Polish Women at the Drafting Table
What role did women play in the creation of modern architecture and city planning? Drawing on the book Architektki (Women Architects), we present six prominent Polish women architects, who made a significant impact in their field.
Barbara Brukalska (1899–1980) is one of the most important architects and avant-garde designers in Poland. She was also the first female professor to teach at the Warsaw University of Technology. She worked with the modernist group Praesens and was an ardent admirer of Le Corbusier.
Working with her husband Stanisław (also an architect), Brukalska implemented her idea of low-cost, practical architecture and design. Together, they designed a housing development in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw and a house at 8 Niegolewskiego Street (1927-28), which is considered the first avant-garde artefact in Poland.
After World War II, Barbara Brukalska focused on individual projects, expanding the House under the Eagles (1948–1950) and designing a housing development in Okęcie (1960), the Matysiak House in Warsaw (1956), a church in Troszyn ( 1956–1975) and in Sypniew (1971–1974).
Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak (born in 1920) is called an icon of post-war Wroclavian architecture. Her most well-known project is a housing development on Grunwaldzki Square often called Manhattan… or ‘the toilet seats.’ It was designed in cooperation with Zdzisław Kowalski and Włodzimierz Wasilewski. The development’s design comes from the late 1960s and is considered one of the best – and most controversial – architectural pieces of the time. The apartment blocks were inspired by the works of Le Corbusier. What’s most distinctive about them is the lack of angular, block-like forms (so popular at the time) as well as observation decks on the rooftops.
Grabowska-Hawrylak also co-designed the Kołłątaj (1955–58) and Gajowice (1960–68) housing developments, the House of the Scientist (1958–60) and primary school on Podwale Street (1957–59). Her own house on Kochanowskiego Street (co-designed with Maciej Hawrylak, 1978–84) won the House of the Year Award from the Stowarzyszenie Architektów Polskich (editor’s translation: Association of Polish Architects).
In 1929, when the winning design for the pavilion of the Polish General Exhibition in Poznań (which was supposed to show how Poland had prospered in its 10 years of independence) was announced, its designer was but a recent graduate of the Faculty of Architecture of the Warsaw University of Technology. Anatolia Hryniewiecka-Piotrowska had previously only done projects along with her fellow students and a residential housing unit for workers of the State Rifle Factory (designed together with her husband Roman Piotrowski).
Her Working Women’s Pavilion (1928–29) was built to show the activity of feminist organisations of the time – its form and the way it was equipped brought to mind a modern villa. In Kobiety-Architekti, Szymon Piotr Kubiak writes:
The house may have been directly inspired by the recently built ‘experimental house of foam concrete’ by Bohdan Lachert and Józef Szajnaca on Katowicka Street in Warsaw. Piotrowska, who wasn’t a stranger to the avant-garde groups such as Blok or Praesens, probably knew this style by heart. She also surely knew the theories and works of the leading master of the architectural school – Le Corbusier. (...) Although the domestication of ‘female issues’ at the Polish General Exhibition seems the exact opposite of how the feminist movement is understood today, it’s important to remember that was the prevailing way of presenting it at the time around the world.
Diana Reiter was one of the first female architects in Poland. She was born into a Jewish family in 1902 in Drohobycz, before leaving for Lviv to study. There, in 1927, she graduated from the Faculty of Architecture of the Lviv Polytechnic National University. Between 1928 and 1932, she worked at the Regional Directorate of Public Works in Kraków. In 1928, a design of hers’ alongside Z. Kowalski and A. Moscheni won third prize in a contest for the design of Jagiellonian Library’s new building.
Two of Reiter’s buildings still stand in Kraków today: one at 26 Beliny-Prażmowskiego Street (1933–35) and the other at 16 Pawlikowskiego Street (1937–39). Before she was relocated to the Kraków ghetto in 1941, she worked in the studio of Kazimierz Kulczyński. Her tragic death in the Płaszów concentration camp (ordered by Amon Goethe, co 1943) was recalled in several memoirs of Holocaust survivors as well as in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993).
Halina Skibniewska (1921–2011) was not only an architect and an urban planner but also a member of the Sejm under the communist regime and a Deputy Speaker of the Sejm (1971–85). After graduating from the Warsaw University of Technology, she began working at the Biuro Odbudowy Stolicy (editor’s translation: Warsaw Reconstruction Office), where she was part of the team working on the reconstruction of the National Theatre. At the same time, she was working in the studio of Romuald Gutt – one of the most prominent pre-war modernist architects.
She is the architect behind one of the most sought-after housing developments in Warsaw: Sady Żoliborskie (Żoliborz Orchards), where she used the greenery that surrounded it, the Szwoleżerów estate, where she placed ornaments from the ruins of historical buildings. A school in the Sadyba district (1971) is also one of her designs. She was also the first architect to design independent housing for the disabled.
Konrad Kucza-Kuczyński writes in Women in Architecture (editor’s translation):
The Żoliborz Orchards complex from 1958–1963 or the Szwoleżerów complex from 1974–1976, built in times of normative and financial restrictions are proof that despite the difficulties of that time, one could create things with a sense of ethical responsibility for the creation itself and the recipient, that were better than what was standard at the time.
Helena Syrkus (1900–1982) was a graduate of the Faculty of Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology, where she later taught as a professor. Together with her husband, Szymon, they developed the idea of industrialising the process of building residential housing. They designed housing developments in Rakowiec (1934–1938) and Koło in Warsaw as well as houses in Łódź, Marysin and Grudziądz. They also designed many villas and residential houses in which they used reinforced iron or concrete constructions which include houses on Jasiowa Street in Konstancin (Skolimów) in 1930, at 26 Katowicka Street in Warsaw (1936), in Sosnówka by Pińsk (1937) and on Jaworzyńska Street in Warsaw (1936–1937).
In 1959, Helena Sykrusowa began her work on the Tatary housing development in Lublin, which was later taken over by a group of architects. In 1976, she published Towards the Concept of the Social Housing Estate, a summary of her and her husband’s work.
Sources: Architektki, selected essays by Marta Leśniakowska, Rafał Ochęduszko, Marta A. Urbańska, Łukasz Wojciechowski, Barbara Zbroja, Szymon Piotr Kubiak, EMG Publishing House; sztetl.org.pl, sarp.warszawa.pl, kaiu.pan.pl, bryla.pl, culture.pl; originally written in Polish, 18 Feb 2017, translated by WF, 6 Mar 2017