Warsaw's Postmodern Revival
Bertoni's townhouse photographed by Czesław Olszewski in the 1930s
A series of new publications and a design-minded focus across art and architecture festivals proves that Poland is reaching back towards its modernist and postmodernist legacy with a newfound pride and a constructive vision for the future
As the capital of Poland, Warsaw has long stood as an example of the country's progress in terms of architectural design and technology. Its most influential period with regard to both came during the interwar period, when Poland finally regained its independence after 120 years as a non-entity and architecture was one of the ways in which the nation could establish a new identity for itself. The architects of the Warsaw School were inspired by the avant-garde trends that were charming Europe at the time. The minimalist forms of Modernism were given a character all their own, creating a very individual urban landscape for the city on the rise. While a great majority of the buildings built during this time were destroyed in the battles of World War II, certain original examples remain to attest to the grandeur of the past, such as the Prudential tower, completed in 1933, which was among the tallest and sturdiest buildings in Europe at the time. Images of these buildings as they were in the 1930s, along with evidence of those that eventually succumbed to the destruction of war, were preserved through the lens of Czesław Olszewski (1894-1969), one of Poland's most active photographers of architecture in design at the beginning of the 19th Century.
Warsaw's Raster Gallery, which also runs a publishing outfit, has published an album dedicated to Olszewski's archive of pre-war Warsaw. In Czesław Olszewski. Warsaw Modern. Architecture Photography of the 1930s the editors have singled out 300 images out of thousands of original negatives of architectural structures in Warsaw - residential buildings and villas, highways and hospitals, military quarters and post offices. The result is a quality hardcover collection of Warsaw's swift architectural evolution. According to the publishers, the album is an attempt to revive the integrity of the Warsaw Architecture School of the interwar period, as well as a narrative of the visionary modernist perspective and the new spatial order.
Wojciech Jarząbek, Edward Lach: Al Othman Center (Kuwait, 1980s). Photo by Wojciech Jarząbek, 1990s
The Bęc Zmiana Art Foundation is also paying tribute to the next era in Poland's modernist and postmodernist track with the publication of Postmodernism is Almost All Right. Polish Architecture after Socialist Globalization. Following the devastation of World War II, Poland's architects built the city back up from its ruins through the 1950s and '60s, most of those efforts focused on reconstruction, namely the replication of structures that had existed before the war. There were also a number of independent projects that attempted to revive the modernist current, mainly residential projects that rushed to house all the displaced residents of Poland's battered cities. The architects who'd honed their skills in Poland found more profitable commissions in the Middle East. This rather surprising connection with the east is the subject of the publication, replete with images of the most intriguing urban design projects in cities like Baghdad, Aleppo, Kabul, Damascus Tehran throughout the 1970s. Architects such as Wojciech Jarząbek, Jerzy Bogusław, Tomasz Lechowski, Andrzej Bzdęga, Mieszko B. Niedzwiecki, Zdzisława Daczkowska, Marek Dunikowski and Stefan Kuryłowicz formed the export community of urban planners and architects that Poland's state-owned company offered to the region. Upon their return, they adopted many of the architectural and technological solutions available to the global market back home, providing Warsaw and Kraków with a singular vision for post-modern churches, homes and offices in the 1990s and early 2000s. As the book's editor, critic and scholar Łukasz Stanek writes,
it was the experience of working in the Middle East and Africa that furnished many Polish architects with testing grounds for new ideas. They included a search for urbanity by a reference to historical precedents, from the casbah to the 19th century European block; the redefinition of architectural practice as the production of images rather than of spaces; and the recourse to established visual and behavioral patterns - topics which became decisive for architecture in Poland after socialism.
While there is no shortage of critics eager to complain about modernism's unconventional (with regard to a broader historical scope) aesthetics and Poland's haphazard urban planning schemes, the merits of the nation's design legacy is being revived by a younger generation of experts and scholars, giving way to such mainstream events as the annual Warsaw Under Construction festival - an extended series of exhibitions, lectures and workshops on the city's postmodern legacy. This year's theme is "City for Sale", which places the focus on advertising and billboards as an architectural element of the city. The main exhibition, designed by the WWAA studio, presents more than 400 objects, supplemented with multimedia projections and 3D animations that weave an intricate narrative of metropolitan commerce and ideology. The lectures and workshops engage in the public in weighing various perspectives on the city, commerce, advertising, art and architecture for both kids and adults.
Tomasz Fudala's essay on the main City for Sale exhibition reviews the role of advertising throughout the 19th century and wraps with an assessment of Warsaw after the toppling of communism,
In the 1990’s, Warsaw's streets changed beyond recognition. Old neon signs and murals were destroyed, though the occasional ones still stick out from between new buildings. Along with freedom, consumption also returned to everyday life. The functions of the traditionally-conceived urban space were gradually taken over by shopping centres (with the first one opening in 1993), which nonetheless mimic familiar shopping street patterns and try to artificially create an urban character (by organizing exhibitions, "festivals" and other similar events) with a view to attracting customers.
The streets, meanwhile, were hit by a tidal wave of large format advertising. This feature sometimes gets a stronger reaction from visitors than the capital's tourist attractions. It represents an unresolved problem: there is a lack of uniform legislation, while the laws that do exist are not enforced, with outdoor advertising companies managing to bypass them effectively.
The festival is held in one of postmodernism's most iconic buildings - the former Emilia furniture shop-turned-Museum of Modern Art, which was chosen to house this vibrant art institution in the wake of plans for a brand-new museum designed by Christian Kerez falling through earlier this year.
Warsaw under Construction takes place between the 12th of October - 9th of December. For more information, see: 2012.warszawawbudowie.pl
Find out more on Czesław Olszewski. Warsaw Modern. Architecture Photography of the 1930s at www.raster.art.pl
Find out more on Postmodernism is Almost All Right at www.gandalf.com.pl
Author: Agnieszka Le Nart, October 2012