Jakub Szczęsny (b.1973) is an architect, installation artist, and a graduate of the University of Technology in Warsaw. He gained particular recognition in 2012, when he completed the Keret House in a narrow gap between the buildings at 22 Chłodna Street and 74 Żelazna Street in Warsaw.
Jakub Szczęsny (b.1973) is an architect, author of installations, and a graduate of the University of Technology in Warsaw.
The building measures 92 centimetres at its narrowest point and 152 centimetres at its widest. Although it combines architectural design, urban intervention and a work of art in a public space, it is still a tiny yet functional living space and an artist’s studio (apart from Edgar Keret, other artists chosen by the competition's creators could also use it as a working space). In addition, it acts as Szczęsny’s commentary on the complex fate of the district and the entire city of Warsaw, its wartime history and its contemporary state of affairs. The New York Times, Le Monde, BBC and Deutche Welle reported on the Keret House not only for its artistic concept, but also for its unusual architectural form. In 2013, Keret House became the first Polish architectural design to be included in permanet collection of New York's MoMa. Moreover it was also included in the Iconic Houses list, next designes by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto.
Keret House in Warsaw
The 14-square-metre building is not a unique project in Szczęsny’s portfolio – he enjoys designing objects on a small scale. Regarding the Keret House, he commented:
The most interesting challenges for an architect are always those which require combining a lot of elements with an existing spatial context or budget. Therefore, reduction is an exciting topic – it relates to completely different forms of design and ergonomic organization than those commonly established by design manuals. It's a kind of equation with many unknowns.
In 2011, the architect designed a system of folding furniture with which he filled his own apartment. Their scale and shape allowed him to arrange a place to work, sleep, play and rest all within just 21.5 square metres.
Keret House in Warsaw – Image Gallery
Centrala Designers’ Task Force
In 2001, Jakub Szczęsny, along with a group of architects, artists, and designers, founded the Centrala Designers’ Task Force collective. ‘Designing is a (...) creative process that cannot be undertaken in isolation from modern philosophy and other fields of art,’ declare the group's members. Centrala’s body of work includes architectural projects such as a sports hall in Bieruń (2007) and the renovation of the ticket office at Powiśle Railway Station into a modern café (2009). They also do temporary projects such as the Ohel pavilion announcing the construction of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, as well as exhibitions arranged for the Museum of Modern Art, the Bęc Zmiana Foundation, the Łódź Design Festival and the Biennale of Architecture in Venice. Established as a co-operative platform, Centrala also develops theoretical projects intended to stimulate debate and commentary on changes in their surrounding spaces. That was the purpose of Centrala’s more provocative ideas, such as rebuilding Warsaw’s Rotunda (a plan which represented their voice in the debate on the legacy of post-war modernism) or Warsaw’s Smile project, which was intended give people a new perspective on the urban planning of the city.
Polin Museum: Idea, Architecture and Activities
In 2008, as part of the Bęc Zmiana Foundation’s Synchronization project, Jakub Szczęsny hung a composition of multi-coloured fluorescent lights under Łazienkowski Bridge in Warsaw. A dark, gloomy and dangerous place was thus turned into an attractive site, even a location for having fun.
A year later, on the Vistula River in the centre of the capital, Szczęsny set up the Wy-spa installation, consisting of equipment popular with gym-goers. When exercising using these, Warsaw residents were actually purifying the river water – the machines were connected to special filters that were set in motion by people’s workouts. In 2013, for his exhibition at BWA Gallery in Wrocław, Szczęsny built a ‘luminous halo’ in the adjacent backyard. The installation turned a neglected dingy space, ‘a dark pocket of the city’ as the architect called it, into a magical place which attracted people. Kaja Pawełek, the curator of the autumn 2013 exhibition, described the designer’s modus operandi as follows:
Furnishing The City: Polish Design for Public Spaces
The architect precedes his undertakings by researching and collecting various kinds of information – from historical facts through anecdotes, gossip, first-hand news, to free associations and practical ways to use locations, architecture, and cities.
Pawełek emphasizes that Szczęsny’s projects deal with space, social issues, history and tradition as understood in a broader sense. None of them are conceived in isolation from their local context, thus none could be realised in a different location. For example, an observation tower, with a façade covered in polyester hair constantly blowing in the wind, was built in a degraded terrain in Narrogin in Australia as a way of aiding the residents of the surrounding area as they rebuilt their sense of community. Sensorama, a booth with a hole into which a person could put their head and feel a real winter, was installed in the old port of Jaffa, Israel, in 2009. In Białystok, in a dried-up fountain in the gardens of Branicki Palace, Szczęsny built the futuristic Collector pavilion in which he displayed reproductions of artworks lacking captions or descriptions. It was his commentary on the negative phenomenon of looking at art from the perspective of its market value. At the opening of the installation, the architect explained:
Urban Playgrounds: Polish Designs for City Dwellers
Collector is thus an attempt to restore a pre-Renaissance state of affairs when the author was of less importance than the work submitted to the general public for evaluation. At the same time, it is an artistic reflection on the ways and mechanisms of displaying art.
In 2015 yet again he worked on transforming an abandoned wasteland into a place worth seeing. His temporary structure, called Vortex, that he placed at the bank of the Marca river in Bulgaria, was to act as a space connector between the river and the city. The structure is both foldable and transportable, so it is easy to put in a space of one’s choice, creating a dialogue between chosen spaces. The project was constructed as a part of the Architecture Week in Plovdliv.
Szczęsny, although declaring himself as agnostic, sometimes finds inspirations in religious forms. Coal Heart Mother is an installation, whose shape was borrowed from the one used for wayside shrines, so popular in Poland. In Szczęsny’s interpretation, the construction gains a functional dimension, as he puts a heating system inside of it, encouraging viewers to come closer and warm themselves up. Coal Heart Mother was created for the festival Gorzkie Żale and placed in one of Warsaw most popular parks Agrykola.
A Lamp for Birds: Poland’s Environmentally Active Art
Szczęsny’s body of work consists not only of thought-provoking installations or temporary objects designed to improve their surrounding realities. The architect also creates more ‘standard’ designs. He collaborates with the Simple House Company which builds detached wooden houses that meet passive energy efficiency standards. Simple, environmentally friendly and comfortable houses are a response to high prices in the property market: Simple House's houses are meant to be economical to build and cheap to maintain.
Also in 2015 he completed a single-family house, a 116 square meter large building. Here Szczęsny plays with an utterly traditional form of a pitched roof, translating it into a modern and minimal architectural idiom. Commenting on his projects for Simple house, he says:
Under One Roof: Single-Family Houses in Poland
What I value in architecture is functionality, simplicity and natural beauty. […] The project was based on the idea of timeless form, deprived of any sentimentalism or pretentiousness.
From 2009 to 2011, the company worked on a house in Podkowa Leśna, near Warsaw. The architect fragmented the house's structure into a number of smaller segments, arranging them carefully between the trees densely growing on the plot of land. This way he managed to preserve all of the old trees. In Siekierki, Warsaw, the architect designed a house on a plot with non-standard dimensions – 60 metres long and 11 metres wide. Two narrow, flat cubes stacked one upon the other and slightly shifted against each other allowed the maximum use of the space authorised for development.
At Home with Polish Architects
Alice in the Saxon Garden
In 2014, Szczęsny designed the architectural setting for an exhibition organised by Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw. This outdoor installation used a sound work created by artist Włodzimierz Jan Zakrzewski, inspired by Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The architect created a space which also engaged the other senses, and thus expanded the way of perceiving the work. In this manner, he proved once again that architecture is not only a ‘package’ of some walls and a roof. It can provide a sensual experience; it can also tackle the problems of the modern world. It’s enough to look at things in a broader context rather than a purely material one.
In 2016, Szczęsny opened SZCZ, his own design studio, which operates in various design related fields – from accesory, clothing and furniture design to exhibition, interior and building architecture.
It's difficult to unequivocally classify Jakub Szczęsny's projects. Many of them are considered functional street furniture; others are closer to artistic installations. However, all of them help to rediscover the city and integrate people; they evoke positive emotions, and add to a local identity. In 2018, Szczęsny created a minimalist playground in Astana (today Nur-Sultan) – the capital of Kazakhstan. The playground was part of a bigger project, which was aimed at revitalising neglected public spaces near housing estates. Jakub Szczęsny, in cooperation with the LECHSTARTER program, created the SPACE installation – a multi-functional zone designed to stimulate local communities. The pavilion-like structure, based on 3×3 metre ‘pixels’ provided three different types of modules, including a tall, tower-like trellis/pergola and a textile, roof-covered space. These were then erected in three Polish cities. Each organisation chose its own configuration of the modules, depending on the location and activities they had planned for the following two years.
That same year, Szczęsny built the Taburete Tower (2019) as part of the Concéntrico – International Festival of Architecture and Design in Logroño, Spain. The construction was a modern and functional take on the tradition of enclosing street axes of small Spanish towns with shrines. After the festival, the tower was dismantled into 70 heavy-duty stools made out of gurjan wood and given to the townspeople. This way, all the effort that went into assembling the installation was not lost and the project played into the organisers' manifesto that ‘Design is for everyone’.
Another community building project is a canopy-pergola built in Autumn 2020 on the roof of the Bauhaus Liebling Haus – The White City Center in Tel Aviv. Here, the architectural structure is a pretext, but also a meeting place for events and various activities. At the end of 2020, an Implant is to be put into operation in Warsaw. The unusual building, created as a temporary facility on a downtown plot intended for another investment, will consist of nearly 300 containers. It will occupy an area of 5000 square meters and will accommodate restaurants, shops, galleries, as well as numerous spaces for organising meetings and cultural events. Jakub Szczęsny wants this large-scale project to serve not only commercial or entertainment purposes, but also to become a space for various activities, accessible to all city users. The three-level block will be covered with greenery, which will also change the image of the city’s business district, currently dominated by glass skyscrapers.
Public Parks: An Oasis in the Concrete Jungle
installations in public space
Culture.pl in Brazil
Selected exhibitions and awards:
- 2010 – honourable mention, Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra
- 2008 – 2nd prize in the competition for the Polish National Stadium: Jakub Szczęsny. Działania Na Terenie Zaludnionym ( JakubSzczesny. Interventions In An Unpopulated Land) , BWA Wrocław
Artist's studio website: www.szcz.com.pl
Author: Anna Cymer, December 2014, transl.GS. Updated AM, May 2016.