The Architecture of the Iron Curtain

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 3:51 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past September I took another trip to Europe.  It took me 30 years on this planet to take my first step on the European Continent, and the trip last year was intentionally confined to the historically more developed countries of the Northwest.  One of the goals for this second trip was to visit several of those countries in Eastern Europe formerly hidden behind the Iron Curtain of Communism.

Uniformity and equality were tenants of Soviet Communism as it spread across Eastern Europe, and these virtues were expressed through architectural styles as they were through policy and doctrine.  This photo essay is not intended to be a comprehensive look at the countries I visited, but rather a peak into the architectural remnants of what the Communist system left behind.

The first stop on the “Iron Curtain” portion of my trip was Prague.  Capital of the now defunct Czechoslovakia, Prague has become a hot spot for tourists and expats drawn by the cheap beer and some of Eastern Europe’s more striking classical architecture (saved for an upcoming post).  This shot above is the Prague TV Tower built between 1985 and 1992.
Though Prague has been one of the fastest developing Eastern European cities since the fall of Comnunism, relics of the past abound, such as this “made in GDR” (East Germany) manhole.
another random shot from Prague
I’m not sure from where this derives but I noticed a particular infatuation with the word “non-stop” ( aka 24 hr) throughout Eastern Europe.  Non-stop restaurants, non-stop bars, non-stop massage parlors, it’s all there….and it doesn’t stop!
My primary foray into the Czech Republic’s communist past consisted of a day trip to Milovice, a small town with an abandoned Soviet airbase and surrounding village, shown in these ensuing pics.
After communism fell, many of the old block buildings which were still in use received colorful paint jobs, such as this one in Milovice.
decommissioned hangar
Not exactly sure what this is, but it’s probably the tallest free-standing tower I have ever seen.
inside one of the buildings surrounding the airfield
Here’s a shot of the actual airfield.  The day I visited it was hosting a hot-rod convention.
Now the capital of the independent state of Slovakia, Bratislava is a pleasant city with pleasing streetscapes…although you would never guess it upon arrival at the train station, rebuilt in 1988 just before the fall of Communism.
A component of the Communist dream was equality in housing forms.  This, combined with a post-WW2 housing shortage, led to the mass proliferation of “Panelaks,” mega-housing blocks, which still today house 1 in 3 residents of the former Czechoslovakia.  Bratislava’s Petrzalka district (shown above) is one of the world’s largest collections of Panelaks.
The post-war architectural wave of big-block housing units which brought Panelaks to Eastern Europe also manifested itself in massive urban housing projects for the poor in the United States such as the now defunct Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green.
It is difficult to capture the size of Petrzalka through photography or even human eyesight.  My attempt to wander around was cut short after about an hour of walking when I realized how little ground I had managed to cover.
One of the more peculiar sites I discovered in Bratislava was this abandoned soccer stadium.
Moving on now to Budapest and a slightly different flavor of Communist-era architectural layers.  The following shots are from the city centre.
Like many Eastern European cities, many of the Communist-era architectural “gems” of Budapest are found on the outskirts of town, such as this suburban street scene.
Much of the Budapest suburbs consists of a ring of grey buildings (such as this one) which surround the city, and which lore suggests would have somehow protected the city from military invasion.
As a symbolic rebuff to the Communist Era, Budapest houses a statue of the man who defined his career by striving to bringing it down.
…but of course Reagan isn’t the only throwback to the 1980’s.
Next stop on the Iron Curtain is Nowa Huta, a district just outside of Krakow, Poland, which was built as a model Stalinist village in the 1950s and 1960s.
The original town was built around this central square and quickly grew as a major steel-producing center of the Eastern Bloc.
As the town grew, modernist Panelak-style buildings sprung up around Nowa Huta as it expanded to become one of Krakow’s largest districts.
Though not quite touristy yet, Nowa Huta does tout itself as a tourist destination for travelers interested in Communist architecture.  Several routs are demarcated to guide visitors through the district.

Now moving on to a few random shots from Katowice, Poland
Katowice is the largest city in the the Silesian Metropolis, an agglomeration of 14 adjacent cities with a metropolitan population of over 5 million.
One of the more bizarre buildings I encountered was the Katowice Spodek (literally “saucer”)  opened in 1971 and currently the largest indoor venue in Poland.
The last leg on my Communist tour fittingly was Berlin, where both Communism and Capitalism prevailed on adjacent sides of the Berlin Wall until 1990.  Here are shots from several of the sections where the wall still stands.
Berlin is a fascinating city for many reasons, but one of them is the confluence of Communist and Capitalist Europe.  In the former East, many large Panelak-style housing developments still exist, such as Marzahn (above and following pics).
The housing blocks of Marzahn were constructed primarily in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and today stick out as one of Berlin’s most expansive collection of Communist-era residential buildings.
The years of Communism left an indelible mark on both the landscape and the people of Eastern Europe.  As a tourist/voyeur peeping around Eastern Europe, it’s easy to marvel at the architectural record left behind by years of despair while forgetting the hardships endured by millions of people.  This sculpture, from a public park in Prague, visualizes the toll Communism took on the people of Eastern Europe.  Beginning with a full, healthy man in the center, the ensuing figurines reflect how Communism ripped life away, until in the end nothing was left.  Today, Eastern Europe is rapidly catching up the West, but it will take generations for the ill-effects of communism to fully dissipate.


  1. Mark United States said,

    December 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Amazing photos, but the one question that comes to mind is why would a manhole made in communist East Germany be stamped with English instead of German or one of the other communist bloc languages, such as Russian?

  2. Maria Sweden said,

    December 30, 2012 at 4:08 am

    Mark: I think the “made in” label came into use following British regulations, initially with the intention of making it easier for Britons to choose goods manufactured in Britain over goods from other countries. Hence the English language marking the country of origin, throughout the world and regardless of local language.

  3. cris Romania said,

    January 8, 2015 at 3:18 am

    Good. But why not show the beautiful parts too? Since this is about analyzing Europe as a whole? Cities in eastern Europe have old, beautiful architecture and cities.
    You say other parts of the continent are “historically more developed” and then you show only grim parts of eastern Europe found in some city outskirt. Be fair and show the beautiful parts too because that represents their real heritage. Communism is a black hole in human history that should be put on equal footing with the Holocaust, it is not a “cultural heritage” because there’s nothing cultural about oppression, murders and threats of Soviet invasion if you misbehave.
    “Historically more developed” in Europe were France, Germany etc, that’s where people from all over Europe went to study since the 1600’s. But “historically speaking”, other parts in the West were poor and backward, such as Norway. Most Scandinavian countries only caught up and developed in the last decades.
    “Historically more developed Northwest” is incorrect.

  4. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    January 19, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    All valid points. Thanks for commenting Cris.

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