Lampoon Poland – ad vocem Mark Magazine #42


Polish architecture consists in historicizing churches and historical museums, it is the last mainstay of European postmodernism – all in line with the stereotype of the Catholic, backward and conservative state. Such an image of Polish architecture is drawn in the last issue of Mark Magazine (# 42). Having read Hubert Trammer’s article, we wonder if it is the same Poland we are actually living in?

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Following a comprehensive presentation of Polish architecture in Mark Magazine (#42, February/March), and specifically the article entitled “Polish Architecture in Transition” written by Hubert Trammer, we felt obliged to present a counter-opinion, since, it is our point of view that this article builds a false image of contemporary architecture in Poland. On the one hand, we have the very cover of Mark Magazine which announces a “Polish issue” by presenting the Auto-family House, a great project by the KWK Promes architectural office, which is, further on, elaborated on in a full, comprehensive article. On the other hand, however, we have a seemingly all-embracing but chaotic text by Trammer about Poland, which we must object to! In the article, the author builds an oddly misshapen image, filtered though his conservative views on architecture. We are wondering, why it was Trammer, a young architect and educator, who was invited to white this article, since he is most known for his “technical” texts, rather than analytical, critical articles, which, unfortunately, reflects in his text for Mark Magazine. We respect Hubert Trammer for his professional activity, his didactic work, for breathing new life into the Faculty of Architecture in Lublin, and for his accurate texts, but we discard his texts describing building, devoid of any analytical or critical approach.

What is our biggest objection to Trammer’s article then? It is the fact that he focuses on niche phenomena and designers whose professional success is past tense; in his text, he puts them on the pedestal, as if they, in fact, set the direction for Polish architecture. At the same time, he tends to ignore the architectural offices or projects which prove to be the most representative for contemporary architecture in Poland. What is more, the image of Polish architecture seems to be distorted by the author’s personal, very conservative outlook, hence de devotes so much attention to churches or museums built as an element of right-wing party policies.

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The main bulk of the article is devoted to a ranking of architects. In the author’s opinion, the best Polish architect is Marek Budzyński, and that is because: “other architects generally look up to him for his spectacular roof gardens and vibrant common spaces”. True, the 1999 University of Warsaw Library is the first Polish public building with a roof garden, which students and Warsaw residents love – we have to pay Budzyński respect for that. He designed a nice place for studying or spending quality time. However, the architecture of the library was archaic and wordy, overfilled with detail and quotations from the past, already at commissioning. Then, Budzyński’s latest piece – the Białystok Opera House, finished in 2012 – is a spectacular and overwhelmingly expensive failure. It is a Hibernatus, woken up after having slept for 20 years – this is how out-of-date this project is. Yet again, we have a roof garden and symbolism galore. The whole, however, appears to be a discord of forms, an architectural amusement park. Budzyński is undeniably an important figure in Polish architecture, the one, however, with the post- prefix. It is without any doubt that he is not the best Polish architect – he is out-of-date and will probably not change his creative path, which is becoming increasingly separated from the present reality.

According to Trammer, second place should be given to the KWK Promes architectural office headed by Robert Konieczny. We fully agree here, Konieczny is one of few top Polish architects, praise should be given to him for the intellectual ferment he causes with his projects, and ultimately, for being bold and open to experiments.

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Third place is given to architects associated in the Centrala studio. The problem is that this studio has no major projects to account for! Yes, they make exhibitions and installations, however, they have not built anything yet. MARK featured a studio apartment design by one of Centrala’s architects – Kuba Szczęsny, but what is it that is actually interesting in it – the pistachio floor paint? Their latest project – The Keret House – was widely commented on due to its…size. It was named the narrowest house of the world. Mark has dedicated a separate article to it. Yet again, this is a project of secondary importance to Polish architecture. Just to be clear, the Keret House is an interesting project, raising a voice in a discussion on the development of a plethora of gaps in the urban tissue. Plus a dialogue with the history of its location – the former Warsaw Ghetto – gives the project some spice. However, all in all, the Keret House is not an epoch-making piece, and devoting as much attention to it as to the Auto-Family House clearly distorts the hierarchy of importance.

The next architect receiving Trammer’s accolade is Stanisław Niemczyk. True, this is a neutral artist who generally builds churches in small parishes, always in cooperation with their members. His buildings are contextual, local, but also very historicizing. Niemczyk is sometimes called the Polish Gaudi, since his buildings are filled with unusual details, which are the reflections of their author’s amazing imagination. But yet again, it is an architect who belongs to a completely different phenomenon, who does not make Polish architecture. He seems to be operating outside of time – although he designs universal, metaphysical buildings, they are still very insignificant. His incredible sensitivity to material could predispose him to being an artist of comparable esteem to Peter Zumhor. Unfortunately, he seems to squander his talent and sensuality, disseminating it through a variety of details, symbols he cannot actually translate into the modern language. All of this sentences him to being consistently marginalized. Niemczyk is one of those architects we esteem greatly – for his consistency, charisma, spirituality. However, he will always be situated outside the mainstream of architecture, somewhere near postmodernism or historicism.

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Following Niemczyk we have the Warsaw-based JEMS Architekci studio. For us, next to Konieczny, this is the no. 1 phenomenon in Poland. For Trammer, however, they are mere high-quality office building designers. We are aware that, within the capacity of the article, the author could not describe all the designers in detail. However, providing only one photograph of their least important housing project in Warsaw distorts the image yet again. JEMS is a studio which worked up their own language, which has created sophisticated buildings, which, irrespective of their functions, share a clear structure and unusual spatial solutions. Warsaw’s Agora building, the residence of a Polish media potentate, is, up to this day, one of the biggest achievements in user-friendly, individualized office space in the country. It is the first building where open space is not only horizontal, but also vertical – using a system of clearances, atriums with gardens located at many levels.

After JEMS, Trammer placed Romuald Loegler, a renowned Kraków-based architect. The author enumerates his achievements: The Kraków Architecture Biennale (he forgot to mention that it is a dying event, actually a triennale at the moment, with zero position in the country, not to mention the international scale), establishment of “Architektura & Biznes” monthly, which is one of several significant magazines on the market. We agree with the author’s statement that “views on Loegler’s projects are radically different”. For us, however, it is a suave approach to the accomplishments of this architect who, though enjoys an undisputed position in Kraków, is an example of a megalomaniac, whose talent falls short in the face of his narcissistic, artistic ego.  He is the author of the mess-of-a-building – the Kraków Opera House (which had to undergo thorough renovation soon after its grand opening, since the author designed too few escape routes for the audience), which looks more like a suburban office building than an important cultural building, and the Lodz Philharmonic, cursed by the musicians for its disastrous acoustics (walls in the house were granite-tiled, which makes the sound echo off like in a gigantic bathroom). Again, this is an artist verging on modernism, but loving his play with form, which also places him near postmodernism.

Only after Loegler does Trammer place Stefan Kuryłowicz who died in an airplane crash in 2011. The author claims that Kuryłowicz was criticized for “being more of a businessman than an architect”. In contrast, we dare to think that it was his commercial success that made Kuryłowicz an unequaled example for Polish architects, teaching them how to conduct an architectural studio, developing it to be a solid, reliable corporation. Had he any enemies, it was out of envy. In fact, he was one of the most important post-1989 architects in Poland. Many of his designs – their metropolitan chic, their ultra-high technological quality – place him in the hi-tech trend, which is a rare phenomenon in Poland, usually due to limited investment budgets.

Trammer’s ranking is closed by other studios and architects, but we would like to focus on some of the author’s maxims here. For instance, he attributes the blame for urban sprawl to the fact that building a house in the suburbs is cheaper than purchasing an apartment in the city. He seems to forget that this is normal all around the world! What he passes over in silence are actual problems in Poland – no local land development plans, no urban development strategies, which results in the development of urban areas being random, erratic, resembling a capitalist game, in which developers build whatever they want wherever they want. He also skips one of the biggest problems of Polish architecture, which is the faulty public procurement act. In Poland, the majority of public buildings are erected through public procurement, in which the decisive factor is the price of the investment (in accordance with a misinterpreted idea of “prudence”). In result, a typical Polish school or official building is ill-designed!

However, what we find the most amusing is the fragment, in which the author indicates a turning point in the history of contemporary Polish architecture, namely the 2004 opening of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. We should add that architecture-wise, this building is not interesting, more like a correct adaptation of the former power house for the purposes of the museum. The author declares this project a grand political accomplishment of Lech Kaczyński – the city president (later on elected the President of Poland, killed in the 2010 air crash) and tries to convince us that this building and institution had “great impact on our social life”. Unfortunately, the author ignores the fact that the museum was promoted by a right-wing, conservative politician, considered the worst Polish President after 1989, that the museum was supposed to be included in a historical museum trail (Museum of the History of Poland and the Museum of Polish Army – unrealized until this day), which was to serve the political purposes of right-wing groups. He omits the fact that Warsaw still has no Museum of Modern Art building (the scandalous circumstances of the city council terminating contract with Christian Kerez who won the competition for the best design), since Warsaw officials prefer to build historical museums or populist stadiums than buildings devoted to art, which is usually critical to authority.

Trammer also mentions organizations which have a chance of improving the way Polish public space looks. He lists minor, again very local and grassroots initiatives. All of them are indeed doing a great job: for instance the Miasto Moje a w Nim Association, which fights aggressive advertisements in city space, which are a true plague in Poland. Unfortunately, the author skips organizations which have considerable impact on architecture and the environment – such as the Chamber of Architects or the Association of Polish Architects, the oldest professional organization in Poland, established 1934, which is concerned with the promotion of Polish architects and their projects, which organizes competitions and exhibitions, publishes books and the ARCH bimonthly. The author does not mention events having great critical impact and contributing to the popularization of architecture, for instance the Warsaw under Construction festival dedicated to urban space, or the international Alternativa festival dedicated primarily to visual arts, but, thanks to the context of the place it is situated in (the former Gdańsk Shipyard), undertaking architecture-related aspects.

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The image of Polish architecture created in Mark Magazine is completed with a map of Poland with the most important architects marked on it. The map strikes us with blanks in the West and in the North-East. It is true, Poland is very centralized. The majority of designs are created in the capital city, where the biggest architectural studios work. However, we expect more from a publication aspiring for serving as an objective and comprehensive overview of the condition of Polish architecture. Trammer created a map according to his key. However, the map has nothing to do with reality! The author has committed a fallacy by elevating niche architects, usually the representatives of dying postmodernism, who are more suited for a museum of oddities than to represent Polish architecture on the international arena. On the other hand, the author completely ignores progressive designers, seeking new solutions, setting new directions for Polish architecture, building contemporary Poland.

What the map is missing are architects from Wrocław – Roman Rutkowski and Tomasz Głowacki, the authors of interesting family houses. The latter is also the designer of the recently finished Wrocław Academy of Fine Arts building – a fully-glazed, raw, minimalist structure, opposing the luster of other university buildings erected today. What is also missing is the KameleonLab office, headed by Kuba Woźniczka and Rafał Specylak. Their portfolio includes several bold housing projects, including the most well-known modernization of the so-called Polish cube of the 60’s. Moreover, Trammer skips several Warsaw studios which, though not very experimental, still represent highest quality architecture. These are, for instance, Grupa 5, the authors of the reconstruction of the Wrocław railway station, in which they managed to create true public space, which is Poland’s Achilles’ heel; this is also the ARE studio, the designers of the Lublin Airport terminal, in which, despite formal limitations, they managed to create an interesting, iconic form. In Katowice, we have Tomasz Kanior who is becoming Poland’s leading specialist in music buildings. He is currently building the biggest concert hall in the country, the new office for the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. Trammer also ignores two major architecture offices from Kraków: Ingarden & Ewý – the authors of the Małopolska Garden of the Arts (although, for us, the building is a bit too decorative, the studio can boast of many interesting projects, such as the Polish Embassy in Japan), and the Lewicki & Łatak studio – the designers of the Bohaterów Getta Square in Kraków or the interesting Corte Verona housing estate in Wrocław. Trammer does not mention any promising architectural offices – those which won major architectural competitions, such as the nsMoonStudio and Stanisław Deńko; they are currently building the Tadeusz Kantor museum, which is suspended in air. Yet another promising studio Trammer skips is the Kwadrat Studio from the Tricity. It is currently preparing for the realization of their competition entry design for the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, which is shaping up to be most “iconic” museum building in Poland. Our history of museum buildings is filled with simple, even minimalist projects. In contrast, this building may meet our demand for spectacular icons! Last but not least, the map is missing a whole lot of young architects – such as Aleksandra Wasilkowska, Jacek Krych, Bartosz Haduch, 137 Kilo and many others.

Poland is a white spot of the map of world architecture. Very few architecture critics representing major publishing houses travel here. Moreover, we can count the buildings by Polish architects in the Phaidon Atlas on the fingers of one hand. No wonder any major international publication devoted to Polish architecture is received here with hope for a breakthrough. Unfortunately, the article featured in Mark Magazine will not change anything. We will continue to be a white spot, or possibly a place of peculiarities and oddities, where houses are built in apertures, and churches – incessantly in the Romanesque style.

However, as explicitly indicated in the article, the biggest problem of Polish architecture is the total lack of local architectural criticism. Not only are there no people to provide critique – there is no such profession as architectural critic in Poland (criticism is usually performed by professional architects, which, ultimately, ties their hands), there are no periodicals bold enough to publish firm, critical texts; writing is still underpaid and thus may only be a side-activity. Polish magazines propagate reciprocal indulgence. If any, criticism is performed by independent critics.

We are glad we can present our point of view, but we can already see the storm we will stir in Poland for expressing our ideas. We will not, however, sit and stare at the image of Poland that is being promoted – Poland being the last mainstay of postmodernism!


Architecture Snob

źródło zdjęć: frameweb.com; konieczny.natemat.pl