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

Architecture, Cold War, Modernism, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

[4]Dominik Forman, ‘Mají argumenty pro bourání hotelu Praha smysl?’ (2013) – – accessed November 2016

[5] – accessed November 2016

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

[7] See

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

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

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



The Peasant in the City

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘This architecture is:

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

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






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

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

[3] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

[8] Cited in Stolica 45, (1958)

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

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

[11] Żeromski, Coming Spring, 126.

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

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

[14] Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’, 118.

[15] Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’ 115.

Notes from the Underground

Cold War, Eastern Europe, Music, Uncategorized

In September, Daniel Muzyczuk and I curated a show entitled ‘Notes from the Underground’ for the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz which explores the intersection of art and music in Eastern Europe under communist rule. Rock, punk and new wave were not only embraced by young musicians in the 1970s and 1980s, they shaped the visual arts too. Fashion, graphic design and video were animated by these new sensibilities throughout the so called Eastern Bloc and former Yugoslavia. Of course the idea of the underground was a kind of myth but one which, nevertheless, had tangible effects – and often quite brilliant ones too. Take a look at this video by the East German absurdists, AG Geige.

Between the official sphere and dissident culture, this zone has been somewhat overlooked and so the show in Lodz is an attempt to provide some kind of map to this phenomenon. In fact, the show covers a lot of ground from Prague to Moscow and from Vilnius to Belgrade.

The exhibition closes on 15 January 2017 but we hope that it will travel to other venues in Europe in 2017-18. A 450 pp book published by MSL / Walter Koenig accompanies the show.

Press shots of the show can be seen here.

Karol Sienkiewicz wrote a thoughtful review here and there is a good overview text from Odra by Monika Pasiecznik here. Stach Szablowski’s Dwutygodnik piece reflects on the place of the avant-garde in the museum. He asks what happened to the underground after 1989 – perhaps a task for another curator .. And Waldemar Kuligowski is far less happy with the show in Czas Kultury.

Hannelore Fobo has made a short film, focusing on the works of E-E Kozlov in the show here.

There is an interview with Daniel and myself here.

The Choreography of the Console: The Design of Electronic Environments and their Operators in the Cold War

Cold War, Modernism

This talk was given in Zurich at ETH in autumn 2014.

In the late 1950 and 1960s a new kind of non-human actor appeared on the movie screens and televisions around the world. The console – an electronic panel or unit operated with dials, switches or buttons – appeared in numerous Cold War thrillers and science fiction movies, as well as news reports of the command and control centres managing traffic on the street, power stations and space flights. Elsewhere, television studios were equipped with vision mixers to allow different sources to be edited and combined in real time for live broadcast. For the film makers who recorded it, the console seems to have been a strangely magnetic, and enigmatic object. Immobile and performing seemingly inscrutable tasks in the service of authority, its flashing lights and illuminated dials, oscilloscopes and monitors, the console presented a novel site of man-machine interaction and a new conception of the ‘environment’ as a place for the management of information.

Some of these on-screen consoles were fantasies, while others were in operation. But perhaps the distinction between fact and fiction is not important in the technological imaginary of the post-war decades. What was important is the promise of the future that was being made by these electronic interfaces. The command and the control room of the military intelligence or the multimedia space of the gallery prefigured ordinary environments ‘enclosed by images’.[1] American artist and filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek prophesised the future in these terms when he said:

Holography, 3-d holographic television, environmentalisms – like images that will completely surround us which we can design by ourselves, for ourselves – homeostasis and the balancing of our whole mind and body. These are the futures which I think that artists should talk about and deal with.[2]

Teacher-aided Electronic Learning Links console, designed by Phillips Design Centre, c, 1970

Teacher-aided Electronic Learning Links console, designed by Phillips Design Centre, c, 1970

Vanderbeek was by no means not alone in imagining the future electronic environment. Designers working for Philips, the Dutch electronics company, for instance, conceived the future classroom as a bank of networked consoles. In the company’s 1971 TELL (Teacher-aiding Electronic Learning Links) project, the classroom was to be equipped with a computer, camera and multiple screens ‘so that the teacher can point at the picture on one of his screens and his finger can be seen on the pupil’s monitors’.[3] The TELL system envisaged communication as an action in a closed circuit.

To accentuate the promise of perfect communication and automation, such schemes were almost invariably located in smooth, frictionless environments in which every console was a cased object. Cables were hidden from sight, as if revealing their connection to the rest of the world would disturb their symbolic power. The rooms in which they were located were strikingly placeless too, in the sense that their location played little part in their operations. Through the console, the world could be known and controlled remotely. In fact, these consoles often appear in blind rooms; settings without windows in a conventional sense, because the screen or data panel was itself a kind of portal. They afforded remote viewing. And as Cold War defence arrangements seemed to demonstrate, one environment – even an entire hemisphere – could be controlled from another. In eschewing the existential qualities claimed for place, such settings were what John Harwood calls ‘counter-environments’ (a term he adopts from Marshall McLuhan). A counter environment is, he writes, ‘a designed space that is closed off from its surroundings and only linked to like spaces via specific media (e.g., real-time computing) and … the potential for the control of external environments via an independently conceived logical system..’[4] Harwood’s term perhaps best lends itself to sites of concentrated power. This was, after all, an age overshadowed by the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Radar stations on both sides of the Cold War divide and staffed with operators scanning the air for signs of military action, were always on; always ready to respond to the threat of attack.

The Domestic Information Machine, E Bogdanov, V Paperny, V Revzin, A Riabushin and A Sergeev, 1972 – image courtesy of Tom Cubbin

The Domestic Information Machine, E Bogdanov, V Paperny, V Revzin, A Riabushin and A Sergeev, 1972 – image courtesy of Tom Cubbin

But counter-environments could also promise liberty too. The house of the future – a cliché of the era in the East and in the West – invariably featured computerized domestic arrangements. Tom Cubbin, for instance, has drawn our attention to the Domestic Information Machine which was conceived and tested in Soviet Union at the end of the 1960s. Designers working for VNIITE (All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Industrial Design / Vsesoiuznyi nauchnoissledovatel’skii institut tekhnicheskoi estetiki) imagined the the home as a point in a vast communications network which would connect its users with information. A 1969 report issued by the scheme’s creators, stressed its benefits of information over the passive effects of television:

Such an information service would differ substantially from that which exists today. Currently, the media only transmit practically one type of information which fulfills the basic needs of cultural relaxation and recreation. Mental labour requires the individualisation of information. In the future this will become possible and will lead to a significant shift in the cultural and spiritual development of man.[5]

Underlying the thinking of the Domestic Information Machine’s creators was a cybernetic conception of information in which its users would be able to influence and contribute knowledge to the network. Similarly, the NER Group (New Element of the Urban Environment/Novye element rasseleniia) – also active in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1960s – conceived the future home not only as a networked one but also the engine for the production of a new kind of kind of Soviet citizen. In this setting, the householder would become something like an ‘operator’ and so the differences between work and leisure or the factory and home could be diminished (thereby bringing the nirvana of communism ever closer). NER wrote in 1965:

The working day can be reduced through the extraordinary growth in labor productivity, which in turn can be attributed to electrification, automation, and efficient production procedures. As this change takes place, the proportion of work time to free time changes radically. For the first time in the history of man, leisure time will exceed work time. The problem becomes ‘how to reduce to the minimum the time required for socially necessary work.’ If we consider the demands that are apt to be made in various fields through the recombination of various kinds of labor, we can estimate that an individual’s work time will tend to average approximately four hours per day.[6]

A promise to get rid of drudgery was folded into the smooth casing of the console whether it was located in the factory or the home .. or everywhere as Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem, ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ seems to suggest:

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.[7]

Echoing Marx’s pastoral impression of Communism,[8] Brautigan augured a future utopia in which all toil, all want and even all technology would eventually wither away.


The pushing of the button

Brautigan limned a vision found on both sides of the East/West divide during the 1960s; namely, that production in the future would involve progressively less human labour. Automation would, according to its champions, eliminate drudgery and error. The role of the human in future manufacturing, agricultural and transport systems would be one of an overseer. This image of the fallible human being replaced by the efficient machines was the subject of numerous fantasies in the 1960s, albeit ones which were often shot through with existential anxiety. One recurring trope in science fiction of the period was that of the operator asleep at the console. In Ikarie XB-1, a Czechoslovak sci-fi film directed by Jindřich Polak in 1963, for instance, the crew are rendered unconscious as an effect of passing through a radiation cloud. To ensure that the mission continues, the computer oversees an ‘unmanned shift’, before the crew revive. This minor drama might well be read as an allegory. Many writers including, famously, Norbert Wiener, Herbert Marcuse, Alvin Toffler and Stanisław Lem reflected on the twin threat and promise of automation. Each asked, in various ways, whether the console was the extension of humankind (‘the humanism of control’) or a step in the progressive marginalization of the human agent? In a 1960 essay ‘Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation’ Wiener, for instance, reflected on the threat to humanity posed by cybernetic machines: ‘It is quite in the cards that learning machines will be used to program the pushing of the button in a new pushbutton war’.[9] In this scenario, the thinking machine commands the console; in other words, it commands itself.

Similar questions were asked in Eastern Europe in the late 1950s and 1960s too, albeit with different emphases. After Stalin’s death, the matter of human control and agency was particularly pressing. Science was loudly proclaimed by post-Stalinist regimes as the harbinger of a new rationalism after the irrationalism and violence of Stalinism, as well as being the solution to its considerable economic failures of the command economy. As Slava Gerovitch outlines in his study of Soviet cybernetics, the computer was adopted as a ‘paragon of rationality’.[10] A new rationalism guided by the innate logic of science and technology would revive the socialist project. In his attempt to harness science, Khrushchev was obliged to accommodate a degree of debate and even dispute about the effects of thinking machines that would not have been countenanced during the Stalin years. For instance, Academician A. Kolmogorov writing in Izvestia in 1962 suggested that thinking and feeling machines would ‘surpass man in his development’ in the future. Evolution suggested that perfect machines would, one day, be able to build their own progeny without human aid. B Byalik responded in Literaturnaya Gazeta in May 1962 in an article with a title which asked ‘Comrades, Is This Serious?’ In turn, Academician Sobolev responded in the same journal: ‘Yes, it is very serious! … In my view the cybernetic machines are people of the future. These people will probably be much more accomplished than we, the present people.’[11]

Elsewhere in the Bloc, others – some of whom had been vocal and brave critics of Stalinism during the turbulent period which followed Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ (1956) revelations about his predecessor’s brutality known as ‘the Thaw’ – were anxious that science and technology itself would deprive individuals of agency. These, for instance, are the words of Leszek Kołakowski, one of the moving forces of Thaw criticism in the People’s Republic of Poland: ‘We observe … the astonishing speed with which the new mythologies displace the old ones. In the intellectual life of a society in which the mechanism of traditional faith has become corroded, new myths proliferate with the greatest ease, even though they may originate in technical advances or scientific discoveries. Thousands of people fondly imagine that the friendly inhabitants of other planets will one day solve the problems from which humans cannot extricate themselves. For others the words ‘cybernetics’ embodies the hope of resolving all social conflicts.’[12]

Designing the operator

After this brief and ranging survey of the settings in which the console was imagined and occasionally employed in the 1960s, let’s look a little closer at the actions of its operator. How should the operator interact with the console? What was the script or notation for these kinds of interactions? It was clear to many commentators that the design of the console inferred the design of the operator: a new set of manual, metacarpal skills were required to operate it. As such, the console was the subject of considerable new research into man-machine interactions – not least that conducted within the sphere of ergonomics, then still a relatively young discipline which set out to measure the body and its capacities. This data could then be used to design more effective and efficient tools for the factory, the office, the kitchen or other sites of human action. Despite its peaceful applications, as a discipline, ergonomics owed much to military research. Henry Dreyfuss, the American industrial designer and pioneer of ergonomics, traced his engagement with the field back to a military commission:

Shortly after the war, our office was working on the interior of a heavy tank for the Army. We had tacked a huge, life-size drawing of the tank driver’s compartment on the wall. The driver’s figure had been indicated with a thick black pencil line and we had been jotting odds and ends of dimensional data on him as we dug the data out of our files. Surrounded by arcs and rectangles, he looked something like one of the famous dimensional studies of Leonardo. Suddenly, it dawned on us that the drawing on the wall was more than a study of the tank driver’s compartment; without being aware of it, we had been putting together a dimensional chart of the average adult American male.[13]

Henry Dreyfuss, The Measure of Man. Human Factors in Design, 1960

Henry Dreyfuss, The Measure of Man. Human Factors in Design, 1960

In his landmark text on ergonomics, The Measure of Man (1959), the American designer stressed the humanism of the endeavour: anthropometric data should be used to eliminate discomfort and mitigate against the fatigue of the operator. Nevertheless, in its attention to thresholds and limits, design was being used to contain and control behaviour. In the ergonomic imaginary, the machine had to become more orientated to the human and, conversely, the human had to become more machine-like. Italian designer Ettore Sottsass admitted as much, when reflecting on his design of the Elea 9003 mainframe computer for Olivetti; ‘one ends up conditioning the man who is working, not only his direct physical relationship with the instrument, but also his very much more penetrating relationship with the whole act of work’.[14]

Aiming to reduce distraction, error, friction, discomfort, noise, ergonomics was preoccupied with interfaces, the contact zone between man and machine, and above all, with the effectiveness of these interactions. This was not the efficiency of the fulcrum or the pulley converting muscle power into force, but that of speed and precision. Buttons, toggles, keys, switches, controls had to be designed to minimise human error; and screens, gauges, dials and signals should be transparent and easily read with a sweep of the eye. The ideal console should explain its operations by means of integrated design by employing simple text, pictograms, and symbols.

Tomas Maldonado / Gui Bonsieppe, data processing symbols for Olivetti, 1961

Tomas Maldonado / Gui Bonsieppe, data processing symbols for Olivetti, 1961

In the case of the ELEA 9003, the first computer produced by the Olivetti company from 1959, for instance, designer Tomás Maldonado developed an new symbol system for the console. Maldonado’s design did away with the Italian instructions which accompanied the design in favour of sign system that could be easily assimilated by operator, whatever his or her mother tongue. Here the ‘noise’ of linguistic difference was replaced by the smoothing effects of the pictogram. The operator learned this machine language in order to better integrate his or her actions with those of the machine. Keying in instructions in response to data processed by the computer, the operator of the ELEA 9003 provided an image of cybernetic harmony.

Andrzej Pawlowski, ergonomic tests for switches and buttons, Poland, mid 1960s

Andrzej Pawlowski, ergonomic tests for switches and buttons, Poland, mid 1960s

Similarly, pioneer of ergonomics in the People’s Republic of Poland, Andrzej Pawłowski conceptualised his work less as the production of buttons and switches than as the design of gestures.[15] In his experiments conducted on Poland in the 1960s, he developed a language of man-machine encounters – a kind of notation system indicating direction of movement, the type of grip or depression and the force required. He too claimed the protection of the human operator as his purpose:

Through creativity in the industrial field, we come to understand the most rational conditions for the protection of the biological and psychological existence of the human being, as well as the development of culture in industrial civilizations, the dynamics of which have become the cause of a dangerous loss of balance between civilization and the culture of its exploitation.[16]

This kind of design humanism notwithstanding, underlying such schemes was a kind of design linguisticism extrapolated from communication theory; namely, that a universal language of operating gestures could be deduced and deployed in the service of progress. Perhaps this fantasy took (and still takes) its ultimate form in the illusion of direct manipulation of data. The light pen famously designed by Ivan Sutherland at MIT in 1966 was a precursor of the touch-screen developed in the mid 1970s. Its invention might well be taken as a kind of culmination of the ergonomic project, one in which the apparatus disappears and the body of operator engages as directly and completely with data as possible. The achievement of Sutherland and others was to suggest the means for a return to what had long been claimed as the origins of language in ‘natural’ gestures.[17] Nicolas Negroponte suggested something similar when he speculated on the democratic effects of the assimilation of the computer in the studios of architects:

With direct, fluid and natural man-machine discourse, two former barriers between architects and computing machines would be removed. First, the designers, using computer-aided design hardware, would not have to be specialists. With natural communication, the ‘this is what I want to do’ and ‘can you do it’ gap could be bridged. The design task would no longer be described to a ‘knobs and dials’ person to be executed in his secret vernacular. Instead, with simple negotiations, the job would be formulated and executed in the designer’s own idiom. As a result a vibrant stream of ideas could be directly channelled from the designer to the machine and back.[18]

Ergonomics also reproduced the modernist myth of the neutrality of technology. In such anthropometric schemes, the worker never resists, never withdraws his or her labour. And in concentrating on the gesture, another kind of radical decontextualisation occurred too. What, we might ask, were all these hands doing? What were the effects of these switches and buttons on the world?

William Allan Fetter, ‘Boeing Man’, 1966-67.

William Allan Fetter, ‘Boeing Man’, 1966-67.

Here one might consider the first three-dimensional figure of a man drawn by a computer, William Allan Fetter’s ‘Boeing Man’ (1966-67). Often claimed – not least by Fetter himself – as a landmark work in the history of computer art, he created wireframe drawings of a seated figure reaching and stretching.[19] Supervisor of Advanced Design Graphics at the Wichita branch of the Military Aircraft Systems Division of Boeing, Fetter produced the line-figure to simulate the range of upper-body movements of the pilot in the cockpit of the company’s civilian and military aeroplanes. The data was gathered to improve the layout of the instruments in the cockpit. Fetter’s images were widely reproduced – usually in versions which contained few or no impression of the cockpit or its instruments (a which perhaps this explains their easy adoption as ‘computer art’).[20]

The humanistic rhetoric espoused by Dreyfuss and other champions of ergonomics tended to obscure the science’s origins and present uses in military research, as well as its fundamentally alienating effects. Few paid much attention to these characteristics, as Maldonado and Gui Bonsiepe pointed out in 1964:

Without doubt the empirical data obtained from investigations of military equipment possess a prototype value for all fields, and even for such fields which are completely removed from military equipment. On the other hand, constant occupation with such issues has no doubt result in a certain one-sidedness in the ergonomist – that particular tendency towards a too abstract version of the human operator.[21]

Bone Generators

Lee Harrison III, operating the Bone Generator / ANIMAC, Denver 1962

Lee Harrison III, operating the Bone Generator / ANIMAC, Denver 1962

At a time when commentators – in the East and in the West – were imagining human redundancy brought about by intelligent and self-replicating machines, it is striking that dance formed a particularly rich and animated zone for imagining new human-machine interactions. Let me give some examples: for instance, American programmer, Lee Harrison III, was interested in how to animate dance. In the early 1960s, he rigged up a body suit with potentiometers and created the first working motion capture rig animating movement in real-time on his CRT screen. He made several short films with this system, called ANIMAC (or sometimes the ‘Bone Generator and Skin Scanner’).[22] Harrison – whose work came to play an important role in computer animation – seemed to be investigating the ergonomics of dance. Similarly, A. Michael Noll, a computer programmer based at Bell Laboratories in the USA developed a programme to produced real-time notation for dance in 1967-8. Noll imagined that dancers could wear bright lights on their joints (much in the manner of the time and motion studies developed by figures like Frederick Winslow Taylor and Frank Gilbreth in the USA before the First World War and Aleksei Gastev in Soviet Union in the 1920s). Images of the motion of the dancers could be captured and analysed by a computer, and then be translated into accurate dance notation: ‘At the completion of the ballet,’ he claimed, ‘all the movements of the dancers are stored within the computer in digital form. These movements could then be automatically translated by the computer into any desired form of dance notation.’[23] Noll also imagined that the choreographer could save the time and cost of working with a ballet company in preparation of a new performance, by composing directly with the stick figures in his programme. For Noll, ballet represented a set of programming challenges. The difficulties of being able to programme the movement of a number of interactive figures in space over time presented the kind of complex task that proved the power of computers.

Finnish pioneer of electronic and computer music (as well as robotics and artificial intelligence) Erkki Kurenniemi seemed to be interested in a more dynamic and ultimately more cybernetic conception of the body electric. In his DIMI Ballet (1971), he employed one of his own creations, the Dimi-0 optical video synthesiser (which Kurenniemi also called a ‘Video Organ’). The instrument – combining an electronic organ and a computer – generated musical sounds in which were rendered as graphic devices indicating pitch and duration on the monitor. As data, these graphics – and their audio effects – could be altered in real time by means of the computer. With the addition of a video camera, the device could react to whatever appeared on screen. Kurenniemi choose to present his device as a means for the production of a ‘ballet’ in which a dancer could alter the pitch and duration of the music by her movement. Kurenniemi DIMI Ballet’s suggests a kind of cybernetic conception of dance. Combined in a recursive relationship, the music was generated by the movement of the dancer and, conversely, her movement influenced the tonality and timbre of the electronic music.

Nicolas Schöffer was the author of perhaps the most ambitious cybernetic dance works of the period, ‘Kyldex 1’ (Kybernetic Lumino Experiment 1), a ballet that he created with composer Pierre Henry and choreographer Alwin Nikolai for the Hamburg State opera in 1973. Five cybernetic sculptures were prepared by Schöffer to ‘dance’ alongside and members of the company including the principal dancers, Carolyn Carlson and Emery Hermans. The sculptures featured sound sensors which reacted to Henry’s music, and the stage lighting. Revolving mirrors on the sculptures amplified the effect. The dancers were captured on close circuit cameras, appearing simultaneously on the theatre’s 200m2 screen at the back of the stage. This mirror effect turned the dancer and her image into echoes of one another. One member of the audience was rigged to a heart monitor so that his pulse could provide a kind of rhythmic beat for the dancers.

Announced as a ‘Simultankonzert’, the performance was an elaborate version of the kind of spectacular events in which Schöffer had orchestrated from the late 1950s in which dancers shared the stage with his cybernetic sculptures. Maurice Béjart choreographed dancers to perform with Schöffer’s ‘CYSP 1’ (Cybernetic Spatiodynamic 1), a mobile sculpture equipped with electric cells and a sound sensor which could respond to changing color, light intensity and sound, for the Festival D’Avant Garde in Marseille in 1956. In Hamburg, Schöffer updated his ideas, by drawing the audience into the act of co-creation (‘Create the Creation’ announced the poster). By raising coloured paddles, each viewer seated in the Staatsoper could vote whether the scene should continue or not; whether to speed up or slow down a dance; or even to end the piece. Red circles signalled stop; green wedges indicated faster and blue diamonds, slower; yellow arrows meant repeat; and white squares were a request for explanation. Schöffer would periodically take to the stage to lead the audience in discussion. Here the logic of feedback was given a democratic gloss. Unsurprisingly, some of the fifteen evenings were very short, others long: all were chaotic and noisy affairs, much to Schöffer’s apparent pleasure (he called it ‘eine gloriose Ungewißheit’[24]). In effect, the console from which all the electronic elements of the performance might have otherwise been controlled, had been abandoned in favour of an illusion of participation. Its traces remained in the coloured signs, with forms echoing the graphic systems employed as the interface of consoles. To maintain the illusion, Kyldex – with its voguish counter-cultural associations of participatory democracy – required that the controls for these electronic instruments remain backstage.

In this regard, parallels can be drawn to the environments created by the well known Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) group, the alliance of artist and engineers formed by a research scientist at the Bell Labs, Billy Klüver, engineer Fred Waldhauer and artists Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman and in 1966. Founded to provide artists with access to new technology and engineering expertise, by 1968 EAT had over six thousand members and chapters in many major American cities. (Fetter, the author of the Boeing Man wireframes, was one of the founders of the NorthWest chapter).

Interior of the Pepsi Pavilion at the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970

Interior of the Pepsi Pavilion at the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970

The highpoint was its contribution to the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970. EAT artists and engineers were commissioned by the Pepsi company to create a pavilion which was full of immersive environments which allowed ostensibly for a kind of playful engagement with new, interactive artworks. Eschewing any kind of message (commercial or otherwise), the pavilion promised each visitor an unique individual experience: each person would direct himself or herself toward sounds, lights or what ever else might draw their attention. The pavilion was an environment in the sense used by artist Allan Kaprow a decade earlier, a space which entangled spectators in multisensory experiences.[25] Klüver recalled:

The initial concern of the artists who designed the Pavilion was that the quality of the experience of the visitor should involve choice, responsibility, freedom and participation. The Pavilion would not tell a story or guide the visitor through a didactic, authoritarian experience. The visitor would be encouraged as an individual to explore the environment and compose his own experience. As a work of art, the Pavilion and its operation would be an open-ended situation, an experiment in the scientific sense of the word.[26]

Accordingly, artist Robert Whitman – working in conjunction with engineer John Forkner – using mirrors and reflectors to produce three-dimensional ‘real’ reflections for instance. Visitors could play with their own image; a ludic form of feedback. Similarly, the floor was covered with different materials such as grass (like Brautigan’s cybernetic meadow) and gravel, yet the sounds in the headphones worn by visitors confounded the sensations underfoot.

Klüver’s emphasis on the freedom of the individual to explore an open-ended artwork was sincere but somewhat exaggerated. The EAT artists and engineers sat behind a console in the pavilion monitoring and managing the experience of the visitor. In the basement, banks of tape decks supplying the underfoot sounds were controlled by programs on punched-paper tape. The team had built an environment over which they could exert extensive control. The console was rarely recorded in the streams of publicity produced for the Pepsi Pavilion. It was, of course, far less spectacular than any other part of the pavilion but it also disturbed the group’s self-image as anti-authoritarian force. EAT was accused of naivety by its politically-minded critics. Max Kozloff writing in ArtForum in 1971 accused the group of making a fetish of technological progress and for being in ‘service’ to service to the ‘violence industries’ which were profiting from the manufacture of weapons being sold to the US military to prosecute the war in Vietnam.[27] His purpose was to stress the politics of actions and technologies which EAT artists liked to imagine as being neutral.

Dark Consoles

ARGO Group, Sound and Color installation at Chemistry '70, Sokoniki Park in Moscow in 1970.

ARGO Group, Sound and Color installation at Chemistry ’70, Sokoniki Park in Moscow in 1970.

So where might we find a self-conscious politics of the console?[28] I’d like to suggest that we might look to Eastern Europe at around the same time. Just as in the West, there were a number of close alliances between art and science in the Eastern Bloc from the mid 1960s. Abstract artists and experimental film-makers could enjoy relative freedom and access to technology if they characterized their work as design or research. In the Soviet Union, for instance, the ARGO group (Russian abbreviation for Author Working Group) formed in 1970 by Nonna Goriunova, Valerii Osipov, and Francisco Infante to create artificial immersive environments. It set out to realise the kinds of multimedia gesamtkunstwerken which appealed to EAT’s members. Infante recalled ‘The combined forces of ARGO’s engineers and artists were also utilized for the Sound and Color installation which I designed for the Chemistry ’70 International Exhibition held at Sokoniki Park in Moscow in 1970. The group joined forces with the electronic music studio attached to the Skriabin Museum …. Everything in Sound and Color was in motion: the constructions, the color, the sound, and even the smells.’[29] And like EAT, ARGO’s artists were largely indifferent to (or unable to reflect on) the ideological effects of their creations.

Others – elsewhere in the Bloc – were more critical. In 1970 Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Workshop of Film Form) was established as a section of a science club at the Łódź Television, Film and Theatre School in the People’s Republic of Poland.[30] Critical of the teaching programme of the School and, at the same time, drawing resources from it (including 35mm film stock, editing tables, video cameras and monitors), the Workshop belonged to the ’experimental zone’ which had been licensed by the scientism of the Khrushchev Thaw just over a decade earlier. The Workshop’s members were, as one Paweł Kwiek recalls, ‘scientifically minded’, reading widely in psychology and cybernetics.[31] Working with film, photography and, within a few years, video, they set out to explore the practices of the ‘operator’ rather than the artist. Many of the films created by the Workshop’s members have the procedural, though often improvised, character of a test: what will be the effect of this action in these conditions? Objectivity was set as an ideal: ‘A documentary film’s aim is to provide the truth about man’, wrote Kwiek in 1974 for instance, ‘both for the sake of Art as well as from a scientific point of view. So far, however, it has not been possible to prevent the distortion of the truth, which results from (the subjectivity of the creator).’ Direct forms of image making like the camera could, he thought then, diminish such distortions: ‘We can conclude’, he continued, ‘that the truth we receive from man is based on direct contact with him, regardless of what he would like to show himself or in what fashion he would like to be perceived …’.[32] This was a statement which might have come off the pages of an ergonomic manual.

One approach to direct forms of image making was to combine medium and body (resulting in what member Józef Robakowski called ‘biological-mechanical records’). In an early ‘test’ film, ‘Prostokąt dynamiczny’ (Dynamic Rectangle, 1971), he recorded his attempts to match the insistent, mechanical rhythm of a piece of music created by Eugeniusz Rudnik in the Experimental studio of Polish Radio. The on-screen image of a pulsing and mutating red rectangle was achieved by Robakowski opening and closing a diaphragm manually in front of the 35mm camera as he listened to the music. The piece is never quite in sync as the image (created by the live movements of the artist) fails to accurately match the sound (pre-recorded music). Knowing that behind the image there is a body falling short of the measure of the machine lends poignancy to Robakowski’s ‘test’.

‘Video C’ (1975) by Paweł Kwiek made in the studios of Polish TV

‘Video C’ (1975) by Paweł Kwiek made in the studios of Polish TV

Similarly, ‘Video C’ (1975) by Paweł Kwiek, made when the members of the Workshop were given access to a television studio, records the hands of an operator (Kwiek himself) manipulating the faders and buttons of a vision mixer, a device used to switch between video sources in a TV studio or to add graphic effects to the picture. The operator appears to be using his fingers to move a triangular cursor around the TV screen. Sometimes it seems to hover, as if trying to touch the on-screen hand or to trace the line of the operator’s arm in space: sometimes the on-screen hand responds, appearing to palm the cursor back or to map its three points with a pinch of the fingers. Kwiek explained his interest in this impossible union thus ‘I construct such sets where the observed reality is the human being, for whom, in turn, the image of reality is his own constructed image.’[33] In this mise-en-abyme, what distinguished a human being from his or her electronic image dissolved.

Parallels can be drawn between the Workshop of the Film Form and the output of the Béla Balazs Film Studio (BBS) in Hungary. Established in 1959 and enjoying official support from the early 1960s, BBS was relatively autonomous zone in which film makers could experiment with many different genres from social documentary to feature-length experimental films, with the benefit of professional crews and cameras. Censorship of the studio’s output was rare (though the film makers could not effect the distribution of their ambitious films). At the end of the 1960s the Studio opened its doors to artists, musicians, theatre professionals, writers and sociologists. A young artist and writer Gábor Bódy – inspired by his readings of structuralism – was invited in 1973 to commission a series of films exploring the ‘Language of Film’. The included neo-avant-garde artists Tamás St. Auby who made ‘Kentaur (‘Centaur’) and Miklós Erdély who made ‘Partita’.

Bódy’s own contribution to the series was ‘Négy Bagatell’ (‘Four Bagatelles’), a non-narrative film made by modifying or adapting existing films: archive footage of two peasants from Transylvania dancing is, for instance, augmented by a crosshair moving across the frame; while a sequence showing a ballet dancer is framed by an iris which opens and closes to capture her movements. In both cases, the naturalism of the documentary film is undermined by a set of technical operations which alert the viewer of the activities of an unseen operator. The fourth ‘bagatelle’ in the quartet which forms the film puts the operator’s hands (Bódy’s own) before a screen which is being filmed by a video camera. The result is another mise en abyme in which both hand and screen repeat and recede into infinity.

Bódy’s film – like those of the Workshop of Film Form – is usually discussed in terms of the hold of semiotics and structuralism on neo-avant-garde film in Eastern Europe. But, in pointing to the disappearance of the human actor under the pressure of the instrument, perhaps it is possible to detect a critique of technology being made too. There is little of the heady pleasure promised by EAT or Schöffer’s illusions of participation. Here, the camera and the monitor infer surveillance, and the console suggests command and control of the individual who uses it. In other words, these films were self-experiments in which their maker were both performers and observers at the same time. In closed circuits such as this, self-portrayal becomes a form of self-observation. This is not the euphoric liberation of heighted sensation suggested by, but a much darker conception of the cybernetic concept of feedback. In the case of the films made by Workshop of the Film Form, one might also detect a kind of pathetic quality in human gestures too: Robakowski’s body fails to fall in line with the rhythm of the machine; and Kwiek’s ‘Video C’ attempts an impossible act (one kind of immaterial pointer, a cursor, attempts to touch another, a human finger).

One should be careful about distinguishing the works of these young artist/operators in Eastern Europe from those of others elsewhere in the world in the early 1970s. After all, one of the effects of the Cold War competition was that of the mirror: East and West came to look more and more alike. (And the spread of consoles is one symptom of that fact). Moreover, many artists in the West – including, most famously, Joan Jonas, Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman – also turned to the mirror effects afforded by video to split the subject. Rosalind Krauss has identified a degree of schizophrenia in their live gallery installations: ‘The medium of video art is the psychological condition of the self split and doubled by the mirror reflection of synchronous feedback.’[34] Nevertheless, in a setting where the state was increasingly using security services to monitor the people, self-observation surely had different and distinct meanings.

[1] This is Beatriz Colomina’s phrase – see her ‘Enclosed by Images: The Eameses’ Multimedia Architecture’ in Grey Room, no. 2 (Winter 2001) 6-29.

[2] Stan Vanderbeek, speaking Stan VanDerBeek: The Computer Generation, Film
Camera Three Productions directed by John Musilli and written by Stephan Chodorov, 1972.

[3] See Richard Fifield, ‘Audio-visual evolution or revolution’ in New Scientist (29 July 1971) 277.

[4] John Harwood, ‘The White Room: Eliot Noyes and the Logic of the Information Age Interior’ in Grey Room 12 (Summer 2003) 5-31

[5] A 1969 report written by G. Liubimova cited (and translated) by Tom Cubbin, From Technocracy to Techno-Utopia: Futurology and the Soviet Home at VNIITE1964-1974 (RCA/V&A History of Design MA Dissertation, 2012) 80-81.

[6] Alexei Gutnov, et al., The Ideal Communist City, trans. Renee Neu Watkins (New York: George Braziller 1971).

[7] Richard Brautigan, All Watched Over by Machines of Living Grace (‪Communication Company, 1967)

[8] … ‘while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic’ Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845) available on line – – accessed 1 May 2015.

[9] Norbert Wiener writing in Science, vol. 131, no. 3410 (6 May 1960), p. 1356.

[10] Slava Gerovitch From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Boston, MA: MIT, 2004) 161

[11] This exchange is recorded by Willis H. Ware and Wade B. Holland in Soviet Cybernetics Technology: I. Soviet Cybernetics, 1959-1962 (Rand Corporation Report, 1963) 11.

[12] Leszek Kołakowski, ‘The Priest and the Jester’, 1959, 57

[13] Henry Dreyfuss, The Measure of Man (1959) 4.

[14] Ettore Sottsass cited in Sparke, Ettore Sotssas Jnr (London: Design Council, 1982) 63

[15] Andrzej Pawłowski, Inicjacje. O sztuce, projektowaniu i kształceniu projektantów Biblioteka wzornictwa 6’87 (Warsaw: IWP, 1987).

[16] A. Pawłowski. ‘Cel i założenia Wydziału Form Przemysłowych’ [The aim and assumptions of the Industrial Design Department]. Biuletyn 1965, Industrial Design Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, 1965.

[17] On Vico’s claims for the gesture, for instance, see Adam Kendon, Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance (Cambridge: CUP, 2004) 36.

[18] Nicholas Negroponte, The Architecture Machine (Boston, MA: MIT 1970) 9.

[19] ‘My conviction about the possible change in some creative processes brought about by the computer is that speculation in this matter is valuable so long as it is coupled with a conscious effort to shape the technology toward meeting basic human goals – including human creativity. I feel it is not completely a question of what the computer will do TO us, but a determination ofwhat we will best have the computer do FOR us. Just as important is an assurance that a necessarily diverse group is in a position to make these basic decisions.’ William Fetter, ‘Computer Graphics at Boeing’ in Print Magazine, XX:VI (November-December 1966) 32.

[20] Gustav Metzger, ‘Automata in History’, Studio International (1969) 107-9.

[21] Maldonado and Gui Bonsiepe, ‘Wissenschaft und Gestaltung’ in Ulm, 10/11 (1964) 10–29

[22] See Margaret Morse, Virtualities: television, media art, and cyberculture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) 75.

[23] A. Michael Noll, ‘Choreography and Computers’ in Dance Magazine, Vol. XXXXI, No. 1, (January 1967) 43-45.

[24] ‘Kyldex: Dampf auf Zuschauer-Kommando’ in Der Spiegel (June 1973) 107.

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

[26] Billy Klüver, Pavilion by Experiments in Art and Technology (New York: EP Dutton, 1972) xi

[27] Max Kozloff, ‘The Multi-million Dollar Art Boondoggle’ in Artforum 10, no. 2 (October 1971) 72-6.

[28] One answer to this question is to be found in the arguments made for the democratisation of computers by figures like Ted Nelson in his book Computer Lib (1974) or the magazine, Radical Software (est. 1970) in the USA.

[29] Francisco Infante ‘Artificially Created Spaces: The Projects and Realizations of the ARGO Group’ in The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol. 5, (summer 1987) 116.

[30] See see Łukasz Ronduda, Polish Art of the 1970s (Jelenia Góra / Warsaw: Polski Western / CCA Ujazdowski Castle, 2009) 300-14.

[31] Kwiek in conversation with the author, summer 2013.

[32] Paweł Kwiek, Dokument obiektywny o człowieku [Objective Document About Man], 1976 unpublished mss, Centre for Contemporary Art., Ujzadowskie Castle, CSW Archive.

[33] Paweł Kwiek cited by Ryszard Kluszczyński, ed., Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Warsaw: Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, 2000) 71.

[34] Rosalind Krauss, ‘The Post-medium Condition’ in Perpetual Inventory (Boston MA: MIT Press, 2010) 10

Nervous Systems: New Machines and Bodies in Polish Art and Film after the Thaw

Cold War, Design as Critique, Eastern Europe, New Media, Uncategorized

This essay was published in the catalogue accompanying the Cosmos Calling! exhibition at Zacheta, Warsaw, summer 2014.



Iluminacja, photo: Jerzy Troszczyński, 1973, Filmoteka Narodowa

Iluminacja, photo: Jerzy Troszczyński, 1973, Filmoteka Narodowa

In 1973 Krzysztof Zanussi made a movie, ‘Iluminacja’(Illumination), to explore the ways in which science, the state and religion understood life in its most immediate sense, that of the living human being. Relaying the fictional career of Franciszek Retman, a young physicist in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL), over the course of the 1960s, Zanussi’s film is a brilliant collage of documentary material, interviews with living scientists and the venerable philosopher, Władysław Tartarkiewicz, as well as a narrative about the life of Retman and his young family. This arcs from a position of certainty in 1961 when, newly matriculated, Retman announces his desire to commit to physics because of its ‘concrete knowledge’, to one of existential anxiety after the failure to cure his unnamed malady, a life-threatening condition which seems to be triggered by his high ambitions.

Zanussi’s film is a lofty philosophical enquiry, but it also has political overtones too. When, for instance, Retman is forced to give up his studies to meet the costs of raising his young family, he takes employment testing the cathode ray tubes in a factory making televisions: high expertise is put to the mundane needs of society. Another way of making a living includes volunteering for scientific tests. Retman is paid to sleep whilst wired to an electroencephalograph recording his brain activity in angular lines on a plotter. His dreams appear to have greater value than his thoughts. At the same time, various professional voices in the film hypothesize about the new frontiers of genetics, molecular biology and neuroscience. Here, the human brain is presented as new challenge to the technical and ethical limits of science. In fact, one section uses footage of open-brain surgery during which the neurosurgeon manipulates the brain of patient lying alert on the operating table. Pressure applied with a probe on the glomerulus region triggers the strong impression of smell in the patient. Smell, it seems, is not a phenomenon in the world but a product of electrical impulses in the brain.

Zanussi, it becomes clear, is preoccupied with the nature of consciousness. He is not alone in this: on screen, Iwo Bialynicki-Birula, a professor of theoretical physics at Warsaw University, reflects:


The passing of time in our minds can be equated to moving lighting. The present and the past, which exist in our memories, are illuminated, while the future drowns in darkness. Perhaps a method will exist to light up the future, to widen the scope of this illumination. Or maybe there are those who can find the vague outlines of that which will be tomorrow, even in the darkness. Coming from a physicist, such attitudes might sound astounding but modern science does not exclude the fact that the future exists in the present in ways that are similar to how our pasts exist in our memories.


‘Iluminacja’ remain one of the most vivid and thoughtful commentaries on science in Poland during the communist period.Addressingconsciousness, the real effects of scientific discovery in the world, the role of technocratic experts (aka ‘the scientific elite’) and the knowability of the future, Zanussi’s film surveyed the new paths which had been set for science and technology during and after the volatile period of destalinization in the second half of the 1950s. The future – as will be seen below – was being imagined in terms set by cybernetics, artificial intelligence and computing, television, electronics as well as other novel and seemingly immaterial technologies. Progress in these fields was inevitable, at least according to the technological determinism which prevailed in the Eastern Bloc. In 1956 Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin had announced the Scientific Technological Revolution (STR), a programme intended to shape a new Soviet consciousness.[1] A scientifically literate and technologically expert society would be better able to compete with capitalism in the Cold War. The principal symbols of the era – space flight, atomic power and modern telecommunications – broadcast the triumphs of Soviet engineering and science to the world. In a similarly bullish mood, reform leader Władysław Gomułka took the stage at the Third Congress of the Polish United Workers’ Party in the same year to announce new conditions for intellectual life: ‘An atmosphere of free discussion in science, broadening contact with science all over the world, not excepting the capitalist countries, daring in handling new themes even though we are not always in accord with the directions this daring sometimes takes. These are all developments that are conducive to intellectual revival and are propitious for scientific progress.’[2]

But with Retman increasingly dissatisfied with the answers offered by science and medicine to his existential questions, Zanussi’s 1973 film also explores another legacy of the Thaw, that of doubt. After the trauma of Stalinism, intellectuals in Poland could no longer give their loyalty to authority unquestioningly. For one vocal commentator during the ‘Thaw’, philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, the heady promises of future science should not to be confused with the real challenges of socialism. Once a loyal communist, he became a vocal critic of the official course, damning the fetish then being made of science:


We observe the astonishing speed with which the new mythologies displace the old ones. In the intellectual life of a society in which the mechanism of tradition faith has become corroded, new myths proliferate with the greatest ease, even though they may originate in technical advances or scientific discoveries. Thousands of people fondly imagine that the friendly inhabitants of other planets will one day solve the problems from which humans cannot extricate themselves. For others the words ‘cybernetics’ embodies the hope of resolving all social conflicts.[3]


For Kołakowski the task of socialism was to improve the intellectual and environmental conditions of the individual in the present moment. This was an existential response to the interminable exaltation of the working classes during the Stalin years – fanfares made whilst ordinary citizens of all classes lived in miserable conditions and often in fear. The challenge for communism was the rehabilitation of the human being (one which was nourished by the ‘discovery’ and publication of the early writings of Karl Marx which articulated his ‘dream of the whole man’).

Exuberant scientism and doubting existentialism represented two poles of thought in the Thaw years (and after). What was the ‘ideal’ – or perhaps simply tolerable – relationship of the individual to technology in an age which heralded intelligent machines and the extension of the human body by means of genetics or even biological prostheses? This was an urgent question in a society which claimed both to defend the individual against exploitation and also to be advancing to the utopia of full communism. In what follows, I explore some of the ways in which artists, composers, writers, filmmakers and designers in Poland in the 1960s and early 1970s sought to answer it.

Command and Control

The declaration of the STR was accompanied by the revival of science fiction in the Eastern Bloc. Largely prohibited during the Stalin years because the genre had been employed as a vehicle for expressing doubts about the possibility of utopia, it offered a vivid platform for imagining the future and, perhaps, forgetting the recent past.Ikarie XB-1’, a Czechoslovak movie (dir. Jindřich Polák, 1963) is typical of its kind. Set in the year 2163, the film is an adaptation of StanisławLem’s Obłok Magellana (The Clouds of Magellan, 1955)and describes the long journey of the Ikarie XB-1, a space craft, to a satellite of the star Alpha Centauri known as ‘The White Planet’. Representatives of the communist society of the future, the crew encounter the floating wreck of a spaceship launched from earth in 1987. Its crew is long dead but the ancient craft still carries its highly-toxic cargo of nuclear and biological weapons. In this way, ‘Ikarie XB-1’ passed comment on the Cold War antagonisms of the day and signaled mankind’s long term destiny.

Ikarie XB-1

Ikarie XB-1

Much of the narrative of ‘Ikarie XB-1’ takes place on the spaceship’s flight deck, furnished with illuminated consoles and massive screens feeding images from the dark vacuum of outer space and pulsing abstract patterns. Life on board is overseen by the ‘Centrální Automat’, a computer with tremendous processing power which answers the crew’s questions in the machinic voice characteristic of the genre. Enveloped by this voice and enclosed by screens, the crew control the artificial environment and the flight of the ship through banks of switches, lights and monitors. Performing what they imagined to be the operating routines of the future, the actors ‘play’ the interfaces like musicians, rhythmically tapping out their instructions as if playing some kind of as yet unknown instrument. When the crew slip are rendered unconscious as an effect of a radiation cloud, the mission continues. The computer oversees an ‘unmanned shift’, before the crew revive twenty-four hours later.

This image of human dependency on the intelligent machine marked a significant shift in the technological imaginary of the Eastern Bloc under Soviet rule. During the Stalin years, for instance, the emergent science of Cybernetics had been represented as an ideological weapon which would deprive mankind of its humanity – a zombie science originating in the West which would replace humans with docile machines.[4] ‘The process of production realized without workers!’ screeched one Soviet critic with the pen name, ‘Materialist’. ‘Only with machines controlled by the gigantic brain of the computer! … what an enticing perspective for capitalism!’[5] Consequently, this adolescent science went underground with its early adepts camouflaging their interest with specialist jargon. In his 1955 novel on which ‘Ikarie XB-1’ had been based, Lem – for instance – substituted the term ‘mechanioristics’ (mechaneurystyki’) for cybernetics in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid censorship.

In the changed conditions of the Thaw, Cybernetics was recast as a technocratic and progressive science. The Polish adepts of this new creed promised to apply its insights to the planned economy,[6] to the classless society and to socialist culture.[7]Visions of intelligent machines which might divest man-made systems of human error and of dynamic, self-correcting communication techniques based on feedback loops seemed like a panacea for the economic inefficiencies inherited from Stalinism. Modest versions of the computerized space deck on ‘Ikarie XB-1’ were found in the command and control centres that began to be constructed in Eastern Europe in the 1960s. Computers were introduced into Główny Urząd Statystyczny (Chief Statistical Office) in Warsaw and the Państwowa Komisja Planowania (State Planning Commission), key bureaucratic instruments in the management of the command economy in Poland.

Państwowa Komisja Planowania (State Planning Commission),Warsaw,  late 1960s from Polska Sztuka Uzytkowa w 25-lecie PRL

Państwowa Komisja Planowania (State Planning Commission),Warsaw, late 1960s from Polska Sztuka Uzytkowa w 25-lecie PRL

Coal mines and power stations were modernized by the introduction of operation rooms equipped with illuminated panels to oversee the distribution of material, energy and working bodies in real time. Technocratic spaces, these information centres were, nevertheless, objects of public knowledge. Typically, they appeared in news reports as depopulated zones. If workers were present, they were white-coated personnel dedicated to servicing these new thinking machines. In ‘Komputery’ (‘Computers’, 1967), a short educational film made by Zanussi before ‘Iluminacja’, for instance, the camera tracks smoothly through banks of computers and monitors. The soundtrack, pulsing lights and the voice-over make it clear that these intelligent machines are at work on important tasks like calculating ‘the optimal economic plan.’ In a volte face, the ideological prohibition expressed so vehemently in the mid 1950s against the replacement of workers by machines seemed to have been overturned, though as Lem, writing on cybernetics ten years later, noted, the modern mind was still ‘haunted by the medieval myth of the homunculus, an artificially created intelligent being’.[8] And when Zanussi sets out to explain the switching mechanisms contained within the smooth cases of mainframe computers in his film, he choreographed children dressed in polka dots or stripes on a grid. Representing binary code, they symbolise innocence and, of course, the future: what better way to humanise the intelligent machine?

Ergonomics was another state-sponsored science which gained importance during the 1960s. An international field, Ergonomics in the PRL took particular interest in the measurement of the body at work, supplying data which could improve the design of equipment and machinery in state factories.

Ergonomic studies, IWP, Warsaw, 1966

Ergonomic studies, IWP, Warsaw, 1966

It provided ‘evidence’ of the claim that socialism could serve the needs of the worker better than capitalism and staked out a difference from the commercial practice of product styling. The Instytut Wzornictwo Przemysłowe (The Institute of Industrial Design) established its Zakład Badań Ergonomicznych (Department of Ergonomic Research) in Warsaw in 1964 to assess the design of machines and equipment. In the same year artist and designer Andrzej Pawłowski formed (with Zbigniew Chudzikiewicz) the Industrial Design Department at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków with a common purpose. Both drew on an extensive exercise in measuring Polish bodies which had been conducted between 1955 and 1959 by the Anthropometric Commission of the Polish Academy of Science (full data for 100,000 individuals). These largely static measurements were augmented in the course of the 1960s in numerous tests to test body movement – grip, stretch, rotation, reach, etc. – as well as human reaction and other effects of perception. By the early 1970s, the human instrument had been thoroughly mapped for the ‘needs of design’ and ‘the needs of the machine’.[9]

There are many precursors for this kind of design scientism: they include Frederick Winslow Taylor’s time and motion studies in American factories at the beginning of the twentieth century and the experiments of Alexei Gastev to improve worker efficiency in Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

'Russian Taylorism in Gastev's Institute: Investigations into the rational handling of firearms by means of chrono-cyclography'  (from René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind And Face Of Bolshevism, 1927).

‘Russian Taylorism in Gastev’s Institute: Investigations into the rational handling of firearms by means of chrono-cyclography’ (from René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind And Face Of Bolshevism, 1927).

A poet whose writings hymned the machine before the October Revolution (‘the iron demon of the age with human soul, nerves like steel, muscles like rail’[10]), Gastev imagined all aspects of life in the future as being regulated by self-regulating and self-correcting machines. Humanity would itself become machine-like, cleansed of irrational emotion – ‘no longer expressing himself through screams of pain or joyful laughter, but rather through a manometer or taxometer. Mass engineering will make man a social automation.’[11] To shape Soviet machine men and women, Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labour (Центральный институт труда) in 1920 which ran a network of training centres where workers were taught to think and act. Trainees were drilled to regulate their actions using tools at workbenches in order to conserve energy and maximize efficiency. One visitor to Soviet Russia wrote: ‘Anyone entering through the front door of this institute as a normal living man issues from the back door, after passing through countless laboratories, as a completely perfected working machine.’[12] Curiously, Gastev was attacked for not being ambitious enough: ‘ .. the mass man is to be part of a mighty aggregate of turbines, and not transformed into a might cobbler’s awl.’[13] In other words, in concentrating on the actions of the hand equipped with manual tools, Gastev’s programme did not live up to Lenin’s industrial ambitions. Nevertheless, the scale of the Central Institute of Labour’s programme was truly industrial: half million workers and 20,000 instructors were trained between 1921 and 1928.

Unlike Gastev, who sought to organize the body for maximum efficiency at the bench, ergonomic design in the PRL fifty years later claimed to reduce psychological and physical injury in the factory. ‘Through creativity in the industrial field,’ wrote Pawłowski in 1965, ‘we come to understand the most rational conditions for the protection of the biological and psychological existence of the human being, as well as the development of culture in industrial civilizations, the dynamics of which have become the cause of a dangerous loss of balance between civilization and the culture of its exploitation.’[14] Pawłowski claimed naturalizing and humanizing effects for his work in industrial design. In his designs, Marx’s ‘dream of the whole man’ still resonated.

Nevertheless, the visual data generated by ergonomic research formed a striking and often bizarre genre of images in the PRL. [ill 8] In tests, machines were reduced to their interfaces – buttons, pedals, levers and switches; workers were turned into gestures or functions; and factories and workshops were replaced by white-walled laboratories. Entirely absent were the products and services provided by these machines or their place in the networks of power or industry. Machines never failed in this new imaginary; and workers did not slack. In the most advanced expression of this science, the operations of driver of a crane or the use of a lathe could be rendered as algebraic formulae. As publicity for socialist science, ergonomics was a fetishistic, technocratic knowledge, providing the authorities with an image of ‘clean’ industry populated with willing workers (something that could not be guaranteed in life). By replacing the mammoth engineering works populated with sweating workers and coal-fired furnaces – the drive shafts of communist industry in the Stalin years – for the laboratory-like conditions of the command and control centre or the ergonomically-designed workstation, a symbolic decontamination of the past was also being undertaken. The violence and irrationalism of the Stalin years – the gulags, the show trials, delusional claims about the Party’s infallibility – could be flushed clean with science. And disconnected from the output of industry, ergonomics itself came – like the computers in the State Planning Commission – to seem like a closed circuit, disconnected from the real conditions of life.

In 1969 artist Zbigniew Makarewicz offered some ironic reflections on the cybernetic turn in his ‘Cybernetyczny system sterujący’ (Cybernetic Steering System) installed at his blankly-titled ‘Wystawa Sztuka’ (Exhibition of Art) at BWA in Wrocław. This was one of a number of temporary environments which Makarewicz created with high-tech names like ‘Centralny Generator Pulsacji Układu’, ‘Indykator Dedukcji Na Płaszczyźnie Zespolonej’, ‘Zespół Pamięci Komórkowej’, and ‘Schemat Kierunkowy Sterowania’. In Wrocław, shabby materials – an old lamp, inkpot, empty jars, a pre-war radio, a television with an adapted handle, dominos – were connected with wires trailing from a stepladder, perhaps some kind of ‘control centre’. These items looked as if they had been retrieved from the trash. Broken and shabby, these were precisely the kinds of mundane objects which the command economy – steered by cybernetics – was to do away with. Recalling the absurd operations of his system in 2013, Makarewicz pointed to its political symbolism: ‘A ballet was performed at the opening of the exhibition in which a dancer in a black leotard jumped from a box to the TV whilst reading from a Spanish dictionary along the lines of the speeches of Fidel Castro and then performing cycles of raising and lower [her] arms. Needless to say, this was a perverse criticism of real socialism with its obligatory slogans and exercises.’[15]


The Measure of Life

In Zanussi’s 1973 film ‘Iluminacja’, the young scientist Retman asks ‘Where does a man stop being a man?’ He is troubled by the the interventions that medical science makes into the minds and bodies of patients that he witnesses whilst working in a hospital. When a doctor asserts that the body is just a set of ‘biological processes’ in which medical science can ‘interfere’, Retman responds by saying that the ‘spirit’ and body are indivisible. And this seems to be Zanussi’s view too: later in ‘Iluminacja’, medicine’s confidence in its capabilities comes to seem overstated when the death of a patient after brain surgery to cure his epilepsy is depicted. But Zanussi’s purpose is not to highlight the failures of medicine but to test its limits. Retman’s question had been asked just a few years earlier in ‘Przekładaniec’ (‘Layer cake’) a short film adapted from a short story by Stanisław Lem for television by film director Andrzej Wajda in 1968.

Ostensibly, it is a light-hearted story of racing driver, Ryszard Fox, set in America in the near future. The downtown landscape is formed from sweeping concrete highways and glass curtain walled towers (with a newly competed point block in Warsaw’s ‘Ściana Wschodnia’ providing the hospital setting where much of the action takes place). Ryszard Fox receives his brother’s internal organs after his death in a crash on the racing circuit. So complete is the extent of the transplant of organs that Tomasz Fox’s life insurance company rejects his widow’s claim. As one character remarks in the film ‘When is a person alive? When his or her vital organs are alive. The places where they are situated are not important.’ With 70% of Tomasz’s biological material ‘invested’ in his brother and in others, he is, the company’s lawyer claims, only ‘30% dead’.

Lem’s story is comic and irreverent but it was not without a point. In fact, ‘Layer Cake’ belongs to a deep and often philosophical enquiry into the boundaries of the natural and the artificial, the human and the posthuman, as well as the acceleration of evolution, conducted by Lem in his novels, essays and philosophical books. The latter includes Summa Technologiae (1964), a work that he described as a ‘thought experiment’ into the long term effects and potential of technology. Indifferent to the limits set by ideology or by current science, Summa Technologiae, was ‘an attempt to predict what could not be predicted’.[16]In fact, Lem objected to the simple determinism which often accompanied most public discussions of the future – in the PRL and elsewhere. Not only was it impossible to project ‘progress’ – a key word in the vocabulary of power – along ‘straight paths of development’ but that many of the images of the future in circulation were, he argued, based on outmoded thinking. Of the ’contemporary attempt to populate outer space with space “ships,” including a brave “crew,” “watch officers,” “helmsmen” … on board’ in science fiction Lem wrote; ‘It is not that one should not write like this, but this kind of writing belongs to a genre of fantasy; it is a form of “reverse” nineteenth-century historical novel.’[17]

Summa Technologiae is a compendium of many themes – the search for extraterrestrial life, artificial intelligence, virtual reality – but the subject of the most vivid and original sections of the book concern the future of the human being.Projecting the acceleration of evolution by developments in biotechnology and genetics, he wrote ‘The invasion of technology created by man into his body is unavoidable’. In fact, Summa Technologiae presented an image of human kind dissolved in technology.Lem 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. Life in space would, according to Lem, necessitate the ‘cyborgisation’ of the body:


The cyborg has a number of biological elements, such as the skeleton, the muscles, the skin, and the brain, but this brain consciously regulates what used to be involuntary body functions. In the key points of its organism, there are osmotic pumps, which, in case of need, inject nutritious or active agents – medication hormones impulse-inducing substances – or agents that lower basic metabolism, or even agents that induce hibernation. … The cyborg is not a partly prosthesized human; it is a human that has been reconstructed in part and equipped with an artificial system of nutritional regulation- which facilitates [its] adaptation to various cosmic environments.[18]


For Lem the cyborg was simply a stage in an accelerated process of evolution now that humankind had the means to alter its own biology. Moreover it demonstrated that the ‘current model’ of the human being – itself an adaptation to life on Earth – was no more universal or natural than the cyborg of the future.

Summa Technologiae expressed a view found throughout Lem’s writings: that the human being, as understood in the middle of the twentieth century, was not the fixed measure of life. A rebuttal of the anthropocentrism of most science fiction, this was also disavowal of the figure who had been claimed as the antidote to the disaster of Stalinism, that of the ‘whole man’. In the introduction to the 1974 edition of Summa Technologiae he wrote:


I do not trust any promise. I do not 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.[19]


Far from rejecting the STR and other forms of scientism, Lem accused them of lacking daring.


Senses Divided

After watching ‘Przekładaniec’ on television in August 1969, Lem wrote to Wajda congratulating the director on his adaptation. He also noted the imaginative and ingenious ways in which the film’s designers (including Barbara Hoff, the celebrated fashion designer) had created the scenography and costumes: ‘The imminent, indefinite “future” has been very cleverly constructed, especially considering the scant means you had at your disposal.’[20] Poland in the late 1960s was – in material terms – poorly-equipped to embark on the creation of the brave new worlds of science fiction or the post-human forms of life projected in Summa Technologiae (a point made forcefully by Leszek Kołakowski in his critical review of the book.[21] Nevertheless, the STR had licensed a culture and infrastructure in which ‘experiments’ could be conducted not only by cyberneticists, psychologists and ergonomic designers but also by artists, film-makers, architects and musicians too. Galleries, theatres, film and recording studios were described in the 1960s – by their creators – as ‘laboratories’ and artworks as ‘instruments’. Belonging to the newly-licensed zone of ‘experimentation’ and sharing the official rhetoric of progress, these labs enjoyed resources and relative freedom from censorship.[22]

In these settings, artists used technology to extract and separate the functions of the body.Human faculties – like touch and sight – could, it seems, become object-like with the aid of technology. Composer Krzysztof Penderecki created, for instance, ‘Psalmus’, his major work of electronic music in the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio in 1961. Established three years earlier, the studio’s founder, Józef Patkowski, had imagined it as a kind of laboratory where a composer, working closely with a skilled engineer, could manipulate sounds materially (by editing and joining tape) and electronically (using filters and generators). Judgments could be made about the timbre, dynamics and pitch of any sound with little or no need to involve musicians. Working with recordings of basic elements of speech – vowels and consonants – Penderecki and engineer, Eugeniusz Rudnicki, filtered and processed the sound of two human voices, a soprano and a baritone. These treatments produced long notes which shifted in pitch and colour as well as percussive sounds and tremolo effects. Listening today, the piece remains extraordinary: a ‘natural’ capacity, the human voice, is rendered ‘artificial’ and given the task of expressing sounds rather than singing words. Here was a new conception of what a human voice might be when detached from its sounding body.

‘Stymulatory wrażeń nieadekwatnych’ (Stimulators of Non-adequate Impressions, 1963-4).

‘Stymulatory wrażeń nieadekwatnych’ (Stimulators of Non-adequate Impressions, 1963-4).

The author of an early experiment in an experimental recording studio, Penderecki was not alone in being galvanized by the prospect of capturing human faculties. Andrzej Pawłowski, a prominent artist as well as an industrial designer (see above), isolated the human facility of touch in a set of experimental devices that he called Stymulatory wrażeń nieadekwatnych’ (Stimulators of Non-adequate Impressions, 1963-4). [ill 10]Textured natural materials like roughly-cut timber and stone were placed in clinical white boxes. Users were encouraged to touch these things through narrow apertures with sleeves that made it impossible to see what was felt. Images and other objects were placed above in another box, which could only be penetrated with sight. According to Bożena Kowalska, this resulted in a ‘conflict between coherent sensations received by the sense of sight and touch.’[23] In dividing the senses, Pawłowski’s purpose was to better understand their interconnection in the human sensorium.

Artist Włodzimierz Borowski took a more abrasive approach to the stimulation and division of sensation. He began his career in the late 1950s creating abstract paintings and mixed-media objects which he called ‘Artons’. Made from paint, rubber and glass, some had lights powered with batteries. Artons seemed strikingly vital, at least in the eyes of one critic: ‘organisms endowed with their own kind of life; kinetic objects of metal and plastic, pulsating with electric lights turned on and off in some aleatory rhythm.’[24] In their animation and anti-illusionism, these works anticipated what in the 1960s became Borowski’s series of ‘syncretic shows’. In June 1966 he organized the second of these in the

II Syncretic Show of Włodzimierz Borowski, Foksal Gallery in Warsaw 1966 - MSN -

II Syncretic Show of Włodzimierz Borowski, Foksal Gallery in Warsaw 1966 – MSN –

in Warsaw. [ill 11]The small gallery was divided in two parts: in one, visitors encountered flashing spotlights and hanging mirrors, some spinning. The other space was occupied by the artist, isolated and invisible behind a screen formed by with plastic balls bristling with nails. Borowski, hidden, watched the reactions of the visitor. The audience was presented with itself in the mirrors, albeit in highly fragmented and temporary impressions. The eye was not allowed to focus or to rest. Borowski arranged the gallery as an experiment which both accentuated and denied vision, in this way drawing attention to sight itself. His preoccupation with visual perception was emphasized by the installation of a red illuminated sign with the command ‘Cisza’ (‘Silence’).

The show seemed to test ideas which Borowski had first outlined in his ‘Manifest Lustrzany’ (‘Mirror Manifesto’) written in Lublin in March 1963. In it, it becomes clear that silence is not just an auditory quality:


MIRROR. The unreal image of the object achieving the right illusions. Replaces the object of art as a catalyst of sensations. Eliminates the ‘noise’ that always accompanies the information provided by the image. In the traditional image there is only ‘noise’ when trying to take in the range of information.[25]


Art was diminished by ‘noise’, a term which Borowski had adopted from Norbert Wiener’s writings on cybernetics to describe ‘disturbance’ in a system (‘Organism is opposed to chaos, to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise’ – Wiener). Understood in this light, Borowski’s experiment in the Foksal Gallery sought to strip away the general conventions of art spectatorship to produce something like the pure experience of vision. In both Pawłowski and Borowski’s cases, an experiment was being conducted on the visitor. In the catalogue to his 1966 Krzysztofory Gallery exhibition – his fifth syncretic show – Borowski made this clear: ‘This show is an instrument with the help of which I examine the reactions of viewers, because man too is the object of my experiments.’


‘The only way to deal with a certain technology is another technology’

Many of these experimental schemes conducted by artists in the first half of the 1960s employed technology to draw attention to the fragmentation of the self. In dividing and enhancing the senses, Pawłowski was, for instance, interested in how they might be better combined. But at the end of the decade more self-consciously critical approaches to the extension of the body by technology appeared in Polish art. In the aftermath of the events of 1968, the principal axioms the Thaw – that technology was innately progressive or that Soviet-style socialism could be reformed and humanized – came to seem naïve.[26] Makarewicz’s ‘Cybernetic Steering System’ – discussed above – is one marker of a new, critical sensibility. Others include the early works of the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, a recent graduate of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art industrial design programme. Of his studies, Wodiczko said ‘I was trained to be a member of the elite unit of designers, skillful infiltrators who were supposed to transform existing state socialism into an intelligent, complex, and human design project.’[27] As if to fulfill this destiny, he had been employed as a designer for Unitra, the main state electronics conglomerate in Warsaw. This was not his only connection to the experimental zone of technology: the son of a prominent conductor, he was also connected to the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. In fact, he turned to the Studio’s engineers for advice on the construction of a series of technological artworks that can be understood as musical instruments.[28]

Photographs and publicity for Krzysztof Wodiczko's ‘Personal Instrument’ (1969) now in the collection of the Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz, author's photograph

Photographs and publicity for Krzysztof Wodiczko’s ‘Personal Instrument’ (1969) now in the collection of the Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz, author’s photograph

His Instrument Osobisty (Personal Instrument, 1969) was, for instance, an electronic device worn on the head and hands. Responding to the movements of the wearer, the device allowed the individual to amplify or diminish the flow of sound from the environment. A sensor on the glove turned the hand into a microphone. With his or her arms raised to filter the sounds, the wearer seemed to be conducting the city, making the traffic and conversations and footsteps of the passersby seem like instruments. In a text describing the operation of the Personal Instrument, Wodiczko wrote:


The instrument allows the conversion of ambient sound.
The instrument relies on the movement of the hand.
The instrument responds to sunlight.
The instrument is portable.
The instrument is used in any place and at any time.
The instrument is intended solely for the author.
The instrument enables the author to achieve virtuosity.


One year later Wodiczko prepared an instrument for the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio.

Wodiczko, Instrument–laboratorium perkusyjne (Instrument–Percussion Laboratory)

Wodiczko, Instrument–laboratorium perkusyjne (Instrument–Percussion Laboratory)

It was a compact grid of metal beams and joints that formed a frame with precise dimensions (396 x 396 x 288 cm). Panels within the framework could carry flat grilles to hold sound sources (including the percussive instruments of the object’s title), microphones and lighting equipment. With strong columns at the corners, the structure could be repositioned in different settings. Wodiczko arranged for the structure, which was illuminated by its own lights, to be photographed in darkened space, thereby emphasizing its universal qualities. In the technical drawings for the design, he presented the performer at the heart of the structure as a human silhouette, in the manner of an ergonomic system being employed by industrial designers or even the human figure framed by geometry in Le Corbusier’s Modulor (1945) system for architectural measurement. The Instrument-Percussion Laboratory was, it seemed, the most flexible and universal of instruments. ‘In their experiments today,’ wrote Wodiczko, with the deadpan logic of the design technocrat, ‘a great number of composers and performers use percussion-generated audio material. Musicians like this material for its acoustic variety. The simplest percussive sources of sound are forms made with solid, rigid or acoustically resilient matter, structured as open forms or planes, in the shape of pipes, rods, sheets, foils, the so-called acoustic niches of various sizes, quantities and proportions. Musicians dream of freely combining, exchanging, congesting, rearranging and operating such forms to fit their intentions and needs.’[29]

In these projects, Wodiczko seemed—at least ostensibly—to extend human capacities. The Personal Instrument turned everyday activities like walking in the city into music and the Instrument–Percussion Laboratory was, as Wodiczko said explicitly, an open form. Yet the forms of these objects clearly confounded the neutral, technical explanations that Wodiczko gave his works. They are better understood as allegorical devices. The Personal Instrument, for instance, alluded to the practices and technologies of surveillance, a branch of applied electronics that was put to malign effects in the Eastern Bloc under communist rule.[30] Moreover, Wodiczko’s instrument – which seemed to require the emphatic hand and arm movements of it wearer – produced the unsettling image of a man under the control of a machine. Similarly, the Instrument–Percussion Laboratory contained its user, dreaming of control over his or her environment, in a prison-like grid of geometry.

Wodiczko’s antihumanism was rare in the PRL in the late 1960s and 1970s but not unique. The Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Workshop of Film Form) was established in 1970 as a section of a science club at the Łódź Television, Film and Theatre School.[31] Founding members included Wojeciech Bruszewki, Paweł Kwiek, Andrzej Różycki, Zbigniew Rybczyński and Józef Robakowski. Critical of the teaching programme of the School and, at the same time, drawing resources from it (including 35mm film stock, editing tables, video cameras and monitors), the Workshop belonged to the ’experimental zone.’ In particular, the Workshop’s members formed a sharp critique of narrative film, and its dependence on ‘characters’ and plots. In 1975 Robakowski wrote ’We are trying to develop techniques to characterize film beyond the theory of literature hence the revival of interest in the so called ‘pure cinema’ and the effects to purify film from any possible narrative structures and the method of literary poetics.’[32]

The Workshop’s members were, as Kwiek recalls, ‘scientifically minded’, reading widely in psychology and cybernetics.[33] Working with film, photography and, within a few years, video, they set out to explore the practices of the ‘operator’ rather than the artist. Many of the films created by the Workshop’s members have the procedural, though often improvised, character of a test: what will be the effect of this action in these conditions? Objectivity was set as an ideal: ‘A documentary film’s aim is to provide the truth about man’, wrote Paweł Kwiek in 1974 for instance, ‘both for the sake of Art as well as from a scientific point of view. So far, however, it has not been possible to prevent the distortion of the truth, which results from (the subjectivity of the creator).’ Direct forms of image making like the camera could, he thought then, diminish such distortions: ‘We can conclude’, he continued, ‘that the truth we receive from man is based on direct contact with him, regardless of what he would like to show himself or in what fashion he would like to be perceived …’.[34]

One approach to direct forms of image making was to combine medium and body (resulting in what Robakowski called ‘biological-mechanical records’).In an early ‘test’ film, Prostokąt dynamiczny (Dynamic Rectangle, 1971), he recorded his attempts to match the insistent, mechanical rhythm of a piece of music created by Eugeniusz Rudnik in the Experimental studio of Polish Radio (Penderecki’s engineer when making ‘Psalmus’ ten years earlier). The on-screen image of a pulsing and mutating red rectangle was achieved by Robakowski opening and closing a diaphragm manually in front of the 35mm camera as he listened to the music. The piece is never quite in sync as the image (created by the live movements of the artist) fails to accurately match the sound (pre-recorded music). Knowing that behind the image there is a body falling short of the measure of the machine lends poignancy to Robakowski’s ‘test’.

Kwiek, ‘Video C’ (1975) - stills - movie can be seen here -

Kwiek, ‘Video C’ (1975) – stills

Similarly, ‘Video C’ (1975) by Paweł Kwiek, made when the members of the Workshop were given access to a television studio, records the hands of an operator (Kwiek himself) manipulating the faders and buttons of a vision mixer, a device used to switch between video sources in a TV studio or to add graphic effects to the picture. [ill 14]The operator appears to be using his fingers to move a triangular cursor around the TV screen. Sometimes it seems to hover, as if trying to touch the on-screen hand or to trace the line of the operator’s arm in space: sometimes the on-screen hand responds, appearing to palm the cursor back or to map its three points with a pinch of the fingers. Kwiek explained his interest in this impossible union thus ‘I construct such sets where the observed reality is the human being, for whom, in turn, the image of reality is his own constructed image.’[35] In this mise-en-abyme, what distinguished a human being from his or her electronic image dissolved.

What is striking about the works produced by the members of the Workshop of Film Form (and Wodiczko’s instruments) is that many of their ‘experiments’ were conducted on themselves. In other words, they were self-experiments in which one was both a performer and an observer at the same time. In closed circuits such as this, self-portrayal becomes a form of self-observation. Numerous commentators have identified a degree of schizophrenia in arrangements created by artists like Bruce Nauman: ‘The medium of video art’, writes Rosalind Krauss, for instance, ‘is the psychological condition of the self split and doubled by the mirror reflection of synchronous feedback.’[36] In the case of the films made by Workshop of the Film Form, one might also detect a kind of pathetic quality: Robakowski’s body fails to fall in line with the rhythm of the machine; and Kwiek’s ‘Video C’ attempts an impossible act (one kind of immaterial pointer, a cursor, attempts to touch another, a human finger). Science and technology – the site of considerable hubris in the PRL in the 1960s and early 1970s – was used, it seems, to produce pathos. In their claims on objectivity and body-machine union, the works by the members of Workshop of the Film Form ought to be a kind of high water mark of scientism in the PRL. Moreover they were made at a time when a new regime under Secretary of the Polish United Worker’s Party Edward Gierek was announcing yet another scientifically-minded modernization programme – known as ‘Druga Polska’ (Second Poland). This is the context in which the Workshops’ members enjoyed access to well-equipped television studios, for instance. Strange then, that their distinctly posthuman films and video artworks drew attention to human failure.






[1] See Konstantin Ivanov, ‘Science after Stalin: Forging a New Image of Soviet Science’ in Science in Context, vol. 15 no. 2(2002), 317-338.

[2] Gomułka cited SL Shneiderman, The Warsaw Heresy (New York: Horizon Press), 250

[3]Leszek Kołakowski, ‘The Jester and the Priest’ [1959] in Towards a Marxist Humanism (London, 1970), 57.

[4]Cybernetics was introduced by American mathematician Norbert Wiener in his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948). The science of ‘control and communication in the animal and the machine’, it focused attention on the interactions of parts in a system, one which might including both machines and beings. ‘It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback’ (Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950) 26.

[5] Cited in Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2002) 128

[6] Oskar Lange, Introduction to Economic Cybernetics (Warsaw: ‪Polish Scientific Publishers, 1970).

[7] Józef Kossecki, Cybernetyka kultury (Warsaw: PIW, 1974).

[8] Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae (Kraków: Wyd. Lit, 1964) 106.

[9] See A. Bogatowska and J Slownickowski, Atlas antropometryczny dorosłej ludności Polski dla postrzeb projektowania (Warsaw: IWP, 1974).

[10] Gastev’s Poetry of the Worker’s Blow’ cited and translated by Rolf Hellebust, Flesh to Metal. Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003) 50

[11] Gastev cited in Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford / New York: OUP) 152.

[12]René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism (London/New York: Putnam and Sons, 1927) 211.

[13] Unidentified critic in René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism (London/New York: Putnam and Sons, 1927) 212.

[14] Andrzej Pawłowski. ‘Cel i założenia Wydziału Form Przemysłowych’ (1965) in Inicjacje. O sztuce, projektowaniu i kształceniu projektantów Biblioteka wzornictwa 6’87 (Warsaw: IWP, 1987).

[15] – accessed March 2014.

[16] ‘[What] I confronted myself with was like a paradoxon: to predict what could not be predicted. I am an anti-historicist, like Popper who thinks that history is as unforeseeable as the natural evolution of the species. On this, I agree with him’, Stanisław Lem, introduction to the German edition of Summa Technologiae, 1978 reproduced on-line – accessed January 2010.


Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae (Kraków: Wyd. Lit, 1964) 15.

[18] Ibid, 381-2.

[19] Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae, 1974 edition translated by Joanna Zylinska, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 12.


[21]‘One day humanity will invent telephones with which you can call Pruszków from Warsaw easily, build an elevator which will work for weeks without breaking down, as well as glue suitable for gluing and razors suitable for shaving’. Leszek Kołakowski, ‘Informacja i utopia’ in Twórczość (November 1964) 117

[22] See David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk, Sounding the Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe, 1957-1984 (Łódź: Muzeum Stuki, 2012).

[23] Bożena Kowalska, Polska avantgarda malarska 1945-1970 (Warsaw: 1975) p. 161.

[24] A. Kępińska, ‪Nowa sztuka: sztuka polska w latach 1945-1978 (Warsaw: WAF 1981),65.

[25] W. Borowski, “Artony i Manilusy’, exhibition catalogue, BWA Lublin 1966, np.

[26]Principally, the repression of student protests in Poland and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces.

[27]Douglas Crimp, Rosalyn Deutsche and Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, ‘A conversation with Krzysztof Wodiczko’ in October 38 (autumn 1986) 33.

[28] Interview with Krzysztof Szlifirski by the author, Warsaw, 2010.

[29] Krzysztof Wodiczko, ‘Instrument – laboratorium perkusyjne’ in Res Facta, 5 (1971) 185.

[30] See Robert Ciupa, Monika Komaniecka, Szpiegowski arsenał bezpieki. Obserwacja, technika operacyjna, kontrola korespondencji jako środki pracy Służby Bezpieczeństwa PRL (Katowice-Kraków: IPN, 2011).

[31] See see Łukasz Ronduda, Polish Art of the 1970s (Jelenia Góra / Warsaw: Polski Western / CCA Ujazdowski Castle, 2009) 300-14.

[32]Józef Robakowski, ‘Bezjęzykowa koncepcja semiologiczna filmu’ Zeszyt Warsztat Formy Filmowej 7 (1975) – available at – accessed March 2014

[33] Kwiek in conversation with the author, summer 2013.

[34]Paweł Kwiek, Dokument obiektywny o człowieku [Objective Document About Man], 1976 unpublished mss, Centre for Contemporary Art., Ujzadowskie Castle,CSW Archive.


[35] Paweł Kwiek, ’Co robię’ in Ryszard Kluszczyński, ed., Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Warsaw: Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, 2000) 71.

[36] Rosalind Krauss, ‘The Post-medium Condition’ in Perpetual Inventory (Boston MA: MIT Press, 2010) 10.

Zamecznik’s Silent Star (occasional notes on posters)

Cold War, Eastern Europe, Graphic Design

In many science fiction films of the Cold War period the cosmos is represented as an extra-terrestrial space in which international rivalries have been overcome. ‘Der Schweigende Stern’ (The Silent Star) depicted a world in which communism had swept the planet and mankind now enjoyed the benefits of nuclear technology, social equality and international fraternity. Internationalism was not only the theme but also the method of this movie: it was based on a book by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem and shot in East Germany with an international cast.

The film depicts the discovery of a mysterious object in 2003 which contains a coded message threatening the Earth’s destruction. A spaceship is dispatched to Venus, the source of this message, with an international crew. There, they find only the ruins of the warlike civilization which had itself already perished in a nuclear civil war. The Cold War message was clear to all.

Interestingly, the film was distributed in America under the title ‘First Spaceship in Venus’ where its latent communist message was less important than its capacity to satisfy the tremendous popular demand for science fiction. The poster distributed in the USA stressed the dramatic experiences of space travel which could be enjoyed from the comfort of the cinema seat: ‘You are there …, You are there …, You are there …, You are there …, You are there …’.  Not surprisingly Polish designer Wojciech Zamecznik’s horizontal poster capture Lem’s intentions best. The ‘star’ – which has sent the message  has fallen silent, a deathly planet on which life has been extinguished. It is presented as lifeless face. The only allusion to the ideodological subtext appears in red trail which follows the cosmonauts as they fly through the dark night of space.

raumschief venusMaetigpolish_misc_first_spaceship_on_venus_JC06347_L

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

Architecture, Cold War, Modernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Heading East

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

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

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

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


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

It follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading West

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between East and West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Syrkus and Chmielewski cited in ibid, 56

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Bierut, op cit., 69

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Ibid, 45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[27] Goldzamt, Architektura Zespołów Śródmiejskich, 54.

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

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

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

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

[32] Ibid, 331.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[53] Ibid, 199.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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