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

Architecture, Cold War, Modernism, Uncategorized

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) – 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) – – accessed November 2016

[5] – accessed November 2016

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

[7] See

[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).



The Peasant in the City

Architecture, Cold War, Design Exhibition, Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized

This piece was written for a Zacheta show, Polska – kraj folkloru? You can download the catalogue in English here. It includes excellent essays by Gabriela Świtek, Błażej Brzostek and the curator, Joanna Kordjak.

A Socialist capital – a city for every citizen … the worker, the peasant and the working intelligentsia’ – political slogan Poland, early 1950s

zrzut-ekranu-2013-01-8-o-14-00-12In the 1952 romantic comedy ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’ (Adventure in Mariensztat), Hanka, a country-girl, arrives in Warsaw as a tourist. A socialist realist fairytale, ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’ was the first full colour feature film in Poland and the director Leonard Buczkowki made full use of the bright fabrics of her festive dress, and the even brighter red horizons of the city. Her route though the capital’s streets, conducted at an exhausting ‘Warszawskie tempo’ (Warsaw tempo) by an animated guide motivated by the spirit of socialism, takes her from Mariensztat, a new housing district, past romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz on his plinth and Stanisław August’s picturesque palace which seems to float on the surface of the lake in Łazienki Park. Her tour ends abruptly when she seems to be lost in Constitution Square, the monumental showpiece of new socialist realist architecture in the city. Unperturbed, the joy of finding herself in the radiant future of socialist Warsaw is written in her smile. She is a peasant who is on the way to becoming a socialist activist. She joins a work brigade, becoming a bricklayer. The agent of her transformation was not a lecture or a political tract but the city itself. Warsaw had done its ideological work in this fable. Not only were the workers making the city; the city was making workers of peasants. Access to education, to homes of the kind being built in Constitution Square and to houses of culture would, it was claimed, overcome what Marx and Engels had classed the ‘idiocy of rural life’ in The Communist Manifesto one-hundred years earlier.

Social transformation was declared to be a priority of the new political order in the People’s Republic of Poland. Vice-Minister of Culture Włodzimierz Sokorski announced:


there is progress, a constant grappling with the new life conditions, a process of transforming peasants into proletarians. And take a look at the newly accepted university students who come from the working classes of cities or villages. Look how they have to struggle, how they are initially oppressed with the dominance of the pseudo-elites that they meet at the start of their student life. How they don’t give up, nonetheless, how they push themselves up to the surface and hold on tight to the positions achieved. They will be our leading and militant intelligentsia.[1]


Yet state attitudes to peasant life were contradictory. At the same time as calling for peasants to be made into proletarians, Sokorski also claimed that peasant culture was the beating heart of national life: ‘Folk art’, had he claimed, ‘formed itself in opposition to aristocratic, courtly culture. And at the same time its roots can be traced to a form of society founded on the drudgery of the masses, the feudal peasantry. When aristocratic culture severed itself from its national origins by becoming a source of docile cosmopolitanism and fossil-like formalism, peasant art nourished itself from a perpetually creative, richly national and deeply class-marked social stream.’[2] Peasant culture was ‘a living movement which renews itself everyday and every hour in the creative march of the Polish countryside to Socialism’.[3] This claim was allegorised in countless representations of the peasant in the company of her fellow builders of socialism. zulawskaHad Hanka looked up during her visit to Constitution Square in Buczkowski’s ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’, for instance, she might have even caught a glimpse of herself. The monumental arcades which flank the square were decorated with mosaics created by ceramic artist Hanna Żuławska to represent the seasons. Spring features a brightly dressed peasant woman marching arm-in-arm with a miner from Silesia, a factory worker and a ZMP-owiec (member of the socialist youth organisation) carrying a red flag. Here was an illustration of the national unity so loudly proclaimed by the state at the time. Countless other representations – posters, magazines, and in newsreels – recreated this happy scene. Almost invariably embodied as a woman in these images, the Polish peasantry was identified with femininity and the proletarian worker with masculinity. The peasant was both romanticised and emasculated in such representations (just as the political parties which represented peasant interests had been in the late 1940s).

The paradoxes of official representations of the peasantry was evident to many, even if censorship meant they could not be admitted. Writing abroad Czesław Miłosz in his critical account of the Stalin years, The Captive Mind, accused the state of making a fetish of peasant culture at the time when it was attempting (and failing) to impose collective farms in the countryside, attacking so called ‘kulaks’ (wealthy peasants) and encouraging internal migration to new urban projects like the construction of the city and kombinat of Nowa Huta:


In the villages, where the entire former pattern of custom is to be abolished through the transformation of peasants into agricultural workers, there still remains survivals of the individual peasant cultures which slowly stratified over the centuries. Still, let us speak frankly, the main support of this culture were usually the wealthier peasants. The battle against them, and their subsequent need to hide, must lead to the atrophy of peasant dress, decoration of huts, cultivation of private gardens, etc. There is a definite contradiction between the official protection of folklore (as a harmless form of national culture designed to satisfy patriotic tendencies) and the necessities of the new economic structure.[4]


For those who could not make a permanent move to Warsaw or Nowa Huta, tourism offered an alternative. Day trips and tours to Warsaw were organised for Poles from across the country to witness the miracle of reconstruction. To serve these national pilgrims, plans were put in place for new hotel and cultural centre in the heart of the city, Dom Chłopa (House of the Peasant). architektra002-kopia-kopia-2First conceived in 1946 (though plans for similar structures can be traced back to the First World War [5]), Dom Chłopa was conceived as a place not only of rest but of improvement. The building was to contain not only bedrooms and a restaurant for 500 guests, but also a library, a świetlica (political education room) and a cinema/theatre as well as a medical centre, a photographer’s studio and a hairdressers. Long delayed, the competition to design the building on a plot on Plac Powstanców Warszawy was not announced until May 1957. The winning scheme was designed by the most successful architect of the Stalin years, Bohdan Pniewski, and Małgorzata Handzelewicz-Wacławek. Organised around a quadrangle, their scheme provided accommodation under a rippling roof line (that earned it the nickname ‘the house of the camels’) and a glass-walled lobby from which all Dom Chłopa’s services could be accessed. Constructed after the so called ‘Thaw’, the architects could now take advantage of the ‘contemporary style’.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-17-36-34The open lobby was decorated with brightly coloured furnishings and largely abstract decorative schemes by artists Władysław Zych, and husband and wife team of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz. Attempting to produce a thoroughly modern interior, Hanna Rechowicz admits to making some compromises: ‘There were strange birds and other pretty funny unknown animals and plants … Because it is a hotel in which peasants stay, they asked for some that could be read as fragments of reality’.[6] Nevertheless, the Dom Chlopa’s presented its guests with a vision of the bright future in social, political and aesthetic terms.

Dom Chłopa was an exceptional institution but perhaps one that had been prefigured in the writing of the Stefan Żeromski. In his last novel, Przedwiośne (The Coming Spring, 1924), the writer tells the story of a father and son returning home from Baku after the First World War and the revolutionary events in Russia and elsewhere. It is a political bildungsroman. One of the magnetic images which pulls them home to Poland is the father’s descriptions of a liberated country enjoying the benefits of modern technology. Peasant homes are now, he tells his son, made with glass walls – bright, transparent, warm and above all hygienic: ‘water cools the walls; as a result, even in the greatest swelter it’s as cool there as in our cellar in Baku, but without the damp and the bad smell. The very same water constantly washes the glass floors, walls, and ceilings, bringing cool and cleanliness. (…) there is nothing that could rot or go moldy or smell from visible or invisible dirt, since all the utensils, all the furniture and fittings – everything is made of glass.’[7] Żeromski’s vision was fashioned not only from one of the clichés of progress – glass architecture, but also from one of the deep rooted prejudices of modern life – the dirtiness of the peasant. Similarly, the Dom Chłopa had been shaped by the conviction that the peasant needed to be improved to truly engage with the city. When not decorating the city in her gala dress, she appears to have been viewed as detritus (lit. matter out of place). Varsovian Anna Mańkowska passed her opinion of country tourists when interviewed in an article in Stolica (Capital City) in 1958: ‘I see countless tours through the windows of my apartment in the Old Market Square in Warsaw. Unwashed and rumpled and carrying their cases and bundles all day and foraging for orangeade at a kiosk, I wish for the simple device of day hotels, conceived for ordinary people.’[8]

This trope of dirtiness was evident in other campaigns to improve peasant life. Writing in Stolica Stanislaw Komornicki accused new-comers of reproducing the social spaces of the rural home in their new city apartments. The small, often meanly proportioned, kitchen was, he observed, sometimes used like the traditional czarna izba (black chamber) in the peasant home, a multi-functional room organized around the fireplace where household labour was conducted and meals consumed. In transposition, this ‘disposition’ in the new Warsaw apartment left the much-trumpeted collective services like the communal laundry unused. The other, biała izba (white chamber) – which had been used as a site of display and for the reception of guests – was preserved as a space of display rather than self-education or other virtuous hobbies. The small, new flat, which typically accommodated a family in two or three multi-purpose rooms, was designed according to principles of utility. In effect, the design of the apartment was disregarded by its inhabitants. In the view of this apologist for the new Warsaw, this trace of the peasant disposition in new socialist spaces ‘was an unfortunate memory of long-past, unhappy times’.[9] What Komornicki had in mind was not the ‘private’ time of biography but the epochal conception of Marxism in which life was regulated by the metre of progress: in this teleology, peasant life was destined for extinction. Ideologically correct, his article sought to raise a consciousness that would speed its disappearance.

Komornicki’s criticism tapped into deep-seated town/country antipathies in Polish culture. It also anticipated a good number of sociological and anthropological studies made in the decades that followed which sought to understand why newcomers to the city did not avail themselves of the cultural resources to which they now had access, or seem to have been improved by their new surroundings. negatywyAssessing the situation in Nowa Huta in the 1960s, one academic wrote ‘Where the new blocks were inhabited by the families of rural origins, there were frequent problems due to incompetent use of a contemporary flat by the immigrants. It was often the case that the fittings in a flat were devastated (such as water supply and drainage, or gas heaters in bathrooms) due to incorrect use of the equipment (such as drawing water from the radiator), or using bathroom as a place to keep animals’.[10] Internalising the ‘progressive’ policies of the state, much of this sociology eschewed observation in favour of judgment (‘incompetent use’).

Other portraits of the persistence of rural habitus in the city were more sympathetic. They include the social documentaries produced in the second half of the mid 1950s. During the Thaw, film-makers freed themselves from the task of producing propaganda and began to explore the impoverished conditions of everyday life. Known as the Czarna Seria (Black Series), their short films – sometimes involving actors and re-enactments but mostly assuming an observational style – took their viewers to the building sites and workers’ dormitories of Nowa Huta to witness the hooliganism and alcoholism there (‘Miejsce zamieszkania’, dir. Maksymilian Wrocławski, 1957), and the depopulated towns and villages in the Polish countryside (‘Miasteczko’, dir. Krystyna Gryczełowska, 1956). Another significant theme was the on-going housing crisis in Poland where many still lived in ruins ten years after the Second World War had ended. Made in the second wave of these social portraits, ‘Miasto na wyspach’ (‘City of Islands’, dir. Jerzy Dmowski and Bohdan Kosiński, 1958), a 8-minute film made for Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych, features one of the new clichés of the era, the image of the city as the countryside. New buildings were being constructed in Warsaw in small clusters with vast dusty plains in between. The clearance of the ruins had allowed nature and even small-holdings to occupy the city. Sometimes in Dmowski and Kosiński’s film, this lends itself to picturesque contrasts: a tram crosses a grassy meadow and a tethered cow appears with building site in the background. Other shots are more desperate, showing dilapidated shacks and their inhabitants scratching a meagre living by recycling the debris of the pre-war city. (And Dmowski and Kosiński intercut stills from the crowded streets of the pre-war city, decorated with advertising, to emphasise the contrast between urbanity and rurality). Despite the rhetoric of turning peasants into proletarians, it looked as if the village had come to occupy the city. This was not the romantic image of the village populated with happy peasants but a landscape of desperation. These scenes might also have come from the pages of Żeromski’s The Coming Spring. When the son arrives in Poland – still carrying his now late father’s images of peasant modernity in his mind – his disappointment is palpable: ‘Cezary gazed with cheerless eyes at the miry streets pocked with bottomless potholes; at the houses of all different, heights and colours and degrees outward filthiness; at the pigsties and the puddles, the outbuildings and the charred ruins.’[11]

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-17-33-22Dmowski and Kosiński were making a point, demanding that the post-stalinist state to make good on its promises of improved housing and welfare for all. This argument was taken further in Architektura, the mouthpiece of the professional association of architects in Poland. In 1963 Jan Minorski published an article entitled which interpreted data about life on the fringes of the city generated by Ekonom. Techn. Rady Naukowej przy PRN. Entitled ‘Architektura samorzutna’ (Spontaneous Architecture), it explored the ways in which improvised homes were made from cheap and often scavenged materials on narrow plots of land overlooked by the planners. Minorski’s portrait of such unsupported and largely illegal attempts to ‘meet the needs of human life’ was surprisingly sympathetic.[12] He had been a loyal champion of socialist realism and then, after 1956, of the modernist revival in Polish architecture. Often represented as antinomies, both shared a confident belief in the civilising mission of architecture. Yet, in this article, he expressed a genuine interest in what Bernard Rudolfsky called ‘architecture without architects’.[13] Minorski provided detailed maps of social relations in these households; sympathetic photographic portraits of the inhabitants of these shacks; and positive descriptions of the the resourcefulness and creativity involved in making their homes and running small business in the suburbs. Perhaps to offset the doubts of his readers, he asserted:

‘This architecture is:

  • spontaneous, the result of lively activities,
  • concrete, arising without a blueprint, variable, ‘tachiste’, according to one’s wishes’

Some of these homes and workshops were the product of urban expansion, sweeping former villages into the orbit of the city. Others were the product of tragedy: Minorski, outlining the lives of these householders, points to the dark catalogue of war and destruction that had necessitated this kind of domestic creativity. Moreover, it is clear – from the descriptions of their households – that they are predominately populated with women (or as Minorski puts it, ‘the grandmother reigns over the hierarchy here’[14]). The gendering of the peasant is, in this case, less a matter of ideology than of tragic fate. But his point is that these homes might also contain lessons for architects and urban planners too: they ‘are subject to constant change. Their spatial development is dynamic.’ ‘In spontaneous construction,’ he continues, ‘you can see that what is good comes from heroic efforts to provide a roof over one’s head. What is evil has its roots in the lack of financial, technical, legal, organisational support by the state.’[15] Perhaps little more than a footnote in the history of Polish architecture and urbanism, Minorski’s article did more than any other representation in the period to fill in the details of the figure of the peasant in the city, albeit on its very fringes. Her appearance here was not a fantasy in gala dress or a crumpled figure in need of improvement but was an attempt to understand her concrete existence.






[1] Włodzimierz Sokorski, ‘O sztukę realizmu socjalistycznego’ in Sztuka w walce o socjalizm (PIW: Warsaw, 1950) 150.

[2] Włodzimierz Sokorski, ‘O własciwy stosunek do sztuki ludowej’ in Polska Sztuka Ludowa (May 1949) 131.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1985) 67.

[5] Bohdan Rostropowicz, ‘Chłopi będą mieli swoj dom w Warszawie’ in Stolica (?) 15.

[6] Hanna Rechowicz cited by Max Cegielski, Mozaika śladami Rechowiczów (Warsaw: W.A.B., 2011), 164-5.

[7] Stefan Żeromski, The Coming Spring, trans. B. Johnston (Budapest: Central European Press, 2007) 85-88.

[8] Cited in Stolica 45, (1958)

[9] St. Komornicki, ‘Jak urządzić nowe mieszkanie’ in Stolica (1 March 1953) 11.

[10] S. Panek, E. Piasecki, ‘Nowa Huta. Integracja ludności w świetle badań antropologicznych’ in Materiały i prace antropologiczne, 80 (1971) 30 – cited by Ewelina Szpak, ‘’Between Farm and Factory. Peasants in Urban Space in Communist Poland’ in Lud’a Klusáková and Laure Teulières, Frontiers and Identities: Cities in Regions and Nations (Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2008) 248.

[11] Żeromski, Coming Spring, 126.

[12] Jan Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’ in Architektura, 4 (1963) 133.

[13] This was a title of an exhibition curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1964-5 which surveyed the diverse faces of vernacular building traditions around the world.

[14] Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’, 118.

[15] Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’ 115.

Modernism Redux

Architecture, Eastern Europe

In October 1993, Charles Jencks, the leading advocate of architectural postmodernism, was guest of honour at an international conference and exhibition on ‘Post-Modernism and National Cultures’ which was held at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This event coincided with the Yeltsin coup, which culminated on October 3-4 with the fighting at the Ostankino TV Center, followed by the military assault on the Supreme Soviet building and its destruction by tank artillery. This was the final attempt by hard-liners to hold onto Soviet power. And, of course, it failed.

Jencks seized the moment. He issued a pronouncement entitled ‘Moscow, October 4 1993–10:10 AM Modernity Is Dead’ (an update of his famous declaration of the death of modern architecture at Pruitt-Igoe, a large housing project in St. Louis, Missouri).[1] Jencks wrote ‘reactionary modernists all over Russia know the game is up’ and that the ‘post-modern paradigm progresses cheerfully, death by death, marking thereof the more notable funerals with architectural ruins’.


Soviet Russia suffered Modernism and the modern paradigm more than any other country. With the exception of China, its forms of the brutal materialism were more systematic than elsewhere and its imposition of reductive rationalism and mechanism mind-set more thorough going. The utopian housing estates built as vertical concentration camps in heavyweight concrete were more ubiquitous, the secret police and mind control more pervasive.[2]


Now that the Soviet project – the paradigm of modernism – was fatally wounded, radical postmodernism – ‘ironic, dually-coded and resistant to reigning power’ – could enter the stage of history.[3]

In the event, rather than articulating resistance to power, as Jencks prophesied, architectural postmodernism in Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev’s Russia has largely served the cynicism and greed of the post-Soviet elites. Nevertheless, the idea that postmodernism not only coincided with the end of communist rule but that the two were somehow codependent was an attractive one and, in the early 1990s, this connection was often made. Jencks’ vision of postmodernism as being ‘resistant to reigning power’ seemed to be in accord with the image of revolution as a kind of playful overthrow of power – an image which was perhaps most closely associated with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia rather than in the bloody street-fighting in Romania in the winter of 1989 or the long drawn-out negotiations between the opposition and the authorities in Poland which had taken place over a number of years.

Dancing House photographed by Francisco Antunes (Flickr CC licence)

Dancing House photographed by Francisco Antunes (Flickr CC licence)

Prague’s Tančící dům (the Dancing House) was often proclaimed – in the architectural press in the West – as the first postcommunist landmark in Central Europe. A fashionably anthropomorphic pair of buildings clasped together, it was designed in 1992 by Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry with an interior by émigré Czech architect, Eva Jiřičná.[4] Widely reported around the world, it was seized as a symbol of the shift to the West, the creativity and the optimistic mood of Czech culture after the Velvet Revolution. It was even claimed by a writer in the New York Times as an index of democracy in the country.[5] In Jencks’ terms, the Dancing House might well be ‘dually-coded’ but it is hardly ‘resistant to power’. Funded by a Dutch investment bank and providing up-market apartments and a French restaurant, it seemed to illustrate the dramatic arrival of postmodernism and postcommunism in Central Eastern Europe. Here was a vivid example of what Fredric Jameson in 1991 called ‘the logic of late capitalism’.[6] Viewed in these terms, much of the rhetoric which accompanied the appearance of architectural postmodernism in Eastern Europe after 1989 was a kind of victor’s triumphalism.

Whilst postmodern design was widely understood as kind of arrival from the West after the Berlin Wall was breached, the ‘local’ appeal of postmodernism in East and Central Europe should not, however, be downplayed. There had been a sincere engagement with what can be called postmodernist aesthetics throughout the Bloc in the 1980s. This took various forms (even if the title postmodernism was not widely assumed) including paper architecture schemes in the Soviet Union which visualized impossible buildings, often offering powerful meditations on the historic and largely undervalued architectural forms of pre-revolutionary Russia.[7] 4368467286_a9c3707778_oIn their retrospection and nostalgia, the etchings of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, for instance, offered a critique of the fetish made of the new in Soviet architecture. Their ‘Columbarium Architecturae (Museum of Disappearing Buildings)’ of 1984 depicts a memorial structure in which old buildings threatened with destruction are preserved like the ashes of the dead. Yet these buildings have not quite expired. They demand the careful attention of the viewer, whether the occupant of the building or the passerby. If a building is forgotten or overlooked, the massive ball in the centre of the structure swings into action to destroy it. This fantastic scheme, and others by the duo, is explicitly critical of the processes of modernisation which had swept old buildings from Soviet streets in the name of progress.

In Poland, the Roman Catholic church – a relatively wealthy and autonomous organization – commissioned architects to design new churches. Often these structures were given highly symbolic forms like arks, monumental crosses and unfinished ruins to deliver unmistakable messages about the failures of community and distortion of history under communist rule.[8] In Hungary, Imre Makovecz and a number of kindred spirits – architects as well as writers, academics – often working in the south of Hungary in Pécs, developed an archi­tectural philosophy and aesthetic in the 1970s which valued traditional materials and craftsmanship as well as highly expressive and symbolic forms which has come to be known as ‘Organic Architecture’. They established international reputations as instinctive ‘post-modernists’ behind the Iron Curtain who worked in opposition to orthodox state design. Makovecz’s colleague György Csete was, for example, singled out by Jencks in later editions of his 1977 book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture.[9]

Czechoslovakia was relatively unfertile ground for the kinds of postmodern expressivity found in Poland and Hungary prior to 1989. sramkova-2-48074c83e7a5aArchitectural critics have found ‘hints’ of postmodernism in the glass clock-tower on Alena Šrámková’s ČKD building in Wenceslas Square in Prague (1974-83), for instance. But this is one of a small number of structures which have been awarded the label. By a curious twist of fate, Jencks’ The Language of Postmodern Architecture was, in fact, published in Czech in 1979 (as Jazyk postmoderní architektury), seven years before the first Soviet edition and nine years before the first Polish version. It was also reviewed in the specialist press.[10] Significantly, however, the Czech book was a samizdat publication (an illegal, unlicensed version initiated by Jiří Ševčík and others) in an edition of only 35 copies, whilst the Russian edition was issued by Storiizdat, the State Construction House, and the Polish book was widely and cheaply available in official bookstores.

In fact, Poland in the early 1980s was home to relatively open discussions of the failings of modern architecture and design, often focusing on the anomie and alienation produced by the mass housing schemes which had been erected in the 1960s and 1970s. Architects set themselves the task of ‘humanising’ the standard and industrial schemes which filled the environment. Occasionally, these criticisms were even directed at the state: during the rise of the Solidarity trade union in Poland in 1980, for instance, the All-Poland Council of Architects issued a statement which announced:


The disastrous state of housing in Poland is the result of the crisis the whole of society and the economy. Architecture is just a reflection of the collapse of human dignity that accompanies this crisis. … In the existing system, there is no central place for contact between an architect and inhabitant and, consequently, for social impact on the shape of our homes and cities. This economic model cannot solve the pressing problems of house building. We demand the creation of new economic mechanisms, and especially a market for local initiatives, restore law and the responsibilities of the householder, the architect and the contractor under the rule of law and their competence …[11]


This was an extraordinarily bold call: one which could not have been made elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, particularly in Husák’s Czechoslovakia. Such was the central control over architecture and design that attempts to organize unofficial practices were met with a censorious response. The 1983 exhibition ‘Prostor, architektura, výtvarné umĕní’ (Space, Architecture and Fine Art) exhibition organized by Jiří T. Kotalík in Ostrava was closed down and copies of the catalogue pulped. The exhibitors’ interests (some of whom were concerned with existing dilapidated structures in the environment) were less threatening to the state than the independence of action and thought which the exhibition demonstrated. Circumspect announcements about the ‘crisis of modernism’ emerged in the late 1980s in the writings of critic and curator Milena Lamarová and the unofficial ‘Urbanita’ exhibitions in Prague’s Fragner Gallery.[12]

But perhaps the most forceful critique of Czechoslovak architectural design came earlier in the form of a movie, Věra Chytilová’s Panelstory (Prefab Story, 1979) a social satire presenting the chaotic lives of the inhabitants of a characteristically dull and unfinished panel-built housing estate. Shot using a hand held camera on a real housing estate, the film shares much with the ‘fly on the wall’ documentary form: this is unmistakably a real place and so are the experiences of the occupants. They testify to the failure of the estate’s design in their actions: when the water supply falters, for instance, a kettle has to be filled from the toilet cistern. And when a complaint is made by a tenant about the ‘horrible’ finish and ill-shaped spaces of her high-rise apartment, the official response, ‘It was designed that way’, comes with a shrug of the shoulders. Somehow Panelstory managed to get past the censors, though the film was very rarely screened.

Reviewing the state of Czech socmodernism a couple of years after the Velvet Revolution, curator Lamarová stressed what she saw as the impoverished state of both the design profession and its continued attachment to modernism: ‘While the [rest of the] world has experienced a strong wave of postmodernism since the early 1970s – first in architecture and thereafter in design and fashion – Czech design is still trying to conform to modernism in its drooping, postwar socialist form. A complex – formed by anxiety about copying foreign design from the West, and the general conservatism of a generation of designers, not to mention the characteristic bitterness of Czech industry and the total consumerisation of the skyline – continues to encourage meaningless proclamations about “functional” form …’.[13]

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 01.00.52Perhaps this sense of isolation and the exhaustion of the official design offices accounts for the enthusiastic and rapid embrace which was given to the Jencksian version of postmodernism in Czech culture in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. In April 1990, the Applied Arts Museum in Prague presented an exhibition entitled ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ (The Paths to Postmodernism) curated by Josef Kroutvor. The exhibition – focusing on architectural design, furniture, ceramics and graphics – placed a particular emphasis on the unofficial currents which had been gathering pace in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. In his introductory essay, Kroutvor linked the programmatic character of the avant-garde (effectively a synonym for modernism) with totalitarianism – much like Jencks.[14] He also played up the underground associations of postmodernism in socialist Czechoslovakia, stressing the pioneering role of critics Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík who had published some of their essays on postmodernism as samizdat; [15] the emergence of Atika in 1987, an independent design group who eschewed the shibboleths of economy, simplicity and manufacturability for ‘irony, fairy tales, the surreal and sensations brought to us by the media’ in their designs for furniture;[16] and on the resolutely impractical , ‘post-Cubist’ chairs and tables designed by the controversial and dissident artist, Milan Knížák, in the 1970s and 1980s. In this sense, ‘The Paths to Postmodernism’ accentuated the critical bona fides of postmodernism at a time when the style was being accused elsewhere of ‘pseudohistorical nostalgia, the fabricated traditions, the pandering to a nouveau-riche clientele, the populist rhetoric that often sounds more paternalistic than democratic, the abandonment of any social vision’.[17]

Too young to have exhibited in Kroutvor’s survey, Olgoj Chorchoj formed at the height of enthusiasm for postmodernism in Czech design. Conceived during a Vitra Design Museum Workshop in 1990, its founders, designers Michal Fronĕk and Jan Nĕmeček, were then students at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. The Academy was itself undergoing its own palace coup with a high proportion of the established professors being replaced by a new generation of artists and designers – selected by open election – who brought in new ideas about aesthetics as well as the role of the designer. Fronĕk and Nĕmeček were taught by Bořek Šípek, the émigré living in the Netherlands with an international reputation for high-end designs for famous brands.[18] Fronĕk and Nĕmeček recalled ‘Bořek Šípek came to our studio after the revolution … He opened up the world, and we went with him to Holland. Suddenly we saw that design could extend beyond its perceived boundaries as trade, to be a highly prestigious thing. It was said there that a designer should be a star. We saw that it was possible to make beautiful and affordable things. And that fame … is the means to ensure freedom and secure an existence.’[19]

Sexy MF copy

Sexy MF vase (1992)


Škoda I and II tables (1997)

Both Olgoj Chorchoj’s fantastic name and the studio’s earliest designs seemed to suggest a kind animism in which ordinary objects – glassware, lamps and tables designed by the duo and made by small-scale Czech manufacturers and workshops – exhibited a kind of liveliness and exuberance. Undeniably practical, these objects downplayed utility in favour of humour and pleasure. The Sexy MF vase made in 1992 in the Rückl and Sons glassworks, for instance, invited its user to couple the two anthropomorphically-shaped parts. The ‘Mr XL Fingers’ desk, a vigorous sweep of veneered plywood from the same year, seems less like a piece of office furniture than a witty comment on power. Olgoj Chorchoj’s postmodern phase was relatively short-lived. By the mid 1990s, the duo’s designs for furniture eschewed ornament and symbolism in favour of an emphasis on the texture and visual effects of materials, as well as a restrained vocabulary of forms (though they maintain a taste for gently ironic titles). In fact, as the decade progressed, the Olgoj Chorchoj Studio established an international reputation for its skilled handling of materials, often by working closely with Czech workshops. The suggestive mass and void of the Škoda I and II tables (1997), as well precise geometries of their forms, was achieved by slicing through many layers of plywood using the cutting tables at the Škoda Factory in Pilsen. This technique produced a vivid and ‘natural’ effect of stripes through the timber blocks. To avoid wastage the tables were cut from panels in standard dimensions. Deriving their proportions and aesthetic effects from the process of making, the Škoda tables represent the kind of sophisticated modernism which has come to characterize upmarket Czech architectural and furniture design since the late 1990s (the same might be said of the group’s architectural designs in the new years of the century as well). In the light of the phenomenon’s loud dismissal of socmodernism in the first years after the Velvet Revolution, what is striking about so much Czech design in the last two decades has been what architectural critic Rostislav Švácha has described as its ‘austerity’.[20] For Švácha this is largely a matter of style rather than economy, not least because most of the neomodernist villas and minimalist furniture designs have been created for wealthy private clients or in limited editions.

Is this taste for minimalism simply a matter of the turn of the wheel of fashion after the expressive excesses of postmodernism? The answer to this question may well lie in the way in which the phenomenon of Czech modernism of the inter-war years itself has undergone a wholesale reassessment since the Velvet Revolution. And, in this history, Olgoj Chorchoj should be regarded not only as an interpreter of Czech modernism but as an agent in its revival. In 1993, Fronĕk and Nĕmeček restarted ‘Artěl’, a co-operative established in Prague in 1908 to produce modern applied art designed by artists and made in workshops by skilled craftsmen and women. More than a brand, Artěl’s founders imagined the cooperative as a community of makers (much in the manner of other design reform groups like the Wiener Werkstätte in Austria). The ceramic, glass and metal wares designed by Artěl members took a variety of forms including traditional folk arts (echoing growing Czech nationalist sentiment at the time) and the angular modernism of cubist designs. Vlastislav Hofman, for example, sought to realise a decorative Cubism by deforming traditional ceramic forms in a series of services and vases. The surfaces of these Artěl products were transformed with angled planes and trimmed edges.

Artěl thrived in the 1920s in the newly independent Czechoslovakia but was eventually forced to close in 1935 when it was no longer financially viable. Nevertheless, it formed an important chapter in a longer history of modernism in the Czech lands that also includes Družstevní práce (Cooperative Work), a publishing house with a large middle class readership founded in 1922 which opened a shop and gallery in Prague with the name Krásná jizba (Beautiful Household) five years later. Selling domestic products designed by associates of the cooperative including Ladislav Sutnar as well as other pragmatic modernists (in the early 1930s, for instance, it sold Bauhaus furniture[21]), Družstevní práce set out to demonstrate that the ways of living mapped out in Modern Movement blueprints were no longer distant avant-garde dreams: they were becoming part of middle class experience.[22] Other moments in this longer – though fragmented – narrative might also include the so called Brussels Style of the late 1950s and 1960s.[23] Pointing to the interwar roots of this festive expression of Czechoslovak modernism at the Brussels Expo in 1958, Fronĕk and Nĕmeček have said ‘It was an optimistic time here, and shaped by people who had grown up in a freer society. But certainly there was no celebrity, because the designs were not in production and were not associated with their creators. Brussels was obviously a very formal style. But design is not just about form: form is the last joyful activity, the icing on the cake, a place for emotion. But a good designer is able to prepare a place for emotion. Design is usually 80% rational, whilst 20% depends on the emotions.’[24]

Fronĕk and Nĕmeček’s decision to revive Artěl and reissue some of its distinctive products – including a clock and a bookshelf designed by Josef Gočár in 1913 as well as a 1912 table by Pavel Janák in the Czech cubist manner; and a modernist breakfast service designed by Ludvika Smrčková from 1931– was by no means an expression of nostalgia. Also issuing new contemporary designs, Artěl II was a statement of intent in the early years of the Czech Republic. Czech Cubism of the 1910s – little more than a dusty antiquarian interest on the part of scholars during the years of communist rule – was, like postmodernism, a ‘discovery’ which seemed to resonate with the postcommunist condition. Here was a local version of modern design which seemed to combine national distinction with an openness to foreign influence: it also connected the Havel’s republic with the Masaryk era, widely viewed as a kind of golden age of Czech modernity. Here too was a model of business which valued high production values and served middle class markets (both attractive features after what Lamarová called ‘the bitterness of Czech industry’ during the Husák years); and, of course, here was a business led by artists. Some even saw the living line of Czech modernism from the beginning of the twentieth century to its end as an expression of what architectural theorist Kenneth Frampton called ‘critical regionalism,’[25] an architecture of resistance against the impact of universal culture and placelessness: ‘There is every hope that this remarkable example of living culture, which was interrupted by the various prohibitions of totalitarian regimes’, wrote François Burkhardt, ‘has regained its freedom of expression and will find in its own tradition the idiom appropriate to its aspirations. Postmodernism, with its return to critical regionalism, may breathe new life into a movement which has earned the historical right to continue.’[26]

Burkhardt writing in 1992 was keen to stress the postmodernity of Czech Cubism not as a form of anti-modernism (in the manner, say, of the Organic Architects in Hungary) but as its extension: ‘To expand its horizons beyond the frontiers of modernism’, he wrote, ‘it has added the emotional dimension, which touches upon the new postmodern sensibility.’[27]

Mr Egg

Mr Egg (2001)

Olgoj Chorchoj’s designs – even when they approach the emphatic simplicity of Czech functionalism – might well be understood in exactly these terms. With their humorous and sometimes gently ironic titles (like the ‘Mr Egg’ set of drinking glasses for the Květná Glassworks, 2001), their designs often have a tender appearance (the ‘20%’ investment in emotion).

Czech postmodernism was a short-lived phenomenon, particularly when compared with the long interconnected chains of Czech modernism which have been so carefully sustained through museum exhibitions, the writings of historians and, of course, the actions of designers too. But it was perhaps a necessary phase for Olgoj Chorchoj as well as for others: it stimulated an understanding of the importance of both authorship and of emotion in design; and, above all, the value of the past, in this case the bourgeois tradition of modern design in Czechoslovakia which had been obscured by image of failure which attached to modernism in the 1970s and 1980s.



[1] Charles Jencks in Alexey Yurasovsky and Sophie Ovenden, eds., Post-SovietArt and Architecture (London, 1994) p. 11.

[2] Ibid, p. xx

[3] Ibid, p. 13.

[4] Joseph Giovannini, ‘Fred and Ginger dance in Prague; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vlado Milunic’ in Architecture vol. 86, no. 2 (February 1997) pp. 52-63; Laurie Wale, ‘The dancing building; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vladimir Milunić in Architect & Builder (January 1997) pp. 2-5; ‘Praga [Ginger and Fred: offices for Nationale Nederlanden, Prague]; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vladimir Milunic ‘ in Arquitectura Viva no. 52 (January/February 1997) pp 94-99; Robert Bevan, ‘Inside Fred and Ginger’ in Interiors for Architects & Designers (Spring 1997) pp. 24-27; Simonetta Carbonaro, ‘Der tanzende Palast: Frank O Gehry und seine Begegnung mit Vlado Milunic in Prag’ in Deutsche Bauzeitschrift, vol. 44, no. 9 (September 1996) pp. 93-97.

[5] ‘Mr. Gehry’s design was approved by 68 percent of the voters in a referendum held in 1993 after the Velvet Revolution, when voting became the unofficial national pastime’ wrote Timothy-Jack Ward in ‘The Towers In Prague That Swirl And Waltz’ in New York Times (1 February 1996).

[6] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London, 1991).

[7] See Alexander G. Rappaport, Paper Architecture. New Projects from the Soviet Union (New York, 1990).

[8] See Lidia Klein, ed., P1 Postmodernizm polski. Architektura i urbanistyka (Warsaw, 2013).

[9] Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London, 1987) p. 159.

[10] Bořislav Babáček, Jiří Kučera, Jaroslav Ouřecký, ‘Jazyk postmoderní architektury’, Architektura ČSR XXXVII (1978) pp. 463-467.

[11] Statement of the All-Poland Council of Architects (Warsaw, November 1980) published in Architektura xxx

[12] See, for instance, Milena Lamarová, ‘Na vlně postmodernismu’ in Domov, 3 (1987) pp. 20-24.

[13] Milena Lamarová, untitled essay in the catalogue for the ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ exhibition at the Uměleckoprůmyslové Museum (Prague, 1990) unpaginated.


[14] Josef Kroutvor, untitled essay in the catalogue for the ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ exhibition at the Uměleckoprůmyslové Museum (Prague, 1990) unpaginated.

[15] See for instance, Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík, ‘Loučení s modernismem. Čtyři úvahy o nové malbě’ in Sborník památce Jiřího Padrty (samizdat), 1985, pp. 21–29 reproduced in Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík, Texty (Prague, 2010) pp. 188–194.

[16] Milena Lamarová from the catalogue for the Studio Atika exhibition in Prague, 1989 reproduced in Dagmar Koudeliková and Anežka Šimková, eds.,  Atika 1987-1992. Emoce a forma (Olomouc, 2007) pp. 112-3

[17] Mary McLeod, ‘Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism’ in Assemblage, no. 8 (February 1989) p. 22.

[18] See Martina Pachmanová and Markéta Pražanová (eds.), Vysoká škola uměleckoprůmyslová v Praze, 1885–2005 (Prague, 2005) pp. 85-7.

[19] ‘Olgoj Chorchoj: Sláva je prostředkem ke svobodě’ in Lidové noviny (12 December 2011) – – accessed 31/3/16

[20] Rostislav Švácha, Czech Architecture and Its Austerity (Prague, 2004).

[21] Iva Janáková, ed., Ladislav Sutnar. Prague-New York. Design in Action, (Prague, 2003) p. 188.

[22] See Christopher Wilk, ed., Modernism. Designing a New World 1914-39 (London, 2006) pp 392-3.

[23] See Daniela Kramerová and Vanda Skálová, eds., Bruselský sen. Československá účast na Světové výstavě Expo 58 v Bruselu (Prague, 2008).

[24] Olgoj Chorchoj: Sláva je prostředkem ke svobodě’ in Lidové noviny (12 December 2011) – accessed 31/3/16

[25] Kenneth Frampton ‘’Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’ in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture (Port Townsend, 1983) pp 16-29.

[26] François Burkhardt, ‘Czech Cubism Today’ in Alexander von Vegesack, ed., Czech Cubism. Architecture, Furniture and Decorative Arts 1910-1925 (London, 1992) p. 105.

[27] Ibid, p. 96.

Empty Plots – Art and Environment in Latvia in the 1970s

Architecture, Collage, Eastern Europe

This short essay was written for a publication accompanying the Visionary Structures exhibition at BOZAR, Brussels, opening in January 2015.

In the early 1970s Environment occupied a central place in the lexicon of art and design on both sides of the Cold War divide. It was not, of course, a newly-coined term: more than a decade earlier American artist Allan Kaprow had described the settings of his early happenings as ‘environments’, spaces which entangled spectators in multi-sensory experiences.[1] Kaprow and many others in the years which followed made works of art into which the visitor could step. Happenings, installations, Supergraphics, artistic interventions into the ordinary fabric of the city or the countryside, temporary architectural structures and monuments all came to be described as ‘environments’ (often using the English term[2]).

Although not new, the term seemed to gain a special hold on the imagination when electronic communications technology and new sciences like cybernetics augured new kinds of responsive environments. At the same time, these high-tech utopias were shadowed by growing anxieties about humanity’s negative effects on the natural world. This is certainly the case in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc where artists creating ‘environments’ also faced a second constraint, namely that of the Party-State’s control over space. Despite trumpeting the collective ownership of all resources including space itself, state-censorship, surveillance and a paranoid approach to any form of unlicensed social gathering meant that the creation of works of art which formed environments – in the sense suggested by Kaprow – always risked official condemnation. In fact, the countryside became a particularly attractive setting in which to create temporary experimental environments in in the early 1970s because – in part – it offered some degree of escape from control and surveillance.

Andris Grīnbergs’ ‘The Wedding of Jesus Christ’, 1972

Andris Grīnbergs’ ‘The Wedding of Jesus Christ’, 1972

Key escapes of this kind include Andris Grīnbergs’ ‘The Wedding of Jesus Christ’, a two-day happening during which he married his partner Inta Jaunzeme in the Latvian countryside in 1972, as well as the better known activities of the Collective Actions group, cofounded by Andrei Monastyrsky in Moscow in 1976. Their ‘Journeys to the Countryside’ followed a general pattern: twenty or thirty participants would be invited by telephone to leave the city by an appointed train. On arrival, they would walk to remote field to be presented with a modest intervention into the landscape. In Appearance (1976), the first of these actions, the group were met by two men who distributed plain cards with the following inscription, ‘Documentary confirmation that _____ was a witness of Appearance which occurred on 13th March 1976’.[3] As artist Jānis Borgs recalls, one of the reasons ‘why there was no street art’ in the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic until the late 1980s was because of the obdurate grip of censorship, at least until the Kremlin declared the policy of Glasnost (Openness).[4]

Jānis Osis design for the Celebrations exhibition, Riga, 1972 (LCCA archive)

Jānis Osis design for the Celebrations exhibition, Riga, 1972 (LCCA archive)

Early explorations of the idea of environment in Latvian art include a 1972 exhibition entitled ‘Celebrations’ held in the exhibition hall of the Institute of Scientific Technical Information and Propaganda in Riga. This event belongs to the longer and, as yet, unwritten history of scientific institutions forming welcoming environments for experimental art in the Soviet Union. In these settings, groups like Dvizhenie in Moscow and Prometei in Kazan synthesised art and technology to produce immersive, kinetic and abstract art works. In this way, forms of modernism which were prohibited by official art institutions thrived. In 1972 the elegant interiors of the historic Stock Exchange in Riga were filled with a framework of small interconnected bays conceived by Jānis Osis. Artworks by a new generation of modernist artists interested in testing orthodoxy illuminated these bays with light or sound or flooded brightly coloured stripes around their corners. There was little distinction between the art and its setting. In one section, the floor seemed to move and pulse under foot – here was a artwork which suggested interaction. ‘Celebrations’ was evidence that new forms of contemporary art like Op and Kinetic Art could be accommodated in an official exhibition which had been organized to serve a propaganda function (its title inferring the celebration of the formation of the Soviet Union fifty years earlier). But much depended on the strategic designation of the work: this section of the ‘Celebrations’ exhibition was categorized as ‘Interior Design’, a label which afforded artists greater intellectual and formal freedom than the conventional categories of art. An imprecise label like ‘artistic construction’ suggested usefulness, even if the nature of that utility was hardly evident to visitors in the gallery.

Valdis Celms, Anda Ārgale and Māris Ārgalis, design for multimedia 'Lighthouse', 1978

Valdis Celms, Anda Ārgale and Māris Ārgalis, design for multimedia ‘Lighthouse’, 1978

Kinetic art formed a contact zone for ambitious art, architecture and design in Latvia. In 1978 designer Valdis Celms, architect Anda Ārgale and artist Māris Ārgalis, proposed that a ‘Lighthouse’ be constructed on the AB Dam on the Daugava river creating a new landmark for the capital in an otherwise anonymous section of the city. A ‘Centre for the Audiovisual Arts’, the tower was to feature a programmable, rotating video screen on which live events and propaganda could be broadcast across the city. Undeniably future-oriented (and exceeding the limits of Soviet technology at the time), the scheme was, at the same time, indebted to the propaganda stands and kiosks equipped with light panels and loudspeakers conceived by Gustavs Klucis in Lenin’s Russia. Never seriously considered by the authorities, this was nevertheless, an important project for the artists, one on which Celms worked for a number of years. In 1983 he completed a three-dimensional model of the lighthouse.

Jānis Borgs, 1978 (LCCA Archive)

Jānis Borgs, 1978 (LCCA Archive)

The Lighthouse was first presented in ‘For One’s Own City’, a 1978 show which was organized in St. Peter’s Church in the centre of Riga to combine the creativity of artists and architects. Under the auspices of this exhibition, artist Jānis Borgs proposed departing the gallery by installing a clock on an empty plot in the city. His design was also indebted to Klucis’ ‘Dynamic City’, a montage from 1920 which combined a series of dynamic geometric forms with photographs of Lenin and pylon laid over a circular form suggesting the globe. Combining dynamic abstract geometry with Bolshevik symbols, Klucis’ image was a demand for world revolution. More than half a century later Borgs’ clock – reviving the aesthetics of the Soviet avant-garde – was to be a kinetic object set against a painted Suprematist supergraphic on the blind ends of the plot. In the Soviet Union where abstract art was still under prohibition, the avant-garde of the 1920s was yet to be rehabilitated. Only splinters of the history of the avant-garde were available to its citizens, and sometimes only then on the pages of magazines and books from the more liberal of the ‘fraternal’ nations of the Eastern Bloc like Poland. The wholesale rediscovery of the Latvian avant-garde of the 1920s was yet to happen.

Moreover, the utopianism of this design lay in its unlikelihood of being realized in the stagnant conditions of the Soviet Union under General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev (this is what Theodor Adorno once called ‘negative utopianism’[5]). As such it might be considered an early form of what later became known as ‘Paper Architecture’ – a practice found across the Bloc but most strongly associated with young architects in Eastern Europe under communist rule who used visionary schemes as political commentary in the 1970s and 1980s.[6] Artists and architects associated with the Tallinn School, for instance, produced an exceptional body of paper architectural schemes through the course of the 1970s which often used the vocabularies of Constructivism and Suprematism somewhat ironically: Leonhard Lapin designed, for instance, an ‘Anti-International Monument. Tower (Stable) for Artist Valdur Ohakas’ Donkey’ in 1974, alluding perhaps to the primitive techniques employed in the construction of the first Soviet monuments – another form of Potemkin architecture.[7] Just over a decade later Hungarian artist Gabor Bachman and architect László Rajk, with dissident writers György Konrád and Miklós Haraszti designed a visionary ‘Strikers House’ (1985) as a monument to the repressed Solidarity Trade Union in Poland in the Constructivist style. Both Lapin’s project and the Hungarian scheme were laced with irony. By contrast the Latvian engagement with the Soviet avant-garde still seems to possess a genuine desire for utopia.

Pollutionists montage, late 1970s.

Pollutionists montage, late 1970s.

Ārgalis, Borgs and Celms – along with Kirils Šmeļkovs, Kārlis Kalsers and others – were also members of the Pollucionistu (the Pollutionists) group which in the late 1970s created a remarkable and extensive body of images which commented on the failures of late Soviet system to meet not just its promises of utopia but also its loud claims on beauty and utility. Walking through Riga, the Pollucionistu photographed new panel-construction estates and nineteenth century housing; side streets and back alleys; as well as the slow progress of repairs to the city’s streets. Their interests were neither in the historic landmarks of the city nor the ostentatious monuments to Soviet order which formed the conventional points on an official guided tour. Instead, it was the slow unmanaged entropy of the Soviet environment which drew their cameras.

Pollutionists montage prepared for Literatura un Māksla, late 1970s.

Pollutionists montage prepared for Literatura un Māksla, late 1970s.

The group would bring their images to informal discussions in private apartments, often animated by Ārgalis’s penetrating reading of art theory and history. Celms and Borgs reworked these black and white images as montages or drew on their surfaces in the manner of Dada works. Often absurd, their images had limited circulation as grainy illustrations in Literatura un Māksla, a weekly paper issued by the artistic and literary unions in Latvia. Gentle humour eased the passage of these images through the censor’s office: nevertheless, viewed together, the images created by the Pollucionistu constitute a sharp critique of Soviet management of the urban environment. By the early 1980s, the activities of the group drew the attention of the KGB and, facing dark insinuations and intimation, dissolved itself.

It is remarkable that Borg and Celms could be making montage works that self-consciously aspired to the irreverent qualities of Dada and yet at the same time were proposing utopian schemes like the Brīvības Street clock or the Lighthouse Audiovisual Centre. This was not, however, a matter of ‘Double Think’: both orders of image were hinged by a desire to radically improve the environment. Not anti-Soviet or explicitly political, they nurtured a desire for an alternative to that which was offered by Soviet reality. The late 1970s also marked the high-water mark of techno-utopianism in the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic just as the tide turned to a new aesthetic which drew attention to entropy and stagnancy (one of the themes which the Pollucionistu recorded).

Andris Breže (with Andra Neibuerga and Valdis Ošiņš)  ‘Journey to the Countryside’, 1984

Andris Breže (with Andra Neibuerga and Valdis Ošiņš) ‘Journey to the Countryside’, 1984

A landmark exhibition, ‘Nature. Environment. Man’ planned by artist Ojārs Ābols but mounted after his death in St Peter’s Church in Riga in spring 1984 featured artworks not only by modernists like Celms but also those of a new generation of artists who addressed environment in very different terms: Indulis Gailāns’ ‘Fence Action’ was, for instance, a timber, whitewashed fence to which enigmatic messages scrawled on paper were nailed whilst Andris Breže (with Andra Neibuerga and Valdis Ošiņš) installed a putrefying Moskvich 401 car in which ghostly plaster figures were taking a ‘Journey to the Countryside’.[8] Grass grew under its bonnet. In a new-found orientation to the past and to the countryside, these works anticipate the politics of ecology, memory and national revival which were to shape Latvian intellectual life in the late 1980s.

Indulis Gailāns’ ‘Fence Action’ , Riga, 1984

Indulis Gailāns’ ‘Fence Action’ , Riga, 1984

The ecclesiological setting, as well the new-found interest in the entropy, brought ‘Nature. Environment. Man’ close to a series of exhibitions and happenings organized in Warsaw in 1983 and 1984. When artists in Poland boycotted official institutions in protest at the repression of Solidarity Trade Union, the Catholic Church provided alternative public spaces for dissenting culture. One particularly important space during the mid 1980s was a disused and ruined church on Żytnia Street which hosted a number of theatrical performances by banned avant-garde companies like Teatr Ósmego Dnia (Theatre of the Eighth Day) and works by prominent artists like Jerzy Kalina and Jerzy Bereś in group exhibitions with titles like ‘Znak krzyża’ (The Meaning of the Cross, June 1983) and the more open-ended ‘Obecność’ (Presence, June 1984). Whilst the Catholic church in Poland enjoyed an exceptional degree of autonomy and Ā, the sacred and historic setting served a new generation of artists interested in the subjective qualities and often suppressed conditions of memory. This also drew Latvian art closer – in approach – to the post-modern sensibilities which were shaping art practice around the world. History – so long the primary theme of most official art in the Soviet Union – was being rescaled to the dimensions of the family, the church and the home.

[1] Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

[2] See for instance Aleksander Wojciechowski, ‘Environment w sztuce Polskiej’ in Projekt (March 1976) pp. 17-32.

[3] See Matthew Jesse Jackson, The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet avant-gardes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) pp. 134-5.

[4] Borgs interviewed by Ieva Astahovska in Helena Demakova, The Self. Personal Journeys in to Contemporary Art: 1960s-80s in Soviet Latvia (Riga: Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia, 2011), p. 67.

[5] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge, 2004) p. 176

[6] See Deutsches Architektur Museum, Paper Architecture. New Projects from the Soviet Union (New York: Rizzoli, 1990); Alexey Yurasovsky, Post-Soviet Art and Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1994).

[7] See Kurg and Laanemets’ essays in Keskkonnad, projektid, kontseptsioonid Tallinna kooli arhitektid 1972-1985 (Environment, projects, concepts. Architects of the Tallinn School 1972-1985) (Tallinn, 2008).

[8] Daba. Vide. Cilveks 1984-2004 (Riga: LMS, 2004)

Piłsudski’s Architect

Architecture, Eastern Europe, Modernism

This article appears in the catalogue on the life and work of the Polish architect Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz in Kraków in 2013-14 – details here. I also gave a lecture for the finissage of the show in February 2014 – you can watch it here:


Writing after the liberation of Kraków at the end of the Second World War, Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz reflected on the complex of historical buildings in the city which had occupied much of his professional life: ‘Wawel always formed a separate world in itself. In this microcosm, like in a miniature, all historical events in Poland were reflected, often like a brighter version of all that has happened in our Fatherland. Here, on Wawel, stood the oldest Christian church in Poland; here regal power flourished and faded; and the reconstruction of the Castle was undertaken several years ahead of the restoration of independent Poland.’[1] For Szyszko-Bohusz, both as architect and conservator, architecture existed on a longer historic scale than the short lives of men. This was cause for hope. Surveying the ruined state of the country, he said ‘whilst we cannot be indifferent to our own war experiences during the years of the Second World War, the salvation of the Castle from destruction gives us hope for the future.’[2] This faith in the endurance of places was a product of Szyszko-Bohusz’s training, though not necessarily in the Academy in St Petersburg where he studied architecture in the first decade of the twentieth century: it was the result of his immersion in Polish neo-Romanticism and, in particular, in the idea that the historic fabric of Kraków – including, of course, Wawel – was a living lesson in national values.

Romantic Nationalism did not end in 1918 but it was changed by the conditions of independence, supplemented by new myths of heroism. The insurrectionary tradition had been a catalogue of failure, producing generations of martyrs and exiles. 1918, however, threw up a victor, Józef Piłsudski. The Head of State of the reborn country was the living subject of a ‘cult’.[3] Even before 1918, Piłsudski’s roles as an underground activist, prisoner and paramilitary had been mythologised, not least by the soldiers who had heeded his call to form Polish Legions at the outbreak of the First World War. But after 1918 and particularly after the coup d’état in 1926, the Marshal became the subject of an official cult. His stern visage glared down from the wall of every state office and school, and appeared on Polish coins and postage stamps. The Marshal’s deeds were taught to children in Polish schools as stirring lessons in conduct and patriotism. The keenest could graduate to the Legion of the Young (Legion Młodych), an association formed in 1929 which promoted selfless duty to the state and personal asceticism – virtues closely associated with the Marshal. In fact, the Polish Legions were themselves the subject of a minor cult in which they were invariably depicted as a brotherhood made up of the selfless and the brave. As a cult, myth was more important than fact. Piłsudski’s Legions were, after all, a small military force, never totaling more than 25,000 men during the First World War. But their symbolic function was considerable.

Cults may be fashioned from myths but they also take on material forms and have real effects. Szyszko-Bohusz was implicated in, and benefited from, the Piłsudski Cult. Between 1914 and 1916 he had fought in the Polish Legions, and, in 1916, when in charge of the conservation workshops at Wawel, arranged for the High Command of the clandestine Polish Military Organisation (Polska Organizacja Wojskowa) to operate from the Castle. According to one conspirator, their quarters ‘were so well concealed in the Castle‘s cellars that only a knowledgeable guide could ever successfully find them.’[4] After 1918, Szyszko-Bohusz enjoyed a place in a trusted caste of former Legionnaires occupying prominent public roles. Just as military formations preceded and effectively created government in Poland, these men had been soldiers first and public figures later. A guiding creed of the Legions had been the primacy of the national cause over any interest which might divide their ranks. Class counted for little (or, as some historians have put it, membership of the legions was itself a kind of elevation, ennobling all who served [5]). Much has been made of the Legion’s eschewal of ethnic divisions too. As members of a society which had been stateless for so long, it was the state, above all, which commanded loyalty, far less the people or nation. Traces of this attitude survived into the post-war years, not least in the decision to launch the May 1926 coup.

Szyszko-Bohusz took on many official duties in the 1920s including that of the rectorship of the Kraków Academy of Fine Art (1924-9) and membership of prestigious bodies including that which oversaw the creation of the Grave of an Unknown Soldier, a monument containing the remains of anonymous combatant who had died fighting in the Polish-Soviet War in 1919, in Warsaw in 1925. And as a conservator employed by Ministry of Public Works from 1929, he had care of the most important historic buildings in the capital (including the Castle and Royal Baths).

Zameczek (the ‘little castle’, Wisła, 192.9-30

Zameczek (the ‘little castle’), Wisła, 192.9-30

His considerable body of works as an architect included the presidential summer residence, Zameczek (the ‘little castle’, 1929-30) at Wisła, high in the Beskidy mountains, close to the source of the Vistula river. Eschewing payment, Szyszko Bohusz offered his design as a tribute to his friend, President Ignacy Mościcki, as did the regional authorities in Silesia who funded it. A series of flat-roofed geometric masses with a free plan of open spaces on the ground floor, the Zameczek was furnished with tubular steel furniture and decorated with vividly-coloured walls. By the disappointing standards of official architecture around the world in the first post-war decade, Zameczek was a remarkable fanfare for new conceptions of space and design (and art historian Andrzej Szczerski has identified it as sign of this border region’s bold claims on modernity.[6]) It was also a fitting one for Mościcki, a prominent scientist and politician who had been behind the construction of the State Works of Nitrogen Compounds (Państwowa Fabryka Związków Azotowych), a mammoth complex of smoking chimneys and steel-framed factories on the edge of Tarnów.[7] It should be stressed, of course, that the exterior of Zameczek incorporated a number of picturesque elements too, including rough sandstone cladding which matched its wild setting and signaled, perhaps, an aristocratic habitus. But, as Ewa Chojecka argues, the intended occupant of this ‘new manor’ in the Beskidy mountains testified to a ‘republican-intelligentsia model of modern representation, deprived of any dynastic or ancestral prestige’.[8]

Pantheon at Wawel

Pantheon at Wawel, 1919

Confident in his opinions as well as his abilities, and secure in his place in the ruling elite, Szyszko-Bohusz was by not, or not just, a bureaucrat. His work as a conservator at Wawel was not, for instance, only a matter of painstaking archaeology and diligent renovation. He envisaged his role there as an artist or architect, altering and adding to the historic fabric of the complex according to a vision shaped, in part, by his loyalty to the Polish Legions. For instance he presented a number of proposals to order the site to emphasise its character as the ‘national Pantheon’. A 1919-21 scheme proposed that a large formal ‘square’ organized around a circular altar be created between the Cathedral and the Sandomierz and Złodziejskatowers. This would have necessitated removing nineteenth century structures such as the ‘ugly’ red brick garrison hospital which had been built by the Austrians to create a clear vista; paving over the archaeological remains of two medieval churches and other historic buildings; and the construction of a long double height arcade of blind arches on top of the ramparts. In a ‘thirty point’ programme accompanying his designs, Szyszko-Bohusz described this terrain as a ‘campo santo’, but he did not envisage a cemetery: redesigned, it would to serve as an orderly setting for ‘great celebrations’ (‘wielkie obchody’) and spectacular rallies.[9] The Pantheon was also to be equipped with a rostrum (‘mównica’) for speeches on the top of the ramparts, ascended by steps like a Roman tribunal. Szyszko-Bohusz came close political dramaturgy, imagining the Head of State (Naczelnik Państwa, the title assumed by Piłsudski at the time) leaving his ceremonial offices with a retinue of staff to take the tribune via a set of special stairs. The scheme was never realized (much to the relief of present-day conservators who point to the destruction it would have entailed). In 1923 Wawel Castle was nominated as an official residence of the President, a decision which presented Szyszko-Bohusz with an opportunity – if not always the funds – to restore ‘splendor’. Restoration sometimes meant repatriation. This was the case of the sixteenth-century Jagiellonian Tapestries which had been plundered during the partition of Poland and only returned from Russia as a condition of the Treaty of Riga signed at the end of the Soviet-Polish War. But more often, the historic furnishings of the ceremonial spaces of Wawel Castel were lost, and only the fixed decoration – celebrated frescoes and ornamental ceilings – could be restored. In fact, in the early 1930s, Szyszko-Bohusz proposed that each of the restored rooms be given an association with different branches of the army.[10] Each would bear the arms and insignia of a division. Although his tribute to Polish militarism was not realized, Szyszko-Bohusz entered into correspondence with the military authorities seeking funds and support.

Szyszko-Bohusz’s contributions to the Piłsudski Cult usually took on a rather more austere tone than many of the popular and even kitsch outpourings of enthusiasm for the Marshal. At the end of the 1920s, for instance, he designed a number of sarcophagi and crypts for grand, public funerals organised by the Sanacja regime. His contribution was to present an austere conclusion to events which involved spectacular and usually highly sentimental displays of national unity. The first of these was the interment of the remains of Juliusz Słowacki in the Crypt of National Bards alongside Adam Mickiewicz in Wawel in 1927 after long and elaborate ritual which started in his grave in Paris where he had been buried in 1849. In Paris, the coffin was transported in a carriage dressed with ornamental silks and gilded ornament followed by long trailing procession of dignitaries to L’église de la Madeleine. Arriving in Gdynia after being transported by navy ship, his coffin sailed down the Vistula high on the prow of paddle steamer to Warsaw where it was taken to the city’s cathedral on a towering bier, pulled by eight horses. Then on it went to Kraków by train. Ornamental coins were minted and special editions of newspapers and magazines were published to record this journey and the committal in Wawel. This mournful national theatre far outstripped the elaborate ritual staged for Mickiewicz’s remains interred in the same crypt in 1890, forty-five years after his death in Istanbul. This was, after all, effectively a state funeral organized by the Polish Republic, a point which Piłsudski made forcefully in his oratory over the coffin. Addressing the pall bearers, all legionnaires, he said, ‘Gentlemen, in the name of the government of Poland I bid you carry the coffin of Juliusz Słowacki into the royal crypt, for he was the peer of kings’.[11] Szyszko-Bohusz’s primary role in this national event was to alter the crypt to accommodate the sarcophagus that he had designed. Słowacki was laid to rest within massive block of black Krzeszowice marble with a cross on its top and a silver laurel wreath inscribed with his name on its end.

Bem Monument, Tarnów.

Bem Monument, Tarnów.

Rather more remarkable in terms of design, was Szyszko-Bohusz’s setting for a sarcophagus bearing the remains of another nineteenth century hero, Józef Bem. Another Polish nationalist whose life had been garlanded with myth, he was renowned as a soldier who survived terrible odds on the battlefield during in 1830 Uprising and the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. In fact, he only escaped his final battle at Segesvár (today, Sighişoara Romania) in 1848 by feigning death. He fled to the Ottoman Empire where he converted to Islam and served as the governor of Aleppo until he succumbed to Malaria in 1850 and was buried in a Muslim cemetery. In 1929 the Committee to Return to the Country the Remains of General Bem (Komitet Sprowadzenia do Kraju Zwłok Generała Józefa Bema) – which had Piłsudski as its honorary patron – arranged for the relics of this secular saint to be transported from his dusty grave in Aleppo to his birthplace in Tarnów. The slow-moving entourage paused at symbolic points on route, including the National Museum in Budapest and, inevitably, the large courtyard at Wawel Castle, where his coffin was displayed to the public. In both places, large crowds gathered in sombre rituals of commemoration.

Commissioned by the Mayor of Tarnów, Szyszko Bohusz arranged six tall Corinthian columns on a platform at the centre of a small lake in a picturesque city park. These were to support a stone sarcophagus containing the General’s coffin as well as urns filled with soil gathered at the sites of his battles and Hungarian provinces.[12] Eight stone spheres connected by chains symbolize, in a rather literal fashion, cannon balls around the base of this 12-metre high structure. Whilst precedents for the Bem Mausoleum can be found in the elevated sarcophagi in Greek and Roman necropoleis, Szyszko-Bohusz’s design owed less to archaeology than to poetry. Elevated and impassive, the design was metaphor in stone for lofty values of sacrifice and valour.

Pilłsudski's coffin.

Pilłsudski’s coffin.

The most important event in the Piłsudski Cult was, inevitably, that of the funeral of its principal figure, the Marshal himself. A controversial affair which drew the regime and the archbishop at Wawel into sharp disagreement about the entombment of a former socialist and solider in the resting place of kings, Piłsudski’s funeral took place there in May 1935. His body was embalmed and displayed with his saber, his ‘maciejówka’ (cap), and other ceremonial symbols of rank in a glass coffin. Initially his coffin was placed in the Saint Leonard crypt, alongside the tombs of King Jan III Sobieski and Kościuszko. This could not be a permanent arrangement. The Marshal’s body had not been well preserved and the journey from Warsaw to Wawel – not least on the bumpy cobbles of Kraków – had damaged the air-tight seal of the glass coffin: in consequence, Piłsudski’s body began to deteriorate.[13] The coffin was replaced within months by another designed by sculptor Jan Szczepkowski, albeit without great success: the body continued to decay. Moreover, the crypt itself was inadequate. It was damp and could not accommodate another sarcophagus or the large numbers of pilgrims. They often arrived in festive mood, much to the displeasure of the archbishop.

Pilłsudski crypt at Wawel.

Pilłsudski crypt at Wawel.

One solution – agreed by all parties – was to extend Romanesque crypt under the Tower of Silver Bells. This was acceptable to the Church because it allowed for a separate entrance for the secular pilgrims who wanted to pay homage to the Marshal. Szyszko-Bohusz set to work. His early schemes included an entrance in the form of a Gothic temple capped with a figure of Hussar on horseback. The constructed entrance – completed in 1937 – is far less theatrical. A simple structure, it features elements which belong to the vocabulary of classical architecture – Corinthian capitals, balustrades as well as a Latin inscription (‘Corpora dormiunt, vigilant animae’) – but Szyszko Bohusz composed them in an idiosyncratic fashion. The columns do not seem to perform their conventional load-bearing function: the massive slab fashioned from copper and bronze overhead sits on hidden posts. It seems to float above the descending stairs, as if denying gravity. The vertical lines of the columns continue ‘through’ the slab into six finials in the form of military crosses. Like his contemporary Jože Plečnik, responsible for the renovation of Prague Castle between 1920 and 1934, Szyszko-Bohusz’s approach to classicism was expressive and even idiosyncratic. In this relatively free addition to the historic fabric of the Cathedral, Szyszko-Bohusz expressed an answer to the question which he had asked – somewhat rhetorically – twenty years earlier: ‘Should our conservator not be, above all, an artist? In the restoration of a building, should he not care [most] for that which can for all times can be a souvenir of our culture and art?’[14]

So what was being remembered in this small structure? The new entrance to the crypt – usually described as a baldachin in reference to the cloth of state which covered royal thrones and beds of kings in the European tradition – marked Piłsudski’s status as a victor.[15] It was fashioned from the trophies of war. The stonework was recycled from sections of granite plinth which had supported a bronze sculpture of Bismarck in Poznan until 1918.[16] The six jade columns of Szyszko-Bohusz’s structure were salvaged from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Saxon Square in Warsaw. Dedicated by the Russians to the pro-tsarist Poles who had been executed by insurgents during the November Uprising in 1863 and a clear demonstration of Russian power, the Cathedral had been built between 1894 and 1912 only to be dynamited, after much discussion and a few protests, in 1924-6.[17] The octagonal bases and the Corinthian capitals of the columns were recast from steel from Austrian guns. The symbolism of salvage was clear: no longer serving Poland’s enemies, they were now doing duty to the great unifier, the Marshal. In the case of the jade columns, a further – perhaps more private – symbolism was at work too. The Cathedral in Warsaw from which they came had been designed by Szyszko-Bohusz’s teacher in St Petersburg before the First World War, Leon Benois. This expression of patriotism was also, perhaps, one of patricide.

Piłsudski House, Oleandry, Kraków (wikicommons).

Piłsudski House, Oleandry, Kraków (source: wikicommons).

Even in this spare form, the entrance to the crypt under the Tower of Silver Bells was a historical frame for a historic figure in a historical setting. Reminiscences of the baldachin were also found, perhaps unexpectedly, in the double-height entrances that Szyszko-Bohusz favoured in a number of his modernist schemes of the 1930s. The Józef Piłsudski House in Oleandry in Kraków is a case in point. First conceived at the First Congress of Legionnaires in 1922, the building was to provide a headquarters for the Association of Polish Legions in peacetime. It was also to be home to a Museum of Independence containing relics and documents testifying to role played by Polish soldiers in the struggle for independence. In 1927 the city authorities offered up a plot of land. A highly symbolic site, this had been where the newly-formed Pierwsza Kompania Kadrowa (trans?), the nucleus of the Polish Legions, set out to engage Russian forces in August 1914. The men had belonged to patriotic sports and rifle clubs. Standing on the grass of the Wisła football pitch Piłsudski famously announced their commission: ‘Everyone that is gathered here: you are Polish soldiers.’[18]

Viewed today, the Józef Piłsudski House looks perhaps more like the abstract architectural compositions of the interwar avant-garde than Szyszko Bohusz and his co-designer, architect Stanisław Strojek, intended. A central, five-story vertical block is connected to four-story block set back from the street line. The staggered footprint and stepped profile, combined with high canopy that turns the corner of the building, lends it a dynamic form. The long windows in the stairwell and a glass-walled service unit breaking the roofline add transparency, particularly when lit at night. The building is, however, incomplete. It is only the southeastern corner of what was planned to be a much larger complex. In Szyszko Bohusz and Strojek’s design, three wings arranged around a courtyard were to be connected by an elevated, double-height arcade. Whilst the design was coded with modernist elements, most obviously the strip windows and flat roof, the full scheme was far more conventional, even retrospective in form. It was to have the axial symmetrical arrangement of classical Greek temples like the Pergamon Altar (which in 1930 had been reopened to the public in Berlin after many years of closure) or even a gymnasium, the training ground for competitors in Greek games and the meeting place of poets. Other closer-to-home precedents of this compositional form include the neo-Classical Saxon Palace in Warsaw (remodeled by Adam Idźkowski, 1839-42) with an imposing colonnade accommodating the grave of the unknown soldier from 1925, perhaps the most important of all the public monuments in inter-war Poland. These allusions emphasized the self-image of the Legionnaires as a brotherhood of warrior-poets whose loyalty to the state was incontestable. Occupying the site of mythical event marking the ‘call to arms’, but dressed in the architectural language of the present, the Józef Piłsudski House pressed the Legion’s claims to contemporary relevance (claims which were to put to the test in September 1939).

‘Piłsudskism’ – with its strong attachment to the figure of the powerful leader, valorization of military valour and heroic death, as well as belief in the authority of the state – has been compared to Italian Fascism.[19] To this one might add, that Il Duce – like the Sanacja Regime in Poland – was undecided on matters of architectural style.[20] Without a clear steer, modernists and traditionalists in Italy vied for influence. Whilst some promoted conservative, neoclassical styles as a way of reviving the splendor of ancient Rome (Romanità), others promoted modernism as the means to represent Italy as a modern industrial state.[21] Even the most ambitious of the ‘Rationalists’ – as Italian modernists were known, made reference to tradition in an effort to draw on italianità (Italianness).[22] Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio in Como (1932-34), the best-known building conceived by a member of the group, is a case in point. His design for the local party headquarters was based on the play of volumes and voids, reflections and screens within a carefully proportioned, regular framework of blank white walls, slender columns and floors. The starkly modernist and abstract character of this white cube was undeniable. But the building also struck ideologically resonant notes of tradition: the ground plan – organised around a courtyard under glass – made reference to the spatial traditions of the palazzo as did the use of marble facings. With its underlying classicism, Szyszko-Bohusz’s scheme for the Józef Piłsudski House might well be understood as a near cousin of Terragni’s Casa del Fascio.

Polish architectural writers were keen find parallels between Fascist Italy and their homeland in the 1930s. Buildings like the Józef Piłsudski House in Kraków – one example of many such ‘hybrid’ designs which sought to harmonise tradition with modernity in the 1930s – seems to lend weight to these claims on kinship. But perhaps some limits need to be placed on this analogy. Few schemes as bizarre as those created in Italy were realized in Poland. Consider, for instance, the Foro Mussolini, a classical sports stadium in Rome initiated in 1928, was ornamented with bold antique mosaics in the Roman manner depicting a motorised truck carrying flag-waving squadistri, paramilitary gangs associated with the struggle for power at the beginning of the 1920s. Moreover, the turn to monumentalism was common across Europe and across ideologies.

Jan Parandowski argued for a more subtle understanding of Poland’s relationship with Italy or, more precisely, what he called ‘łacinskość’ (which might be translated as Latinity), in an essay with the marvelously capricious title, ‘Poland Lies on the Mediterranean Sea’ at the end of the 1930s.[23] For Parandowski, a classicist and literary critic, the romantic period was a kind of long interregnum: ‘Romanticism lasted longer in us than anywhere else, because it was more profuse, more wide-ranging and with loftier content. Our entire nineteenth century was, in fact, romantic. Józef Piłsudski, a steel-willed man of action, was a romantic. The works of Juliusz Słowacki, second only to Mickiewicz as our Romantic leader, accompanied Piłsudski throughout his life. His [Słowacki’s] verses were … quoted in his daily commands’.[24] But this was not the characteristic flattery of the cult. Romanticism had served its purpose, according to Parandowski, but had also obscured deeper structures of connection with European culture. This was to be found in the unconsciousness of language. In its grammar and orthography, Polish is a Latinate language. Recognition of this fact could be a step the recovery of deep and long traditions that connected Second Polish Republic with the first, the Rzeczpospolita, the age of humanists like Jan Kochanowski. Perhaps echoes of Szyszko-Bohusz’s antiquarianism can be heard here. His various schemes on Wawel – the presidential interiors, the Pantheon project and the entrance to the crypt containing Piłsudski’s body, as well as the Bem Mausoleum in Tarnów and his modernist works – were united by an underlying classical order. They formed both his contribution to the Piłsudski Cult and, in their severe and idiosyncratic style, his attempt to discipline it.

[1] Szyszko-Bohusz cited by Piotr Gacek, ‘Wawelskie życia Adolfa Szyszko-Bohusza’ in Architektura (May 1988), p. 18. Wawel zawsze tworzył odrębny świat sam w sobie. W tym mikrokosmosie, jak w miniaturze, odbijały się wszystkie zdarzenia historyczne polskie, nieraz będące jak-gdyby jaskrawszą edycją tego, co spotkało potem całą naszą Ojczyznę. Tu na Wawelu stanął najstarszy kościół chrześcijański w Polsce, tutaj rozkwitła i przekwitła władza i potęga królewska, odbudowa Wawelu na kilkanaście lat wyprzedziła odbudowę niezależnej Polski.

[2] Ibid. ‘Przeżycia wojenne z lat drugiej wojny światowej nie będą więc zapewne obojętne dla nas, a ocalenie Wawelu od zniszczenia niech będzie dla nas otuchą na przyszłość.’

[3] For a detailed examination of the Piłsudski cult, see Heidi Hein-Kircher, Kult Piłsudskiego i jego znaczenie dla panstwa polskiego 1926-1939 (Warsaw, 2008).

[4] Ryszard Mirowicz, Edward Rydz-Śmigły. Działalność-wojskowa i polityczna (Warsaw, 1988), p. ?

[5] M.B.B. Biskupski, Independence Day: Myth, Symbol, and the Creation of Modern Poland (Oxford, 2012) p. 16.

[6] Andrzej Szczerski, ‘”Nowa Europa” i Modernistyczne Enklawy’ in Andrzej Szczerski, ed., Modernizm na peryferiach. Architektura Skoczowa, Śląska i Pomorza 1918-1939 (Warsaw, 2011) pp. 239-44.

[7] Barbara Bułdys, ‘Mościce – A Dream of Modernity’ in Tarnów. 1000 Years of Modernity (Warsaw, 2012) p. 139.

[8] Ewa Chojecka, ‘The Castle Manor of the President of the Republic of Poland in Wisla and Tugendhat Villa in Brno – Two Contradictory Formulae’ in Architecture of Civil Engineering Environment, 5 (2008), p. 6.

[9] Text reproduced as an illustration in Wawel narodowei przywrócony. Odszykanie zamek i jego odnowa, 1905-1939, Zamek Królewski na Wawelu exhibition catalogue (Kraków, 2005) p. 173

[10] See Halina Billik, Zdisława Chojnacka, Agnieszka Janczyk, ‘Wawel – narodowi przywrócony: obchody 100-lecia powrotu Wawelu do Polski’ in Muzealnictwo, 46, (2005) p. 67.

[11] On this event and for an interpretation of Piłsudski’s phrase see Patrice M. Dabrowska, ‘”Equal to the Kings”? Viewing Wawel Burials of the Interwar Period’ in v. XII, no. 1 Centropa (January 2012) pp. 6-19 [W imieniu Rządu Rzeczypospolitej polecam Panom odnieść trumnę Juliusza Słowackiego do krypty królewskiej, bo królom był równy]

[12] The Hungarian regions included those which had been given to Romania according to the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, making the monument also one to Hungarian irredentism.

[13] For a detailed discussion of the treatment of Piłsudski’s body after his death see B. Kwiatkowski, Mumie. Władcy, święci, tyrani (Warsaw, 2005).

[14] Szyszko-Bohusz cited by Mieczysław Wallis, Lata nauki i mistrzostwa Stanisława Noakowskiego (Warsaw, 1971), p. 266.

[15] See Grzegorz Gill, ‘Baldachim Wawelski. Symbolem odrodzonej Rzeczypospolitej w 1918 r.’ in Sowiniec, 34-35 (2009) pp. 91-94.

[16] Witold Molik, ‘”Straż nad Wartą” Pomnik Bismarcka w Poznaniu (1903-1919)’ in Kronika Miasta Poznania, 2 (2001) pp. 91-108.

[17] See Piotr Paszkiewicz, Pod berłem Romanowów, Sztuka rosyjska w Warszawie 1815-1915 (Warszaw, 1991) pp. 114-37.

[18] Piłsudski cited by Andrzej Garlicki, U źródeł obozu belwederskiego (Warsaw, 1983) p. 249.

[19] See, for instance, Leon Trotsky, ‘Pilsudskism, fascism, and the character of our epoch’ (August 4, 1932) in Writings of Leon Trotsky: Supplement (1929-33) (Atlanta, GA, 1979).

[20] Richard Etlin, Modernism in Italian Architecture 1890-1949 (Cambridge, MA., / London,1991) pp. 387-389.

[21] Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy (Berkley 2000) pp. 90-99.

[22] Diane Y. Ghirardo, ‘Italian Architects and Fascist Politics: An Evaluation of the Rationalist Role in Regime Building’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, v. 39, no. 2 (May 1980) p. 188.

[23] Jan Parandowski, ‘Polska leży nad morzem śródziemnym’ in Arkady, vol. V, no. 3 (March 1939) pp. 113-6.

[24] Ibid ‘Romantyzm trwal u nas dluzej niz wszedzie, bo byl bardziej plodny, bardziej rozlegly, o wyzszej tresci. Caly nasz wiek XIX byl w gruncie rzeczy romantyczny. Jozef Piłsudski, czlowiek zelaznego czynu, byl romantykiem. Dziela drugiego po Mickiewiczu wodza naszego romantyzmu, Juliusza Slowackiego, towarzyszyly Piłsudskiemu przez cale zycie, wiersze poety … cytowal w swych rozkazach dziennych’.

Honzík – how high the sky?

Architecture, Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

This is an extract of a talk which I will present at the ‘Afterlives of Constructivism‘ conference at Princeton University in May 2013 ♦ At the height of the period of liberalization in Czechoslovakia in the mid 1960s, architects began imagining the kind of ambitious projects for cities and buildings that went far beyond the official imperative to build ‘economically and quickly’ and eschewed the technocratic role given to architecture in socialism. As architect and critic Jiři Hrůza argued – perhaps boldly – his 1967 book The Utopian City (Město Utopistů), surveying many speculative projects including those designed by Leonidov and Chernikov in the 1920s as well as those of his contemporaries such as Karel Honzík, the future could operate as a critique of the present: ‘Just as we can find in the concepts of utopian architectural avant-garde both audacious and prescient anticipations of the future, we can also find escapism from the coarse and prosaic reality of life, an ideal dream formed in disillusionment with the present …‘.[i] To find a way out from this kind of impoverishment, Hrůza directed his readers to science fiction. There they might discover a rich vein of imagination unfettered by mundane concerns.


Honzik’s, Creation of Lifestyle, 1946

Honzík (to whom Hrůza’s book was dedicated) could supply both architecture and sci-fi. A prolific essayist, architect and former member of Devětsil, who had designed numerous functionalist buildings before the Second World War, he had welcomed the new order in Czechoslovakia at the end of the conflict. His early post-war writings – like the introduction to Creation of Lifestyle (Tvorba životního slohu, 1946) – is full of parallels between the Czechoslovak present and Russia after the October Revolution. In 1949 he published a letter in Volné směry which made his modernist affinities clear: ‘I firmly believe that new and truly full realism can be achieved only by those artists who have absorbed the seeking and experimentation of the last fifty years.’[ii] The claim on experimentation was a call for intellectual freedom. The editor of the journal published a series of sharply disapproving responses from prominent champions of the new order, some of whom had once been Honzík’s close allies and collaborators. And so under considerable pressure, like Syrkus in Poland, he disavowed his past by writing an essay for the architectural press with the title ‘The Final Farewell to Thirty Years of Constructivism.’[iii]



A few years later after the prohibition on modernism had been lifted, Honziík, then unwell and in semi-retirement, began working on experimental housing schemes. His designs self-consciously revive the idea of the collective home as a single megastructure, a preoccupation of Soviet architects at the end of 1920s (cf Barshch and Valdimirov’s schemes c. 1929-30). Honzík’s vision for ‘vertical community’ living, ‘Domurbia’ (1962-64) took the form of three massive blocks connected by high bridges and a common service zone on the lower floors. All human needs of the 2000 inhabitants – social, health, educational and domestic – would be served in one structure. This proposition, though still unbuildable, had little of the imaginative reach to warrant the label ‘experimental’ or ‘utopian’ – this baton had been passed to ambitious young architects designing bravura socmodernist structures like the much-lauded television tower and hotel on the peak of the Ještěd mountain (Stavoprojekt, Liberec, 1963-73) or Slovak National Radio headquarters in Bratislava (Štefan Svetko, Štefan Ďurkovič and Barnabáš Kissling, 1962-85).


Trace in the Universe, published in the 1980s – after Honzik’s death.

Honzík’s architectural imagination had perhaps been debilitated by his experiences but it was still exercised vividly in his science-fiction novels and short stories written from the late 1950s (few of which were published during his lifetime – he died in 1966). His story, Trace in the Universe (Stopa ve Vesmíru) describes an ideal society of intelligent extra-terrestrial beings who have achieved full communism. War and private property are things of the past and the state has withered away. They live, unsurprisingly, in tower- cities. New buildings are manufactured and delivered to site by aeroplanes. Others have mobile facades. All needs are met by machines and, in an echo of his earlier writings, all consumption is governed by the rational principles of need. The beings who enjoy this world are not human: they have evolved from a squirrel-like progenitor. Honzík’s point being that all intelligent life would ultimately follow a path predicted by Marx towards communism.

How we assess the utopianism of such schemes in the 1960s in political terms is not clear. This ambiguity may well have even been strategic. Groups like Dvizhenie in Soviet Russia operated with official imprimatur, only occasionally falling foul of the patrons in the party/state. The group’s chief ideologue, Lev Nussberg, was a well-connected and skilful operator, adept at persuading the authorities to support the group’s projects. In the late 1960s, Dvizhenie’s works travelled abroad and were widely reported in the international press, providing vivid examples of the creativity of Soviet culture in the face of evidence of its ossification. At the same time, architects in Czechoslovakia – perhaps more than any other Eastern Bloc state – were able to convert their visions into daring architectural forms. Responsible for the Ještěd Television Tower, SIAL –around Karel Hubáček in the state architectural office, Stavoprojekt, in Liberec – also claimed privileges from the State by pressing their bona fides as loyal visionaries.[iv] Honzík was a loyalist too but in his science fiction one senses a desire to sustain restore the fantastic dimensions of Utopianism in the face of technocratic thinking. Might his paper worlds be understood as what Theodor Adorno called ‘negative utopias’, i.e., conditions or experiences which resist the foreclosure of the possibility of a completely new way of being?[v]  

[i] Hruza, 163.

[ii] Cited in Honzík, 2002

[iii] ‘Konečné rozloučení s třicetiletou érou konstruktivismu Architektura ČSR, 12, 1953, 141-144.

[iv] See Jiří Jiroutek, Fenomenen Ještěd (Liberec 2005) 66; see also ‘Excerpts from an interview with Karel Hubáček’, in Mašinisti, exh. cat., Fragner Gallery (Prague 1996)138.

[v] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London, 2004) 176

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

Architecture, Cold War, Modernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Heading East

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

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

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

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


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

It follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading West

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

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

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

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

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


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

Khrushchev effectively presented the architectural profession with a new technocratic model of practice based on research into new building technologies and materials. This was characterized as ‘experimentation’, albeit within limits. What was implicit in 1954 became explicit in his many promises made in the years that followed to overtake the capitalist West (and America in particular) in terms of ‘living standards’. These undertakings were expressed in his famous ‘Kitchen Debate’ with Nixon at the American National Exhibition in 1959.[40] They were made again when he announced at the Twenty-second Party Congress in 1961, ‘For the first in history there will a be a full and final end of the situation in which people suffer from the shortage of anything … [by] 1980 this country will far outstrip the United States in its per capita industrial and agricultural production.’[41] Despite Khrushchev’s staggering optimism, it is clear that such pronouncements had an important effect on the way that West could be imagined. Soviet ideologues had in the 1920s claimed that the advanced and distinct nature of Soviet society would produce an advanced and distinct material fabric, i.e. ‘socialist things’.[42] Yet from the 1930s onwards, as Györgyi Péteri has argued, the state socialist modernization project was marked by contradiction: it tried to create a form of modern civilization that was distinct from (and competing with) capitalism and yet at the same time ‘it accepted the economic and technological models standards of success prevailing in the advanced core area of the global system’ i.e., Western modernity.[43] This was, as he argues, a recurrent pattern in Soviet modernity, albeit one sometimes cloaked by the rhetoric of triumphalism. This was evident, in the architectural field, not least in the debt owed by Moscow’s ‘vysotki’ to American skyscrapers which were, of course, built during a period of heightened nationalism following the ‘Great Patriotic War’. In what might be described as an ‘integrationist’ swing after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev too acceded that Western modernity was – in a material sense – more advanced. With consumption given a heightened significance by the Cold War, he challenged Soviet planners, economists and other agents of the command economy – including architects – to ensure the progressive uses and the equitable distribution of the material benefits of modernity. Viewed in this light, the informal tour of Western Europe by Polish architects in 1956 was – in one key respect – like that taken to the Soviet Union in 1950: both were designed to witness the future in the making.[44]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between East and West

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

During the Thaw, the Polish intelligentsia – architects included – seized on the maligned and abused figure of the individual. This was part of an attempt to rediscover the moral roots of socialism under the debris of Stalinism; its vulgar materialism and empty propaganda. Much of the criticism vented during 1955-57 period was often from a broadly marxist perspective, albeit often one drawing much from the ‘young’ Marx – stressing humanistic, democratic values.[78] This intellectual archaeology was shot through with existential themes. (It is not surprising that the plays of Ionescu, Sartre, Kafka and Beckett were all performed on Warsaw stages during 1957 and experimental music and modern jazz became important features of Polish cultural life at time).[79] Leszek Kołakowski’s 1959 political parable ‘The Priest and the Jester’ is a case in point. The reforming Marxist philosopher contrasted the attitude of the servants of power. The priest lives in blind certainty that his faith is right whereas ‘the jester’s constant effort is to consider all the possible reasons for contradictory ideas. … In a world where apparently everything has already happened, he represents an active imagination defined by the opposition it must overcome.’[80] This was a existentialist parable which raised important questions about the relations of intellectuals to power: after all, many – Kołakowski included – had once been loyal and enthusiastic supporters of the Bierut regime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Syrkus and Chmielewski cited in ibid, 56

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Bierut, op cit., 69

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Ibid, 45

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

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

[23] Helena Syrkus later came to regret her forthright support for the Stalinist regime Referring to Khrushchev’s famous report to architects in December 1954, Syrkus said ‘it seems that since we accepted the theses proving that the direction adopted in 1949 was erroneous … we should not stick to the lost cause’. Syrkus in Ogólnopolski Narada Architektów (Warsaw, 1956) 485.

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

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

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

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

[27] Goldzamt, Architektura Zespołów Śródmiejskich, 54.

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

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

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

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

[32] Ibid, 331.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[53] Ibid, 199.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[78] Paweł Machcewicz, ‘Intellectuals and Mass Movements, Ideologies and Political Programs in Poland in 1956’ in György Péteri, ed., Intellectual Life and the First Crisis of State Socialism in East Central Europe, 1953-1956 (Trondheim: Programme on East European Cultures and Societies, 2001), 127.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modernizacje 1918-1939. Czas przyszły dokonany – review

Architecture, Design Exhibition, Eastern Europe, Modernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publication related to the exhibition:

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