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//In order to understand, you need to know the Context// Lukasz Gazur

In order to understand, you need to know the Context Lukasz Gazur

Filip Springer’s Zle urodzone. Reportaze o architekturze PRL-u (A Flawed Birth. Reportage on the Architecture of the People’s Republic of Poland) is a book that came too late. Had it been published earlier, maybe the railway station in Katowice would not have been demolished. This is not an inventory of icons but an attempt to understand the times recorded in buildings.


The modernist architecture, socialist-style, still carries the burden of the People’s Republic of Poland. We treat it as witness of the past political era; sometimes even as its accomplice. This ‘flawed birth’ becomes a winning argument in all discussions about whether it should stay or go. Eventually, it always yields space to the modern developers. Especially if it is located in some fancy spot in a city. Our country is full of such memories. The Chemistry Pavilion in Warsaw gave way to a luxury shopping mall, the Supersam was replaced by a modern office building. Architecture lost to business. But what is more important here (and this is the book’s main emphasis) is  the fact that these buildings just ‘cause bad associations’, they remind people of unpleasant events, they hold difficult memories. Criticism is rarely based on purely architectural merits.

Filip Springer wrote a book that tries to look at the circumstances in which this kind of architecture was born. It goes beyond personal emotions (the author was born in 1982 and thus escaped the experience of communism). Springer chose the form of reportage, illustrated with a wealth of both up-to-date and archival photographs. A Flaw Birth tells the story of the buildings and their authors. It presents portraits of some of the most important figures of socialist architecture, such as Marek Leykam, Jerzy Hryniewski, Zofia and Oskar Hansen, Mieczyslaw Krol, Halina Skibniewska. It talks about people, their methods and inspirations. More importantly, it explains how they had to adjust to the system of the centrally-planned economy, to the rigid norms and available technologies. Springer (most probably unwittingly) shows that if we were to look for blame, we should condemn the times, not the architecture.

Elements of criticism (if there are any) are voiced by his interlocutors. Springer is just telling a story. He tries to explain the origins of the buildings and their fate after the 1989 transformation.

Modernism is presented at a random basis. Despite the ‘flawed birth’, there are quite some impressive pieces of architectural skill: the railway station in Warsaw, the meteorological observatory at Sniezka, the Chemistry Pavilion and the Supersam. But it is hard not to notice several important omissions, like the Spodek in Katowice or Nowa Huta’s design. These lacks show that, contrary to the popular opinion about this book, the author does not present a litany of ‘what deserves to be saved’. Neither is it a complete companion to socialist architecture. Springer himself writes that the book presents buildings that ‘raise questions relevant to the entire architecture of this period. While taking a walk in Sady Zoliborskie, it is impossible not to ask ourselves how Halina Skibniewska managed to design a housing estate that is so different from the usual landscape of concrete tower blocks. And did the Poles really have no other choice than to build such concrete houses? When trying to explore the ideas of Zofia and Oskar Hansens you cannot help but wonder what Poland would look like if someone had actually listened to them back in the 1970s’[1]. But the book does not want to obligate anyone to like this type of architecture. Filip Springer is well aware that modernism may be hard to appreciate, as one of the comments about a housing estate in Katowice offers a perfect explanation.

‘In order to explain “Superjednostka”, a building in Katowice, in a way that would offer an almost personal experience, it would be best to stop using any punctuation marks and spaces between individual words. And then, at the end of the paragraph, you would make a pause and say: now you may take a breath.

Mieczyslaw Krol says it was supposed to swim in an ocean of green. Today it is no longer swimming and it will soon disappear.

In his design, he did not use the word “super”. He was much more sober, technical. “An Aggregate Housing Unit”. But “Superjednostka” – a “Superunit” – was much shorter and had a certain appeal. The newspaper quickly picked up on the charm. And then it just stayed this way.

Mieczyslaw Krol sometimes says, it was not me. I just designed it.

It was to contain seven hundred sixty-two flats for two thousand eight hundred twenty-three people, nine staircases, twelve lifts, fifteen floors, a hundred and seventy-three underground parking spaces.

“And a free, open horizon, so that people would not feel so small compared to it. Out there, at the courtyard, they were supposed to be able to breathe”’[2].

In order to understand, you need to know the context. And this books provides it.

Filip Springer

Zle urodzone. Reportaze o architekturze PRL-u

272 pages

Wydawnictwo Krater, Krakow 2011

ISBN 978-83-62376-12-4

[1] F. Springer, Zle urodzone. Reportaze o architekturze PRL-u, Karakter, Krakow 2012, p. 8.

[2] Ibid, pp. 152–153.

Lukasz Gazur (born 1983) – journalist, art critic. Co-operates with Dziennik Polski. His texts have been published in ‘Przekroj’, ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’, ‘Arteon’, ‘Exit’, ‘Sztuka.pl – Gazeta Antykwaryczna’. Author of articles in the book Malopolska. Znaki w przestrzeni.