Housing problems that began in the late 19th century but became acute by the 1960s and 1970s were solved by the relatively rapid construction of prefabricated blocks of housing estates. Industrialisation brought people moving from the countryside to the city, or those who had previously lived in room-and-kitchen flats, to the blocks, where the higher comfort level made life more comfortable. However, the often stifling environment of confined spaces made them less popular over the decades. In the beginning, the bathroom, the flush toilet, the water supply, the central heating or the lift meant a charm of novelty for many people, the latter especially for children.
The very first of the multi-storey blocks of flats that so much dominated the image of many towns and cities was completed at the end of 1959 and handed over to residents in 1960 in Dunaújváros, which was a stronghold of socialist heavy industry and absorbed the labour force of the area. Tibor Weiner, the chief architect of Dunaújváros, is credited with the first not system-built dross concrete prefabricated block and the first major urban planning project. Because of the experimental nature of the construction and the previously unknown type of housing, the prospective tenants were uncertain about their new homes - but time has proved theim right, because the building is still inhabited.
The period also saw the start of large-scale building projects in other parts of the country, with the Budapest General Settlement Plan and the First 15-Year Housing Plan launched in 1960, with a target of 1 million new homes. The ideas were untenable without industrialised solutions, so instead of costly domestic development, it was decided to buy foreign licences. Mainly Soviet system-building technology and the Danish Larsen-Nielsen system were imported. In 1965, the first system-building factory, the Budapest House Building Plant, started its operations, and by 1970, two more factories in Budapest and one each in Debrecen, Győr, Miskolc and Szeged were producing finished panels.
The 19 June 1966 issue of Népszava newspaper reported on the inauguration ceremony of the first Budapest housing factory:
"József Bondor, Deputy Minister of Construction and Head of the Directorate General of the Construction Industry, underlined in his inauguration speech that the first system-building factory in Budapest had just reached its planned capacity, producing six apartments a day with a floor area of 53 square metres, equipped with every comfort and convenience, 1,800 new apartments a year. The second housing factory in Budapest is already under construction, as well as the factories in Győr and Miskolc, and the construction of the third housing factory in Budapest will start in the third five-year plan. They will help to build 15-16 000 dwellings a year as of 1970, using state-of-the-art methods."
The Soviet prefabrication technology is a simplified Camus system, adapted and reformulated from the French and invented by French engineer Raymond Camus, whose prototype was the Cheryomushki housing estate in Moscow in the late 1950s. The Soviet version was also introduced in countries of the socialist camp, such as Hungary, but its flaws were soon discovered during the operation of domestic housing factories and had to be corrected constantly.
Already in the 1960s, concerns were raised among experts about the block buildings. These concerns were later confirmed: rigidly defined, schematic building complexes had a negative aesthetic impact on the residential environment, and even today, uniformly alternating blocks of stripe and point buildings dominate entire neighbourhoods, lacking any major diversity except in colouring. To correct this, the visual arts were called upon to break the monotony with a variety of decorative elements. The most famous of these are the tulip houses in the residential area of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, which were created by architect György Csete. And also the perspective patterns on the blocks of the Uránváros in Pécs, designed by Ernő Tillai, who gave the houses their own identity.
In the 1980s, the above problems were tried to be eliminated from the very beginning, so buildings with more spacious apartments were built in this period. The exterior appearance of the blocks also received attention, for example, gable roof blocks were built at this time, which resulted in residential areas with a slightly more friendly atmosphere, such as those located in Káposztásmegyer. Fewer and fewer system-built blocks were erected during the period, and the economic fallback in the 1970s led to a reduction in public housing projects over the following decade. The block era came to an end in 1990, constructions were finished, and the housing factories ceased to exist. The demolition of the blocks, which were originally built to last half a century, is nowadays out of the question for lack of alternatives, but their renovation meets the needs of the present day – a good example is the building complex in Óbuda named “Faluház” (village house).
The Faluház is the largest prefabricated complex and the largest residential building in the country, located next to Flórián Square. It got its name because its 886 flats and nearly 3,000 inhabitants make up the population of a large village. The giant block, built in 1970 using Soviet technology, is 315 metres long and has 15 staircases. In 2008, it underwent energy upgrades, including replacing the doors and windows and installing a solar park on the roof, and a new colour scheme reminiscent of the blue grapes, a symbol of old Óbuda.
In the Hungarian films of the 1980s, the prefabricated block of flats often appeared as a location and as a living space of the time, with the resulting situations and problems, for example in Béla Tarr's Panelkapcsolat and György Szomjas' Falfúró, to name but the best known ones. For example, the film Szomszédok (Neighbours), which depicts everyday life in a housing estate in Gazdagrét, which has the unparalleled merit of having significantly influenced the television experience of the late 1980s and 1990s, while at the same time it captured the specific Eastern European imprint of the era.
Translated by Zita Aknai