PRINT May 2017

Anna Kats


Poland is the future: The nationalist, extreme-right-wing Law and Justice Party swept to power there in October 2015, giving the rest of the world a glimpse of what happens when contemporary populism engulfs a nation and takes hold. This shift announced a crack in the postwar liberal European order, and the results have been as swift as they are terrifying: authoritarian efforts to rewrite the constitution, a draconian attempt to curtail reproductive rights, and the radical defunding of the arts. In this way, Poland can be seen as both a case study and a warning—portending the dire conditions of culture in the age of ultranationalism.

In the pages that follow, Artforum invited a group of distinguished contributors to reflect on art in Warsaw in this political climate. Joanna Mytkowska, director of the city’s Museum of Modern Art, examines the state of the capital’s cultural institutions; curator Natalia Sielewicz writes about advertising, propaganda, and spectacle in Warsaw’s urban spaces; and critic Anna Kats weighs in on architecture and the built environment under siege. Finally, artists Agnieszka Kurant, Monika Sosnowska, Piotr Uklański, and Artur Żmijewski discuss the ways in which the city’s changed circumstances affect their ideas now.

Central Warsaw, February 1945. Photo: Images Group/Rex/Shutterstock.

AMONG THE TRINKETS, Judaica, and topical literature for sale in the gift shop of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews is an altogether less conventional offering: a paper model of the city’s Palace of Culture and Science, rendered in blank heavyweight card stock. Visitors could be forgiven for finding this souvenir somewhat surprising—the building itself, a nearly eight-hundred-foot-tall skyscraper located a mile and a half away, in the Polish capital’s central square, was previously the most hated structure in Warsaw. Built in 1955 according to the High Stalinist design of Moscow architect Lev Rudnev, the cultural center—which includes sporting facilities, museums, cinemas, and theaters, as well as a parade ground—was meant to be the symbolic center of socialist power in Poland. This also made it a natural target for local opposition, and it was ridiculed during the ensuing thirty-some years of state socialism by Varsovians, many of whom viewed the structure as a kitschy emblem of Soviet colonial domination. Today, the Palace of Culture and Science has been drained of its ideological significance and rebranded as an architectural icon or civic symbol. The building now graces postcard panoramas and refrigerator magnets in tourist gift shops and airport stalls, its historical meaning adulterated by the incentive to profit from its image. The original structure remains state-owned, but private enterprises—a popular bar and brunch destination on the ground floor, a movie theater—rent space in its gilded environs. No longer reviled, the monumental edifice is now a marketable novelty.

Socialist architecture is omnipresent in the Polish capital, where buildings that outlive the political circumstances of their production are routinely commodified, bought, and sold, not merely repurposed or destroyed. The city was nearly obliterated by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945—85 percent of its prewar buildings were leveled during World War II. Built anew at a rapid clip by Communist architects and planners in the immediate aftermath of war, Warsaw bore little resemblance to its former self. In 1951, under Stalinist auspices, the city center was outfitted with wide boulevards and block-long Neoclassical residences built of limestone and marble. The Palace of Culture and Science, hailed in Soviet propaganda as a personal gift from Stalin to the Polish people, was the hallmark building of the era. When historicist architecture was denounced by Moscow in 1956 as part of a pervasive rejection of Stalinist ideology, modernism was installed as the official idiom of architecture and urban planning in Warsaw, much as it was in the Soviet Union.

Progressive Polish architects embraced modernism before the war and Soviet occupation, but the movement later became associated in public perception with the omnipresent construction endeavors of the socialist state.The eventual collapse of Polish socialism at the end of the 1980s and the transition to a free-market economy in the ensuing decade fostered a pervasive public apathy toward the architecture, material effects, and culture of socialism. As Poland adjusted to European neoliberalism, modernist patrimony from the years of state socialism met with negligence and demolition. During the past quarter-century of neoliberal democracy, the urban center of Warsaw has witnessed a proliferation of anodyne corporate office towers, built, ostensibly, to overshadow the Palace of Culture and Science and give the city a veneer of globalized cosmopolitanism. Yet the victory of the right-wing Law and Justice Party in federal elections in 2015 has jeopardized the architectural legacy of state socialism even more urgently: Modernist buildings are defaced and torn down on principle, as evidenced by the current demolition of PKO Rotunda, a 1969 pavilion in central Warsaw with an iconic circular plan and sawtooth steel roof that was popular as a meeting point for locals. Yet in opposition to the trenchant conservatism of federal politicians, Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz (earlier in her decadelong tenure a staunch supporter of development and business interests) has embraced a more activist-driven agenda with regard to architecture, urbanism, and preservation. Supported by the municipal government and driven by the conviction that public space is a bulwark against conservatism, a vanguard of critical design practices in Warsaw is reviving the civic sensibility of socialist-era modernism.

Among the most prominent studios working in this vein is Centrala, founded in 2001 and currently led by Małgorzata Kuciewicz, Jakub Szczęsny (who also practices on his own), and Italian expatriate Simone De Iacobis (who formally joined the practice in 2010). In 2009, the group renovated the lower-level pavilion of Warszawa Powiśle, a municipal railway station, located in the eponymous neighborhood on the Vistula, a formerly working-class area now populated by professionals. The split-level train station was designed in 1963 by Arseniusz Romanowicz and Piotr Szymaniak, who were responsible for some of the Polish capital’s most technically refined civic architecture. The station’s lower pavilion, a small, glass-wrapped waiting chamber capped by an impossibly thin, cantilevered concrete canopy, engendered intimacy and informality, asserting that public space should facilitate an egalitarian ethos rather than rigid order. After the Polish railway authority closed the lower-level structure in the early 1990s, the building languished in disuse.

Centrala recognized the original pavilion as an inclusive public space, a type of socialist relic now scarce in contemporary Warsaw. Their reevaluation of the modernist legacy is a reaction, in part, to the widespread perception that socialist architecture is monotonous, oppressive, or both. For the firm, the Powiśle pavilion disproved such reductive perceptions. But the railway had no plans to reopen the space—in the end, private investors hired the architects to build a bar and café with seating inside and around the former train terminal. Centrala preserved the concrete shell and typical socialist-era typography announcing the station’s name. In a way, they maintained the program, too, since this pavilion was also a commercial area, a point of sale for train tickets. Centrala’s project is a contradiction of sorts: It celebrates, and betrays palpable nostalgia for, the egalitarian design ethos of the socialist era. The café is popular with locals, and indeed the adaptive-reuse scheme appears especially successful on sunny afternoons, when the surrounding sidewalk is packed with patrons and lingering passersby. Yet the project also anesthetizes socialist heritage by putting its architecture in ready service of neoliberal leisure culture. Though the new business has reinstated the communitarian function of the pavilion and plaza, its success underscores the ways in which gentrification and postsocialist nostalgia function in concert to benefit private, not public, interests.

Keenly aware of the paradox inherent in projects like Warszawa Powiśle, Centrala has increasingly moved away from building as such. The three principals now speak of their work as experimental preservation rather than architecture; they also design and organize exhibitions, lecture widely, and produce historical research projects and publications that serve commemorative ends. They now rarely work on private commissions, preferring to devote their energy and creative resources to public interventions such as Square in the Pavilion, a temporary playground and urban space the studio set up to provide indoor recreational opportunities in the frigid winter months of early 2013. Built in the foyer of the building that then housed Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art, the installation transplanted leisure activities from a public park to the museum—dismantling the unspoken code of conduct in institutional space, much to the pleasure of teen skaters, schoolchildren, and other locals who wouldn’t typically have frequented the museum.

Centrala is currently developing an intervention in South Muranów, a housing-estate neighborhood near the city center. At first glance, its wide avenues, flanked by well-maintained apartment blocks and lawns, suggest little in the way of historical significance, betraying nothing of the neighborhood’s wholesale destruction by German troops, who subdued the Warsaw ghetto uprising on this territory in 1943. But closer inspection of Muranów’s landscape reveals idiosyncratic details that bespeak subtle affinities between the neighborhood’s present image and its history. Muranów was built out of the ghetto’s material detritus—architect Bohdan Lachert used the rubble that covered the vicinity on liberation as aggregate for concrete bricks, which in turn became the construction materials for his earliest housing blocks in the neighborhood, built between 1948 and 1950. The following year, the neighborhood’s brick facades were plastered over and fitted with Neoclassical ornamentation on orders from the newly installed Stalinist government; Lachert, who felt that the updated facades compromised his design beyond salvation, left his position as chief architect in Muranów immediately thereafter. His facades remain obscured to this day.

In its quest to recover Warsaw’s historical substrate, Centrala petitioned the municipality to uncover one Lachert facade and thereby expose the neighborhood’s historical identity to residents and visitors. Municipal officials, though sympathetic to the idea, felt there was nothing they could do: The residential buildings in question were privatized in 1989, and as such were owned by the tenants of individual apartments. The preservation office was clueless about who owned the facades—in all likelihood, they acknowledged, nobody else had ever asked. Having exhausted the possibilities of bureaucratic procedure, Centrala has taken a more grassroots approach to their goal: The principals lecture about Lachert, approach individual owners in the hope of reaching a consensus to remove the plaster, and opened a grass-covered mound to show locals where Lachert piled rubble left over from the ghetto. The Muranów endeavor has already proved a modest success, in no small part because, unlike Warszawa Powiśle, it remains a generative idea—as an ongoing process to build consensus and public awareness, it has no inherent pecuniary value.

Other critically minded architects in Warsaw share Centrala’s preoccupation with public space and the socialist architectural legacy, but differ in method: They build, often designing cultural projects or public infrastructure for the municipality. Centrala is an exception—that they don’t produce new buildings or civic space is perhaps a small price to pay for a degree of independence from the economic imperatives of real estate development and commodity culture.

Anna Kats is a writer based in New York and a curatorial assistant in the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art.