Bohdan Pniewski Servant or master? – Grzegorz Piątek

Bohdan Pniewski’s career is one of the greatest mysteries of 20th‑century Polish architecture. How is it possible that the ideologists of socialist realism accepted the formula of nationalised modernism developed by him before the war, and the favourite architect of the Piłsudski regime became a creator of the landscape in the capital of communist Poland?

Bohdan Pniewski was spitefully said to be the court architect of the authorities. Before 1939, he built the monumental Palace of Justice and the seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Warsaw, the embassy of the Republic of Poland in Sophia, and the Polish pavilion for the world exhibition in Paris. The list of his designs that awaited realisation at the outbreak of war was much longer. It included the Maritime Basilica in Gdynia, the embassy in Kaunas, the prestigious Piłsudski District, the Temple of Providence, a skyscraper of the Polish Radio and the Museum of Industry and Technology in the capital city.

It was no secret that the architect had sympathised with the Piłsudski family for years, that he had been wounded in the Polish‑Bolshevik war and that he had taken the side of the winners after the May Coup. In 1937, he had become involved in the Camp of National Unity (OZN), a fascist‑leaning movement centred around Marshal Rydz‑Śmigły. Since 1935, he had been a member of the Warsaw City Council imposed by the government, and in the elections of 1938 he was appointed a councillor from the OZN list. He also headed the state Institute of Art Propaganda and lectured at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, which educated “nation‑building artists” as part of its programme. For the regime, he was one of the trusted experts in design and visual arts. He was even consulted on the costumes of the Polish national team for the Berlin Olympics.

It would seem that with such a biography Pniewski would fall out of favour after the war. For the first few years, the communists recruited politically incorrect professionals, but later they usually pushed them aside or persecuted them. But this mechanism only marginally concerned the professional group necessary to rebuild the country, i.e. architects, and certainly did not affect Pniewski. The course of history did not fundamentally influence his position or the nature of the tasks entrusted to him. On the contrary, he designed on an even larger scale than before the war. In 1939 the press was excited about the size of the Palace of Justice, measuring 187 thousand cubic meters. But the Nation‑ al Bank of Poland, built by Pniewski in the 1950s, was to reach about 250 thousand cubic meters, and the Grand Theatre – about 450 thousand, making it, in the capital city, second only to the Palace of Culture and Science.

How is it possible that Pniewski functioned so well in Stalinist Poland?

The first key to understanding this development is strictly artistic. Authors of the doctrine of socialist realism targeted their criticism at the modernists, but Pniewski was difficult to pigeonhole in this way. Two impressive temporary buildings – the gate‑ house to the Sanitary and Hygienic Exhibition in Warsaw (1927) and the pavilion for the General National Exhibition in Poznań (1929) – and two colonies of modest terraced houses briefly confused observers and allowed him to be counted among the avant‑garde, but as soon as the young architect began designing for the wealthy and for state institutions, he worked out a distinct, compromise formula that earned him recognition in the eyes of his clients. On the one hand, the fetishes of modernity: thin poles, reduction of ornament, large ceiling spans, electric illumination, on the other hand – monumental gestures, allusions to the Renaissance, the Gothic, or Classicism, elaborate stonework and metalwork. Already back in the early thirties this had exposed him to the charge of betraying ideals. Romuald Miller complained:

It is regrettable that the ranks fighting for the New Architecture are losing one of the fighters. It is regrettable that an architect full of inner flame and a fiery attitude to Architecture is abandoning the difficult and precipitous path of climbing the dizzying field of spirit on which the new era of Architecture’s development lies, and entering the easy path of modernist eclecticism.

Some Polish critics, such as Stanisław Woźnicki and Edgar Norwerth, who saw modernism as a fleeting, superficial fashion and even cheered the return to the classicist tradition in the USSR in the 1930s, looked favourably on Pniewski and set him as a model for the worshippers – as Norwerth later put it – of “sophisticated functionalism of the heater and toilet bowl.”

A dozen years later, a taste for tradition saved Pniewski in the eyes of socialist‑realism ideologists. He was not vulnerable to accusations of “constructivism” or “cosmopolitanism”. The notion of “nationalised modernism” was more suited to his artistic manner. During a seminal meeting of party architects in June 1949, Edmund Goldzamt emphasised:

 In reacting to the influence of constructivism and observing the general principles of `modernity’, the architect constantly invokes the principles of classical building of the architectural image, seeking links between one and another.

After the war Pniewski avoided direct political involvement.

Historical erudition allowed Pniewski to easily invoke old forms, but thanks to his awareness of traditional material, especially stone, he processed them creatively and avoided literal quotations. If socialist realism was an architecture national in form and socialist in content, then Pniewski’s concepts were modern national architecture waiting to be filled with political content.

Goldzamt also appreciated Pniewski’s tendency to make a monumental gesture. He claimed that his architecture is thundering, one can see in it a desire to speak dramatically to great crowds of people, to have an emotional impact on the human masses. Expressing this are powerful artistic motifs of stairs, plinths and cornices, arcades, gravity‑defying solids, rubbing against the surrounding space.” He claimed that Pniewski’s architecture was “as if created for expressing great social ideas.

Finally, both the Piłsudski regime and Stalinist authorities needed grand scenery, and Pniewski, as the creator of the last pre‑war vision of the Piłsudski District, with its vast Field of Glory and a Forum filled with pseudo‑ancient detail, was well‑versed in such things. In addition, he advocated the idea of integrating architecture and art. Before the war, he headed the faculty of architecture and monumental sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts, where students performed decoration studies of the Temple of Providence, the Palace of Justice and even his own villa under his supervision. After the war, the architect proposed the establishment of the Main School of Stonemasonry and the “Main School of Crafts that are needed for architecture and sculpture: furniture, blacksmithing, metalwork and stained glass”.

It is telling that after the war Pniewski avoided direct political involvement. He did participate in professional forums and in public life, sitting, for example, in the National Council for the Reconstruction of Warsaw, the Government Committee for Architecture and Urban Planning or the Architectural and Urban Planning Commission at the Chief Architect of Warsaw, Józef Sigalin. He also took part in discussions at the Institute of Urban Planning and Architecture, where designers tried to interpret the enigmatic commandment of creating architecture that would be socialist in content and national in form. However, it is difficult to find photo‑ graphs of Pniewski from official state ceremonies. He also did not speak on issues unrelated to architecture, except for the short and restrained mourning note published after Stalin’s death among the statements of many other artists in the government‑sponsored Przegląd Kulturalny magazine. Bohdan Pniewski did not join the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) either, although this was not a necessary condition for a career in architecture. Perhaps the rap‑ id defeat of the Second Republic of Poland and then the change of the political system taught him how fragile the edifice of the state was, how inconvenient officially proclaimed views and sympathies can become. He chose his words carefully, he nurtured the apolitical image of himself as a craftsman‑ ‑stonemason. His subordinates had long been talking about him as a “foreman”. Now, on the terrace of his villa he had a plaque with the following inscription displayed:

The Guild of Sculptors, Stonemasons and Stuccoers in Warsaw, in recognition of the merits of Professor Engineer Architect Bohdan Pniewski in the development of stonemasonry and stucco work, hereby grants him the title of honorary member. Warsaw.  AD 1948.

During a meeting on literary and artistic criticism at the Ministry of Culture and Art (10– 11 April 1953), he remarked: “I would rather draw what I am going to say. Because I’m coming straight from the drawing board. 

His stubborn focus on the workshop saved him from being entangled in political disputes, although it also exposed him to the accusation of ostentatious ideological tepidity. When, during the discussion accompanying the 1951 exhibition of designs, he said that it was “not the designs (scores), but their implementations (concerts) that needed to be judged”, Józef Sigalin noted with concern: “he dangerously opposes the very principle of evaluating designs […] and theorising.” 

Certainly, Pniewski would agree with Leopold Tyrmand (also an architect, but not a practitioner), who considered discussions among members of the profession, typical of socialist realism, as an idle ritual. Tyrmand wrote in Diary 1954:

No one will take these comments into account. Most importantly, in such a discussion one can only attack details, while socialist realism in architecture must not be attacked, which makes the artistic land‑ scape of Warsaw a disgusting, tacky fair, dotted with cheap, glazed cakes.

Tyrmand was scathing about Pniewski: for stupid lackeys exploited by the communist regime, and eager for cheap flattery, such as Professor Bohdan Pniewski, such a ‘free, critical discussion’ is enough. It strengthens their need for approval,

However, the writer would change his mind if he knew the satirical poem cited by Marek Czapelski, which Pniewski created under the impact of one of the official celebrations after the exhibition:

Slowly, farting lightly, Augusts are entering Clearing throats, jingling their empty balls, a sorry sight

Their faces exuding confidence: The mouse will give birth to mountains

It hasn’t started yet, but one’s already contrite.

[…]

There will be no results from the conference as usual.

Why? It’s always like this when a bunch of prats

Enter your project, their designs so dumb,

But can’t give birth to anything, they now want to be a mum

Giving birth by proxy.

The architect never openly repudiated socialist realism, but he made quite bold judgments.

This was not meant to be published. However, during official meetings, too, Pniewski allowed himself, though more delicately, to point out that criticism, instead of inspiring architects, boiled down to ““cannonading’ at commissions and internal conventions”. He mentioned “good designs” distorted by “coshes of criticism”.

The architect never openly repudiated socialist realism, but he made quite bold judgments. For example, he called for formalism, functionalism, constructivism, and cosmopolitanism not to be blindly castigated:

“After all, architecture has always had, and will always have, its formal approach, will develop the functional system and will be governed by the laws of construction. Each of these elements has and will have its own distinct face in architecture and will be governed by objective laws,” he pointed out and argued that “when fighting constructivism, formalism, and functionalism, one should analyse what was and is creative in construction and form, and what should be rejected and why.” He was also very bold in pointing out that the rapid import of doctrine from the USSR prevented the evolutionary development of creative solutions and threw Polish architecture into the grip of submissive eclecticism: 

We were sitting in a well of sins of various “isms”, from where we were kindly withdrawn, with very little effort of our own. It must be said that it would have been better if we had clambered out of it ourselves. So the road to heaven was largely marked out for us, but on the way to heaven we fell into the river of a beautiful tradition, fragrant with works of national historic architecture. At the same time, we forgot that it is one thing to invoke the national form and extend it in architecture, that is to vigorously swim on, and another to tremble fearfully and cowardly in shallow water by the shore, that is to crawl in historicism and eclecticism, and these are the mistakes we made.

It seems that Pniewski is showing here the impatience of an artist who knows what contemporary national architecture is supposed to look like, because he has been occupied with nothing else for twenty years.

Although the scale of the investments in which Pniewski became involved placed him in the centre of interest, and potentially in the centre of detailed criticism, paradoxically it allowed him to create works that did not fully comply with the official doctrine. The design and construction of the capital’s flagship buildings took such a long time that they outlived socialist realism and Pniewski did not even have an opportunity to come up with a stylistically pure work of socialist realism.

The design of the Sejm ensamble was commissioned to Pniewski in 1947 and approved on 23 May 1949, a month before the seminal meeting of party architects. Later, there were attempts to modify the individual solutions slightly, but the construction was finished in 1953, without any major corrections. For example, the richly decorated risalit bringing out the entrance to the main courtyard was not created. The interiors, finished in white marble, devoid of propaganda accents, decorated with exquisite metalwork, with ceilings illuminated by invisible reflectors, had more in common with the splendour of the pre‑war seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Brühl Palace than with the Palace of Culture, built soon afterwards. The National Bank of Poland building also started to be designed before the advent of socialist realism. Thus, it was first historically modernised, and then, after the political liberalisation, simplified. The result was a hybrid – a monumental mass without historicising decoration. The chalice pillars à la Wright (similar ones appeared in the Sejm) inevitably come from the pre‑socialist realist period, metalwork and mosaics were designed after the liberalisation, while the pavilion of the operating theatre, built after Pniewski’s death, in the 1970s, received simple facades of glass and black aluminium.

The second key to Pniewski’s post‑war success was his character and attitude to life. Self‑confident, but also endowed with an instinct that unfailingly told him how far he could go, the architect did not immediately rush back to Warsaw after the war. After the uprising, he settled in Kielce and looked for job opportunities there, and only returned to the destroyed capital when he was sure that he was not a persona non grata.

In May 1945, he was appointed to the Approval College at the management of the Warsaw Reconstruction Office, but that was not yet what he was after – he needed a patron. He found him in the minister of communications Jerzy Rabanowski, who sent a letter to Kielce on 14 August:

My wish is to entrust you, Professor, with the function of advisor and expert of the Ministry in architectural matters. Should you look favourably on my proposal, please inform me when a car can be sent to Kielce to bring you to Warsaw and discuss the conditions of cooperation.

Pniewski accepts the proposal and gets down to work vigorously: he co‑authors the conditions of the competition for the Central Station in Warsaw, consults the projects of railway station reconstruction in Gdynia, Poznań, and Szczecin, and designs the seat of the ministry in the new “district of minis tries”, a skyscraper in Chałubińskiego Street, and then a large, ultimately not constructed, building of the railway management and other transport companies, in Aleje Jerozolimskie, vis‑à‑vis the planned station. The strong position of Pniewski is also confirmed by the fact that already on 1 October 1945 the minister gave him an official permission to use his car. Once the architect could afford to buy his own car, the ministry paid him for petrol (up to a certain, insufficient, limit).

In 1946, Tadeusz Dobrowolski, deputy director of the Polish Radio, asked for Pniewski’s services. After all, it was Pniewski who had designed the capital’s radio headquarters before the war, and how many people in Poland could boast such professional experience? The edifice was not built until the 1950s, but by regaining contact with the Polish radio, Pniewski got a foothold in another powerful institution. The next one was the National Bank of Poland (NBP). In 1948 Pniewski won the competition and signed a contract for the design of the NBP headquarters.

However, the architect was closest to the higher reaches of power in 1947, when he was entrusted with designing the extension of the Sejm building complex at Wiejska Street. Normally, Kazimierz Skórewicz, the pre‑war author of the Deputies House and the Assembly Hall, would probably have been entrusted with this work, but a serious illness made him unfit to work and the task was given to Pniewski, who took care of his bedridden friend. He corresponded with him, collected money for his treatment and fought for the publication of his book. The author of Skórewicz’s monograph Waldemar Baraniewski claimed that the doyen of

Polish architecture “treated him as his son. Pniewski, on the other hand, valued Skórewicz for his sense of cooperation with the government and his great architectural culture, attachment to a solid craftsmanship and attention to detail and finish.”

So in 1949, when socialist realism was decreed in Poland, Pniewski was already an irreplaceable man – the construction of the high‑rise of the Ministry of Transport was coming to an end, the project of the Sejm was approved, works on the National Bank of Poland were underway, and in the meantime the architect won the municipal competition for the development of Zwycięstwa (now Piłsudski) Square and was appointed by the Supreme Council for the Reconstruction of Warsaw as the “host” of this prestigious area. It was with him that architects and investors of individual buildings had to consult their intentions (unless it was Pniewski who designed them). 

“The architects are a clique of the best‑‑earning, car‑supplied people in Poland, with beautiful apartments and the right to travel abroad,” wrote the bitter Leopold Tyrmand in 1954. Meanwhile, in June 1950, Pniewski was among fourteen Polish designers who, at the invitation of the Union of Soviet Architects, visited Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Tbilisi, and Sochi, as well as Stalin’s birthplace in Gori. In the same year he won a design competition for the Grand Theatre, which allowed him to go on a one‑‑month study tour to Vienna, Milan, and Paris in spring 1953. The architect spent seventeen days in Paris alone. In the autumn of the same year, he consulted the design of the Moscow and Leningrad opera for almost a month. In Poland, he had open access to the “House of Creative Work” in the Nieborów Palace, where the elite of Warsaw’s intelligentsia used to come.

Pniewski managed to preserve not only his passport, but also a villa built in the 1930s in Na Skarpie Avenue. Although he had to take in a number of tenants, they occupied the last floor, accessed by a separate stairwell, so they were not very troublesome to him. More surprisingly, however, despite the complete nationalisation and collectivisation of architectural practice, just as before the war he worked with his team in a spacious room with a fireplace on the ground floor of the house. It was no longer a private studio, but a state‑owned Studio P 117 operating within the structure of the Central Office of Architectural and Construction Projects, but the territorial separation and immersion in his home space were of significant importance.

How did Pniewski manage to maintain this autonomy? It seems that he masterfully exploited the shortages of the first post‑war years for his benefit. In 1946, the Ministry of Communications co‑financed the renovation of the damaged villa and the equipment of the studio of its chief architectural expert. In the architect’s legacy, correspondence concerning the renovation of the electrical system, supply of lamps for desks, fuel, employment of a cleaner or a janitor, and the chauffeur’s uniform was preserved. Several designers delegated to work on the commissions for the Ministry of Communication held posts at the ministry. This was probably advantageous for both sides – the ministry, like other central institutions, suffered from a shortage of office space in the ruined capital (after all, Pniewski was only starting to design it), so it seemed rational to arrange some space in a relatively undamaged building. The architect had problems with proving that he did not use ministerial resources to work for other clients, but this arrangement continued even in the first half of the fifties.

 The spiteful Leopold Tyrmand made Pniewski into a disgusting opportunist, whose “skilful combination of coercion and bribery” turned him into an “obedient, satiated, content and mentally dull tool”. And yet, if one looks at the architect’s output

from those years, it is difficult to catch him on some unsavoury compromise. On the contrary, he persistently defended his vision of architecture. At the same time, he knew how to make it also his client’s vision.

He offered his clients not only proficiency in supervising large projects. He also enjoyed real respect for his talent. This was even emphasised by the authors of denunciations and neighbourly reports that I found in the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance. A man named Józef Mędrzycki wrote:

Citizen Pniewski Bogdan is a very capable man with a great architectural talent. He has a great knowledge of the history of architecture, especially of the Italian and Polish Renaissance. Therefore, he should be used as much as possible by fully employing him as a professor.

From the materials collected by the Security Office (secret police), an image of a man as troublesome as he is untouchable emerges. “Associated with a group of the most reactionary professors at the Faculty of Architecture […], opportunistic,” they wrote. There were attempts to do something about the fact that at the end of the war Pniewski maintained intensive contacts in Kielce with Bishop Czesław Kaczmarek, now accused of spying for the United States. To no avail. The nonchalance with which he treated his duties at the Faculty of Architecture and the prevailing ideological atmosphere there did not harm Pniewski either. Wincenty Szober reported that the professor, “probably as a result of personal misunderstand‑ ings, abstained for a long time from teaching, nominally heading the faculty, but transferring its actual management to assistant professor [Zbigniew] Karpiński.” Józef Mędrzycki, however, informed: “When asked why he did not conduct his teaching work, he expressed regret at the general lowering of the ideological level and stated that in these conditions his time and professional expertise were too valuable to be wasted in the faculty.” 

Perhaps like many other sought‑after architects he in fact preferred to design and build, and he needed the university for prestige and in order not to lose contact with talented young people. Why deal with a bureaucratic and ideological institution, when the Sejm, opera, bank, radio, archives, and ministries are on his drawing board? You pass into history owing to buildings rather than well‑run classes.

What’s worse, the great architect depraved his students ideologically. As Szober reported, “an Academic Circle was established at the faculty,” for which Pniewski “organised at his home some sort of lectures or talks, in a very popular form.” It is possible that the informant was misled, because one participant of these “clan‑destine sessions”, Andrzej Fajans, recalled the meetings taking place not in Pniewski’s house, but at the university, in room 126, which the professor booked for these purposes.

We were secretly bringing Architectural Design, reading L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, ridiculing Goldzamt’s Problemy dziedzictwa, we were passionate about Naum Gabo’stheories, we admired Brancusi, mournedthe execution of the Russian architectural avant‑garde, and studied the emergingworks of Mies van der Rohe, Gordon Bunshaft, Oskar Niemeyer, and

Corbusier with admiration recalled Fajans and added: “If it wasn’t for Bohdan Pniewski, who had the courage to take us in, we would probably have been fired from the university.”

It is interesting that although the professor himself was not fascinated by Bunshaft and Niemeyer, he looked favourably at the quest of his students. Just like before the war in his studio or at the Academy of Fine Arts, he created a court of young talented people around him, at the same time maintaining a lofty, autonomous position towards the rest of the community, as if letting it be understood that he was playing in a higher league.

“He considers himself to be the only man who knows architecture, and who is irreplaceable at the moment,” Józef Mędrzycki reported and said that the professor’s attitude was “full of ignorance of socialist realism. This man does not know Marxism‑‑Leninism and seems to ignore this science.” I imagine that if the professor had read this last sentence, he would have collapsed with his stentorian Sarmatian laughter.

A similar reaction would have probably met the opinion that he does not realise exactly that society is the paymaster at the moment and that

he should adapt and be guided in his work according by the demands made by that society. In such cases, professor Pniewski believes that the paymaster is again some minister or other influential person with whom one should seek protection and social relations that would result in a better commission.

 Did he make close friends with people from the heights of power? In one of the secret police notes you can find a remark that “professor Pniewski is an outstanding professional and one of the chief designers of the Warsaw construction, he has contacts in the K.C.P.Z.P.R. and representatives of the People’s Republic government.” “Contacts” need not mean intimacy, but Pniewski himself once took the opportunity to suggest that he had reciprocal sympathy and respect for the most important people in the regime: “I must say that I have met with substantive and true criticism only at the highest level of our state organisation. It was a creative and undoubtedly inspiring criticism. I had a moment of joy at the time, I sensed care and avid attention to the general cause,” he said in 1953.

I think that this was behind his victory, namely that he didn’t believe in the socialist realist cliché about the architect being com‑ missioned by society. The Minister of Communications trusted him, Pniewski had been friends for at least three decades with Jerzy Grabowski, then Secretary of the Supreme Council for the Reconstruction of Warsaw, and Bierut himself valued him – that was more important. As an experienced architect of the regime, he understood that the paymaster was still “some minister or other influential man” rather than an abstract society, and it all depended on whether one could convince, enchant, or outplay a particular person.

 Translated from the Polish by Tomasz Bieroń.