Architecture and the Image of the Future in the People’s Republic of Poland

The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases …

Karl Marx, Capital[1]

What would communism look like? And what would its material form be? Ideologues in Eastern Europe after 1945 spent much time and energy persuading the citizens of the new people’s republics that this state of grace was to be the destiny of socialist man and womankind. According to official rhetoric, socialist societies were advancing towards a higher state, that of communism, and that all energies were to be directed towards this end. Hard work, class vigilance (to ‘rid’ society of ‘antisocial’ elements and attitudes) and personal asceticism in the present would be repaid tenfold in the future. But the nature of this bounty was barely sketched in official futurology. In fact, the image of this future nirvana became less and less distinct as time passed. It is a remarkable feature of Soviet marxism as it extended across Eastern Europe is that it offered rather open-ended pictures of the future towards which society was advancing. Ordinary citizens were promised life in a borderless land where private property would ‘wither away’ and the enlightenment of universal education would be an everyday right, as would be high quality new housing. Invariably, these promises – made in five-year plans, speeches from the tribune at Party congresses and in editorials in the controlled press – were made in hazy, even bathetic terms. Yet it was for these uncertain ends that great sacrifices were being asked (and great violence occasionally unleashed). Where, one wonders, might more concrete images of the communist future be found? Might this image be provided by architecture?

Architecture necessarily had to engage with the utopian promise of communism. Architects – perhaps more than any other profession commissioned by the new socialist authorities – were charged with imagining this future. In the case of the People’s Republic of Poland – the subject of this essay – this was evident, for instance, in the ‘Six-year Plan for the Reconstruction of Warsaw’ issued under the authorship of President Bolesław Bierut in 1949.

The future face of Plac Grzybowski according to Sześcioletni Plan Odbudowy Warszawy (The Six-year Plan for the Reconstruction of Warsaw) under the authorship of Bolesław Bierut (published in 1950).

This was to be the blueprint for the future development of all Polish cities. Exercising rational command of the resources of the nation, the ruins of war would be transformed into ordered cities. The futurism of the grand boulevards and monumental residential and public buildings which characterised this conception of socialist urbanism was broadcast loudly: ‘Our country is undergoing a revolutionary transformation’ wrote Stefan Dybowski, Minister of Culture in 1953: ‘A new landscape is in the making on a daily basis. Gigantic buildings are towering in socialism. … Instead of an ageing capitalistic landscape, which, in a sentimental way, neglected civilisation, we are creating a new landscape.’[2]

The fact that these towers to socialism were dressed in retrospective garb – derived in the Soviet manner from various ‘progressive’ periods in Polish architectural history – did not diminish Dybowski’s claims about the novelty of the people’s cityscapes.[3] His words served what Boris Groys later defined as the posthistorical character of Socialist Realism: ‘According to Stalinist aesthetics, everything is new in the new posthistorical reality … There is no reason to strive for formal innovation, since novelty is automatically guaranteed by the total novelty of superhistorical content and significance. Nor does this aesthetics fear charges of eclecticism, for it does not regard the right to borrow from all ages as eclectic; after all, it selects only progressive art, which possess inherent unity … Socialist Realism as a whole … could be considered eclectic only by an outside, formalistic observer who sees nothing but combination of styles and ignores the high ideological qualities and “popular spirit” that unite them.’[4]

Plac Konstytucji (Constitution Square), the centerpiece of the Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa (Marszałkowska Housing District) in Warsaw photographed at the time of its opening from Stanisław Jankowski, MDM Marszalkowska 1730-1954 (Warsaw, 1955).

For the convinced (or those inclined to dissimulation) a short step into the new landscapes of Socialist Realism – new cities like Nowa Huta or districts like the Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa (Marszałkowska Housing District) in Warsaw – was a long stride which connected the past, present and future.

After the turbulent years of the mid 1950s known as the Thaw which propelled a reform leadership into power, the hollow euphoria of Stalin-era architecture was replaced by a rather more utilitarian programme of construction schemes for high-rise housing using prefabricated panels and identikit public buildings like schools and factories. This was a landscape shaped by expediency and shortage. At the same time, Socialist Realism was loudly and openly thrown into the dustbin of history by architects and ideologues alike. The posthistorical aesthetic was forever contaminated with the history of Stalinism.

Nevertheless, the task of representing communist futurism continued to be appointed to some architects in the commission of what Andrzej Basista has called ‘prestige buildings’.[5] Poland, like all Eastern Bloc countries, invested heavily in a small number of virtuoso structures which demonstrated its command of modernity. Lightweight exhibition pavilions, mountain-side hotels, brutalist houses of culture and high-rise government buildings constituted a heterogeneous corpus of what can be called socmodernist buildings, i.e., the architecture of socialist modernity.[6] Drawing on considerable creativity and on-site construction skills, high quality materials and making extensive use of modern art as decoration, socmodernist architecture offers one of the most prominent and long-lasting strata of futurism in the Eastern Bloc.

Wojewódzka Hala Widowiskowo-Sportowa (Regional Hall for Sports Events and Spectacles) in Katowice designed by Maciek Gintowt and Maciej Krasiński (1959-1972) photographed by the author in 2007.

Whilst the spectacular contours of socmodernity can be traced in many kinds of buildings constructed from the late 1950s, the most spectacular expressions were reserved for leisure functions. The Wojewódzka Hala Widowiskowo-Sportowa (Regional Hall for Sports Events and Spectacles) in Katowice designed by Maciek Gintowt and Maciej Krasiński is a case in point.[7] Opened in the early 1970s, this scheme dates from 1959 when architects working for the Office for the Study and Design of Industrial Building Types (Biura Studiów i Projektów Typowych Budownictwa Przemysłowego) in Warsaw won the competition with their design. An early tensegrity structure, it has the appearance of a massive tilted saucer. Seeming to hover, its inverted conical form was conceived by engineer Wacław Zalewski to ‘float’ in the ground thereby diminishing the risks presented by the unstable site riddled with mine shafts and industrial junk. Whilst it engineering was technically innovative, its fantastic form was also highly symbolic. Spodek was part of an urban ensemble which included superblocks (including the largest single residential unit in Poland accommodating 2800 people in one building) organised around a multi-lane highway. With its busy downtown, Katowice by the early 1970s provided a compelling image of socialist modernity.[8]

If, in architectural terms, Spodek and other similar socmodernist structures captured the residual futurism of the post-Stalinist period, what are we to make of their roles as site of leisure? Should we see them as mirror images of similar facilities in the West and, as such, shaped by Cold War competition? Spodek, for instance, contained an ensemble of functions: hotel, a multifunctional hall for concerts, circus performances and sports events and an ice rink. Alternatively, should we see them in terms of an attempt to manage leisure within the command economy? Or might they even prefigure the utopia of communism? After all, it is important to note that leisure held a particularly important place in Soviet ideology for its potential to suggest the future. Free of drudgery and alienation, humanity in nirvana of full-blown communism would enter what Marx called the ‘realm of freedom’.[9]


Dancing grounds and bandstand in the Wojewódzki Park Kultury i Wypoczynku (Provincial Park of Culture and Rest) in Katowice photographed by the author in 2007.

Spodek had originally been conceived as an addition for the Wojewódzki Park Kultury i Wypoczynku (Provincial Park of Culture and Rest) in Katowice in the ideologically and economically significant industrial zone of Silesia. When the Park opened in 1951, it had been a major propaganda vehicle demonstrating the priorities of the new order. It provided sport, culture and access to popular science for the city’s workers. It was designed by 14-strong team of Warsaw-based architects and landscape designers employed by the Central Office for the Study and Design of Communal Buildings. Occupying over 600 hectares, it was intended to draw over 140,000 visitors on Sundays and holidays. To realise the official slogan of the day, ‘”Black Silesia” must become “green”’, the park was landscaped as a series of gentle valleys around a small central hill. Long tree-lined avenues connected an observatory, a planetarium, a zoo, botanical gardens, an outdoor theatre, summer pavilion open-air cinema and dancing arena. Future plans were laid for a sports stadium and ethnographic museum and a ‘People’s Hall’ (something like a meeting hall for rallies). Here was a demonstration of the power of mankind to perfect the world in its own image:

Socialist parks of culture should not only compensate for social injustice, but they should also be landscapes created by the invention of artists; humanist landscapes in which man plays the main role; landscapes created with the conviction of the existence of knowable and objective facts about the world, as well as the marvellous possibility that the world can be shaped by humanity for the good of mankind.[10]

Leisure taken here was to be public and shared, uplifting and dignified.[11] The Park was represented as an antidote to the commodified leisure on offer in the fairground or at the funfair. Socialist leisure was also to be a mechanism for the redistribution of the commonwealth, i.e., an instrument of social justice. As an entitlement, leisure was a sign of the maturity of a society. In socialism new leisure experiences were to be made available to the loyal comrade, particularly if he or she worked in the sectors of the nationalised economy like mining or steel manufacture closely associated with working class solidarity. This was the principle behind the provision of new sanatoria built in the 1950s and 1960s. Hutnik, an early point block in Szczawnica in the Pieniny National Park in the very south of Poland, for instance, was commissioned by the United Steel and Iron Combine in Katowice (a city 200 km away) and designed by Zofia Fedykówna and Jerzy Nowicki in 1958, for instance, for the benefit of its workers. The controversy of building in a national park notwithstanding,[12] tourism in the natural setting was viewed as both an entitlement and as an elevating experience.

Library and meeting hall wing of the house of culture in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw (1949-52) designed by Barbara and Stanisław Brukalski, photographed in 2005 by the author.

Leisure – whether taken on a Sunday in the Katowice park or in a mountain-side sanatorium – would, it was claimed, also help the worker restore his body and mind for the socially beneficial project of building socialism. This aspiration was signalled by the Park’s title, the Park of Culture and Rest. This ‘principle’ of socialist leisure also shaped the rash of houses of culture which were built in Poland – as elsewhere in the Soviet Bloc – from the late 1940s onwards. The first in Warsaw after the war – built in the district of Żoliborz – is somewhat typical: a long colonnaded wing accommodating a meeting hall and a public library with fluted columns capped with finials, plasterwork representing mythical beasts and other historicist ornaments. It was completed in 1954 by the addition of a domed theatre seating 300 people (Teatr Komedia). Set in a landscaped garden, the Żoliborz house of culture offered a vision of a socialist tempietto.

Teatr Komedia, part of the house of culture in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw (completed in 1954) designed by Barbara and Stanisław Brukalski, photographed in 2005 by the author.

Whilst the Park of Culture and Rest in Katowice and the Żoliborz house of culture were sublations of various architectural pasts including aristocratic romantic gardens of the eighteenth century and the antiquarianism of the Renaissance, they were, above all, determined by Soviet precedents. After all, the title of the Park of Culture and Rest in Katowice made direct reference to Moscow’s Gorky Park which had been given this name in 1928. And, as Anne White has charted, the spread of houses of culture, rural reading rooms and factory educational clubs throughout Eastern Europe following the Second World War was the ‘imperial’ face of Soviet cultural policy.[13] Staffed with professional cultural workers, these institutions sought to mould the political consciousness of the working classes through education and the arts. Within their walls, the minds and bodies of the citizens of socialist societies would be prepared for their future roles in communism.



The house of culture in Żoliborz has – in retrospect – generated embarrassment amongst Polish architects and architectural historians. It is a building which was quickly written out of the narratives of Polish architectural history during the revisions of the Thaw period of the second half of the 1950s. In more recent years it has been reinscribed but only as an ‘architectural insult’, condemned for being ‘terribly primitive’.[14] There should be no surprise in this. The building was a clear, early statement of the new faith, that of Socialist Realism launched in Poland in 1949. A long-standing member of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), Helena Syrkus presented the triumph of the aesthetic in Poland to the congress in Bergamo, Italy, that year. She represented functionalism as a symptom of capitalism and, as such, a redundant phenomenon in the advanced conditions of socialism.[15] The concerns of the pre-war Modern Movement that had been announced in manifestoes and charters were not wrong, but there were redundant, announcing ‘the demands of the Athens Charter have been completely satisfied in my country since 1945 …’.[16]

Syrkus was not perhaps the only figure who accepted Socialist Realism in these posthistorical terms. The Żoliborz house of culture was designed by Barbara and Stanisław Brukalski, prominent pre-war modernists, might be taken as an acceptance of the real politics of what Groys calls this ‘posthistorical reality’. Like Syrkus, they had been Polish representatives at CIAM IV in 1933 which had met to debate the theme of ‘The Functional City’. As agents for modernist urbanism, they had worked closely with the Warsaw Housing Cooperative (Warszawska Spółdzielnia Mieszkaniowa) on social housing estates in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw (or ‘Red Żoliborz’ as it was known). Their designs shared much with modernist siedlungen in Weimar Germany. The fourth housing ‘colony’ designed by the Brukalskis in the late 1920s, for instance, was closely related to the gallery system that Hannes Meyer introduced in his residential slabs in Törten-Dessau. The estate survived the war. In the 1940s it became an important functioning island in a sea of destruction, providing accommodation for the new communist elite. The pre-war vision of ‘Red Żoliborz’ was effectively completed by the Brukalskis in the late 1940s by the addition of ‘missing’ servicing elements including the house of culture described above (i.e. ‘missing’ from the perspective of the Athens Charter.[17])

If the apparent volte-face of pre-war modernists in the brutal environment of Stalinist Poland has yet to be properly explored, the antagonisms between high Modernism and Socialist Realism are well known, particularly on matters of style (and Syrkus later came to regret her support for the Stalinist regime[18]). Nevertheless, some lines of continuity can be drawn between these two architectural orders. For instance, despite their aesthetic differences, the conceptualisation of leisure in Modern Movement thinking and in Soviet-style Socialist Realism were analogous, even – as the Żoliborz house of culture shows – related.

CIAM’s congresses of the 1930s provide vivid illustrations of pre-war Modern Movement conceptualisations of leisure. It was one of the four principle ‘functions’ of the modern city expressed the Athens Charter (alongside dwelling, work and circulation) and was given particular attention at the fifth congress which met in Paris in 1937. This emphasis was a recognition of the growing political imperative behind mass leisure in Western Europe in the 1930s.[19] Reflecting on this theme, Marxist architect Szymon Syrkus (Helena’s husband) asserted at the 1937 Congress:

… besides working to make a living – a condition often imposed and invariably disciplined by constraint – people need the freely chosen occupation called ‘leisure’. The organization of leisure is a vital link in the chain organizing society. If the city-dweller (citadin) in his leisure time yearns for the contact with nature which he lacks in everyday life, the forms of recreation sought by peasant can perhaps be discovered by a search for contact with the mechanisation of the town. Little by little, with the systematic fading of the essential differences between the town and the countryside, leisure will come to be organized on similar principles.[20]

In other words, modern, democratic leisure was a right to which all were entitled and would, if managed well, have the effect of producing harmonious individuals and social relations.

At heart, both the pre-war Modern Movement and Soviet-style socialism imagined the subjects of their efforts as homo faber and that leisure was to serve their daily discipline and toils. Leisure was, as Chris Rojek describes it, ‘a surplus pleasure to be enjoyed only after the pleasures of wealth creation and the duties of social responsibility have been fulfilled’ and ‘as the reward for work which could be extended or contracted at the will of the donator’.[21] Moreover the private appropriation of leisure time lacked the ideological value of communal experience. This view was clear in socialist Poland when architect and designer Olgierd Szlekys explaining the existenzminimum proportions of the new Soviet-style apartments wrote: ‘[In socialist Poland] we have changed the forms of our life. We have moved part of private life to the houses of culture, to clubs and cafes which are places to meet comrades replacing, we say, the old salons.’[22] Parks, sports centres and houses of culture were licensed sites of collective leisure.

Although the formal differences between the Żoliborz house of culture with its sentimental historicism and the futurist flying saucer in Katowice are undeniable, they are not decisive. In fact, they share a strange duality: both employ fantastic, even magical imagery, and yet they served a highly bureaucratic and functional view of leisure. They were conceived within the rational structures of the command economy in which experience could be quantified, valued, standardised and ultimately controlled. In the People’s Republic of Poland bureaucratic planners were as keen to measure and publish the number of visits to the theatre as they were to calculate number of spoons required by society and manufactured in Poland’s factories.[23] Moreover, as parts in an orderly urban landscape, these amenities performed clearly defined functions which – ideally, if not in reality – ensured the effective operation of the individual and of society. Ultimately, these two structures represent a highly utilitarian conception of leisure.

The Leisure Aesthetic

Cover of Stolica magazine (July 1957) depicting the new interior of the Antyczna café in Warsaw.

Not all new buildings produced after the Thaw years can be accommodated within the orderly and functional principles of ‘socialist leisure’. In fact, the earliest public sign of the new course in architecture after 1956 was rather more vivacious. This was the wave of hotels, restaurants, cafes and attractive shop premises which opened after 1956. ‘Contemporary Style’ schemes exploiting new materials like plastic and bright colours were adopted to mark the rejection of Socialist Realist urban aesthetics. In 1957 the state ushered in a partial market economy, manifest in the rapid appearance of new cafes and restaurants. The changing face of the city was a product of promises to improve standards of living in the face of a storm of criticism following Stalin’s death. Economic reforms, hitherto prohibited fields of science like cybernetics, functionalism in design and abstract art were all conscripted in an effort to re-legitimate communist authority. What was striking about the post-Stalinist mood was the frank and high regard in which Western developments in these fields were held. In the Kremlin, Khrushchev demanded that Soviet scientists, engineers and designer absorb the lessons of Western modernity so that the socialist world might overtake America in terms of living standards, ‘waving bye-bye’, as the Soviet leader put it, as it sped into the future.[24]

The Cracovia Hotel and Kijów Cinema in Cracow in Poland designed by the city architect, Witold Cęckiewicz with structural engineers Jerzy Tombiński and Andrzej Kozłowski in 1959 and completed 1966 illustrates the point. This complex – combining hotel, restaurants, shops and cinema – occupies a prestigious setting in a green and historic quarter of a historic city, opposite the National Museum. One-hundred and fifty metres in length and seven stories high, the design made little attempt to accommodate its setting. It was an assertive statement of modernity. Inside, the structural skeleton is used to open up the space: few partitions obstruct the lower floor. Long vistas through marble halls terminate in abstract works of art. The building also incorporated considerable number of technical gadgets including automatic fire sensors and air conditioning, both novelties in the Polish context. Here was, argued the architect, the clearest demonstration to foreign visitors and potential clients of the high levels of Polish technology. In fact, Cęckiewicz imagined the building as ‘type’ which could be exported to the USSR.[25]

Entrance to the Cracovia Hotel and Kijów Cinema in Cracow in Poland designed by Witold Cęckiewicz with structural engineers Jerzy Tombiński and Andrzej Kozłowski (1959-66). Author’s photograph taken in 2007.

The Cracovia Hotel represented a clear statement of optimism in the capacity of the building industry in Poland to innovate. In fact, the building’s chief claim to significance in the terms of architectural history is that it is one of the first buildings in the country to employ a curtain wall, in this case fashioned from glass, ‘marblit’ and aluminium. Arranged with the regularity of a chequerboard, this material formed a thin membrane wrapped around the structure. The curtain wall has, arguably, been America’s major contribution to the architectural vocabulary of post-war modernism (not a fact, but certainly a period perception). Architect Cęckiewicz’s exposure to the curtain wall was not, however, in the USA but in Paris which he visited in the mid 1950s. He describes the experience of seeing light and open structures there as a kind of epiphany: ‘We, people living in socialist countries, should have been entitled to bright sunny lives and yet we endured in our grey drab surroundings.’[26] His aspiration was by no means an easy feat: aluminium, an energy-intensive material to produce, was not available in Poland on the scale required by this new hotel scheme (30 tonnes). Cęckiewicz and his patrons engaged in difficult negotiations with the Soviet Union for the supply of this material. Even then, a factory in Skawinie had to be retooled in order to produce the frames which held the glass and artificial marble panels in place. To achieve his aim, Cęckiewicz, an ambitious young architect, worked hard, practically and rhetorically, to align his design with the priorities set by the party-state for architecture: this was, as he pressed, an ‘experimental’ building which would provide technical know-how for the rest of the building sector.

In such negotiations, the words ‘experimental’ and ‘type’ played key roles. The former term had already been valorised throughout the Bloc, not least by the announcement of the ‘scientific technological revolution’ in the USSR by Premier Bulganin in the USSR in July 1956 with its powerful symbols (like Sputnik or the atomic power ice-breaker Lenin). Science was to help Soviet society to steer a new and rational course towards the nirvana of communism after the nightmare of Stalinism (and renegotiate its Cold War relations with the West).[27] With rationalism valorised, architects and designers who could characterise their work as ‘experimental’ could bolster their credentials as specialists and, sometimes, draw on greater resources than many of their counterparts in the rest of the world. The scientific ‘turn’ in the Kremlin in the mid 1950s supplied a new language of negotiation throughout the Bloc that was used for many years to come.

The term ‘experimental’ also represented a new kind of contact with the state on the part of architects to behave as technocrats, i.e. to limit the sphere of interest to technical matters. This move might be characterised as a ‘disappearance into materials’, one that approached technological fetishism. Architecture and designers (as well as the state) invested tremendous importance into new building materials and elaborately engineered structures. Some of the most innovative works of architectural design in Poland resulted from this license to experiment. A number – including Spodek in Katowice – emerged from the drawing boards of the Office for the Study and Design of Industrial Building Types based in Warsaw. It also designed Alga, a new bar in the seaside town of Sopot which opened in the early 1960s.

Elevation of the Alga bar in Sopot, designed in 1959 by W. Rembiszewski, A. Sierakowski and J. Swidliński (from Architektura, July-August 1961).

A floating terrace which stood proud of a glass-walled pavilion under angular canopies, it looked much like a constructivist sketch of the 1920s realised on the Baltic coast forty years later. For all their exceptional qualities, such buildings were given wider social and political value by being described as ‘types’, i.e., models which, if successful, might be duplicated elsewhere. In other words, prestige buildings were to have utilitarian purposes.

The emphasis on materials and techniques overshadowed some of the causes and the effects of the ‘modernisation’ of Polish architecture in the 1950s. The models for the Cracovia were clear: it was indebted to commodified forms of leisure in the West. Consider, for instance, its symmetries with the Berlin Hilton, located in the Tiergarten in the divided city. This new addition to the cityscape designed by the Los Angeles firm Pereira and Luckman in 1955 was intended, in owner Conrad Hilton’s words, to be ‘a dramatic symbol of West Berlin’s steadfastness and progress as a dynamic centre of the Free World.’[28] In a city in ruins, its vivid modern façade, a chequerboard vibrant of blue and white Mittelmosaik was high conspicuous. The Cracovia – with its rhythmic curtain wall – was its uncanny double on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In this regard, perhaps a lesson can be learned from the writings of Slavoj Žižek. Power is inscribed with contradictions which, he argues, obey ‘imps of perversity’.[29] That which – ostensibly – is repressed by an ‘ideological edifice’ returns, he has argued, not as political rhetoric or even in the parapraxes of speech, but as things, that is, it is articulated in ‘the externality of its material existence’.[30] The Cracovia hotel was one such ‘imp of perversity’. What no one could admit in Poland in 1960 when it was being constructed, but the building itself made plain, was that its purpose was not to improve society through the benign effects of socialist leisure but to satisfy the desires of dollar-rich tourists from the West. It was, in other words, a machine for the production of hard currency, levered from the wallets of tourists.[31]

Unlike Spodek which as knitted into the urban fabric of Katowice, the Cracovia/Kijów complex marked an early point in a trajectory which resulted in the production of ‘extra-territorial spaces’ which were effectively beyond ordinary society in spatial, economic and social terms. The culmination of this pattern were the outposts of the Holiday Inn and Hilton chains built in the Eastern Bloc the 1970s, the product of commercial alliances between communist governments and western corporations.[32]

Hotel Forum, designed by Marta and Janusz Ingarden, Kraków (completed in 1988). Photographed in a state of disrepair in 2008.

Late modernist hotels often expressed a kind of excessive modernity in their architectural form. Cracow acquired, for instance, a new node in the tourist economy in 1988 when the Hotel Forum (designed by Marta and Janusz Ingarden) opened on the banks of the Vistula river opposite the historic site of Wawel Castle and Cathedral. A massive cantilevered form which was lifted off the ground, it was a statement of technological fetishism. Ultimately it symbolised little more than hubris: it opened on the eve of the disassembly of the party-state in Poland.


The Cracovia Hotel – like Spodek and most of the other prestige buildings described in this essay – resulted from opportunism on both the part of the state and architects. ‘Freedom’ in this architectural culture from the late 1950s was understood in narrow stylistic and technological terms. The state of liberty without drudgery and alienation described by Marx was certainly not brought any closer by the creation of these environments. Nevertheless, the Thaw did not mark the total collapse of utopianism in Polish architecture. In the final section, I’d like to focus on a contemporary theory of space which viewed leisure or, more specifically, play as the context for a kind of minor liberation.

Leisure was placed the centre of new waves of social critique and architectural theory that emerged in Western European intellectual life the 1950s. A number of thinkers developed analyses of the alienating effects of bureaucratic, technocratic modernity figured against the imaginative, creative, embodied and unlicensed aspects of everyday life. In its most radical modes expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Lefebvre or the writers of the Situationist International, play was claimed as an activity which was meaningful in its own right, unhinged from a supporting role in the reproduction of labour.[33] These debates penetrated into architecture, not least in the encounters at the Team X meetings – an offshoot of CIAM – which took place in the latter half of the 1950s, as much recent research testifies.[34]

Polish intellectuals – architects amongst them – were engaged in these discussions both internationally and at home where they took on a particular form.[35] Despite the high international currency of the term, I should stress that in the Polish context, play (in its various ironic, ludic and festive modes) was connected to the pulsing critique of the alienating effects of Stalinist order during the Thaw. In its most general forms it can be traced in the rapid accent of what might be called existentialist enthusiasms during the Thaw: the plays of Ionescu, Sartre, Kafka and Beckett were all performed on Warsaw stages during 1957 and absurd student cabaret, experimental music and modern jazz became important features of Polish cultural life.[36] More explicitly, individual pleasure and creativity were reclaimed and adopted in sharp critiques of Stalinism by the left-wing intelligentsia. Much of the most ardent criticism vented during these years was often from a broadly marxist perspective, albeit often one drawing much from the ‘young’ Marx – stressing humanistic, democratic values.[37] Leszek Kołakowski’s political parable ‘The Priest and the Jester’ is a case in point. The young Marxist philosopher – undergoing his own Damascus conversion in the turmoil of the Thaw- contrasted the attitude of the jester and the priest. The priest lives in blind certainty that his faith is right whereas ‘the jester’s constant effort is to consider all the possible reasons for contradictory ideas. … In a world where apparently everything has already happened, he represents an active imagination defined by the opposition it must overcome.’[38] In the Polish context, the assertion that knowledge of the world was better achieved through doubt than through faith was a powerful statement of heresy.

Open Form

Oskar Hansen was the author of a like-minded theory published under the title of the Otwarta Form (The Open Form) in 1957. A young architect who had worked Pierre Jeanneret’s studio in Paris around 1950 before establishing a career in Poland, Hansen developed his ideas in architectural practice, largely in the sphere of exhibition design (in true existential manner, they were drawn from experience rather than a priori speculation).[39] They were broadcast abroad at the last CIAM conference in Otterlo in 1959. His theory of Open Form was an explicit challenge to the two-dimensional and highly scopic conception of space that had been evident in urbanism and architecture during the Stalin years, i.e. buildings and spaces conceived as decorated surfaces or as architectural spectacles. This, he described as the ‘aesthetics of the closed form’.

Speaking to both artists and architects, Hansen argued for spatial forms which were open or unfinished; i.e., forms which by their incompleteness required the creativity or participation of viewers or users. This was fundamentally a social and decentred conception of space and creativity. Space, according to Hansen, should be considered terms of movement, whether in terms of a potential to be reorganized by those who occupy it or in its capacity to change over time. In engaging their audiences/users, open forms had the potential to remind individuals of the fact of their own embodied being.

Oskar Hansen sketch for the ‘My Place, My Music’ pavilion at the International Festival of Contemporary Music in Warsaw 1958 (unrealised).

Hansen’s theory offered new ways to conceptualise architecture. Buildings designed as ‘open forms’ would be positively ‘incomplete’, leaving opportunities for occupants to shape their environment in meaningful ways. Promising universal application, Hansen saw it as a way of thinking about public memorials, housing estates as well as temporary events and exhibitions. One year after publishing his theory, Hansen designed the ‘Moje Miejsce, Moja Muzyka’ (‘My Place, My Music’) pavilion for the Międzynarodowy Festiwal Muzyki Współczesnej (International Festival of Contemporary Music), an important new forum for avant-garde composers. Working with Józef Patkowski, a pioneer of electronic music, Hansen experimented with the ‘spatiality of music’ – what he called an ‘audiovisual space-time’. A large fabric structure, like a shirt with sleeves, each equipped with a speaker at its end, would be suspended in a park. Viewers were to be encouraged to move through the space. In Hansen’s words ‘each could walk their chosen path in relation to the music – almost as if they owned it … the spatial relativity of the music’s reception brought the listener closer to an intimate experience of it … integrating sound with the listeners’ movements as well as with the trees and clouds’.[40] Here was a playful view of experience that unhinged the architecture of leisure from its supporting role in the reproduction of labour or the promotion of socialist modernity.

Lacking any clear reference to official ideology, Hansen’s ‘Open Form’ theory might appear to be apolitical – and, as such, part of a withdrawal into an private world of personal experience. After all, the ‘My Place, My Music’ pavilion encouraged individual experiences over collective effects. But his thinking needs to be understood in the context of debates about alienation in the period, described above. From this perspective, the theory of the Open Form can be characterised in rather more utopian perspective which imagined the whole, complete individual or what the young Marx called ‘the dream of the whole man’.[41]

Ends and Beginnings

I started this essay with a provocation: that architecture might provide rare utopian images in an entropic society. Whilst it is clear that no one reading a book in the Żoliborz house of culture, staying in the Hotel Cracovia or listening to Leonid Brezhnev giving a windy speech in Spodek could mistake their setting for the utopia of communism, the appearance of these buildings in the cityscape was derived – sometimes opportunistically – from the stripes of futurism which characterised state ideology during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite their different forms and functions, each was intended – in different ways – to anticipate future ways of living and being. In this regard, they affirmed the status and expertise of their designers and the poiticians who commissioned them. Whether socialist ideologues or modernising technocrats, the communist authorities and the architects they commissioned shared in the confidence of their correct vision.

By contrast, Hansen’s Open Form concept – in its earliest articulations – laid few claims on the future. It asked for minds and bodies which tested the spaces that they occupied or, in Kołakowski’s words, to ‘mistrust the stabilised world’. Ideally, the space itself would be authored by its user or occupant in some way. In fact, Hansen’s theory marked a point at which the role of the professional architect ceases. For Hansen, the ideal open form was ultimately an unauthored, spontaneous one. This put the architect at odds with the building programme that was being orchestrated by a state committed to controlling and effectively constraining the use of resources and at odds with the conventional interests of architects. It is perhaps not surprising then that whilst his ideas were widely debated, they had little impact on the profession.[42]

[1] Marx, Capital, III (London, 1997), p. 820.

[2] Stefan Dybowski, Problemy rewolucji kulturnej w Polsce Ludowej (Warsaw, 1953)

[3] For a (still) good overview of the imposition of Socialist Realism in Poland see Wojciech Włodarczyk, Socrealizm. Sztuka Polska w latach 1950-1954 (Paris, 1986).

[4] Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism. Avant-garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, translated by Carl Hanser (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1992), p.49

[5] Andrzej Batista, Betonowe Dziedzictwo. Architektura w Polsce Czasów Kumunizmu (Warsaw, 2001), pp. 101-5.

[6] For a discussion of socmodernist architecture in Slovakia see Hertha Hernau et al, Eastmodern. Architecture and Design of the 1960s and 1970s of Slovakia (Vienna / New York, 2007).

[7] See Maciej Krasiński and Maciej Gintowt, ‘Hala w Katowicach’ in Projekt, 4, (April 1972) pp. 44-50; Maciej Krasiński and Maciej Gintowt, ‘Hala Widowisko-Sportowa w Katowicach’ in Architektura, 8-9 (1972), pp. 307-19.

[8] Tadeusz Barucki, ‘Środmiescie Katowic’ in Projekt, 4 (April 1970), pp. 2-8

[9] The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases … Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. Karl Marx, Capital, III (London, 1997), p. 820.

[10] Irena Dworakowska, ‘O Parku Kultury Na Powiślu‘ in Architektura, II, 1953, p. 278.

[11] A good example of this kind of discussion is Jerzy Szuszkiewicz, ‘Czy Rekreacja + Turystyka + Wczasy = Lecznictwo Uzdrowiskowej?’ in Architektura (Month Year), pp. 32-33.

[12] Elżbieta Węcławowicz-Bilska, ‘Mieszkać w uzdrowisku’ in Czasopismo Techniczne (2007) – online journal accessed August 2008

[13] Anne White, Destalinization and the House of Culture: Declining State Control over Leisure in the USSR, Poland and Hungary, 1953-89 (London, 1990) 35. See also Simone Hain and Stephan Stroux, Die Salons der Sozialisten. Kulturhäuser in der DDR (Berlin, 1996).

[14] Andrzej Bulanda, Jerzy Sołtan. Rozmowy o architekturze (Warsaw, 1996) p. 50

[15] For an analysis of her speech see Hilde Heynen, ‘The Jargon of Authenticity. Modernism and its (non)-political position’, in Mart Kalm and Ingrid Ruudi (eds), Constructed Happiness. Domestic environment in the Cold War Era (Tallinn 2005), pp.10–27.

[16] Helena Syrkus, ‘Art Belongs to the People’ in J. Ockman, ed., Architecture Culture 1943-1968 (New York, 1993), p.121.

[17] The 35th postulate of the Athens Charter advocated the ‘blossoming of diverse communal activities which forms the extension of leisure’ [p. 140] And the 37th postulate of the charter stated ‘Green surfaces which are intimately amalgamated with built volumes and inserted into the living districts will not have a unique function of beautifying the city. They will, above all, play a useful role and this will be to provide the grounds for collective institutions; crèches, pre and after-school groups, youth circles, centres for intellectual renewal or physical culture, lecture halls, running tracks or open-air fishing.’ Le Groupe CIAM-France, La Chartes D’Athènes (1979 reprint) pp.142-43.

[18] Referring to Khrushchev’s famous report to architects in December 1954, Srykus said ‘it seems that since we accepted the theses proving that the direction adopted in 1949 was erroneous … we should not stick to the lost cause’. Syrkus in Ogólnopolski Narada Architektów, (Warsaw, 1956) p.485.

[19] Paid vacations came increasingly to be understood as a right of citizenship bound up with a modern standard of living and part of a new social contract. And the ‘right to the landscape’, ‘the right to nature’ was loudly claimed by the Left in the period. See, for instance, David Matless, Landscape and Englishness (London, 1998).

[20] Szymon Syrkus, Rapport no 3 Cas D’Application Régions et Campagnes’ in Logis et Loisirs, 5e Congrès CIAM Paris 1937 (1980 reprint) p.48.

[21] Chris Rojek, Decentering Leisure (London, 1995) p. 187.

[22] Szeklys’ comments were made in a round table discussion recorded in Stolica (3 February 1955) p. 2.

[23] A mind-numbing flood of such data was published as annual statistical reports by the Ministry of Culture and Art. See Ministerstwo kultury i sztuki, Sprawozdanie z działalności za rok 1948, and subsequent years, Warsaw, 1949 onwards.

[24] See my essay ‘Thaw Modern. Design in Eastern Europe after 1956’ in David Crowley and Jane Pavitt, ed, Cold War Modern. Design 1945-1970 (London, 2008), pp.128-50.

[25] Interview by the author with Witold Cęckiewicz, Cracow, September 2007. See also See Małgorzata Włodarczyk, Architektura lat 60-tych w Krakowie (Cracow, 2006), pp. 87-92 and Witold Cęckiewicz, ‘Hotel “Cracovia” w Krakowie’ in Architektura (Month, 1968) p. 344.

[26] Interview by the author with Witold Cęckiewicz, Cracow, September 2007.

[27] See Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, Constructing Soviet Cultural Policy: Cybernetics and Governance in Lithuania after World War II (Linkoping, 2008); S.E. Reid ‘The Khrushchev Kitchen: Domesticating the Scientific-Technological Revolution’ in Journal of Contemporary History vol. 40, no. 2, (2005), pp. 289-316.

[28] Conrad Hilton cited by Annabel Jane Wharton, Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture (Chicago, 2004), p. 87

[29] Slavoj Žižek, ‘When the Party Commits Suicide’ in New Left Review (November-December, 1999), p. 46.

[30] Slavoj Žižek, ‘Design as an Ideological State-Apparatus’, lecture presented at ERA05, the World Design Congress held in Copenhagen in 2005 – see (consulted November 2006).

[31] Many of the hotels and other aspects of the tourist infrastructure were opened to coincide with the millennial celebrations in Poland in 1966, an event which was organised – in part – to stimulate Western tourism. See Henry Kamm, ‘In Proud Poland’ in New York Times (6 March 1966).

[32] See Alan Levy, ‘Medieval and Marxist, Cracow Hosts a Holiday Inn’ in New York Times (26th November 1976), pp. 1-2, 16.

[33] Associate of the Situationist International, Ivan Chtcheglov imagined a new ‘New Urbanism’ in terms of the ‘need to play’: ‘We have already pointed out the need of constructing situations as being one of the fundamental desires on which the next civilisation will be founded. This need for absolute creation has always been intimately associated with the need to play with architecture, time and space …’ See ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ available at – accessed September 2008.

[34] See various essays in Max Risselada and Dirk van den Heuvel, eds., Team 10
In Search of a Utopia of the Present 1953-1981 (Rotterdam, 2006).

[35] Collaborators within the framework of an experimental studio at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art, Jerzy Sołtan and artist-architect Oskar Hansen were active participants in Team X meetings in the late 1950s.

[36] See Hansjakob Stehle, Independent Satellite. Society and Politics in Poland since 1945 (New York, 1965), p.199.

[37] See Pawel Machcewicz ‘Intellectuals and Mass Movements, Ideologies and Political Programs in Poland in 1956’ in György Péteri, ed., Intellectual Life and the First Crisis of State Socialism in East Central Europe, 1953-1956 (Trondheim, 2001).

[38] Leszek Kołakowski’s ‘The Priest and the Jester’ in Twórczość (1959) reproduced in Toward a Marxist Humanism, trans. Jane Zielonko Peel (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 34.

[39] See Michał Woliński, ‘Sztuczna przestrzen. Wystawy i pawilony in Piktogram, 11 (2008), pp. 118-152.

[40] Oskar Hansen, Towards Open Form (Frankfurt/ Warsaw, 2005),p.136.

[41] E. Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man (London, 2004),p.82

[42] Hansen has, it should be noted, been well regarded as a precursor of the kind of spatialised art practices in vogue in Poland in the 1960s including happenings, performances and ‘dzieła-procesu’ (works of process). See Łukasz Ronduda, ‘Gry i Rozmowe Plastyczne, Działania I Współdziałania’ in Piktogram, 05-06 (2006), pp. 14-125.


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