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

Architecture, Cold War, Modernism, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

[5] – accessed November 2016

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

[7] See

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

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

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



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.

Speaking about exhibitions

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe

Last night I went to a talk – of sorts – at the RCA called ‘Spoken Exhibition’ which represents ‘historic’ and yet unbuilt buildings, unmade works of art and lost music scores in the form of a radio play or, perhaps, a spoken opera. It was performed with a script and minimal props – a pair of glasses and a few sheets of paper – by an ensemble of six. Written by Sebastian Cichocki (curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw), Grzegorz Piątek and Jarosław Trybuś (architectural critics and cultural animators from Warsaw who have recently set up the Centrum Architektury Foundation) and Michał Libera (a curator and music theorist), the piece was first published as a special edition of the periodical Format P. Cichocki and Libera introduced the project.

Organised as a series of acts, each reflects on a mythic moment in Polish modernism, largely from the PRL years, to say something about the presence of a ‘missing’, incomplete or concealed building or musical composition. Penderecki’s Psalmus (captured in a 1961 recording in which the trilling bel canto voices of the singers were distorted with filters in the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio) features for instance. It is ‘missing’ because its celebrated composer refuses to allow the world to see  the partitura. The persistence of these objects in the cultural imagination of the country (or perhaps the tightly knit world of the Warsaw intelligentsia) means that they hover, like specters, over the present. In fact, one might say that the curators involved have done much to keep these pasts alive; all four have actively explored the intellectual history of the PRL. This – like most of their work – is less hauntology than archaeology.

The authors tie the project into ideas about the ‘dematerialisation’ of the object which are conventionally used to explain conceptual art (on both sides of the East West divide). This perhaps is a useful pointer to Oskar Hansen’s ideas about architecture’s potential for impermanence. His famous and recently much discussed art museum in Skopje – a building which would expand when filled with art and contract between exhibitions –  opens the performance.

Others spectres gesture to the incompleteness of Polish culture. The ‘Temple of Divine Providence’(Swiatynia Swietej Bozej Opatrznosci) is revived in this spoken exhibition. Pniewski’s late 1930s scheme for a temple to national salvation planned for Warsaw is the entrance into a fantastic drama about the wars between architectural gangs in communist Poland: unpatronised by the cultural commissars, the Black Square gang – left-wing radicals – set about destroying the buildings of their conservative rivals. The story is riddled with reference to historical figures – Kazimierz Malewicz (to give him his Polish name) and Helena Syrkus. The temple was not  C20th project. It was, in fact, initiated by Stanislaw August more than two centuries ago. Following the declaration of a new Constitution in 1791 which had promised to modernise parliament and rid the economy of the vestiges of feudalism, hopes had been high that a renewed, strong Poland would be able to resist the menacing intentions of her neighbours. The Temple of Divine Providence was to be a votive offering in gratitude to God for protecting the country. Of course, events conspired to ensure that Poland was not protected and the temple was not built (though its foundations can still be found in the Botanical Gardens). In the years that followed the Temple was revived on a number of occasions – on the eve of the Second World War and following the collapse of Communist Rule – and yet it seems destined never to be built.

The stop-start-stop character of Polish history – as well as the folds which seem to force the past into the present – were characteristic of the Spoken Exhibition performance. It stuttered to a halt – presumably intentionally. Nevertheless, some of the passages were affecting; sometimes wryly funny (‘I have always gone in for neglected but ‘living’ Polish city suburbs instead of the corpse of Western Europe. To me, the West is one big heap of ruins’ sounds like the opinion of a Stalinist, as Syrkus seems to have been, albeit for a short while), and sometimes dramatic.

On tour, the piece will be performed in Berlin, Brussels, Madrid, Moscow, London and Kiev as well as Warsaw. What one wonders is the difference between a performance at home and one away. For a start, a Warsaw audience would surely be able to identify some, many or all of the characters and the scenes. I spent too much time trying and failing to work out if the sculptural satellites orbiting the earth in the fourth scene were identifiable (‘five large-scale sculptures of steel, brass and titanium’). Too much knowledge would surely turn art into gossip. Moreover, the authors of some of these spectres of them are alive and may well object to the fictionalisation of their lives. Libera told me that Eugeniusz Rudnik, a key figure in electro-acoustic music associated with the pioneering Experimental Studio of Polish Radio, was angered by the words which were put into his mouth. That his irritation stemmed from the improvised nature of the performance is perhaps mildly ironic, given the often indirect role of graphic notation in his acoustic world.

You can download the libretto / text here.