Designers' task force concerned chiefly with broadening the scope of debates about architecture.
Centrala was established in 2001 by Krzysztof Banaszewski, Małgorzata Kuciewicz, Jan Strumiłło, and Jakub Szczęsny. The group’s line-up has been changing for years; today, the team is comprised of graduates in architecture – Małgorzata Kuciewicz, Jakub Szczęsny, and Simone De Iacobis – and a number of architects, designer, and artists who cooperate with them. The creators of Centrala are convinced that designing is ‘a creative process which cannot take place in isolation from contemporary philosophical thought and other fields of art’. This is why the endeavours undertaken by them bring together many different disciplines, going beyond the framework of what is generally understood as architecture or urbanism.
Centrala was founded by young adepts of architecture faculties who had experience working abroad: they'd been on scholarships to Western universities and completed foreign internships. As Jakub Szczęsny explained in an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza, the group was set up to express disapproval of the ugly, neglected, tacky, peripheral reality of Warsaw in the end of the 1990s. The architects were connected by a will to change the public space and undertake activities to improve it. Szczęsny further elaborated:
It wasn’t about building at all costs. We wanted to become commentators, people showing direction. In Poland architects are not critical of the surrounding reality. When a client comes, the architect says ‘yes’ to whatever is proposed. He is the running dog of other people’s business, a deliverer of a service. We believe this should work differently.
The group realized traditional architectural projects and won numerous architectural and urbanistic competitions. In 2006, the construction of a sporting hall adjacent to a secondary school in Bieruń near Oświęcim, designed in the years 2002-2003, was finished (Centrala won the first award in the contest for the project of the building, organised by the Polish Architectural Association, SARP). The architects made the body of the building fit the small town and, moreover, located it in a different part of the plot than the investor suggested. This allowed them to to keep a historic grove of trees and functionally divide the building from the school, thanks to which the building is easily accessible for all inhabitants, not only the students.
In the case of Bieruń, the members of Centrala were concerned with creating a building that would not only be congruent with its surroundings, but also attractive for the local community. When the architects were designing a temporary building that was to be located in the place where the future seat of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews was supposed to be erected, their aim was to create a forum for exchange and discussions that would at the same time anticipate the future establishment. Ohel – this is what the building, which existed from 2006 to 2009, was called – took the symbolic form of a tent as a meeting place. It was a membrane set on a steel scaffolding. The form stood for open space and served for presenting exhibitions, and housing events and concerts.
The work of Centrala manifests itself in various forms: artistic projects, but also public debates, press provocations, group city walks, utopian concepts, and practical interior designs.
One of the matters Centrala puts special emphasis on is Polish post-war architectural heritage. The utopian vision of moving the Rotunda, the characteristic pavilion near the biggest and busiest roundabout in the centre of Warsaw, to the middle of said roundabout, sparked a lot of controversy after gaining publicity in 2003. It was the first in the series of projects that were press provocations which, as the architects say, ‘were an attempt to arouse public debate about the protection and revitalisation of objects of historical value that were created in times of modernity’.
Centrala had a chance to implement their will to maintain the modernist objects built in the times of Communist Poland: in 2009, they designed a revitalisation of the pavilion of Warsaw’s emblematic train station, Warszawa-Powiśle. The work was commissioned by a private investor – the first in Warsaw to decide to revitalise a socialist-modernist object. The building acquired a new function as a café and regained its original splendour, and its renovation became an important point in defending post-war architecture and an exemplary instance of good practices, still serving as an appropriate model in the discussion about the fate of such objects.
Many of the real and ephemeral undertakings of Centrala revolve around Warsaw, its history, specificity, and the most characteristic elements of its urbanism and architecture. In 2010, the members of Centrala noticed… Warsaw’s smile. The street arrangement in the central district is formed into a curve resembling a smile. For several months, they’ve been organising various artistic and cultural events on the route of that curve, wanting to expose it to the inhabitants of the city and extract it from the dense city structures. As the architects explained:
Warsaw Smile is a project that aims at consolidating the urban structures of the city in the imagination of its inhabitants. The collective consciousness of the elements the city is comprised of has a huge influence on the way it is understood and used, and the direction in which decisions about its modification go.
In 2013 Centrala prepared an exhibition that was a part of the annual Synchronicity festival organised by The Bęc Zmiana Foundation. They wanted to show Warsaw as ‘a perfect place for experimentation and visionary enterprises’ and not an average metropolis advertising itself with empty phrases. Centrala showed works by visionaries working in the capital, presented unknown yet unique buildings and places, and other completely inconspicuous elements of the city, such as the grey cement brick, Warsaw’s characteristic building material.
The undertakings of Centrala have greatly contributed to broadening the scope of debate on Warsaw’s public space, and improved the understanding of what a friendly, well kept, yet history-conscious city should look like.
For more, visit Centrala's website: www.centrala.net.pl
Author: Anna Cymer, translated by Natalia Sajewicz, July 2016