“Not all prefab blocks are the same.” This loose translation of Magdalena Kamińska’s title immediately drew my mind back to a casual book with cardboard cutouts called “Panelki: Construct Your Socialist Prefab Panel Block”. After a survey of the seemingly interchangeable blocks that went up in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Soviet Union, readers could punch out cardboard tiles with windows, blank panels, or balconies to build their own apartment building. An implication: such cheap construction was so devoid of artisanship, you could build one on your own kitchen table. Kamińska’s book seeks to problematize this common sense of uniform dullness. Whereas a cyclist crossing the Neisse/Nysa river from Görlitz into Zgorzelec might imagine that the prefabricated Plattenbau/Wielka Płyta housing blocks are interchangeable, Kamińska shows that the economic development and architectural design of the ubiquitous structures on each side of the border were kindred, but not identical. For specialists on East Bloc relations and modern architecture, this deeply researched book offers a case example of neighboring late-Cold War East Bloc relations, and it investigates to what extent architectural innovation survived through a decade most notorious for faceless mass production.
Based on her dissertation at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder, Kamińska’s book applies holdings from the Polish and German national archives, as well as collections and interviews devoted to individual architects, to combine the thriving scholarly field of prefabricated apartment construction with East Bloc comparative history. While the rich literature Kamińska cites may undermine her claim that “the 1970s themselves are underrepresented as their own research period” (p. 33), the existing scholarly conversation is enriched by her focus on the high-speed prefabricated serialized construction that reigned after the introduction of the Polish W-70 and East German WBS-70 systems in 1970.
From the book’s many threads, one can single out two main arguments. First, notwithstanding critiques of monotony, Kamińska contends that many architects perceived in the W-70/WBS-70 a creative challenge: how could they arrange serialized structures to maximize air, light, and green for inhabitants? For instance, during a meeting of W-70 and WBS-70 experts in May 1971 in Warsaw, efforts were made to compare approaches to improving room layouts including sanitary elements to ensure better living conditions. In our present era, in which rents are skyrocketing and condos or houses have become “commodities” prohibitively expensive for much of the middle-class, let alone lower earners, Kamińska also touches on the laudable 1970s regime intentions that prefabricated construction should offer everyone modern amenities in affordable housing.
Second, building on preceding scholarship that has shown how East Bloc states drifted apart in their approaches to economics and social control through the 1970s, Kamińska adds to a host of national/local studies that generally concurs that the utopian goal of prefab construction evolved along national paths. While her findings may not be surprising to experts, Kamińska applies archival data to concretely demonstrate how East German and Polish prefabricated blocks exhibited increasing heterogeneity in East-Bloc housing agendas. Although the W-70 and WBS-70 systems, equally serialized and standardized, relied on the same building approach (prefabricated cement panels assembled by cranes into residential blocks with set proportions), the two building types were not interchangeable thanks above all to poor coordination between the two states.
Kamińska’s book is organized into roughly thematic sections with recurring comparison. After four short initial chapters position the work’s theoretical and historiographical contributions, the fifth chapter traces the largely analogue development toward fully prefabricated construction in East Germany and Poland, from the mid-1950s onset of industrialized construction with brick-and-mortar customization, through the fully serialized W-70/WBS-70 in the 1970s. Politically, each country entered the 1970s with a shift in political leadership amid a global energy crisis, to which each regime responded with a greater degree of technological borrowing from the West based on credit. In this epoch, Kamińska asserts, East German blocks tended to appear on the outskirts of larger cities, while Polish prefab construction gave greater attention to smaller towns (p. 21, p. 131). Notwithstanding much scholarly interest on Berlin’s enormous Marzahn district, however, many smaller East German towns (whether Löbau in Upper Lusatia or Leisnig on the Mulde) hosted imposing Plattenbau settlements, some of them half-empty today; some towns also received Plattenbauten as replacement housing for villages devastated by strip mining.
The long and substantial sixth chapter deepens Kaminska’s claim that official gestures toward cooperation “merely remained on paper,” as each state’s construction ministry pursued competition with the other. Despite lacking collaboration between state bureaucracies, however, individual architects regularly compared notes and sought innovation whenever they were not hemmed in by “opposition from the System” (p. 136). Rather than to secure “a socialist cooperation partner,” of particular interest for East German planners was access to Polish construction technology purchased from Denmark and West Germany (p. 139), while the Polish experts envied privileged East German access to “good trade contacts with West Germany,” which “in the 1970s stood as a secret ‘player’ in the background structure and was preferably used as a contact relevant for competition” (p. 215). Among the architectural biographies that feature here, Maria Piechotka and her husband Kazimierz initiated and realized the W-70, while Wilfried Stallknecht and Achim Felz pioneered the WBS-70. Ultimately, prefab housing success in both countries was hindered by the oil crisis, rising debt, the emerging shortage economy, and poor construction quality. While Poland initially acquired more Western materials, its resulting indebtedness combined with a haphazard implementation of Western technology to hinder what might have been a more substantial outcome than that in East Germany.
Chapter seven traces the steady “technicalization of the architectural profession and the reduction of possibilities for artistic creation” through the 1970s, as leaders in East Germany as well as Poland gave priority to production and economic goals (p. 222). Featuring the small cities of Tychy and Hoyerswerda, Kamińska unpacks Polish and East German testing grounds for prefab construction thanks to the nearby creation of cement panel factories and large-scale industry.
Although the book’s structure can be repetitive, and the multibranched argument never fully identifies the distinguishing characteristics for the East German-Polish comparison (versus a Czechoslovak-Polish or Hungarian-East German analysis, for instance), its close archival exploration of two case studies provides concrete data on what worked and what failed in binational prefab apartment planning, and its findings dovetail well with existing scholarly insights about national heterogeneity. Given the demolition and abandonment of many prefab blocks across former East Bloc states, as well as general public distaste for 1970s architecture (prefab blocks in particular), I am also struck by how Kamińska’s intellectual contribution could double as a form of public intervention. Available for free as an open-access pdf file, one hopes that her findings interest experts and even cyclists eager to explore how and why there is more than meets the eye in the seemingly identical blocks that populate Eastern European cities.
 Panelki Zupagrafika, Construct Your Socialist Prefab Panel Block, Poznań 2019.
 Two classics on East German Plattenbauten are: Christine Hannemann, Die Platte. Industrialisierter Wohnungsbau in der DDR, Berlin 2000; Eli Rubin, Amnesiopolis. Modernity, Space, and Memory in East Germany, Oxford 2016.
 National studies on modern housing include: Dagmara Jajeśniak-Quast, Stahlgiganten in der sozialistischen Transformation. Nowa Huta in Krakau, EKO in Eisenhüttenstadt und Kunčice in Ostrava, Wiesbaden 2010; Brigitte le Normand, Designing Tito’s Capital: Urban Planning, Modernism, and Socialism in Belgrade, Pittsburgh 2014; Juliane Richter, Tanja Scheffler, and Hanna Sieben, eds., Raster Beton. Vom Leben in Großwohnsiedlungen zwischen Kunst und Platte: Leipzig-Grünau im internationalen Vergleich, Weimar 2017; Kimberly Zarecor, Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity. Housing in Czechoslovakia, 1945–1960, Pittsburgh 2011.