The Photographer in the Hall of Mirrors

Architecture, Eastern Europe, Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Owens, Photography en abyme’ 75.

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

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

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

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

[7] Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 310.


Paper Architecture: The Columbaria of Brodsky and Utkin

Architecture, Eastern Europe

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

Architects in the Soviet Union experienced a strange premonition of postmodernism fifty years before its domination of the architectural scene in the West. The monumental classical style known as Socialist Realism which was required of almost all buildings during the Stalin years (1928-53) not only laid a claim to be sensitive to the regional and national character of architecture, it was promoted by its champions as a sublation of modernism. In ways that anticipated arguments in the West about the ‘end of history’, Socialist Realism presented itself as the culmination of all that had gone before it, including modernism.[1]  ‘According to Stalinist aesthetics,’ writes Boris Groys, ‘everything is new in the new posthistorical reality … There is no reason to strive for formal innovation, since novelty is automatically guaranteed by the total novelty of superhistorical content and significance. Nor does this aesthetics fear charges of eclecticism, for it does not regard the right to borrow from all ages as eclectic; after all, it selects only progressive art, which possess inherent unity …’[2] In other words, Socialist Realism – like postmodernism – had the potential to synthesise all that was best about the past, or so its champions claimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Architecture, Design Exhibitions, Uncategorized

 This piece was commissioned by Space magazine. It appears in the magazine’s October 2012 issue.

Each Venice Architecture Biennale is given a theme by its curator, a leading architect or critic. The 2010 show was gathered under the slogan ‘People meet in architecture’ by SANAA’s Kazuyo Sejima. Two year’s earlier Aaron Betsky called for ‘Architecture Beyond Building’. Like most Biennale themes, these were open-ended propositions suggesting some kind of social agenda. With such ambiguous propositions as guides to the maze of displays and pavilions over the Biennale’s two sites, the visitor often struggles to find a connection between concept and content. Neither noisy self-promotion, whether of architectural practices or nations, nor the untrammeled pursuit of novelty are the best ways to approach social problems. And with prizes awarded to the best pavilions and displays, the Biennale has often been like a kind of strange beauty contest in a zoo where different species are judged.

This year, the Biennale has been curated by David Chipperfield, a British architect with a reputation as a meticulous modernist architect of museums and homes around the world. Like his predecessors, Chipperfield has charged the Biennale with social purpose, that of mapping the ‘Common Ground’. For Chipperfield this means recognizing that cities are ‘created in collaboration with every citizen and the many stakeholders and participants in the process of building.’ This was an unambiguous rebuttal of the idea of the ‘star’ architect who shapes the world with iconic buildings. Chipperfield’s brief was underscored by realism: after all, almost all the buildings and urban schemes which are created today are the product of large teams of people with different skills. Chipperfield’s brief was also an expression of idealism. If architects can forge a common ground – with each other, and with the future users and occupants of their buildings– perhaps architecture can restore its social purpose.

So with celebrity and novelty under an embargo, how well do the exhibitors deal with the challenge of representing architecture today?

In Common

Chipperfield’s attack on the architectural ego has been widely and, it would seem, enthusiastically accepted by the exhibiting nations and practices. The Korean pavilion contains eight practices – representing established architects and newcomers – who turned off the spotlight by presenting their schemes anonymously. Global superstar practice OMA honours the much maligned municipal architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, another form of near-anonymous design elsewhere. Different architectural practices share the white-walled spaces in the Central Pavilion to engage in dialogues about form. Dublin-based Grafton Architects, for instance, have picked up Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s call for architecture to be drawn out of the landscape in its new scheme for UTEC university campus in Lima. Their monumental studies in building form are arranged in a ring like some kind of prehistoric sacred site with photo blow-ups of da Rocha’s Serra Dourada Stadium (1973-5), a concrete megastructure, filling the horizon behind.

Foster – the voice of the street?

Even Norman Foster – perhaps the most the successful architectural global brand in the last two decades – agreed to Chipperfield’s terms. One of Foster’s two contributions to the Biennale is a multi-media installation called ‘Gateway’ made with film maker Carlos Carcas and artist Charles Sandison. Dozens of rapidly-paced documentary photographs, showing different gatherings of humanity – from riots to the Haj pilgrimage in Mecca – are projected high on the walls of a pitch-black room. This spectacle is accompanied by a booming soundtrack, carefully synchronized to accentuate the elation and the anxieties in these moments. Underfoot, data projections of the names of illustrious architects from the past and present, stream across the dark floor and up the rough columns of the Arsenale like a digital virus. Whilst the installation is impressively dizzying, what is not clear is the connection that Foster, Carcas and Sandison want to make between architecture and these dramatic events.

So which schemes and projects on display in Venice might improve the quality of being together? ‘Common ground’ infers something shared. Perhaps it can be understood as the meeting point for consensus and universal values. This is clear in Chipperfield’s introductory statements. But for a ground to be truly ‘common’, it has to accommodate difference and disagreement too. In recent years political philosopher Chantal Mouffe has made the case for agonistic relations in our political, cultural and economic lives. For a democracy to succeed, she argues, different and critical views need to be expressed. Critique and disputation are important for the health of civic society. They are just as important for architecture too.

Herzog & de Meuron have installed a show which sets out the schedule of one of their major schemes, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, which shuddered to a halt in November 2011 in the face of conflicts between the client (the city) and the contractor. It is now scheduled for completion in 2014. The building is presented as a series of suspended forms fashioned from layered blocks of foam held by plywood panels. These models offer little more than an impression of the interior spaces of the concert halls. Blown-up pages from the German press flank these hanging boxes. What is impressive is the amount of frank coverage of the scheme and the differences between the three main players. For architecture to truly occupy the common ground, it needs to be well reported. The public nature of a building should start with discussion of proposals, construction and even costs, and not on the day that the contractors leave the site. On this evidence, German readers are certainly better served by their press than most others elsewhere.

The US Pavilion celebrates the power of bottom up design.

Some of the most interesting exhibits in Venice offer reflection not on buildings as distinct objects but on the means by which we – architects and non-architects alike – can improve our buildings and cities. The US Pavilion, a small neoclassical temple, is filled with more than 120 examples of what the curators called ‘Spontaneous Interventions. Design Actions for the Common Good’, that is ‘bottom up’ attempts to improve the environment, sometimes by architects and artists, and sometimes by local citizens. They include real achievements such as a community scheme in Jackson Heights, Queens which has turned asphalt roads into grass playgrounds for children. Desires are mapped too: Candy Chang’s ‘I wish I was …’ schemes in which local people can express – in a direct and simple fashion – their hopes for vacant lots. Like these projects, the American display asks for just a little effort on the part of visitors. Large hanging panels describing each scheme hang on pulleys from the ceiling at head-height. When they are pulled into view, a counterweight suspended close to the walls rises to reveal, in a few words, the ‘solution’ to the problem being addressed. Underfoot, the curators have created an infographic charting the long history of participatory citizenship in the US to demonstrate that the projects overhead are deeply wired into the country’s DNA. Whilst all these schemes undoubtedly seek to improve the spaces of American life, many do not require the conventional skills of architects. In fact, sometimes what is required, it seems, is less architecture.

Architecture takes the form of a Venezuelan bar

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this kind of rethinking on show in Venice is a spirited project recording the squatting of Torre David, an abandoned and unfinished 45-story office tower in the middle of Caracas, Venezuela. With its roof-top heliport, the tower was planned for the super-rich. Today, 750 poor families make their home in this ruin of the boom-bust economy. They have cut holes in the reinforced concrete frame for doorways and laid cinder blocks to form interior walls. Homes, shops and other businesses have been made in this concrete skeleton. For Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, researchers from Urban-Think Tank and ETH-Zürich, and curator Justin McGuirk, Torre David represents an important experiment in informal settlement which has much to teach architects. Of course, they are not the first to take lessons in participation in the favelas and barrios. The key difference is the lateral sprawl of the shanty town is replaced by the vertical organization of the tower. The tower in ruins is one of the nightmares of modernity. In his 1976 novel High Rise, JG Ballard makes power cuts to an up-market block the trigger for a spiraling descent into primitive violence. Here in Venice, it is presented as an urban landscape with real social value. The community which has formed in the tower has become a self-governing society.

This project won a Gold Lion award from the Biennale jury, not least because McGuirk and his colleagues mounted a joyful and energetic show, complete with a Venezuelan arepa restaurant and moving photographs of everyday life in the tower by celebrated Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan. The café is the most lively corner in the what, for the most part, is a rather serious Biennale. The attention given to the building has not been welcomed by the Venezuelan architectural community or the press for that matter. In the run up to the show a campaign was mounted to discredit the project, claiming that the country was being misrepresented by this ‘vertical slum’ occupied by squatters with no regard for private property. The arguments for and against the exhibition in Venice have rippled across the national press.

McGuirk told Space that the inhabitants of Torre David are circumspect about the attention that Venice has brought to their home:  ‘It is a delicate thing because they love being special and that they are doing something interesting which is worthy of architectural analysis … I would not say that its ideological but they do believe in what they are doing. They think of themselves as a commune, of a kind which they can traced back to a South America before the conquistadors … They are self-organised. They have systems in place. They have water and electricity and security. It is a miniature city. But they are also nervous. If you attract too much attention, you might be kicked out.’

Material Memories

Torre David also represents another theme which runs through the Biennale, that of the fate of modernist buildings. This is emphatically a post modern show (after all, everything in it is after modernism). But it is not one which celebrates its defeat. In fact, many of the exhibits seem wistful, reflecting on what the material legacy of modernist structures which still form much of our material environment. This is perhaps not surprising: David Chipperfield Architects is perhaps best known for its restoration of the Neues Museum, a twelve year project completed in 2009. In Berlin, Chipperfield eschewed imitation, trying to salvage what he could of the historic fabric whilst introducing unsentimental and avowedly new elements where the past could not be reclaimed. Like strata in an archaeological dig, fragments of nineteenth century decorative schemes float on rough plaster and new wall surfaces frame old brickwork. The result is not only ethereal but it makes the Neues Museum a chronometer of Berlin’s troubled history.

Dispassionate modernism

The German Pavilion in Venice makes a claim on a much later and less remarkable type of building – the unassuming brutalist and late modernist structures erected in the 1950s and 1960s found in almost every German city on both sides of the former Cold War divide. Usually regarded today as being fatally outmoded, they are often destroyed to make way for the new. Muck Petzet, the German commissioner, makes the economic and environmental case for reusing and recycling these buildings, perhaps even reducing them as cities and societies shrink. To illustrate his project, Petzet has identified more than a dozen schemes which revive the brutalist concrete structures, seemingly the most unyielding forms of post-war modernism. Presented with the challenge of improving the large, grey and poorly insulated Dornbusch Church, a sixty year old structure, Meixner Schlüter Wendt Architects proposed reducing the building in size. Now the site features a large courtyard inscribed with the footprint of the much larger structure which once stood there and the reduced church itself has gained the dramatic chromatic effect of over-sized stained-glass windows.

The display in the German Pavilion is strangely cool and dispassionate, even if the attachment that young architects feel for late modernism is real. The settings – blown up so that they seem architectural in scale – are always depopulated in Erica Overmeer’s photographs. Whilst the economic case for reuse is made in the Pavilion, the emotional one seems missing. This is clear if one compares the German Pavilion with other engagements with the recent past. In the Korean Pavilion for instance, architect Hanh Jong Ruhl focuses on three schemes which contain memories, albeit sometimes painful ones. Recyling buildings from era of the Japanese occupation – such as the former Kyungsung Court House which was converted by Jong Ruhl to become the Seoul Museum of Art ten years ago means coming to terms with the traumatic events which took place within their walls (such as the trials of Korean independence activists). Similarly, the Estonians used the Biennale as an opportunity to reflect on the value of a Soviet-era building, the Linnahall concert hall designed by Raine Karp and Riina Altmäe and built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980. The display, entitled ‘How Long is a Life of Building?’, features a melancholic film of the long and low structure in its present ruined state and a more upbeat set of interviews with people who have memories of the building. These include stories of events in the late Soviet period when the high pomp of official rituals were interrupted by cats chasing mice, and concerts become impromptu opportunities for anti-Soviet sentiment. A structure which could so easily be presented as symbol of the failure of a much detested system, Soviet socialism, is presented as a rich field of Estonian memories.

Common Languages

It is perhaps not surprising that the Korean, the Estonian and many other displays turned to forms of documentary film to capture architecture. The challenges facing anyone seeking to represent buildings and cities in an exhibition are daunting. The chief problem is one of absence. For the most part, the subjects of all the Venice exhibits are simply elsewhere. Unlike the art biennale which occupies the same national pavilions and rooms in the former dockyards of the Arsenale on alternate years, the content of the show – whether the research being undertaken by British architects abroad or the environmental problems facing Greenland – has to be delivered through representations. Moreover, buildings, cities and landscapes are intricate things requiring considerable explanation and interpretation. Many of the exhibits – like the American pavilion and Herzog & de Mouron’s stop-start scheme in Hamburg – requires a lot of words. So what are the alternatives?

Light is coloured by the Dutch exhibit

The Dutch chose to focus on their own pavilion. Designed by Gerrit Rietvelt sixty years ago, this simple box on a square plan with full height windows.  Artist Petra Blaisse has done little more than fill this void with a curtain which slides into fixed positions on mechanical runners fixed to the ceiling. The sequence takes almost 40 minutes to complete. This moving wall is made from fabrics with different degrees of transparency or metallic finishes. As it loops back and forth, a rich variety of light effects and new spaces are produced, if only temporarily. Called ‘Re-set’, the installation is intended to highlight the quantity of empty buildings in the world today which might be reused. (Curator Ole Bouman reminds us that the building, only used for three months in the year, has been empty for forty years of its life). The effect of Blaisse’s moving curtain is entrancing and this rather mundane point is quickly forgotten. In the company of the densely packed and information-rich pavilions – which demand a lot of their visitors – the Dutch pavilion really holds the visitor’s attention.

Hi-tech, low content

Whilst CAD may rule architectural studios today, relatively few schemes in Venice make use of digital display techniques.  There are almost no fly-thrus and very few digital models to be seen. The Russian Pavilion is an exception. A team gives out digital tablets equipped with QR scanners to visitors. The first impression is exhilarating. One steps into a complete world of pulsing code equipped – like a time-traveller in a Hollywood fantasy – to read the mysterious geometry on the walls and floors. When the screen in one’s hands flashes up stern portraits of the members of the city council of the new Russian silicon valley, Skolkovo, being planned near Moscow, the effect is disappointing. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the content being delivered on the tablet  – a upbeat narrative of a new city which is being planned by a superstar cast including Chipperfield, SANAA, Herzog & de Meuron and others – the format cannot hide the fact that one is looking at a promotional website.

Sublime pattern making

Farshid Moussavi’s investigations into the ways in which pattern and ornament produce what she calls ‘affect’ are far simpler and, perhaps as a result, far more effective than the interactive screens in the Russian Pavilion. Moussavi has filled a tall gallery in the Arsenale with immersive video projections derived from the structures of historic buildings. They include the medieval ribbed vaults in Lincoln Cathedral and the scalloped forms of the Orchid Pavilion designed by Yutaka Murata in Tokyo (1987). Past and present are bridged by what she calls ‘affect’. This is how the rhythm and spatial organization of ornament and the patterns formed by structure affect the body. Architecture is, for Moussavi, a kind of moment when the body enters into a space, even one created five-hundred years ago. Her idea seems slightly strained when converted into large projections in the Biennale. But there is value in being reminded that our encounters with buildings are embodied ones when so many of the rest of the displays are so wordy.

Sound promotes touch, as visitors to the Polish Pavilion cling to the walls

This point is also made – quite loudly – in the Polish Pavilion. Artist Katarzyna Krakowiak and curator Michał Libera have ‘filled’ the space with the sound to – in Libera’s words – ‘make the building more audible, more sensual for the people who walk in’. Outside feeds deliver snatches of familiar Venice experiences such as the sound of a motor boat passing by on a canal or occasional laughter. But it is the building itself which provides the most remarkable sounds. The building’s natural resonance have been amplified into a low, percussive rumble which seems to issue from the walls and floor itself. The effect is compelling. When it came to judging the schemes the Polish Pavilion did not win a one of the three ‘lions’, the prizes awarded by the Biennale Jury but it was given a special nomination. Restrained and yet sensual, imaginative but not spectacular, it captures many of the undercurrents running throughout the 2012 Biennale. Perhaps one should never set too much score by the award of prizes. But the jury – led by Chipperfield – was surely out to make a point or two. They gave the chief prizes to the Torre David installation and the Japanese Pavilion featuring architect Toyo Ito’s emotional narrative of working with victims of the Tsunami to design new homes which provide the practical and psychological shelter which victims of a disaster require. The American Pavilion’s assembly of ‘Spontaneous Interventions’ was nominated as well. These garlands were clearly a reminder to the profession to listen harder to the people that use the buildings it designs.

The Dark Side of the Modern Home

Architecture, Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe

This is an extract of an essay published in Sparke, Massey, Keeble and Martin, eds., Designing the Modern Interior (Berg, 2009)

The modern home is, conventionally, bathed in the light of order. Adolf Loos’s vision of a ‘New Zion’ stripped of its nostalgic ornament; Le Corbusier’s ‘fenêtre en longeur’; and Pierre Koenig’s glass curtain walls and open plans constitute steady steps in the progress of the rational, improved home from its Enlightenment origins. But they do not represent the only kind of modern dwelling. In fact, such domestic utopias might be an inadequate measure of twentieth century modernity. The ‘most terrible century in Western history’ provides many images of broken homes.[1] Windowless bomb shelters, the maternity wards of Heinrich Himmler’s lebensborn programme, ghetto towns like Terezín and the ruins of war-torn cities like Beirut constitute an landmarks in an alternative and unwritten history of the modern home. How might these homes be understood not as ‘accidents’ of history but as its design? And, if viewed in this way, what are the aesthetics of these ruins of history?

Ruins have, of course, long been aestheticised by being seized as symbols through which to reflect on the irresistible passage of time. Their broken state invites comparison with the frailties of the body: while the weeds that thrive in their cracks testify to the triumph of nature over culture. Many eighteenth and nineteenth century aesthetes – famously Wordsworth, Piranesi, Diderot and Michelet – found a melancholic pleasure in contemplating the ruin as utopia in reverse.[2] This sensibility is by no means exhausted today. Recently, for instance, the depopulated centres of America’s rustbelt cities in a similar fashion.[3]

But it is important to stress that two new orders of ruin emerged in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which laid a claim on modernity. Linda Nochlin has observed that the French Revolution marked the first moment in history in which architectural fragments appeared ‘as a positive rather than a negative trope’. The ruin was drafted to symbolise the march of progress:

[T]he fragment, for the Revolution and its artists, rather than symbolizing nostalgia for the past, enacts the deliberate destruction of that past, or, at least, a pulverization of what were perceived to be its repressive traditions. Both outright vandalism and what one might think of as a recycling of the vandalized fragments of the past for allegorical purposes functioned as Revolutionary strategies.[4]

Mikhail Yampolsky has written ‘Destruction and construction can be understood, in certain contexts, as two equally valid features of immortalisation …’[5] The erection of a new monument on the site of an old one is an act of double commemoration or, as he puts it, immortalisation.That a Russian intellectual has allegorized destruction as progress should not come as a surprise. After all he was schooled in a society created by revolution.

It is, perhaps, more difficult to limn the ruins produced by industrial warfare, although of course many have tried.[6] The products of this order of modernity – the results of mechanised violence – seem less innocent or optimistic. The ruins of Rotterdam, Leningrad, Dresden, Warsaw, Hiroshima, Mostar and even New York could and can not function as what Simmel called the ‘naturalised artefact’ because their origins lay in catastrophe.[7] Their status as symbols is overshadowed by their status as indices of events. As Andrew Hersher has argued of the modern ruin in another context:

Damage is a form of design, and the traces of damage inflicted by political violence – a facade stippled by the spray of bullets, a penumbra of smoke around a hole where a door or a window once was, or a pile of rubble no longer identifiable as architecture at all – are at least as significant as any of the elements from which buildings are constructed for living, for the living.[8]

In this sense, the ruins produced by violence are far more ‘legible’ than those produced by the effects of entropy. Comparing the kinds of objects which provoke nostalgic reverie such as the pressed flower in the scrapbook with souvenirs of death like relics, Susan Stewart has written: ‘they mark the horrible transformation of meaning into material more than they mark, as other souvenirs do, the transformation of materiality into meaning.’[9] This contrast also structures the differences between the entropic ruin and the debris of modern war.

It is not surprising that the image of the house in ruins, and its accompanying figure, the displaced person, was a persistent theme in Europe after 1945. It formed the mis-en-scène for novels by Heinrich Böll, Marek Hłasko and Graham Greene as well as films by Roberto Rossellini, Grigori Chukrai and Andrzej Wajda. The destruction of the home was a powerful allegorical form through which artists and writers could reflect not only on the difficult conditions of the present, but also on the problems of remembrance and forgetting. The condition of house in fragments – decayed and riddled with spatial and temporal uncertainties – seemed much like the condition of memory itself facing the recent horrors of war and, in the East, the pressure of an ideology which claimed to already know the past and the future. Equally, the utilitarian modern homes promised to Europe’s displaced peoples – in the new geography of East and West in the aftermath of war and mass destruction – were criticized as being inadequate precisely because they could not inspire memory work of dreams.[10]

Humankind seemed to be stripped of its humanity when displaced from home. In 1945, General Patton, for instance, expressed higher regard for the Germans in their bombed out ruins than the Jews who had survived the camps and were now searching for homes and families in Europe’s ruins: ‘[General] Craig … told me he had inspected another Jewish camp yesterday’ he wrote in his diary, ‘in which he found men and women using adjacent toilets which were not covered in any way although screens were available to make the toilets individually isolated, which the Jews were too lazy to put up. He said the conditions and filth were unspeakable. In one room he found ten people, six men and four women, occupying four double beds. Either these Displaced Persons never had any sense of decency or else they lost it all during their internment by the Germans’.[11] Housing not only provides shelter: it makes people orderly in the minds of others, tidying lives and bodies.

Whilst the image of the home in ruins may have been at it peak in the 1940s and 1950s, it has been a persistent theme in twentieth century culture. What should we make the image of the home in ruins at the end of the century? What perspective might be taken on the debris of domestic life in the twentieth century? In the remains of this short essay, I will turn to the work of two artists, Gregor Schneider and Ilya Kabakov, both of whom have created homes from and with the debris of modern life. Kabakov’s ‘Ten Characters’, an installation based on the form of the communal apartment, and Schneider’s Totes Haus u r (Dead House ur) are powerful commentaries on the catastrophes which shadow modernity in the ‘medium’ of the home.

It would surely be possible to read the domestic spaces exhibited by both artists as autobiographies or even psychological portraits. Kabakov has described his early installations in his Moscow studio as ‘an experiment of biography in the installation genre’ in which he ‘became a character of himself.’[12] And Schneider’s seemingly compulsive and secretive behaviour as well as the assault on his own home which is the basis of the Dead House has encouraged many to follow this line. Paul Schimmel has called the Dead House as ‘life’s echo.’[13] Such readings reproduce one of the principal myths of the century: that the home is a mirror of the individual and a container of private memory. As Ivan Illich puts it, ‘to dwell means to inhabit the traces left by one’s own living, by which one always retraces the lives of one’s ancestors.’[14] But Schneider and Kabakov’s artistic archaeologies drawn attention to a wider and perhaps more disturbing set of modern ambitions of the domestic ‘perfection’.

Undiscarded things

Ilya Kabakov, active in non-official art circles in the Soviet Union from the 1960s, emerged into the consciousness of the West in the late 1980s, his art drawing attention to the textures of life and the residual utopianism of the Soviet Union at the time when it was being dismantled. His first major installation exhibited in the West in 1988 was ‘Ten Characters’, an extension of the themes he had been exploring in albums and paintings made since the 1970s.[15] His installation – a series of cell-like rooms off a shabby corridor poorly lit with electric light bulbs – presents the possessions and living spaces of ten absent Soviet citizens. In their absence, their lives are described in a series of vivid extended texts (often in the heterogeneous voices of official reports, newspaper articles, diaries and ad hominem reflections) and, of course, their possessions. The viewer is invited to be both a psychologist and an archaeologist, extracting meaning from the debris of life and fragmentary reports. In this work, Kabakov recreated a communal apartment (komunalka), the most distinct space in the domestic landscape of the Soviet Union, domestic exotica for audiences in Washington, Paris and London.

The komunalka is a fascinating historical artefact: it remains both a symptom of the radical hopes and, in the event, the failure of the Soviet dreamworld. In the aftermath of the October Revolution, the ‘bourgeois’ conception of home as a private space – both socially and spatially – was rejected in a series of decrees issued from 1918 nationalising land and abolishing private ownership of property. Collective modes of housing were not only adopted as a matter of exigency, but also proclaimed as the democratisation of space.[16] Large pre-revolutionary apartments, once occupied by the wealthy and their servants, were sub-divided to provide homes for a number of working class and peasant families. In his Moscow diaries Walter Benjamin described, employing a characteristically surreal metaphor, how these private homes had become common property and were now over-populated by numerous families and their meagre possessions; ‘Through the hall door one steps into a little town’.[17]

The komunalka was an instrument with which to create the new collectivity. It was to be the first stage in a new domestic landscape which would be furnished with dom komunii (communal houses), glass and steel building-machines which would accommodate hundreds of adults and children meeting their basic needs with by collective facilities like public canteens and an on-site boarding schools. Minimal allowances of ‘private’ space were to be provided to foster the kind of communalism lauded by communist ideologues and inhibit the ‘private’ possession of things. In fact, the desire for such things was expected to disappear when all human needs were satisfied by the perfect environment.[18] Andrei Platonov in his novel, The Foundation Pit (1930) described the ‘All Proletarian Home’ as a step towards Communism itself. His hero, predictably an engineer who is – less predictably – riddled with doubt, designs a

single building that was to replace the old town where … people lived fenced off from one another on their private plots: in a year’s time the entire local proletariat would leave the old town and its petty properties and take possession of the monumental new home. And in another decade or two, some other engineer would construct a tower, in the very centre of the world, where the toiling masses of the whole earth would happily take up residence for the rest of time.[19]

Such new collective homes were never (or hardly ever[20]) built. And whilst the mass housing schemes promoted by Nikita Khrushchev and his successor Leonid Brezhnev dramatically altered the face of cities and the living patterns of society, they did little to break up the institution of the family (in fact, in the form of the single-family apartment they did much to reinforce it). Moreover, the komunalka – the first phase in the campaign against bourgeois domesticity – remained a lasting feature of domestic life in the Soviet Union. In 1989, for instance, one-quarter of the population lived in komunalkii, sharing a common kitchen, a common toilet and a common telephone in an apartment subdivided by flimsy partitions, sometimes little more than curtains.[21]

Conventionally art historians have turned to Kabakov’s ‘Ten Characters’ as a comment on the forms of horizontal surveillance which operated not in only in the communal apartment but throughout Soviet society. Constantly aware of one’s movements and opinions being detected by others, the individual modifies his or her behaviour. Life is reduced to one of vigilance and performance or as Boris Groys puts it elegantly ‘the communal turns everyone into an artist’[22] For the purposes of this essay, another feature of the installation calls for attention, the debris from which Kabakov fashions his art. One space – once occupied by a cosmonaut who seemingly has flown into space by means of a catapult – is a ‘spectacle of total devastation’.[23] A massive hole in the ceiling created by an explosion detonated at the moment of take off has left the room littered with plaster fragments whilst the former occupant’s possessions are strewn all around. The room itself, bathed in the red light of propaganda posters, is a temple for Soviet dreams of futurism, of transcendence.[24] After the departure of this anonymous Gagarin, all that remains however is junk.

Another room – occupied by ‘The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away’ – is far more orderly and retrospective in tone. Scraps of paper and film, slithers of packaging, rags, tins and jars are carefully arranged in vitrines and hung on the wall. Each has a label attached to it, in the style of a museum catalogue, with a number and an inscription. The room itself is short and narrow, like a corridor, and contains two doors, one of which is permanently locked. This is the living space of an individual, but no furniture is visible, except a small divan.

Svetlana Boym, in her brilliant study of the myths of everyday life in Russia, describes the komunalka as the place where ‘domestic trash’ triumphed.[25] Far from being a new commonwealth in which the frictions caused by attachment to possessions was eased by the benefits of collective life: things (and often the social divisions they represent) announced their presence loudly, if sometimes mysteriously, in the communal apartment. This is Kabakov’s own description of the corridor:

Despite regular cleaning …, there was always a heap of undiscarded things. No-one knew whom these things belonged to, what they were used for, nor was it known whether the owners of these things still lived in the apartment or if they had already left. These things were scattered in all the corners, hung on the walls, stood along the entire length of the hallway. Because of all this, the apartment took on the appearance of a mysterious cave, full of stalactites and stalagmites, with a narrow passageway between them leading the constantly open kitchen door … Near the large discarded things – big wardrobes, cast-iron stoves, couches and other household junk -, smaller things were piled up on all sides and on top of the other ones – pipes crates, boxes, old buckets, bottles, both broken and complete … [26]

Recycling and garbage were prominent in the ecology of late Soviet socialism: a greasy tide of filth seeped into public spaces such as common hallways, streets, parks and beaches; whilst shortage turned citizens into skilled fixers of broken things, adept at the everyday arts of bricolage. On when things were completely exhausted (itself never a certain state), could they be dumped. But Kabakov’s debris – collected by the pseudonymous figure of the ‘The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away’ – is neither a practical resource nor is it without value. It evidently operates within the memorial economy rather than the economic one.

But what is being memorialized in this collection of things? Might this room operate as what Mikhail Epshtein, writing at same time, described as a ‘lyrical museum’, a home for things cycling between the warehouse and the dump? The collection of the ordinary stuff of everyday life, he says, is a response to modernity: ‘Our ancestors would hardly have thought of trying intensely to understand surrounding Things or of creating a memorial for them because the homes they lived in were such “memorials.” The Thing was meaningful from the start when it was inherited … and meaningful at the end when it was passed on …[27] In the Soviet Union, the figure of the collector – an activity laced with pathos – is rendered poignant by the fact that he was a representative of a social system which made the greatest possible claim to free mankind from the weight of the past and from the alienating effects of things. But Kabakov’s collector does not preserve fragments of a pre-revolutionary world (say in the manner of Chatwin’s fictional Utz or Dombrovsky’s Keeper of Antiquities[28]): he collects the debris of Soviet socialism. Even before the end of the Soviet experiment in 1991, Kabakov sensed how this dreamworld could become a ruin; how the future could become the past; and how utopia could become trash.

Dead House u r

Much distinguishes Kabakov’s installation from Gregor Schneider’s project, the Dead House. The Russian artist’s prolixity and his interest in the structures of ideology, reason and progress are very distant from the obdurate preoccupations of the young German artist. Nevertheless, Robert Storr writing in Art Forum in 2001 saw in Schneider’s work at the Venice Biennale that year ‘evidence of the delayed but growing influence in the West of Ilya Kabakov’s gritty, dystopian fantasies’. [29]

In the mid 1980s, Schneider, then a young man, began remodelling his own three-storey family home in Rheydt, a district of Mönchengladbach. By removing and duplicating walls, he created twenty-two rooms as well as numerous passages and dead-ends. Massive structures – suggesting inverted houses – were built into existing rooms. Doors to bedrooms were hidden behind heavy, brick walls which Schneider could move, albeit with difficulty, like a sliding door, to welcome (or incarcerate) his guests. Entire rooms could rotate on their axes. Many of the spaces created by these radical modifications were cramped and oppressive, punctuated with holes which penetrated through floors and what Schneider calls ‘in-between rooms.’ Blind windows were built directly in front of actual windows facing the outside world. Cupboards functioned as doorways into secret rooms. Hidden lights and ventilators produced the illusion of daylight and fresh air. And, like Kabakov’s lyrical museums, the Dead House became a kind of exhausted kunstkammer filled with decaying photographs, rolled up carpets, stuffed animals and dingy antiques. In these ways, it became a kind of mutant home formed from the corpses of other homes nearby, many of which were abandoned when the authorities forced their occupants to move so that the coal-rich ground could be mined.

Schneider’s dead ends, blind windows and cells within rooms suggest spaces of burial and torture, extra-territorial zones where the ‘rules of life’ are suspended and violent forces unleashed (Some floors were lined with lead, whilst some walls were dressed with sound proofing materials). This is perhaps where the bloodshed or loss suggested by the project’s title, Totes Haus u r, occurs. But the project also pointed to birth. u r – ostensibly refers to the first and last letters of the street on which it stands, Unterheydener Strasse. But of course, ur also means origin. Homes are conventionally sites of social and biological reproduction. In its decomposed state, Schneider’s house combines the symmetry of womb and tomb (poles that Freud famously conjoined in his essay on the Uncanny[30]). In the mid 1990s Schneider said:

I dream of taking the whole house away with me and building it somewhere else. My father and mother would then live in it, older relatives would like dead in the cellar, my brothers would live upstairs, around and about there would be men and women who don’t quite know where else to go. Somewhere in a corner would the large lady who constantly makes children and throws them out into the world.[31]

Schneider figured aspects of this particular nightmare in the form of portrait photographs concealed within the layers of rooms: each generation sealed, invisibly, as layers between walls.

In the 1990s and the early years of the new century Schneider’s elements of the Dead House were carefully removed from its Rheydt site and reinstalled within the white walls of galleries throughout Europe and North America. The Dead House achieved its greatest exposure at the Venice Biennale in 2001 when the artist represented Germany. This setting brought one of the Dead House’s most potent themes to the fore: the German pavilion had been remodeled in 1938 by the Third Reich in order to conform to the neo-classical idiom. Architect Ernst Haiger replaced the iconic columns and a modest gable of the small classical temple with four massive flat pilasters carrying an austere architrave. It represented an unmistakable projection of fascist aesthetics onto the international stage.

In this particular setting, Schneider’s Dead House was unmistakably drawn into the orbit of German history (somewhat inevitably following Nam June Paik and Hans Haacke’s treatment of the historic space in 1993 in their installation ‘Germania’[32]). Schneider created a claustrophobic labyrinth within the Pavilion and set a common glass-paned door from Rheydt into its grand entrance, a gesture which perhaps points to the complicity of ordinary homes in the reproduction of Nazism and even as the site of the execution of its crimes. This has repeatedly been the accusation made of German society. But the idea that a house is somehow guilty of crimes seems illogical, a category error which confuses mind and matter. Yet, the places in which tremendous violence has occurred are often demolished in order to exorcise their ghosts (or to deny ghost-hunters). In 1946, for instance, the garden of the Reich’s Chancellery, the site of Hitler’s bunker, was razed and the area leveled by the communist authorities which now controlled the Eastern sectors of the city. The bunker was buried (again). Similarly, in 1952, the Bavarian government blew up the ruins of the Berghof, Hitler’s heimatschutzstil home on the Obersalzberg. In an effort to stop the site becoming a site for Nazi and neo-Nazi pilgrims, the building could not be allowed to remain (though this intention to suppress memory was somewhat undermined by the choosing to commit this domicide on the anniversary of Hitler’s death, 30th April).

But of course Schneider has not destroyed the Dead House, but expanded and mutated it. In a strange twist, his secret rooms and false floors seem to echo the desperate attempts by Europe’s Jews to fashion places in which to hide in Germany and the occupied countries of the Second World War. These were, as we know, too rarely safe homes. ‘Street by street, house by house, inch by inch, from attic to cellar’, wrote one survivor of a German ghetto-clearing in occupied Poland, ‘The Germans became expert at finding these hiding places. When they searched a house they went tapping the walls, listening for the hollow sound that indicated a double wall. They punched holes in ceilings and walls ….’. [33] Entering into the constricting passages and false rooms was an uncertain experience, particularly for those who visited the ‘original’ incarnation of the Dead House in Rheydt: it produced the uncanny double effect of hunting and being hunted.

The Dead House was, in this regard, a strange kind of countermonument, a celebrated genre of public artworks through which Germany was asked to confront the Holocaust in the 1980s. Far more typical were those schemes which – by means of disappearing columns or as street cobbles carrying the names of Jewish cemeteries on their underside – asked Germans to reflect on the absences in their midst.[34] This phenomenon sought to address the aesthetic problem of the monument, historically an object associated with triumphalism, by seeking to produce a sense of anguished reflection on the part of its viewers. Such counter monuments have attracted a good deal of controversy. As Richard Esbenshade put it in 1995 ‘The celebration of counter-memory or counter-history begs the question of who is doing the remembering and the rewriting of history.’[35] A far more disturbing (and tactically irresponsible) countermemorial is perhaps one which simulates the conditions in which people became prey.

Inconclusive material

Historian Eric Hobsbawm has represented the late twentieth century as an era of disconnect: ‘The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century.’[36] Living in a ‘sort of permanent present lacking any organic relations to the public past’ the ‘historical memory is no longer alive’ in modern societies. Hobsbawm’s observation made in 1994 was intended to reaffirm the role of the historian as a political and social conscience. What kind of connection with the past is made Kabakov and Schneider’s homes? After all the eerie is precisely the sensation generated by both installations.

Both Kabakov and Schneider explore the ways in which ordinary things might materialise memory, an inquiry which was all the more powerful for exploring the debris of the home. In environments in which homes were experiments for either the disavowal of domesticity (the Soviet Union) or its perversion (Nazi Germany), these artists produce spaces for an examination of the trash produced by modernity. The facticity and durability of material has long been claimed as its value. Hannah Arendt argued, for instance, that it was these qualities which ‘gives the things of the world their relative independence from men who produced and use them … . From this viewpoint, the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that…men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.’[37] But in societies which have been forced through the mill of history, the ‘sameness’ of that chair or table might be the very cause of disturbance.

[1] Isaiah Berlin cited by Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London, 1995), p.1.

[2] Charles Merewether ‘Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed’ in Michael S. Roth, Claire Lyons and Charles Merewether, eds., Irresistible Decay (Los Angeles, 1997), pp.1-13. See also Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London, 2002).

[3] James Jeffrey Higgins, Images of the Rust Belt (Kent, OH, 1999)

[4] Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity (New York, 1995),p.8.

[5] M Yampolsky, ‘In the Shadow of Monuments’ in N. Condee, ed., Soviet Hieroglyphics, (London, 1995), p.100.

[6] The damaged yet preserved state of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, for instance, represents a humanistic view of the ruin.

[7] Georg Simmel ‘The Ruin’ in Kurt H. Wolff, ed., Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics (New York, 1965), pp.259-66.

[8] Andrew Hersher, ‘The Language of Damage’ in Grey Room, 7 (Spring 2002),p.69.

[9] Susan Stewart, On Longing. Narrative of Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham and London, 1993),p.138.

[10] Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny, Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Boston, MA., 1994), p. 64.

[11] George S. Patton (September 21st, 1945) The Patton Papers, 1940-1945, edited by Martin Blumenson (Cambridge, MA., 1998) p.759

[12] Ilya Kabakov, Der Text als Grundlage des Visnellen / The Text as the Basis of Visual Expression, edited by Zdenek Felix (Köln, 2000) p.269.

[13] Paul Schimmel, ‘Life’s Echo’ in Gregor Schneider (Milan, 2003), pp.103-118.

[14] Ivan Illich H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness. Reflections on the History of ‘Stuff’ (Dallas, 1985),p.8

[15] It was first mounted at Ronald Feldman Fine Art in New York in 1988.

[16] 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 1993), pp.85–149.

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

[18] On the early Soviet critique of the commodity see Christine Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge MA., 2005) particularly pp.1-88.

[19] Andrei Platonov, ‘The Foundation Pit’ (1930) in Catriona Kelly, ed., Utopias (Hardmondsworth, 1999) p.21.

[20] On attempts to produce new experimental collective whousing schemes in the 1960s see Monica Rüthers, Moskau bauen von Lenin bis Chruscev. Öffentliche Räume zwischen Utopie, Terror und Alltag (Cologne, 2007), pp.248–61.

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

[22] Borys Groys, David A. Rose and Iwona Blazwick, Ilya Kabakov (London, 1998), p.63

[23] Kabakov, Text als Grundlage des Visuellen p.332

[24] For a brilliant analysis of this space see Boris Groys, Ilya Kabakov. The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment (London, 2006).

[25] Svetlana Boym, Commonplaces. Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), p.123.

[26] Kabakov, Text als Grundlage des Visuellen, p. 300.

[27] Mikhail Epshtein, ‘Things and Words: Towards a Lyrical Museum’ in Efimova and Manovich, ed., Tekstura (Chicago, 1993), p. 164

[28] Bruce Chatwin, Utz (London, 1988); Yury Dombrovsky, The Keeper of Antiquities (London, 1968).

[29] Robert Storr ‘Harry’s Last Call’ in Art Forum (September 2001), p. 159.

[30] ‘To some people the idea of being buried alive by mistake is the most uncanny thing of all. And yet psychoanalysis has taught us that this terrifying fantasy is only a transformation of another fantasy which had originally nothing terrifying about it al all, but was qualified by a certain lasciviousness – the fantasy, I mean of intra-uterine existence.’ S. Freud, ‘The “Uncanny”’ in Art and Literature (Collected Works) (Hardmondsworth, 1985) p. 366

[31] Gregor Schneider in an interview with Ulrich Loock in Gregor Schneider (Milan, 2003) pp.99-100.

[32] The marble floor of the pavilion interior was smashed into fragments at Haacke and Paik’s instruction. The visitor had to walk with great care over the uneven and unstable surface. As they moved, their steps were amplified and broadcast back into the echoing space. Here was a national pavilion – and, by extension, a nation – without solid foundations. See Dario Gamboni The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution (London, 1997) p.166.

[33] Henry Orenstein cited by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (London, 1997), p. 395

[34] see James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven and London, 1993) and James E. Young, At Memory’s Edge: After-images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven and London, 2007).

[35] Richard S. Esbenshade ‘Remembering to Forget: Memory, History, National Identity in Postwar East-Central Europe’, Representations, 49 (winter 1995), pp.72–96.

[36] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London, 1995), p.3.

[37] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1999) p.137. I am grateful to Paul Betts for alerting me to this passage in Arendt’s book.

From Homelessness to Homelessness

Architecture, Design as Critique, Modernism

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

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

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

Coming to Terms with the Past

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

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

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

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

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

Building is a fundamental activity of man

Man builds, by joining spatial figures, thus shaping space

Building, he responds to the spirit of the age

Our age is the age of technology

The plight of our age is homelessness.[11]

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

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

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

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


Here, Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[24] For a transcription of the ‘‘Kitchen Debate’’ in English see

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

[26] The “Kitchen Debate” 1959.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Architecture and the Image of the Future in the People’s Republic of Poland

Architecture, Eastern Europe, Modernism

The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases …

Karl Marx, Capital[1]

What would communism look like? And what would its material form be? Ideologues in Eastern Europe after 1945 spent much time and energy persuading the citizens of the new people’s republics that this state of grace was to be the destiny of socialist man and womankind. According to official rhetoric, socialist societies were advancing towards a higher state, that of communism, and that all energies were to be directed towards this end. Hard work, class vigilance (to ‘rid’ society of ‘antisocial’ elements and attitudes) and personal asceticism in the present would be repaid tenfold in the future. But the nature of this bounty was barely sketched in official futurology. In fact, the image of this future nirvana became less and less distinct as time passed. It is a remarkable feature of Soviet marxism as it extended across Eastern Europe is that it offered rather open-ended pictures of the future towards which society was advancing. Ordinary citizens were promised life in a borderless land where private property would ‘wither away’ and the enlightenment of universal education would be an everyday right, as would be high quality new housing. Invariably, these promises – made in five-year plans, speeches from the tribune at Party congresses and in editorials in the controlled press – were made in hazy, even bathetic terms. Yet it was for these uncertain ends that great sacrifices were being asked (and great violence occasionally unleashed). Where, one wonders, might more concrete images of the communist future be found? Might this image be provided by architecture?

Architecture necessarily had to engage with the utopian promise of communism. Architects – perhaps more than any other profession commissioned by the new socialist authorities – were charged with imagining this future. In the case of the People’s Republic of Poland – the subject of this essay – this was evident, for instance, in the ‘Six-year Plan for the Reconstruction of Warsaw’ issued under the authorship of President Bolesław Bierut in 1949.

The future face of Plac Grzybowski according to Sześcioletni Plan Odbudowy Warszawy (The Six-year Plan for the Reconstruction of Warsaw) under the authorship of Bolesław Bierut (published in 1950).

This was to be the blueprint for the future development of all Polish cities. Exercising rational command of the resources of the nation, the ruins of war would be transformed into ordered cities. The futurism of the grand boulevards and monumental residential and public buildings which characterised this conception of socialist urbanism was broadcast loudly: ‘Our country is undergoing a revolutionary transformation’ wrote Stefan Dybowski, Minister of Culture in 1953: ‘A new landscape is in the making on a daily basis. Gigantic buildings are towering in socialism. … Instead of an ageing capitalistic landscape, which, in a sentimental way, neglected civilisation, we are creating a new landscape.’[2]

The fact that these towers to socialism were dressed in retrospective garb – derived in the Soviet manner from various ‘progressive’ periods in Polish architectural history – did not diminish Dybowski’s claims about the novelty of the people’s cityscapes.[3] His words served what Boris Groys later defined as the posthistorical character of Socialist Realism: ‘According to Stalinist aesthetics, everything is new in the new posthistorical reality … There is no reason to strive for formal innovation, since novelty is automatically guaranteed by the total novelty of superhistorical content and significance. Nor does this aesthetics fear charges of eclecticism, for it does not regard the right to borrow from all ages as eclectic; after all, it selects only progressive art, which possess inherent unity … Socialist Realism as a whole … could be considered eclectic only by an outside, formalistic observer who sees nothing but combination of styles and ignores the high ideological qualities and “popular spirit” that unite them.’[4]

Plac Konstytucji (Constitution Square), the centerpiece of the Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa (Marszałkowska Housing District) in Warsaw photographed at the time of its opening from Stanisław Jankowski, MDM Marszalkowska 1730-1954 (Warsaw, 1955).

For the convinced (or those inclined to dissimulation) a short step into the new landscapes of Socialist Realism – new cities like Nowa Huta or districts like the Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa (Marszałkowska Housing District) in Warsaw – was a long stride which connected the past, present and future.

After the turbulent years of the mid 1950s known as the Thaw which propelled a reform leadership into power, the hollow euphoria of Stalin-era architecture was replaced by a rather more utilitarian programme of construction schemes for high-rise housing using prefabricated panels and identikit public buildings like schools and factories. This was a landscape shaped by expediency and shortage. At the same time, Socialist Realism was loudly and openly thrown into the dustbin of history by architects and ideologues alike. The posthistorical aesthetic was forever contaminated with the history of Stalinism.

Nevertheless, the task of representing communist futurism continued to be appointed to some architects in the commission of what Andrzej Basista has called ‘prestige buildings’.[5] Poland, like all Eastern Bloc countries, invested heavily in a small number of virtuoso structures which demonstrated its command of modernity. Lightweight exhibition pavilions, mountain-side hotels, brutalist houses of culture and high-rise government buildings constituted a heterogeneous corpus of what can be called socmodernist buildings, i.e., the architecture of socialist modernity.[6] Drawing on considerable creativity and on-site construction skills, high quality materials and making extensive use of modern art as decoration, socmodernist architecture offers one of the most prominent and long-lasting strata of futurism in the Eastern Bloc.

Wojewódzka Hala Widowiskowo-Sportowa (Regional Hall for Sports Events and Spectacles) in Katowice designed by Maciek Gintowt and Maciej Krasiński (1959-1972) photographed by the author in 2007.

Whilst the spectacular contours of socmodernity can be traced in many kinds of buildings constructed from the late 1950s, the most spectacular expressions were reserved for leisure functions. The Wojewódzka Hala Widowiskowo-Sportowa (Regional Hall for Sports Events and Spectacles) in Katowice designed by Maciek Gintowt and Maciej Krasiński is a case in point.[7] Opened in the early 1970s, this scheme dates from 1959 when architects working for the Office for the Study and Design of Industrial Building Types (Biura Studiów i Projektów Typowych Budownictwa Przemysłowego) in Warsaw won the competition with their design. An early tensegrity structure, it has the appearance of a massive tilted saucer. Seeming to hover, its inverted conical form was conceived by engineer Wacław Zalewski to ‘float’ in the ground thereby diminishing the risks presented by the unstable site riddled with mine shafts and industrial junk. Whilst it engineering was technically innovative, its fantastic form was also highly symbolic. Spodek was part of an urban ensemble which included superblocks (including the largest single residential unit in Poland accommodating 2800 people in one building) organised around a multi-lane highway. With its busy downtown, Katowice by the early 1970s provided a compelling image of socialist modernity.[8]

If, in architectural terms, Spodek and other similar socmodernist structures captured the residual futurism of the post-Stalinist period, what are we to make of their roles as site of leisure? Should we see them as mirror images of similar facilities in the West and, as such, shaped by Cold War competition? Spodek, for instance, contained an ensemble of functions: hotel, a multifunctional hall for concerts, circus performances and sports events and an ice rink. Alternatively, should we see them in terms of an attempt to manage leisure within the command economy? Or might they even prefigure the utopia of communism? After all, it is important to note that leisure held a particularly important place in Soviet ideology for its potential to suggest the future. Free of drudgery and alienation, humanity in nirvana of full-blown communism would enter what Marx called the ‘realm of freedom’.[9]


Dancing grounds and bandstand in the Wojewódzki Park Kultury i Wypoczynku (Provincial Park of Culture and Rest) in Katowice photographed by the author in 2007.

Spodek had originally been conceived as an addition for the Wojewódzki Park Kultury i Wypoczynku (Provincial Park of Culture and Rest) in Katowice in the ideologically and economically significant industrial zone of Silesia. When the Park opened in 1951, it had been a major propaganda vehicle demonstrating the priorities of the new order. It provided sport, culture and access to popular science for the city’s workers. It was designed by 14-strong team of Warsaw-based architects and landscape designers employed by the Central Office for the Study and Design of Communal Buildings. Occupying over 600 hectares, it was intended to draw over 140,000 visitors on Sundays and holidays. To realise the official slogan of the day, ‘”Black Silesia” must become “green”’, the park was landscaped as a series of gentle valleys around a small central hill. Long tree-lined avenues connected an observatory, a planetarium, a zoo, botanical gardens, an outdoor theatre, summer pavilion open-air cinema and dancing arena. Future plans were laid for a sports stadium and ethnographic museum and a ‘People’s Hall’ (something like a meeting hall for rallies). Here was a demonstration of the power of mankind to perfect the world in its own image:

Socialist parks of culture should not only compensate for social injustice, but they should also be landscapes created by the invention of artists; humanist landscapes in which man plays the main role; landscapes created with the conviction of the existence of knowable and objective facts about the world, as well as the marvellous possibility that the world can be shaped by humanity for the good of mankind.[10]

Leisure taken here was to be public and shared, uplifting and dignified.[11] The Park was represented as an antidote to the commodified leisure on offer in the fairground or at the funfair. Socialist leisure was also to be a mechanism for the redistribution of the commonwealth, i.e., an instrument of social justice. As an entitlement, leisure was a sign of the maturity of a society. In socialism new leisure experiences were to be made available to the loyal comrade, particularly if he or she worked in the sectors of the nationalised economy like mining or steel manufacture closely associated with working class solidarity. This was the principle behind the provision of new sanatoria built in the 1950s and 1960s. Hutnik, an early point block in Szczawnica in the Pieniny National Park in the very south of Poland, for instance, was commissioned by the United Steel and Iron Combine in Katowice (a city 200 km away) and designed by Zofia Fedykówna and Jerzy Nowicki in 1958, for instance, for the benefit of its workers. The controversy of building in a national park notwithstanding,[12] tourism in the natural setting was viewed as both an entitlement and as an elevating experience.

Library and meeting hall wing of the house of culture in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw (1949-52) designed by Barbara and Stanisław Brukalski, photographed in 2005 by the author.

Leisure – whether taken on a Sunday in the Katowice park or in a mountain-side sanatorium – would, it was claimed, also help the worker restore his body and mind for the socially beneficial project of building socialism. This aspiration was signalled by the Park’s title, the Park of Culture and Rest. This ‘principle’ of socialist leisure also shaped the rash of houses of culture which were built in Poland – as elsewhere in the Soviet Bloc – from the late 1940s onwards. The first in Warsaw after the war – built in the district of Żoliborz – is somewhat typical: a long colonnaded wing accommodating a meeting hall and a public library with fluted columns capped with finials, plasterwork representing mythical beasts and other historicist ornaments. It was completed in 1954 by the addition of a domed theatre seating 300 people (Teatr Komedia). Set in a landscaped garden, the Żoliborz house of culture offered a vision of a socialist tempietto.

Teatr Komedia, part of the house of culture in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw (completed in 1954) designed by Barbara and Stanisław Brukalski, photographed in 2005 by the author.

Whilst the Park of Culture and Rest in Katowice and the Żoliborz house of culture were sublations of various architectural pasts including aristocratic romantic gardens of the eighteenth century and the antiquarianism of the Renaissance, they were, above all, determined by Soviet precedents. After all, the title of the Park of Culture and Rest in Katowice made direct reference to Moscow’s Gorky Park which had been given this name in 1928. And, as Anne White has charted, the spread of houses of culture, rural reading rooms and factory educational clubs throughout Eastern Europe following the Second World War was the ‘imperial’ face of Soviet cultural policy.[13] Staffed with professional cultural workers, these institutions sought to mould the political consciousness of the working classes through education and the arts. Within their walls, the minds and bodies of the citizens of socialist societies would be prepared for their future roles in communism.



The house of culture in Żoliborz has – in retrospect – generated embarrassment amongst Polish architects and architectural historians. It is a building which was quickly written out of the narratives of Polish architectural history during the revisions of the Thaw period of the second half of the 1950s. In more recent years it has been reinscribed but only as an ‘architectural insult’, condemned for being ‘terribly primitive’.[14] There should be no surprise in this. The building was a clear, early statement of the new faith, that of Socialist Realism launched in Poland in 1949. A long-standing member of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), Helena Syrkus presented the triumph of the aesthetic in Poland to the congress in Bergamo, Italy, that year. She represented functionalism as a symptom of capitalism and, as such, a redundant phenomenon in the advanced conditions of socialism.[15] The concerns of the pre-war Modern Movement that had been announced in manifestoes and charters were not wrong, but there were redundant, announcing ‘the demands of the Athens Charter have been completely satisfied in my country since 1945 …’.[16]

Syrkus was not perhaps the only figure who accepted Socialist Realism in these posthistorical terms. The Żoliborz house of culture was designed by Barbara and Stanisław Brukalski, prominent pre-war modernists, might be taken as an acceptance of the real politics of what Groys calls this ‘posthistorical reality’. Like Syrkus, they had been Polish representatives at CIAM IV in 1933 which had met to debate the theme of ‘The Functional City’. As agents for modernist urbanism, they had worked closely with the Warsaw Housing Cooperative (Warszawska Spółdzielnia Mieszkaniowa) on social housing estates in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw (or ‘Red Żoliborz’ as it was known). Their designs shared much with modernist siedlungen in Weimar Germany. The fourth housing ‘colony’ designed by the Brukalskis in the late 1920s, for instance, was closely related to the gallery system that Hannes Meyer introduced in his residential slabs in Törten-Dessau. The estate survived the war. In the 1940s it became an important functioning island in a sea of destruction, providing accommodation for the new communist elite. The pre-war vision of ‘Red Żoliborz’ was effectively completed by the Brukalskis in the late 1940s by the addition of ‘missing’ servicing elements including the house of culture described above (i.e. ‘missing’ from the perspective of the Athens Charter.[17])

If the apparent volte-face of pre-war modernists in the brutal environment of Stalinist Poland has yet to be properly explored, the antagonisms between high Modernism and Socialist Realism are well known, particularly on matters of style (and Syrkus later came to regret her support for the Stalinist regime[18]). Nevertheless, some lines of continuity can be drawn between these two architectural orders. For instance, despite their aesthetic differences, the conceptualisation of leisure in Modern Movement thinking and in Soviet-style Socialist Realism were analogous, even – as the Żoliborz house of culture shows – related.

CIAM’s congresses of the 1930s provide vivid illustrations of pre-war Modern Movement conceptualisations of leisure. It was one of the four principle ‘functions’ of the modern city expressed the Athens Charter (alongside dwelling, work and circulation) and was given particular attention at the fifth congress which met in Paris in 1937. This emphasis was a recognition of the growing political imperative behind mass leisure in Western Europe in the 1930s.[19] Reflecting on this theme, Marxist architect Szymon Syrkus (Helena’s husband) asserted at the 1937 Congress:

… besides working to make a living – a condition often imposed and invariably disciplined by constraint – people need the freely chosen occupation called ‘leisure’. The organization of leisure is a vital link in the chain organizing society. If the city-dweller (citadin) in his leisure time yearns for the contact with nature which he lacks in everyday life, the forms of recreation sought by peasant can perhaps be discovered by a search for contact with the mechanisation of the town. Little by little, with the systematic fading of the essential differences between the town and the countryside, leisure will come to be organized on similar principles.[20]

In other words, modern, democratic leisure was a right to which all were entitled and would, if managed well, have the effect of producing harmonious individuals and social relations.

At heart, both the pre-war Modern Movement and Soviet-style socialism imagined the subjects of their efforts as homo faber and that leisure was to serve their daily discipline and toils. Leisure was, as Chris Rojek describes it, ‘a surplus pleasure to be enjoyed only after the pleasures of wealth creation and the duties of social responsibility have been fulfilled’ and ‘as the reward for work which could be extended or contracted at the will of the donator’.[21] Moreover the private appropriation of leisure time lacked the ideological value of communal experience. This view was clear in socialist Poland when architect and designer Olgierd Szlekys explaining the existenzminimum proportions of the new Soviet-style apartments wrote: ‘[In socialist Poland] we have changed the forms of our life. We have moved part of private life to the houses of culture, to clubs and cafes which are places to meet comrades replacing, we say, the old salons.’[22] Parks, sports centres and houses of culture were licensed sites of collective leisure.

Although the formal differences between the Żoliborz house of culture with its sentimental historicism and the futurist flying saucer in Katowice are undeniable, they are not decisive. In fact, they share a strange duality: both employ fantastic, even magical imagery, and yet they served a highly bureaucratic and functional view of leisure. They were conceived within the rational structures of the command economy in which experience could be quantified, valued, standardised and ultimately controlled. In the People’s Republic of Poland bureaucratic planners were as keen to measure and publish the number of visits to the theatre as they were to calculate number of spoons required by society and manufactured in Poland’s factories.[23] Moreover, as parts in an orderly urban landscape, these amenities performed clearly defined functions which – ideally, if not in reality – ensured the effective operation of the individual and of society. Ultimately, these two structures represent a highly utilitarian conception of leisure.

The Leisure Aesthetic

Cover of Stolica magazine (July 1957) depicting the new interior of the Antyczna café in Warsaw.

Not all new buildings produced after the Thaw years can be accommodated within the orderly and functional principles of ‘socialist leisure’. In fact, the earliest public sign of the new course in architecture after 1956 was rather more vivacious. This was the wave of hotels, restaurants, cafes and attractive shop premises which opened after 1956. ‘Contemporary Style’ schemes exploiting new materials like plastic and bright colours were adopted to mark the rejection of Socialist Realist urban aesthetics. In 1957 the state ushered in a partial market economy, manifest in the rapid appearance of new cafes and restaurants. The changing face of the city was a product of promises to improve standards of living in the face of a storm of criticism following Stalin’s death. Economic reforms, hitherto prohibited fields of science like cybernetics, functionalism in design and abstract art were all conscripted in an effort to re-legitimate communist authority. What was striking about the post-Stalinist mood was the frank and high regard in which Western developments in these fields were held. In the Kremlin, Khrushchev demanded that Soviet scientists, engineers and designer absorb the lessons of Western modernity so that the socialist world might overtake America in terms of living standards, ‘waving bye-bye’, as the Soviet leader put it, as it sped into the future.[24]

The Cracovia Hotel and Kijów Cinema in Cracow in Poland designed by the city architect, Witold Cęckiewicz with structural engineers Jerzy Tombiński and Andrzej Kozłowski in 1959 and completed 1966 illustrates the point. This complex – combining hotel, restaurants, shops and cinema – occupies a prestigious setting in a green and historic quarter of a historic city, opposite the National Museum. One-hundred and fifty metres in length and seven stories high, the design made little attempt to accommodate its setting. It was an assertive statement of modernity. Inside, the structural skeleton is used to open up the space: few partitions obstruct the lower floor. Long vistas through marble halls terminate in abstract works of art. The building also incorporated considerable number of technical gadgets including automatic fire sensors and air conditioning, both novelties in the Polish context. Here was, argued the architect, the clearest demonstration to foreign visitors and potential clients of the high levels of Polish technology. In fact, Cęckiewicz imagined the building as ‘type’ which could be exported to the USSR.[25]

Entrance to the Cracovia Hotel and Kijów Cinema in Cracow in Poland designed by Witold Cęckiewicz with structural engineers Jerzy Tombiński and Andrzej Kozłowski (1959-66). Author’s photograph taken in 2007.

The Cracovia Hotel represented a clear statement of optimism in the capacity of the building industry in Poland to innovate. In fact, the building’s chief claim to significance in the terms of architectural history is that it is one of the first buildings in the country to employ a curtain wall, in this case fashioned from glass, ‘marblit’ and aluminium. Arranged with the regularity of a chequerboard, this material formed a thin membrane wrapped around the structure. The curtain wall has, arguably, been America’s major contribution to the architectural vocabulary of post-war modernism (not a fact, but certainly a period perception). Architect Cęckiewicz’s exposure to the curtain wall was not, however, in the USA but in Paris which he visited in the mid 1950s. He describes the experience of seeing light and open structures there as a kind of epiphany: ‘We, people living in socialist countries, should have been entitled to bright sunny lives and yet we endured in our grey drab surroundings.’[26] His aspiration was by no means an easy feat: aluminium, an energy-intensive material to produce, was not available in Poland on the scale required by this new hotel scheme (30 tonnes). Cęckiewicz and his patrons engaged in difficult negotiations with the Soviet Union for the supply of this material. Even then, a factory in Skawinie had to be retooled in order to produce the frames which held the glass and artificial marble panels in place. To achieve his aim, Cęckiewicz, an ambitious young architect, worked hard, practically and rhetorically, to align his design with the priorities set by the party-state for architecture: this was, as he pressed, an ‘experimental’ building which would provide technical know-how for the rest of the building sector.

In such negotiations, the words ‘experimental’ and ‘type’ played key roles. The former term had already been valorised throughout the Bloc, not least by the announcement of the ‘scientific technological revolution’ in the USSR by Premier Bulganin in the USSR in July 1956 with its powerful symbols (like Sputnik or the atomic power ice-breaker Lenin). Science was to help Soviet society to steer a new and rational course towards the nirvana of communism after the nightmare of Stalinism (and renegotiate its Cold War relations with the West).[27] With rationalism valorised, architects and designers who could characterise their work as ‘experimental’ could bolster their credentials as specialists and, sometimes, draw on greater resources than many of their counterparts in the rest of the world. The scientific ‘turn’ in the Kremlin in the mid 1950s supplied a new language of negotiation throughout the Bloc that was used for many years to come.

The term ‘experimental’ also represented a new kind of contact with the state on the part of architects to behave as technocrats, i.e. to limit the sphere of interest to technical matters. This move might be characterised as a ‘disappearance into materials’, one that approached technological fetishism. Architecture and designers (as well as the state) invested tremendous importance into new building materials and elaborately engineered structures. Some of the most innovative works of architectural design in Poland resulted from this license to experiment. A number – including Spodek in Katowice – emerged from the drawing boards of the Office for the Study and Design of Industrial Building Types based in Warsaw. It also designed Alga, a new bar in the seaside town of Sopot which opened in the early 1960s.

Elevation of the Alga bar in Sopot, designed in 1959 by W. Rembiszewski, A. Sierakowski and J. Swidliński (from Architektura, July-August 1961).

A floating terrace which stood proud of a glass-walled pavilion under angular canopies, it looked much like a constructivist sketch of the 1920s realised on the Baltic coast forty years later. For all their exceptional qualities, such buildings were given wider social and political value by being described as ‘types’, i.e., models which, if successful, might be duplicated elsewhere. In other words, prestige buildings were to have utilitarian purposes.

The emphasis on materials and techniques overshadowed some of the causes and the effects of the ‘modernisation’ of Polish architecture in the 1950s. The models for the Cracovia were clear: it was indebted to commodified forms of leisure in the West. Consider, for instance, its symmetries with the Berlin Hilton, located in the Tiergarten in the divided city. This new addition to the cityscape designed by the Los Angeles firm Pereira and Luckman in 1955 was intended, in owner Conrad Hilton’s words, to be ‘a dramatic symbol of West Berlin’s steadfastness and progress as a dynamic centre of the Free World.’[28] In a city in ruins, its vivid modern façade, a chequerboard vibrant of blue and white Mittelmosaik was high conspicuous. The Cracovia – with its rhythmic curtain wall – was its uncanny double on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In this regard, perhaps a lesson can be learned from the writings of Slavoj Žižek. Power is inscribed with contradictions which, he argues, obey ‘imps of perversity’.[29] That which – ostensibly – is repressed by an ‘ideological edifice’ returns, he has argued, not as political rhetoric or even in the parapraxes of speech, but as things, that is, it is articulated in ‘the externality of its material existence’.[30] The Cracovia hotel was one such ‘imp of perversity’. What no one could admit in Poland in 1960 when it was being constructed, but the building itself made plain, was that its purpose was not to improve society through the benign effects of socialist leisure but to satisfy the desires of dollar-rich tourists from the West. It was, in other words, a machine for the production of hard currency, levered from the wallets of tourists.[31]

Unlike Spodek which as knitted into the urban fabric of Katowice, the Cracovia/Kijów complex marked an early point in a trajectory which resulted in the production of ‘extra-territorial spaces’ which were effectively beyond ordinary society in spatial, economic and social terms. The culmination of this pattern were the outposts of the Holiday Inn and Hilton chains built in the Eastern Bloc the 1970s, the product of commercial alliances between communist governments and western corporations.[32]

Hotel Forum, designed by Marta and Janusz Ingarden, Kraków (completed in 1988). Photographed in a state of disrepair in 2008.

Late modernist hotels often expressed a kind of excessive modernity in their architectural form. Cracow acquired, for instance, a new node in the tourist economy in 1988 when the Hotel Forum (designed by Marta and Janusz Ingarden) opened on the banks of the Vistula river opposite the historic site of Wawel Castle and Cathedral. A massive cantilevered form which was lifted off the ground, it was a statement of technological fetishism. Ultimately it symbolised little more than hubris: it opened on the eve of the disassembly of the party-state in Poland.


The Cracovia Hotel – like Spodek and most of the other prestige buildings described in this essay – resulted from opportunism on both the part of the state and architects. ‘Freedom’ in this architectural culture from the late 1950s was understood in narrow stylistic and technological terms. The state of liberty without drudgery and alienation described by Marx was certainly not brought any closer by the creation of these environments. Nevertheless, the Thaw did not mark the total collapse of utopianism in Polish architecture. In the final section, I’d like to focus on a contemporary theory of space which viewed leisure or, more specifically, play as the context for a kind of minor liberation.

Leisure was placed the centre of new waves of social critique and architectural theory that emerged in Western European intellectual life the 1950s. A number of thinkers developed analyses of the alienating effects of bureaucratic, technocratic modernity figured against the imaginative, creative, embodied and unlicensed aspects of everyday life. In its most radical modes expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Lefebvre or the writers of the Situationist International, play was claimed as an activity which was meaningful in its own right, unhinged from a supporting role in the reproduction of labour.[33] These debates penetrated into architecture, not least in the encounters at the Team X meetings – an offshoot of CIAM – which took place in the latter half of the 1950s, as much recent research testifies.[34]

Polish intellectuals – architects amongst them – were engaged in these discussions both internationally and at home where they took on a particular form.[35] Despite the high international currency of the term, I should stress that in the Polish context, play (in its various ironic, ludic and festive modes) was connected to the pulsing critique of the alienating effects of Stalinist order during the Thaw. In its most general forms it can be traced in the rapid accent of what might be called existentialist enthusiasms during the Thaw: the plays of Ionescu, Sartre, Kafka and Beckett were all performed on Warsaw stages during 1957 and absurd student cabaret, experimental music and modern jazz became important features of Polish cultural life.[36] More explicitly, individual pleasure and creativity were reclaimed and adopted in sharp critiques of Stalinism by the left-wing intelligentsia. Much of the most ardent criticism vented during these years was often from a broadly marxist perspective, albeit often one drawing much from the ‘young’ Marx – stressing humanistic, democratic values.[37] Leszek Kołakowski’s political parable ‘The Priest and the Jester’ is a case in point. The young Marxist philosopher – undergoing his own Damascus conversion in the turmoil of the Thaw- contrasted the attitude of the jester and the priest. 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.’[38] In the Polish context, the assertion that knowledge of the world was better achieved through doubt than through faith was a powerful statement of heresy.

Open Form

Oskar Hansen was the author of a like-minded theory published under the title of the Otwarta Form (The Open Form) in 1957. A young architect who had worked Pierre Jeanneret’s studio in Paris around 1950 before establishing a career in Poland, Hansen developed his ideas in architectural practice, largely in the sphere of exhibition design (in true existential manner, they were drawn from experience rather than a priori speculation).[39] They were broadcast abroad at the last CIAM conference in Otterlo in 1959. His theory of Open Form was an explicit challenge to the two-dimensional and highly scopic conception of space that had been evident in urbanism and architecture during the Stalin years, i.e. buildings and spaces conceived as decorated surfaces or as architectural spectacles. This, he described as the ‘aesthetics of the closed form’.

Speaking to both artists and architects, Hansen argued for spatial forms which were open or unfinished; i.e., 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 potential to be reorganized by those who occupy it or in its capacity to change over time. In engaging their audiences/users, open forms had the potential to remind individuals of the fact of their own embodied being.

Oskar Hansen sketch for the ‘My Place, My Music’ pavilion at the International Festival of Contemporary Music in Warsaw 1958 (unrealised).

Hansen’s theory offered new ways to conceptualise 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 thinking about public memorials, housing estates as well as temporary events and exhibitions. One year after publishing his theory, Hansen designed the ‘Moje Miejsce, Moja Muzyka’ (‘My Place, My Music’) pavilion for the Międzynarodowy Festiwal Muzyki Współczesnej (International Festival of Contemporary Music), an important new forum for avant-garde composers. Working with Józef Patkowski, a pioneer of electronic music, Hansen experimented with the ‘spatiality of music’ – what he called an ‘audiovisual space-time’. A large fabric structure, like a shirt with sleeves, each equipped with a speaker at its end, would be suspended in a park. Viewers were to be encouraged to move through the space. In Hansen’s words ‘each could walk their chosen path in relation to the music – almost as if they owned it … the spatial relativity of the music’s reception brought the listener closer to an intimate experience of it … integrating sound with the listeners’ movements as well as with the trees and clouds’.[40] Here was a playful view of experience that unhinged the architecture of leisure from its supporting role in the reproduction of labour or the promotion of socialist modernity.

Lacking any clear reference to official ideology, Hansen’s ‘Open Form’ theory might appear to be apolitical – and, as such, part of a withdrawal into an private world of personal experience. After all, the ‘My Place, My Music’ pavilion encouraged individual experiences over collective effects. But his thinking needs to be understood in the context of debates about alienation in the period, described above. From this perspective, the theory of the Open Form can be characterised in rather more utopian perspective which imagined the whole, complete individual or what the young Marx called ‘the dream of the whole man’.[41]

Ends and Beginnings

I started this essay with a provocation: that architecture might provide rare utopian images in an entropic society. Whilst it is clear that no one reading a book in the Żoliborz house of culture, staying in the Hotel Cracovia or listening to Leonid Brezhnev giving a windy speech in Spodek could mistake their setting for the utopia of communism, the appearance of these buildings in the cityscape was derived – sometimes opportunistically – from the stripes of futurism which characterised state ideology during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite their different forms and functions, each was intended – in different ways – to anticipate future ways of living and being. In this regard, they affirmed the status and expertise of their designers and the poiticians who commissioned them. Whether socialist ideologues or modernising technocrats, the communist authorities and the architects they commissioned shared in the confidence of their correct vision.

By contrast, Hansen’s Open Form concept – in its earliest articulations – laid few claims on the future. It asked for minds and bodies which tested the spaces that they occupied or, in Kołakowski’s words, to ‘mistrust the stabilised world’. Ideally, the space itself would be authored by its user or occupant in some way. In fact, Hansen’s theory marked a point at which the role of the professional architect ceases. For Hansen, the ideal open form was ultimately an unauthored, spontaneous one. This put the architect at odds with the building programme that was being orchestrated by a state committed to controlling and effectively constraining the use of resources and at odds with the conventional interests of architects. It is perhaps not surprising then that whilst his ideas were widely debated, they had little impact on the profession.[42]

[1] Marx, Capital, III (London, 1997), p. 820.

[2] Stefan Dybowski, Problemy rewolucji kulturnej w Polsce Ludowej (Warsaw, 1953)

[3] For a (still) good overview of the imposition of Socialist Realism in Poland see Wojciech Włodarczyk, Socrealizm. Sztuka Polska w latach 1950-1954 (Paris, 1986).

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

[5] Andrzej Batista, Betonowe Dziedzictwo. Architektura w Polsce Czasów Kumunizmu (Warsaw, 2001), pp. 101-5.

[6] For a discussion of socmodernist architecture in Slovakia see Hertha Hernau et al, Eastmodern. Architecture and Design of the 1960s and 1970s of Slovakia (Vienna / New York, 2007).

[7] See Maciej Krasiński and Maciej Gintowt, ‘Hala w Katowicach’ in Projekt, 4, (April 1972) pp. 44-50; Maciej Krasiński and Maciej Gintowt, ‘Hala Widowisko-Sportowa w Katowicach’ in Architektura, 8-9 (1972), pp. 307-19.

[8] Tadeusz Barucki, ‘Środmiescie Katowic’ in Projekt, 4 (April 1970), pp. 2-8

[9] The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases … Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. Karl Marx, Capital, III (London, 1997), p. 820.

[10] Irena Dworakowska, ‘O Parku Kultury Na Powiślu‘ in Architektura, II, 1953, p. 278.

[11] A good example of this kind of discussion is Jerzy Szuszkiewicz, ‘Czy Rekreacja + Turystyka + Wczasy = Lecznictwo Uzdrowiskowej?’ in Architektura (Month Year), pp. 32-33.

[12] Elżbieta Węcławowicz-Bilska, ‘Mieszkać w uzdrowisku’ in Czasopismo Techniczne (2007) – online journal accessed August 2008

[13] Anne White, Destalinization and the House of Culture: Declining State Control over Leisure in the USSR, Poland and Hungary, 1953-89 (London, 1990) 35. See also Simone Hain and Stephan Stroux, Die Salons der Sozialisten. Kulturhäuser in der DDR (Berlin, 1996).

[14] Andrzej Bulanda, Jerzy Sołtan. Rozmowy o architekturze (Warsaw, 1996) p. 50

[15] For an analysis of her speech see Hilde Heynen, ‘The Jargon of Authenticity. Modernism and its (non)-political position’, in Mart Kalm and Ingrid Ruudi (eds), Constructed Happiness. Domestic environment in the Cold War Era (Tallinn 2005), pp.10–27.

[16] Helena Syrkus, ‘Art Belongs to the People’ in J. Ockman, ed., Architecture Culture 1943-1968 (New York, 1993), p.121.

[17] The 35th postulate of the Athens Charter advocated the ‘blossoming of diverse communal activities which forms the extension of leisure’ [p. 140] And the 37th postulate of the charter stated ‘Green surfaces which are intimately amalgamated with built volumes and inserted into the living districts will not have a unique function of beautifying the city. They will, above all, play a useful role and this will be to provide the grounds for collective institutions; crèches, pre and after-school groups, youth circles, centres for intellectual renewal or physical culture, lecture halls, running tracks or open-air fishing.’ Le Groupe CIAM-France, La Chartes D’Athènes (1979 reprint) pp.142-43.

[18] Referring to Khrushchev’s famous report to architects in December 1954, Srykus 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) p.485.

[19] Paid vacations came increasingly to be understood as a right of citizenship bound up with a modern standard of living and part of a new social contract. And the ‘right to the landscape’, ‘the right to nature’ was loudly claimed by the Left in the period. See, for instance, David Matless, Landscape and Englishness (London, 1998).

[20] Szymon Syrkus, Rapport no 3 Cas D’Application Régions et Campagnes’ in Logis et Loisirs, 5e Congrès CIAM Paris 1937 (1980 reprint) p.48.

[21] Chris Rojek, Decentering Leisure (London, 1995) p. 187.

[22] Szeklys’ comments were made in a round table discussion recorded in Stolica (3 February 1955) p. 2.

[23] A mind-numbing flood of such data was published as annual statistical reports by the Ministry of Culture and Art. See Ministerstwo kultury i sztuki, Sprawozdanie z działalności za rok 1948, and subsequent years, Warsaw, 1949 onwards.

[24] See my essay ‘Thaw Modern. Design in Eastern Europe after 1956’ in David Crowley and Jane Pavitt, ed, Cold War Modern. Design 1945-1970 (London, 2008), pp.128-50.

[25] Interview by the author with Witold Cęckiewicz, Cracow, September 2007. See also See Małgorzata Włodarczyk, Architektura lat 60-tych w Krakowie (Cracow, 2006), pp. 87-92 and Witold Cęckiewicz, ‘Hotel “Cracovia” w Krakowie’ in Architektura (Month, 1968) p. 344.

[26] Interview by the author with Witold Cęckiewicz, Cracow, September 2007.

[27] See Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, Constructing Soviet Cultural Policy: Cybernetics and Governance in Lithuania after World War II (Linkoping, 2008); S.E. Reid ‘The Khrushchev Kitchen: Domesticating the Scientific-Technological Revolution’ in Journal of Contemporary History vol. 40, no. 2, (2005), pp. 289-316.

[28] Conrad Hilton cited by Annabel Jane Wharton, Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture (Chicago, 2004), p. 87

[29] Slavoj Žižek, ‘When the Party Commits Suicide’ in New Left Review (November-December, 1999), p. 46.

[30] Slavoj Žižek, ‘Design as an Ideological State-Apparatus’, lecture presented at ERA05, the World Design Congress held in Copenhagen in 2005 – see (consulted November 2006).

[31] Many of the hotels and other aspects of the tourist infrastructure were opened to coincide with the millennial celebrations in Poland in 1966, an event which was organised – in part – to stimulate Western tourism. See Henry Kamm, ‘In Proud Poland’ in New York Times (6 March 1966).

[32] See Alan Levy, ‘Medieval and Marxist, Cracow Hosts a Holiday Inn’ in New York Times (26th November 1976), pp. 1-2, 16.

[33] Associate of the Situationist International, Ivan Chtcheglov imagined a new ‘New Urbanism’ in terms of the ‘need to play’: ‘We have already pointed out the need of constructing situations as being one of the fundamental desires on which the next civilisation will be founded. This need for absolute creation has always been intimately associated with the need to play with architecture, time and space …’ See ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ available at – accessed September 2008.

[34] See various essays in Max Risselada and Dirk van den Heuvel, eds., Team 10
In Search of a Utopia of the Present 1953-1981 (Rotterdam, 2006).

[35] Collaborators within the framework of an experimental studio at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art, Jerzy Sołtan and artist-architect Oskar Hansen were active participants in Team X meetings in the late 1950s.

[36] See Hansjakob Stehle, Independent Satellite. Society and Politics in Poland since 1945 (New York, 1965), p.199.

[37] See Pawel 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, 2001).

[38] Leszek Kołakowski’s ‘The Priest and the Jester’ in Twórczość (1959) reproduced in Toward a Marxist Humanism, trans. Jane Zielonko Peel (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 34.

[39] See Michał Woliński, ‘Sztuczna przestrzen. Wystawy i pawilony in Piktogram, 11 (2008), pp. 118-152.

[40] Oskar Hansen, Towards Open Form (Frankfurt/ Warsaw, 2005),p.136.

[41] E. Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man (London, 2004),p.82

[42] Hansen has, it should be noted, been well regarded as a precursor of the kind of spatialised art practices in vogue in Poland in the 1960s including happenings, performances and ‘dzieła-procesu’ (works of process). See Łukasz Ronduda, ‘Gry i Rozmowe Plastyczne, Działania I Współdziałania’ in Piktogram, 05-06 (2006), pp. 14-125.