Jerzy Kuźmienko was one of the most interesting Polish architects of the second half of the 20th century. His work proved that even in times of prefabrication and industrialised construction, it was still possible to create original projects.
Jerzy Kuźmienko was born in 1931 in Warsaw and died on 8th April, 2017. In 1954, he graduated from the Faculty of Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology and mere four years later he won the competition for the design of the Church of Divine Mercy in Kalisz, which was actually his most spectacular and outstanding project.
Kuźmienko designed the Kalisz church in collaboration with Andrzej Fajans. Both architects were very young at the time – Fajans was twenty-three and Kuźmienko was twenty-seven. The jury members who assessed the competing projects showed a lot of courage by granting the first prize to the emerging architects, who moreover submitted a design of a building with an unusual look and complex structure. It was also significant that the competition took place soon after the decline of the socialist realist doctrine, after the political thaw, thanks to which architects enjoyed a greater freedom, and the designs were original and modern.
Kuźmienko and Fajans designed an almost abstract form, resembling a frame structure with a white fabric spread over it and rippling at the bottom. This impression is created by the building’s roof: a massive single-layer shell – a reinforced concrete surface softly covering the sanctuary’s interior. Similar single-layer shells from reinforced concrete had been used across the world in the early 50s, however, they were small and were usually made into simple, geometric forms. This one, spread over the Kalisz church, is enormous (with surface area of approximately 1000 sq m and the top height at 45 m), has an irregular, waving shape, and is also very thin. In 2012, Maciej Czarnecki, an architect and historian of architecture, compared on the pages of the Architektura – Murator monthly the church by Kuźmienko and Fajans to works by such leaders of world architecture and masters of reinforced concrete structures as Oscar Niemeyer and Felix Candela.
Due to the complexity of this structure (and therefore also its costs), but most of all because of the state authorities’ unwillingness to fund the church, the construction of the Kalisz church wasn’t started until 1977 – nearly twenty years after it was designed. The lower church was ready for use in 1983, while the entire building didn’t see completion until 1993. Even though the realisation of this visionary temple took so long, the project of Kuźmienko and Fajans has not grown old – the innovative and poetic structure is still captivating. In the 1980s, Jerzy Kuźmienko also designed churches in Ząbki near Warsaw and in Zambrów.
Another field of architecture to which Kuźmienko contributed outstanding projects was residential architecture. In 1974, together with Piotr Sembrat he designed a 30-apartment block by Kozia Street in Warsaw. By today’s standards, it would be called an apartment building – its flats were bigger than in regular blocks, and moreover, being hidden in a courtyard amongst the historic architecture of the Royal Route, it was intended for the ‘elite’ – high-level clerks or the staff of state institutions. Even though the building is located next to the Grand Theatre, in the proximity of the Old Town, historic churches in Krakowskie Przedmieście, the architects gave it an entirely modernist form. The block has two faces: on the side of the square by Kozia Street, the form of the façade is founded on large cascading balconies, which – for the sake of privacy – were separated from one another by windowed oriels. This composition of shifting, deep terraces and protruding oriels provided this façade with an exceptionally dynamic, chiaroscuro system. On the opposite side, which faced Molière Street, the block has a much more closed-in façade – its zigzag composition was emphasised by small, narrow horizontal and vertical kitchen windows.
Jerzy Kuźmienko and Piotr Sembrat (together with Henryk Dąbrowski, Janusz Nowak, and Adam Snopek) also designed a three-dimensional façade, characterised by the chiaroscuro game of shapes, in Karowa Street in Warsaw. Built in 1978, the house was inserted into a frontage of a street dominated by historic architecture. Just like in Kozia Street, the designers introduced modern, distinctive forms which did not attempt to mimic styles from the past. The vertical strings of massive oriels, interspersed by window recesses and somewhat cascading, defined the character of the building, and also allowed to successfully write it into the slope of the scarp on which it stood (the building gradually jumps from ten to six floors in height).
The houses at Kozia and Karowa or the church in Kalisz were projects that emerged somewhat outside of the mainstream of the prefabricated, industrialised architecture of the Polish People’s Republic. Nonetheless, even within that framework, Jerzy Kuźmienko was able to create non-monotonous projects.
Between 1973 and 1979, Janusz Nowak, Piotr Sembrat, and Jerzy Kuźmienko designed the Służew nad Dolinką housing estate in Warsaw. Making use of the natural local landscape (the estate is located by the Służew Creek, on terrain with varying altitude), surrounded by greenery and hills, they scattered blocks of different heights with characteristic balconies connected by a single supporting pillar. Thanks to inscribing the residential architecture in the landscape, and adjusting it to the shape of the scarp’s slope and of the valley over the creek, the buildings, even though prefabricated, make a more friendly impression than other estates.
In 1978, in an interview for the magazine Projekt, Jerzy Kuźmienko said:
Thus far, I have not built two identical edifices. As one gets acquainted with the rules of industrialised building, one is able to continually transform and individualise the creations.
His legacy proved that this was indeed possible.
Author: Anna Cymer, May 2017, transl. AM, June 2017