Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka got married in 1944, during the Warsaw Uprising. 20-some years old at the time, they got involved with the fights during the martial operations – Maria was a liaison, while Kazimierz, member of the Home Army, fought in Stanisław 'Agaton' Jankowski’s (also an architect) Fist Battalion platoon. Just before the war broke out, the Piechotkas got enrolled into Warsaw’s University’s of Technology Faculty of Architecture. They continued their courses in secret classes during the occupation and graduated with diplomas just after World War II. At the time, Kazimierz already worked in the Capital Restoration Bureau, and Maria – in the Polish Studios for Conservation of Cultural Property (PPKZ) which developed designs of Warsaw’s restored monuments, such as St. John's Archcathedral or old-town tenement houses. Also after the war, the architects designed urban plans for small towns and carried numerous studies contracted by the Ministry of Restoration. Although their careers began with reconstruction of monuments and projects connected to historical treasures, at the turn of the 1940s they focused on housing architecture. Still, they did not give up their interest with architectural heritage – alongside their everyday work, they began to study, document and describe wooden synagogues preserved on Polish lands.
'One could say that our activity as designers fit entirely into the era of the communist regime and was preconditioned by it', Maria Piechotka wrote in 2008, trying to encapsulate her career in the Komunikat SARP magazine. During the communist era, the state had a monopoly for commissioning architectural designs so there was not much space left for original creations. The Piechotkas managed to find it. Although in the second half of the 20th century Polish architects could only work in state-run studios, a few authorial design teams still existed. Besides the Piechotkas, there were Krystyna and Marian Barskis (based chiefly in Wrocław), Hanryk Buszko and Aleksander Franta (Katowice) and the Warsaw 'Tigers' – Wacław Kłyszewski, Eugeniusz Wierzbicki and Jerzy Mokrzyński. Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka worked together throughout their entire lives, forming an exceptional architectonic duo – their 'authorial partnership' functioned for several dozens of years (they established it in 1948 and continued their work even after formally retiring at the beginning of the 1980s).
On 30 August, 2016, a mural dedicated to the Piechotkas was unveiled at Skalbmierska 7 street, in Warsaw’s Bielany district. Although its theme is their contribution to the Warsaw Uprising, its localization is not coincidental – it was placed in a settlement designed by the Piechotkas in the second half of the 1950s. The architect duo designed five settlements in that area, which were realized from 1951 (the so-called Bielany 1) until the late 1960s. Maria Piechotka reminisces that the focus on housing was an effect of a confluence of events. When socialist realism was decreed in Polish architecture in 1948, Kazimierz lost his university post; architectural competitions in which the Piechotkas took part ended (they were awarded first prize for the Ministry of Agriculture design, third prize in the competition for the edifice of the Central Department Store, and second for their project of the Ministry of Public Security headquarters); the architects stopped working on their own account. The Piechotkas started work in the Miastoprojekt Stolica Północ bureau. Maria Piechotka recalled in Komunikat SARP magazine:
The commission for an extensive design of the Bielany 1 project that we received in 1951 decided that from that moment the primary domain of our activity was to be housing construction in a broad sense – beginning with urban concept of the settlement and ending with the building’s architectonic details.
While the first houses in Bielany form frontages of the streets and are more classical in form, as socialist realism demanded, the apartment blocks built after 1956 combined modernist city planning (cubical blocks freely spaced out in the greenery) with original architectonic ideas. Four and five-floor, cosy blocks are built with shallow loggias, gabled roofs and elevation obversed with silicate brick. This solution became an element which was characteristic for all the buildings in Bielany quarter, and the distinctive method of laying brick was even dubbed 'the Bielany motif' (unfortunately, in recent years many of the apartment blocks were thermo-modernized and the characteristic elements disappeared under layers of pastel-painted Styrofoam). Some solutions which were usually scrapped from the catalogue of permissible forms at the time because of low budget were implemented in the quarter – for instance, vent windows. In her memoir, Maria Piechotka recalls what prime minister Józef Cyrankiewicz told the first secretary Władysław Gomułka during the viewing of the settlement on Skalbmierska street conducted by the authorities: 'Behold, comrade, the Piechotkas implemented vent windows and socialism didn’t fall apart'.
On a side note, today the settlement in Bielany is called 'Piechotkowo' and has its own Facebook page. There, the inhabitants exchange ideas, communicate and collectively take care of their space. Their integration is a living proof that a well-designed settlement has a great impact on the inhabitants and determines whether they can identify with the place they live in. Kazimierz Piechotka died in 2010. Maria still lives in one of Piechotkowo’s apartment blocks.
The apartment blocks in Bielany district were made using prefabricated elements, even before the first 'house factories' started to operate. The Piechotkas were in favour of them. They believed that – if used mindfully – they did not have to render the settlements monotonous, and they allowed to build faster and more efficiently than it was possible with traditional methods. Between the years 1950 and 1970, Poland’s population grew by almost 10 million – there were not enough apartments for new citizens and the housing hunger was growing dramatically. The authorities decided to focus on industrial production of housing.
In 1969, the first 'house factory', manufacturing prefabricated elements under the German Democratic Republic’s licence, began to operate in Bzie Zameckie. The next stage was supposed to be the creation of factories manufacturing panel building elements. Many architects, including the Settlement Construction Subdivision led by Kazimierz Piechotka in the years 1956-1976, pressured the authorities to find another method of industrializing housing. They were motivated by fear of excessive typization and low quality technology bought from abroad. In 1968, the Department of Technology (under the Ministry of Construction and the Industry of Construction Materials) ran a competition for designing a construction-montage system which would allow to mass-manufacture apartments. Two out of forty designs made it into the final selection; 'Large-size W-70 element open system' won – a work by the team led by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka.
It was quickly deployed into production in Polish house factories. It was also possible to modify it based on the needs of the given construction (thus local variants, like Wk-70/T in Tychy and Wk-70/Z in Zamość, came to be). W-70 envisioned manufacturing of typical walls, ceilings, staircases and roof panels, but the open-ended system of combining them allowed a certain freedom in forming the function and shape of the buildings (hence the name – 'open system'). Maria Piechotka wrote:
The manner of using the system and the building’s architectonic details depends on the needs and on the intentions of the authors and designers of a given project.
The W-70 system quickly became common (it was first used at the beginning of the 1970s in the Nad Potokiem and Ustronie settlements in Radom), but, interestingly, Maria and Kazimierz never designed a single house with the use of their technology. In the following years, they perfected and modernized it in cooperation with the Building Research Institute, but the settlements were designed by other architects. In the years 1977-1979, the Piechotkas team designed a variation of the W-70 system for Algeria (at the time, many Polish architects worked in the Near East and in North Africa).
At the beginning of the 1980s, Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka retired. In 1984, the Polish Academy of Sciences Institute of Art requested their cooperation in the 'Jewish architecture and art' government project. It was a remarkable chance to return to their research on the wooden synagogue architecture from more than 30 years ago. During the next two decades, the Piechotkas wrote five books on the topic of sacral Jewish architecture (the first publication on the topic, Wooden Synagogues, was published in 1957, followed by the English edition two years later). Today, Piechotkas’ works, repeatedly republished and translated into many languages, are part of the canon of Jewish cultural heritage literature.
Written in Polish by Anna Cymer, Feb 2018, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Apr 2018