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

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 And their diagrams now looked more like unpublished secret plans for a Red Army march on Western Europe or NATO designs on the Soviet Union.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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: