Great Polish architect and pedagogue. Collaborator of Le Corbusier, professor of Harvard University and head of its Faculty of Architecture in the years 1967-1974. One of the most important creators of Polish modernism.
Sołtan’s ties to modernism are not only formal, they’re also ideological. The strive to merge various art disciplines, an interest in technique and science, an emphasis on the social character of the architectural design, these are aspects of an approach that Sołtan adopted from Le Corbusier’s Parisian workshop. Sołtan’s modernity however doesn’t entail, as is the case with many other architects, the use of a fixed, known repertoire of forms. The forms are always adjusted to fit the task assigned to the architect. That is why in Sołtan’s work one may find both clear, logical, geometrized solids (as in the case of the Warsaw Bar Wenecja [Venice Bar]) and subtle references to old architecture (for instance to medieval times in the case of the School in Salem in the USA) and to regional country buildings (The Narva Family Villa in Laconia, New Hampshire, which was built in 1968).
He was born on the 6th of March 1913 in Prezma in Latvia, he died on the 16th of September 2005 in Boston. In 1935 he completed his studies at the Faculty of Architecture of the Warsaw University of Technology. After serving one year in the army, he participated in numerous architectural competitions. Despite winning a few of them none of the projects he submitted were realized. Later he began to work as one of the main collaborators at Rudolf Świerczyński’s design bureau.
In 1939 he participated in the September campaign and became a prisoner of war. In the years 1940-1945 he remained detained in the Oflag in Murnau. This time proved to be important to the upcoming artistic path of Sołtan – many intellectuals and artists were held captive at the camp. One of them was Soltan’s prospective collaborator – Zbigniew Ilhnatowicz. In that period Soltan also participated (together with Ihnatowicz) in two international architectural competitions for prisoners of war, which he both won. At the same time the Polish architect began corresponding with Le Corbusier.
After leaving the camp in 1945 Sołtan went to Paris. He was granted a position at Le Corbusier’s atelier, where he worked amongst others on Modulor. In the years 1948-1949 he was an assistant at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts.
Designs for Warsaw
In 1949 he moved to Warsaw, where he became a professor at the local Academy of Fine Arts. Since 1950 he acted as head of the Faculty of Architecture. In 1951 he prepared (together with Oskar Hansen) an unrealized, visionary design of the interiors of the buildings at the horse racetrack in the Służewiec district. The same year Sołtan also finished working (together with Zbigniew Ihnatowicz and Włodzimierz Wittek) on another unrealized project – a design of working-class, terraced houses. Before the year was over Sołtan (assisted by Ihnatowicz) came up with a proposition of standard furnishings for nurseries which comprised of furniture and toys. In 1953 Sołtan alongside Ihnatowicz and Jerzy Hryniewiecki participated in the competition for the 10th Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw, which was eventually won by other architects.
In 1954 the architect from Premza together with Ihnatowicz, Franciszek Strynkiewicz and Wojciech Fangor, won the first prize in the competition for the design of the Sports Complex Warszawianka. The work on this realization inspired the creation of the Artistic-Research Institute (ARI) at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, which was founded at the initiative of Marian Wnuk, who at that time was rector of the academy. Sołtan and Ihnatowicz were the main designers at ARI and their most important collaborators were Oskar Hansen, Wojciech Fangor, Włodzimierz Wittek, Julian Pałka and Lech Tomaszewski. This group made up a very creative team that realized various works form the broadly understood field of design, which encompasses architecture, interior design and industrial design.
In the framework of ARI outstanding projects were created - their theoretic base consisted of the modernistic ideas that Sołtan and Ihnatowicz encountered in Paris. It is extremely hard to determine the authorship of the particular concepts and their elements – besides, that would be inconsistent with the Institute’s idea of joint work, which was always dear to the founding members. ARI’s most important works include the designs of Polish pavilions for international exhibitions. Here one ought to mention the design of the Polish pavilion for the Expo 58 in Brussels or Tropik/The Tropics (1954-1955) – a perfect example of a pavilion that was to be used in tropical countries. The latter project was realized at the International Fair in Damascus (1955).
The work on the Polish pavilion for Expo 58 commenced in 1956 and it was a clear example of the interdisciplinary activity of the Institute. The patulous, two-level construction had undulate sides that were a couple of hundred meters long. Rather than being a closed object the pavilion was an open space connected to its surroundings. The architecture was integrated with paintings (Wojciech Fangor’s and Jerzy Sołtan’s decorations), films (abstract pictures were to be screened inside) and music composed by Stanisław Skrowaczewski. The pavilion’s cover, which was designed by Lech Tomaszewski, had an open-worked structure. Thanks to this the vegetation on the spot of the construction was preserved and the structure itself gained a natural link to the local surroundings.
The Expo 58 pavilion in Brussels is one of the best examples of the holistic, integrative approach of the Institute to the shaping of man’s environment. In 1957 the team designed a second, more modest version of the pavilion. However neither variant was ever realized – despite winning the SARP and ZPAP awards they were both rejected by the authorities.
In 1959 the design of the Warsaw Bar Wenecja was created. In 1965 the construction of a department store with an office space and a bar was completed in Olsztyn. Both of these projects were realized in the framework of ARI. In the years 1960-1962 the team worked on the design of the interiors of the train station “Warszawa-Śródmieście”. The concept of this project was influenced not only by an artistic, integrative approach to designing, but also by an interest in phenomena linked to visual perception. The Prezma-born architect wrote that the station “was an attempt to manage the visual experiences of people who are moving fast”. Sołtan also dealt with sacred architecture, but his religious architectural projects were never realized. He designed for instance churches for Nowa Huta (1957) and Sochaczew (1958). Ihnatowicz and Jerzy Nowosielski collaborated with Sołtan on these two projects.
Work in the USA
In 1958 Sołtan accepted a proposition of holding guest lectures at Harvard University. In 1967 he moved to the USA and became director of the Faculty of Architecture at the abovementioned educational institution. The same year he founded, together with Albert Szabo, an architectural bureau in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which operated until 1970. In the framework of the bureau Sołtan dealt chiefly with designs of private villas. Since 1970 he was the main architectural consultant of the Boston agency Haldeman & Goransson, where he worked amongst others with Wacław Zalewski.
The most important projects made by Sołtan in the USA include such realized designs as the high school in Salem (1970-1975; together with Edward Lyons) and the Carney Academy building in New Bedford (1976, also with Lyons). The Polish architect’s designs of public utility objects, which were created for Haldeman & Goransson, were also noteworthy. Sołtan also participated in architectural and sculptural competitions and created conceptual designs (for instance the project of the development of the Parade Square in Warsaw, which was created in the years 1997-98).
In 1979 Sołtan retired, however he remained active as a pedagogue, giving lectures and leading seminars, also away from Harvard, until his death in 2005.
Apart from dealing with design, in the broad sense of the word, Sołtan also pursued sculpting (the theoretic concept of playing “Monuments”, which he used when he prepared designs of monuments for competitions), painting and graphic art. He also made numerous drawings, of which he thought as of important elements of his output.
Sołtan’s interest in contemporary technology influenced his activity in the field of industrial design. Even though he had some practical achievements as a designer (for instance the designs of furniture created for the 1954 competition for the interior of a contemporary apartment), his organizational activity seems to have been more important. Sołtan played a big part in the creation of the first structures of collaboration between designers and industry – he came up with the concept of hiring design consultants in the various economical governmental departments. Sołtan also co-created the Board of Industrial Design at the Council of Ministers. ARI on the other hand became an inspiration to create the Faculty of Industrial Design at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. Sołtan himself oversaw the creation of many classic Polish designs, he watched for instance over the making of the scooter “Osa” [“Wasp”].