assistance and contribute to the family budget in solidarity, architects and builders relied on strengthening the tertiary sector. However, this assumption went against the trend of the time to a large extent: the coexistence of a multi-generational family under one roof of a housing estate was quite common during state socialism, mainly due to the permanent lack of apartments. However, architects and planners did not reflect the psychosocial aspects of multigenerational living in their visions of a socialist lifestyle. On the contrary, they emphasised that in the koldom - thanks to the services offered - the advantages of living with a "grandmother" who takes care of the grandchildren or stands in line for scarce goods disappear.

In addition to economic aspects, demography also contributed to the failure of koldoms. The architectural design of both buildings could not be flexibly adapted to the rapidly changing age structure of the population. Koldoms - especially the one in Zlín - were inhabited by a large group of young families at the same time, which led to uneven utilisation of children's facilities. The crèche and kindergarten, initially half-empty, soon began to swell and take up spaces originally intended for the socialised activities of adults. Sociologists and demographers pointed out that if "we equip the house with complete facilities, we will necessarily witness the following situation: From the beginning, the crèche will be overcrowded, the kindergarten will be unused and the halls for older youth will be empty. After a certain period of about 5-10 years, the crèche will become vacant, the kindergarten will not have enough capacity, and the spaces for school youth will slowly begin to fill up. Next, attention will be focused on the problem of suitable schools and social facilities." [Wynnyczuk 1959]

If residents of a number of new housing estates faced this problem, the situation in collective houses was even worse. The koldoms – in Zlín for 400 and in Litvínov for 1,400 people – were simply too small and their inhabitants too homogeneous in age to keep the workload of the crèches, kindergartens, and groups stable. As a result, in both cases, children from the surrounding area began to be admitted to the koldom nurseries and kindergartens. After the capacity of the facilities in Zlín increased almost threefold, the "koldom" children formed a minority in them.

At the turn of the 1960s, architects and planners increasingly emphasised that the failure of collective housing could only be prevented with a deeper reform of the state housing policy. It was clear that at the beginning there lived also those who had no other choice of housing during the post-war housing shortage. Let us just point out that in public opinion polls conducted soon after the Second World War in Kladno's United Steel Works, the Ostrava-Karviná Mines and especially Pilsen's Škoda Works, approximately four-fifths of employees said they preferred living in a family house with a garden. [Čech – Jukl 1947–1948, Čepelák 1949]

It was therefore a housing policy that, in the minds of architects and builders, was supposed to stabilise the age structure of the residents of the koldoms and guarantee them the possibility of easy moving to a "bigger" or "smaller" one as needed. At the turn of the 1960s, this idea was developed most consistently by the authors of the hotel-type house in Olomouc. Tomáš Černoušek, Karel Dolák, and Jiří Zrotal designed here not only the building itself, but also a kind of experimental concept of urban housing policy. According to them, the exchange of a starter apartment with services in a hotel building for a standard residential apartment for families with children should naturally come after the birth of a child. In Olomouc, as well as in Zlín and Litvínov, however, the permanent lack of apartments and complex administration made such mobility practically impossible. The architects' bold vision of intertwining collective and residential housing failed spectacularly, and Olomouc families huddled in small living cells and cooked for their children on miniature stoves. [Guzik 2014]

More accurate forecasts of the demographic development of the inhabitants of collective housing, a well-considered housing policy, an easy exchange of apartments, or the flexibility of the internal equipment of the collective houses could have really contributed to their successful operation. What could not be predicted well, however, were individual consumption trends, lifestyle changes and rising aspirations during the golden 1960s. Perhaps this is also what the experts from VÚVA had in mind when they stated that at least "a third of the households in both collective houses do not even need common facilities and services." [Macková 1960a]

Sociologists were aware that collective houses do not form self-sufficient units. They knew that requirements for facilities of individual households and ideas about ways of spending free time are formed not only within the framework of the employee collectives of the Zlín Svit and the Litvínov Chemical Plant of Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship. They knew that the inhabitants - although they may seem like carbon copies of one another - constantly compare their standard of living with how people live around them, with what they see in the media, and finally with what they observe, for example, while on holiday in Yugoslavia.

While the inhabitants of the Litvínov koldom liked to brag about their above-standard socialised housing in times of the strictest Stalinism, in the following decade signs of what sociologists refer to as individual conspicuous consumption began to appear in Czechoslovakia as well. Appliances, "such as a television set, gramophone, tape recorder, electric washing machine, are not only a matter of practical need for a given household, but residents place them in their apartments as proof and a symbol of their higher and growing standard of living." [Wynnyczuk 1959]

Just after the Second World War, when Jiří Voženílek, Václav Hilský and Evžen Linhart designed koldoms, the social and community life of the inhabitants of medium-sized cities developed around industrial enterprises. Through their social policy, companies wanted to create stable employee collectives that would share a common system of values or even "corporate patriotism." [Ulrich 1948] However, the practice was already beginning to crumble during the 1950s. Club rooms and rooms for hobby groups enjoyed rather marginal interest. Those in Zlín, also due to the prominent location of the koldom in the city centre, soon turned into offices, while the use of those in Litvínov fluctuated. As Libuše Macková commented, "neither in Litvínov nor in Gottwaldov, however, are there enough people who, in addition to working at the plant, are engaged in public activities at their place of residence. Therefore, social life in both collective houses (…) has the character of randomness, as it depends more on the preferences of a few individuals than on the purposefulness of the collective." [Macková 1960b]

The nature of leisure activities was changing in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, and employee collectives were affected by the progressive "disruption of communal (...) relations and systems." As the sociologist Ota Klein wrote, "instead, collectives of a completely different type appear, (...) individually completely anonymous and partial: these include, in particular, spectator, betting, and card-playing collectives." [Klein 1969] Leisure activities were increasingly carried out within the four walls of the apartment or cottage. After all, it was none other than the architect Václav Hilský, co-author of the Litvínov koldom, who wrote a detailed article for the popular lifestyle magazine Domov in the early 1960s about the reconstruction of an old cottage for individual recreation.

Last but not least, the events of the Prague Spring and the onset of normalisation also had an effect on the crumbling of the collectives, which Litvínov residents still remember today. Therefore, in the end, the experts recommended placing rather smaller and variable social spaces in residential buildings, and transferring lecture halls or libraries "to a social centre outside the collective houses, in order to ensure their better use." [Macková 1960b]

Television became the imaginary nail in the coffin of koldoms. Since the beginning of regular broadcasting in the mid-1950s, the common rooms of the koldoms initially fulfilled an additional function that the architects did not even intend: for example, the television set in the Zlín clubhouse was mainly used for children, and initially up to "75% of the interviewed families" preferred "these joint television shows to the television set in the apartment," because in this way the children did not disturb the adults. [Macková 1960b] The rapid onset of popular culture - criticised in the 1960s by architect Karel Honzík, author of avant-garde designs for collective houses - soon changed the rhythm of the day for all koldom inhabitants. While the social policy of industrial enterprises focused on the targeted cultivation of employees' tastes, television entertainment suddenly began to compete with ambitious theatre or musical performances, which were organised especially in Litvínov.

Thus, in addition to the children's facilities, the clubhouse on the ground floor, which was used for various lectures and meetings, and partly also the gymnasium, where table tennis was played, the Spartakiads practices and performances for children took place, remained the only common facilities in use. According to Litvínov witnesses, it was the children who were able to make the best use of the complex spaces of this large building. Much to the chagrin of the adults, the house became a place for games for children, and even became a kind of big educational toy.

The conclusion of the debates on collective housing summarised here was not encouraging. Due to the many operational and hygienic defects and structural complexity associated with the grouping of a number of different functions under one roof, experts recommended placing civic amenities in separate pavilions outside the house. In the end, scattered housing estates, not single blocks of collective houses, guaranteed the efficient use and profitability of civic amenities.

Although the new solution came at the expense of residents' comfort and casual neighbourhood interactions, the economic balance gained priority. As the architect Joža Král from the Study and Typing Institute pointed out, "decentralised services would certainly be more accessible for residents, but such convenience, where we save time for travelling, is not everything. A facility for 1,000 people can never be equipped as well as a precinct facility for approximately 7,000 people.” [Zacharová 1962]

Koldoms and hotel houses thus gave way in Czechoslovakia to ordinary housing estates, sometimes referred to as "pavilion-style collective houses." [New 1960] Collective houses, perceived by the avant-garde architects of the first republic as a kind of vanguard and to some extent exclusive cell for testing future forms of housing, proved to be dysfunctional and economically unsustainable in real socialism. They proved to be too small to operate profitably, and at the same time too large to favour social bonds based on mutual responsibility and daily voluntary cooperation. [Guzik 2014] And the research of the following years brought one more argument: it turned out that high rise single blocks lead to a peculiar "familism," to the suppression of social ties. In particular, residents of higher floors preferred to spend their free time within the four walls of their own apartment, regardless of the offer of common rooms on the ground floor. [Musil 1965]