Art, Emotion and Activism in the Post-Socialist Cityscape in Eastern Europe

In 2014 developers in Kraków in southern Poland proposed the construction of ‘Nowa Cracovia’, an office and retail development on the site occupied by the ‘old’ Cracovia, a hotel owned by the state tourist company which opened its doors in the late 1960s (designed in 1959 by Witold Cęckiewicz for Miastoprojekt, Kraków, with structural engineers Jerzy Tombiński and Andrzej Kozłowski. A long, low modernist slab, the Cracovia claims its place in architectural history as the first building in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) to employ a glass curtain wall. With chequerboard glass panels on the exterior and the glittering, abstract murals inside, this hotel and cinema complex were a bold declaration of the revival of modernism after the austere Stalin years. Crowley BETON 1The hotel closed in 2011, its small and poorly serviced rooms unable to meet the demands of contemporary tourism and, apparently, riddled with toxic materials like asbestos. The Cracovia stands empty today, with no other function than to act as a framework for mammoth mesh advertising. It occupies what developers like to call a ‘prestigious site’ close to the city centre. This quarter has been protected from urban development, chiefly because it is the setting of national landmarks – not least the Błonia, a park where the Polish aristocracy once elected its kings, and kopiec Kościuszki (Kościuszko Mound), a monument erected to the Polish national hero in the late nineteenth century. The hotel faces the National Museum, a massive block which looks so uninviting that visitors often imagine that it was designed in the Stalin years, despite its pre-war origins.

Nowa_Cracovia.1The ‘Nowa Cracovia’ scheme went through the offices of various architects, until it ended up on the drawing boards of DDJM, a practice led by architect Marek Dunikowski , that specializes in efficient and well detailed, if fairly anonymous office design. To pay respect to the historical setting, Dunikowski proposed fronting the Nowa Cracovia with what he called a ‘Pergola’, a double-height arcade dedicated to the history of the site in the national memory. Part picture-frame, part platform, the ‘Pergola’ would orientate the visitor to history. In the patriotic climate of Poland today, this is a familiar gesture: so much that is new in architecture declares a connection to the Second Republic of the inter-war years, before the communist take over. Sometimes this means restoring ‘lost’ building lines (a claim made for the Metropolitan office in Warsaw (2003) designed by Norman Foster Associates); at others, architects claim inspiration in the order of classicising modernism which thrived in the country before 1939. In fact, Dunikowski’s ‘Pergola’ seems to refer to the designs of Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, the city’s leading architect in the 1930s.

What is more surprising is the way in which Dunikowski’s 2014 scheme also makes reference to the Cracovia hotel, even before the proposed demolition of this PRL landmark had occurred. A climate-controlled and artificially-lit shopping mall, the retail spaces in Dunikowski’s scheme were to be contained in a opaque box floating over an open ground floor lobby. The stone cladding the upper floors was to be engraved with the pattern of the distinctive rhythm of mullions, panes and aluminum panels of the curtain wall of the original Cracovia. This would have been most evident at night when external lighting would have picked out spectral traces of the old hotel

If the ‘need’ to invoke the pre-communist heritage reflects a desire to strike a line through the recent past, why invoke the architecture of the socialist era? After all, the prevailing sentiment in so much discussion in Poland until fairly recently has been that the Soviet system threw up almost no architecture of merit. Even when it is conceded that architects operating in the massive state planning offices did produce original and inventive schemes, critics continue to stress the shoddy construction and energy inefficiency of regime architecture. This argument is loudest when a case is being made for demolition. When the Supersam supermarket in Warsaw was flattened in 2006 to make way for a new high-rise office development, the recent collapse of a structure at the International Trade Fair in Katowice which killed more than sixty people was invoked in the arguments for ‘modernisation.’ [1] Crowley BETON 2The fact that Supersam (designed by Jerzy Hryniewiecki, Maciej Krasiński and Ewa Krasińska with structural engineer Wacław Zalewski, 1962) was a landmark in the history of architectural engineering – not least for the funicular roof system of tensile cables and compressive arches that formed its roof designed by Wacław Zalewski, later an MIT professor – and that it was still viable in structural terms counted for naught.

With socialist era the subject of so much opprobrium, how can we explain the ghostly lines of the old Cracovia on the new building? Is this some kind of flimsy attempt at branding – the post-modern badging of place? Or perhaps we should see this as a kind of haunting of the architecture of capitalism by the revenants of the socialist past? Or maybe they are better understood as ‘spolia’, signs of the victory of one system over another. Whilst plans for the site have, as I will show later, moved on, this kind of architectural haunting is by no means a one-off. In fact, it belongs to a pattern in Polish architecture over the last decade. In centre of Katowice for instance, the new Galeria Katowicka, a mammoth shopping centre housing 250 retail units and parking for 1200 cars contains remnants of the building which once occupied the site, Katowice Railway Station (designed by Wacław Klyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzyński and Eugeniusz Wierzbicki with structural engineer Wacław Zalewski, 1959-1972). One of the most ambitious brutalist buildings of the PRL era, the station took the form of a raised platform in the centre of the city. A hub for transport in the region, cars and buses would deliver passengers to its lower levels, while foot-passengers could enter the station across an elevated walkway. The raised pavilion housing the ticket offices and cafés was covered by a roof supported by tapering columns in thick concrete columns. crowley-beton-3.jpgA number of these kielichy (goblets) – as they are popularly known – survive today, reinforced and subsumed into the new shopping centre, a fashionable parametric structure designed by Sud Architects for the developer in 2010. Boutiques now occupy the spaces between the concrete kielichy, structural elements that the developer Neinver called on its website, ‘a distinctive motif in post-War Polish architecture ’. It is – a presumably unintended – irony that Brutalism, so often accused of being indifferent to context, has been adopted as the means for making familiar. Similarly, the Nove Praha, a modern multiplex in an aestern district of Warsaw, stands on the site of its forbear, Kino Praha designed by Jan Bogusławski in 1948. The ground floor windows of new structure display casts of the socialist realist scenes of labour which once decorated the curved sweep of the stone and glass facade of Bogusławski’s cinema. Announcing the power of the workers on eve of the formation of the People’s Republic, these signs now act as advertising for leisure.Crowley BETON 4

The fate of Supersam, Katowice Railway Station and more recently, the Cracovia Hotel have been the matters of public controversy. In fact all three have been subjects of highly visible crusades in Poland to ‘save’ the structures. Similar campaigns have been mounted, as I shall show, in the Czech Republic too. Events tend to follow the same pattern: a developer sets out to demolish a communist era building, usually with the support of the city authorities, to free the land for new development. This, in turn, triggers the formation of a broad alliance of interests which mount lively on-site protests and an on-line social media campaign. And, in the case of the Katowice Railway Station, a petition signed by architects and historians around the world. Often those wishing to save the building are a mixed bunch combining heritage groups, community organisations concerned about the effect on local businesses or the environment, and, sometimes, anti-capitalist groups too. Campaigners attempt to get these buildings listed as sites of historical importance to ensure that they are given special protection. Listing, however, has not always meant a guarantee of survival with developers pressing higher authorities to get decisions overturned. These debates often spill out into the mainstream media, triggering discussion about urban development, public space and the power of government in the face of powerful commercial interests; the effects of globalisation on the cityscape. In fact, many of the most active defenders of late modernist buildings are as interested in investment patterns, and the ‘cosy’ relations of architects and developers with politicians, as they are with matters of modernist style and design. And they often use social media to put a spotlight on these relationships which have been formed behind closed doors.

In early 2014 for instance, the Hotel Praha in the Dejvice district of Prague was demolished after a loud and vigorous campaign to save the building from the bulldozer. Crowley BETON 5Commissioned in 1971, and opened a decade later, this hotel was a powerful sign of the privilege that the communist elite reserved for itself. With bespoke interiors and fittings, some created by celebrated Czech decorative artists, like glass artist Stanislav Libensky, supporters of the hotel claimed that the artistic merit of this late communist Gesamtkunstwerk outbalanced its dubious past. The story of the hotel’s privatization in the 1990s is indicative of the operations of capital in the Czech Republic after communist rule. Becoming property of Prague City Council in 1992, the hotel’s swimming pool and grounds were welcome additions to the public spaces of the city. However, in 2002, the hotel was sold to Falcon Capital, an investment company established by Georgian and Armenian businessmen in 1996, with murky connections to Russia that have perplexed journalists and commentators.[2] Then, in spring 2013, a Cyprus-based investment company Maraflex bought the hotel, before quickly selling it on to Petr Kellner, the richest individual in the Czech Republic. He then announced plans to demolish the hotel to build a private housing and a school. At the same time, appeals to list this late Socialist building were turned down, on the basis that the building – completed in 1981 – was too recent to warrant protection.[3]

Whilst the cycle of investment and divestment of former state property is not unusual in Eastern Central Europe, the response to Kellner’s acquisition is. In June 2013 protests were mounted outside the hotel and Kellner’s home and a banner with the words ‘Vekslak Bourá Prahu’ (Racketeer Destroys Prague) was draped over the entrance by anti-capitalist activists. Similar banners appeared outside the headquarters of Kellner’s office in July too. Derived from the German word ‘wechsel’ (english: ‘exchange’ or ‘switch’), ‘vekslak’ (racketeer) is often used to label those who have benefited from the precipitous privatization programmes after 1989, often – though not exclusively – members of the former elite. The term points not to the productivity of capitalism but its interest in accumulation and asset-stripping. These – ultimately unsuccessful – campaigns had the paradoxical effect of turning anti-capitalist protesters into the defenders of a luxury hotel. One activist, Dominik Forman, wrote:

Events which promote the preservation of Hotel Praha are important – not only because they are attempts to save a unique building, but mainly because the anger of the people is finally pointed in the right direction. The target of this anger is the richest oligarch, a financial speculator, who wants to demolish the hotel. He represents exactly the class of people responsible for the financial crisis … which falls on the shoulders of the poorest and weakest.[4]

The activists outside Kellner’s offices were met by counter-protests in his defence: figures wearing masks of Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro and Gustáv Husák carried banners with slogans parodying party-speak: ‘Soudruzi, toť naše snaha, ubráníme hotel Praha! (‘Comrades, with our efforts, we’ll defend the Hotel Praha!’) announced one. Crowley BETON 6And mirroring the use of social media by defenders of socmodernist architecture, a Facebook ‘community page’ was set up under the name ‘Zbourejte komunistický hotel Praha’ (Tear down the Communist Praha Hotel). It introduced itself with these words:

 

This (Facebook) page supports the demolition of inefficient, megalomaniac communist buildings such as the Hotel Prague in Dejvice. This building, nicknamed Hotel Bolshevik, ranks among the examples of socialist architecture fashioned from iron and concrete, and, in its megalomania, is so inefficient that it is currently unable to operate. This page was created in response to the actions of communists who want to create an outdoor museum of communism in the country.[5]

While the origins of this organization is not clear, its purpose was. It set out to seal the relationship of the building to a detested regime: to render the building as the past was to deprive it of any kind of future.

Demolition does not necessarily mean oblivion. Some buildings which disappeared in Central Eastern Europe more than a decade ago continue to be vividly remembered today. In Poland, ‘Supersam’ has enjoyed an impressive afterlife in the form of artworks, articles in the press and online discussions, and even ‘retro-style’ ceramic models. The shop continues to trade in an out-of-town industrial shed bearing the logo of the communist era business. Relics from the building – like its neon signage – are on display in museums. Presented as a salutary warning for the future, ‘Supersam’ is invoked in the press every time, it seems, a communist era building is slated for demolition. Much of this might be put down as a kind of late ‘ostalgie’, particularly when the building is rematerialized in the form of a knowingly kitsch ceramic ‘souvenir’. But as one writer put it in a 2016 article in Gazeta Wyborcza, ”The wrecking of Supersam caused such a stir in Warsaw that we started to look more closely at socmodernism, seeking its protection.”[6] It is clear that the brutalist and late modernist structures have become the focus of genuine feeling, often on the part of those who were too young to have had a direct or personal connection to those spaces. Emotion is a diffuse, instinctive and often highly individuated response to circumstance: nevertheless, it is capable of having material effects in the world. After all, anti-communist feeling is precisely what the enemies of the Hotel Praha sought to tap.

Artists have done more to channel emotion, more than perhaps any champions of late socialist modernism. For instance, artists Cecylia Malik, Mateusz Okoński and Marta Sala organized a rolling demonstration through the streets of Kraków to the door of the Cracovia hotel in March 2014. Crowley BETON 7Around 300 people dressed in gold masks and clothes – some carrying banners or playing instruments, others transporting a golden calf in a shopping trolley – took part in a rally that the artists called ‘Chciwość Miasta’(Greedy City). Approaching protest in an emphatically ludic and spectacular manner, Malik and her friends  were effective at attracting the media and of course public attention too. But this was more than a photo-op. Focusing interest on the Cracovia’s striking and high quality decorative scheme, including an exuberant 37m2 mosaic of global landmarks from the 1960s that had been plastered over at some time in the early 1990s, Malik and Okoński were engaged in a project of architectural re-enchantment.

In the Czech Republic, one of the most distinct voices attacking the interests of commercial developers, as well as the architects and politicians with whom they form alliances, is the Arch Wars’ Facebook page. Much of the content takes the form of photographs with acerbic captions pointing out the absurdities of unchecked privatization on one hand, and the results of literal application of building regulations, particularly in small towns. Much of the content is submitted by Arch Wars’ 30,000 FB friends. The page also features witty animations fronted by an anonymous comic character, ‘Arch Vader’, dressed in black with a pirate’s tricorn.[7]  Crowley BETON 8Arch Vader’s animated messages owe more to the language of console games and super-hero movies than the architectural press. Commenting on the plans demolish and remake the modernist railway station in Havirov, a factory town near Cieszyn that is an example of what the Czechs call Brussels Style (after the Expo in 1958), Arch Vader accuses the local authorities and Czech Railways of leaving the building to decay in order to make the case for a new building, a cheap box under a tented roof. To be paid for with EU funds, this is an example of what Arch Vader calls the new ‘Brussels Style’ of the twenty-first century. Darkly sardonic and, for that reason, highly entertaining, these short films are reposted, acquiring large audiences as they travel through social media.

Whether expressed as a carnivalesque project of re-enchantment or as sardonic publicity, this creative energy needs to be judged by its effects. What does all this effort to attract public attention achieve? The attention given to images – gold calves, Arch Vader, etc. – is itself perhaps the problem. This activism is predicated on the idea that images can change attitudes and that developers, local authorities, and architects can be held to account in the ‘court of public opinion’. It is hardly surprising then that campaigning images are met with images in response: viewed in these terms, the ghostly lines of the old Cracovia Hotel traced on the DDJM Nowa Cracowia scheme or the kielichy inside the Galeria Katowicka are gestures to sentiment which leave the developers’ plans unchanged.

It would be wrong to suggest that these actions have no effects. It seems to me that these campaigns often fail in their own terms (i.e. relatively few buildings have been ‘saved’) but they have had a slower influence on the attitudes of architects, and city authorities. This is perhaps evident in the programme to improve the chain of railway stations which punctuate the East-West lines running through the centre of Warsaw (Warszawa Ochota; Warszawa Śródmieście, Warszawa Powiśle, Warszawa Stadion and Warszawa Wschodnia). Crowley BETON 9Small pavilions with ambitious and expressive structures, the stations were designed by Arseniusz Romanowicz and Piotr Szymaniak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the very height of the post-war wave of modernism. With ‘op art’ decorative schemes and sculptural rooflines, they were signs of a new optimism not just for new architectural forms but even for the renewal of socialism. By the 1990s, they were in a sorry state, with the concrete suppurating and the bright glazing obscured by advertising and shabby kiosks. Dark and decaying, these stations were invariably described as rotting structures: some were even subject of gruesome urban myths. One was even believed to house an underground illegal meat processing plant, with the animal fat leaking into the city’s sewers. However, the pressing need to ensure functioning communications in the city during the Euro 2012 football championships, and the state of the global economic downturn meant that repair was the only option. Sometimes the architects charged with the task  came to realize that what was required was not architectural additions but removal, at least of the elements which obscured the original design. Michał Błaszczyk of PPMB was responsible for restoring ‘Stadion’, a double-height rectilinear box clad in rough stonework and a bold spherical entrance. He recalls: ”My first idea was to generate a new quality. But when together with Krzysztof Charewicz from the Warsaw Municipal Monument Preservation Office we started delving into the station’s documentation, looking at archival photos, it turned out that in the past it had looked different. It was then that the idea emerged to restore it and unveil its original appeal.’[8] Similarly, Henryk Łaguna (MAAS Projekt), the practice responsible for Upper Powiśle Pavilion, said: “Iin the 1960s and 1970s a tremendous amount of interesting interiors and buildings were carried out in Warsaw, which should be preserved and cleaned, since years of dereliction turn them into ruins. And then everybody goes: “How ugly! Tear it down immediately.”[9] The ruination of these buildings, according to Łaguna, was not a product of socialism but of the indifference of the 1980s and the forms of raw and uncontrolled capitalism that Warsaw experienced in the 1990s.[10] In their own way, these architects were also engaged in a project of re-enchantment.

Among the various socialist-era buildings slated for demolition, the Cracovia hotel is perhaps the most likely structure to benefit from the slow turn in opinion that has occurred in the last decade. An extension to the listing of the building on the heritage register in November 2016 protected the front elevation, the building’s entrance and the foyer of the cinema which forms part of the original ensemble: any future designs for the site are now obliged to preserve these elements. Coming after months of public discussion about the future of the building and the protests described above, perhaps listing encouraged the building’s current owner, Echo Investment, to sell the building. And, in a tidy two-step, the hotel’s neighbour, the National Museum, secured the funds from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage a month later to make an offer. Proposing to turn the building into a new gallery of architecture and design, as well as Museum stores and offices, the scheme has been presented as a new public space in the city – forming a ‘square’ between the Museum and the former hotel. Parts of the hotel which were closed off years ago, like the courtyard, will become a sculpture garden.

This turn of events in Kraków might be claimed as a triumph, even as an illustration of the power of popular protest. Yet the response of those who have campaigned on behalf of the building has been rather muted, even suspicious. The explanation for this lies in the fact that the project has been backed by the right-wing conservative nationalist government which has mounted a wholesale assault on liberal culture since taking power in October 2015. The proposal – first floated by the vice-director of the Museum, Andrzej Szczerski, twelve months earlier, and widely debated in the city’s media – was, it seems, another negotiation behind closed doors. With the building being bought with state funds, the Cracovia will be renationalised by a right wing government. This result is as paradoxical as anti-capitalist activists campaigning to save a luxury hotel.

 

 

[1] When Supersam closed, material summarising a report by Warsaw Polytechnic engineers appeared in its windows, including photographs of the poor state of the structure. Making the case for demolition, these signs announced that the ‘technical state of the building … threatens us with a building catastrophe on the scale of Katowice.’

[2] See for instance, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s ‘Corruption Watch: September 4, 2003’ (4 September 2003) http://www.rferl.org/a/1342381.html – accessed February 2017.

[3] See Kateřina Samojská, Bourá se (hotel) Praha’ in Za Starou Praha, XLIII, no. 1 (2013), pp. 19-25

[4]Dominik Forman, ‘Mají argumenty pro bourání hotelu Praha smysl?’ (2013) – http://solidarita.socsol.cz/2013/nezarazene/maji-argumenty-pro-bourani-hotelu-praha-smysl – accessed November 2016

[5] https://en-gb.facebook.com/zbourejtekomunistickyhotelpraha/ – accessed November 2016

[6]Dariusz Bartoszewicz, ‘Supersam. 54 lata temu otwarto pierwszy samoobsługowy sklep’ in Gazeta Wyborcza (6 June 2016) – http://warszawa.wyborcza.pl/warszawa/1,34862,20192183,supersam-54-lata-temu-otwarto-pierwszy-samoobslugowy-sklep.html – accessed November 2016

[7] See https://www.facebook.com/arch.vader

[8]Błaszczyk interviewed in Grzegorz Piątek, ed., AR/PS (Warsaw, 2012), 264.

[9]Łaguna interviewed in Grzegorz Piątek, ed., AR/PS (Warsaw, 2012), 257

[10] On this, see my book Warsaw (London, 2003) and Olga Drenda’s excellent Duchologia polska. Rzeczy I ludzie w latach transformacji (Kraków, 2016).

 

 

Advertisements

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: