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Wacław Zalewski

Wacław Zalewski, photo: press materials
Wacław Zalewski, photo: press materials 

Distinguished Polish constructor. Born 25 August 1917 in Samhorodok (Ukraine), died 29 December 2016 in Boston, USA. He is responsible for several iconic buildings, such as Spodek in Katowice, or Torwar hall in Warsaw, as well as now, unfortunately non-existent Supersam in Warsaw and train station in Katowice.

Wacław Zalewski was born in 1917, and already before the war has begun studying at Civil engineering department of Warsaw University of Technology, however ha graduated only after the war from Gdańsk University of Technology. From the early 1960s he worked both as a construction engineer and as a lecturer in Warsaw University of Technology.

His diligence was almost proverbial, and his mathematical skills unmatched. He could easily calculate complicated equations without the use of calculators, for example exponentiate four-digit numbers. However, he himself held his intuition and imagination much higher than mathematical skills. According to Tadeusz Barucki, Zalewski claimed that precise mathematical calculations are not the key point in any project, but the feeling, instincts and sensibility. As he said in an interview for Architektura – Murator magazine:

Engineering isn’t science, it’s a productive work that uses science. An engineer makes approximate decisions, operates on non-precise values, that’s why you need your unscientific intuitions. At scientific seminars you wonder about the temperature needed for concrete to solidify, not about how to get to students.

It may be this kind of ‘artistic’ attitude that enabled him to cooperate well with architects, even in darkest of times. That was the case when the construction of Spodek was halted, due to fears of it being unsafe and unstable, just impossible to be realised in the designed form. Luckily, the authors of the project managed to prove that the hall is well designed.

Sports hall "Spodek", 1972, photo: Zbyszko Siemaszko / Forum
Sports hall "Spodek", 1972, photo: Zbyszko Siemaszko / Forum

In 1962 he left Poland for Venezuela, where he lectured on Universidad de los Andres in Merida, as well as worked as a consultant for Ministry of Civil Labour. He also realised several projects there, such as sports hall in Maracaibo, which is quite a distinctive one, with suspended concrete tribunes and a decorative rooftop on steel frame. He produced some more buildings for academic purposes, sports halls, as well as, as late as in 1992, a project for the Venezuela Pavilion for Seville Expo.

In 1966 he was offered a place as a lecturer on MIT, the best technical university in the world. His achievements were widely known and appreciated there. He worked there until his retirement in 1988, but even after that he was remembered there as ‘one of the most innovative and influential contemporary constructors’. He was responsible for shaping and teaching numerous engineers and constructors.

Construction engineers are often forgotten in the history of architecture. We remember architects – we can find their names everywhere, along with their most famous buildings. We tend to ignore the fact, that most of these structures wouldn’t exist were it not for the constructors, who also often have the final say in the outcome and final structure of the building.

Let’s take the aforementioned Spodek. In every encyclopaedia we can read that the futuristic design is the work of a team of architects working under Maciej Gintowt and Maciej Krasiński, however Wacław Zalewski and his impact on the outcome is nowhere to be found. This amazing structure is not only the work of visionary architects, but also result of appropriating the project to devastated, post-mining terrain.

The story is quite similar with Warsaw Supersam. The extraordinary thing about the building was its huge, wavy roof, suspended without any supports over the whole building. It’s all Zalewski’s work, he worked out a system of cross-beams, which push the structure up, and lines that clutch the roof, making the structure more resistant. Thanks to the system, the roof looked very light and didn’t overwhelm the glass-fitted pavilion. Unfortunately, Supersam was demolished in 2006 in order to make room for a skyscraper. The demolition was carried on despite many opposing voices, some as important as from the professors from the MIT.

View of the southern side of the Supersam pavilion, 1962, photo: NAC
View of the southern side of the Supersam pavilion, 1962, photo: NAC

It seems that Wacław Zalewski’s output is appreciated more overseas than in Poland, as in his motherland several other constructions got demolished, such as factories with modern production halls designed by Zalewski, as well as train station in Katowice and its renowned concrete goblets.

After leaving for the US, he focused on scientific work and stopped designing after settling in Boston. Although his impact on generations of engineers was undeniably huge, his own works are quite scarce, especially now after some of the have been destroyed. Besides Supersam and Spodek, he constructed several smaller sports halls and industrial buildings. One of the few still standing industrial buildings of his can be seen in Mińsk Mazowiecki.

Hala katowickiego dworca. Fotografia z książki "Brutal" Michała Łuczaka, fot. dzięki uprzejmości autora
Hall of Katowice train station. Photo from the book Brutal by Michał Łuczak, photo courtesy of an author

The work of a construction engineer is often associated with dull mathematics, studying powers that affect the structure, with boring charts. However, Zalewski says that:

For me sketching was always the most important part, more significant than calculations – and that’s something you won’t hear from other engineers. In construction field everything is often boiled down to calculations, analysis of constructions, and so on. That’s the work that can be done by a computer. But can a computer come up with the shape of Spodek, or print out the sketch of Supersam?

It sure is a great pity that many of his fantastic constructions were destroyed, and only now, after his death, do we start to fully realise his genius and talent.

Written by Anna Cymer, February 2017. Translated by AS's picture
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