Ideas in practice

Technical Drafts on Direct Democracy

Illustrations: Paulina Paździera

It is worth taking a look at the furore that the term “modernism” has caused among young people in large Polish cities over the last few years. Modernism, let us add, which in Poland today means architecture. Its impressive career, contrary to what sceptics would have us believe, shows us much more than mere dynamics of cafe-goers’ fashion to which even design – so much handier as an object of adoration – has had to yield.

Including modernist architecture in a whole range of important topics discussed with new emotions undoubtedly signifies yet another stage in the process of absorbing the ideologically and aesthetically troublesome heritage. However, at the same time or perhaps above all, due to the controversies surrounding it, the topic has become the main terrain for negotiating new citizenship in Poland, where up to 1989 the authorities had been an instrument of incapacitation, and approximately until the turn of the century the role was played equally effectively by rampant capital. The remnants of both hegemonies still reshape contemporary definitions of democracy, which is illustrated by the increasing urban chaos resulting from developers having found an El Dorado on Polish soil. Yet if we compare the level, scale, and effects of public debate today and a decade ago, then the change becomes visible even to a sworn defeatist.
It would be impossible to list all the foundations, societies, informal groups of activists, and individual aficionados who have taken up as their main goal to map the architecture of socmodernism. This subject, as obviously politically difficult2, has become the domain of the nongovernmental sector.
However, already in the case of pre-Second World War architecture – which at least ideologically was “safe”, if not valuable on account of its strong national features in the style of new, independent Poland – the initiators of the modernist trail were local authorities, as it happened in Gdynia and Katowice. Publications devoted to the interwar period have mushroomed in recent years thanks to both research by individual academics and academic teams and the work of two main circles of wide discussion on 20th-century architecture: Centrum Architektury (the Architecture Centre) in Warsaw and Instytut Architektury (the Institute of Architecture) in Krakow. Both foundations also popularise knowledge of architecture through publication of theoretical periodicals, monographs, and catalogues of the exhibitions they organise.
Thanks to all these activities, reinforced by a series of educational lectures and walks, a thesis could be put forward that the architecture of the first half of the 20th century has been absorbed by society (despite its natural and eternal predilection for bent and decorative forms). In any case, the architecture has been sufficiently assimilated by society for them to understand the need for its protection. Relative protection, it has to be added, that while on the one hand granting the status of a historical monument to interwar buildings is no longer treated as ludicrous, on the other hand is still far from unquestionable. Such ambivalence is particularly visible in the crimes on style systematically perpetrated in the form of adding new floors atop old buildings and other kinds of modernisation. Some of them are reversible; therefore there is hope that a few more years of educational work may create social pressure and prevent future – at times arrogant, at other times ignorant – mistakes. A different case is post-war architecture, whose history makes up new volumes on the nation’s martyrdom, although, structured like a proper Hitchcockian horror, where the action starts with an earthquake and tension has no intention of drowning in the crevices.

The symbolic beginning of the social fight for the good name of socmodernism may be the moment when in 2006 the already densely built-up Polish capital shook from the bulldozers erasing Supersam. The first Polish supermarket, designed by Jerzy Hryniewiecki, Maciej Krasiński, and Ewa Krasińska, owing to its function and form, for many years embodied the Poles’ dreams of modernity. However, neither this symbolic value nor unique architecture provided sufficient counterarguments to the investor’s appetite for an attractive lot; social protests and experts’ appeals failed to save the building. Nonetheless, Supersam marks the rise of new civic awareness in Poland as well as opposition to the uncontrolled appropriation of public space by aggressive capitalism that has been going on for over a decade. At the same time, this failure has become a memento to the burning need for a change in mentality – among the authorities and the majority of Polish society alike – towards such architecture, which is still read through the prism of historic hostility.
Only a few years later the younger generation, showcasing porcelain designer figurines of Supersam on the shelves of their retro wall cabinets, became more vocal. Their memory of the Polish People’s Republic does not make them cringe; rather it is a source of their identity composed of flashbacks from their childhoods. It is also a generation that is free from accusations of empty aestheticisation and thoughtless rebellion against the trauma of their parents’ generation or of evading difficult history through derision – this discussion had already taken place in Poland in the first years of the 21st century, inspired by Wolfgang Becker’s film Good Bye, Lenin, cafes adorned with relics of communism, and popular sightseeing tours in a black Volga along the trail of the remnants of the previous system.
One omen of the new, critical phase is the project of documenting post-war neon signs, which is likely to initiate considerable change in awareness and protection of these objects, which have hitherto often been regarded as rubbish. A spontaneous reaction of Ilona Karwińska and David Hill against the degradation and dismantling of defunct neon letterworks has turned into a social movement, and has led to a range of artistic undertakings, a fashion, and finally the establishment of a private museum (in 2012).
A second initiative, also born out of private, individual nostalgia rather than a sense of mission, is a project by Ewa Cieniak and Bartosz Nowakowski Tu było kino (There Used to Be a Cinema Here). It engages the internet community in joint documentation of the silent death of small cinemas – buildings which used to be created on a mass scale after the Second World War, including in the most remote provinces, where they fulfilled the role of crude salons of propaganda and an alternative to the church when it came to local entertainment. The political assumptions behind them quickly collided with everyday life, and the cinemas remained spaces of suspended special-day time and the imagination’s wanderings beyond the grey routine of the Polish People’s Republic. This world started to disappear together with the crumbling system, but what finally killed it was the emergence of shopping malls with multiplexes. This sentimental initiative by a pair of enthusiasts, devoid of artistic pretences – which is unthinkable today, has produced a book of photographs. The album presents the current state of these flaking buildings, which have long shed their provincial glory – either having been humiliatingly turned into stores or service outlets or slowly but inevitably fading from disuse. There Used to Be a Cinema Here initiates a new relationship with socmodernist architecture, at the same time attempting to document the process of symbolic and material shrinking of buildings – ranging from depriving them of their original role to their inevitable disappearance: demolition or simple devastation.

This is how icons of post-war modernism still die today – disused, neglected, and covered in advertising. Sometimes the reason for this is the sloppiness of state administration, but more often it is a deliberate strategy of private investors who want to get rid of a building. The fact that nothing hides architectural value better than dirt was best illustrated by the edifice of the railway station in Katowice, which – with public approval, thanks to argumentation based on references to dirt – was demolished in 2010. The building was a unique example of brutalism, designed by Wacław Kłyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzyński, and Eugeniusz Wierzbicki. Details of the absurd anatomy of this crime were revealed to us a year later thanks to reportage by Filip Springer in his Źle urodzone. Reportaże o architekturze PRL-u (Ill-born. Polish Post-war Modernist Architecture). The book, which has by now become canonical, reminds us of long-forgotten architects and their designs, and juxtaposes visionaries’ struggles with the compromises of socialist reality. In the book, buildings become – sometimes sad, sometimes proud, but always humanist – heroes of individual texts and series of photographs, where the cold aestheticisation in depicting the genius monsters of socmodernism, well-known from the works of such photographers as Mikołaj Grospierre, are replaced by Springer with his search for human beings in this architecture.
Thanks to the fact that the book became a bestseller, the discussion on the unwanted heritage went beyond circles of experts and undoubtedly, in the wider perception, filled heritage with human qualities. However, the book was not a pioneering work – it came out at a moment when certain phenomena had already been set in motion. This was the case with perhaps the most tragic “ill-born”: Katowice’s “brutal” (brute). The type of community activity that centred around the building after its “death sentence” had been passed was a new phenomenon and still constitutes the avant-garde in the fight for preserving the good name of socmodernism. Days before the building’s demolition, Prof. Irma Kozina from the University of Silesia, known for her radical and charismatic forms of expression, started an initiative of lighting candles in front of the railway station to draw attention to the problem. The funeral-like demonstration was intended as a small gathering, but invitations to it, stealthily distributed on the Internet, were accepted by 300 citizens of Katowice, to the organiser’s surprise and the police’s dismay. A tangible result of the action was a fine that the academic had to pay for having organised an illegal manifestation. Apart from this controversy, incidentally telling us a lot about the condition of Polish democracy in the year 2010, the initiative sparked surprisingly large-scale social potential, which as it turned out existed in the city that had consistently rejected post-war architecture. Another discovery was the confrontation with relatively young Polish social media as a tool for real action. What confirmed their usefulness was the first famous profile of the building Brutal z Katowic (The Brute from Katowice) created by Tomasz Malkowski. This was a symbolic moment in which the press was relegated to the role of an echo, while Facebook became the centre of common mobilisation, distribution of information, and a battlefield where a struggle for the souls of the public and a discussion with developers, the city authorities, and other administrative absurdities played out.
From today’s perspective, the most significant result of this fight for the old Katowice railway station is the activity of the Napraw Sobie Miasto (DIY Fix Your City) foundation. When the building’s fate had been sealed, a group of architects and city planners attracted attention to it by symbolically “selling” its flagship structural elements – the famous “cups” to world-famous architects. The Katowice branch of Stowarzyszenie Architektów Polskich (the Union of Polish Architects) joined the initiative making similar sale offers to Polish designers. The response from experts both in Poland and abroad opened a much-needed discussion on the value of socmodernist architecture, which is continuing thanks to organisations established in Warsaw and Krakow a year later. Crucially, the specific achievement of DIY Fix Your City has been its shift from classical popularisation of knowledge to propagating participation as a method of shaping the environment. The founders concentrate on activities supporting the idea of the city as shared space, an area of the inhabitants’ joint responsibility. Their first initiatives undertaken as an informal student’s project have already demonstrated this philosophy. The happening Umyj sobie dworzec (DIY Clean Your Railway Station) consisted of joint social cleaning up of the building of Katowice-Ligota railway station, in order to, on the one hand, to liberate the architecture from the dirt and graffiti concealing it, and, on the other hand, to show that “public” does not mean “nobody’s”. Another project, nieESTETYKA MIASTA (the City’s unAesthetic) had a similar goal: to reclaim space by removing illegal outdoor advertising from the city centre and then to use the rubbish to create a symbolic installation. Significantly, the action took place under the slogan “Katowice – Garden City”, since the movement’s potential had been spotted by the city authorities, which at that time were applying for the title of the European Capital of Culture 2010. The programme of the capital of Upper Silesia stood out against other candidates thanks to the importance attached to the social aspect of the application process and to basing the programme of cultural development of the agglomeration on local initiatives.
DIY Fix Your City has become a permanent fixture in the cityscape of Katowice. After it transformed into a foundation, its activities have become more specialised, yet they continue to draw upon socialist architectonic heritage. Still, the point of departure for it is a discussion on public space, whether the long-term effect is to instil sensitivity to space in the younger generation through architecture workshops for children and teenagers, or strengthening local communities and optimal utilisation of shared areas through preceding city investments with social consultations. The example of Katowice is also unique on the map of other initiatives centring on the architecture of the Polish People’s Republic, in the sense that initiatives start there on the street level, without prior preparations by marketing a trend among the ever-plastic group of metropolitan hipsters.

However, it was this group that proved very useful in yet another instalment of this game of railway stations, whose defences and conquests, resembling battles for fortresses, continue to mark the history of the Polish fight for post-war architecture. In Warsaw, socmodernist industrial design has become official fashion. In former very unrefined working places, cafes have been opened, retaining elements of the original design. The best example of the new comfortably nestling in the old is the Warszawa Powiśle club, opened in a building of the suburban railway designed by Arseniusz Romanowicz and Piotr Szymaniak. The club immediately became the favourite hangout spot for new city-dwellers who like leisure, art, cooking, and weekends in Berlin, i.e., those who create reality2. They were the clients of the action of selling out the furnishings of the Central Railway Station in Warsaw, organised by the Architecture Centre – yet another project by the famous Warsaw duo, which naturally could not avoid criticism in the public debate on the project’s future. However, the final recognition of the indisputable architectural value of the building and the decision to restore its original condition through thorough renovation was yet another milestone in the slow process of rehabilitating Polish post-war architecture. The above-mentioned initiative is a good summary for both the dispute about the railway station and for the 2011 discussion on modernism and its future. It was in 2011 that two foundations created by groups of young architects were registered, taking upon themselves the roles of building strong and substantial argumentation – which in the by now common and emotional, and thus socially engaged, discussion seems to be particularly lacking. One of the new organisations is the above-mentioned Architecture Centre, which used the money collected during the auction in the Central Railway Station to popularise knowledge about the architects of Warsaw modernism. The result has been a series of discussions, walks, and publications – catalogues, district guides, and texts by the world-famous classics of modernist theory and architecture, which quickly gained biblical status. Just as in the case of the other foundation – the Institute of Architecture – it is impossible to list all their achievements, but details can be found online.
Krakow’s Institute of Architecture, with its roots in the group centred around the Autoportret quarterly devoted to good space, initiated its activity with the very well received and polemical exhibition Za-mieszkanie 2012. Miasto ogrodów. Miasto ogrodzeń (In-Habitation 2012. Garden City, Gated City). The exhibition illustrated the residential habits of contemporary Poles as well as the pathology of their post-transformation interpretation of ownership and prosperity, which leads to the fenced fetish of gated housing estates. This contemporary perspective, however, becomes a point of reference for critical interpretation of modernist ideas as a lost (the pre-war period) or discredited (the post-war period) utopia, which was not devoid of good points, but which today is obstinately rejected by Krakow and consequently is decaying before the city inhabitants’ indifferent eyes. Thus, the Institute of Architecture aims not so much at simple idealisation playing with the current young sentiment, but at restoring the dignity of the 20th-century designs and for making the public aware of the fact that, despite popular opinion, they constitute the tissue of modern Krakow. The inauguration of the foundation’s Krakow Modernism Trail was planned to take place in another post-war icon: the former Forum hotel, which had been going to ruin for many years, but which for the last few years has been adapted to house a club for the most golden of golden youth, and has become a hotbed for informal creative initiatives. News of the event spread by word of mouth, attracting several hundred people, whom the monumental space could barely accommodate. And this is not an exception in Poland. Demand for recovering individual and social awareness of the youngest, hitherto unwanted, heritage is by now enormous.
Yet we live in perfectly schizophrenic reality, and thus over the last few years Krakow public opinion has been shaken by the discussion on the plans to demolish one more symbol of faded socialist splendour – the Cracovia hotel designed by Witold Cęckiewicz, one of the most interesting achievements of Polish post-war modernism. An alternative to the building, which marked Krakow’s liberation from the stiff 19th-century corset of the second bypass and opening onto the glass worldly modernity, is to be another shopping mall in a city already choking on consumerism. City authorities are leaning towards this solution, while the Institute of Architecture and Przestrzeń-Ludzie-Miasto (Space-People-City) association has set up a fan page entitled HOTEL CRACOVIA Pany (HOTEL CRACOVIA Rules), where they have initiated a discussion with the developer and the politics of urban exhaustion, simultaneously fighting for designating the building as a historical monument. The conflict is still ongoing.
This scenario is embarrassingly typical. Ten years ago we could have been one 100% certain of its subsequent series of events. However, although the fates of all those “ill-born” seem to be identical, thanks to increasingly mature actions of social movements their stories form not so much a series of hopeless circles as a spiral. Sceptics claim that the spiral is so trapped by the vice of the authorities’ arrogance and indifference to social dynamics, that there has been no progress to speak of, and so the defiant citizens’ activity is doomed to failure. However, even despite having no budget, Krakow’s recent experience of the grassroots initiative Kraków Przeciw Igrzyskom (Krakow Against the Winter Olympics), was a success which lead to the withdrawal of the city’s candidacy for hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 2022. It would be difficult to imagine a more improbable scenario for a project that was a priority for the city authorities, was aggressively promoted in a countrywide advertising campaign, and enjoyed considerable public support. And yet in this textbook example of a duel between David and Goliath, the winner was the philosophy of a city as a living, complex organism, combined with social initiatives, and above all the citizens’ will to take part in decisions concerning their common space. And this is a change that cannot be ignored.
Of course, we mustn’t delude ourselves that the pressure of developers and local decision-makers’ susceptibility to the mirages of short-term investments will suddenly disappear, and conscious civic societies will start building new balanced cities on empty land. Yet there is no doubt that it is work on regaining the memory of socmodernist heritage – architecture, but also the perception of functioning in a city as a system of neighbourly relations – that has become the main and experimental training ground for direct democracy in Poland.
The scale of this civic transformation cannot be ignored, just as the related process of rehabilitation of the architecture from the period of the Polish People’s Republic cannot be reduced to simple dynamics of generational succession. True, appreciation of the architecture and design from before the political and economic transformation has something to do with nostalgia. However, on a larger scale, it is not reminiscing about one’s own sweet childhood, but the increasing exhaustion of the capitalist economic model that motivates today’s thirtysomethings to move to a 1960s or 1970s block of flats. The economic crisis has revealed the impermanence of free market constructions, and has initiated a turn towards more critical consumption, followed by a change in lifestyle – for the time being most visible particularly among young city-dwellers. In this model, functional modernist architecture, free from large-scale excess, is gaining new value. In turn, in the case of public buildings, “re-appropriation” or adaptation of neglected but technically still valid old buildings for new purposes provides an alternative to the authorities’ obsession with erecting new over-large infrastructure, for which cities and towns run into debt for many years to come. On an individual scale, post-war housing estates are in every respect superior to the contemporary concrete green and light-less gated estates, which cover up perfect social sterility of space with the veneer of luxury. The turn back to blocks of flats has the same origin as other important tendencies that contribute to a new social model – creation of informal organisations, co-ops of cash-free service exchange or food production. All these phenomena are results of corporate mechanisation, which is beginning to shape even free time and fragment human relationships. Nostalgia for tangible bonds, lasting values, and solid, generational, not seasonal matter is an act of mature opposition against the marketed reality of constant flow and excess. It is being crystallised in a turn to pro-social ideas – the same ones as those that built modernist architecture. It is thus a complete contradiction of purely aesthetic soc-fashion. It is also remote from uncritical affirmation – public spaces abound in misshapen witnesses to the utopia that modernism was at times. However, the contemporary young generation interprets socmodernism as a lost construction site for wide principles, for thinking of the city as a comprehensive structure, an organism built to match human scale. What they see in it is a laboratory where errors are a necessary element of the experiment – again a quality that is not allowed by today’s imperative of expertness.
Paradoxically, all these associations locate this architecture, created as a system’s representatives, outside this system. Even its flagship monuments in the structure of today’s cities are emotionally more approachable than the aggressive class-based skyscrapers of new democracy, supposedly bringing healthy counterbalance. On the other hand, the social movements centring around socmodernist architecture have nothing to do with the fun and games of leftist youth. Washing bad associations’ dirt off the objective, architectonic, and social value of post-war modernism, they still more effectively countervail the chaos of our contemporary times and revise its barrenness. And this must provoke the sound and the fury of the undermined free market status quo. For this reason, even though it is not difficult to diagnose the radical social change in the attitudes towards the unwanted heritage over the last decade, it is more of a challenge to predicting the future of the “ill-born”.

1.  The consequences of the symbolic guilt which determines social perception of the architecture from the period of the Polish People’s Republic have been addressed by Michał Wiśniewski in his article “A belated pardon. Some remarks on the nostalgia for the unwanted heritage of communist Poland” in the 7th edition of Herito (2012) titled Stories form Countries which Are No More, devoted to post-totalitarian re(sentiments) in Central Europe.

2. The ultimate legitimisation of the “pimply” architecture in the capital by this millieu, but also confirmation of a new trend: re-appropriation by usucaption, was the temporary location of the Museum of Modern Art, still without a permanent building, in the former furniture pavilion Emilia (designed by Marian Kuźniar and Czesław Wegner) in 2012.

Translated from the Polish by Ewa Kowal