Pécs used to be a quiet little town until industrialization, mining (and socialism) came around just before the two world wars. The city we see today is still strongly influenced (maybe scarred) by the tower blocks that were erected by the thousands to place the growing population moving to the cities.
While some think of these densely populated neighborhoods as “concrete jungles” one can find advantages to them also. The biggest element is purely cultural: “panel” houses (as Hungarians call them, referring to the prestructured concrete building blocks) popped up everywhere in the Eastern Block of Europe from the 1960s and until the end of the socialist era almost 800 thousand apartments were constructed in Hungary.
Pécs still has some of the biggest housing projects (Kertváros, Megyer and Uránváros) in the country – and the more than 25 thousand flats meant that literally everybody had friends or relatives living in those high rises. The kids growing up in these uniform concrete boxes shared the same experiences: they might not be able to tell a cow from a bull as their village friends could, but were sure to find a bathroom in any of the project apartments in seconds.
Panel houses (let us stick with the Hungarian word for them) did huddle up great numbers of people but also provided the much needed modern comfort in an age when even running water was not evident in city apartments either.
We cannot deny that the first decades of the panel-age mostly meant forced and rushed constructions, still, almost all of the buildings stand tall even today and house families. Modernization is inevitable however, but some insulation and other renewal projects make these buildings last for some more decades according to experts. So if you get the chance to move into one of these, you will most likely move out because of your graduation before anything else.
A roaring exception to the affordable and habitable concrete boxes story is standing 25 stories tall in the middle of Pécs – not a real success story. The Magasház (as the locals call their 1974-76 built but since 1989 abandoned ghost tower) was constructed with too loosely adapted instructions, resulting in serious structural damage in the long run. Ironically, our little skyscraper with its 250 apartments still stands tall but has to be cleared away – the project has already started and is expected to last at least a year.
Until then let us pay attention to the panel houses that are here to stay: the ones that resembled ghettos enough in the 1990s to give western gangsta rap a fertile soil in the East, the ones that still offer affordable housing and guaranteed company to middle class families, these small towns and their communities that will form a huge part of this nation for decades (or centuries) to come.
by László Nógrádi