“Made in… national architecture?” – WESTIVAL Art of Architecture

WESTIVAL Made in… – national architecture? will be an attempt at defining national architecture, in its universal sense, using the context of Poland and Szczecin as the point of departure. We will also try to define Polish architecture, its features, (its style?), its desires and its sense of existence. Perhaps we don’t actually need “Polish architecture”?

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We wish for WESTIVAL to become the point of departure for research on national architectures, to serve as a forum for the exchange of ideas on the most important issues regarding architecture. We believe that “nationality” in architecture is one of the key factors in our return to the world of value. As Koolhaas wrote in his opening statement: The transition to what seems like a universal architectural language is a more complex process than we typically recognize, involving significant encounters between cultures, technical inventions and imperceptible ways of remaining “national.” In a time of ubiquitous google research and the flattening of cultural memory, it is crucial for the future of architecture to resurrect and expose these narratives.

The question of identity is one of the most fundamental ones we have to ask ourselves today, particularly in crisis situations, when value systems collapse or fade away. We are now going through a turning point in our history, a point where the entire world begins to question its identity. Who am I, asks a rapidly growing crowd of entities lost in this postmodern, atomized world. Who are we, ask nations melting away in an ocean of global processes. Entangled in this network is architecture, a survivor of 19th-century revolutions, -isms, tempted by following ideologies. Likewise, architecture is facing the fundamental question of identity, particularly in the national context. Following the success of the international style, modernism’s global march of victory, as well as overwhelming global technologies or unified construction techniques introduced by international corporations, or ubiquitous exchange of information and permanent implementation of alien elements, is there any room left for national architecture?

In 1914, it made sense to talk about a “Chinese” architecture, a “Swiss” architecture, an “Indian” architecture. One hundred years later, under the influence of wars, diverse political regimes, different states of development, national and international architectural movements, individual talents, friendships, random personal trajectories and technological developments, architectures that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global. National identity has seemingly been sacrificed to modernity – wrote Rem Koolhaas, the chief curator of the 14th edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale, in his opening statement.

In Poland, questions of national architecture have a bitter overtone, basing on our dramatic history and permanent interruptions in the continuity of development. It is a history of struggle for own identity, against the influences of annexationists, occupiers, imposing foreign styles onto our lands.

After 20 years of long-awaited freedom, Polish national architecture evokes only negative associations – with pseudo-manor lodges mushrooming in constantly dissolving cities, with sidewalks made of the same cobblestone everywhere, with concrete fences ornamented with baroque rocaille, with ubiquitous advertisements, and, last but not least, with spatial chaos and public spaces appropriated by private developers. We are witnessing the triumph of the “Slavic soul”, manifested through ill-understood freedom to “do what ya want” as well as the nouveau riche “keeping up with the Joneses”. Polish architecture is dominated by “copy-paste” design basing on duplicates of solutions we have already seen in the mythical West.

In her drama titled Między nami dobrze jest, Dorota Masłowska uses one of her protagonists to make a shocking diagnosis: Everyone knows Poland is a stupid country, poor and ugly. Ugly architecture, dark weather, low temperature, even the animals have all gone away, hiding in the forests. Bad programs in TV, unfunny jokes, the president is still looking like a potato and the prime minister like a marrow squash. The prime minister looks like a marrow squash and the president – like the prime minister. In France, there is France, in America – America, in Germany, there is Germany, and even in the Czech there is the Czech. Poland is only in Poland.

Polishness is something to be embarrassed about. Patriotism was appropriated by one part of the political arena, which makes building our national identity even harder. Poles seem to be unifying only in their disappointment with Poland, in shared frustration arising from … the fact of being Polish. How do we build our identity then?

You don’t have any roots…, only a spiritual pseudopodium, like an amoeba. You’ll use it to stick to a surface for a while – says a friend to one of the protagonists of Women by Joanna Bator.

Our roots are so poor that I dare ask: Who are we then? What is Polish architecture? Does a thing like Polish architecture even exist?

We are in desperate need of a distinguishable style, i.e. in architecture and pattern design, which would reflect our best traditions. A style which will associate bravery and freedom, openness to modernity and which will represent Poland in the world – said Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs opening the 1st Infrastructural Conference of the Ministry in April, 2013.

In the context of Szczecin – or Stetin, Stetyn, Stitin, Stitinum, Stitina, Stetin, Stitti, Stettin, to use its other names, the question of national architecture takes on a deeper meaning. Szczecin, a Polish city since 1945, located within German borders before the war, was once under the occupation of Sweden, France, and Russia. It was also reigned by the first Polish sovereigns, but that was a thousand years ago. Szczecin is a city which is particularly struggling with the question of identity. It stands at the meeting point of several nations. It is constantly growing new layers on top of old ones, as if its residents were putting new layers of paint onto one and the same painting, trying to create an image of themselves, build a coherent mythology and history. In Szczecin, the entire society was replaced in an instant. Inflowing Polish communities marked their presence by replacing German names with Polish ones having Slavic connotations, sanctioning the Polish character of this city. In result, we have a beautiful urban layout, Prussian edifices, stately German buildings – and among them prefabricated blocks of flats, new shopping arcades. Where does German architecture cease? Where does Polish architecture start? Is the temporal factor the determining one? Or, perhaps, the borders are just in our heads?