Cold War Modern Architecture

Twenty years ago Adam Miłobędzki used the term “socmodernism” to denote the period from the 1950s to the 1980s, and attempted to evaluate it for the first time in The Architecture of Poland published by the ICC. The assessment was not at all favourable.
A synonym to huge prefabricated concrete slabs and factories of houses, typified, extremely economical, and utilitarian, going hand‑in‑hand with the bureaucratisation of the architect’s profession, “socmodernism” manifested itself to Miłobędzki through hundreds of residential settlements set up and managed by the state; concrete jungles making the dogma of Communist social engineering come true. In other words, the “post‑artistic era” producing a secondary functionalism, made passive loans from the West.
That it was too critical an assessment, and that as much bad as good can be demonstrated on both sides of the iron curtain at the time, was proved in 2008 by the Cold War Modern exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Yet, what such a look required was some distance.
Today, “socmodernism” has become fashionable. The appraisal continues, although hardly ever does it reach beyond the borders of people’s own country. Thus we take a broader look at the architectural landscape of former “Communist democracies” and break away from the stereotype of the “concrete jungle style”.
The picture that emerges is indeed enticing: a generation of artists who remained unconnected and clung to their own path, while the international style of modernism was experiencing its heyday. In their own manner, they opposed the system, as they did not let themselves be pigeonholed into any doctrine, be it architectural or political. Despite the unbelievable scale of wartime damage and despite the need to “start from scratch”, they were the architects of continuity, faithful to the ethos of profession and the inheritance of their predecessors. With these to fall back on, they developed their own, original language of architecture, and many of their works have gained the status of icons.
We are no longer looking at them with bias, as we stand closer to fulfilment of what Karel Prager addressed so frequently, namely, that new things are what people only have to get used to.
Translated from the Polish by Piotr Krasnowolski

    • 1
      Editorial
      Jacek Purchla

      Twenty years ago Adam Miłobędzki used the term “socmodernism” to denote the period from the 1950s to the 1980s, and attempted to evaluate it for the first time in The Architecture of Poland published by the ICC. The assessment was not at all favourable.
      A synonym to huge prefabricated concrete slabs and factories of houses, typified, extremely economical, and utilitarian, going hand‑in‑hand with the bureaucratisation of the architect’s profession, “socmodernism” manifested itself to Miłobędzki through hundreds of residential settlements set up and managed by the state; concrete jungles making the dogma of Communist social engineering come true. In other words, the “post‑artistic era” producing a secondary functionalism, made passive loans from the West.
      That it was too critical an assessment, and that as much bad as good can be demonstrated on both sides of the iron curtain at the time, was proved in 2008 by the Cold War Modern exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Yet, what such a look required was some distance.
      Today, “socmodernism” has become fashionable. The appraisal continues, although hardly ever does it reach beyond the borders of people’s own country. Thus we take a broader look at the architectural landscape of former “Communist democracies” and break away from the stereotype of the “concrete jungle style”.
      The picture that emerges is indeed enticing: a generation of artists who remained unconnected and clung to their own path, while the international style of modernism was experiencing its heyday. In their own manner, they opposed the system, as they did not let themselves be pigeonholed into any doctrine, be it architectural or political. Despite the unbelievable scale of wartime damage and despite the need to “start from scratch”, they were the architects of continuity, faithful to the ethos of profession and the inheritance of their predecessors. With these to fall back on, they developed their own, original language of architecture, and many of their works have gained the status of icons.
      We are no longer looking at them with bias, as we stand closer to fulfilment of what Karel Prager addressed so frequently, namely, that new things are what people only have to get used to.
      Translated from the Polish by Piotr Krasnowolski

    • 4
      Worth a Look

  • Interviev
    • 10
      David Crowley

      talks to Michał Wiśniewski
      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?

  • Cold War Modern Architecture
    • 22
      Slovakia: Searching for New Form
      Henrieta MoravčÍková

      In the 1960s, architecture turned into an important factor in fighting the international isolation of the country. In Slovakia, that fact was significant for two reasons. For the stake of the game was not “only” the emergence of Slovaks on the international stage, but also the rise of Slovakia in Czechoslovakia.

    • 40
      New Things Take Getting Used To: Karel Prager
      Radomíra Sedláková

      Prager quickly turned to subjects that interested him the most in architecture. This meant making use of new technologies, because it was them, as he believed, that helped capture the character and spirit of the contemporary period.

    • 58
      “Special Buildings” in the City of Ruins: Hermann Henselmann
      Szymon Piotr Kubiak

      Both the early work and post‑war views of the head architect of the city of Berlin reveal strong associations with the avant‑garde and ambivalence towards top‑down requirements.

    • 70
      Modernity Ingrained: Edo Ravnikar
      Łukasz Galusek

      Slovenian architecture and modern architecture came into being around the same time. Let us recall that two pioneers of Viennese modernism, Jože Plečnik and Max Fabiani, also laid the foundation for Slovenian architecture. This genetic association seems to have protected Slovene architects from the obsessive urge to catch up with all things modern, a temptation that seems typical of “minor cultures” from the “fringes of Europe”. Quick pursuits usually induce shortness of breath. Your aim remains unattainable and you have to settle for poor substitutes, mere imitations. Slovenians, however, have avoided this disappointment, focusing on working out – within the modernist idiom – their own unique architectural language. A similar occurrence can be noticed in Scandinavian architecture.

    • 86
      The Unconventional Modernity of Bogdan Bogdanović and Jože Plečnik
      Urša Komac

      There is really something godlike about his designs, like the power of a great poet to take truth and lies and out of them frame a third entity, whose borrowed existence enchants us. (Goethe).

    • 98
      The Spaces of Contemplation. On Bogdan Bogdanović
      Ivan Ristić

      Bogdanović, in the words of the great Austrian expert on architecture, Friedrich Achleitner, was “a piece of 20th‑century architecture”.

    • 118
      Radically: Bogdan Bogdanović
      Łukasz Galusek

      The memorial cemetery in Mostar is the most radical work by Bogdan Bogdanović. The Latin word radix means “root”. The Mostar resting place is radical in the sense that it evokes everything primal and profound. The most primeval aspect of the place.

    • 127
      The Lost City
      Bogdan Bogdanović, Michał Korta

      Essay by Bogdan Bogdanović, photographs by Michał Korta

    • 138
      Skopje – an Unfinished City of Solidarity
      Łukasz Galusek

      Modernist Skopje – daring, open, cosmopolitan – is imploding today. Why?

    • 154
      Tychy – the Once Socialist Town Today
      Ewa Chojecka

      Let us try to decipher Tychy differently, and pose a question concerning the ideological and artistic trends not only expressed on paper, but rendered concrete in spatial form and in the constructions found in the city.

    • 166
      The Socmodernist Centre of Katowice
      Anna Syska , Paweł Jaworski

      The transformation of the centre is a large‑scale investment that is fairly heterogeneous and inconsistent as far as urban planning is concerned, yet coherent in its architecture, which was conducted at a time when the developments in the centres of most Polish cities as a rule meant only filling in additional service functions.

    • 180
      (R)evolution: Kraków school of modernism
      Michał Wiśniewski

      The history of Polish post‑war architecture as a rule presents the events following 1956 as an absolute breakaway from the past and a new start from scratch. Yet, a more in‑depth analysis of the processes that took place in the realm of the construction of Kraków finds plenty of proof in support of attempts of not so much revolution, as evolution in technology and aesthetics.

    • 192
      Hungary: an Alternative Moderne Forced into Obscurity
      György Szegő

      Makovecz perceived folk art as an underground river running in a powerful current and still alive, even though forced into an ever more narrow bed. The vast energy of the river sparked hope, being the harbinger of the plenitude of the pure spring, as Béla Bartók perceived folk music in earlier days. This generally known comparison explains that the forces originating from the depth of instinctive life may incessantly be renewed in the creative process. The architecture of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s presented at the same time programmes of avant‑garde and opposition, a trend that has also continued in the latest two decades.

  • Ideas in practice
    • 212
      Magdalena Link-Lenczowska

      It is worth taking a look at the furore that the term “modernism” has caused among young people in large Polish cities during 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.

  • Reflections, impressions, opinions
    • 226
      Lifting the Curtain
      Marta Karpińska

      Lifting the Curtain. Central European
      Architectural Networks
      Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli,
      Venice 7 June – 23 November 2014

    • 234
      Schola non grata
      Magdalena Bystrzak

      Iva Mojžišová
      "Škola moderného videnia. Bratislavská ŠUR 1928–1939"
      (A school of modern vision. ŠUR in Bratislava 1928–1939)
      Slovenské centrum dizajnu & Artforum,
      Bratislava 2013

    • 240
      Tempting Views
      Alina Șerban

      "Vederi Încântătoare. Urbanism și arhitectură în turismul românesc de la Marea Neagră în anii ‘60–’70"
      (Tempting Views. Urbanism and Architecture of Romanian Tourism at the Black Sea in the ‘60–’70)
      Sala Dalles, Bucharest
      10 October – 23 November 2014

    • 252
      Soviet Modernism from the Western Perspective
      Żanna Komar

      "Soviet Modernism 1955–1991. Unknown history"
      ed. Katharina Ritter et al
      Park Books, Zürich 2012

    • 260
      Worth a Thought

  • By myself
    • 270
      Tomba Brion
      Janusz Sepioł

      There are special signs indicating the way from the town Asolo (in the vicinity of Treviso) to a rural cemetery in the nearby town of San Vito d’Altivole. This place has become a pilgrimage destination for architects from around the world, wishing to experience Carlo Scarpa’s “opus magnum” and pay respects to his ashes contained therein.

  • The Myth of Galicia – Reminiscences
    • 280
      Two Weekends: Lviv and Kraków
      Miljenko Jergović

      Every journey has its unexpected culmination – the moment when everything acquires its true reason and goal, frequently having nothing in common with the intentions of the traveller and the reason for the travel itself.