Ideas in practice

Contemporary still temporary

The final design of the museum, section of the building © Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie

In 2007 Christian Kerez, a Swiss architect little known in Poland, won an international competition for the Museum of Modern Art (MSN) in Warsaw. Public opinion was shocked. Instead of the desired jewel, a white box was chosen for the centre of the capital. There were protests, arguments, changes of plans and increasing problems. In a word, a scandal. Its culmination came in late April 2012: the Warsaw municipality rescinded its contract with the architect. The matter went to court
The story of the museum in the centre of Warsaw is turning into a myth in which enlightened citizens try to raise a temple of contemporary culture on the prestigious agora in the capital but the raging winds of history thwart every attempt. Perhaps such a romantic look at the impotence accompanying this investment will make failure more palatable. But the example of Warsaw shows that you can build on history. The 10th-Anniversary Stadium was also a symbol, and it seemed that nothing could end its career as the greatest flea market in Europe. But the European Championships got rid of it. Stadiums are located much higher on the official lists of priorities, though.

The final design of the museum, section of the building © Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie

Just to recall the basic facts: the museum of contemporary art in Warsaw was to be the largest and most important construction event in Polish culture since 1989. The word “symbol” was constantly repeated in public discourse: symbol of transition, symbol of modern thinking about culture, symbol of a modern capital… A symbolic site was chosen – just by the Palace of Culture and Science, on Plac Defilad, a square where in the communist era grand parades and marches were staged. And of course symbolic architecture was expected, appealing, striking and attractive. All desires were focused on this project, all hopes frustrated for decades: that this museum would turn Warsaw into a metropolis worthy of the 21st century. A metropolis which thanks to its unique architecture would become a destination for tourist pilgrimages.
Officials, journalists and museum workers repeated the magic word “Bilbao”. Dozens (if not hundreds) of cities all around the world are trying to repeat the success of the Basque capital, but the imagination of investors usually stops at a fairy-tale building designed by a well-known architect, which would by itself produce a success in terms of image and attendance. In Warsaw we can only dream about such comprehensive thinking and cooperation between all levels of public authority as was seen in Bilbao. The verdict of the international competition jury, awarding the first prize to the minimalist, restrained design of the Swiss architect, was sobering for many. The selected design did not attempt to bring down the Palace of Culture visually, but to create a counterpoint to it, as required in the competition regulations.
Despite the protests of many communities, despite the director’s resignation, despite the self-dissolution of the programme board, the design was accepted for implementation. But first the architect had to introduce changes desired by the jury and the investor, that is limit commercial space on the ground floor of the building in favour of gallery space. Then, in September 2008, work on the project was halted, for the City Hall came up with the idea of housing a museum and a theatre under one roof. This meant that the date of the building’s opening started to recede into the future. The most optimistic prognosis said that it would happen in 2009. In 2010, when the stalemate was overcome and consensus was reached as to the number of storeys (two floors in some parts of the building, three in others), the architect proposed a completely new design for a museum and a theatre, in the style required by the competition; it seemed to be satisfactory to all concerned. But then the architect was faced with obstacles he proved unable to overcome.
It turned out that the municipality did not own the entire plot on which the museum was to be built. Kerez declared that he could not provide the complete documentation without the act of ownership, while the municipality claimed that it was not necessary. This stalemate, which went on for a year and a half, was not overcome. The municipality rescinded the contract and asked Kerez to pay a several-million-złoty fine.1 The architect claims that back in 2010 he filed all documentation necessary to obtain the building permit and that the municipality cheated him.2 Kerez said he was going to sue the city. The press, not only in Warsaw, was again full of heated comment. The municipality and the architect have their own versions of the matter. The court case will probably last for many years. Kerez won’t built the museum. The design will be thrown away. One could spend a long time speculating as to why it ended like that. Although the matter seems obvious enough. If the design had some flaws and Kerez signalled some problems, the investor should have intervened, offering mediation and support. Conclusion: the municipality simply does not want this design. Michał Borowski, the former chief architect of Warsaw, said to a journalist of Życie Warszawy: “Officials may be incompetent and the architect may be sloppy. But still the success of a project is determined by political will. Let us not fool ourselves, if the mayor of Warsaw wants to do something, she will do it, if she doesn’t, it ends up like it did with Kerez’s design.”3 The behaviour of the Warsaw authorities looks like a “delaying strategy”; blaming Kerez is a tactical move aimed at a “diplomatic” escape from the unwanted investment. Piotr Piotrowski says: “I myself was against this design as a member of the Consulting Board and observer of culture. But a social and, it seemed, political consensus formed around the design. The city authorities decided to implement it. I would describe their withdrawal as shameful. […] A lot of us, including me, protested against this decision. Unfortunately, as one might expect, social protests, this time speaking with one voice, were completely futile. […] Warsaw is unlucky as the local authorities consistently ignore culture and do not see any value in it.” Although the city hall declares the intention of announcing a new competition, all those asking “what next?” deserve an answer. 

The exhibition hall © Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie

It seems to me that from the very beginning the source of hostility was above all the shape of the building. Not the location (although critical), not Kerez himself (although not basking in worldwide fame) but the architecture, which instead of delighting and enchanting with some bizarre shape would politely fit into the surroundings without destroying the biggest (literally and metaphorically) problem, presented by the Palace of Culture. We might as well explain here why the winning design looks like it does (in contrast to, for example, the design by ALA Architects Ltd / Grupa 5 Architekci / Jarosław Kozakiewicz, perceived by many as the best): such limitations were introduced by the regulations of the competition. The architectural expression of the building is to a large extent determined by the shape of the plot. The maximum height was predefined, as was the volume. These input data produced a sophisticated box, enlivened by Kerez with a wonderful roof, but appealing not from the outside but from the perspective of the exhibition gallery. The “counterpoint” to the sculptural palace stipulated by the regulations did not allow for artistic flights of fancy.
The most important thing now is that the museum exists and functions. It is implementing an ambitious programme based on the history of art in Eastern Europe. It cooperates with prestigious institutions of contemporary art in other countries. But the collection is growing and in the longer term, to develop the programme and to accommodate 800,000 visitors a year (such is the predicted target), a building with sufficient volume is necessary. In the next few years this function is to be played by the “Emilia” furniture store, at the back of which the museum is now functioning. But it is difficult to avoid the feeling that this temporary home will become permanent, as happened, for example, with the tin barracks and parking at the Plac Defilad. In the early 1980s, when the museum of contemporary art in Los Angeles (MoCA LA) was being built, a provisional base for it called Temporary Contemporary was opened. It was located in storehouses adapted for exhibition purposes by Frank Gehry himself. The building and the programme implemented there gained such a popularity that after the new base was opened, the museum authorities decided to keep the old one as a branch. We should wish the same for Warsaw. But the word “temporary” already refers more to the programme of the museum (without a permanent exhibition) than to the building.
In spite of everything, I believe that a home for the museum will ultimately be built. And that the problem of ownership of the plots around the Palace of Culture will be solved, Plac Defilad will cease to be a black hole and will turn into a genuine agora. A new architectural competition will be announced, with the winning design being a tame copy of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or other extravaganzas of starchitects, probably – as Piotrowski predicts – put forward by a local architect, for “world-class architects will stay away from the third competition for the same building”. Or to gain time in the face of the protracted ownership squabbles, a new location will be chosen – away from the centre, in the industrial guise so fashionable today, for modernity and art are not deemed respectable enough for the centre of our capital.
The location seems less important than the urgent need to raise the building itself, although a museum of contemporary art in the very centre would be quite something. This is something that few European capitals can boast. The MSN director Joanna Mytkowska stressed that “a public museum of contemporary art in such a place is above all a sign that contemporary culture counts. It would very much help in building a modern society, which cannot be created exclusively on the basis of national phantasms and a cult of history”4. But how to distance yourself from history if such a “historical” place was selected? And it is not very comforting that the Museum of History of Poland has also been waiting mysteriously long for its permanent home.

We asked Professor Piotr Piotrowski and Jarosław Suchan for comments

Piotr Piotrowski*: In the 1990s Polish art gained an extremely high international reputation, and it is still perceived as excellent. Polish artists are valued abroad as never before. Such a marked presence of Polish art on the global scene is virtually unprecedented. Polish constructivists (in fact only Kobro and Strzemiński) were an exception; now we have something more – a phenomenon, even a trend which Paweł Leszkowicz called “young art from Poland”, although some of these artists are no longer young… But despite this (or perhaps because of it) they are valued abroad. Yet someone arriving in Warsaw will not find a museum of modern/contemporary art worthy of its name, even on a scale similar to other post-communist capitals (Prague, Ljubljana, Zagreb); he or she will find only a temporary seat in a former furniture store. It is an embarrassment and loss for us all.
Museums not only play a representative role, not only show what was and is, but also are a catalyst of artistic life. The absence of such a museum deprives us all (in Warsaw, in Poland but also, by no means least, in the world) of an important actor shaping the artistic scene. What is more, argument is a moving force in culture. So we may (or even should) argue about the museum’s programme and the art displayed there. But the absence of the museum makes this argument impossible. There is nothing to argue about. Moreover, a museum is the locus of debate not only about artistic creation but also – above all – about the world. A museum, especially a museum of modern/contemporary art, is a forum with various opinions confronting each other; it is a place of critical culture, reflection, education aimed at understanding the complex reality. The example of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ljubljana (MSUM) cited above, one of the most interesting museum institutions in post-communist Europe, shows that such a project may achieve a great and important success, on the local but also international scale. Without a museum of modern/contemporary art we are deprived of this opportunity.
Going further in these reflections, it is worth noting that although we do not have a museum of contemporary art in Warsaw, we do have the National Stadium, which cost more than the entire budget of the MSN. I have nothing against building stadiums. One was built in Wrocław too, but this city will soon have its museum. On the other hand, the building of the stadium, necessary under the circumstances, has a symbolic meaning. It was raised in one of the most cosmopolitan places in Warsaw. The cosmopolitan 10th-Anniversary Stadium was turned into the National Stadium. But the Museum of Modern Art, by definition cosmopolitan, has not come into being, and one can see no political will to push the project forward. Could it be that the authorities of the Capital City of Warsaw are nationalising the city? What a paradox: the most cosmopolitan city in Poland is being nationalised, the expression of which is building the National Stadium and non-building of the international museum. Perhaps it is a deliberate strategy on the part of the city authorities.

The visualisation of the museum, a night view © Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie

Jarosław Suchan**: I have to admit that the situation of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw is becoming less and less clear to me. Until recently I was convinced that delaying the start of the construction process resulted from the involvement of the municipality in investments connected with Euro 2012 and assumed that once the championships were over, the project would move on. After the recent decisions I am confused. I realise that building a museum in such a place is a very difficult project in terms of organisation. I can understand that the architect was not an easy partner, that he might have got lost in the incredibly expansive and often absurd maze of Polish bureaucracy. But the matter has been going on for years; there was more than enough time to come to an agreement with the architect and to solve the administrative puzzles. But it seems that there was no political will and conviction that it was an important project. When we compare it to the determination with which the authorities overcame bureaucratic obstacles – even resorting to changing the law – in order to be ready with motorways and stadiums for the opening of Euro 2012, the contrast is striking and depressing. It shows the status of culture in government policy. Despite many noble-sounding declarations and generous financing of events with fireworks such as the concert inaugurating the Polish EU presidency, culture does not exist within the perimeter of “serious” politics. It is not something worthy of a determined effort – when faced with some difficulties, the decision-makers lose the will to occupy themselves with it.

* Art historian specialising in 20th-century Central and Eastern-European art, Professor of the Adam Mickiewicz University (UAM) in Poznań, former director of the Institute of Art History at UAM and lecturer at Humboldt University Berlin (2011/2012)
** Art historian specializing in modern and contemporary art, curator, art critic, director of the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź.

Translated from the Polish by Tomasz Bieroń