Paris or Moscow? Warsaw Architects and the Image of the Modern City in the 1950s

Architecture, Cold War, Modernism

In 1934 architects Szymon Syrkus and Jan Chmielewski presented their plans for the future of Warsaw at the a meeting of the Comité International pour la Résolution des Problèmes de l’Architecture Contemporaine, a key Modern Movement forum (and the elected executive body of CIAM, the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne). Their plan for ‘Warszawa Funkcjonalna’ (Functional Warsaw) extended, like an unfolded map, on a countrywide and even international scale.[1]

Illustrations for the ‘Functional Warsaw’ scheme presented by Szymon Syrkus and his colleagues at the Comité International pour la Résolution des Problèmes de l’Architecture Contemporaine, 1934. (Source: Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, London, 1937).

Illustrations for the ‘Functional Warsaw’ scheme presented by Szymon Syrkus and his colleagues at the Comité International pour la Résolution des Problèmes de l’Architecture Contemporaine, 1934. (Source: Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, London, 1937).

The city’s functions were to be distributed along an extensive strip with nodes indicating the sites for growth of future smaller centres. Based on the principle of modern communications, the plan emphasised the city’s location between East-West on ‘the great transcontinental line of communication’ that linked Paris through Moscow to the Urals. Rather than conceive the city in terms of fixed elements, ‘Warszawa Funkcjonalna’ envisaged the dissolution of city and national boundaries in an extensive network of road, rail and river routes and junctions. Warsaw was not simply projected as a European city: it was to become Europe itself. This was a heady statement of faith in international modernism (and, accordingly, was published in a series of pamphlets in German, English and French though not Russian). The authors of the scheme admitted that ‘our plan lies within the realm of utopia.’ National and private interests stood in the way of the kind of fluid material and intellectual exchange between peoples that their vision demanded.[2] After the Second World War, new ideological divisions, of course, made Syrkus and Chmielewski’s scheme seem even more utopian. Paris or the Urals had become more like polar opposites than points on a route. And their diagrams now looked more like unpublished secret plans for a Red Army march on Western Europe or NATO designs on the Soviet Union.

Paris or Moscow? Both exerted a gravitational pull on Polish architects in the post-war period. As I will show in this paper, architects went to both capitals during the 1950s in order to understand the different forms which the modern city might take. Moreover, Paris and Moscow were not only symbolic centres of the East and West: they were sometimes invoked – albeit often in caricature – to represent different conceptions of the modern city. One might be described as the image of the utopic city: the other as its heterotopic shadow.[3] In the early 1950s Party ‘aesthetes’ – under the determining influence of Soviet models – imagined Warsaw as a city of grand boulevards and worker’s palaces.[4] At its heart was to be the Palace of Culture and Science designed by a team of Soviet architects and builders according to the same blueprint as Moscow’s ‘vysotki’. Vladimir Paperny, in his classic account of socialist realist architecture, describes Warsaw and Riga’s ‘Stalinesque towers’ as being no more than part of the centrifugal disposition of the ‘wedding-cake’ skyscrapers’ in Moscow.[5] The view of Warsaw with the Palace of Culture was Moscow. With Stalin’s ‘gift’ at the centre, the new Warsaw was to be legible and, as such, ordered. This was an expression of architectural determinism which elided architectural order and social order. In this regard, the city offered itself as the backdrop for one kind of human activity above others, the rally. In fact, the new Warsaw incorporated a space expressly designed for this purpose, Plac Defiliada.

Parade on Plac Defiliada, Warsaw, 1955 (Source: Pałac Kultury I Nauki im. Jozefa Stalina, Warsaw, 1955).

Parade on Plac Defiliada, Warsaw, 1955 (Source: Pałac Kultury I Nauki im. Jozefa Stalina, Warsaw, 1955).

(And conversely, it presented a pathological dislike of the amorphous and erratic crowd which occasionally swelled from the shadows to fill its streets at moments of crisis).

By contrast, others including Czesław Miłosz, conceived of a living city as a sprawling terrain in which miscellaneous events occurred everyday, ruled by little more than chance. Living in exile after serving the Bierut regime, he compared his daily experience of life in Paris with the oppressive order of the People’s Republic of Poland:

The majority find pleasure … in the mere fact of their existence within the stream of life. In the cities, the eye meets the colourful store displays, the diversity of human types. Looking at the passers-by, one can guess from their faces the story of their lives. This movement of the imagination when a man is walking through a crowd has an erotic tinge; his emotions are very close to psychological sensations. He rejoices in dresses, in the flash of lights; while for instance, Parisian markets with their heaps of vegetables and flowers, fish of every shape and hue, sides of meat dripping with every shade of red offer delights, he need not go seeking them in Dutch or Impressionist painting. He hears snatches of arias, the throbbing of motors mixed with the warble of birds, called greetings, laughter. His nose is assailed by changing odours: coffee, gasoline, oranges, ozone, roasting nuts, perfumes.


This image of the city as a rich ecology of sensation was produced to attack the lifelessness of the Soviet environment. Its natural territory was, as Miłosz suggests, the street market. Although a site of trade and commercial exchange, this was not the same order of space as the department store or the shopping mall. It was a public space in which no single authority held sway. Neither the utopic nor the heterotopic visions of the city were novel or unique. Both had deep roots in Western intellectual traditions: the former can be traced back to the ideal cities and buildings projected by visionaries like Tommaso Campanella and Etienne-Louis Boullée in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whilst the latter belongs to a more recent vein of urban poetics with antecedents in the writings of Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin.[6] Like socialism itself, both were products of the intellectual history of ‘the West’.

‘The West’ is, of course, a conceptual amalgam capable of bearing a range of meanings. A differential concept, it depends on the spectre of an ‘other’ for its meaning. In the Cold War context which forms the background to the architectural ideas and practices explored in this paper, any evocation of the West necessarily constituted a comment about the Soviet East. In this setting the West was not just a spatial or geographical category but was a judgment about the past, present and future. As James Carrier in Occidentalism. Images of the West observes, ‘The occident is often constructed as both spatial, for it is Western, and temporal, for it is modern.’[7] Poland’s refashioning as socialist society during the late 1940s sought to put this coupling under pressure. In its ideological reorientation eastwards, Poland was to embrace the future. The main task was not restoration but ‘the creation of new, improved and more rational living conditions for the working man.’[8] Conversely, the West was aggressively figured as the past in official rhetoric. Party ideologues made much of the ‘backward’ (zacofanie) social relations of capitalist societies and the ‘primitive’ (prymitywny) tastes satisfied by commercial culture.[9] Poland’s capitalist past was also held in contempt. Pre-war exploitation and injustice were frequently invoked to demonstrate the new generous principles of social justice operating in the People’s Republic. Party leader Bierut’s ‘Six Year Plan for the Reconstruction of Warsaw’, delivered as a lecture in 1949 and as a book two years later, furnished a steady stream of contrasting images of past injustices and future reparations. The appalling state of overcrowded working class housing was contrasted with the luxurious and elegant conditions in which the rich lived in Poland in the 1930s. Poland’s location in the capitalist West before the War (the fact of redrawn borders notwithstanding) had been responsible for these injustices.

Contrast between the housing conditions of the poor and a weekend house for the wealthy before 1939 from Bolesław Bierut, Sześcioletni plan odbudowy Warszawy (Warsaw, 1951).

Contrast between the housing conditions of the poor and a weekend house for the wealthy before 1939 from Bolesław Bierut, Sześcioletni plan odbudowy Warszawy (Warsaw, 1951).

Whilst the threadbare urban fabric of Poland’s slums was an easy target (particularly given the high levels of overcrowding in prewar Warsaw[10]). But how were the vigorous currents of pre-war urban utopian futurism – like Syrkus and Chmielewski’s ‘Functional Warsaw’ – to be configured as the past? And how might the academicism of Soviet architecture be cast as the future?


Heading East

In June and July 1950 a group of a dozen Polish architects, urban planners and structural engineers toured the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Main Council of the Union of Soviet Architects.[11] Amongst this group were some prominent pre-war modernists such as Bohdan Pniewski and Romuald Gutt. Pniewski had, for instance, designed the Polish Pavilion at the Paris Worlds’ Fair of 1937 for the pre-war Sanacja regime. Others were new faces. Eugeniusz Wierzbicki had scored a career triumph in the late 1940s by designing the Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza (PZPR) headquarters in the centre of Warsaw (with Wacław Kłyszewski and Jerzy Mokrzyński).[12] Their exhausting tour included two weeks in Moscow where they learned how the new monumental tall buildings, beautiful squares and avenues were ‘harmonised into an architectural unity’; and four days in ‘beautiful, historic and heroic’ Leningrad where they were ‘inspired’ for their return home to the task of rebuilding Warsaw.[13] Tours of Stalingrad and then the cities of Georgia followed. What these Polish architects and planners actually felt for Soviet architecture is difficult to ascertain despite the extensive reports that they each wrote on their return.[14] Each article was cloaked in the empty rhetoric of subservience: each Soviet city on their tour was ‘heroic’; every Soviet building ‘joyful’; and every Soviet architect was ‘inspiring’. This, of course, is hardly surprising given the processes of sovietization underway in Polish architecture. This history is relatively well known and can be sketched here in general terms.[15] A stage-managed conference of Party-affiliated architects – Krajowej Partyjnej Naradzie Architektów (National Party Council of Architects) – was called in Warsaw in June 1949 to ratify the decision to adopt Socialist Realism as the governing creed of architectural practice. Architecture and urban design were now to follow a script written in the Soviet Union. To ensure the wholesale adoption of the new aesthetic, private practice was outlawed. Large state planning offices were organized to serve the only client, the state, which also controlled the supply of building materials and plots. If architects were uncertain about how to interpret the new creed, dozens from Architectura SSSR were translated and reprinted in the Polish press. Architectural competitions also served a disciplinary function, providing the ideologues with the means to reward orthodoxy and publicly criticize difference. To meet the ideological requirement of ‘national form’, a limited repertoire of historic precedents was licensed: in Warsaw, for instance, a 1907-10 neo-classical tenement on plac Małachowski designed by Jan Heurich and Artur Goebel was now to supply the genetic code from which all new buildings in the city would be generated.[16]

Neo-classical tenement on plac Małachowski, Warsaw, designed by Jan Heurich, 1910 (author’s photograph).

Neo-classical tenement on plac Małachowski, Warsaw, designed by Jan Heurich, 1910 (author’s photograph).

Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa (Marszałkowska Housing District), Warsaw, photographed in 1954 (Source: MDM. Marszałkowska 1730-1954, Warsaw, 1955). Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa (Marszałkowska Housing District), Warsaw, photographed in 1954 (Source: MDM. Marszałkowska 1730-1954, Warsaw, 1955).


In a very literal manner, the five- and six- storey elevations of apartment buildings dressed with classical cornices, lintels and miniature porticos – the preferred taste of the haute bourgeoisie in 1900 – were replaced by ostensibly similar new buildings for ‘the workers’ in the 1950s.

It follow

ed a pattern of contradiuction found throughout the Bloc: Greg Castillo has recently noted the way in which Hermann Henselmann’s socialist realist schemes in East Germany celebrated ‘Prussian neoclassicism whilstdeniograting its social and political context.’[17] The Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa (Marszalkowska Housing District / MDM) was designed and built in the centre of Warsaw the early 1950s as a model of the socialist city.[18] In its monumental form and historicist detailing, it presented the paradoxical face of Soviet futurology.

After 1949 foreign architecture came – on the pages of the chief architectural magazine Architektura – to mean almost exclusively Soviet architecture (with occasional excursions to the people’s republics of Romania and Bulgaria). Within the extensive and glowing discussions of Soviet Union, the West emerged as its inversion. One commentator Edmund Goldzamt claimed particular expertise over both worlds, though in fact he knew only one of them. He had left Poland during the German assault in September 1939 and spent the war, like the Polish communist leadership, in Moscow where he trained as an architect. Still young (born in 1923), he spoke with authority in post-war Poland. His influence was, however, relatively short-lived: his 550 page magnum opus, Architektura Zespołów Śródmiejskich I Problemy Dziedzictwa (The Architecture of City Centres and the Problems of Heritage) appeared in 1956, after the academic Soviet architectural effects and monumental urban schemes it celebrates, had been disparaged not least by Khrushchev himself. Nevertheless, Goldzamt’s book provides the most authoritative account of what he calls ‘bourgeois urbanism’. On its pages, the capitalist city – London in the nineteenth century, turn of the century New York and Weimar Berlin – is represented, in orthodox Marxist terms, as a necessary stage of human development. ‘Capitalism created the city in the modern sense of the word. It provides and refines contemporary technical and civic resources such as communications networks and sanitation systems…’.[19] Riddled with injustice and anxiety, the modern city is the place where the working classes acquire political consciousness, partly because of the democratizing effects of urban culture itself. In the face of class injustice, the reforming spirit of the inter-war Modern Movement was not radical enough. In this context, Polish modernism was singled out by Goldzamt for criticism. ‘Warszawa Funkcjonalna’ was a sop. Of its authors he wrote, ‘[they] associated social problems with the question of housing and the debilitating living conditions for the working classes and other working strata. This meant not only improving designs for the city but also the whole social organism including workers in the suburbs and the villages of the region. However, such conceptions only pretended to solve the divisions of contemporary capitalist city … [becoming] propaganda for reactionary social-economic trends.’[20]

Socialist Realism required unambiguous statements of loyalty from the most prominent figures in the architectural profession, particularly those who had been mostly connected with the old faith of modernism. Helena Syrkus, a one-time constructivist and prominent member of CIAM (and Szymon’s Syrkus’s wife and professional partner), signaled her unequivocal support for the new order at the seventh meeting of the Congress in Bergamo, Italy, in 1949.[21] Before an audience made up of architectural luminaries like Josep Luis Sert, Ernesto Rodgers, Le Corbusier and Max Bill, some of whom had once been her close allies and colleagues, she went on the attack like one of Zhdanov’s sharp-shooters.[22] Her speech was also, as Syrkus admitted, a ‘self-critique’. In this, she gave her audience a public demonstration of the Soviet-mania for ‘samokrytyka’, a public confession of the ‘errors’ in one’s earlier thinking or actions.[23] She argued that the kind of technological invention and abstract volumes of Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau pavilion (at the Paris Exposition Des Arts Décoratifs in 1925) were redundant in advanced conditions of Soviet socialism:

The formalism of CIAM was positive in the early days – it was a revolt. It made use of analytical methods, which were also socialist methods … but its importance has grown less and less. … Construction is but a skeleton. It has great interest for the anatomist, but for the rest it only becomes beautiful when it is covered with fine muscles and a lovely skin. We had nothing else to offer when CIAM began, and so we made a fetish of the skeleton. The countries of the East have come to the conclusion that we should have a greater respect for the past.[24]

Soviet modernity, in other words, outstripped that of the capitalist West and had therefore no need for the transitional experiments of the Modern Movement. (In this way, Syrkus revealed her talent for the twisting analytical method of dialectical materialism). Seeking to distinguish Socialist Realism from Fascist neo-classicism, she also offered disingenuous praise to the Soviet Union for its interest in local and national cultures:

The USSR does not impose the culture of Mother Russia on the rest of the country, but it encourages the culture of each region, always rejecting what is not fitting to the time. This is the different between the USSR and the Hitlerian ‘Herrenvolk’ mentality … The new Warsaw will conserve its link with the past – that is to say, it will preserve all that is good in the line of roads, open palaces, the connections with the Vistula, and with all remaining evidences of its ancient culture. In defending and preserving our national culture we defend and preserve international culture.[25]

Goldzamt too subscribed to orthodoxy, claiming that Soviet architecture was advanced precisely because it did not view the historic urban fabric as redundant. Le Corbusier’s schemes for Paris – illustrated by Goldzamt by the Plan Voisin of 1925 – were sharply condemned for their iconoclasm. Not surprisingly, Goldzamt took the orthodox Soviet view that ‘dramatic traditions’ were encoded in Antique and Renaissance architecture. [26] The ‘real’ processes of History was revealed in the changing ownership and use of the former possessions of the rich: ‘dead exhibits throws into sharp relief what is really dead in old buildings – and what the fate of these palaces of kings and aristocrats is now.’[27]

Both Goldzamt and Syrkus’s views are best understood in the context of the early years of the Cold War. They were attempting, as I have suggested, to represent the West as the past. Such acts of ideological inscription were often strained by the indisputable evidence presented by Soviet architecture itself. Take the case of the new order of vysotnye zdaniia of which seven were designed for Moscow at the wishes of a Council of Ministers proclamation in 1947. They included Moscow University and the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Moscow State University designed by Lev Vladimirovich Rudnev 1949-1953 (Source: author’s photograph).

Moscow State University designed by Lev Vladimirovich Rudnev 1949-1953 (Source: author’s photograph).

Stalin’s new landmarks received extensive coverage in the Polish press, as one might expect given the fact that the skyline of Warsaw was about to be elevated by the construction of the Palace of Culture and Science to a design by Russian architect Lev Rudnev.[28]  In their scale, stepped profile and historicist ornament, they clearly owed much to the American skyscraper of the early twentieth century typified by buildings like the Woolworth Building on Manhattan by Cass Gilbert (1910-1913).[29] A 25 storey high tower capped with a sculptural spire emerging from a massive main block, the Woolworth Building was a steel frame dressed in gothic terracotta mouldings, traceried marbled and bronze trimmings and glass. A self-proclaimed ‘cathedral of commerce’, it was an unmistakable symbol of Western capitalism. Its uncanny return at the heart of the Soviet Empire was a kind of perverse historical echo which Soviet and Polish architectural critics struggled to explain.[30] Goldzamt claimed that it was not the arrangement of space or the building technology which made these buildings Soviet: it was their legibility and order:

The American skyscraper reflects the chaos and internal contradictions of the capitalist economy. Piled up near one another in a state of disorder, they grow without clear function. This can only be supplied by thinking carefully about composition of the city and its streets. The tall buildings set in Moscow’s extensive squares has created genuine system which responds to the needs and the structure of the city. It has created the affecting (emotionalnej) unity of its silhouette and image. [31]

Secretariat Block of the United Nations Headquarters, New York, 1947-1953 (Source: Goldzamt, Architektura Zespołów Śródmiejskich I Problemy Dziedzictwa, Warsaw, 1956).

Secretariat Block of the United Nations Headquarters, New York, 1947-1953 (Source: Goldzamt, Architektura Zespołów Śródmiejskich I Problemy Dziedzictwa, Warsaw, 1956).

The market also determined the austere form of the modernist block (illustrated – somewhat oddly – by Goldzamt with the Secretariat Block of the United Nations Headquarters of 1947-1953.  It was perhaps chosen because it was the first major post-war office building to use a full height curtain wall suspended off the structure.) This was a building type which invited comparison with the opulent materials and rich decoration of the Soviet vysotnye zdaniia. The towering slab dressed with a glass curtain wall and aluminium was an architectural ‘degeneration’ rather than – as its champions in the West claimed – the expression of modernity.‘The economic power which drives the New York skyscraper upwards,’ wrote Goldzamt, ‘also determines its degenerated slab form (zwyrodniałej formie bryłowej). Stretched like a sky-high matchbox on extended foundations, it is awkward in construction and in use.’[32] According to such Stalin-era criticism, the chaotic and ugly Western city was – as Greg Castillo also demonstrates in his contribution to this volume – the pivot of modern alienation: it was shaped by the selfish interests of capital and the technological fetishism of the architectural profession.

Alienation was also adopted as a term by those who expressed opposition to Stalinist urban aesthetics, at first sotto voce, and later, during the Thaw, much more loudly. Journalist Leopold Tyrmand, for instance, recorded his opinion of the new city centre scheme in Warsaw known as Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa (MDM) in his famous diary of 1954. He was repelled by the dreary vision of the city projected in what he called the garb of ‘emdeemizm’ (MDM-ism):

Monotonous, identical, gigantic, flat boxes with columns, turrets and allegorical figures will extend greatest Warsaw’s streets for kilometres. No one who has seen these designs, will be able to imagine himself in this monotonous and appallingly boring place … These buildings will provide apartments, offices and hotels. Yet it is impossible to imagine them bearing neon signs, advertisements or any individual accent … Desperate post-war antagonisms have produced this ridiculous and ugly place. When every chemist, boutique and confectioners share the same, uniform appearance, we will have fallen into chaos and nonsense.[33]

It was not long, however, before such criticisms could be publicly vented. Even before the Thaw, MDM – with its monumental sculptural ornaments and classical colonnades – was frequently singled out for its lifelessness. Much like Miłosz before him, architect Jerzy Wierzbicki reflected on the alienating effects of order: ‘Note the absence of advertising, lighting and neon: the elements which in the evening hours lend great liveliness and diversity to a city. The city centre must be a concentration of hotels, restaurants, cafes, travel offices, attractive shop premises. The life of a great city presses for them …’[34]

Heading West

In August and September 1956 Wierzbicki was a member of another group of Polish architects traveling abroad. Although the tour was organized by the architects union (SARP) with the view of extending the profession’s horizons, they were not guests of any foreign association nor did they enjoy the comforts of official status.[35] Traveling 8000km in a Warsaw bus with red and white livery with ‘Paris-Varsovie’ on the indicator board and camping in canvas tents, they followed an itinerary of their own making through Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland to the Atlantic coast of France. They returned along France’s Mediterranean coast, across Northern Italy and through southern Austria. In Wierzbicki’s words ‘we returned to Western Europe after seventeen years’. This was not just an autobiographical statement made by one individual member describing the group: it reflected the long-standing francophilia of Polish culture. Architectural tourists, they selected their route to include both historic buildings and new, often controversial, landmarks such as the Chapel Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp by Le Corbusier which had been completed a few months earlier.[36] The notes which Wierzbicki kept of the journey reveal his fascination with the ordinary faces of Western European modernity. He reported, for instance, his wide-eyed amazement at the absence of horses on the road in Austria the ease with which international borders could be crossed or the fact that taxis were ‘luxury limousines’ in Zurich. Of their visit to see Le Corbusier’s new housing block in Nantes (La Maison Radieuse, also completed in 1955), Wierzbicki wrote:

The city is full of life with great crowds in the streets. Trams are already extinct in West Europe. Corbusier’s great block reminds me of the anchor in the land by the Atlantic. In the sun, and against a background of old trees, with its bright colours and natural grey concrete, it is immensely interesting. However, its interior streets, poorly ventilated and gloomy, do not encourage use. The apartments in this building have their enthusiasts and opponents. In each apartment the occupant has been forced to sell off his large furniture, a fact which provokes hostility amongst the French bourgeoisie.[37]

Wierzbicki’s account – anecdotal and alert to the mundane aspects of life in this new model of social housing – was critical: it was not, however, criticism infused with ideology. One senses that this trip was a liberation for these Polish architects not simply in terms of a new-found freedom to travel but also the freedom to exercise independent judgment. At the same time, it presented clear evidence that the people’s republics were falling further behind Western European societies in terms of living standards.

The 1956 tour of Western Europe (and the fact that it could be accounted in even-handed terms in the Polish press) was possible because of a set of new conditions which had emerged during the Thaw. In fact, these architectural tourists returned on the eve of Poland’s ‘Paźdiernik’ i.e., the momentous events of October 1956 in which the Polish communists extracted greater autonomy from Moscow, not least by promising to channel the popular appetite for reform which had been swelling throughout since the beginning of the year. With workers rioting and the intelligentsia demanding greater civil and political liberalism, Poland seemed to be on the verge of revolution. On 24 October great crowds filled the marching grounds of Plac Defiliada to hear Gomułka announce the sovereignty of the Party and the Polish government over internal affairs of the nation but proclaim his continued loyalty to the Soviet Union. The Party had managed to vent pressure from Moscow and from the streets. The political tensions and opportunities released by destalinisation do not need to be rehearsed in detail here.[38] Instead, I would like to ask in what ways did the image of the West change in architectural practice and discourse during the Thaw?

Crucially, the grounds for architectural change had been set somewhat earlier in 1954 when Khrushchev – then first Secretary of the Communist Party of Soviet Union – launched an attack on Socialist Realism at the Moscow Conference for the Building Industry (a statement which was published in Trybuna Ludu in extracts within days of its publication in Pravda and Izvestia and in the Polish architectural press in January 1955). Architects were charged with building efficiently by designing standardized and industrialized building elements and eschewing their interests in superfluous decoration:


Architects like all builders, must make a sharp turn towards problems of construction economy… An architect, if he is to keep abreast of life, must know and be able to use not only architectural forms, ornaments, decorative elements; he must know the new progressive materials, reinforced concrete sections and parts and, most of all, must have an excellent understanding of construction economy.[39]

Khrushchev effectively presented the architectural profession with a new technocratic model of practice based on research into new building technologies and materials. This was characterized as ‘experimentation’, albeit within limits. What was implicit in 1954 became explicit in his many promises made in the years that followed to overtake the capitalist West (and America in particular) in terms of ‘living standards’. These undertakings were expressed in his famous ‘Kitchen Debate’ with Nixon at the American National Exhibition in 1959.[40] They were made again when he announced at the Twenty-second Party Congress in 1961, ‘For the first 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 in its per capita industrial and agricultural production.’[41] Despite Khrushchev’s staggering optimism, it is clear that such pronouncements had an important effect on the way that West could be imagined. Soviet ideologues had in the 1920s claimed that the advanced and distinct nature of Soviet society would produce an advanced and distinct material fabric, i.e. ‘socialist things’.[42] Yet from the 1930s onwards, as Györgyi Péteri has argued, the state socialist modernization project was marked by contradiction: it tried to create a form of modern civilization that was distinct from (and competing with) capitalism and yet at the same time ‘it accepted the economic and technological models standards of success prevailing in the advanced core area of the global system’ i.e., Western modernity.[43] This was, as he argues, a recurrent pattern in Soviet modernity, albeit one sometimes cloaked by the rhetoric of triumphalism. This was evident, in the architectural field, not least in the debt owed by Moscow’s ‘vysotki’ to American skyscrapers which were, of course, built during a period of heightened nationalism following the ‘Great Patriotic War’. In what might be described as an ‘integrationist’ swing after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev too acceded that Western modernity was – in a material sense – more advanced. With consumption given a heightened significance by the Cold War, he challenged Soviet planners, economists and other agents of the command economy – including architects – to ensure the progressive uses and the equitable distribution of the material benefits of modernity. Viewed in this light, the informal tour of Western Europe by Polish architects in 1956 was – in one key respect – like that taken to the Soviet Union in 1950: both were designed to witness the future in the making.[44]

The future – in architectural terms – appears to have been a narrowly technological one. Within months of reprinting Khrushchev’s 1954 speech, Architektura had published a series of unquestionably positive articles on architectural design and building technology in the West. Specialist readers and the general public were introduced to well-informed articles (usually summaries of Western reports) on the luxurious face of the Hilton hotel high above the Bosphorus in Istanbul;[45] the synthesis of modernity and tradition in Japanese housing;[46] the glossy corporate modernism of Olivetti’s headquarters in Milan;[47] Lionel Schein’s ‘revolutionary’ plastic house exhibited at Le Salon des Arts Ménagers in Paris in 1956; [48] as well as the ‘New Brutalism’ in Britain as represented by Alison and Peter Smithson’s school buildings.[49] Read together, the point was clear: an entire world was being fashioned in a common and seemingly universal language of modern architecture.

America made its first sustained appearance in Architektura in April 1956, perhaps not surprisingly in an article on the glass curtain wall.[50] This has, arguably, been America’s major contribution to the architectural vocabulary of post-war modernism. Of course, the practice of using large sheets of plate glass suspended between architectural elements was not new: it was the fact that panes could be suspended off the structure in a grid of often near-invisible mullions thereby creating the spectacular effect of shimmering and flat glass curtain. Amplified over 40, 50 or 60 floors, the curtain wall produced a powerful image of organization: this was, in Reinhold Martin’s recent analysis, its chief ‘media effect’.[51] For contemporary observers it was not just its symbolism which drew attention. The combination of standardization and flexibility promised by this building technology was its main attraction. The modular grid in which the curtain wall was held offered had the potential of off-site manufacture and on-site assembly. Flexibility too would follow: ‘open plan’ office spaces could be produced, freed from the limitations of windows between piers. Full modularization was, however, never achieved in the American construction industry, especially when compared to that of Eastern Europe. But it is in this context that Polish enthusiasm should be considered. The Architektura article – rich in details and illustrated with Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive blocks (1948) and a clutch of new banks and commercial offices designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in New York – defended American experiment in the face of local criticism: ‘Louis Mumford [a prominent American humanist architectural critic – DC] has called the Lake Shore Drive buildings “the nonsense of contemporary architecture”. From the point of view of building technology discussion of these buildings is undoubtedly interesting in terms of the development of standardized construction elements.’ In two short sentences, the author linked Khrushchev thrift to the preferred architectural style of the ambitious American corporation. Perhaps more importantly, the author made no judgment about the commercial interests driving architectural design and shaping the face of American cities.

Two months later the magazine published the translation of an extensive article on the relations between architects and their commercial clients in the USA.[52] Originally published in the Architectural Review, a British title, this piece reflected the widespread fascination in a model of operation in which the professional association ‘is more of an advisory body than a regulating authority’ and ‘where the building industry has to deal with well organized labour unions and pays very high wages’. In the context of Poland in turmoil, with the intelligentsia engaging in considerable reflection about the future of socialism in Poland and its own role, this article – by inference – offered reflection on the value of the large and centrally-organized architectural design bureaus operating in Poland. Of working for Richard J. Neutra, a Los Angeles based ‘pioneer of American modern design’, one interviewee said ‘There is no doubt that his small staff with the resulting intimacy of personal relationships, made possible opportunities for links between those who built and who were built for.’[53]

Of course, the Thaw did not lead to a new model of practice for the majority of architects. Like Khrushchev’s 1954 speech itself, the forms of modern design licensed after Stalin sought to enhance the authority of the socialist state and further diminished the creativity of architects, particularly in the key sphere of housing.[54] This was a matter of great political sensitivity, not least because it was in this field, more than in any other, that achievement would be measured by the very people the Party claimed to support. Industrialized construction – based on prefabrication with the aim of radically reducing the number of architectural elements to the minimum – removed architectural design from sphere of art to engineering. Increasingly practice meant serving one of large kombinats (building trusts) centred on panel construction factories. In the late 1950s Polish cities began a process of transformation that resulted in a new urban fabric, formed from the numerous panel built, high-rise blocks for which the entire Eastern Bloc became notorious.[55] The tall block became an important symbol of socialist futurology, endorsed both by regime and architects as the triumph of pragmatism over ideology.[56] At the same time, the State flashed its technocratic credentials, promising to use the resources of the command economy to produce high quality mass housing. Bolesław Szmidt, a high-profile architect, charted a new relationship between architects and the State as well as the criteria used to judge new buildings, when describing designs for new twelve- and fourteen-storey blocks of flats:

This work is mostly based on a 1960 decree of the Council of Ministers advocating the design and erection of prototype blocks of standardized apartments, intended for prefabrication and mass production. If a prototype building is found by a commission of experts to be progressive technically and economical in exploitation, then it is recognized as a ‘type’ and passed for mass production.[57]

In other words the architectural profession was licensed to experiment within a narrowly defined field of technical competence. Architects responded positively to the oft-repeated ‘Khrushchevist’ challenge to design buildings that could be built ‘cheaply and quickly’.[58] As technocrats, the produced not designs for buildings – i.e. specific works of architecture – but building types. International competitions were launched to find new models for the highrise housing in which Poles were to be housed in the future. A key Polish 1957 competition for a model high-rise housing scheme was, for instance, won by a team from Boston, Massachusetts who proposed two-storey apartments in a 10 storey slab raised off the ground by massive columns, not unlike Corbusier’s unité schemes.[59] The competition rules demanded designs based on the offsite manufacture of elements like load-bearing walls with readymade apertures for windows. The aim was to reduce the number of ‘parts’ from which an apartment could be made and the number of movements of the crane on the building site. In such ways, architecture became closer to engineering. Whilst encouragement was given to invention in the People’s Republic: creativity was now channeled by economy. Moreover, the ‘guiding’ principles of sanitary norms, albeit based on an expanded per capita ‘allowance’ of space, and the requirement of family occupation, checked any radical social visions on the part of architects. This was, it should be noted, a turn of events which few appear to have protested.[60]

Alongside industrialized housing, the second face of Thaw modernity was rather more commercial and Western in outlook. Wierzbicki’s 1955 demand for hotels, restaurants, cafes, travel offices, attractive shop premises as well as neon to counteract the sterility of Socialist Realist urban aesthetics seemed, at least on the basis, of the prestigious projects widely reported in the Polish press to have been answered two years later. In 1957 the state ushered in a partial market economy, manifest in the rapid appearance of new cafes and restaurants, as well as other small private services like tailors and taxis.

Cover of Stolica magazine depicting Aleja Jerozolimskie, Warsaw, 1960.

Cover of Stolica magazine depicting Aleja Jerozolimskie, Warsaw, 1960.

One contemporary estimate suggested that more than 10,000 new private shops and kiosks opened in Warsaw in 1957 alone.[61] The changing appearance of the city was a product of the Party’s promises to improve standards of living in the face of a storm of criticism following Stalin’s death. The modish sensibility had its foremost architectural expression in the wave of cafes and bars which were newly opened or refurnished in the second half of the 1950s. Whilst abstract art on the walls and neon on the façade of these leisure sites was a clear sign of a new attitude to the satisfaction of previously suppressed appetites, much of this modernisation was ‘surface-deep’ in a very literal sense. With Polish streets increasingly dressed with neon and plate-glass windows projecting consumer goods into the street, the image of the West appeared to occupy the socialist city. Should we regard the shop window as another site in which the West was both imagined and encountered? Or perhaps we should regard it as a hybrid form of modernity ‘laid’ in Havel’s oft-quoted phrase ‘by the historical encounter between dictatorship and the consumer society’.[62] It was becoming clear to some observers that Eastern Bloc was losing its claim to constitute a distinct material world. This was François Fejtö’s opinion in 1969: ‘Ever since the Eastern Countries have concerned themselves only with profit, profitability, productivity and the application of the most advanced capitalist methods, and the ‘consumer fever’ has set in, the Communist system has begun to lose its individuality.’[63]

During the Thaw, not only was the alignment of the East with the future and the West with the past reversed: the subservient position of Polish and other Eastern Bloc architects as apprentices to Soviet masters was modified too. With closer links to the West and a living pre-war legacy to draw upon, it seems that Polish products and interior schemes were viewed by Soviet designers and consumers as being more sophisticated than the limited exercises in fashionable design on Soviet drawing boards. Writing of the taste for the contemporary style, editor of Dekorativnoe Isskustvo Iuri Gerchuk recalled the appearance of a Russian magazine reporting Polish culture in the late 1950s: ‘Every decorative-painterly cover the journal Pol’sha (Poland) behind a kiosk window seemed like a manifesto of new artistic possibilities. And for the “keepers” (of orthodoxy) the word “Pol’sha” became an odious symbol of “modernism” infiltrating the country’.[64] The interior schemes for the Warszawa Hotel in Moscow which opened in July 1960 were other examples of Poland’s fashionable modernity.

Interior scheme in the Warszawa Hotel, Moscow (Source: Architektura, August 1960).

Interior scheme in the Warszawa Hotel, Moscow (Source: Architektura, August 1960).

The building needed, according to its Soviet architects, to have a ‘Warszawski’ character. What this meant in practice was furnishing the public areas with designs produced in Poland.[65] Colourful textiles printed with abstract forms in the style of Henri Matisse’s découpages were employed in the reception alongside low kidney-shaped tables and free-standing lamps on spindly metal legs. Entirely unremarkable in any other context, such designs, it seems, carried an exotic charge at the heart of the Soviet empire. Poland, Russia’s occident in a geographical sense, had become ‘The West’ in a metaphorical sense too.

As if hinged on an invisible pivot, the rise of images of the West during the Thaw was accompanied by the decline in reports of Soviet architecture. Furthermore, one can occasionally detect what James Scott has called ‘hidden transcripts’ in the pages of the Polish architectural press. These are, in Scott’s terms, concealed or disguised expression of frustration or self-assertion by subordinate groups in the face of power.[66] For instance, a 1958 Architektura report entitled ‘Experimental Buildings in Moscow’ recording the Novye Cheremushki (1956-7) housing scheme in Moscow’s Ninth District, placed these lumpen five-storey blocks constructed from prefabricated elements under pitched roofs securely within the newly-sanctioned space of ‘experimentation’.[67] Yet the art director juxtaposed this report next to a set of dramatic photographs of lightweight roof structures in France and the United States. Simon and Morriseau’s and Robert Townsend’s cantilevered steel frames and innovative spiral structures were designed to produce open and unimpeded spaces. Placed side by side, Western structures appeared like an indictment of Soviet progress (and it should in fact be noted here that Novye Cheremushki was later much derided in the Soviet Union for its ‘dull elementarism’ and for the flaws in the prefabrication system on which it was based[68]). This was a comparison which few readers could overlook.

The wholesale enthusiasm for Western building technology during the late 1950s did not, of course, appear in an ideological vacuum. In fact, in the early 1960s the freedoms seized during the Thaw had been reigned in and Party leaders issued low warnings about the magnetic appeal of the West. In 1963, for instance, Artur Starewicz, head of the Press Department in the Central Committee member announced: ‘The myth of the superiority of Western culture is on a par with nationalist distrust and rejection of everything done in the East, and contempt for the achievements of the USSR and the other socialist countries.’[69] The Thaw was long over. But it was too late to return to the conditions of 1949. As long as Polish architects (and for that matter architectural critics) maintained their position as technocrats, occupied with technical and professional questions, they enjoyed personal and professional privilege.

In 1960 Jerzy Sołtan, an architect leading the Zakłady Artystyczno-Badawcze (Artistic and Research Workshops / ZAB) within the Academy of Fine Art in Warsaw,[70] took a critical view of Thaw Modernism: ‘ … during the last four to six years, the approach to the modern movement has changed very much. Everyone everywhere now expresses the wish to be modern. No more war between the new and the old! … The important centres of academic, quasi-classical, decorative approach to architecture in the USSR … have changed their position. But it is obvious that “modern” does not mean the same to everybody.’[71] He held that the prevailing ‘superficial bourgeois modernism’, like Socialist Realism before it, was just another form of decorativism. This was a remarkable statement which indicted both the East and the West. Moreover, he censured architects for their unprincipled willingness to serve their ‘sponsors’, whether commercial clients in the West or the state in the East.[72] Sołtan also issued his indictment in the form of Bar Wenecja, a small building in a shabby district of Northern Warsaw. Commissioned by a central catering agency (Stołecznego Zjednoczenia Przemysłu Gastronomicznego), ZAB’s design for Bar Wenecja emphasized openness.  Housing various facilities including – a self-service restaurant (an innovation which prompted much discussion and some controversy[73]) and a number of cafes – the Bar was designed to privilege choice. Sołtan and colleagues went to considerable lengths to achieve specific spatial effects: they sought to design a building in which the viewer would be aware of the ways in which they and others passed through its spaces. The design was conceived as a three-dimensional form composed of interior and exterior interpenetrating spaces through which people might move as a ‘colourful crowd’. And emphasizing texture and material qualities by using cast concrete stairways and balconies, clinker bricks, glass walls in plan frames – Sołtan and Ihnatowicz made an explicit rebuttal of the monumental visual effects and ‘noble’ materials favoured during the Stalin era – a rejection of the scopic order of Socialist Realism in favour of embodied experience (and as such displayed a strongly phenomenological sensibility). Here was a building conceived in terms of ordinary textures and experiences. Describing the Bar Wenecja, his close colleague and ZAB colleague Ihnatowicz characterized their frank use of materials there as ‘a conscious protest against the skin of applied forms, against cubist sausages, kidney-shaped furniture and latticing à la Mondrian’.[74] It was an attack in bricks and mortar on ‘superficial bourgeois modernism’. Nevertheless, for Sołtan, Bar Wenecja was a failure. Within months the building was visibly in decline; the lighting system had failed, a product of the impoverished technical economy of the People’s Republic.[75] By 1961 he had departed to teach at Harvard University.

Between East and West

To these spatial and temporal considerations which have occupied this paper, I would like to conclude by reflecting on another. The West has – in ideological (or philosophical) terms – been populated by a particular kind of subject, the individual. Anti-Soviet critique made much of the abuse of individual rights in the Eastern Bloc. In the context of the USA this was, of course, a way of bolstering the self-image of America as ‘embodiment of democracy, freedom, and technological progress’ and as a state without ‘serious class or ideological divisions’.[76] Conversely, in the Socialist East the term was often used as a blunt tool of abuse. The indictment of ‘bourgeois individualism’ was leveled against ‘class enemies’ during the hysterical Stalin years when the interests of the collective, class or nation were invariably claimed to prevail. What this denunciation actually meant depended from case to case and the semantic slackness of the term afforded a good deal of latitude. When in his 1954 speech, for instance, Khrushchev attacked the princes of the Stalin’s architectural establishment for excessive and self-serving individualism, his indictment was framed in Stalin’s very own terms.[77]

During the Thaw, the Polish intelligentsia – architects included – seized on the maligned and abused figure of the individual. This was part of an attempt to rediscover the moral roots of socialism under the debris of Stalinism; its vulgar materialism and empty propaganda. Much of the criticism vented during 1955-57 period was often from a broadly marxist perspective, albeit often one drawing much from the ‘young’ Marx – stressing humanistic, democratic values.[78] This intellectual archaeology was shot through with existential themes. (It is not surprising that the plays of Ionescu, Sartre, Kafka and Beckett were all performed on Warsaw stages during 1957 and experimental music and modern jazz became important features of Polish cultural life at time).[79] Leszek Kołakowski’s 1959 political parable ‘The Priest and the Jester’ is a case in point. The reforming Marxist philosopher contrasted the attitude of the servants of power. 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.’[80] This was a existentialist parable which raised important questions about the relations of intellectuals to power: after all, many – Kołakowski included – had once been loyal and enthusiastic supporters of the Bierut regime.

Kołakowski’s conception of the ‘active imagination’ found an analogue in Polish architectural theory. Oskar Hansen developed a set of ideas about the place of the individual within the built environment which he published under the title of the Otwarta Form (Open Form) in 1957. [81] Like Sołtan, Hansen escaped the conventionalizing pull of the large architectural office by working within the relatively liberal context of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art. His early career was built on the design of exhibition pavilions at home and abroad. In fact, Hansen claimed the genesis of his theory of Open Form in his designs (with Zofia Hansen and Lech Tomaszewski) for an exhibition pavilion in Turkey in 1955.[82] Speaking to both artists and architects, Hansen argued for spatial forms which were incomplete; 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 synchronic potential to be reorganised by those who occupy it, or in its diachronic capacity to change over time. In engaging their audiences/users, open forms had the potential to remind audiences of the fact of their own embodied being. They would also make the individual more attuned to the ordinary: ‘As Dadaism in painting broke the barrier of traditional aesthetics, so the Open Form in architecture will also bring us closer to the “ordinary, mundane, things found, broken, accidental”’. [83] Hansen’s theory also offered new ways to conceptualise modern 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 rethinking public memorials, housing estates and works of art.[84] For example, one unrealised scheme which Hansen promoted internationally was an extension to the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw which he designed with Lech Tomaszewski and Stanisław Zamecznik in 1958. An addition to an existing Neo-Baroque building (Stefan Szyller, 1896), the Hansens’ scheme was a transparent cube raised on square columns in its corners.

Oskar Hansen, Lech Tomaszewski and Stanisław Zamecznik, model of their proposed extension to the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw, 1958 (Source: Ciam '59 in Otterlo. Documents of Modern Architecture, Hilversum, 1961).

Oskar Hansen, Lech Tomaszewski and Stanisław Zamecznik, model of their proposed extension to the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw, 1958 (Source: Ciam ’59 in Otterlo. Documents of Modern Architecture, Hilversum, 1961).

The walls and roof were to be made from glass panes set into a steel frame creating a flat, transparent skin. Internal walls – creating a box with the glass box – were formed from adjustable panels. These panes could be rotated to disappear from view or to form an opaque wall against which the exhibits could be seen. Two floors and staircases could be moved within to create different internal spatial configurations. The interior spaces of this gallery were to have no permanent or fixed form. Flexibility meant much more than efficient elasticity of the ‘open plan’ office: it required the ‘active imagination’ of the artists and the curators who would use it.

The theory of Open Form was an explicit challenge to the two-dimensional and highly scopic conception of space that had been evident in architecture and urbanism during the Stalin years, i.e. buildings and spaces conceived as spectacle. Many of the landmarks of Modernism were equally bereft. He singled out the new capital of Brazil inaugurated in 1960. An entirely new settlement of half a million people had been realised at breakneck speed in under three years. Its allegorical plan, by the urbanist Lúcio Costa, takes the form of an airplane suggested by a gentle 15 km arch of residential buildings bisected by a long monumental axis. At its heart is the Plaza of the Three Powers, two skyscrapers flanked by a spherical vault occupied by government offices. ‘It seems to me that Brasilia-Capital,’ wrote Hansen in 1961, ‘will be antique before it is completed for it, too, is based on the Closed Form’. Like his colleague Sołtan, Hansen delivered a critique of both Stalinist aesthetics and the forms of Modernism which were now spreading through out the ‘First’, ‘Second’ and ‘Third’ worlds in the 1950s. Both were fashioned in the ‘aesthetics of the closed form’. Of course, Hansen was not alone in his critical view of the alienating effects of modern architecture. After all, Brasilia was widely employed as the symbol of the alienation at the heart of modern life. It was in Simone de Beauvoir’s famous phrase, the capital of ‘elegant monotony’.[85] What was important about Hansen’s view was the fact that it presented the kinds of spectacular effects of late modernism and Stalinism – long counterposed – in terms of equivalence.

Lacking any clear reference to ideology, Hansen’s ‘Open Form’ theory might appear to be apolitical and, as such, part of a withdrawal into an involuted, private world of personal experience. But I think it needs to be understood in terms of period debates about alienation. From this perspective, the theory of the Open Form might be characterised in a utopian perspective which imagined the whole, complete individual or what the Marx once called ‘the dream of the whole man’. Hansen was, of course, not alone in this regard. Modernist architectural thinking took a distinctly existential turn in the 1950s. Barry Curtis has described existential humanism a ‘pervasive mood’ which ‘responded to recent experiences of totalitarianism and scientifically planned mass destruction’.[86] The view that modern design should ameliorate social problems was nothing new: what had changed in the post-war years was the sense that modern architecture and design could address existenzfragen. In architectural discussions concerns like existence, shelter or the creation of ‘place’ were given a high premium. In fact Hansen presented his ideas and the Zachęta Gallery extension scheme at one of the most important forums for such debates; the meetings of Team X, an organization which emerged from CIAM in its final years.[87] A diverse and international group, which counted Alison and Peter Smithson, and Aldo van Eyck amongst it members, Team X eschewed a singular vision of modern architecture as a creed, style or technique. Architects should act in response to the conditions they encountered. This conception of design was rooted, they claimed, in the specific, lived reality of being human. In standing ‘against rhetoric’ as the Smithsons put it, they subscribed to the Sartrean precept that ‘existence precedes essence.’ [88] Hansen’s ideas were at home in this company: what is noteworthy is that he, along with Jerzy Sołtan and Hungarian architect Karoly Polónyi, were the only Team X architect-activists making careers in the Eastern Bloc.[89]

Emerging from a sovietised environment which claimed to take as a fundamental aim the eradication of injustice and alienation from all faces of life,[90] this was a remarkable aesthetic which contained the seeds of critique. Hansen’s theory also marked a point at which the influence of the architect – now characterised as a technocrat – was to end:

The role of the artist-architect is altered from the previous exclusively personal and conceptual role (imposing the Closed Form in the manifestations of which the form is determined beforehand and that most often for non-existing persons) to the conceptional-coordinating role. An all-knowing architect must realize, in the face of the high level of specialization in present times, that he does not know everything himself. Hence, the architect super-specialist is obsolescent in present times.[91]

This view put Hansen at odds with the building programme that was being orchestrated by a state committed to controlling and effectively constraining the use of resources.[92] It is perhaps not surprising then that whilst Hansen’s ideas were widely debated, they had little impact on architects.[93] The ideal open form was ultimately an unauthored, spontaneous one. Hansen, late in his life, described the streets in Left Bank Paris as its epitome. Recalling his early career in the Paris studio of Pierre Jeanneret, a prominent modernist architect, he said:

.. when I lived in Paris at the beginning of the 1950s, I lived on Rue Mouffetard, behind the Pantheon, and it was really an open form street, a real jewel .. the way the street functioned was fascinating: the sellers would put their goods on the ground – right on the street! You had to go around them – that was real spatial time … [94]

In this, Hansen echoed Miłosz in celebrating the heterotopic city as a world of chance, sensation and pulsing crowds. The spectacular face of the modernist city with its towering glass-walled slabs was just as alienating as the Socialist Realist vision with its radiant and joyful vistas. This was a perspective which was perhaps most easily afforded to those, like Hansen, living between East and West.

[1] See Helena Kolanowska, ‘Varsovie functionnelle. Participation de la Pologne aux CIAM’ in Olgierd Czerner and Hieronim Listowski, eds, Avant-garde Polonaise 1918-1939 (Paris: Éditions du Moniteur, 1981), 49-63.

[2] Syrkus and Chmielewski cited in ibid, 56

[3] Kevin Hetherington, The Badlands of Modernity (London: Routledge, 1997).

[4] Bolesław Bierut, Sześcioletni plan odbudowy Warszawy (Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza, 1951); Wojciech Włodarczyk, Socrealizm (Paris: Libella, 1986).

[5] Vladimir Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin. Culture Two, translated by John Hill and Roann Barris in collaboration with the author (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 116.

[6] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, trans. Jane Zielonko (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), 65.

[7] James Carrier, Occidentalism. Images of the West (Oxford: OUP, 1995), 8.

[8] Bierut, op cit., 69

[9] Leopold Tyrmand describes how an exhibition entitled Oto Ameryka (This is America) which circulated through the people’s republics in early 1952 sought to ridicule ‘capitalist culture’ by exhibiting kitsch. The USA could be understood by the banal things which Americans reputedly consumed, not least debased ‘Brother Karamazov comic books’. Despite the best efforts of the authorities, this exhibition proved to be extremely popular not least, one might reasonably assume, with the Bikiniarze. He cited one anonymous author who wrote ‘People wanted to see something American – to look, if only for a moment at something made across the Ocean … This was an unhappy love, a totally unrequited love.’ SeeLeopold Tyrmand, The Rosa Luxemburg Contraceptives Cooperative (New York: MacMillan, 1972), 269.

[10] See Edward D. Wynot, Warsaw Between the World Wars. Profile of the Capital City in a Devoloping Land, 1918- 1939 (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1983).

[11] For a discussion of the use of international tours to ‘reeducate’ German architects see Greg Castillo, ‘Design Pedagogy Enters the Cold War. The Reeducation of Eleven West German Architects’ in Journal of Architectural Education (May 2004), 10-18

[12] ‘Dyskusja na temat architektury gmachu KC PZPR’ in Architektura, 5 (May 1952), 116-128. See also Tadeusz Barucki, Wacław Kłyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzyński, Eugeniusz Wierzbicki (Warsaw: Arkady, 1987).

[13] Józef Ufnalewski, ‘O pobycie delegacji architektów polskich w ZSRR’ in Architektura, 7-8 (July-August, 1950), 252.

[14] Architekura, 9-11 (September-November, 1950) included the following reports from the delegation: Jan Minorski ‘O Miastach I Architekturze Zwiążku Radzieckiego’ (pp. 258-67); Bohdan Pniewski ‘Uwagi i Spostrzeżenia z popbytku w ZSRR’ (pp. 268-74); Eugeniusz Wierzbicki ‘Wrażenia Moskiewskie” (pp. 275-78); Jan Knothe, ‘Wrażenia Architektoniczne na Temat Pobytu w ZSRR’ (pp. 279-84); Józef Jaszuński, “Stalingrad-Tbilsi-Soczi’ (pp. 285-305); W. Żenkowski ‘Technika Budowlana w ZSRR’ (pp. 305-14).

[15] See Włodarczyk, Socrealizm (1986) and A. Åman, Architecture and Ideology in Eastern Europe During the Stalin Era (Cambridge, MA: MIT PRESS, 1992).

[16] I am grateful to Peter Martyn for this information. See Stefan Muthesius, ‘International Modernism or National Style. Warsaw Architecture of the early 20th century’ in Architectural History (2000), 233-250.

[17] Greg Castillo, ‘Henselmann and the Architecture of German Socialist Realism’ in Slavonica, v. 11, no. 1 (April 2005), 36.

[18] Stanisław Jankowski, ed., MDM. Marszałkowska 1730-1954 (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1955).

[19] Edmund Goldzamt, Architektura Zespołów Śródmiejskich I Problemy Dziedzictwa (Warsaw: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1956), 32

[20] Ibid, 45

[21] The Syrkus’s oeuvre is reviewed in a long discussion of their career which occupies most of the July 1957 issue of Architektura. She was also the author of Społeczne cele urbanizacji. Człowiek i środowisko (Warszaw: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1984).

[22] For a discussion of this speech and the response it received see S. Giedion, Architecture, You and Me (Cambridge, MA., 1959) 79-90; Eric Mumford, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 192-5.

[23] Helena Syrkus later came to regret her forthright support for the Stalinist regime Referring to Khrushchev’s famous report to architects in December 1954, Syrkus 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) 485.

[24] Helena Syrkus, ‘[Art Belongs to the People]’ in Janet Ockman, ed., Architecture Culture 1943-1968 (New York, 1993) 120.

[25] Ibid, 120-121. See also Greg Castillo ‘Peoples at an Exhibition: Soviet Architecture and the National Question’ in Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko, eds., Socialist Realism Without Shores (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), 91-119.

[26] In the Soviet Union modernist aesthetics had already been unfavourably compared with transparent ‘classical art’ such as that of the Renaissance. This, argued Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Commissar of Enlightenment in the Lenin era, was the logical expression of a society which had not experienced the dislocating effects of modernity. The Russian proletariat and peasantry were moving from conditions of imperial-era ostalost’ (backwardness) to socialism in one revolutionary leap and had no ‘need’ for artistic expressions of capitalist era such as futurism and cubism.

See Catherine Cooke, ‘Socialist-Realist Architecture’ in Matthew Cullerne Bown and Brandon Taylor, eds., Art of the Soviets (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 89.

[27] Goldzamt, Architektura Zespołów Śródmiejskich, 54.

[28] Kazimierz Tymiński, ‘Zagadnienia Wieżowców Moskwy w Świetle Wypowiedzi Prasy Radzieckiej’ in Architektura, 2 (February, 1952), 37-48

[29] See Sarah Bradford Landau and Carl W. Condit, Rise of the New York Skyscraper (New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 1996) 381-391.

[30] See Sona Hoisington, ‘Soviet Schizophrenia and the American Skyscraper’ in Rosalind P. Blakesley and Susan E. Reid, eds., Russian Art and the West. A Century of Dialogue in Painting, Architecture, and the Decorative Arts (DeKalb, Il.: Northern Illinois University Press, forthcoming).

[31] Goldzamt, Architektura Zespołów Śródmiejskich, 329-330.

[32] Ibid, 331.

[33] Leopold Tyrmand, Dziennik (Warsaw: TenTen, 1995), 204.

[34] Jerzy Wierzbicki, ‘Parter ulicy w Warszawie’ in Architektura (7, July 1955), 198.

[35] See Tadeusz Barucki, ‘Autokarem przez Europę’ in Stolica (25 November 1956), 13.

[36] See Aleksander Wojciechowski, ‘Przeciwko Stojącej Wodzie’ in Przegląd Artystyczny, 4 (October-December 1956), 35-7

[37] Wierzbicki, ‘Autokarem przez Austrię, Szwajcarię, Francję I Włochy Połnocne’ in Architektura (January 1957), 38

[38]  See Paweł Machcewicz, Polski rok 1956 (Warsaw: Mówią Wieku, 1993); Stefan Bratkowski, Październik 1956: Pierwszy Wyłom w Systemie (Warsaw: Proszyński, 1996).

[39]Nikita Khrushchev, ‘Remove Shortcomings in Design, Improve the Work of Architects’ Pravda and Izvestia (28 December 1954) reproduced in Ockman, ed., Architecture Culture, 184. See also Architektura, 1 (January 1955) 30-33.

[40] See Walter L. Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture and the Cold War, 1945-1961 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997); Susan E. Reid ‘Peaceful Competition in the Kitchen: The Soviet Encounter with the American Dream’ conference paper, SHOT annual conference, University of Amsterdam (2004).

[41] 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.

[42] See Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2005), 41-88.

[43] Györgyi Peteri, “Nylon Curtain – Transnational and Transsystemic Tendencies in the Cultural Life of State-Socialist Russia and East-Central Europe’ in Slavonica, v. 10, no. 2, (November 2004), 114.

[44] During the Thaw the Stalin years were frequently characterized by both party ideologues and artists as a period of deep-seated anti-modern academicism which had given rise to kitsch. In the Soviet Union Socialist Realism was frequently described in terms of poshlost’ (vulgar kitsch) and petit-bourgeois taste and philistinism i.e., as regressive and anti-modern. This was essentially an aesthetic and willfully simple characterisation of Socialist Realism, serving the interests of the present. It ignored the particular forms of modernism in which the Stalinists had so heavily such as industrialisation, militarization and strong central command.

[45] A. Cz., Hotel in Stambule’ in Stolica (23 December 1956) 24.

[46] A. C., ‘Formy Nowoczesnych Mieszkań Japońskich’ in Stolica (29 January 1956), 14-15.

[47] A.C. ‘Budynek Biurowy “Olivetti” w Mediolanie’ in Stolica (18 March 1956),12-13.

[48] A. C., ‘Eksperymentalne domki z plastiku’ in Stolica (7 October 1956), 12-13.

[49] A. Cz. ‘The New Brutalism’ in Stolica (14 July 1957), 14-15.

[50] Anon., ‘Szklo w budownictwie i architekturze USA’ in Architektura (April 1956) 115-6.

[51] Reinhold Martin, The Organizational Complex (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2002), 4-6; 94-8.

[52] Martin Pilch, ‘Organizacja Prejektowania Architektonicznego w USA’ in Architektura (June 1956) 197-200 (originally published as ‘Inside the US Office’ in Architectural Review (February 1956), 99-104.)

[53] Ibid, 199.

[54] Milka Bliznakov, ‘Soviet housing during the experimental years, 1918 to 1933’ in William Craft Brumfield and Blair A. Ruble, eds., Russian Housing in the Modern Age: Design and Social History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 85-149; Victor Buchli, An Archaeology of Socialism (Oxford and New York: Berg, 1999); Susan E. Reid, ‘Destalinization and taste, 1953-1963’ in Journal of Design History, vol. 10, no. 2 (1997), 177-92.

[55] The greatest number of these schemes was built during the 1970s but the course had been set earlier by Gomułka’s regime.

[56] See Waldemar Baraniewski, ‘Odwilżowe dylematy polskich architektów’ in Odwilż, (Poznań: National Museum of Poznań, exh. cat., 1996), 129-38.

[57] Bolesław Szmidt, ‘Modern Architecture in Poland’, Architectural Design (October 1962), 496.

[58] T. K., ‘O mieszkaniach optymistycznie’, Stolica (27 August 1961), 5.

[59] Andrzej Bołtuć and Stefan Putowski, ‘Konkurs na typowy wielkokondygnacyjny budynek mieszkany’ in Architektura (September 1957) 338-347.

[60] Waldemar Baraniewski credits Stanisław Staszewski alone for pressing the case for a wholehearted critique of the ideological function of architecture in the People’s Republic. Baraniewski, op cit., 313

[61] Hansjakob Stehle, Independent Satellite (London: Pall Mall Press, 1965), 171.

[62] Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless (1978) (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 37-40.

[63] François Fejtö, A History of the People’s Democracies (Harmondsworth, 1974) 308.

[64] Iurii Gerchuk writing in 1991 cited in Susan E. Reid and David Crowley, eds., Style and Socialism. Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2000), 2.

[65] St. S., ‘Hotel “Warszawa” w Moskwie’ in Architektura 8 (1960), 316. SUSIE REF TOO

[66] James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, and London: Yale, 1992), 38-9.

[67] ‘Budow. Eksperimentalni w Moskwie’ in Architektura (May 1958), 257.

[68] Iurii Gerchuk, ‘The Aesthetics of Everyday Life in the Khrushchev Thaw in the USSR (1954-64)’ in Reid and Crowley, eds., Style and Socialism,  87.

[69] Starewicz speech delivered to the Central Committee in July 1963 cited by François Fejtö, A History of the People’s Democracies (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), 307.

[70] Sołtan had spent the second half of the 1940s working in Le Corbusier’s Paris studio and was an active participant in CIAM and its successor association, Team X, in the 1950s. He had an unusual pedigree in Warsaw terms. As an architect in a city which was reconstructed at breakneck speed, he had relatively few buildings under his belt and a high reputation for controversy for designing schemes that had tested the official creed of Socialist Realism. Benefiting from the official fetish made of the concept of experimentation, in 1954 Sołtan and Ihnatowicz formed Zakłady Artystyczno-Badawcze, a team of designers, engineers and artists which, on occasion, extended to include musicians and film-makers. According to one student who worked with Sołtan in the 1960s, the ZAB operated self-consciously in the tradition of the Higher Art Technical Workshops in Moscow and the Bauhaus. See ‘A conversation with Krzysztof Wodiczko’ in October, 38 (Autumn 1986), 3-51

[71] Jerzy Sołtan cited in Alison Smithson, ed., Team 10 Primer (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1974), 45.

[72] Jerzy Sołtan cited in Architectural Design (special Team X issue) 5, (May 1960), 28.

[73] S. Hołowko, ‘Alga, Wenecja, Supersam’ in Projekt 5 (1962), 11-17.

[74] Zbigniew Ihnatowicz, ‘Kombinat Gastonomiczny “Wenecja” na Woli w Warsawie’ in Architekt (October, 1961), 373.

[75] ‘Kochany Biszo’ letter written by Jerzy Sołtan in July 1971 reproduced in Jola Gola, ed., Jerzy Sołtan. Monografia (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Akademii Sztuk Pięknych, 1995), 322.

[76] Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore, Md.:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) 53.

[77] Khrushchev, ‘Remove Shortcomings in Design’ in Ockman, ed., Architecture Culture, 185.

[78] Paweł 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: Programme on East European Cultures and Societies, 2001), 127.

[79] Reformist Central Committee member Morawski writing in Trybuna Ludu in 1958 acknowledged that Polish intellectual life needed exposure to forms of experimentation, ‘the normal requirements of artistic development’. In his words ‘the works of Faulkner, Sartre, Camus and Kafka are published in Poland and produced in the theatres, although they are products of a social climate and present philosophical schools which have little in common with Marxism. We also, for example, allow productions of Ionescu and Beckett for a special public, although the philosophy they are propounding is quite foreign to ours. But they are putting forward new and experimental ideas.’ This was, in so many words, an acknowledgement that Stalinist aesthetics had produced cultural stagnation in Poland. Stehle, Independent Satellite, 199.

[80] Leszek Kołakowski’s ‘The Priest and the Jester’in Twórczość (1959) reproduced in Toward a Marxist Humanism, trans. Jane Zielonko Peel (New York, 1969), 34. See also Barbara Falk, The Dilemmas of Dissidence. Citizen Intellectuals and Philosopher Kings (Budapest: CEU Press, 2003), 157-165.

[81] Oskar Hansen, ‘Otwarta Form’ in Przegląd Kulturalny,  5 (1957), 5.

[82] Oskar Hansen, Towards Open Form / Ku Formie Otwartej (Warsaw: Foksal Foundation, 2005), 184.

[83] Oskar Hansen in Oscar Newman, Ciam ’59 in Otterlo. Documents of Modern Architecture (Hilversum: Tiranti, 1961), 191.

[84] Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, ‘Oskar Hansen, Henry Moore and the Auschwitz Memorial debates in Poland, 1958–59’ in Charlotte Benton, ed., Figuration/Abstraction. Strategies for Public Sculpture in Europe 1945-1968 (London: Ashgate, 2004), 193-211.

[85] Simone de Beauvoir, La Force des Choses (Paris: Gallimard 1963), 577.

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

[87] See Newman, Ciam ’59 in Otterlo, 191.

[88] See Sarah Williams Goldhagen ‘Freedom’s Domiciles’ in Sarah Williams Goldhagen and Réjean Legault, eds., Anxious Modernisms: Experimentation in Postwar Architectural Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 75-95.

[89] Max Risselada and Dirk van den Heuvel, eds., Team 10 1953-81 (Rotterdam: NAI, 2005).

[90] See Richard T. de George ‘The Soviet concept of man’ in Studies in East European Thought, v. 4, no. 4 (December, 1964), 261-76.

[91] Oskar Hansen in Newman, Ciam ’59 in Otterlo, 191.

[92] In the 1960s he developed the ‘Open Form’ theory into the ‘linear continuous system’ theory, which envisaged the extension of his principles to the arrangement of buildings and communications on a larger scale; projects included the Przyczułek Grochowski housing estate (1963) in Warsaw. These are widely regarded as social and economic failures.

[93] He can be regarded as a precursor of the kind of spatialised art practices in Poland in vogue in the 1960s, including happenings and performance / ‘dzieła-procesu’ (works of process). Artist Grzegorz Kowalski became fascinated by the Open Form concept and attempted to adapt it to sculpture, becoming, during the mid-1960s, particularly interested in observing the behaviour and reactions of spectators (e.g. the Current Composition—Dynamic Environment, 1968). He also made suggestions, stemming from the Open Form proposals, for compositions that were impossible to realize (e.g. his plan for the town of Elbląg, 1967). Kowalski sought to produce a mental space, a field of constant exchange between one’s ‘own space’ (the domain of the student’s inner world and artististic visions) and ‘common space’ (the social situation, or the external reality of the studio and the street).

[94] Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno in Domus (December 2003) 22.


Modernizacje 1918-1939. Czas przyszły dokonany – review

Architecture, Design Exhibition, Eastern Europe, Modernism

This review was commissioned by the European Architectural History Network in 2010.

Like a number of other exhibitions on modernist art and architecture, Modernizacje 1918-1939. Czas przyszły dokonany (Modernizations 1918-1939: Future Perfect) at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź opened with images of a society in revolutionary turmoil. In this case it was not Soviet Russia but Hungary which marked the year zero. The gallery’s walls were filled with Mihály Biró and Béla Uitz’s posters of billowing red flags and worker-heroes announcing Béla Kun’s Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. Revolutionary Hungary was the exception rather than the rule in an exhibition which set out to demonstrate that Modernism gained a fast hold in the societies of the “New Europe” which formed after the First World War. After all, the Hungarian Soviet failed after 133 days, sending many figures in the artistic avant-garde—who had been among Kun’s most ardent supporters—into exile. The modernization promised by Kun—represented in Łódź by a particularly spectacular painting by Uitz depicting a cadre of muscular workers building a red city—was over before it had a chance to have any effect.

In other parts of the “New Europe” after 1918, “modernization” had very real and, in some cases, long-lasting results. The capitals of the new Baltic republics, Tallinn and Kaunas (a “temporary” capital while Vilnius was occupied), were home to sophisticated private villas and public buildings. Buildings like Anton Soans and Edgar Kuusik’s Art Hall (1933-4) in the Estonian capital typically combined functionalist unfussiness with strong lines of symmetry and classical proportions. In Czechoslovakia, the elegant shoes produced by in Tomas Bat’a’s factories and sold in an international chain of stores like Vladimir Karfík’s elegant glazed “box” in the Brno were evidence of the kind of complete world of utility and functional beauty being championed as l’esprit nouveau. Moreover, as one exhibition panel reproducing Bat’a publicity reveals, the patrician shoe manufacturer was keen to demonstrate how communist politics (“the evil of the past”) had been eliminated from its factory towns. Here Le Corbusier’s question “Architecture or Revolution?” was answered in unequivocal terms. At both the heart of Europe in Bohemia and on its Baltic shores, a bourgeois “revolution” was underway in settings which have hitherto been overlooked by most attempts to reassemble European modernism.

Curator Andrzej Szczerski set out to demonstrate the attraction of modernist architecture and design in the new and revived states of Central/Eastern Europe formed at the round tables and in the couloirs of the peace conferences at the end of the First World War. In their strong desire to demonstrate their right to statehood, the leaders of these new and restored nations—whether on the left or on the right—often welcomed the images of progress and technology offered by the Modern Movement. Modernism was proposed as a harbinger of deeper patterns of political, economic and even social modernization. A crude national Darwinianism lay behind some of the most vivid examples on display in Modernizations 1918-1939. The ambition of Poland’s Sea and Colonial League for imperial possessions in Africa was mapped in posters featuring compelling photomontages and graceful Art Deco liner imagery. In this, the League hoped to match Italian actions in East Africa. The bridgehead for this imperial “adventure” was to be Gdynia, the new port city built to guarantee access to the sea. This national project drew on the vision and creativity of many of Poland’s modernist architects, photographers and artists—as the Łódź exhibition demonstrated with great effect.

In the Sea and Colonial League, modernism and imperialism were aligned: command of the former providing “evidence” of Poland’s “right” to the latter. This order of arrogance is evident in other key works in the Łódź show. Sixteen extraordinary panels from Jiří Kroha’s “Sociological Element of Living” cycle of didactic montages (1933-34) were on display. Designed to prepare householders for the task of living in new social housing schemes, Kroha pronounced on the “correct” ways to dress, to enjoy leisure time and even to procreate. Formally, the work, fashioned from material cut from the popular press and hand-stencilled lettering, has the visual élan of the surrealists and yet intellectually it represents the disturbing certainty of the modernist vanguard. It is perhaps unsurprising to know that Kroha thrived in the intimidating political setting of Stalinist Czechoslovakia.

A pioneering show and the product of considerable research, Modernizations 1918-1939 brought to Łódź the work of mostly little-known figures whose careers were stimulated by the settlements at Versailles, Trianon and Tartu after the fighting stopped. One cannot help but note that their achievements were then obscured by the Cold War politics which divided Europe after another world war.

Publication related to the exhibition:

Andrzej Szczerski, Modernizacje. Sztuka i architektura w nowych państwach Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej 1918-1939, Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, 2010, 406 pp., 165 b&w and color illustrations, 68 Polish złoty, ISBN 978-83-87937-76-8.

The Photographer in the Hall of Mirrors

Architecture, Eastern Europe, Photography

This is an extract of an long essay on the work of photographer Nicolas Grospierre. It will appear in a book surveying his practice that will be published in 2013.

… Unlike painters or sculptors, architects do not work directly on their creations. They rely on drawing and occasionally model-making to act as a kind of intermediary between an idea and its realisation. One fantasy which accompanies much contemporary architecture today is that of folded or warped structures made from vast sheets of material. Folds and cuts give the enchanting illusion of immediacy and simplicity (despite the complex calculations and feats of engineering which are required to achieve these effects). trimmed-to-square-side-one-13The Polish Aviation Museum in Cracow, designed in 2010 by the Berlin architect Justus Pysall with structural engineers Arup, illustrates this desire. The building looks like architectural origami, as if cut and folded from a single ‘paper’ sheet. By photographing all the museum’s surfaces (including the roof from a crane) and then recomposing them as a series of squares, Grospierre has taken this fantasy at face value. The resulting works form a series called ‘Paper Planes’ (2010). Lacking the telltale shadows of aerial photography, the mosaics of concrete and glass textures are emphatically flat. Like a looping fold, an imagined horizontal surface is transformed into the undulating form of the museum and then back to the original fantasy in photographic form. And in a playful gesture which points to another dream, namely that photography can escape its flat world, Grospierre folds these sheets into massive paper airplanes.

430In ‘Self-Fulfilling Image’ (2009), a composite photograph, Grospierre explores another long-standing preoccupation of photographers, the mise-en-abyme. The viewer is presented with copies of an image within the same image. Walking along the sidewalk, Grospierre himself carries the photographic print into the scene. This is more than a self-portrait or a city scene. His double, a few yards on, presents the image to a woman, perhaps the curator of the New York gallery in which the image, in its third incarnation, appears. We peer through the window to witness the inauguration of the work now fixed on a wall. We are eyewitnesses to a ‘private view’. There is a playfulness in these spirals of time and place. And this deliberately naïve narrative is, as the title suggests, an exercise in wish fulfillment. The young artist makes a work which will attract the attention of a Chelsea gallery. (And, of course, the image was shown in the Cueto Project gallery, the site of Grospierre’s fantasy, in Manhattan in 2009.)

The term ‘en abyme’ originates with André Gide in the 1890s, but the practice of inscribing a story within a story or an image within an image is much older. In fact, the French novelist pointed to its historic place in art: ‘It pleases me to find, in a work of art, the very subject of the work transposed to the scale of its characters. Nothing illuminates the work better, or establishes its proportions more clearly. Thus, in some paintings by Memling or Quentin Metsys a small, somber convex mirror reflects the interior of the room in which the depicted scene is set. Also, Velásquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ (but in a slightly different way).’[1] In photography, the mise-en-abyme can take various forms including, of course, the use of mirror images. Mirrors produce recursive effects of duplication. And as Craig Owens once argued, the appeal of the mirror to the many photographers who sought out reflective surfaces was, in part, that it captured the condition of photography itself: ‘Because the mirror image doubles the subjects—which is exactly what the photograph itself does—it functions here as a reduced, internal image of the photograph. The mirror reflects not only the subjects depicted, but also the entire photograph itself. It tells us in a photograph what a photograph is—en abyme.[2] And this, according to Owens writing more than thirty years ago, is what distinguishes the appearance of mirrors of photographs from their depiction in paintings or their use in novels.

Today Owens’ claim seems like an assertion from a different time. It is. Arguments about ‘what photography is’ were exhausted in the 1990s and few photographers or viewers are much troubled by questions of ontology now. Photography’s ‘natural’ realism—much like the point-of-view offered by the lens—are expressive resources to be exploited rather than defining techniques. Consider Grospierre’s ‘Mirror’ series (2008). Each photograph records a special kind of mirror which reflects the image of everything around except the person looking in it. Even standing directly before the bright, reflective surface, the viewer—or for that matter the camera—will not appear. Here the vanishing point takes on a literal form. Questions of technique or the condition of the medium are redundant: what counts now is the outline of a fantastic idea. In fact, Grospierre combines these images with a Borgesian story about the development of a secret design by Polish scientists in the Second World War to fight the forces occupying the country. Like an archaeologist of modernity, Grospierre ‘discovers’ these mirrors in Warsaw’s Philharmonia and Palace of Culture.

The third image in Michals' 'Things Are Queer' photo sequence, 1973.

The third image in Michals’ ‘Things Are Queer’ photo sequence, 1973.

The mirror is by no means the only application of the mise-en-abyme in photography. In the 1970s, American photographer Duane Michals produced a number of series of photographs which seemed to allude to the capacity of the lens to zoom into or pull back from an image. In the grid of nine images which make up ‘Things Are Queer’ (1973), the opening image of a bathroom is revealed to be an illustration in a book which, in turn, is held in the hand of a mysterious shadow of a man who, we come to understand by the fourth image, has been captured in a photograph. This portrait appears framed, seemingly hanging in the bathroom which appeared in the first image. Organized according to a chiastic principle in which the first and the last image are identical, Michals’ series suggests an eternal circle; a photograph in a photograph in a photograph and so on. The abyss—Gide’s term—is indefinite multiplication (and a property of mechanical image-making which has not been lost in the digital age). Any attempt to identify an initial image in this gyre seems impossible.

Grospierre’s ‘Self-Fulfilling Image’ shares Michals’ interest in the impossibility of distinguishing the difference between looking at a photograph of someone or something and a photograph of a photograph of the same subject. Even without the serial structure of Michals’ ‘Things Are Queer’, the viewer completes the circular motion when she or he finds the ‘Self-Fulfilling Image’ in the ‘Self-Fulfilling Image’. Yet Grospierre interrupts this particularly reeling form of the mise-en-abyme with another one, namely that produced by the lines of projection which emanate to and from a mirror. Set in the centre of the image is a reflection of a figure in the window. Recognisable as Grospierre himself, he can be viewed, just, in the vanishing point formed by the lines of perspective produced by the buildings and sidewalk. Emphasising single-point perspective in this way, Grospierre’s photograph echoes the orderly compositions created by artists in the Renaissance. It is not Florence but Manhattan—the city island laid out on a grid at the beginning of the nineteenth century and populated with austere skyscrapers in the twentieth—which provides this organising geometry. As architect Rem Koolhaas remarked in his 1978 book Delirious New York,the grid’s two-dimensional discipline creates undreamt of freedom for wheeling three-dimensional fantasies.[3]

Speaking about the modern novel, Roland Barthes offered a number of reflections on the device of the mise-en-abyme.[4] He claimed that there is an ‘instability, an unstable slippage’ between the maquette, the preliminary model or sketch, and the mise-en-abyme. The story within the story is often presented as a kind of prototype of that which the reader holds in his or her hands. In Gide’s The Counterfeiters (Les Faux Monnayeurs, 1925), for instance, one of the characters, oncle Edouard, is writing a novel called The Counterfeiters,and two years later Gide published The Journal of the Counterfeiters, a notebook containing Edouard’s theory of the novel as well as newspaper cuttings and clippings that will be used to write the novel. Gide’s ‘maquette’, as Barthes calls it, antedates the novel it intends. A retroactive prototype, it seems to challenge orderly conceptions of progress. Philosopher Michel Serres would surely lend his backing: ‘We conceive of time as an irreversible line, whether interrupted or continuous, of acquisitions and inventions,’ he once observed. ‘We go from generalizations to discoveries, leaving behind us a trail of errors finally corrected—like a cloud of ink from a squid. “Whew! We’ve finally arrived at the truth …” But, irresistibly, I cannot help thinking that this idea is the equivalent of those ancient diagrams we laugh at today, which place the Earth at the center of everything, or our galaxy at the middle of the universe, to satisfy our narcissism.”[5]

Grospierre seems to share an enthusiasm for these twists of time and space. In 2008 he created a series of photographs which seem to document scientific instruments. Awkwardly tilted by axonometry, Grospierre supplies these devices with a fantastic provenance. ‘These are unique prototypes,’ he writes, ‘kept in the cellars of the Institute of High Pressure Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, to which I was granted access by Professor Sylwester Porowski, head of that Institute.’[6] Never put into service because they were dysfunctional, according to Porowski, they remain ‘prototypes’, presumably for some future instrument. In some alternate version of history, perhaps they even function. Other would-be objects are supplied with even more fantastic pedigrees. Grospierre’s ‘K-Pool I Spółka’ (K-Pool and Company) is a rendering of an open-air swimming pool in Brooklyn, New York. It was built in the late 1950s according to a design by Morris Lapidus (an architect best known for his Miami hotels). Yet the intellectual origins of this project lie not in Lapidus’ studio but in Koolhaas’ Delirious New York. The Dutch architect’s book concludes with a fantastic tale of Constructivist architects fleeing Stalin’s Soviet Union in a floating swimming pool, ‘a long rectangle of metal sheets bolted onto a steel frame’. They slowly propel their pool across the Atlantic by swimming synchronized laps from end to end. When, four decades later, they finally arrive, their enthusiasm for America evaporates. Manhattan seems to look like the Soviet Union they had left behind: ‘Had communism reached America while they were crossing the Atlantic? they wondered in horror. This was exactly what they had swum all this time to avoid, this crudeness, lack of individuality, which did not even disappear when all the businessmen stepped out of their Brooks Brothers suits.’[7] Grospierre’s axonometric image of the pool appears in the company of conventional photographic studies of splendid socmodernist buildings that were actually built in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, as if to remind the swimmers of what they had missed whilst chasing their American dreams.

Koolhaas’ dreamwork, Delirious New York,presented itself as a ‘retroactive manifesto’, that is a theory of urbanism written after—rather than before—the new world it describes had been fashioned. It is a maquette for Manhattanism, ‘a programme—to exist in a world totally fabricated by man, i.e., to live inside fantasy’ which had already been built. Whilst Grospierre makes no claim on a programme, his photographic images—curling space, folding time and sometimes stirred with fiction—offer opportunities to find the fantastic in the familiar …

[1] André Gide cited in Craig Owens, ‘Photography en abyme,’ October, Summer 1978, 75.

[2] Owens, Photography en abyme’ 75.

[3] Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (New York, 1994)20.

[4] Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France (New York, 2010) 169-70.

[5] Michel Serres in Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time (Ann Arbor, MI; 1995) 48-9.

[6] Nicolas Grospierre, Kunstkamera,CSW Zamek Ujazdowski exhibition catalogue (Warsaw, 2009) 36.

[7] Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 310.

Paper Architecture: The Columbaria of Brodsky and Utkin

Architecture, Eastern Europe

 This essay appeared in the catalogue for the Postmodernism. Style and Subversion 1970-90 Exhibition at the V&A Museum in London in 2011.

Architects in the Soviet Union experienced a strange premonition of postmodernism fifty years before its domination of the architectural scene in the West. The monumental classical style known as Socialist Realism which was required of almost all buildings during the Stalin years (1928-53) not only laid a claim to be sensitive to the regional and national character of architecture, it was promoted by its champions as a sublation of modernism. In ways that anticipated arguments in the West about the ‘end of history’, Socialist Realism presented itself as the culmination of all that had gone before it, including modernism.[1]  ‘According to Stalinist aesthetics,’ writes Boris Groys, ‘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 …’[2] In other words, Socialist Realism – like postmodernism – had the potential to synthesise all that was best about the past, or so its champions claimed.

Postmodernism ‘reappeared’ in the last decade of the Soviet Union, a particularly feeble period of architectural production when the central economy was grinding into bankruptcy even as intellectual life was energised by President Mikhail Gorbachev’s programmes of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Critique was at that time more stirring than the conventional Soviet rallying cry of ‘construction.’ Postmodernism in the Soviet context has been closely associated with the phenomenon of ‘paper architecture’, visionary or impossible schemes designed by architects for entry into competitions and exhibitions.[3] These fantastic cities and buildings often functioned as forms of architectural and social critique rather than as propositions for actual structures. Paper architecture also became an important site for the exploration of utopia, a forlorn concept in the last decade of the Soviet Union. Enlightenment temples of reason and science conceived by Étienne-Louis Boullée in France on the eve of the French Revolution and the floating cities of the Suprematists from the Leninist years were revisited with the hindsight that came from living in a failed social experiment. Foremost amongst the paper architects were AlexanderBrodsky and Ilya Utkin who had studied at the prestigious Moscow Institute of Architecture (MArkhl) in the 1970s. They drew early international acclaim in 1982 when their design for a fantastic Crystal Palace formed from a series of massive glass wall ‘sections’ won a competition organised by Japan Architect magazine.

Columbarium-Habitabile-Brodsky-Utkin.-1989.-Shinkenchiku-Competition-DHAUS-BLOG Brodsky+and+Utkins+Columbarium+Habitabile+01Brodsky and Utkin’s ‘Columbarium Architecturae (Museum of Disappearing Buildings)’ of 1984 and its sister work, ‘Columbarium Habitabile’ of 1989 share the same concept. Both etchings depict a memorial structure in which old buildings threatened with destruction are preserved like the ashes of the dead. Yet these buildings have not quite expired. They demand the careful attention of the viewer, whether the occupant of the building or the passerby. If a building is forgotten or overlooked, the massive ball in the centre of the structure swings into action to destroy it. The ‘Columbarium Habitabile’ places the highest pressure on the occupant. According to Brodsky and Utkin, each building has its place on the concrete shelf, ‘only if the owner and his family continue living in the house … if they cannot live in these conditions any more and refuse, their house is destroyed.’ Reading these words engraved in English bas-de-page and figuring out that the dark frame is a niche in the Columbarium, it becomes clear that you too are one of these terrorised occupants.

Brodsky and Utkin’s schemes were explicitly critical of the processes of modernisation which had swept old buildings from Soviet streets. Moscow, their hometown, has periodically been the site of acts of domicide, with historic districts destroyed to make way for new monuments to progress. The paper architects’ fascination with antique structures like Columbaria as well as the use of the traditional medium of engraving emphasise the melancholic character of their interests. Other works by the duo from this period ripple with nostalgia for epochs marked by architecture of excess. Lois Nesbit points out that ‘they prefer the overripe classicism of the Stalinist period to what came afterward.’[4] From the late 1950s, Soviet architects were asked to master the techniques of industrialised architecture. Curiously, the grid-like concrete structure of Brodsky and Utkin’s two Columbaria invokes the high-rise blocks of the 1960s and 1970s known as novostroiki. Prefabricated panel construction and standard parts turned architectural construction into an exercise in slotting square boxes into square holes. ‘Everything about the Novostroiki  – their location on the city’s edge, their sameness, the sameness of their tawdry furnishings – proclaims that the private life of Moscovites is marginal, an afterthought, a coda to their ‘real’ lives as Soviet citizens and workers,’ wrote one commentator in 1989. ‘Privacy and individuality must be created and celebrated despite this spacelessness, in defiance of it.’[5]

Both schemes by Brodsky and Utkin seem to address the human need for privacy and individuality, albeit in different ways. The ‘Columbarium Architecturae’ presents itself to the street as a section of a three storey-house with a smoking chimney, a visual cliché symbolising the happy life. A private world is projected onto the public face of the building. By contrast, many structures – distinguished by their exterior forms – are stacked in the interior of the ‘Columbarium Habitabile’. Public and private conditions are blurred. This had, in fact, long been the Soviet experience.[6] One of the most common types of Soviet home was the communal apartment. Large pre-revolutionary flats, once occupied by the wealthy and their servants, were sub-divided after the Bolshevik Revolution to provide homes for a number of working class and peasant families. In his Moscow diaries Walter Benjamin, employing a characteristically surreal metaphor, described how these private homes had become common property and were now over-populated by numerous families and their meagre possessions: ‘Through the hall door one steps into a little town’.[7] He could have been describing Brodsky and Utkin’s collections of houses.

Once imagined as a temporary stage on the path to full communism where mankind would abandon selfish desires, the communal apartment became a standard feature of Soviet life. In 1989, for instance, one-quarter of the population lived in communal apartments, sharing a common kitchen, a common toilet and a common telephone in a space subdivided by flimsy partitions, sometimes little more than curtains.[8] Life in shared quarters often became an unpleasant theatre, filled with strangers, arguments, intrusive noises and unpleasant smells.[9] Famously, the communal apartment was adopted by the Russian nonconformist artist, Ilya Kabakov, as the setting for his domestic dramas. ‘Ten Characters’, an installation which takes the form of a series of cell-like rooms off a dark, shabby corridor lit with exposed electric light bulbs, presents the possessions and living spaces of ten absent Soviet citizens. In their absence, their lives are described in a series of vivid extended texts (often in the heterogeneous voices of official reports, newspaper articles, diaries and ad hominem reflections) and, of course, their possessions. The viewer is invited to be a psychologist, archaeologist or perhaps a secret policeman, extracting meaning from the debris of life and fragmentary reports. Conventionally art historians have turned to Kabakov’s ‘Ten Characters’ as a comment on the forms of horizontal surveillance which operated not in only in the communal apartment but throughout Soviet society. Constantly aware of one’s movements and opinions being detected by others, the individual modifies his or her behaviour. Life is reduced to an interplay of vigilance and performance; as Boris Groys elegantly puts it, ‘the communal turns everyone into an artist’.[10]

Although related to Kabakov’s explorations of anomie (and sharing his non-conformist sensibility), Brodsky and Utkin’s schemes emphasise different values. Their collections of dream-homes are full of memories and desires. Each functions nostalgically as what art historian Andrzej Turowski has called ‘un utopie rétrospective’.[11] Such places idealise settings and times – like the homes of childhood – which can no longer be accessed. They become all the more perfect by acts of recall. Yet memory-work in Brodsky and Utkin’s projects was not just a subjective matter. The threat of destruction – issued by the wrecking ball – and the duty to watch over the homes of the past makes the occupant something like a conservator or even a curator. In a society where the terror of Stalinism had penetrated so deeply into the home that the mere possession of a photograph of a ‘purged’ relative was viewed as an act of sedition, remembering could be understood as an act of resistance. Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, described this in rather lofty terms when he wrote ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’[12] Viewed in this way, the ‘Columbarium Architecturae’ and the ‘Columbarium Habitabile’ represent not just the preservation of all buildings (whether ‘progressive’ or not) but also of all memories.

[1] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Location, 1992).

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

[3] See Deutsches Architektur Museum, Paper Architecture. New Projects from the Soviet Union (New York, 1990); Alexey Yurakovsky and Sophie Ovenden, Post-Soviet Art and Architecture (Location, 1994).

[4] ‘Man in the Metropolis: The Graphic Projections of Brodsky and Utkin’ in Lois Ellen Nesbit and Brodsky & Utkin: The Complete Works (New York, 2003).

[5]  Sally Laird in Lisa Appignanesi, ed., Novostroika (London, 1989) p. 5.

[6] Marc Garcelon, ‘Public and private in communist and post-communist society’ and Oleg Kharkhordin, ‘Reveal and Dissimulate: A Genealogy of Private Life in Soviet Russia’ in Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar, eds., Public and Private in Thought and Practice. Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy (Chicago and London, 1997) pp. 303 – 365.

[7] Walter Benjamin, ‘Moscow’ (1927) in One Way Street (London, 1979), pp. 187-88.

[8] See K. Gerasmiova, ‘Public Privacy in the Soviet Communal Apartment’ in David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, ed., Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc (Oxford and London, 2003), pp. 207-30.

[9] For a vivid account of the intrusions of others in the Communal Apartment, see S. Boym, Common Places: Mythologies of EverydayLife in Russia (Cambridge, Mass., 1994) pp. 121-68.

[10] Borys Groys, Ilya Kabakov: The Man who Flew into Space from His Apartment (London, 2006), p. 63.

[11] Andrzej Turowski, Existe-il un art de l’Europe de l’est? : Utopie et idéologie (Paris 1986).

[12] Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, trans. Aaron Asher (New York, 1999) p. 4.

Living Design

Design as Critique, Design Exhibitions

Revital Cohen’s The Immortal

This is an introduction to the work of various designers and artists that can be described as ‘transhuman’. It is appeared in Polish in Autoportret in autumn 2012.

A series of life support machines were plumbed together in London over the summer. A heart-lung machine, a dialysis machine, an empty incubator, a mechanical ventilator and an intraoperative cell salvage machine were linked by tubes and wires.  Electrical currents, oxygen and artificial blood (albeit in the form of saline water) pumped through these channels. Pulsing lights and a low hum – signs of constant exertion – filled the gallery at the Wellcome Institute where this series of interlocked machines was exhibited. Revital Cohen’s project presented the unsettling prospect of life support machines organized as an interdependent system; in fact, as a kind of body. Each machine manages what doctors call a ‘vital function’, the biological processes on which life depends directly. Entitled ‘The Immortal’ (on film here), Cohen’s project seems to suggest the possibility that we can sustain eternal life, a deep-seated human fantasy. Yet life itself was missing.


Artificial hand, from Ambroise Paré’s Instrumenta chyrurgiae et icones anathomicae (Surgical Instruments and Anatomical Illustrations), Paris, 1564.­


i-Limb ultra from Touch Bionics

The various machines which have been conjoined to make up ‘The Immortal’ are all forms of prostheses. They were designed and manufactured to compensate for weakness, failure or deficiencies in the human body. They even resolve matters of doctrine. The intraoperative cell salvage machine recycles a patient’s own blood during operations, satisfying the prohibition of blood transfusion by Jehovah’s Witnesses. As the Wellcome Institute exhibition shows, the history of this branch of human ingenuity is long and often unhappily circular. French surgeon Ambroise Paré designed mechanical hands to replace those amputated on the battlefields of sixteenth century France.  His 1564 manual, Instrumental Chirurgiae et Icones Anatomicae, was displayed close to Touch Bionics’ new ‘’, a highly sensitive powered prosthetic hand, often worn by veterans who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Replicating the subtle and complex movements of the human hand with remarkable accuracy, the i-Limb ultra is supplied with different ‘skins’. One is translucent, allowing its owner to show off his or her hand’s internal mechanisms. By putting the i-Limb ultra in the company of Paré’s historic designs, the curator’s point is clear: whilst electronics and engineering have advanced to extraordinary degrees of refinement, warfare remains brutal and primitive.

The title of the Wellcome Institute show suggests that prosthetics offer ‘Superhuman’ potential, that is to extend our human capacities and abilities by incorporating technology into our bodies. The promise of what is often called transhumanism is not just that we can repair our failing bodies but we can become more than human. Might you elect to replace your birth-given hands with prosthetic ones if they were stronger, more nimble, more musical, more beautiful? Whilst this kind of fantasy, of course, has long been the realm of science fiction novels and Marvel comics it seems to be increasing within reach.

For some commentators, one of the litmus tests for transhumanism will be the moment when prosthetics or implants are preferred over the original human organ or limb which they replace. When people choose to amputate healthy parts of their body in favour of prostheses, we will have crossed into the transhuman age. But this is, perhaps, already an out-of-date view. Rapid developments in synthetic biology and genetic engineering are perhaps the most important catalysts in the creation of the transhuman.

This threshold has been foreshadowed by lots of speculative thinking. Ray Kurzweil’s prophesy of the impending arrival of what he called ‘the Singularity’, the moment when artificial intelligence reaches human levels of intelligence, has lead to much dizzying speculation about the gradual blending of the biological human brain with computer technology. One day soon, wetware will meet hardware. Commentators talk with enthusiasm about the prospect of the development of cybernetic brains within a generation, a kind of a neural external hard drive which gives its owner to have perfect recall, photographic memory or access to the entire content of a library. Perhaps as we face the overload of data which seems to be an inevitable byproduct of progress, the cyber brain will be a necessity. Trajectories extrapolated from current development in genetics seem to suggest the possibility of ‘upgrading’ future children to be disease-free. Others enthuse about the dramatic extension of human life. The predicted development of nanotechnology, genetic engineering and synthetic organs has been accompanied by dizzying projections about future average life expectancy … 120, 140, 200 years or more.

Whilst these scenarios might seem distant prophesies, traces of new nature are here. Biochemistry is widely used to improve intelligence: one in ten students polled at Cambridge University in 2009 admitted to using cognitive enhancement drugs in the course of their studies. And other species are being transformed by genetic engineering. We are already able engineer mosquitoes to produce sterile progeny. If they become extinct, the threat of diseases like Yellow Fever and Malaria which they transmit will diminish too. With the future of nature looking increasingly man-made, commentators are keen to describe our era as a post-evolutionary age. In other words, the slow evolutionary processes that occur through natural selection have been accelerated by new technologies that originate in the lab.

The books and articles dealing with the prospect of Transhumanism could fill a library (or perhaps a cyber brain). Nevertheless, little has been said or written about its impact on the practice of design. After all, for much of the last century, design had an easily recognizable form. Working in studios on drawing table and then computers, designers created the forms of our vehicles, tools and products. Employed by manufacturers, their task was to make the things which fill our world work better, look more attractive or be more sellable. The ethical questions were, on the whole, rather uncontroversial. Was one material more sustainable than another? Was it right to design things which might hurt people? Now when design can mean the reorganization of nature and even of ourselves, the stakes seem higher.

Over the last few years, Transhumanism has begun to attract the attention of designers. For some, it offers new opportunities for speculative enquiry into the future, and perhaps even a chance to reclaim a visionary role for design which has been extinguished by (the very real) pressures of sustainability or the narrow parameters of the market. For others, the laboratory – and not the factory or the studio – is place where the future is being made now.

The challenge for designers in this brave new world is to define their role. Many of the projects which consider transhumanism – like Cohen’s ‘The Immortal’ –occupy the border zone between art and design, not that this concerns Cohen: ‘The place I am coming from is design thinking. I see that in my process, in the way I work and in the way I approach these objects, redesigning them objects and rebuilding parts of them. But if they are defined as art, this also is fine by me.’



Others see the laboratory a place where design can have the greatest impact. , a UK based project to develop bacterial biosensors which respond to pollutants by changing colour, is the product of a collaboration between designers and scientists. For Daisy Ginsberg – one of the designers working on the project – synthetic biology and the other new fields of scientific inquiry which are already changing our world need to be invigorated with new ideas about design too: ‘Synthetic biology is modeling itself on an old fashioned view of design’. For Ginsberg, this means ‘designing things out of context’ with little regard for ‘lifespan and disposal … They are making bacteria produce unnatural things because they fit in systems which already exist. What is required is ‘a much bigger vision’. Design thinking means eschewing big abstractions like humanity for clearer thinking about how humans behave and shape their world. That bigger vision means thinking more widely and even politically about the uses to which synthetic biology might be put.

The E. chromi project – like many transhumanist design schemes – uses the timeline as a method for imaging future applications of technology. Its authors have projected a long future for bacterial biosensors. By 2039, they suggest that consumers will be able to buy yoghurts which seed these warning signs into their stomachs. Thirty years later Google, they suggest, will release pollution-mapping bacteria that will stain the sky red when pollution reaches critical levels. In one sense, there is nothing new in all of this. Design has often claimed an anticipatory role. Much modernist design at the beginning of the twentieth century was motivated by a strong sense of the inevitably of progress. The task of the progressive designer was to bring the future into being. Even in the commercially-minded world of the present, designers are commissioned today to give form to the things and spaces we will need tomorrow. Whether the cycles are short (a few months in the case of new mobile phones) or a long (decades envisaged by transport schemes), they are always rooted in the technological and economic limitations of the present. Looking more than fifty or one hundred years ahead, Ginsberg and her colleagues are proposing go beyond the extrapolation of fact. And, like much futurology today, the E-Chromi timeline expresses an ambivalent view of progress. When Google’s warning clouds cross national borders in 2069, in their scenario, a diplomatic crisis is triggered.


Arne Hendriks

If such schemes have little immediate prospect of being materialized as products, speculative design does not, however, necessarily mean useless design. Some designers have turned to forms of transhumanism to ask important questions about our relationship to our environment. In a witty project entitled ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’, Dutch designer Arne Hendriks asks us to consider what the benefits of reducing the average height of our species to 50 cms. The broad trend for humanity to grow taller as a result of better diets and healthcare means that we need more energy, more food and more space. Affluence too seems to produce excessive growth too. ‘While in most developed countries family size has been shrinking’ notes Hendriks, ‘the average home has actually grown in size’.  The resource benefits of downsizing the human are clear. And, as Hendriks points out, there have been many people for whom 50 cms is a natural height.  The social prejudices against shortness are a form of collective height dysphoria – an excessive preoccupation with size. Hendriks’ project – in the form of talks, exhibits and articles – sets out to survey the biological means for reducing the size of humanity. This might mean changing diet or living in a warmer climate (where people are on average smaller) or it might be a matter of design: embryo screening would allow future parents to screen their babies for size.

If the proposal that future progeny might be ‘screened’ sets alarm bells ringing, reverberating with echoes of China’s one child policy or even eugenics in the Third Reich, that is Hendriks’ point. He calls ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ an exercise in ‘speculative modeling’, a lesson that he has learned from historians and futurologists who have asked ‘what if’ history had taken a different course. ‘The what-if factor makes it possible to ignore some of the immediate practical objections’ says Hendriks, ‘and paint our desired picture of the future, and enter it. It enables us to practice and prepare for future scenarios, and to map any difficulties that are hard to encounter in a more cerebral approach. Also, perhaps, it’ll make some of us excited about the new possibilities’.

Bullet-proof skin

6a00d8341bf67c53ef014e8acd355a970d-800wiDesigners have long drawn inspiration from nature. Often this is a matter of aesthetics. And, occasionally, it is the ‘genius’ of nature on which a claim is made. The champions of biomorphic design claim that nature has already solved many of the problems faced by engineers and technologists through billions of years of ‘research’ otherwise known as evolution. The structures, growth patterns and behaviour of living forms can teach designers how to shape our world with greater efficiency and utility.

Of course, the recent fashion for biomorphic design has taken hold at the moment when nature no longer seems natural. By contrast, Artist Jalila Essaïdi has developed a ‘post-evolutionary’ approach to the development of a new material. Spider silk – a material long-celebrated for its elasticity and strength – can now be produced by splicing the spider’s silk-making genes into goats. The protein can be harvested from their milk. Working with the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands, Jalila Essaïdi seeded this material with human skin cells. The resulting in vitro skin grown in a lab at the University of Leiden is ‘bulletproof’.

Essaïdi  then arranged for the skin to be shot with .22 calibre long rifle bullet (adopting the name of this project, ‘2.6g 329m/s’, from the weight and size of the bullet). It performed as well as a bullet proof vest, though did not survive the experiment. Her intention was not just to test her new material but also our preoccupation with ‘safety’. ‘By creating this “bulletproof” human skin I want to explore the social, political, ethical and cultural issues surrounding safety’ she says. ‘With this work I want to show that safety in its broadest sense is a relative concept, and hence the term bulletproof’. Superheroes have skins and suits which can deflect bullets. But what underpins this fantasy? In what circumstances would you need bulletproof skin?

E. chromi

In the summer of 2009 a group of students working in labs at Cambridge University spent their time working out how to make bacteria secrete coloured pigments. Taking genetic material, available as BioBricks (standardized sequences of DNA), they modified E. coli bacteria to produce different colours. The project showed how bacteria could be turned into biosensors, registering the presence of different pollutants.

Whilst the science was relatively clear, the purposes of this new technology was not. With designers Daisy Ginsberg and James King, they set out trying to imagine future uses. As Ginsberg says, the narrative drive in most applications of new science is ‘save some poor person in a distant country’. But they decided to bring this technology back home’ by designing a timeline proposing ways that E. chromi, as they named this modified bacteria, could develop over the course of the next century. The scenarios that they came up with started with the immediate and familiar, such as testing polluted water in the developing world, and ended with high drama of war, terrorism and new types of weather.

Designers know how to make objects which will be meaningful and useful. Ginsberg and King – working with the science students – imagined commercial applications for E. chromi in the form of products. They included the Scatalog, a cheap portable testing kit for disease, predicted for 2039. After being ingested as yogurt, the E.Chromi will colonise the human gut. Coloured excrement would become a early-stage warning system for different human diseases.

Designers also know how to make vivid and attention-grabbing images and objects. The Scatalog – in the form of a suitcase with compartments of coloured faeces – drew considerable attention in the national press. The benefits of this kind of this kind of attention is, from Ginsberg’s perspective, rather mixed: ‘When you are working with the science itself, the speculation can be so grounded in realistic technology that the it becomes confused with reality. Even though we’d set the Scatalog at about half way along our time line, we’d given it physical form. It eclipsed the rest of the project and was confused with the reality of the project, which is the pigment itself.’ ‘This made me realize, she continues, ‘that part of the complexity of working with speculation is that when it goes out into the world, it can start to define reality itself. The speculation becomes real and now there are several scientists trying to make the poo real.’

The Immortal

Trained as a designer on the Design Interactions programme at the Royal College of Art in London, Revital Cohen has devoted much attention to the machines used to support life. ‘The Immortal’ is Cohen’s most recent exploration of the theme. She has organised a series of life-support machines to pump air and liquids in sequence, suggesting a biological structure or perhaps even a body. The technofantasy of the cyborg has long occupied a central place in science fiction. A patient attached to a kidney dialysis machine or a new born baby in an incubator are his real and rather mundane cousin.

When used in medical care, these industrial machines typically disappear into the background. They only hold the attention of the doctors and nurses who use them or perhaps the patients who are wired into them. ‘Designed and created to perform a single, most meaningful function’ says Cohen, ‘we never subject these devices to a critical investigation as industrial products within the context of material culture’. Styling, branding and the other attention-demanding features of modern design have little place in this world. ‘I don’t know if they can be defined as commodities, as treatments, as products or as computers  .. it depends on who is selling and who is buying. In certain parts of the world they are commodities and commercial products. In other places, they are just governmental tools and outside of the market. So they have their own logic according to politics.’

The challenges faced by Cohen in securing these machines for display in London reveal much about the priorities and politics of health care. ‘Its interesting that a dialysis machine very easy and cheap to get hold of’, she says, ‘but an infant incubator is almost impossible because apparently in the Third World they are in most demand. The emphasis there is on saving the young rather than that old.’


Jarosław Kozakiewicz’s 2011 film ‘R/evolution’ takes as its point of inspiration the recent discovery that Oriental Hornets harvest the sun’s energy using their own solar batteries. The insect’s exoskeleton contains many oval-shaped interlocking protrusions which trap sunlight, like microscopic batteries. These hornets are the only known species which collect energy in this fashion.

728_2111_articlesKozakiewicz has long practiced in the space between art and architecture, often drawing insights from nature and natural science. The body has been the subject and the point of origin of many of his schemes for buildings, artworks and even landscapes. In 2007 Kozakiewicz adapted his ideas about the common geometry of the body and the cosmos to reshape a postindustrial landscape in Boxberg, Germany, in the form of a left ear. More recently, he designed observation tower overlooking the Warta river, deriving its polyhedral form from the arrangements of the orifices of the human body.

‘R/evolution’ projects a futuristic vision in which humanity is also equipped with solar panels. Silvery panels seem to grow across the shoulders. The precise nature of augmentation is not specified: are these panels worn or grown? Similarly the circumstances in which energy needs to be trapped in this way are not explained. With the sun beating down on Earth, humanity seems to need to draw its energy directly from sunlight rather than through digestion. Where have the plants and animals on which mankind feeds gone? Although presented in the manner of a documentary film, ‘R/evolution’ raises more questions than it answers. Like many works which explore transhumanism, Kozakiewicz’s futuristic project seems to walk a line between both promise and anxiety.

As the title of the short film suggests, we are on the threshold of a post-evolutionary age when the slow cycles of evolution are accelerated by human intervention. The behavior of the hornets living in large communities resembles, in some respects, that of mankind. Kozakiewicz’s draws attention to the aggressive mass behavior of both species.