Although established and run by architects, CENTRALA is not so much about design as about expanding the field of debate about architecture, inspiring interdisciplinary activities related to architecture and design, and creating artistic projects that serve as a critical statement on Polish space.
Designers' task force concerned chiefly with broadening the scope of debates about architecture.
The CENTRALA project group was established in 2001 by Krzysztof Banaszewski, Małgorzata Kuciewicz, Jan Strumiłła, and Jakub Szczęsny. Its line-up has changed over the years; today its members are Małgorzata Kuciewicz and Simone De Iacobis, who eagerly cooperate with architects, designers, artists and experts in many fields of science. The creators of CENTRALA are convinced that design is ‘a creative process that cannot be carried out in isolation from contemporary philosophical thought and other fields of art’, which is why their projects combine many disciplines and go beyond what is commonly understood as architecture or urban planning.
CENTRALA was established by young students of architecture faculties with experience abroad – they attended scholarships at Western universities and had foreign internships and apprenticeships. As Jakub Szczęsny explained in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza, the creation of the group was the result of a disagreement with the ugly, neglected, opaque, provincial reality of Warsaw in the late 1990s. The architects were united by a desire to change this space and take action to improve it. Despite the clear evolution that the group has undergone, the thoughts behind its creation are still valid. Szczęsny argued:
We didn't want to build at any cost. We wanted to be a commentator, someone who shows the direction. In Poland, architects’ attitude to reality is uncritical. When a client comes to an architect the architect says yes to any project. He is a chained dog playing to other people’s interests, a service provider. In our opinion, it should be different.
CENTRALA has designed numerous projects which were built. In 2006, the architects designed a temporary building to stand on the site of the future building of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Its aim was to create a forum for the exchange of ideas and discussion that would herald the future institution. Ohel – the name given to the place – had the symbolic form of a tent as a meeting place and existed between 2006 and 2009. It consisted of a membrane stretched over steel scaffolding, surrounding an open space used for exhibitions, ceremonies and concerts.
In 2009, CENTRALA brought back splendour to the forgotten and architecturally valuable checkout pavilion of the Warszawa-Powiśle line station. For this project, the architects worked on behalf of a private investor – the first in Warsaw to undertake the renovation of a building dating back to the late 1950s/early 1960s. The building not only managed to gain a new function as a café but also was restored its original glamour. The renovation of the pavilion in the Powiśle district became an important line of defence of the post-war architecture and a flagship example of good practice, set as a model in the still very lively discussion about the fate of such buildings.
Why the Hell Do We Rush So Much? An Interview with Jakub Szczęsny
However, most of the activities of CENTRALA’s team have been and still are in the form of research, analysis, and creating a knowledge base, but also collecting thoughts and reflections on the issues of urbanised space. As Małgorzata Kuciewicz explains, CENTRALA does not work on ‘projects’, as is the case with traditional studios, but on ‘themes’ – issues that arise as a result of studying the past and observing the present. The ‘themes’ in CENTRALA’s practice interweave with each other, sometimes saturating reciprocally for years, they arise from each other and develop as a result of different formulas of action and cooperation with artists and experts from different fields and different countries. ‘Our projects are not so much about their implementation as about creating a space for discussion’, Kuciewicz and De Iacobis proclaim. This quite unusual method (at least by Polish standards) is best understood by getting to know the issues that interest CENTRALA and the actions the group has undertaken.
Many of CENTRALA’s real and ephemeral activities concern Warsaw, its history, specificity, the most characteristic elements of urban planning and architecture, including the post-war architectural heritage. Many emotions were aroused by the utopian vision, published in 2003, of moving the Rotunda, which housed the characteristic pavilion, to the middle of the largest and busiest roundabout in the centre of Warsaw. It was the first in a series of projects – provocations meant for the press, which, as the architects say, ‘were an attempt to provoke a social discussion on the protection and revitalisation of the monuments of modernity’.
In 2010, members of the headquarters noticed… Warsaw's smile, the layout of the streets in the city centre, forming a smile-like arch. For several years, they organised various artistic and cultural events on the route of this arch, in order to uncover it from the dense buildings and show it to the city’s residents. As they explained their idea:
Warsaw’s Smile is a project that aims to consolidate the urban structures of the city in the imagination of its inhabitants. The collective awareness of the elements that make up a city has a huge impact on how the city is understood and used, and in what direction the decisions about its transformation are made.
In 2012, members of CENTRALA developed an exhibition as part of the Synchronicity Festival organised by the Bęc Zmiana Foundation. They wanted to show Warsaw not as an average metropolis advertising itself with empty and standard slogans, but as an ‘ideal experimental field for visionary and experimental undertakings’. They showed the works of visionaries operating in the capital and presented little-known and untypical buildings and places, as well as some completely unnoticed elements of the city, like the grey cement brick, a building block so characteristic of Poland’s capital.
Zofia and Oskar Hansen’s house in Szumin near Warsaw and the Warszawianka sports complex designed in the second half of the 1950s by the Art and Research Department of the Academy of Fine Arts have been the field of CENTRALA’s activities and research for many years. In accordance with the philosophy of interweaving ‘themes’, CENTRALA focused on these places not because of their traditionally understood architecture, but because of the complexity of the spatial and natural relations that their designers have incorporated into both of these objects. Because, as Kuciewicz and De Iacobis explain, CENTRALA focuses, among other things, on ‘reading into the natural components in modernism and creating its own projects about architecture-inside-nature and nature-inside-architecture’. Both the house in Szumin and Warszawianka, designed in close relation to the biological rhythm of nature and the environment, have become excellent fields of research and inspiration. The same is true of Jacek Damięcki, an artist who has been creating on the borderline of art and architecture and creating objects according to his own concept of space for years.
All threads related to the research on Warszawianka and Szumin and the results of the cooperation with Jacek Damięcki were included by CENTRALA in the design of the exhibition, which represented Poland at the 16th International Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2018. Under the leadership of curator Anna Ptak and in cooperation with sculptor Iza Tarasewicz, Kuciewicz and De Iacobis created an exhibition titled Amplifying Nature, which was to prove that:
Architecture reinforces the forces of nature – it does not exist without it, because it is part of it. The way in which man tries to inhabit the world depends on the extent to which the planet Earth allows us to maintain life on its surface thanks to forces such as light, gravity and water circulation.
CENTRALA examines the interest in the relationship between the urbanised environment and nature, in the presence of nature in the city and their mutual influence on each, and the group does so in a different context. In the historical context – for example, by restoring the memory of water vegetation pots designed in the 1960s, which were to be placed in various places in Warsaw, in the scientific context – by studying the hydrological structure of the land on which Warsaw is located, or finally the practical context – by organising expeditions to the capital's swamps and marshes, or by restoring the memory of words which are now forgotten but define real phenomena. During the Venice Biennale of Architecture, CENTRALA recalled the extremely rich vocabulary which was used to describe rain in Poland. In the project related to marshes, terms previously unknown to the contemporary generation appeared, such as łęgi (riparian forests), jezierzyska, źródliska (spring fens), wysięki, wywierzyska (karst springs), rozlewiska (backwaters), uroczyska, turzycowiska, trzcinowiska (reedbeds), ziołorośla (tall, humid grasslands), mady (alluvial soils), marsze, and moczary (fens). For many of these, it is difficult to find an equivalent in the English language.
'Warszawianka' Sports Complex – The Artistic and Research Unit of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw
simone de iacobis
For several years now, CENTRALA has been looking at architecture in the context of physical phenomena such as climate, gravity, and seasonal and daily variations. Looking at urbanised space more broadly, it reflects on the significance of urban swamps and wetlands, hydrography and disappearing atmospheric phenomena, and the significance of water plants. Trying to constantly expand the ways of acting and transmitting knowledge or reflections, the group also invites artists to cooperate. The presentation in Venice was created by CENTRALA with Iza Tarasewicz, a sculptor. The latest exhibition on which Kuciewicz and De Iacobis are working was created together with Alicja Bielawska, an artist who is known for her installations made of everyday materials. Together, they are working on the Polish exhibition at the London Design Biennale (which was supposed to take place in the summer of 2020 but was postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic). It is curated by Aleksandra Kędziorek and entitled The Clothed House: Tuning In With Seasonal Imaginary. It will metaphorically and sensually refer to the history of the use of textiles in residential spaces, especially how their use was coupled with the rhythm of the seasons and days.
The team also carries out activities abroad, cooperating with researchers and artists from other countries. In April 2016, at the Schloss Solitude Academy in Stuttgart, together with futurologists from Amsterdam, the Monnik group, CENTRALA carried out the Thick Space project, the aim of which was to feel, understand and see anew the space between the buildings, places in the city that are not built-up, and therefore usually remain ‘invisible’. ‘For too long we have defined space through its physical boundaries. It is time for us to also start defining what is contained in it’, as CENTRALA’s Małgorzata Kuciewicz explained the project, thanks to which one can see that seemingly empty spaces in the city are full of matter, and that the air is not empty and one can shape its content.
Małgorzata Kuciewicz and Simone De Iacobis undertake a variety of activities. They designed the Polish exhibition at the Triennial in Milan in 2016, where they created a ‘spatial relief’, which is a reference to the experimental exhibition projects of Oskar Hansen and Wojciech Zamecznik, realised by them in Milan in the mid-20th century. At the request of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and inspired by the ideas developed by Oskar Hansen, they designed exhibitions, presented in 2014 at MACBA in Barcelona, in 2015 at the Serralves Museum in Porto and in 2016 at Yale School of Architecture in New Haven. Here the aim was also to create an exhibition space that would allow for a better understanding and feeling of the visionary concepts of the creator of the Linear Continuous System and the concept of the Open Form. Since 2017, CENTRALA has also met with students of the Kharkiv School of Architecture for workshops once a semester. For the purposes of classes at the Ukrainian university, the group developed their own methodology of working on imaginative and mental patterns-breaking abstract models showing processes in architecture – natural phenomena, water, wind, light, gravity.
The duo that forms the core of CENTRALA are architects educated at foreign universities. Małgorzata Kuciewicz studied architecture in Warsaw, Montpellier and Tampere, and gained professional experience at Berlage Institute in Amsterdam and at EASA workshops. Simone De Iacobis studied architecture in Rome, andgained experience at Urhahn Urban Design in Amsterdam, STAR strategies + architecture in Rotterdam. He also worked with studiometrico in Milan. Both were residents of Schloss Solitude Academy and KHOJ New Delhi. For years, however, both of them have not been building but instead promoting different ways of thinking about architecture. Over their nearly 20 years of activity, CENTRALA has proved how necessary interdisciplinary activities and projects are in the Polish debate about space: broadening our understanding of it, but also of the processes which shape it.
Originally written in Polish by Anna Cymer July 2020, translated into English by P. Grabowski August 2020
The Architecture of Places of Memory