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

Architecture, Cold War, Modernism

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

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

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

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 And their diagrams now looked more like unpublished secret plans for a Red Army march on Western Europe or NATO designs on the Soviet Union.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Heading East

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

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

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

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


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

It follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading West

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between East and West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Syrkus and Chmielewski cited in ibid, 56

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Bierut, op cit., 69

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Ibid, 45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[27] Goldzamt, Architektura Zespołów Śródmiejskich, 54.

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

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

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

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

[32] Ibid, 331.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[53] Ibid, 199.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Modernizacje 1918-1939. Czas przyszły dokonany – review

Architecture, Design Exhibition, Eastern Europe, Modernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publication related to the exhibition:

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

When Work Becomes Play

Design Exhibitions, Modernism, Uncategorized

This review of ‘Bauhaus – Art as Life’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London (3 May 2012 – 12 August 2012) appeared in Creative Review in June 2012.

Like all museums and galleries, the Barbican Art Gallery is keen to promote its latest show in superlative terms. ‘Bauhaus – Art as Life’ is – as its publicity tell us – the largest and most significant exhibition in Britain on the German design school since 1968 when the Royal Academy welcomed the straight edge heroes of modernism through its hallowed and ornate doors. Whilst this may be true, the Bauhaus has been put under the spotlight repeatedly in recent years. A few years ago, the V&A’s blockbuster, ‘Modernism: Designing a New World’, put many Bauhaus stars in the company of other less well known satellites of modernism. Tate Modern organised a twin-header featuring the art of Bauhaus masters Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy in the same year. Some of the exhibits from these shows have come back to London to the roughcast concrete galleries of the Barbican.

But all this Bauhauserie is no problem. As the large number of incontestably brilliant works on display testify, the Bauhaus was an extraordinarily prolific machine during its short life. It attracted some of Europe’s most intellectually ambitious and free-ranging artists, architects and designers – both as staff and students. And in this hothouse, they gave form to innovative designs – hovering tubular steel furniture, prefabricated architectural schemes, sans-serif machine-age alphabets and multi-media environments that they called ‘total theatre’. Much Bauhaus thinking and design is still with us today. But most readers of Creative Review will know this already. The Bauhaus story, from its origins as arts and crafts workshops established by Walter Gropius in 1919 to its closure at the beginning of the Third Reich, is a standard chapter in most design histories.

The challenge facing any curator or researcher is to tell a new Bauhaus story. In recent years, the story of women at the school has been written, reasserting the place of marginalised workshops like the textile studios. There have been attempts to champion the school’s many Hungarians (not just Marcel Breuer and Moholy-Nagy but forgotten figures like Stefan Sebök who died in Stalin’s Russia). Others have concentrated on the story of the Bauhaus exiles: Tel Aviv has branded itself as a ‘Bauhaus city’ to capture the role played by refugees from Nazism in shaping the dazzling cityscape of white-walls and flat-roof buildings in the sand.

So what new stories are being told at the Barbican? Well, somewhat surprisingly, the key Bauhaus message here is play. This is unexpected because the leading Bauhausler are often represented as rather austere characters. And they played up to the image. Moholy-Nagy used to dress like a engineer to emphasise his faith in function and industry. In fact, the Barbican displays one of his abstract paintings which was ordered over the phone from a sign factory. Moholy read out a set of coordinates and selected the colours from a chart. A few weeks later the enamel painting on a panel was delivered.


Gerhard Marcks, Crib, 1919 on display at the Barbican

The Bauhaus’s Maschinenrausch  – a peculiarly German word which translates as ‘machine-intoxication’ – is confounded by large number of playful, funny and even absurd works in the Barbican gallery. In fact, the opening work in the gallery is not, as might be expected, Lyonel Feininger’s iconic woodcut image of an angular cathedral which was on the cover of the School’s inaugural programme. Instead, it is a little altar with a nativity scene by the expressionist artist Gerhard Marcks. A folksy crib, it looks like a child’s toy. By the mid 1920s whimsy was replaced by geometry but toys were still a mainstay of Bauhaus production. The core units of Bauhaus master Wassily Kandinsky’s colour theory – yellow triangles, red square and blue circles – were being turned out as children’s building blocks.

Amongst the most striking exhibits on display are a set of grotesque puppets which the painter Paul Klee made for his son Felix. Created with found materials and the childlike glee that Klee brought to his paintings, some are probably caricatures of Bauhaus luminaries. Klee himself features as a hand-puppet. The Swiss painter was at the heart of another Bauhaus festivity: to mark his fiftieth birthday students from the weaving workshop hired a Junkers airplane and dive-bombed the painter’s house dropping gifts including a Marianne Brandt metal teapot. Klee recalled that the presents crashed through the flat roof.

Gift-giving and play were not diversions from the hard work of making a new world. They served an ideological purpose. Johannes Itten, best known as a colour theorist, once said ‘Play becomes celebration: celebration becomes work: work becomes play’. This was an expression of a kind of utopian dream in which the man or woman of the future would not be a cog in some kind of enormous machine but a creative individual who would find equal satisfaction in work and play. In this way, the division between art and life would be dissolved. Improvised jewellery formed from bands of metal and ball bearings for a Bauhaus party or a costume shaped like a spinning top for Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet were encouragement for adults to play.

Of course, the world beyond the doors of the school, first in Weimar and then in the famous Gropius-designed building in Dessau, was far from happy. Over the course of the 1920s Germany lurched from hyper-inflation and unemployment to near civil war as the communists and fascists fought in the streets. Knowing this, makes a playful utopia seem like a decadent proposition. In fact, that seems to have been the view of the second director of the Bauhaus, the functionalist architect Hannes Meyer. Taking office in 1928, he set a new course. He put far more emphasis on social housing, industrial production and Marxist politics. When in 1930 he was given the sack by the city authorities in Dessau for his political activism, he wrote ‘As head of the Bauhaus, I fought the Bauhaus style.’

The Bauhaus style – if not the radical politics of many of its staff and students  – emerges strongly in this exhibition. But viewed as play, many of the familiar icons of the school look different. Erich Consemüller’s much-reproduced photo of a woman – perhaps Walter Gropius’s wife, Ise – sitting on a B3 club chair wearing a Schlemmer papier-maché mask does not look quite as menacing as perhaps it once did.

Chance Operations – an extract from Dźwięki elektrycznego ciała

Eastern Europe, Modernism, Music, Uncategorized

This is an extract from Dźwięki elektrycznego ciała, an exhibition catalogue accompanying this show at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland. There is a review in Polish here and another from the August edition of The Wire here.

John Cage’s advocacy of indeterminacy and Fluxus’s interests in events were matched by new conceptualizations of modernist aesthetics that emerged in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of Stalinism. In Poland for instance architect and artist, Oskar Hansen was the author of the Open Form (Forma Otwarta) theory published in 1957.[i] In this short manifesto, he argued for spatial forms which were incomplete and, by their incompleteness, required the creativity or participation of viewers or users. Space, according to Hansen, should be considered in 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”.’[ii] This was fundamentally a social and decentred conception of space and creativity. 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.

Hansen had close contacts and professional relations with composers and musicians, not least Patkowski, the founder of the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. He conceived the My Place, My Music (Moje Miejsce, Moja Muzyka) pavilion for the Warsaw Autumn festival in 1958, the most important international forum for experimental composers in Eastern Europe. (figure 13) Working with Patkowski, Hansen experimented with the ‘spatiality of music’ – what he called an ‘audiovisual space-time’. A large fabric structure was to be suspended in a park – like a shirt with sleeves, each equipped with a speaker at its end. Viewers were to be encouraged to move through the space. In Hansen’s words ‘each could walk their chosen path in relation to the music – almost as if they owned it … the spatial relativity of the music’s reception brought the listener closer to an intimate experience of it … integrating sound with the listeners’ movements as well as with the trees and clouds’.[iii] Hansen’s aim was not the stimulation of sensation but of the imagination.

Whilst the 1958 pavilion was not realized, other ‘open forms’ were. In September 1966 the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw hosted an ‘audio-visual performance’ created by composer Zygmunt Krauze and artists Henryk Morel, Cezary Szubartowski and Grzegorz Kowalski (recently one of Hansen’s students). After entering into the gallery through a narrow slit and along a bright canvas ‘sleeve’, the public – in groups of ten – found themselves in the darkened and indefinite space of the gallery. Below their feet, the floor was lined with a bed of broken glass under sheet metal whilst the space itself was filled with metal objects gathered from a scrap-yard including massive springs, bent panels and broken barrels. The final space before the exit was filled with nets ‘trapping’ the visitor. Entitled 5x, the installation was the setting for five happenings organized over five consecutive evenings. The first night featured a 45-minute performance by Cornelius Cardew, David Bedford and John Tilbury of a La Monte Young composition featuring long sustained tones. Other ‘instruments’ were introduced on different nights including a microphone, a transistor radio and an amplified music box. The key role was not given to these British musicians who were in the city for the Warsaw Autumn festival. Each performance depended on the interaction of the visitor with these instruments or the objects and lights in the space (to make this clear the invitation carried the words ‘this entrance card authorizes participation and co-creation’). The organizers of the event wrote:

From start to end, each performance was different for each participant. The start began at the moment of entry when the installation was set in motion and the moment of departure was dependent on the decision of the individual. Irregular exchanges between participants took place throughout the performance. Their actions caused situations of variable intensities.[iv]

This emphasis on the agency of the individual was not simply a compositional technique for the generation of new art. It was the expression of a philosophy which rejected the determining role of the expert or the authority. (This was paralleled in Cardew’s thinking behind the Scratch Orchestra which the British composer formed in London with both professional and untrained musicians in spring 1969).

This emphasis on interpretation and free expression was also evident in the way in which artists and composers approached musical notation. Composers in pursuit of new sounds needed new notation systems. The score for Penderecki’s Polymorphia (1961) – a sonoristic piece for forty-eight strings – contains numerous symbols of the composer’s own invention. As a composition written to achieve particular timbral effects, Penderecki instructed the musicians to play the highest note of the instrument with a black triangle above the staff (the precise pitch of the note not being critical). This was one of 21 idiosyncratic signs published in the 1963 score issued by Moeck Verlag. Another mark directs each performer to tap his or her bow, or to strike the chair with his or her heels with the effect of producing disturbing rattling effects through the auditorium. The most striking feature of the score is the arrangement of distinct instrument lines, featuring jagged peaks and troughs, to signify a sound mass of unbroken sliding pitches. Some are thicker than others to indicate a tone cluster (a chord composed from adjacent tones). These graphic oscillations originate in electroencephalograms of patients at a Krakow medical center where Penderecki was working as a volunteer. He arranged for their brain waves to be measured whilst they listened to a recording of his earlier and best-known composition, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (Tren ofiarom Hiroszimy, 1960). Polymorphia offers its audiences a truly chilling experience; some passages sound as if the instruments are being dismantled, stripped back to their raw materials, whilst in others the violins swarm like an unhappy spirit.

Innovative graphic notation systems were not simply created to provide better, more ‘accurate’ interpretive tools; some used the score to reassess the relationship between the composer and the performer. Cage, for instance, developed unconventional techniques for generating ‘his’ music: the score for Variations I of 1958 takes the form of six transparent squares, one with points of various sizes and the rest with five intersecting lines. The performer combines the squares in any fashion; the points are signs for sounds and the lines function as axes for various characteristics of these sounds such as lowest frequency and simplest overtone structure. Any number of performers on any kind and number of instruments can play the piece. Composition, in such works, was no longer just the business of the ‘composer’ alone.

In the context of the technocratic ideologies of Eastern Europe, this attack on authority had clear appeal. And, like Hansen’s Open Form theory, it also served the dream of restoring agency to the individual (an imperative which was widely expressed during the destalinising Thaw of the late 1950s and was revived in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring). ‘The function of an interpreter is not to reproduce,’ announced Slovak musicologist and cellist Milan Adamčiak in 1969, ‘but to take a productive, creative approach to composition. A composition is only a suggestion, a program, a guide for the greater self-realization of the interpreter. […] The interpreter should not reproduce the work or ideas of the author, but to continue to develop them or even form them from scratch.’[v] Adamčiak was good to his word. In the same year, he organised The First Evening of New Music (Prvy Večer Novej hudby) with Robert Cyprich and Jaroslav Vodák in Ružomberok. Adamčiak played a ‘three-dimensional score’ (‘trojzmerná partitura’) which was thrown like a dice during the performance.

Adamčiak had a kindred spirit in Milan Grygar, an artist based in Prague. From the mid 1960s he began producing what he called ‘mechanical acoustic drawings’. Laying out a sheet of paper horizontally, he would conscript a range of ordinary objects as drawing tools. Combs, springs, cog wheels, spinning tops and wind-up toys would be dipped in ink and then spun or dragged across the surface of the paper. A degree of chance was involved, as the mechanical toys knocked into one another. To create another type of drawing Grygar inserted lit matches into the beaks of pecking toy birds. These instruments were not selected just for their mark-making potential: they also made noises as they moved the surface of the paper. Grygar would record the process of making the drawing on magnetic tape, thereby producing a sonic record of each acoustic drawing. When exhibited together today, the viewer is asked to reconstruct the drawing as an event or even a performance. At the end of the 1960s Grygar brought some of his preoccupations with chance procedures to the production of drawn scores for performance. His colour scores from 1969–70 feature clusters of coloured dots organized in grids on a page loosely suggesting – but not prescribing – music. His Finger Score of 1972 was generated by tapping inky fingers on 26 pages which had been prepared with staff lines. In 1981 it was given to percussionist Alan Vitouš who freely interpreted these liquid blotches on ringing cymbals.

Not all interpretations of graphic scores were as liberating, even when interpreted by their own composers. Katalin Ladik, a poet member of the Bosch + Bosch group in Novi Sad in Yugoslavia, created collage graphic scores for what she called Phonopoetics in the early 1970s. Slicing up material from glossy West German women’s magazines like Burda as well as other graphic materials including sewing patterns and stamps, Ladik produced powerful images for use in public performances, interpreting them in situ. Whilst occasional traces of traditional music notation were deployed in her collages, their purpose was largely associative, as was the reference to traditional song forms in their titles Pastorale (1971), Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1972), Aria in F Major (1978) or Sonata for the Woman DDR Leipzig (1978).

O-pus, a 1972 film made by Attila Csernik and Imre Póth was used – like her collage scores – in her live performances. Ladik first improvised a live soundtrack for this film featuring numerous graphic expressions of the letter ‘o’ at a chapel in Balatonboglár, Hungary where György Galántai organized a series of actions and performances by artists in the early 1970s. Later, a version was recorded in the studio. With a dizzying range of vocal effects and tones, the sound of this vowel surges from hysterical screeches to orgasmic moans. As if employing the kinds of editing, pitch-stretching and duplicating techniques available in the studio, Ladik’s ‘natural’ voice seems strangely involuntary. In breaking language down to phonemes (as in the case of O-pus) or to curses (as in Milko Kelemen’s Yebell which she performed in 1972), Ladik accentuated the involuntary and even instinctual qualities of language.

Some composers turned to pre-existing texts and structures to generate new compositions. Like structuralist theories of language then being debated in the academy, these works broke with romantic ideas of originality and creativity. As we’ve seen, Penderecki created his composition Polymorphia by ‘reading’ the electroencephalograms made of psychiatric patients listening to his music. In the 1970s Hungarian composer Zoltán Jeney turned to different kind of systems found in games, texts, meteorological data and even telex messages to provide non-musical materials for his compositions. Impho 102/6 (1978), a minimalist piece played on shimmering antique cymbals, is, for instance, derived from the Telex address of a Tokyo hotel. In perhaps the most successful work of this kind, artist Dóra Maurer worked with Jeney to make a film, Kalah (1980). The structure of both sound and images was provided by this traditional Arabic game played with 72 stones. Maurer prepared coloured panels – which corresponded to the volume and pitch of notes on a chromatic scale – which she shot on film in the Pannonia film Studios in Budapest over three days. She then spent a further three weeks carefully editing the celluloid to correspond accurately with the rapid pulses of Jeney’s electronic music. The result is unsettling as the viewer struggles – and fails – to make sense of the rapid combinations of sounds and notes. Kalah captures Maurer’s preoccupation with the effects of the shift – the marginal movement or dislocation of a filmic image – on cognition. Kalah was not made to be seen but to be experienced and in fact, Maurer and Jeney imagined its viewers lying under a curved projection screen.

Other forms of creative coding had rather more critical inferences. In 1974 and 1975 Soviet artists Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid created cryptographic artworks under the common title of Codes. Using state documents like the passage outlining the rights to ‘Freedom of Speech’ in the Constitution of the Soviet Union, they produced geometric, seemingly-abstract paintings in which letters were replaced by blocks of colour. Organized as words and sentences, these ‘ideological abstractions’ evidently contained messages. The viewer had to act like a cryptographer to read them. These and other works attracted international attention and the duo were invited to exhibit at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. Denied the opportunity to travel to the USA by the Soviet authorities, Komar & Melamid rendered the contents of a Soviet internal passport as a music score (each letter corresponding to a note). Komar & Melamid then arranged for this notorious document – a symptom of the distrust of the communist authorities in the people – to be played simultaneously in February 1976 by musicians around the world whilst they remained in Moscow, denied the opportunity to travel. In the Feldman Gallery in New York, Fluxus artist Charlotte Moorman played this composition on the cello. (figure 24) A reporter in Art News charted the echoes of this performance on both sides of the divided world:

A Moscow, Idaho, audience consisting mainly of famers heard it over the radio, and called the station for hours afterwards to ask what it was. In Moscow, USSR, Feldman was told in a telephone conversation with the artists later in the day, a tape was played in an apartment. Also participating in the event were the Soviet police, who photographed members of the audience as they entered from the street.[vi]

The piece not only drew attention to Komar & Melamid’s plight but also to the techniques of allegory and what was sometimes called ‘Aesopian language’ used by artists and writers to evade censorship in the Soviet Union.

[i]            Oskar Hansen, ‘Otwarta Form’ in Przegląd Kulturalny no. 5, (1957) 5.

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

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

[iv]            5x, a leaflet published by the Foksal Gallery (Warsaw, 1966), unpaginated.

[v]            Milan Adamčiak, Mladá tvorba, nr 10, v. 14 (1969) 27

[vi]           Amy Newman, ‘The celebrated artists of the end of the second Millenium A.D.’ in Art News, 75 (April 1976) 44.

From Homelessness to Homelessness

Architecture, Design as Critique, Modernism

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

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

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

Coming to Terms with the Past

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

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

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

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

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

Building is a fundamental activity of man

Man builds, by joining spatial figures, thus shaping space

Building, he responds to the spirit of the age

Our age is the age of technology

The plight of our age is homelessness.[11]

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

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

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

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


Here, Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[26] The “Kitchen Debate” 1959.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Architecture, Eastern Europe, Modernism

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

Karl Marx, Capital[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Leisure Aesthetic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Open Form

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

Speaking to both artists and architects, Hansen argued for spatial forms which were open or unfinished; i.e., forms which by their incompleteness required the creativity or participation of viewers or users. This was fundamentally a social and decentred conception of space and creativity. Space, according to Hansen, should be considered terms of movement, whether in terms of a potential to be reorganized by those who occupy it or in its capacity to change over time. In engaging their audiences/users, open forms had the potential to remind individuals of the fact of their own embodied being.

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

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

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

Ends and Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[18] Referring to Khrushchev’s famous report to architects in December 1954, Srykus said ‘it seems that since we accepted the theses proving that the direction adopted in 1949 was erroneous … we should not stick to the lost cause’. Syrkus in Ogólnopolski Narada Architektów, (Warsaw, 1956) p.485.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[37] See Pawel Machcewicz ‘Intellectuals and Mass Movements, Ideologies and Political Programs in Poland in 1956’ in György Péteri, ed., Intellectual Life and the First Crisis of State Socialism in East Central Europe, 1953-1956 (Trondheim, 2001).

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

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

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

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

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

Paradise Lost?

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe, Modernism

This piece was published in Piktogram in 2005.

The Art of Home

In 1956 a member of the British art police set up home. Jim Eade, a former curator at the Tate Gallery, decided to turn his picturesque house, Kettle’s Yard, in the university city of Cambridge into a gallery for the defence of modern art. Displaying his own collection of art by Miro, Brancusi, Moore and others in a carefully stage-managed setting, this gendarme set out to demonstrate the transcendental qualities of Art. Each week small groups of Cambridge students were invited to his home to train their eyes. Amongst these guests were future director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota. A well-placed canvas hanging above an antique cabinet dressed with a bowl of lemons or a spiral of pebbles, was a complete course in aesthetics. Eade was so certain of his taste that when he left his collection to the University, he laid down strict instructions on its future face: the lemons were to remain, replaced each week by all subsequent custodians of his gallery-home. Although antipathetic to Conceptual Art, Eade’s demand strangely echoed the transformation of the artwork into processes, events and words. Nothing, however, could have been further from his mind.

Whilst art and domestic furniture and furnishings in Eade’s home were united, this would-be tastemaker did not regard art and design as the same thing. Like many members of the art police including the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, and Serota today, Eade was only really interested in design when it could be made to behave like art. It had to be beautiful and uplifting. Interest in materials, function and fashion, with its tawdry associations with commerce, was beyond the pale. An elegant Italian lamp on a plinth in MOMA’s Architecture and Design gallery or Donald Judd’s severe benches in his recent Tate retrospective could, however, pass the art test and become objects of aesthetic contemplation.

Kettle’s Yard would surely disturb Eade today, were he able to make a spectral return. Like so many galleries, biennales and museums, it has been swept up in art’s fascination with modern design and is currently home to an exhibition dedicated to ‘Ways of Living’.[1] Work by four design stars in the contemporary art world – Andrea Zittel, Jorge Pardo, Tobias Rehberger and Marjetica Potrč – is represented in this exhibition. Pardo’s contribution, for instance, takes the form of low-hanging lighting with colourful hand-blown glass shades set in a complicated die-cut frames, reminiscent of biomorphic designs favoured by György Kepes or Frederick Kiesler in the 1950s. Critic Alex Coles claims that Pardo’s art objects result from auto-ethnographic research: the artist examines his own lifestyle and reproduces it in the gallery. These lamps are a synecdoche of ‘4166 Sea View Lane’ in Mount Washington near Los Angeles, his best known work (1998). Commissioned by the LA Museum of Contemporary Art to make his own home art, Pardo fitted out a chic timber-clad villa, sometimes modifying mass produced items and sometimes commissioning bespoke items. The presence of signs, barriers and security guards ensured that visitors to ‘4166 Sea View Lane’ offered an authentic Museum experience. The furnishings and fittings of this magnum opus have since become the basis of Pardo’s artistic output. The curator of the Kettle’s Yard exhibition comments: ‘His ongoing production of lamps, furniture, paintings and prints for people to exhibit in galleries and install in their homes extends the unsettling reflexivity of his practice to our own lives and homes,’[2] But hold on. Does that mean Pardo designs things which are made, sold and consumed? Surely that’s what designers do too. And what is so unsettling about that anyway?

What distinguishes art’s fascination with design over the last decade is not its domesticity but its interest in modernity. After all, artists from Max Ernst to Gregor Schneider have long examined the psychopathology of unheimlich homes, finding symptoms of repression in their Victorian ornaments and dingy basements. By contrast, these neo-modernist domestic dreamscapes seem entirely different; so much more appealing, so much more designed. In Kettle’s Yard, Andrea Zittel, for instance has displayed one of her trademark ‘Living Units’, a walled bed made from a steel frame and plywood served by four appliances which can be wheeled close to the reclining occupant. One appliance is for dining whilst another is a portable office. Like the domestic capsules designed by the anti-designers like the Italian Superstudio group or Gaetano Pesce in the late 1960s, the ‘A-Z Comfort Unit’, as its name suggests, supplies everything that one might need for an easy life. The critical edge for this piece was claimed by the gently ironic associations which Zittel lent all her products in the 1990s. In her early statements, she described her work with a corporate vocabulary. Her ‘A-Z’ ‘brand’ was applied to diverse ‘products’ and ‘services’ and targeted at ‘clients’.[3]

Zittel and Pardo have been taste makers in this fashion for design. It is so pervasive that this vogue already has its own brand identity, ‘DesignArt’, a label adapted and promoted by Alex Coles.[4] This London-based critic takes a rather upbeat view of the phenomenon, describing it as ‘the type of art you can look at while you are sitting on it’. Coles gives DesignArt a rich and well-mannered genealogy: its mother is Sonia Delaunay, indulging pleasures for colour and pattern, and its father Mies van der Rohe, the master of modernist platonism. But is Cole right? Is this really a singular phenomenon or, in fact, many different things? And why is its focus so strongly on late-modernist architecture and design of the 1950s and 1960s? Is art’s interest in design as benign as Coles suggests?

Design Classics?

Some answers to these questions are suggested by the work of Pia Rönicke. In December 2004 the Danish artist had her first solo show at GB Agency in Paris. She presented a mystery in the form of a paper trail tracing the career of a Danish lamp designer and retailer called Le Klint between the 1940s and 1960s. Books, archival photographs, clippings from newspapers and design instructions encouraged the viewer to become a historian or a detective by reconstructing the life and work of a forgotten designer. Hanging from the ceiling were Rönicke’s attempts to recreate the lamps from Le Klint’s DIY patterns. At the same time, melancholic extracts from Le Klint’s autobiography Erindringstrade (Memory Threads) were thrown on the walls by a 35mm projector. A woman’s life is, it seems, entirely subsumed into the brand and the chain of shops which carried her name. Despite all these acts of nomination, the exhibition was entitled ‘Without a Name’. The weight of all this ‘evidence’ notwithstanding, the viewer was left uncertain: who was this woman? Did she really exist? Is she a product of Rönicke’s imagination? Or perhaps even our collective desires?

Both Pardo and Rönicke present chic neo-modernist lamps to their viewers, but the impulse behind their work is rather different. The approach of the Danish artist is deconstructive: it asks the viewer to investigate the materials of the promotional apparatus that consumed Le Klint. It points to something darker than the blushing light which emanates from Pardo’s beautiful lamps. In this, she is not alone. Martin Boyce’s work over recent years has pointed to the uneasy commodification of utopia. In a landmark piece of 1999, ‘Now I’ve Got Real Worry’, Boyce reworked a celebrated piece of modernist design, the Eames Storage Unit (1950). The original had secured its position in the history of twentieth century furniture after being exhibited in prototype at MOMA in the late 1940s. With its emphasis on furniture as tool (hence the masculine designation ‘unit’ rather than ‘cupboard’ or ‘dresser’) and on the names of its renowned Ameican designers, Charles and Ray Eames, the original design illustrates one of the paradoxes of the Modern Movement; that it was a commonwealth of celebrity egos committed to anonymous design (a theme of Rönicke’s ‘Without a Name’ too). Originally manufactured by the Herman Miller Furniture Company, the Eames Storage Unit is now available – in the curious form of a hand assembled ‘reproduction’ of an object first designed for mass production. In ‘Now I’ve Got Real Worry’ Boyce has, however, ‘damaged’ the object. One of the ‘L bars’ which held the unit together has been straightened and stands upright, propped at some distance from the Storage Unit. The modular character of the original design which allowed the sliding panels, drawers and shelves to be combined has been denied. White and brightly coloured panels are fixed rigid within the chrome steel frame. The sealed unit cannot divulge what is stored within it. Useless, it becomes, however, more ‘perfect’, more desirable. ‘Possession cannot apply to an implement’, Jean Baudrillard once remarked, ‘since the object I utilise always directs me back to the world. Rather it applies to that object once it is divested of its function and made relative to a subject.’[5] The object / subject relations invoked by Boyce’s piece are surely that of design ‘classic’ and its connoisseurial collector. Denied function and isolated on the floor of the gallery, this modified storage unit is evidently a fetish, an object which socially endowed with a ‘power’ that is unrelated to its ‘true worth’. This concept, as elusive as the vanishing point in perspective, was at the heart of the modernist utopia. Boris Arvatov, Proletkult theorist in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, imagined a world in which the true worth of things would be found in their capacity to meet genuine needs rather stimulate false desires.[6] ‘Socialist things’ could be active agents in the production of a new consciousness (such an object would be, in his term, a ‘co-worker’). But, of course, the Eames were not Marxist utopians: they represent a moment in the history of design and architecture when ascetic modernism was embraced by commercial America.

Utopia Lost … and Regained?

There is, in fact, much to be said about the diversity of post-war modernist architecture and design. For all the talk of homogenising effects of the ‘International Style’ expressed by postmodernist conservatives in the 1980s, modernist architecture and design underwent a kind of fragmentation during the Cold War. Behind its common aesthetic façade, there were important differences in the way that it was shaped in what were once called the First, Second and Third worlds. Like a number of the neo-modernists, Marjetice Potrč’s interest seems to be shaped by her Eastern European background, in her case Slovenia. Her modernism is not just any old variety: it is ‘sotsmodernism.’ During the late 1950s the communist states of the Eastern Bloc states sought to modernise at breakneck speed. To shake off associations of violence and irrationality, Stalin’s successors recast themselves as rational technocrats. The world was to be made anew in concrete, glass and steel. Socialist realist painting was rejected as kitsch and regressive: the form of the future would be abstract and brightly coloured. Over the course of the 1960s, Eastern Bloc cities vied to produce high architectural drama in the form of inter-stellar tv towers, colossal megastructures as well as monumental high-rise housing schemes. In a series of graphic works entitled ‘The Puzzle of Königsberg’ (1999), Potrč explores the meaning of Kaliningrad, the former German city which is now an ‘island’ city populated by Russians detached from the motherland. In this series, the trophy city is saturated with water. Its chief landmark today, the Palace of Soviets – a colossus with massive cantilevered multi-story concrete bays – is slowly sinking back into marshland. In ruins, it is largely ignored by its citizens. It is a symbol of the future now firmly locked in the past. Yet it is also a strange trigger for nostalgia. It is, Potrč tells us, ‘for those who travel there, strangely reminiscent of other places. … Together with the existing ruins of Königsberg, the city is the perfect showcase of urban disaster.’[7] But how can a ruin be perfect? Of course the ruin was adopted by Benjamin as an allegorical form which could narrate death and catastrophe in the midst of the phantasmagoric city.[8] Here however, the ruin suggests something else; a lost drive towards the perfect unity of technology and society.

Nostalgia for sotsmodernism is not the same thing as ostalgie, the sicky sweet yearning for the symbols and everyday comforts of the communist past which has been so widely reported in East Germany and other places once part of the Bloc.[9] Ostalgie is a new film to see, a bar decked out with Soviet propaganda or a new antique to buy. It is a form of commodification that halts at things that cannot be bought like, of course, the sinking hulk of the Palace of Soviets in Kaliningrad. In fact, sotsmodernist buildings like Berlin’s Palast Der Republik on Schlossplatz (once Marx Engelsplatz) – often stand in the way of capitalism by occupying valuable city-centre land. Their future lies in the past. And this is important. The attraction to socmodernism is, perhaps, a symptom of a desire to keep the possibility of utopia open. It is not the expression of some kind of communist revanchist fantasy (an expression what of Svetlana Boym in her book The Future of Nostalgia calls ‘restorative nostalgia’[10]), but a sublimated form of idealism.

It is worth noting that Eastern Europeans are not the only ones captivated by socmodernism. Tacita Dean has, for instance, made a series of beautiful, melancholic films in Berlin focusing on its sotsmodern landmarks (‘Palast’, 2004 and ‘Fernsehturm’, 2001). And Toby Paterson, a Scottish artist, has been drawn further East. His large-scale wall paintings, sculptural assemblages and paintings on Perspex reproduce smooth and abstract spatial volumes of overlooked works of post-war architecture. His imagined cities include a seminary and schools designed by minor Glasgow architects Gillespie, Kidd & Coia; reconstruction schemes for the bombed-out city of Rotterdam; and suburban railway stations from Warsaw of designed in the late 1950s with dramatically cantilevered canopies and walls glazed with coloured tiles.

Toby Paterson’s 2002 painting of the entrance suburban railway station in Warsaw.

By suggesting the effortless flow of architectural forms liberated from the effects of gravity, Paterson reminds the viewer of the social and architectural vision of an age within memory. We are invited to glide freely over and through these volumes, much in the spirit of Kasimir Malevich’s suprematism. Time’s arrow has been reversed, and these structures – as images – have not fallen into decay. On the contrary, they have become perfect, even utopian. There seems to a political point being made by Paterson here, albeit one without the anchor of ideology. After all, he seems to be saying Western European states had their socmodernist moments in the post-war years too.

Utopia may now seem to be locked in the past, but it has not been abandoned. In fact, this discredited concept appears to be enjoying a glossy revival, as the ‘Utopia Station’ initiated at the Venice Biennale in 2003 made clear. Conceived in the spirit of Nicolas Bourriaud’s conception of relational aesthetics, this first ‘station’ was formed from a diverse set of contributions by more than sixty artists and architects, writers and performers. The garden at the Arsenale, furnished with shacks and tent-like structures, was the site of high-brow readings, lively discussions and ludic performances. Wrapped in a rosy rhetoric of democracy and emancipation, this chain of events had much in common with a 1960s ‘be-in’ or happening. In their attempt at a definition of ‘US’, curators Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija offer the following statement: ‘It is simple. We use utopia as a catalyst, a concept most useful as fuel. We leave the complete definition of utopia to others. We meet to pool our efforts, motivated by a need to change the landscape outside and inside, a need to think, a need to integrate the work of the artist, the intellectual and manual laborers that we are into a larger kind of community, another kind of economy, a bigger conversation, another state of being.’[11] The artists most closely associated with Utopia Station have been accused of self-delusion and self-indulgence: their altruistic rhetoric is described as self-serving.[12] (Although its should be said that its orbit became somewhat wider with Utopia Station II, a poster project organised with the International Child Art Foundation in 2004.) With this criticism in mind, it is worth revisiting Marjetice Potrč’s work.

Interested in the way that individuals can take control of their environment, modernist architecture and design forms both the backdrop for and a medium in many of Potrč’s works. Her work is not confined to the gallery (though this space is important because, in her words, it provides a ‘breathing space’). She has developed schemes, for instance, that extend the definition of ‘shelter’ on the streets of Shenzhen, Istanbul and, most recently, Liverpool.[13] In this northern city once fringed by dozens of high rise housing slabs, Potrč attached a ‘clip-on’ balcony with wind turbine to an apartment to provide cheap and clean electricity for the residents. Produced under the auspices of the 2004 Liverpool Art Biennale, this piece pointed out the possibilities of recuperating a disparaged housing form, the tower block. (Today only two stand in a city where once seventy-two had been built such is the spectacular appeal of their destruction to local politicians).

In her 2003 installation, ‘Next stop Kiosk’, at the Moderna Gallery in Ljubljana, she exhibited a K-67 kiosk, originally designed by a prominent Slovenian designer and architect Sasha J. Mächtig (and, in 1971, also included in MOMA’s collection of architecture and design.)[14] This small, plastic and modular building – widely employed throughout the Eastern Bloc – was once claimed as a universal structure, meeting universal needs. Mobile and temporary, it could be function as an office, a retail outlet and even, on occasion, as a home. In Potrč’s artwork, a kiosk becomes a foundation for upper-tier made of a pine logs and discarded printing plates forming the walls of an ad hoc shelter. These additions refer to the Brazilian palafita, a ‘walking’ hut on stilts, as well as the unregulated shantytowns on the edges of cities in Latin America. They suggest creativity in impoverished conditions. Transposed into a European gallery, this work – like her other hybrid structures– brings two conceptions of utopia into sharp contrast. Her shelters counterpose the dream of a world that satisfies every need through modern technology with that in which an individual is able to organise the world according to his or her own desires and needs, in other words the utopia of self-action. Potrč sets out not to create a creole architecture, but a dialectical one. Moreover, Modernism is, as her work demonstrates, an ‘incomplete project’, to borrow Habermas’s famous phrase.[15] To make this point clear, in a 2005 series of drawings displayed in Kettle’s Yard under the title ‘Future of Now’, she captioned one sketch of housing blocks with these words: ‘Never completed, always fragmented, Modernism is easy to add on to, to pull in, to empty, to build upon, to Balkanize …’. This is surely evidenced by its return over the last decade – reworked by artists– as commodity critique, as nostalgia for utopia and as urban intervention.

[1] ‘Ways of Living’, Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge 1 October – 20 November 2005.

[2] Elizabeth Fisher ‘Ways of Living’, exhibition catalogue (Cambridge, 2005) 8.

[3] See Rainald Schumacher, ed. Andrea Zittel (Munich, 2003).

[4] Alex Coles DesignArt (London, 2005) 8.

[5] Jean Baudrillard Le Systeme des Objets (Paris, 1968).

[6] See Christina Kaier ‘Boris Arvatov’s Socialist Objects’ in October (summer 1997) 105-118.

[8] Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project, edited by H. Eiland (Boston, MA., 2002).

[9] Paul Betts, ‘Remembrance of Things Past: Nostalgia in West and East Germany, 1980-2000’ in Pain and Prosperity: Reconsidering 20th Century German History, P. Betts and G. Eghigian, eds. (Palo Alto, 2003), pp. 179-207.

[10] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York, 2002).

[12] See, for instance, Claire Bishop ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ in October (Fall, 2004) 51-59.

[13] See Marjetica Potrč Urgent Architecture (Palm Beach, 2004).

[14] See Marjetica Potrč Non Stop Kiosk, (Ljubljana, 2003).

[15] Jürgen Habermas ‘Modernity-An Incomplete Project’ in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-aesthetic (Port Townsend, WA. 1983): 3-15.

Sounding the Body Electric – art, cybernetics and electro-acoustic music in Eastern Europe in the 1960s

Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized



Neo-Constructivist, light and kinetic art, cybernetic design, concrete and electro-acoustic music were fields of high creativity and experiment in Eastern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. Seizing the opportunities presented by the relaxation of political control of the arts after Stalinism and exploiting the new official encouragement given to cybernetics, electronics and computing, avant-garde artists and composers began investigating the aesthetic possibilities of electronics and magnetic tape recording. At the same time, other artists seized the possibilities of the happening to produce intermedia artworks combining visual and audio elements.

The idea of experimentation was given considerable political encouragement in Eastern Europe. For the faithful in Moscow and elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, harnessing the potential of new technology was the way to make good on the broken promises of Communism. For others – often critical artists and composers – a reengagement with technology could restore the shattered ‘tradition’ of Modernism in Eastern Europe.

Electronic film and music studios and festivals – including the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio established in 1957 and the Béla Balázs Studio in Budapest in 1959 – were amongst the earliest signs of the changes occurring in cultural life in Eastern Europe after Stalin’s death. In the Soviet Union, VNIITE – All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics – a network of research centres established in 1962 – provided the intellectual and creative resources thought necessary to overcome the damage done to the Soviet project by Stalinism. It took as a guiding principle the ideal of unifying art and technology.

Artists across the Bloc (and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) created machines and temporary environments which generated electronic music or gathered radio waves. Others worked in close conjunction with electro-acoustic composers/musicians to produce actions and installations in public settings. Czechoslovak artists Synteza, for instance, showed their kinetic sound sculptures in Prague’s Karlovo náměstí in the mid 1960s, whilst Dvizhenie – associated with VNIITE – were commissioned to produce public artworks commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution.

 Sharing much in common with contemporary fashions in North America and Europe (cf Cage’s aleatory strategies or Gene Youngblood’s notion of the ‘Expanded Cinema’), many of these projects were also self-conscious revival of the interest of the avant-garde in the synaesthesic effects of son et lumière. Prometei (Prometheus), connected to the Kazan Aviation Institute in Tatarstan, explored the borderlands of non-figurative art, cinema and architecture in its public actions. Taking their name from a 1910 composition by Alexander Scriabin, the group self-consciously revived the tradition of ‘light-music art’ which had been a preoccupation of the Russian avant-garde before the First World War. Excited by horizons extending with the prospect of space travel in the 1960s, Eastern European artists – including Prometei in Kazan and Dvizhenie in Moscow – discovered ‘cosmic’ dimensions in the pulsing light and electronic music.

Experimental music and electronic art in Eastern Europe formed major bridgehead to the West in the 1960s. Concerts with Fluxus compositions were organized, for instance, by the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio in 1964. ‘New Tendencies’ exhibitions/conferences over the course of the 1960s brought Neo-Constructivist and, increasingly, computer artists from around the world to Zagreb. Differences between East and West were important, however: whilst ‘visual music’ in the West in the 1960s has often been seen in narrow terms of meditative withdrawal, the works by Eastern European artists envisaged new kinds of hard-wired human beings: ‘ … today musicians, physicists, actors, architects, psychologists, engineers, sociologists and poets – TOMORROW KINETICISTS” (Manifesto of the Russian Kineticists, 1966, Moscow). Their dizzying futurism creates interesting and, as yet, unexplored relationships with official fanfares for socialist ‘Progress’.

These veins of euphoric ‘Cybernetic Communism’ were accompanied by other more critical approaches to the sounding body. Some Eastern Bloc artists issued sharp critiques of the fusion of man and machine: ‘Dom’, a 1958 film by Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk – with composer Włodzimierz Kotoński – was a warning about the alienating effects of technology on the individual. Ten years later, at the time of the Prague Spring, Stanislav Filko turned to radio broadcasts in his ‘Cathedral of Humanism’ exhibited at the Danuvius ’68 exhibition. Other, more playful works – not least those by Alex Mlynárčyk – drew the audience into the production of new aural experiences and, by extension, new social relations.

A spectre haunts the world and it is the spectre of migration

Design Exhibition, Design/Critique, Modernism, Uncategorized

This review appears in Frieze, November 2011.

In recent years Studio Formafantasma – Italian designers, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin – have made a number of journeys into the past to excavate the meanings which traditional and even ‘lost’ materials and techniques can possess. Their ‘Botanica’ (2011) series of lamps and vessels, for instance, revisits early attempts to make ‘natural’ plastic from plant extracts, resins, blood and even insect excrement. They were led to these materials by early studies of Botany. ‘Botanica’ was not simply an exercise in technological antiquarianism. At the end of oil, another time without it might have things to offer.

Work from the ‘Botanica’ collection See

Studio Formafantasma’s show at Libby Sellers gallery – featuring two groups of works – brings a more explicitly critical perspective to this interest in the past. ‘Moulding Tradition’ (2009) is a series of ceramic vessels bearing photographic portraits of an unidentified black man and tagged with scraps of data about the migrant labourers who work illegally in Italy. The unglazed lidded bowls and flasks are strung with ‘framed’ photographs, inscribed loops and labels – additions which seem to reinforce their status as mobile objects. The wine flasks and bowls were made in Caltagirone in Sicily, a traditional centre of ceramic production. With their portraits, Studio Formafantasma’s vessels refer to ‘Teste di Moro’ (‘Moorish heads’), vases which have been made there for centuries. Often grotesque and sometimes comic, these three-dimensional portraits in clay are distant reminders of the fact that not only was Sicily once an Arab island but also that Majolica came to Europe from the Muslim world.

Formafantasma, works in the ‘Moulding Tradition’ series, 2009

That people and things have always travelled between the Maghreb and Europe is, of course, a platitude for historians. But in light of Italy’s ambiguous and often hostile relationship with North Africa, Studio Formafantasma’s vessels clearly engage with a more recent past too. In 2008 Colonel Gaddafi signed a deal with Italian president Berlusconi to repatriate African immigrants caught trying to cross the Mediterranean in their overloaded and unseaworthy vessels. This was a controversial agreement. Denied opportunities to claim asylum, the human rights of migrants were threatened. In fact, the same deal, the Italians committed to invest in Libya. Gaddafi could represent Rome’s Euros as reparations for Italian colonialism in the 1930s and, at the same time, Berlusconi could look tough on immigration.

FIAT Tagliero building Asmara designed by Giuseppe Pettazzi photographed by 10b Travelling / Flickr reproduced under a creative commons license.

‘Colony’ (2011), a second series of works by Studio Formafantasma on show, addresses these themes in a direct fashion. Three mohair blankets identify Libya, Eritrea and Ethiopia, former imperial possession of Italy in the 1930 and 1940s. Italy’s expansion into North Africa was claimed by Mussolini as ‘the reappearance of the empire on the fateful hills of Rome after fifteen centuries’. The imperial adventure was an opportunity for artists and architects too. The new city of Asmara in Eritrea was taken by Italian modernists as an opportunity to fulfill all their rationalist preoccupations. Taking the form of monumental postcards, each blanket features an architectural drawing of a building over an Italian plan for an African city. Asmara is overlaid with a line drawing of Giuseppe Pettazzi’s famous FIAT Tagliero office in the city (1938), a building which came close realizing the futurist aeropittura fantasy of flying architecture. In another, Tripoli’s ‘Colonial Home’, a modernist villa from the early 1930s, is accompanied by ‘Accord 19’ of 2009 which commissioned Italian businesses ‘with the necessary technological skills’ to design a system of land border controls in Gaddafi’s Libya. Design – the field in which Trimarchi and Farresin were trained and with which they identify – is identified with repression.

Formafantasma, ‘Asmara’, a woven blanket in the ‘Colony’ series, 2011

Despite the poetry of the Studio’s name (which Trimarchi and Farresin translate as ‘ghost shape’), there is a strain of didactism in its ‘Italian’ projects. It is not heavy-handed or indifferent to aesthetics, but it is there. In their interest in migration, we might detect an echo of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s influential text, Empire (‘A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration’). This said, there is little of these writers’ euphoric view of the ways in which nomadism and méttisage can contest the containment of nation or of race.

Formafantasma were exhibiting at the Libby Sellers Gallery, London, 19 September – 8 October 2011