An expert on things architectural and a collector of visual absurdities, Filip Springer is a reporter skilled in conveying the gist of the Polish landscape – writing of the city that never was, buildings that have long stood in spite of the general public's disdain, and of marriage that was united in a love for architecture.
Filip Springer (born 1982) is a graduate of the Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts Programme at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (specialising in Cultural Anthropology). As a photoreporter and journalist, he has published in Poland's prestigious periodicals: the magazines Polityka and Przekrój, the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, the journal Tygodnik Powszechny. He was awarded grants by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage (2010) and the National Cultural Centre's Young Poland initiative (2012).
He has published three collections of reportage on socialist-era architecture and on the accomplishments of the renowned team Zofia and Oskar Hansen (Miedzianka: The Story of Disappearance, Ill-Born: Polish Post-war Modernist Architecture, Blueprints: The Life and Work of Zofia and Oskar Hansen). His following books were concentrated on his considerations about the architecture in today's Poland: A Bathtub With a Colonnade: A Book of Reportage on Polish Space, 13 Pięter (13 Floors), Księga Zachwytów (The Book of Awe) and Archipelag City.
Sympathy for the ugly
Springer got his start in journalism as a news and sports photographer. He began working as a regional photoreporter for the Polish Forum Photographers Agency in 2004, taking snaps of daredevils on the racetrack. He recalled the assignment, in an interview with Szerokikadr.pl:
These races were up in the mountains and it wasn't rare to spend more than five hours getting to the top to find out the competitors had already made their way down. As I descended, I took photos of what was around me, but these weren't beautiful, classic mountains, but a terrain slightly ravaged by its architecture. I thought it was an interesting subject, something worth taking photos of.
His burgeoning interest in issues of public space led to the project Miało Być Ładnie (It Was Supposed to Be Beautiful), documenting the results of failed attempts to beautify certain areas. A stag's head decorated with lamps, an imaginative foundation in the middle of an old courtyard, the trunk of a tree made luminescent with paint – this is a smattering of the images that make up the project. Springer sets out to document things that are "extraordinarily ugly" in the effort to bring a smile to the face of the viewer, rather than dismay. This acute sensibility is apparent in his reportages and his artistic projects. As Springer revealed in an interview with Głos Wielkopolski (where he published his first works):
According to the Polish Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS), 82% of Poles believe that Poland is beautiful. I'm among the 18% who believe it isn't. Why, as a minority, should I point out which buildings are ugly? I'm more and more careful about offending people who have different tastes. It's easy to make a reportage that is full of mocking.
The photoreportage Płacz nad Rozlanym Miastem (Crying Over a Spilled City; 2009) was focused on the suburbs. A year later he came out with the series Nie Ma Jeziora (There is No Lake), which told of the catastrophic effects of drought in the area of the Konin coal mines, with 2,000 bodies of water drying up and farmers losing their harvests. Springer's website also features his own photo-casts, which revolve around the images and subjects that strike him as particularly important.
The lens or the pen
"When I focus on a text, I don't have the time or the energy, I'm not focused enough on photography. When I focus on photography, my text suffers", he admitted in an interview with Głos Wielkopolski.
The first project that proved Springer's pen mightier than his lens was Miedzianka: The Story of Disappearance (Miedzianka. Historia znikania; 2011). The book was swiftly noticed by critics and included among the finalists for the Nike Literary Prize in 2012, Poland's most prestigious distinction in the field, as well as the Gdynia Literary Prize and the Ryszard Kapuściński Prize that same year.
The literary form provided Springer with respite from his short reportages. As he said about brief reportage in the interview with Głos Wielkopolski, "Journalism of this type makes one into a genius dilettante – who's had a taste of everything, but has never gone deeper into anything, and still begins to believe that he already knows it all".
Miedzianka is an attempt to answer a nagging question – why was the Lower Silesian town with seven centuries of tradition all but erased from the face of the planet? For two years Springer researched the fate of German families living in the area before the war, as well as the stories of Poles who ended up there after the war. The protagonist of the report is, ultimately, the place itself – the town of miners, a tourist attraction, a witness to plagues and many wars, and, finally, a victim of the pillaging of uranium stores.
Heroes of architecture
As he has admitted in interviews, he draws his subjects from his own "egotistical awakenings", from the desire to answer questions that haunt him. This was the case with Ill-Born (Źle Urodzone; 2012). Springer asked questions about icons of postwar modernism: Is this proper architecture? If so, why does it ignite so much controversy? How did these buildings come about and why have some of them disappeared? When asked about what fascinates him about Poland by a Głos Wielkopolski journalist, he answered:
I'm interested in all things that during my education were injected into my head in the form of thought bytes. For example, postwar modernism – it was always bad, why is Poland so ugly, because we had 50 years of drab communism. All these simple answers are not enough for me. I don't feel the drive to dust off memories of something – most of all I want to gather explanations for myself.
These reportages on architecture are replete with dialogues, anecdotes and witty bon mots. The histories of central railway stations in Warsaw and Katowice, Poznań's Okrąglak (a spherical department store constructed in the 1950s), the weather-station discs atop Mount Śnieżka at the Czech border, Warsaw's iconic (now defunct) Supersam supermarket - these are not simply stories about architecture, but also portraits of their makers. Ill-Born confirmed Springer's status as a young, accomplished reporter and photographer. He described the role of a photographer for Szerokikadr.pl:
Today the photography of architecture is a form of product photography – in the same way one would photograph a vial of perfume, just on a different scale for a building. I'm not interested in that at all. I'm interested in the impression architecture makes on the viewer and the consumer. In my photography context is extremely important – it's what makes my intentions and my perspective on a particular space comprehensible. [...] Photography for me is a private medium, a personal statement, this is why no one will find out from my pictures what the buildings that inspired me to press the shutter actually look like.
They were world-class
Springer came out in 2013 with his tribute to the legendary architect couple, the Hansens, titled Blueprints: The Life and Work of Zofia and Oskar Hansen (Zaczyn. O Zofii i Oskarze Hansenach). He had already begun devising his plan for the book when working on Ill-Born, acting on a desire to know more about the couple, why these brilliant minds have only been discovered by a handful of experts and whether their ideas hold sway in contemporary architecture.
In the book, the methods of photography and writing merge, with a well-defined portrait framed in carefully chosen words. To understand the figure of Oskar Hansen – the Finnish-born son of a Norwegian and Russian raised in the multicultural city of Vilnius, who later settled in Poland – Springer set out north to Finland and Norway. There he instantly recognised Hansen's perspective on public space.
The concept of the Open Form conceived by Hansen and Zofia, his wife, is a theory of architecture that welcomes the individual into the discussion on space and structure, invoking a flexible approach similar to the approach taken in Scandinavia. All the while, Springer avers that the Open Form is not entirely over theory, explaining:
I had looked for the "open form" in the architecture of the Hansens, but I did not find it [...]. It sounds a bit like heresy [...]. I have a problem with identifying its background and the framework that the Hansens' project were meant to create for people, beyond a few individual formal solutions.
Hansen is a man of great, utopian ideals that did not suit the socialist agenda of his time, nor the capitalist reality that came later. Thanks to hours of conversation with Zofia Hansen and the couple's son, Igor Hansen, Springer came up with a witty, intimate biographical reportage that allows readers to understand a number of paradoxes intrinsic to the lives and works of this dynamic pair of nonconformists.
From the ego
Springer sets himself apart from his contemporaries in the field through his macro-scale portraits. Yet he shares that he is slowly shifting away from personal histories and leaning more towards social issues and processes on a broader scale. As he says in an interview with the Society of Polish Journalists, "This is what I want to write about. Some theoreticians of reportage take serious issue with defining this genre and this is precisely where its magic lies".
Writing in a style that closely mirrors his way of taking photographs, the journalist extends the frame, stepping back to take a broader perspective, looking for metaphors and understanding. In September 2013 his fourth book comes out, A Bathtub With a Colonnade: A Book of Reportage on Polish Space (Wanna z kolumnadą). Springer remains faithful to the idea that man revolves around the world, not the other way around.
Springer asks questions about the reasons for the "Polish ugliness" and he examines what happened to the state, which had one of the best urban planning systems in pre-war Europe, which often aroused jealousy in, for example, neighbouring countries. Is there a method in the chaos burdening Polish architecture? While touring the country extensively, Springer found unique, or at times absurd buildings – a Venetian palazzo near Warsaw, an Egyptian pyramid in Silesia. Billboards, intrusive building wraps, pastel-coloured blocks of flats, makeshift shacks, construction lawlessness, traditional Polish Highlander houses by the sea and manors built in the 1990s… The problem with public space in Poland lies not only in the material substance but also in the apathy towards surroundings, a lack of aesthetic education and low economic standing of Poles, which translates into the conviction that there are "bigger problems".
The author pessimistically sums up that "it will always be ugly here", however, it doesn’t mean that the situation is hopeless: luckily, during his travels, he gathered material for The Book of Awe (2016). He portrays buildings which are beautiful, functional, harmonious with their surroundings, or at least interesting and important for the Polish culture. The Palace of Culture and Science and the Żoliborz Orchards in Warsaw, the railway station and the library in Rumia near Gdańsk, the shopping centre in Mława some 130 kilometres from Warsaw, and the village clubhouse in Rakownia near Poznań – he described all these places in his short, illustrated essays.
Living in Poland
While Springer’s Book of Awe can be seen as a collection of entertaining anecdotes, which were gathered in passing and do not go into detail, his 13 Floors includes perhaps the most socially-engaged, emotional and challenging reportages of his oeuvre. He describes the contemporary housing situation in Poland and diagnoses it as scandalous. The journalist presents different cases of credit traps, the struggle with the renting market, real estate developers and banks. He criticises Poland as an "unliveable" country, which doesn’t offer any solutions, perhaps apart from inheriting a flat from wealthy relatives. Mateusz Halawa wrote:
Springer illustrates the personal costs of the policies and suggests that the problem lies in the retreating state. However, he reaches and even more distressing conclusion in his reportage: the state did not so much retreat as redirect the little money that existed to banks and real estate developers, so that they solve the problem. "People who get credit – as we read – simply filter cash. But it’s them who have to deal with debt." It’s a problem that the state has no answer for in the perspective of the next 30 years, but the indebted families are forced to have one (25.09.2015).
The cooperation with the Karakter publishing house resulted in Springer’s next project in 2015. Archipelag City is a journey across former capitals of voivodeships which ceased to exist after the 1998 administrative restructuring. Starting with the smallest one, Sieradz, and finishing with the largest one, Częstochowa. The author plucks medium-sized cities from obscurity, that they are often pushed into by big agglomerations, which get the majority of funds, media attention or simply inhabitants.
What to do in Konin, Radom, Leszno, Siedlce or Piła? The question is raised by nearly three million Poles (who live in former voivodeship capitals). Their answers are not heard very well in bigger cities. Located approximately 80 kilometres from Wrocław, Wałbrzych remains a symbol of despair, even though the city is a theatrical hub reverberating across the country and an architectural gem in the heart of one of Poland’s most beautiful regions. Jelenia Góra is habitually confused with Zielona Góra, even though there are 150 kilometres between them. The world’s largest collection of the visionary Stanisław Witkiewicz’s works is located in Słupsk and it is known only among art critics and connoisseurs. Konin’s river boulevards could be held as an example of good river management: the majority of big cities face grave problems in that matter.
An Internet blog, a series of texts in the Polityka weekly, a social media site – the multimedial project was topped off with a series of reportages published in 2016.
See more on Filip Springer on his website: filipspringer.com
Author: Dariusz Bochenek, August 2013. Translated by Agnes Monod-Gayraud, August 2013, updated by AP, July 2019.
- Miedzianka. Historia znikania (Miedzianka: The Story of Disappearance), Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2011,
- Źle urodzone. Reportaże o architekturze PRL (Ill-Born: Polish Post-war Modernist Architecture), Karakter, Kraków 2012,
- Zaczyn. O Zofii i Oskarze Hansenach (Blueprints: The Life and Work of Zofia and Oskar Hansen), Karakter, Kraków 2013,
- Wanna z kolumnadą. Reportaże o polskiej przestrzeni (A Bathtub With a Colonnade. A Book of Reportage on Polish Space), Czarne 2013,
- 13 pięter (13 Floors), Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2015,
- Księga zachwytów (The Book of Awe), Agora, Warszawa 2016,
- Miasto Archipelag. Polska mniejszych miast (Archipelag City), Karakter, Kraków 2016.