Bohdan Pniewski (1897-1965) was a modernist architect, designer of state buildings, and a professor at Warsaw University of Technology. His projects creatively referred to certain historical styles of architecture. He was born and died in Warsaw.
Table of contents: Early projects | Architect of state buildings and villas | Post-war rebuilding of the country | Dom Chłopa and the National Theatre
He graduated from Stanisław Staszic High School in 1914. During his studies, he was also involved in a scout troop. In World War I he joined the Legions, which he proudly emphasized in later years. He was wounded during the Polish-Soviet War, and received the Cross of Valour for his courage on the battlefield. He continued his education at the Department of Building Construction of Hipolit Wawelberg and Stanisław Rotwand Mechanical and Technical School. Until 1918, he worked as an apprentice at the design bureaus of Jan Heurich and Rudolf Świerczyński. Pniewski continued his studies at the Faculty of Architecture of the Warsaw University of Technology in December 1917 and graduated with honours at the beginning of 1923, submitting as his thesis an architectural project for the Stock Exchange, supervised by Prof. Czesław Przybylski.
His first work, designed in collaboration with Stanisław Brukalski and Lech Niemojewski as a competition entry, was a project for the Polish pavilion at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industry constructed in 1923 but not preserved. Three years later, he made one of his first urban projects – replanning the city of Radom through the introduction of ring roads. The same year, he took part in a competition for to develop Plac Saski / Saxon Square in Warsaw, which he designed as the Monument to the Fighters for the Independence of the Homeland.
Pniewski’s first projects were completed in 1928. Among the most important were the Bogusław Herse company’s exhibition pavilion for the National Exhibition in Poznań in 1929, the Sun settlement on Madalińskiego Street in the Mokotów district and the Strzecha Urzędnicza settlement on Podstarościch Street in the Żoliborz district. All of these projects have avant-garde architectural features, although Pniewski used these new forms primarily for their aesthetic values in order to achieve the effect of modernity, and not for the deliberate social programme or technology associated with them which motivated the leftist avant-garde artists of this period.
The architect of state buildings and villas
A significant part of Pniewski’s body of work was commissioned by the state. In 1928 he won a competition for the design of the Republic of Poland Legation building in Sofia. In the early 30s, his design for the Temple of Divine Providence was submitted for the closed contest and eventually selected to be built. In the following year, Pniewski took part in redesigning the former Brühl Palace as an office for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It involved constructing new interiors and a garden wing housing a ballroom and minister’s apartment.
The decade before the war is the period of Pniewski’s greatest successes as architect. He designed a number of prestigious projects commissioned by the State and the Church, where were, however, mostly unrealized. The realized projects include the building of the magistrates’ court on Leszno Street and a stately rotunda for the Polish pavilion at the Art and Technology International Exhibition in Paris in 1937.
Pniewski readily designed private homes for the wealthy of society, all of which featured a luxurious modernist style with discrete references to tradition. Among the villas designed by the architect are Zygmunt Ołdakowski’s house in Saska Kepa (1928), Zalewski’s house (1931), Jerzy Lubert’s villa in Warka, Urbanowicz‘s house, Muszyński’s house on Klonowa Street in Warsaw and Franciszek Nowicki’s villa in Konstancin. At that time, he also designed Jan Kiepura’s boarding house Patria in Krynica.
In 1936, he built his own house on Na Skarpie Avenue (now the Polish Academy of Sciences' Museum of the Earth), located in the alleged premises of the Masonic Lodge designed by Szymon Bogumił Zug. The villa, located in the former garden of Prince Kazimierz Poniatowski, was originally a summer palace and has been substantially rebuilt. Only the elevated garden retained a partially neoclassical façade. The house has been augmented with a mezzanine floor, and covered with rustic decoration, which gives the building an entirely new look inspired by Italian architecture. The interior was designed in the style of modernism with historical (pseudo-gothic railings ornamented with tracery in the studio) as well as completely new (the library ceiling covered with ceramic bowls decorated with folkloric motifs). The house, which is an interesting example of a mansion by the ‘prince of architecture’, as Pniewski was called by students, remained his residence until his death.
Post-war rebuilding of the country
The first of Pniewski’s completed post-war projects were the church in Prostyń, near Małkinia, and the adaptation of monastery buildings into the stonework school in Chęciny. In 1946, he rebuilt the magistrates’ court building and his own villa, and in the following year, he redesigned the housing settlement of the Municipal Credit Society on Polna Street as housing for the employees of the Polish National Bank.
In 1948, Pniewski designed the building of the Polish National Bank and the expansion of the Parliament building, both of which were realized in slightly modified forms – a result of the aesthetics of social realism imposed on artists in 1949. The building of the central bank of the state, designed in a modernist style and located on the Warsaw Uprising Square, was subjected to significant alterations, resulting in a simplification of its whole structure and the addition of a number of elements to its façade in the style of historicism. The project wasn't completed as initially planned and the building remained uneven and overwhelming in its structure.
One of the most prestigious and successful realizations of Pniewski’s designs is his project for the architectural development of the parliamentary buildings which share a view of the Vistula escarpment. They incorporate the architect’s characteristic stylistic elements: the use of historicized detail, but processed in a new manner, as well as the use of different types of stone, metal and wood, crafted with great attention to detail.
At the beginning of the 50s, Pniewski returned to designing buildings for the Polish Radio, first in the former Marian Fathers Monastery in the Bielany district, then a building in the social realism style on Independence Avenue.
In 1955, he took part in a competition for the architectural development of the Warsaw Castle Square and the area of the Old and New Town, receiving the third prize. In 1956, Pniewski designed the building for the State Archives on Hankiewicz Street in Warsaw, which eventually was realized in a modified version that referred to modernism. From 1952, he worked on the urban planning of the Szosa Krakowska housing settlement in the Ochota district which he completed in the late 60s.
Dom Chłopa and the National Theatre
In 1957, Pniewski received the first prize in a competition to design Dom Chłopa (literally, Peasant House) at the Warsaw Uprising Square (co-created with Małgorzata Handzelewicz-Wacławkowa and Wojciech Świątkowski). The hotel, which opened in 1961, was a contemporary reference to Italian architecture, especially to the compositional scheme of the Venetian Doge's Palace, but also to the new architecture of the Apennine peninsula. The interior design of the reception hall and the restaurant deserves a special mention as it features a bold juxtaposition of materials and is decorated with the World of Birds wall painting made by Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz and Barbara Pniewska-Krasińska.
In 1965, after the architect’s death, one of his greatest works – the Grand Theatre – National Opera in Warsaw – was put to use. The neighbouring building of the National Ballet School was under construction until 1964, when the edifice was covered with a distinctive two-tone façade. Both buildings have undergone a significant evolution from their initial designs, typical of pseudo-classicism and social realism, to modernism.
Apart from teaching positions at the University of Technology and the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw Pniewski pursued research in architectural theory which resulted in the Composition and Project in Architecture study published in 1946, and many scattered manuscripts intended for a volume, the Theory of Composition in Architecture.
Bohdan Pniewski died on September 5, 1965. He was buried in the Avenue of Honour at Powązki Cemetery. In 1967, the National Museum in Warsaw organized a monographic exhibition of the architect's work. The material gathered at his architectural office – several thousand drawings, prints and extensive archival content – has been donated to the museum’s collection of architectural designs.
Bibliography: Marek Czapelski, Bohdan Pniewski – warszawski architekt XX wieku, Warszawa 2008.
Author: Piotr Kibort, ed. & transl. GS