A Land Still Undiscovered?

For much of the 20th century there has been a pervasive sense that architecture should primarily serve a social function. One precept of modernism is that the architect serve the public good – this ethos survives from the 1920s to the 1980s in Central and Eastern Europe. After the complete marketisation of architecture and the neoliberal discourse, which has been very dominant in Poland, I wonder whether that social purpose is still intact?

Michał Wiśniewski: I asked for this conversation because of the fact that you were one of the first people to start the discussion on socialist modernism in Central Europe.
David Crowley: I was told recently that the first use of the word “socmodernism” appears in an International Cultural Centre publication; Adam Miłobędzki’s history of Polish architecture published in the early 1990s. The author decided to use the word “socmodern” to describe the phase in architectural history which came after Stalinism. I don’t know if it was exactly the first use but, given that Miłobędzki was a brilliant historian of architecture, it cannot have been a casual selection.

The Cold War Modern exhibition in 2008 was a milestone in the socmodern discourse, initiating a discussion on this subject in an international framework. This is why I think you are a good person to talk to about this subject; someone who in contact with many researchers in the region. How do you see the discussion on “socmodernism” in Central Europe today, a few years after the Cold War Modern show?
You are very kind to give my co-curator Jane Pavitt and I credit for launching some kind of new field of enquiry, but I think Cold War Modern is best understood as a kind of stock-take of existing knowledge. We were very reliant on the work of scholars from different parts of the world, particularly Eastern Europe. This was a popularising moment too. Nearly 200,000 people saw that exhibition in three venues: London, Rovereto in Italy, and Vilnius. So the main achievement of Cold War Modern was to take the very good scholarship and put it in front of a wide audience and, on the whole, the response was very positive, mostly because many people saw many of the objects on display for the first time. I think that for many London viewers, the show provided an unexpected image of Eastern Europe – not the grey zone of concrete and conformity but also a place of imagination and creativity.
In terms of its legacy, we are very pleased that it has become some kind of reference point for new scholars too, particularly those working on architecture and design in the 1960s and 1970s. Just today, a young woman from Vilnius came to talk to me in London about her research. What is really striking about this wave of research is that much of it is being conducted by people who are too young to have a personal relationship to the material culture of late socialism, and so there is no sense in which they have to justify it. In many ways, it is something like a discovery of a strange or unknown land within their own country.

Cold War Modern was the first time that this topic was presented outside Central and Eastern Europe in a leading gallery. As such, it was a kind of mirror in which researchers and scholars from this part of Europe could see their ideas reflected. How do you see the state of the discussion and research a few years later? Is the growth of interest a general trend in Central Europe and Eastern Europe or are there differences of approach across the region?
In places where there have been controversies attached to modernist buildings under the threat of demolition, the discussion has been pretty hot. Obviously, Berlin comes to mind because of the destruction of the Palast der Republik in 2007 and the protests which preceded this event. Evidently this building became symbolic of way that memory – or, more precisely, the forgetting – of the GDR was being managed in unified Germany. There have been other hot spots: in Poland there have been controversies attached to Supersam in Warsaw, Katowice Railway Station and more recently the Cracovia Hotel in Kraków. Anxieties about globalisation have underscored the campaigns to save these buildings – often threatened by the march of new retail spaces. I visited Poland recently and I was struck by the number of books exploring the architecture and planning of the late modernist period too, like Piotr Marciniak’s volume on Poznan. Perhaps studies like this mark a turn away from cult objects like Supersam.
I’m very impressed with researchers in the Baltics. They’ve really done a lot of original work on collective farms, houses of culture, and panel construction housing. And, in fact, after the Cold War Modern show in Vilnius, a landmark exhibition was mounted at the National Gallery there. Entitled “Modernisation. Baltic Art, Architecture, and Design. 1960–70s”, it explored the attempts to modernise the material and architectural landscape of the three Baltic states – a complete archaeology of the material world. This was pioneering research, not least because many of the exhibits were not in museum collections.

It is intriguing to see the discussion of “socmodernism” as a kind of a resistance against globalisation in architecture. Do you think that this is also echoed in Western Europe?
Yes, for sure. In recent years there has, for instance, been much discussion of social housing in Eastern and Western Europe. But I detect a change in this discourse. In Britain during the 1990s, a number of conservative local authorities tried to make political capital from the failure of social housing: they organised public demolitions of high rise social housing blocks. Of course, one has to be honest – these were not successful environments but the reasons for their failure cannot just be put at the door of architectural design. For instance, one has to take into account the narrow social profiles of the residents in these “sink estates” which often lacked services or were poorly connected with the city. Nevertheless, these blocks were demolished in public executions with people – former residents – clapping and cheering as their old homes hit the ground. These events were symbolic, representing a highly ideological viewpoint – one associated most strongly with Margaret Thatcher’s attack on the Welfare State in the United Kingdom. Twenty years later, there is a rather more sophisticated discussion about how to repurpose social housing. Park Hill – a large, deck assess housing block in Sheffield has been completely refurbished by Urban Splash, a UK practice, and has now become an in-demand, even trendy place to live. This needs to be set against a popular fascination with brutalism in Britain too – a kind of trend in art, cinema, fashion photography, and so on.

The demolition of social housing in Scotland has been represented in the Polish media and on the Internet by those who argued for the destruction of, for instance, the Cracovia Hotel in Kraków. In other words, the British experience is somehow being cited in Poland and perhaps in other countries of the region too.
In Poland there has been a growing discussion about the figure of Oskar Hansen in recent years, an architect who was significant here in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the subject of many articles at that time, and then largely forgotten only to be put back on the stage once he died in 2005. Are there other examples of what we might call revitalised heroes in Central Europe?
Well, let me offer a reflection on the way that Oskar Hansen and his theory of the “Open Form” has been rediscovered: it is striking that his champions do not come from the world of architecture but from Polish art. The Foksal Gallery Foundation has been the major force behind Hansen’s return and the publication of the two-volume book Towards Open Form has done much to make him count today. At the very end of Hansen’s life, the Foundation worked with him and his wife, Zofia, to gather the archive and translate his writings. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Warsaw also commissioned a biography of their lives, which I gather is about to come out in English, and last year mounted a show of his work and ideas in MABCA Barcelona. This is one stage in the longer history of the Open Form in art: we can also look to the enthusiasm of Przemysław Kwiek and Zofia Kulik in the 1970s. So with Hansen, the question is what does he offer artists? Perhaps the Open Form idea connected well with the notions of participation which were very current in the gallery in the early years of the new century. The idea that a building or artwork might be left unfinished in some sense because it could then provide a platform for the creativity of user seems to have been very resonant for artists and designers, or at least it was in the early 2000s. So the Hansens’ rediscovery has rather a particular dimension and it is rather hard to imagine many other PRL-era architects getting the same degree of attention, although I’ve also spotted a slow reappraisal of the Tigers (Tygrysy) (the architectural trio of Wacław Klyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzyński, and Eugeniusz Wierzbicki). And it is surely a good thing that the history of modern architecture in the PRL is populated with more figures than simply the Hansens.
I can detect echoes of this pattern of rediscovery elsewhere too. Hungarian architect Elemér Zalotay has been the subject of attention recently. In the 1960s he imagined megastructures flanking the Danube which have all the ambition and brio of the linear city-thinking of the Soviet avant-garde. Since then, living in Switzerland, he has developed a kind of ad hoc, bricolage architecture. His home looks like it has been put together by survivors of a nuclear war. Figures like Zalotay often stand out because they are mavericks.

Well, I mentioned Hansen because he is the hottest name on the stage, and maybe to certain extent, he has been overestimated. Connected to the Faculty of Sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, his ideas found a bigger audience than most architects. Can I detect in your words a comment on Polish schools of architecture, a suggestion that they don’t play an active role in the discussion of the legacy of modernism in Poland?
I don’t know enough about the situation. I know that Łukasz Wojciechowski in Wrocław, worked with students a few years ago to redraw plans and sections of overlooked buildings from the 1950s and 1960s – like Wojciech Lipiński’s dome house – to understand what the technical proposition were being made when architects first used parabolic structures, dramatically levered canopies, and so on.

Late modernist architecture was somehow neglected and forgotten, especially in the 1990s. Do you think that a very strongly negative view of modernism in countries such as Poland or Hungary was somehow connected with the political shifts of this region during this period?
Yes, I think probably that is true. Look at figures like Czesław Bielecki, an architect and politician in Poland, who has made a kind of politics by saying that modernism and state socialism were somehow intimately connected or even synonymous with each other and, so by extension, post-modernism and post-communism are intimately connected too. He has made the case for eclecticism as the expression of democracy or pluralism – a view which I don’t share. In the end we need a more sophisticated model to understand what was the creative and worthwhile experience of the PRL or any of the other Eastern European states under communist rule.

Actually I would like to ask about this positive issue of the architecture of this period. Is there more to the enthusiasm for icons of socialist modernism or is this just a matter of romantic nostalgia?
Well, one has to be careful about exoticising architecture in places where one has not lived. The debate on Katowice Railway Station is interesting. As far as I understand it, the developer at first wanted to destroy the structure to develop a new scheme largely offering a new shopping centre combined with a transport hub, a proposition which prompted a serious campaign led by very active and vocal citizens of the city to preserve the building. The developer then encouraged the architect to modify the design to make sure that some traces of the original structure designed by the Tygrysy – Klyszewski, Mokrzynski, and Wierzbicki – would remain; a few of the structural columns which support the roof of the station that have a very distinct umbrella-like profile were kept as signs of the past, as visual gestures. What is interesting about this turn of events is that public opinion made it clear that wiping away the past wasn’t acceptable: whether the response of the developer and the architect was an adequate response to that public wave of feeling is another matter. These kind of concessions seem to be form a pattern, at least in Poland: the windows of Kino Praha in Warsaw, for instance, feature casts of the low reliefs that used to decorate the façade of the now-destroyed original building from the late 1940s. In these casts there is some acknowledgement, however slight, on the part of the developer that people do not wish to see their world completely transformed overnight because that risks alienation. Of course, copying socialist realist details and placing them into the window of a cinema does not itself make a building a meaningful place, but it was a sign in the early years of the new century that the discourse about the legacy of communist-era architecture was changing.

I have also a question concerning holes in the picture. What places and names are missing from the bigger picture of Polish architectural research?
Halina Skibniewska seems to be a really interesting figure. Holding considerable political authority, as a marshall in the Sejm, she also designed housing estates including the Sady Żoliborskie. This estate has a rather picturesque quality lacking in much PRL design and landscaping. I think that trying to understand her role as a public advocate of modernist architecture with political influence would be a very worthwhile project.

And what about such figures in other countries, from say, the former Czechoslovakia or the former socialist Hungary or other countries, Yugoslavia?
I think the work is being done by many excellent architectural historians – I am thinking of Vladimir Kulić and Maroje Mrduljaš’s project Unfinished Modernisms, which explores the roles ascribed to modern architecture in Tito’s Yugoslavia. I’d like to see more attempts to produce oral histories, particularly of architects who were operating in the 1960s and 1970s. A few years ago many of these now-elderly architects are anxious about their own reputations, not least because many were attacked as representatives of the regime – as quislings. But I detect a mood change: it is now possible to have a cooler and more objective view of both the achievements and the failures of the recent past.
I’d also encourage more exploration think of areas which have been untackled and, perhaps, a little less attention to landmark socmodernist buildings. We might think a little harder about the work of urban planners for instance: they were figures who were closer to power or at least had to deal directly with the social effects of policy. Last year I interviewed Mariana Celac, an architect and planner, who was working in Bucharest in the 1970s and 1980s. She and her colleagues had first hand-experience of the social effects of Romanian modernisation of the city and the countryside, at the time of the systematisation programme that entailed massive destruction of the historic fabric of the capital. She expressed her deep concerns about the social effects of Ceaușescu’s policies to a French journalist. When the footage was broadcast she was stripped of her work and eventually sent into internal exile to a near the border with Soviet Moldova. At the time, she felt a strong need to speak out because, as a planner, she could see the great misery which was being produced in a way that perhaps an architect might not.

When we reflect on the architectural history of France or Great Britain, we can find a kind of continuity from one generation to another. Whilst there may have been generational differences, there was still much continuity and dialogue. Perhaps this marks an important East-West difference – in Poland, for instance, inter-generational contact wasn’t so easy, largely because of the Second World War. Or perhaps these contacts have yet to be mapped. When we started to think about this issue of Herito, we found connections between Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, a key architect in Kraków in the interwar period, and Witold Cęckiewicz, the designer of the Cracovia Hotel.
I am quite interested in what we might call the ethos of the architectural profession. What I mean by this is that for much of the 20th century there has been a pervasive sense that architecture should primarily serve a social function. One precept of modernism is that the architect serve the public good – this ethos survives from the 1920s to the 1980s in Eastern Europe. It is one example of what you call continuity. It means that even though figures like the Syrkuses or the Brukalskis in Poland changed the style of their architecture to fit the political circumstances of the Bierut era, they were relatively consistent in their belief in architecture’s social function – its capacity to ameliorate poverty, produce sociality and so on. After the complete marketisation of architecture and the neoliberal discourse, which has been very dominant in Poland, I wonder whether that social purpose is still intact? Perhaps the biggest rupture – in terms of this ethos – might have occurred in 1989 and not in 1949.

So do you think that today’s nostalgia for socialist modern architecture might come from the fact that this ethos, this social role, was somehow forgotten in the 1990s?
Yes, this ethos seems to occupy a marginal place in architecture in Poland, and in the former Soviet states. You can of course hear echoes of it in architectural criticism, in the classroom, in exhibitions, but this counts for less today than it did in the past. And architects actually have less power today than they once had. Power really lives with the developers who control key resources like land and capital. And the idea that developers might have an ethos or be shaped by modernism is clearly absurd. Their interests lie in the pursuit of profit. I think that this is fairly evident to anyone who cares to look. So one dark reading of the return of socialist realist details like the sculptural reliefs in Kino Praha in Warsaw or the socmodernist umbrellas in the Katowice shopping mall, is to recognise that they are mere branding. These markers or architectural distinction are now hollow symbols, which testify to little except modernism’s submission.