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The Nostalgia of Balcony Access Houses

Location: Kostnické Square, the park 

The Square surrounded by apartment blocks was formed in 1889 and called Kostnické to commemorate Jan Hus, a religious thinker, preacher and reformer who was sentenced by the Council of Constance, a city in Germany, and burnt at stake in front of the city walls on July 6, 1415. The sloping landscape of Žižkov lends the square two levels. The little park along the longer, southern side is several metres lower than the road on the northern side and, therefore, is lined by a stone wall. The difference in the western part behind the transformer station is handled by stairs. It provides an illustrative example of what challenges the architects and urban planners had to face in many places in Žižkov. Six streets leave the square in a star-shaped model: Jeronýmova to the north, and then, clockwise, Dalimilova, Štítného (with the famous Žižkov Theatre of Jára Cimrman in house no. 520), Blahníkova, Husinecká and Orebitská. The square is surrounded by apartment blocks. It was revitalised in 2018 and 2019; both the full-grown trees in the park and the partly original cast iron railings around the park and stairs behind the transformer station have been preserved.

The feature of this part of Žižkov is the balcony access houses, representatives of the mass-scale rental housing of the 19th century. Their structural and functional simplicity predetermined them for fast and cheap construction in response to the increasing need of apartments in the suburbs which included Žižkov. The local projects involving this type of building started in the mid-1860’s. The earliest complex development of primarily the balcony access houses still in existence is in the area defined by the Kostnické square, Havlíčkovo Square, Husitská and Rokycanova Streets. The uniform typological style of the buildings forms a compact location of rental apartment blocks. The blocks are situated in a steep hill, the density of buildings is high, inner courtyards are rather cramped from the architectural perspective. The majority of buildings from the last third of the 19th century had three storeys as a maximum; these were often raised by up to two more storeys at the turn of the century. The balcony access houses used to have cellar units in the basement, small workshops and businesses on the ground floors, and apartments above. The buildings also offered attics to dry laundry. The apartments were usually 9 by 4 metres, divided into a yard-facing kitchen and street-facing lounge.  The apartments were accessed from the balcony on the courtyard façade; this allowed air and light to enter the kitchen which accommodated the main house chores in contrast to the lounge used for the living purposes. The ceilings were three-and-half to four metres high. Often there were no water mains in the building, not to mention individual apartments. Drinking water was most often drawn from a well with a pump in the yard. Once public water mains were introduced, one line per building was provided. A sink and water tap were installed on each floor as a rule. Stoves used solid fuels, toilets were located at the end of the balcony by the next building’s gable wall. The tiny inner yards were mostly occupied by sheds.