Looking for a New Home: 2019 in Polish Architecture
default, Looking for a New Home: 2019 in Polish Architecture, Warszawska Dzielnica Społeczna (WDS) by BBGK Architects. The Warszawska Dzielnica Społeczna (Varsovian Social Section) idea was realised by Tomek Andr, center, 3_sciezka.jpg
In 2019, we noticed that in our fervour to exalt the beautiful exteriors of concert halls and museums, we forgot about the architecture that we most need in life: our homes.
In recent years, architecture has become the purview of extraordinary buildings, eye-catching, elegant and rather ‘ceremonial’ spaces, as they serve only for special occasions. Meanwhile these spaces are only the proverbial cherry on top of the architectural cake built out of the everyday buildings people use for most of their lives. In 2019, we began to focus on the less glamorous, but vital branch of architecture – home architecture.
Architectural Icons of the Polish Transformation
Free market housing
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Panorama of a northern part of Ursynów. prefab homes, photo: Maciej Chmiel / PAP
After 1989, private investors began to shape the market, as the wave of freedom that fell upon Poland left almost everything in their hands. State officials handed off the ‘problem’ of urban planning and communal living, meaning that people searching for homes were sentenced to take part in the free market, usually buying on credit. This economic situation – it’s worth remembering – affects more than just the financial situation of indebted families. The loose regulations as well as the investors’ race for maximum profits created crowded neighbourhoods, fenced off houses, little investment in quality architecture or attractive communal spaces. The worst result of this situation is bloated cities: creating neighbourhoods far from the centre of town, with no public transportation or quality infrastructure – no shops, schools or kindergartens, creating a reliance on cars.
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The negative consequences of privatising housing construction are numerous – experts have long spoken of this, but the topic only recently made its way to public debate. Thankfully many groups picked up the topic – not only activists, architects and homeowners, but also local governments. It appears that seeking alternatives to the current model of the developer’s market will be the topic of many debates and projects over the coming years, until a diversification that takes in everyone’s needs and lifestyles occurs.
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Visualisation of WuWA2 neighbourhood in Wrocław designed by Tadeusz Sawa-Borysławski, Piotr Zybura, Paweł Horn, Tomasz Głowacki, Igor Kazimierczak, photo: Nowe Żerniki design office
A herald of the coming change arrived in 2015, with the Nowe Żerniki neighbourhood in Wrocław. Created by approximately 40 architects in collaboration with the local government, the space included the most progressive and pro-social ideas from housing design in the 1920s. The neighbourhood, containing cosy, spacious homes that are free of fences and well-connected to public transportation, is made up of many styles: there’s room for individual developers, as well as co-operatives and retirement homes. There’s space for a market, a cultural centre and a church. And even if all of these plans don’t come to fruition (as is often the case with experimental undertakings), the concept for Nowe Żerniki is an important step forward in expanding the concept of what home architecture can look like.
Most Intriguing Polish Houses
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Experimental housing project from Warszawska Dzielnica Społeczna (WDS), 2019, designed by BBGK Architects, photo: courtesy of BBGK Architects
The fiascos of later government programmes, which proved to be only beneficial for developers, was another breakthrough in understanding that Poland needs bold strokes and better knowledge of its citizens’ needs to improve its housing situation. These needs will hopefully be filled by WDS, or Warszawska Dzielnica Społeczna (the Varsovian Social Section), which presented an experimental housing project in March 2019, created by government officials and BBGK Architects. On 16 hectares in the Wola district, a safe and well-connected neighbourhood designed for different needs and incomes will be formed. ‘The point is to bring together societal and environmental values, and guarantee a space for a multi-generational and integrated collection of residents, where no one is kept out due to age, finances or lifestyle,’ say the project’s designers. Rent-controlled homes, spaces for senior citizens, student apartments and family homes will all co-exist. WDS is meant as an alternative to profit-oriented developers – those who can buy their own homes and those who require assistance in day-to-day functions can live side-by-side.
In December 2018, BBGK Architects also won a contest organised by PFR Nieruchomości – a government group dedicated to urban planning. The contest dealt with creating modern technology for prefabrication. Creating homes in factories is strongly associated with the 1970s in Poland, but most of Europe prefers this method of home building. Prefabrication allows homes to be built quicker, cheaper and safer; in Scandinavia, 65% of new homes are made with prefabricated elements.
The contest for new ideas for prefabrication in Poland was meant to demystify the technology and help fill gaps in the housing market, such as the lack of affordable housing. Will it be possible to re-popularise prefabrication once more? There are plenty of factories in Poland that prepare prefabricated homes, but all of their products are exported abroad to Sweden, Denmark and Holland.
Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka
In 2019, much was made of this potential revitalisation, which in many towns is one of the leading issues for local governments. Despite prior opinions about revitalisation, it’s not so much about turning an old factory into a shopping mall, as it is a collection of architectural, societal, economic and cultural changes meant to improve quality of living in a degraded area. In Łódż and Warsaw, as well as smaller places like Starachowice, Ełk and Wałbrzych, tenement houses aren’t turned into luxury apartments, but are instead renovated and maintained as affordable flats. This improves the standard of living of the families therein, and also changes the look of whole neighbourhoods previously seen as neglected and of little consequence.
A system for living
As Agata Twardoch wrote in her recent book System do Mieszkania: Perspektywy Rozwoju Dostępnego Budownictwa Mieszkaniowego (System for Living: Perspectives on Accessible Housing Construction):
Taking part in housing politics is a necessity. Housing politics alone will – if we properly define them as something more than building houses and paying taxes – turn out to be an effective tool in city development.
This almost 500-page publication is an analysis of the housing situation in Poland as well as of multiple methods of improving it. Twardoch is an author, architect and urbanist as well as a lecturer at the Silesian University of Technology. She describes different methods of diversifying housing options that are in use around the world, but her analysis of Poland includes demographics data, mobility, working methods and potential changes in households. Agata Twardoch touches upon many important threads related to building houses – political, economic and societal and, of course, urbanist and architectural. In her exploration of housing politics, building methods and urban spaces, we find housing co-operatives, squats, developers, enormous flats and experimental neighbourhoods – within all this, Twardoch brings an international context to the Polish situation, turning her book into an excellent entry point to understanding the varied world of housing and urban planning.
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Neighbourhood project in Katowice near Mariacka Street, 1st place in an architectural competition, designed by OVO Grąbczewscy Architekci, photo: www.ovo-grabczewscy.pl
A new form of housing politics is necessary in Poland – in 2019, many studies found that as many as 65% of people between the age of 24 and 35 still lived with their parents, 70% of households have no solvency, and the wait time for public housing is up to 20 years. Polish houses are over-crowded; there are also too few living spaces (in Poland, there are 363 living spaces for every 1000 people. It’s worse in Slovakia, but in Germany the number is 510, in Italy 526, and 454 in the Czech Republic). Giving up the housing market to developers brought about many societal as well as urban ills.
Thankfully, the need for change is increasingly recognised. Maybe the upcoming generation will propose the necessary changes? Toward the end of 2019, the contest PUM: Przestrzeń Użytkowników i Mieszkańców (Users and Residents Space) seeking the best studies on the subject of housing was launched. PFR Nieruchomości, in collaboration with Bęc Zmiana Foundation and Polski Fundusz Rozwoju Foundation, sought out works that dealt with diverse topics – from gentrification to the degradation of public spaces, to architecture that encouraged neighbourly bonds, all the way to alternative methods of financing buildings.
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New prefabrication project, designed by BBGK Architects, photo: courtesy of BBGK Architects
While officials in Berlin crow about the pricing freeze on housing, which will allow for homes to remain affordable, in the majority of districts in Warsaw the average price of a square metre has reached more than 11,000 PLN, and in 2019 rose another 6.5%. It’s good that we’ve begun this discussion, because it’s not only important, it’s urgent. The system that dominates in Poland doesn’t seem to follow the constitution, where Point 1 in Article 75 reads:
Public authorities shall pursue policies conducive to satisfying the housing needs of citizens, in particular combating homelessness, promoting the development of low-income housing and supporting activities aimed at acquisition of a home by each citizen.
2019 in review
Originally written in Polish Dec 2019, translated by AZ, Dec 2019