‘Laughing at My Head’ – The ‘Immature’ Art of Neue Bieremiennost

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe

I was commissioned to write a piece about the early years of artist Mirosław Bałka and his colleagues when they sailed under the flag of ‘Neue Bieremiennost’. The piece appears in a book written and edited by Kasia Redzisz and Karol Sienkiewicz with the title Świadomość Neue Bieriemiennost (Fundacja Open Art Projects, Warsaw, 2012).

In November 1987 I spent a day in Warsaw visiting exhibitions. I passed the morning in the company of hushed crowds viewing the Porczyński collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings newly installed in the Archdiocese Museum, a small palace close to the Vistula River. A spectacular gift to the church from a Pole living abroad, the collection brought works credited to Rubens and Rembrandt to the People’s Republic of Poland. This was a major event. People queued to enter the modest gallery which had been created as an alternative space for art during the boycott of official cultural institutions that operated during the early 1980s. Only later did serious doubts emerge about the authenticity and the value of the collection.[1] In the light of these claims, Porczyński’s gift looked less generous than it had first seemed.

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Co Słychać?, Norblin Factory, Warsaw 1987

In the afternoon of the same day, I crossed the city to the Norblin factory, a crumbling industrial wreck. The space had been commandeered by another returnee, Andrzej Bonarski, to mount an exhibition of new Polish art called Co Słychać? (What’s Up?).[2]After working in the USA, Bonarski had recently returned to Poland to set himself up as an art dealer, impresario and collector. With the horizons narrowed by communist rule, art, it seems, provided fertile ground for making reputations. Brash, neo-expressionist canvases in the then fashionable manner of the Neue Wilden were double-hung from the gantries of the Norblin Factory. Primitive statues stood on the uneven floor, still bearing the imprint of the furnaces which had once warmed the air in this former metalworks. The art was accompanied by the scent of oil and rust, and pulsed by the ‘heavy’ sound of reggae. From what I can recall, I was not much taken with the neo-expressionist paintings in Co Słychać?(‘New’, I wrote in my diary, ‘seems old by now’). By contrast, some of the installations possessed a kind of exuberance and wit which demanded attention. Hanging in the middle of the factory-gallery, for instance, was a telephone handset. Its whorled cable stretched up to the ceiling where the phone was fixed to a small table accompanied by chair on a carpeted ‘floor’. If anyone had been making a call, a sudden shift in gravity had put it to an abrupt end. This upside-down world was Mirosław Filonik’s ‘Murder in the Red Room’ (Morderstwo w czerwonym pokoju). Droll and strange, Filonik’s artwork seemed to have something to say about the inverted laws which operated in the People’s Republic of Poland.

Św.Wojciech by Mirosław Bałka

I was not sure what exactly, though. His Neue Bieremiennost associate, Mirosław Bałka installed another image of suspension, ‘St Adalbert’ (Św.Wojciech, 1987). Fashioned from sacking, a decapitated and maimed figure of this historic martyr was hung, horizontally, off the scarred factory wall. Above it, the instrument of violence, an axe, was suggested by a neon sign: below, another set of green lights signaled life in the oats growing in soil tray on the ground. A second sculpture fashioned from sacking represented the Old Testament figure of ‘Cain’ (Kain, 1987). With his God-given mark on his back and charred skin, he stood, like a penitent or perhaps a worshipper, before a small, primitive forge. Here was the fiery source of his – and mankind’s – power to destroy. As Maria Morzuch noted later, Bałka’s sewn figures from this period seemed to come from an inaccessible zone, ‘a world of holy goodness or damned evil.’[3]

The neo-expressionist ‘moment’ in Polish art represented by Co Słychać? passed quickly in the 1990s as the country left Moscow’s embrace for democracy and the free-market economy. Recently it has come under the spotlight again, with historians and curators attempting to interpret the paintings, sculptures and installations produced under the flags of Gruppa, Koło Klipsa, Neue Bieremiennost and the other grupuscles of the age. Works which were lost or in states of decay have been remade or restored to be exhibited again.[4] This book is one part of this project in historical reconstruction. So how should works like Filonik’s sardonic ‘Murder in the Red Room’ or Bałka’s ‘St Adalbert’ be understood? As Poland’s contribution to the international wave of postmodernism, as was often claimed at the time? As juvenilia? As a reflex of the ersatz conditions of late socialism in Poland?

Neue Bieremiennost rejected categorization (unsuccessfully, it should be admitted). After all, its members proclaimed a common ‘consciousness’ rather than a shared mission or message. Sailing under a common flag between 1986 and 1989, the three principal members of the group produced diverse and often erratic work. This inconsistency was not (or, perhaps, was not just) the result of their relative youth. Neue Bieremiennost operated in the ‘dimension ….of the heteroclite’.[5] Their art was fashioned from diverse fragments and ideas, often exploiting ephemeral and abject materials. Eschewing monumentality, Neue Bieremiennost’s associates often produced a kind of dysphasic art not unlike that produced by Thomas Hirschhorn and Isa Genzken. Yet, it was clearly a product of a particular time and place, late socialist Poland. The ‘Neue Bieremiennost for Women’ (Neue Bieriemiennost na rzecz kobiet) exhibition was, for instance, organised in Warsaw to coincide with International Women’s Day in March 1986. The artists approached this red-letter day in the socialist calendar with a capricious agglomeration of materials, objects and ideas. A performance by Bałka featured 44 unfinished plaster Santa Claus figures wrapped in newspapers or hidden inside dirty pyramids of snow gathered from the street outside the gallery. Unwrapping the small packages and melting the snow with his hands, he exposed the little Saint Nicks to the world. In the background, Julio Iglesias’s sugary ballads issued from a loudspeaker. By the end, Bałka had created a comic scene in which a small crowd of Santas stood as mute and cracked witnesses to the lynching of one of their number. Filonik’s performance for the same fête of socialist femininity, ‘Woman with Feathers’ (Kobieta z pierza), involved laying a carpet of feathers on a rubber mattress. The artist then blew the feathers with a jet of air from a vacuum cleaner, filling the room and the assembled audience in a cloud of down. Eschewing clear symbolism or the hermeneutic imperative of ‘a message’, these actions were absurd, teetering on incomprehensibility.

The appeal of indeterminacy has to be understood in the context of the alliances and boundaries which were drawn across Polish culture in the 1980s. The imposition of Martial Law by General Jaruzelski’s Military Council of National Salvation (Wojskowa Rada Ocalenia Narodowego) in December 1981 had been met by a boycott of official cultural institutions by anti-communist artists, actors and writers. After Martial Law was lifted in 1983, the tense relations between state and people remained. At that time, the Roman Catholic Church offered alternative public spaces where artists could exhibit their work or mount theatrical performances.[6] In Warsaw, the ruined church on Żytnia Street, for instance, provided a suitably melancholic setting for meetings of the anti-communist cultural elite as well as a number of exhibitions and theatrical performancesby banned avant-garde companies like Theatre of the Eighth Day (Teatr Ósmego Dnia) from Poznań and filmmaker Andrzej Wajda (who mounted an ‘Easter Vigil’ ‘The Cenacle’ (Wieczernik),a play by Ernest Bryll, there in 1985[7]). Group exhibitions exploring spiritual themes were also organised there: the ‘Sign of the Cross’ (Znak Krzyża) was, for instance, organized in 1983 to coincide with the visit of Pope John Paul II. To demonstrate the strength of the anti-communist alliance, it called on artists of all stripes, including proto-environmentalist artist Teresa Murak and Edward Krasiński, a figure whose work linked minimalism and conceptualism with a thin blue strip. The context meant that art which eschewed eschatological or political themes was, nevertheless, framed by deeply-rooted romantic and messianic myths of national solidarity in the face of injustice. In the historicizing imagination of the anti-communist opposition, present conditions could be connected to long chain of tragic events in the history of the nation (namely the violent repression of worker protests in 1976, 1970 and 1956; the Katyn massacre in 1940; the outbreak of war in 1939 and the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising one year later; failed revolutions in 1905, 1863 and 1831). Repression had, of course, thrown up prophets, martyrs and heroes. From the lofty vantage point of opposition, culture was best when it was laced with pathos or took the form of testament.

For some artists, Neue Bieremiennost amongst them, the alliance of the church and the anti-communist opposition imposed a new and unwelcome set of aesthetic, moral and political codes. Speaking in 1993, Anda Rottenberg, a critic and curator closely associated with the group (to the extent that she could use the pronoun ‘we’), characterised Neue Bieremiennost’s activities as ‘opposition to both the underground church movement and the official movement … It was an attitude towards politics; [that] politics cannot interfere in art’. For Rottenberg, Neue Bieremiennost’s ironic actions and artworks operated ‘like the mirror in the circus reflecting some official habits in the field of art’.[8] Organizing their actions according to the ritual calendars of the church (Easter) and the state (Mayday and Women’s Day) and alert to the ritualized forms of loyalty which both required, Neue Bieremiennost seemed to treat these realms as official zones.

Kijewski’s Meditations of King Sigismund III

Although resistant to the revival of ‘gallows Romanticism’, many of the artworks produced by Bałka, Filonik and Kijewski share a preoccupation with national mythology, albeit often in skeptical and sardonic terms, as well as a deep attentiveness of Christian iconography. In works like ‘The Meditations of King Sigismund III About a Woman Fallen in Spirit’ (Rozmyślania Zygmunta Trzeciego na temat kobiety upadłej na duchu) on display in Co Słychac? in 1987 and ‘With Arm and Sword’ (Żywią i bronią, 1987), Kijewski remade Warsaw’s bronze idols in cheap materials and reorganized their heroic forms: the syrenka (mermaid) and Sigismund’s Column – icons of the revival of the Polish capital after the Second World War – were refashioned as priapic figurines motivated by carnal desires rather than by holy principles. History was presented as a kind of masturbatory farce.

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Witold Gombrowicz

Such works belong to a vein of anti-heroism which runs through Polish culture. It is found in the plays, novels, and poems of Miron Białoszewski, Witold Gombrowicz and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and others. Preoccupied with debased matter and déclassé individuals as well as absurdity and irreverence, these writers and artists have written alternative scripts for national culture. Their ‘common’ purpose – if such a thing can be detected – was not necessarily the creation of another kind of national monument. Insisting on the necessity of actively determining (or at least struggling to determine) one’s own identity rather than being formed by culture or the interests of others, they rejected notions of fixed or ‘authentic’ Polishness.

Gombrowicz, the novelist and dramatist who left Poland in 1939 never to return, seems to have had particular resonance in the 1980s. (His ‘complete works’ – including his philosophical, opinionated and highly discursive Diaries – were published in 1986 after being largely unavailable and occasionally banned in the People’s Republic). The writer took a disdainful view of Polish romanticism. It had, he believed, created an illusion of community and what he liked to characterise as an over-mature culture, built on dreams of monumentality and grandeur drawn from Romantic history. Writing against the national grain, Gombrowicz celebrated immature, childish and clownish forms of expression. He filled the pages of his novels and diaries with slapstick humour, repetitions, slang and abrupt digressions. A skilled abductor of language and creator of neologisms, he would twist morphemes and words into new meanings. In Trans-Atlantyk (1953), for instance, ‘synczyzna’ (sonland) becomes an irreverent upstart and rival to ‘ojczyzna’ (fatherland), for instance.

The selection of the group’s German-Russian name – Neue Bieremiennost – seems to point to Gombrowicz. Looking back late in life, he reflected on the ill-fated location of the country:

It is a country between the East and the West, where Europe starts to draw to an end, a border country where the East and the West soften into each other. A country of weakened forms . . . None of the great movements of European culture has ever penetrated Poland, not the Renaissance, not the wars of religion, not the French revolution, not the industrial revolution . . . So these plains, open to every wind, had long been the scene of a great compromise between Form and its Degradation . . . This feeling of formlessness tortured the Poles, but at the same time it gave them a strange sense of liberty.[9]

Wrapped in sardonic humour and playfulness was a kind of philosophy: if Poland could accept its condition, that of an immature state overshadowed by the achievements of its neighbours, an open-minded culture could be conceived. Poland could, in other words, be a neue bieremiennost.

In celebrating formlessness, Gombrowicz was not arguing for what Georges Bataille called the ‘informe’, an inchoate state in which meaning briefly emerges before vanishing again. The Polish writer was preoccupied with the yet to be formed. Moreover, Gombrowicz’s mischievous literary style is, for instance, a kind of textual demonstration of his view that the preoccupations and roles associated of adulthood obscure a kind of primordial youthfulness in all of us.

We are ‘infantilized’ by all ‘higher’ forms. Man, tortured by his mask, fabricates secretly, for his own usage, a sort of ‘subculture’: a world made out of the refuse of a higher world of culture, a domain of trash, immature myths, inadmissible passions . . . a secondary domain of compensation. That is where a certain shameful poetry is born, a certain compromising beauty . . .[10]

Gombrowicz’s conception of trash aesthetics, outlined here in a passage from his introduction to the French edition of Pornografia (1966), might offer some insights into the ‘immature’ forms of Neue Bieremiennost’s art.

If a ruined church, destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising, seemed a ‘natural’ setting for the revival of Polish Romanticism by anti-communist artists and playwrights after Martial Law, the Norblin factory – a grimy ruin – was a ‘natural’ environment for the art shown in Co Słychac?in 1987. In fact, Poland seemed to be rotting in the late 1980s: a greasy tide of filth seeped into public spaces such as common hallways, streets, parks and beaches; one-time symbols of the communist future – socmodernist hotels and sports stadia – were broken, in a state of chronic disrepair; and, of course, the shops were empty. Chroniclers of everyday life in Poland in the 1980s, short-story writers Marek Nowakowski and Janusz Anderman were alert to the ubiquitous presence of ‘dreck’.[11] Trash crowded a world which was unable to meet the task of supplying its citizens with the new. Setting the scene for his short story, A sense of … , Anderman wrote:

Silence and mist covered the vast square: its houses lay in decay, unreal as a stage backcloth; jutting balconies stacked with discarded objects, broken chairs, faded children’s toys, scraps of refuse, dusty jars and bottles, saucepans with holes and cracked enamel, voiceless TV boxes, old-fashioned chandeliers, rotting picture frames, rusty bikes, strung-up bundles of old newspapers.’[12]

Anderman was nearly right. These things were not quite – or not yet – discarded. Shortage turned citizens into skilled fixers of broken things, adept at the everyday art of bricolage. Only when things were completely exhausted (itself never a certain state), could they be dumped.

Garbage was not just a resource for survival: it was also material for making sense. As Tomasz Kitliński has pointed out, the country has thrown up many ‘dreck heroes’:

A dreck-hero is the one who emerges clean from political and historical slime; who transcends human garbage status while wading through filth, cleaning up trash, or living in rubble; who keeps conscience alive amid degradation and grim realities. Where shit prevails, the dreck-hero prevails even more.[13]

Wajda’s Kanal

A ‘dreck hero’ can be a fictional character like the celebrated war-time insurgents who occupy the sewers in Andrzej Wajda’s film ‘Kanal’ (‘Kanał’)(1957). For Kitliński, it could also be an artist or writer who ‘rises above dreck even while immersed in it’. Polish art has produced a number of these champions of trash. Dramatist and artist Tadeusz Kantor might be counted amongst them. He coined the term ‘the Reality of the Lowest Rank’ (‘rzeczywistość najniższej rangi’) to describe the power of lowly objects to stimulate the imagination: ‘being, death, love … exist somewhere in a poor corner, a parcel, a stick, a bicycle wheel … bereft of pathos or illusion.’[14] ‘Refuse, cast-off ends and odds’ were conscripted throughout his career into productions, performances and happenings. Kantor’s purpose was to provide markers of human existence, much in the manner described by Hannah Arendt in her 1958 book, The Human Condition: ‘the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that…men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.’[15]Trash was not something to be discarded: it was to be salvaged for the memories and marks of human existence that it might contain.

One can trace elements of this sensibility in Bałka’s work produced during his Neue Bieremiennost period: the 44 plaster boomerangs he created for a performance entitled ‘Boomerangs for Peace’ (Bumerangi pokoju) presented as part ofCC Neue Bieriemiennost for Peace (KC Neue Bieriemiennost na rzecz pokoju) in the Dziekanka Workshop (Pracownia Dziekanka) in Warsaw in May 1986, were filled with ash, hay, coal dust and sand. When thrown against projected images of the rural landscape on the walls of Dziekanka, they shattered. These low materials of everyday existence formed a dusty cloud before settling on the floor. His sewn figures – ‘St Adalbert’ and ‘Cain’ – were fashioned from old sacks which had once contained fuel and food, resources for life. Despite the resolute pointless of throwing a boomerang against a wall or the artificial illumination of neon lighting, one can still trace in these early works what would later become Bałka’s all-encompassing preoccupation with human presence and absence.

By contrast, his Neue Bieremiennost colleagues drew other – more kitsch – kinds of associations from the detritus of everyday life. Filonik, for instance, sometimes deployed the cheap consumer goods of late socialism. The failing command economy produced shoddy goods which were broken or redundant before they even left the factory. This was another order of trash. Filonik’s contribution to ‘For All Saints’ (Na rzecz Wszystkich Świętych) exhibition in Poznań in December 1986, an installation entitled ‘Mr. Francis’s Sacred Birds’ (Święte Ptaki Pana Franciszka), was fashioned from a shop mannequin and half a dozen inflatable swimming rings in the shape of swans. Mixing cheap artificial effects with the figure of a saint associated with a love of nature, this was an exercise in visual catachresis. Nearby, Filonik arranged another set of mannequin heads sharing tongues entitled ‘The Beuys’ and a pair of legs combined with birch branches bearing the name ‘Hooker Positioned on Her Head’ (Dziwka postawiona na głowie). In the same exhibition Kijewski fashioned a nursing sow from rags, his mother’s bed linen and a steel frame. Her piglets could be made to fly at the tug of a lever made from twine. His mother-in-law provided a china elephant ornament which was exhibited on ridiculous metal stilts. No redemption was to be drawn from these shabby resources.

Neue Bieriemiennost for Jean Bédel Bokassa I’

Self-consciously artless and immediate, Filonik’s art drew it effects from its brash humour. Similarly, a massive sculpture known as ‘the Palace Eater’, created by all three associates of the group for show entitled ‘Neue Bieriemiennost for Jean Bédel Bokassa I’, shared this character. A headless statute of the African dictator fashioned from steel mesh and painted fabric, it featured a massive phallus which seemed to have deposited some kind of ejeculate in the corner of the Warsaw gallery when it was installed in January 1987. It was a kind of enormous and vulgar joke.

Such works also testify to a ‘hunger for strangeness’ first identified during the Stalin years but at its peak in the 1980s.[16] This craving was not only a product of the barren conditions and social anomie which marked life in Poland: the romantic and patriotic foundations of dissent also had the effect of narrowing and elevating the horizons of culture. Neue Bieriemiennost belonged to a generation who expressed an acute and sometimes incongruous appetite for difference. The booming reggae soundtrack which accompanied the Co Słychać? exhibition was one such sign. In 2009 ‘Neue Bieriemiennost for Jean Bédel Bokassa I’ was recreated for exhibition in Rotterdam, Warsaw and Wrocław which was entitled ‘I Could Live in Africa’, a title adopted from a 1983 documentary about the Polish band Izrael[17]. For these nonconformists, Poland was ‘Babylon’ and Africa was a mythic paradise without rules, material possessions or, for that matter, politicians, trade unions or priests. Punk, new wave and reggae music was the soundtrack for a loose ‘alternative culture’ which operated in the 1980s. Song lyrics, ‘trzeciobieg’ (third circulation) fanzines and occasional ‘happenings’ often expressed a darkly ironic view of official and opposition shibboleths and invented unlikely heroes. Neue Bieriemiennost’s actions – organised on symbolic days in the socialist calendar and delighting in absurdity – coincided with the loosely-scripted street theatre performed by Orange Alternative in Wrocław or the actions of lesser-known groups like the Mathias Rust Komando in Poznań. Named after a teenage German pilot who, evading Soviet air defences, landed his light plane in Red Square in Moscow in May 1987, the male and female ‘commandos’ marked International Women’s Day a few months later by dressing as women and carrying banners announcing ‘Polish women support the government policies’ and ‘I’ll take any work’.[18] Punk also brought a latter-day version of auto-destructive art to Poland. After forming in 1981, Dezerter, a prominent punk band, refused success (within the limited horizons set by the ‘music industry’ in the People’s Republic) by testing their audiences with incoherence. Their performance at a music festival in 1986 took the form of ‘inaudible playback from tapes of three of their old hits’ and an ‘improvised performance, the high point of which was an unprepared “speech” by the band’s manager dressed as a Hussar.’[19]

A hunger for difference, iconoclasm and sardonic humour formed lines of connection across a fragmented ‘alternative culture’ at the end of the 1980s. In setting Neue Bieriemiennost in this company, it would be easy to characterise their activities as ‘mere’ juvenilia. Yet, there was, as Gombrowicz claimed, value to be found in immaturity. Immaturity was a mode of resistance. In his novel Ferdydurke (1937), the central character, a thirty-year old man, Joey Kowalski, is thrust into a teenage world, his peers indifferent or unaware of his age or appearance. This violent abduction by a force of order and civilization –a school teacher – is, at first, disturbing. Yet Kowalski finds refuge in his childishness. In her introduction to a new translation of the book, Susan Sontag wrote ‘Gombrowicz affirming the “human” need for imperfection, incompleteness, inferiority … youth, proclaims himself a specialist in inferiority. Swinish adolescence may seem a drastic antidote to smug maturity, but this is exactly what Gombrowicz has in mind’.[20]

As antidotes to the historicism and monumentalism, the works produced by the Neue Bieremiennost artists in the late 1980s frequently addressed youth. It was the theme in a number of Bałka’s figurative works of the period including ‘Remembrance of the First Holy Communion’ (Pamiątka Pierwszej Komunii Świętej, 1985) and ‘When You Wet the Bed’ (1987), a installation inspired by lines in the first chapter of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as Young Man (1914-1915). Viewed as a sculptural object in its present location (Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź), the white and dusty adolescent figure of ‘Remembrance of the First Holy Communion’, accompanied by conventional memory triggers like photographs and clothing, seems to be a form of materialised nostalgia. When considered in its first incarnation in June 1985 as the centerpiece of a performance in an abandoned house in Żuków in the countryside not far from Warsaw, the piece takes on less sentimental dimensions. It was installed in a ruin, described by Rottenberg as being ‘full of cobwebs and deprived of any movement, as if under a curse of inviolability or perhaps saved by a superstition that had presented the remnants of the property from the neighbour’s greed. There lingered an atmosphere of sickness and death that lurked in the stale feather beds, in bottle of medicines in dirty, cracked cups and in the furniture placed at random, delimiting an area between the busy order of life and the absurd peace of death … too much burdened with the past.’[21] Young boys – the same age as Bałka’s communicant – were conscripted to play parts in this eccentric pastoral drama. They guided the audience to the artist, an imposing figure in an ill-fitting suit, riding a child’s bike with a whitened face and white gloves like a clown (in striking contrast to what Bałka called the ‘official oppression’ of religious ritual[22]). Like Ferdydurke, here was a work which projected its chief subject, Bałka himself, back to adolescence. And, like the novel, the overall effect was as absurd as it was melancholic.

Youthful bodies were also the subject of Filonik’s punning work, The Beuys (1986). Connected by tongues emerging from their ears, two mannequins seemed to be engaged in some kind of strange, erotic act. These organs seemed to be independent of these expressionless doppelgangers to which they were attached. Perhaps inadvertently, The Beuys echoed the dizzying description of the last moment before waking when one has not yet donned a habitual mask, in Ferdydurke: ‘I felt that my body was not homogeneous . . . that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head . . . my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my nose — and all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery.’ However unsettling description seems, for Gombrowicz it represents the unruly potential of formlessness.

Incarnated in these sculptural figures and embraced in the mischievousness of their performances, youthfulness was itself, perhaps, a kind of Gombrowiczian principle for Neue Bieremiennost. Their juvenilia was often, it seems, juvenile. When a form or an event seemed likely to crystallize into a coherent whole, the artists reeled off into play or absurdity: boomerangs clattered into walls; audiences were doused in feathers. In this way, meaning was not to be produced but deferred. Formlessness of this kind is, however, difficult to sustain. Careers, markets and museums all require the coherence of form. The very process of making or of writing generates its own limits. As Gombrowicz observed in Ferdydurke, ‘Whatever you put on paper dictates whatever comes next, because the work is not born of you – you want to write one thing, yet something else entirely comes out. Parts tend to wholeness, every part surreptitiously makes its way toward the whole, strives for roundness, and seeks fulfillment. It implores the rest to be created in its own image and likeness’.[23]Unity coheres in retrospect, when actors reflect on their activities. It comes with the retelling of events and the description of ephemeral things. The interviews with those sharing the Neue Bieremiennost consciousnessin this book are full of those moments in which things are fixed. And, of course, this short essay is another attempt at cohesion, even if it takes as its guide the champion of formlessness, Witold Gombrowicz.

– David Crowley, 31 August 2011


[1] Janusz Miliszkiewicz, Mieczysław Morka, Kolekcja Porczyńskich – genialne oszustwo? (Warszawa 1993).

[2] Co słychać? Sztuka najnowsza, edited by Maryla Sitkowska (Warsaw 1989).

[3] Maria Morzuch ‘Alchemy of the Body or the Inexorable Hour-Glass’ in Miroslaw Balka, exhibition catalogue Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven/ Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 1994, p. 28.

[4] See  Marek Goździewski, First Reconstructions, in Marek Kijewski. I’m All A-tremble When I Can Shower You With Gold, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw 2008, pp.44-88.

[5] Michel Foucault celebrates ‘the disorder in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately in the dimension, without law or geometry, of the heteroclite … in such a state, things are “laid”, “placed”, “arranged” in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all’ in The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York, 1973) p.xvii.

[7] Kazimierz Braun, Teatr polski, 1939-1989: obszary wolności–obszary zniewolenia (Warsaw, 1994) p.210.

[8] Interview with Miroslaw Balka and Anda Rottenberg by William Furlong in Art and Design, 35 (1994) p.73.

[9] Witold Gombrowicz, A Kind of Testament, translated by Alistair Hamilton (London, 1973) pp.53-54.

[10] Witold Gombrowicz, Pornografia, tr. Alastair Hamilton (New York, 1994) p.8.

[11] See, for instance, Marek Nowakowski, Raport o stanie wojennym (1982-1984), (Białystok, 1990).

[12] Janusz Anderman, ‘A sense of’ in The Edge of the World (London, 1988) p.72

[13] Tomasz Kitliński, ‘Polish Garbage and Dreck Heroes’ in Bad Subjects (on-line journal), 55 (May 2001) – http://blogs.eserver.org/issues/2001/55/kitlinski-lockard.html – accessed July 2011.

[14] Tadeusz Kantor, ‘Reality of the Lowest Rank’ in A Journey Through Other Spaces. Essays and Manifestos, 1944–1990, ed. Michal Kobialka (Berkeley, CA., 1993) p.30.

[15] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958) p.137.

[16] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (1953) (Harmondsworth, 1980) p.67.

[17] Jacques de Koning, I could live in Africa, 1983.

[18] Padraig Kenney, A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 (Princeton, 2002), p.177.

[19] Mirosław Pęczak, ‘Youth Culture’ in Donald Pirie, Jekaterina Young and Christopher Carrell, eds., Polish Realities. The Arts in Poland, 1980-1989 (Glasgow, 1990), pp.110-111.

[20] Susan Sontag introduction to Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke (New Haven, 2000) p.x.

[21] Anda Rottenberg, ‘Miroslaw Balka – Arranged Events’ (A First Draft) in Miroslaw Balka, exhibition catalogue Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven/ Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 1994, p.14.

[22] ‘Każdy chłopiec boi się inaczej’ Mirosław Bałka in conversation with Bożena Czubak in Magazyn Sztuki 19 (1998) p.16.

[23] Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke, trans. Danuta Borchardt (Boston, MA, 2000) p.94.

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Two books on Polish graphic design …

Design/Critique, Eastern Europe, Graphic Design

Against All Odds. Polish Graphic Design 1919-1949 (also published in Polish as Nie gęsi. Polskie projektowanie graficzne 1919–1949) by Piotr Rypson. (Karakter, Kraków, 2011)

Projekt: The Polish journal of visual art and design (Unit 05) edited by Adrian Shaughnessy (with essays by Charlotte West and Edgar Bąk) (Unit Editions, London, 2011)

The cover of the second issue of Projekt, 1956

The Polish Poster School of the 1950s and 1960s casts a long shadow over graphic design. Employing surrealist collage techniques and hand-drawn illustration, figures like Henryk Tomaszewski and Roman Cieślewicz are celebrated for their idiosyncratic approach to image-making. They are credited with resisting the intellectual poverty of communist ideology with individualism and artistry. Forty years later, young designers in the country still have to step out of their deep shadows to make their own careers. This monumental reputation also works retrospectively: the history of graphic design seems to have only one Polish story, the post-war poster.

Piotr Rypson’s new book Against All Odds. Polish Graphic Design 1919-1949 is a rich repository of alternative histories. Playing down the poster in favour of a much wider range of printed objects including avant-garde programmes and popular magazines, postage stamps and letterheads, Rypson examines the difference faces of modernism in Poland from the revival of the nation at the end of the First World War to imposition of Stalinism in the late 1940s. He is an expert guide, supplying fast-paced narratives about the commercial, state and political clients for whom graphic designers worked. He moves between avant-garde manifestos like Władysław Strzemiński’s ‘Functional Printing’ of 1935 and anonymous ephemera, tracing how the austere principles associated with die neue Typographie found their way onto the pages of magazines and trade union booklets. These histories are not, however, the major achievement of the book. This lies in the extraordinary range of illustrative examples which have been gathered between its boards. I doubt whether 10% of them have been republished before. And the effect is truly enlightening. The diverse expression and widespread adoption of photomontage stands out: Mieczysław Berman’s steely posters for left-wing parties seem follow blueprints drawn in Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia whereas Janusz Maria Brzeski’s photomontages for Tajny Detektyw (Secret Detective) magazine in the early 1930s have a kind of élan which combines Dada with Hollywood.

Cover of Obrona Warszawy

The decision to cover the 1940s is a good one. Most design histories follow the chronology of world events or the simple metres of decades. Rypson is making a point: the Second World War did not mark the end of free publishing or imaginative design but that the formation of a one-party state at Moscow’s behest in 1949 did. There are some poignant wartime stories here. Maria Jarema produced truly extraordinary hand-drawn abstract covers for a hand-written book of verse by experimental poet Julian Przyboś in 1943. Produced in an edition of just ten copies, these books asserted the power of the human imagination in the face of occupation, censorship and destruction. I am also struck by the tragic and unintended irony of the cover of a booklet entitled Obrona Warszawy (The Defence of Warsaw) produced by Polish Jewish socialists in 1942 in New York. Designed by Teresa Żarnowerówna, a one-time constructivist living in the city as a refugee, the book announces the fate of Warsaw, her hometown, in the hands of the Germans. It is a bitter irony that Żarnowerówna, like many constructivist and avant-garde artists in the 1920s – had seized the fragment as a both kind of metaphor for modernity and as a revolutionary device to hasten the modern world into being. Tradition was to be dismantled with the dynamism of montage. But by 1942, the fragment, in the form of broken bodies and shattered buildings on the photomontage cover of Obrona Warszawy, was a tragic demonstration of the destructive power of modernity.

For Rypson 1949 marks a kind of fault-line. By then, many of the figures who feature in his book were victims of the Second World War; dead or forced, like Żarnowerówna, to flee the country. The onset of Stalinism was by no means the end of modernist graphic design in Poland as a modest book recently published by Unit Editions, Projekt: The Polish journal of visual art and design, shows. Reviewing the activities and appearance of a very animated art and design magazine first published in 1956 after the dark years of Stalinism, this book gathers covers and spreads by a new generation of designers and artists most of whom made their careers in the People’s Republic.

Published in three languages, Projekt was a major vehicle for the promotion of the Polish poster abroad and, in fact, eschewing cover-lines, portraits and the other conventions of commercial publishing, the magazine’s covers functioned as diminutive posters. Charlotte West‘s well-informed introductory essay places less emphasis on interpreting these designs than in examining the relative freedom of the editors to shape its content in the face of censorship. By steering clear of politics, they ensured that the cultural apparatchiks left the magazine and its editors alone. As a result, Projekt became a remarkable champion of modernist graphic design on both sides of the East-West divide during the 1960s and 1970s. In the early 1980s when the authorities imposed Martial Law on the country in an attempt to suppress the Solidarity anti-communist opposition, this strategy became untenable. Projekt’s editors attempted to report the visual language of protest and, facing censure, announced their collective resignation.

From Homelessness to Homelessness

Architecture, Design as Critique, Modernism

This essay was written as a coda to a book edited by Robin Schuldenfrei, Atomic Dwelling (Routledge, 2012)

 Covering the period between the end of the Second World War and the early 1970s, the essays in this book explore subjects in the era in which modernism triumphed, or so it seems. A set of aesthetic and intellectual propositions about the nature of modern design generated after the First World War were realized around the world in the uneasy peace which followed the end of the Second World War. The dream of an “International Style” was achieved to a large extent, with, of course, “local” differences in context and timing.[1] North American and Western European industry turned to modernist designers to provide the blueprints for chic modern furniture and electronic consumer goods as the “affluent society” took shape in the 1950s; after 1956, Eastern European states set about creating the kind of mass housing schemes which had been proposed by Le Corbusier, Ludwig Hilbersheimer and others in the 1920s; and newly independent states in Africa and the Middle East commissioned concrete and glass monuments from “First” and “Second world” architects to demonstrate their claims on modernity. Twenty years after the end of the Second World War, modernist architects and designers could justifiably claim to be shaping the world. Ernesto Roger’s 1952 totalizing ambition for design, dal cucchiaio alla città (from the spoon to the city), was, it seems, being realized.[2] Thirty years after 1945, however, the modernist project seemed to be in jeopardy, threatened by economic recession and environmental anxieties, and disturbed by the critiques of rationalism and technocracy in the West and the emergence of dissidence in the Eastern Bloc.[3] In 1975, Gaetano Pesce, the subject of Jane Pavitt’s essay in this book, could assert “La Futur est peut-etre passé.”

The reasons for what is usually described as the historic “failure” of modernism are many and often debated. Much of the explosion of writing on post-modernism in the 1980s was largely dedicated to providing explanations of its breakdown.[4] In this coda, however, I would like focus on the midpoint of the period covered by the essays in this book, the late 1950s. Even at the moment of its greatest success, as the essays in this book demonstrate, postwar Modernism in architecture and design displayed many symptoms of anxiety. But, of course, all societies fret about the conditions of the age in which they live. Even those times and places which have been cast in retrospect as “golden ages” were invariably understood by their contemporaries in terms of anxiety. “Golden Age Vienna” was the birthplace of psychoanalysis and the “Swinging Sixties” produced the Counter Culture. Moreover, the home has often been claimed as either a symptom of or as an antidote to social failure, anomie or poverty. The indictment of the domestic environment as a generator of poverty and “lax” morality in the postwar discussion of the Sassi cliff homes in Matera, Italy, described by Anne Parmly Toxey in her essay, for instance, shares much with characterizations of London’s rookeries one-hundred years earlier.[5] So what distinguishes the anxieties of modern dwelling in the age of its accomplishment? In what follows I will reflect on this question by exploring views of the past, present and future of the modern home articulated in the late 1950s. In each “moment,” the question of what constituted a human environment rose sharply to the fore.

Coming to Terms with the Past

Modern design in Europe after 1945 was conscripted into the project of postwar reconstruction and the creation of new, “just” societies. The view that modern design should ameliorate social problems was, of course, nothing new: what had changed in the postwar years was the sense that modern architecture and design could address existenzfragen (existential questions) (and, as such, formed a European counterpart to North American design pyschologism). Postwar modernism could not only create the future but, in some settings, would also heal the wounds of the recent past. The recent experience of “total war” which had seen entire societies conscripted into the war effort as well as the shocking awareness of humanity’s terrible potential for destruction made the heady technological futurism of the 1920s seem naïve and obsolete. The challenge – widely accepted by modernist designers and architects – was to set new technologies to peaceful or “humanist” purposes. Writing about the intellectual mindset of architects and designers, Barry Curtis has described humanism as a “pervasive mood” which “responded to recent experiences of totalitarianism and scientifically planned mass destruction.”[6] Similarly, Ignasi de Solà-Morales has described it “not as a strictly philosophical current but as a cultural climate.”[7] The impressionistic tenor of words like “mood” and “climate” accurately capture the widespread but diffused influence of humanism in its existential and phenomenological modes in the postwar years. “Humanity” and “man” were the common platitudes, invoked at almost every important gathering of architects and designers in Europe during the reconstruction years: the German Werkbund organized the second Darmstädter Gespräch to discuss “Mensch und Raum” in 1951; the Milan Triennale in the same year took “Architettura, misura dell’uomo” as its governing theme; whilst the following year the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne met in Hoddesdon, a town near London, and published its findings there in The Heart of the City: Towards the Humanisation of Urban Life.[8]

       Preparing the West German pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, Hans Schwippert represented modern architecture and design as part of this humanist crusade:

A movement is starting in the world … against the dehumanizing trends of mechanization, against the threat of the new horrifying means of annihilation and of “progress” … a movement that seeks and achieves a new lightness, a new tenderness and a new beauty. The glass walls of the new architecture, the new lightness of offices, workshops, factories, the graceful style of new furnishings, the pleasure of living among green, growing things  … are all wonderful experiments in a general human opposition to the threat of darkness and impending chaos.[9]

Schwippert was the secretary of the German Werkbund, a much-celebrated professional lobby that had played a key role in the development of Weimar Modernism. After 1945, the Werkbund came to enjoy a significant role in West Germany, derived, in part, from its standing as a rare prewar institution which could claim some degree of autonomy from Nazism. In the first half of the 1950s the Werkbund sought to orient the material culture of the country to its cherished ideal of “gute Form” (good form), a loose formulation which claimed moral effects for modernist design. It mounted didactic exhibitions, promoted design education and the output of a few prominent manufacturers.[10] Claiming a prewar Modern Movement heritage and counting figures like the former director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, amongst its alumni, the Werkbund saw an opportunity to remake the world – in material and moral terms – from the ruins of the Second World War.

The Werkbund sought to be a moral compass which would steer West Germany through reconstruction to democracy. In 1951 it invited Ortega y Gasset and Martin Heidegger to speak at the second Darmstädter Gespräch which gathered to discuss “Mensch und Raum.” This event took the following words as its motto:

Building is a fundamental activity of man

Man builds, by joining spatial figures, thus shaping space

Building, he responds to the spirit of the age

Our age is the age of technology

The plight of our age is homelessness.[11]

Heidegger famously presented his “Building Dwelling Thinking” essay at this meeting in which he reflected on homelessness as an ontological state. The solution to this existential quandary was not to be found in “well planned, attractively cheap, open to air housing” but in understanding “what it is to dwell.”[12] It is clear that Heidegger did not directly capture the imagination of those who met in Darmstadt but he did reflect something of the existential mood of the gathering and, in fact, of Werkbund thinking in the period. Werkbund secretary Schwippert’s contribution to the discussion was to claim that the existential question of dwelling in was best answered by “bright and mobile [architecture] as a light and open sequence of spaces, and this is something that for some time now and ever more insistently asserts itself in these times.”[13] This was hardly Heidegger’s famous home of the spirit, the Black Forest farmhouse. Glass and steel were, nevertheless, capable of metaphysical effects. They could, for Schwippert, produce light, open spaces which would counteract the darkness and monumentality of the Third Reich and of the Soviet Bloc.

The West German pavilion at Expo 58 in Brussels – orchestrated by the Werkbund (with the Rat für Formgebung) – was perhaps the most spectacular realizations of Schwippert’s vision of “a new lightness, a new tenderness and a new beauty.”[14] Not a single structure, it was a series of two and three-storey pavilions connected by a chain of walkways covered with a white polythene roof forming circular route. The complex was entered across a footbridge suspended from a high steel pylon, the only element visible from a distance. Emphasizing overall effect of low horizontality and transparency, the structure of each building was created by a grid of stanchions and framed by a glass wall set one meter inside the roofline. The effects of transparency were amplified by the ascetic and controlled style of display inside. selection of exhibits tended towards modesty, a feature which was heavily laced with ideological significance in Werkbund debates. Alfons Leitl, writing in the exhibition catalogue, stressed “there is a social and democratic element … in the modest but dignified atmosphere of our everyday life.”[15] What might have been presented as glittering commodities took the form of a display of possessions (Persönlicher Bedarf) which were exhibited to demonstrate the ordinary face of a nation which had once proclaimed its citizens to be Übermenschen.

This meant that the home was given special significance above all other social sites in the national display in Brussels. Expo visitors were presented with three different full-scale model homes in the West German pavilion. The most important of these domiciles was a six-person family, single-storey apartment. It was presented as a glass-walled exhibit within the “Stadt und Wohnung” section. The family kitchen was displayed in cross-section with all the facing walls framed with glass. The viewer was offered uninhibited views of the pipe-work under the sink and the contents of the cupboards. Things were to reveal themselves in the most direct and unmediated fashion. The isolation of the single object – whether a cardigan, a bass violin or a prosthetic limb – suspended in the air was released from the need to address its viewer as consumer. Such displays even aspired to what Susan Sontag was to call “transparence,” the experience of “luminousness of the thing itself.”[16] The model home and, in fact, the entire West German pavilion, displayed a kind of distrust of images or, more accurately, of their powers of seduction. An image which treated images with suspicion, visitors were presented with evidence of inward-looking and modest Germany to suppress recent memories of her belligerence and to demonstrate her commitment to spiritual renewal. Here was a German home without a past or even an unconscious in the sense proposed by Gaston Bachelard.[17] For the French philosopher, writing when millions of Europeans had been homeless as a result of the Second World War and the decisions made at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the home was place where one’s most intimate dreams and anxieties could be stored. Privacy had – since 1945 – been given a central role in the denazification of a militarized, corporate society. At Brussels, this order of domestic politics was publicly demonstrated to the rest of the World.

West Germany presented the most pronounced version of what were the general circumstances in which many modernist architects and designers found themselves in Western Europe in the 1950s. Substituting radical politics for a humanist rhetoric, many put themselves in an arrière-garde position. Exercising what artist Richard P. Lohse called their “artistic ability, moral powers of resistance and knowledge of continuing cultural and psychological conditions,” architects and designers were to stave off what they saw as alienating effects of modern life.[18] New terms entered into the discourse of modern architecture. Community, to give one instance, now had to be reconciled with the needs of privacy, argued Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander in 1963, in order to produce a “new architecture of humanism.”[19]

 

Here, Now

The home was given ideological functions in Western Europe after 1945. The Marshall Plan had, for instance, put numerous model homes on display across Western Europe in the early 1950s. This technique, in Greg Castillo’s words, “conflated democratic freedom with rising private consumption” and contested Soviet claims on the superiority of socialism.[20] In the early 1950s a series of exhibitions promoted American models of domesticity in West Germany, Belgium and France, albeit in the “elevated” mode promoted by Edgar Kaufmann, curator of Industrial Design at MoMA. The designs of Eero Saarinen manufactured by Knoll and the import of the Knoll line of furniture to Belgium – the subject of Cammie McAtee and Fredie Floré’s essays in this book – were turned into symbols of reassurance, democracy, affluence and liberalism by being conscripted in this fashion. Berlin was given its own venue for such exhibits, the George Marshall-Haus, which opened in 1950. Wir bauen ein besseres Leben (We’re Building a Better Life, 1952) was a typical Marshall-Haus event. Its centerpiece was a single-family home containing a generous supply of consumer goods manufactured by Marshall Plan member nations. Here was a demonstration of the benefits of international exchange guided by the market. For many contemporaries, this was Americanization by another name.[21] Lefebvre called “that ideological commodity imported in the name of technical progress, ‘consumer society’ and the mass media.”[22] The building – ordinary in most respects – was rendered knowable by the fact that it was roofless. Visitors to the exhibition were led up on to an elevated gantry from which they could spy on everyday family life, performed by adult and child actors. Here, what Barthes later called the “publicity of the private” was given the ideological function of producing both envy and knowledge of the lifestyles contained therein.[23]

These techniques were almost a decade old when, in 1958, the West Germans built and furnished their pavilion in Brussels and when, in the following year, the United States put consumerism on display in Moscow at the famous American National Exhibition. Evidence of American prosperity – automobiles, kitchen appliances, color television and even a supermarket – were exhibited in order to produce the destabilizing effects of envy amongst the Soviet citizenry. The angry conversations between US vice-president Richard Nixon and premier Nikita Khrushchev on the opening day became one of the best-known arguments of the Cold War known as the “Kitchen Debate.” Nixon seized the opportunity to represent America as a land in which householders held the whip hand: manufacturers and housing developers were, he suggested, compelled by market pressures to meet their every whim such was the power of the consumer. Nothing could be better for the economy than the fact that ordinary citizens grew tired of their new homes within a few years. This kind of psychological obsolescence was, he argued, the engine of progress. Khrushchev countered by boldly claiming the minor miracles of washing machines and refrigerators were nothing new: “You think the Russian people will be dumfounded to see these things” barked the Soviet premier, “but the fact is that newly built Russian houses have all this equipment right now.”[24] The Soviet system was superior because it eschewed short-term benefits for the long-term goals of socialism. Paradoxically, however, this event came at the end of Soviet “long-termism” and was coincidental with policies designed to produce immediate effects.

At the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1962 Khrushchev announced “For the first time in history there will a be a full and final end of the situation in which people suffer from the shortage of anything … [by] 1980 this country will far outstrip the United States ….”[25] Families in the Soviet Union and in allied socialist nations were to enjoy new levels of domestic comfort: high rise housing in single-family apartments was the first and most important aspect of this promise to meet the material and social needs of working men and women. After the idealized collectivism of the “domkomuna” (the experimental housing commune of the 1920s) and cramped conditions of the “komunalka” (the communal apartment shared by many families), the single-family apartment represented a much-desired atomic dwelling in which the family constituted the key social unit. It was not the only symbol of the age. The design of scooters, consumer goods like East German plastic kitchen utensils and radios and fashionable clothing were all attempts to materialize Khrushchev’s promise to make socialism a worker’s paradise. Eastern Bloc authorities, as Ana Miljački explores in her contribution to this book on Czechoslovak images of “socialist lifestyle”, could no longer rely on the conventional indices of industrial progress – the factory and the machine – to demonstrate their hold on modernity. By turning consumerism into a site of “peaceful competition,” the East and the West had produced a state of affairs in which consumption was equated with citizenship. In fact, when faced with the American dream home implanted on Soviet soil in 1959, Khrushchev had bragged “In Russia all you have to do to get a house is to be born in the Soviet Union. You are entitled to housing.”[26]

This promise was repeated and extended in the years that followed by Soviet government and in the regimes which formed the Eastern Bloc. Material comforts which had once been offered in return to a narrow elite for their loyalty and political activism were now extended to all.[27] This was a new kind of contract based on political passivity, acquiescence, and ritualized gestures of support.[28] This was perhaps most evident in the period of “normalization” in Czechoslovakia following the suppression of the political reforms of the Prague Spring.[29] Václav Havel writing in 1978 described this uneasy contract in succinct terms when he wrote, “The post-totalitarian system has been built on foundations laid by the historical encounter between dictatorship and the consumer society.”[30] For critics from the New Left in the 1960s, the symmetries of East and West in this regard (and others) was evidence of the intellectual poverty of both worlds. In his book, The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), Raoul Vaneigem wrote:

The cultural détente between East and West is not accidental! On the one hand, homo consomator buys a bottle of whiskey and as a free gift the lie that accompanies it. On the other, Communist buys ideology and gets a free gift a bottle of vodka. Paradoxically, Soviet and capitalist regimes are taking a common path, the first thanks to their economy of production, the second thanks to their economy of consumption.[31]

For contemporary critics like Vaneigem – an associate of the Situationiste Internationale – the idea that happiness could be measured in possessions was perhaps the most troubling illusion of the age.

Into the Future?

Even by the standards of the day, Khrushchev’s futurology was rather limited. Purpose-built, single-family homes equipped with a refrigerator or washing machine may well have represented a kind of dream for the citizen-comrades of the Eastern Bloc (and for many people in the so-called first and third worlds too), but it was a relatively modest ambition for an utopian ideology which proclaimed its superior command of advanced technology. Even the most ambitious form of high rise housing in the Soviet Union in the 1960s – conceived by Nathan Osterman working for Mosprojekt 3 (the Institute of Standard and Experimental Projects in Moscow) and known as Dom Novogo Byta (House of New Life) – offered a modest strain of futurism. In the Dom Novogo Byta, some 2,000 people were to occupy the 812 small apartments in the tall residential blocks served by a low complex containing a canteen, library, television rooms, hairdressing salons, launderettes, cinema and a sports center with a swimming pool. The aim was to provide housing for young people and new families, who would exchange the privacy of the single flat for the benefits of communal life. A revival of ideas of the domkomuna of the 1920s, this scheme looked much like a “first world” hotel.

Other experimental schemes of the era – described as “the house of tomorrow” or the “house of the future” – were more spectacular. Characteristically featuring plastic monocoque shells, electronic communication systems and domestic robots, this was a genre of housing which claimed its place in era of space travel, cybernetics, nuclear power and electronic communications. The most celebrated of these schemes was British architects Alison and Peter Smithson’s “House of the Future,” an exhibit at the annual Ideal Home exhibition in London in 1956. They built their vision of what life would be like in 1980. A series of flowing spaces organized around a central patio space, the “House of the Future” had no meaningful exterior. It was a cave-like space made from smooth panels, seemingly made from plastic, which formed the walls, ceiling and floors. The living room was organized around an adjustable table which could be set a different heights or disappear into the floor. This was also a thoroughly commodified future home, full of “push-button” gadgets. The shower for instance not only regulated its own temperature, but also combined a blow drier and a sun lamp. Other celebrated schemes of the era included Ionel Schein’s Plastic House of 1956, shown at the Salon des Arts Ménagers in Paris in 1956 and the Monsanto House designed by MIT engineers and exhibited at Disneyland in 1957. In the course of the 1960s others were created in Germany and the Soviet Union as well. Even Cuba participated in this global experiment with young architects designing the Módulo Experimental de Vivienda de Asbesto-Cemento (Experimental Asbestos Housing Module), an experimental housing type constructed from prefabricated molded sheets (1964–1968).[32]

Based on off-site prefabrication, these structures were to be light and mobile. Freestanding homes could be delivered to their plots by truck or even helicopter and living “pods” would be stacked to form high-rise structures or laid in interlocking chains on the ground. Their architects celebrated the idea that such schemes would become redundant within a generation. After all, the pace of technological invention would supply new and better homes. Such homes also assumed a kind of diagnostic function, presenting models of life in the future. Often displayed at international exhibitions and trade fairs, they invited the visitor to imagine that they too would one day enjoy life in a “smart home.”[33]

Whilst this genre of domestic architecture demonstrated faith in future technology, in the early 1960s no one could assert with complete confidence that there would be a future. Periods of high tension in the Cold War – particularly at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 – brought the prospect of war between two antagonistic systems armed with nuclear weapons terrifyingly close. In an age when apocalypse seemed one potential future for mankind, any consideration of this genre of buildings needs to be supplemented with “homes of future apocalypse.” These might include the smart home in Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story, There Will Come Soft Rains, which continues to operate even when its inhabitants have been irradiated shadows after a nuclear explosion. Other homes in this unarticulated genre might include the “Underground House” presented at the New York Fair of 1964 by the Underground World Corporation. Visitors descended into a kind of cave which contained a suburban home complete with artificial garden and swimming pool. In this luxury bunker, “natural” conditions could be sustained with lighting which simulated the conditions of dawn, daylight, dusk and night. The “dial-a-view murals” could be changed at the press of a button. New York’s skyline could be substituted for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. In the company’s own publicity, the true purpose of these structures – survival after a nuclear attack from Moscow – were almost entirely ignored in favor of soothing descriptions of the benefits of underground life. What could be better, trilled the company’s publicity, than life underground in a world protected from criminals and intruders: “Greater security – peace of mind – the ultimate in true privacy.”

Even those structures which loudly proclaimed their technological optimism might be understood as belonging to the category of “homes of future apocalypse.” As Beatriz Colomina has shown, the Smithson’s house was full of defenses.[34] Visitors to the house were required to walk through a draft of warm air, as if being decontaminated. Moreover, the steel door through which they passed was itself a kind of electronically operated air-lock, like that required for a spacecraft or for a submarine. It implied the possibility of sealing the house from the outside world. The external threat was both invisible and deeply penetrating, not unlike the nuclear threat posed by the Cold War itself. Like a spaceship, submarine or a bunker, this was also a home without an outside. But, in a vertiginous fashion, it was also the prehistoric form of a cave. Caves are, of course, not only spaces of shelter but also the home of dark fears. They represent, as numerous films and novels depicting life after nuclear war produced during the period, a kind of return to the primal condition of “bare life.”

In the 1960s, growing interest in life in what the architect Peter Cook was to call “edge situations” like the Arctic and on the seabed – popular themes in the architectural imagination – can also understood in terms of anxiety. In 1971, Frei Otto, the brilliant engineer, was commissioned by Farbwerke Hoechst AG to plan a new city for the Arctic that would be home to 45,000 workers exploring and developing the Arctic. Living under a transparent pneumatic dome covering 3km2, they would enjoy an artificial climate. The most challenging form of marine architecture, the underwater structure, was a recurrent dream throughout the period, shared by Archigram architects Warren Chalk (Underwater City, 1964) and Peter Cook (Sea Farming Project, 1968), and Claus Jürgen (Submarine Centre, 1971).From such environments man could explore these terrae incognitae for mineral resources and farm the seabed. Although rarely articulated, these schemes harbored within them the fear that mankind’s conventional habitat faced destruction: perhaps in the future, humanity would have no choice but to colonize hitherto uninhabited environments. The greatest threat to mankind was increasingly understood to be man himself. Critic Michel Ragon, for instance, examined the implications of overpopulation in his influential books Où vivrons-nous demain? (Where Will We Live Tomorrow? 1963) and Les cités de l’avenir (Future Cities, 1966). Combining serious-minded sociology with spectacular futurology, Ragon extrapolated from statistics predicting acute population growth, an immense expansion in car ownership and private housing. Mankind faced asphyxiation in the “mineral desert” of urban sprawl.[35]

It is perhaps a paradox that the futurology on which the house of tomorrow or the city of the future was rather conservative on a number of counts. The social and political structures – like the nuclear family – on which these visions of the future were based, owed much present circumstances. Robert Cottrell has argued something similar about the technologies which they claimed:

We can see now that the golden age of blockbuster futurology in the 1960s and 1970s was caused, not by the onset of profound technological and social change, but by the absence of it. The great determining technologies – electricity, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, even manned flight – were the products of a previous century, and their applications were well understood. The geopolitical fundamentals were stable, too, thanks to the Cold War.[36]

Future houses fashioned with plastic walls, equipped with electronic communication devices and serviced by robots were recognizable as conventional homes, namely, spaces for dwelling in a sense that would understood and promoted by even the most doubtful critics of modern technology.

Where were more critical or radical forms of futurology to be found in the period? What, for instance, was to be the domestic landscape of the posthuman figure of the cyborg? Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline coined the term in 1960 to describe the enhanced human being who could survive in extraterrestrial conditions:

man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continually be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine. The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel.[37]

With the cyborg redefining the relationship of the human to the environment, it is not surprising that they attracted the attention of architects and designers in the West and the East in the mid-1960s. Archigram in the United Kingdom, Haus-Rucker-Co and Walter Pichler in Austria proposed schemes in which portable homes or “living environments” were as attentive to sensory stimulation as they were with matters of shelter and sustenance. Archigram described the “Suitaloon” – a portable environment inspired by the design of space suits or what NASA called “Extravehicular Mobility Units” – as “clothing for living in … if it wasn’t for my Suitaloon I would have to buy a house.”[38]

At a deeper or perhaps more philosophical level, the cyborg offered an image of man dissolved in technology.[39] Assuming a kind of posthuman viewpoint, the great Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem eschewed any kind of moral or technical limits in his conceptualization of the cyborg. In his 1964 book Summa Technologiae sketched worlds populated with various types of genetically and biochemically modified human beings as diverse as “the various kinds of ants.” His concept of “Phantomology” disturbed all the conventional metaphysics of humanism: a mind could be stimulated into the perception of being somewhere else or multiple individuals could be networked to a single brain. Summa Technologiae was a disavowal of the central figure of Man, the rallying symbol of the postwar reconstruction:

I don’t trust any promise, I don’t believe in assurances based on the so called humanism. The only way to deal with a certain technology is another technology. Today, man knows more about his dangerous inclinations than he knew a hundred years ago, and in another hundred years his knowledge will be even more complete.[40]

Lem was not the only figure to eschew postwar humanism. By the early 1960s it was coming under attack in other fields of intellectual life. Structuralism in France represented existentialist-humanism as loose, ill-disciplined thinking which over-exaggerated individual agency and responsibility in the face of the codes, rituals and structures of language and society. As Claude Lévi-Strauss famously wrote in 1962 “I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences is not to constitute but to dissolve man.”[41] Two years later Theodor Adorno published his attack on Martin Heidegger, Jargon der Eigenlichkeit (The Jargon of Authenticity). Existential humanism, in adopting a metaphysical and sermonizing vocabulary of “shelteredness,” “transcendence,” “truth” and “freedom,” had invented a kind of secular religion which only disguised alienation and injustice:

The empty phrase, Man, distorts man’s relation to his society as well as the content of what is thought in the concept of Man. The phrase does not bother about the real division of the subject into separated subject that cannot be undone by the voice of the mere spirit.[42]

For Adorno, this was evidenced by the deep penetration of “the jargon of authenticity” into radio, television and advertising – arenas which produced alienation and broadcast false illusions.

The earliest signs of a kind of anti-humanist attitudes in architecture and design were to be found in Europe and North America in the late 1960s. New kinds of homes were devised which eschewed principles of community, privacy, dwelling and other humanist preoccupations. As Sean Keller explores in his essay on the formal principles adopted by Peter Eisenman in the design of his “House” series from 1967 onward and, as Mary Louise Lobsinger points out in her essay, Superstudio’s adoption of the grid as the form of its “Continuous Monument” (1970–), abstraction provided the means for a kind of critical estrangement from the mythical notion of home. They were not the only critiques of this kind. We might add here Ettore Sottsass’s contribution to MoMA’s Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibition in 1972. Exhibiting a “home” as a series of free-standing plastic shells, each of which contained the equipment to serve a domestic function such as cooking and bathing, Sottsass presented a domestic space which sought to “decondition” its user. “The form isn’t cute and even, maybe, rough,” he wrote, “and the expected deconditioning process, even if it works in a negative direction, I mean in the direction of eventually eliminating the self-indulgence of possession, will certainly impose a responsibility upon whoever ventures to use these objects. Eliminating the protective layer of alibis we build around ourselves always necessitates great commitment.”[43] Lacking any kind or pre-determined form or setting, Sottsass’s “domestic landscape” was a de-territorialized one.

Working at the end of the Modernist project, Sottsass – like other designers stirred by the Counter Culture’s antagonism to the commodity and traditional social structures – sought to shake off the so called “affluent society’s” attraction to property. Nomadism and communalism, might produce a new kind of being, based on a deeper engagement with the world and with society. In 1951 the Darmstädter Gespräch had gathered writers, artists and architects to debate the rejuvenation of humanity. In the aftermath of mechanized war, the organizers had announced that the “the plight of our age is homelessness.” This was a both real and a metaphysical condition for many Europeans. Only twenty years later – after the consumer boom and the deep penetration of technologies into the home – the promise of the age was to be a form of homelessness.


[1] For discussion of local inflections in the International Style see various essays in Hubert-Jan Henket & Hilde Heynen, eds., Back from Utopia: The Challenge of the Modern Movement (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2002).

[2] Ernesto N. Rogers, editorial in Domus, 20 (1946): 65.

[3] See various essays in Giovanna Borasi & Mirko Zardini, eds., Sorry, Out of Gas: Architecture’s Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2008).

[4] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989).

[5] See Robin Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings: English Housing Reform and the Moralities of Private Space’ in Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays (London: Architectural Association, 1997), 93-117, and Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).

[6] Barry Curtis, ‘‘The Heart of the City’’ in Non-Plan: Essays on Freedom, Participation and Change in Modern Architecture and Urbanism, eds. Jonathan Hughes and Simon Sadler (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2000), 52.

[7] Ignasi de Solà-Morales, Differences: Topographies of Contemporary Architecture, trans. Graham Thompson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 42.

[8] Congrés Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, The Heart of the City: Towards the Humanisation of Urban Life, ed. J.L. Sert and E.N. Rogers, trans. J. Tyrwhitt (New York: Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1952).

[9] Hans Schwippert, ‘‘Ein Vorschlag zur Gestaltung der deutschen Beteiligung der Weltausstellung Brüssel 1958’’ in Hans Schwippert (Cologne: Akademie der Architektenkammer Nordrhein Westfalen, 1984), 102. Unless otherwise noted, translations are the author’s own.

[10] Its highest achievement was the organization of the famous Interbau exhibition in the Hansa district of Berlin in 1957. This living exhibition of model housing was a conscious reiteration of many of the themes of the Weissenhof Exhibition in Stuttgart of 1927 and a rebuttal of the Socialist Realist aesthetic being promoted in East Berlin. See the special issue of Bauwelt 24 (1957): 561-600.

[11] Otto Bartning, ed., Mensch und Raum: Darmstädter Gespräche 1951 (Darmstadt: Neue Darmstädter Verlagsanstalt, 1952), 33.

[12] Martin Heidegger, ‘‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’’ [1951] in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach (London: Routledge, 1997), 100.

[13] Hans Schwippert in Bartning, ed., Mensch und Raum, 87.

[14] Hans Schwippert, “Ein Vorschlag zur Gestaltung der deutschen Beteiligung …”, 102.

[15] Alfons Leitl, ‘‘Towns and Homes’’ in World Exhibition of Brussels 1958 Germany, eds., Wend Fischer and Gustav B. von Hartmann (Düsseldorf: Generalkommissar der Bundesrepublik Deutschland bei der Weltausstellung Brüssel 1958, 1958), 117.

[16] Susan Sontag, ‘‘Against Interpretation’’ in A Susan Sontag Reader, ed. Elizabeth Hardwick (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 103-104.

[17] Gaston Bachelard, La Terre et les rêveries du repos: Essai sur les images de l’intimité (Paris: J. Corti, 1948). As Bruno Zevi noted: ‘‘Germany pretends to have forgotten the gas chambers and shows us a distinguished face as if to say that technology justifies everything, whether tanks or electric razors.’’ L’Architettura, 4, (May 1958): 4.

[18] Richard P. Lohse, ‘‘Zur soziologischen Situation des Grafikers,’’ Neue Grafik 3 (October 1959): 58.

[19] Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander, Community and Privacy: Toward a New Architecture of Humanism (Garden City, Doubleday, 1963).

[20] Greg Castillo, ‘‘Domesticating the Cold War: Household Consumption as Propaganda in Marshall Plan Germany’’ Journal of Contemporary History 40, no. 2 (April 2005): 263.

[21] Richard F. Kuisel, Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization (University of California Press, 1993).

[22] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, trans. John Moore (London: Verso, 1991), 245.

[23] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 98.

[24] For a transcription of the ‘‘Kitchen Debate’’ in English see http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/14/documents/debate/

[25] Nikita Khruschev cited by Zsuzsanna Varga, “Questioning the Soviet economic model in the 1960s” in János M. Rainer and György Péteri, eds., Muddling Through in the Long 1960s: Ideas and Everyday Life in High Politics and the Lower Classes of Communist Hungary (Trondheim: Programme on East European Cultures and Societies, 2005), 110.

[26] The “Kitchen Debate” 1959.

[27] Vera Dunham, In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction (Durham, Duke University Press, 1990), 17.

[28] James Millar, with reference to Vera Dunham, calls this phenomenon in Brezhnev-era Soviet Union the ‘‘little deal.’’ James R. Millar, “The Little Deal: Brezhnev”s Contribution to Acquisitive Socialism,’’ Slavic Review 44, no. 4 (1985): 694-706.

[29] Milan, Simecka, The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia, 19691976, trans. A.G. Brain (London: Verso, 1984), especially chapter fifteen, ‘‘Corruption.’’

[30] Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless (1978), ed. John Keane (London: Hutchinson, 1985), 37-40.

[31] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. John Fullerton and Paul Sieveking (London: Rising Free Collective, 1979), 36.

[32] See Barry Bergdoll,   Peter Christensen and Ron Broadhurst, eds., Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, Part 1 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008), 128.

[33] Davin Heckman, A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

[34] Beatriz Colomina, ‘‘Unbreathed Air 1956,’’ Grey Room 15 (Spring 2004): 2859.

[35] Michel Ragon, Les Cités de lavenir (Paris: Encyclopédie Planète, 1966), 119.

[36] Robert Cottrell, “The Future of Futurology” in The World in 2008 (London: The Economist Publications, 2007), p. 110.

[37] Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, ‘‘Cyborgs and Space,’’ Astronautics, September 1960: 31.

[38] Peter Cook, ed., Archigram (London: Archigram Group, 1970; repr., New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), 80.

[39] Michael Kandel, ‘‘Stanislaw Lem on Men and Robots,’’ Extrapolation 14 (1972-73): 19.

[40] Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964), 12.

[41] Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 162.

[42] Theodor Adorno, The Jargon Of Authenticity (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 55

[43] Ettore Sottsass in the exhibition catalogue Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, Achievements and Problems of Italian Design, ed. Emilio Ambasz (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in collaboration with Centro Di, Florence, 1972), 162.