Can Poland’s Faded Brutalist Architecture Be Redeemed?

Can Poland’s Faded Brutalist Architecture Be Redeemed?

My article on Brutalist architecture in Poland and its link to communism, from T Magazine, The New York Times

Long derided as relics of an oppressive regime, the country’s Communist-era buildings are being given a second look, and a new life.

THE BUILDING SITS there like an abandoned ship. Broad, squat and jarring, the Unitra Telpod, a former electronic equipment factory in the Polish city of Krakow, is a depressing sight. Less than two decades ago, the building hummed with activity, and its rectilinear facade, all concrete and glass and steel, dominated the landscape, imposing itself on Krakow’s far more elegant medieval core. Now the offices are closed, shattered glass litters a dusty courtyard and the steel is rusted. It still retains a certain dignity, even majesty, but of a distinctly faded sort.

The Telpod was one of thousands of buildings built in Poland (and, indeed, across the Eastern Bloc) after World War II, thrown up cheaply and quickly to fill the gaping wounds of the region’s ravaged urban landscapes. This architecture was part of a wave of Modernist design known as Brutalism, a term coined by the Swedish architect Hans Asplund and popularized by Le Corbusier to denote the raw, cold and imposing nature of the buildings, which appear as if standing in judgment of a visitor.

Polish Brutalism was inextricably associated with Communist rule. Once, these buildings had promised a new future. Their modernity — their sheer scale — heralded all the potential of a rebuilding nation, and of a more just ideology that would provide an alternative to Western capitalism. By the 1990s, however, the sheen had vanished from the ideology and the buildings, too. Communism was a bad memory, and its architectural legacy inspired, at best, ambivalence. To this day, many Poles mutter about the poor quality and ungainliness of the buildings: gray, soulless reflections of an equally bleak era.

The tides of history move in and out, though, and recently, Brutalism has undergone a remarkable rehabilitation. This revitalization is driven in part by a new appreciation of the structures themselves, and also by a sense that, like them or not, these “strange, angry objects,” as the British critic and author Owen Hatherley has called them, are an irrefutable part of the country’s architectural and social legacy. At a moment of rising anxiety over unequal wealth and social exclusion, there’s also a fresh appetite for an aesthetic that, in its idealized form at least, emphasizes austerity and egalitarianism.

The Brutalist style tends to be universal; it has few aesthetic variations across the world. But what does vary are its cultural and social associations; popular perceptions of the buildings tend to mirror recent history and political trends. In England (and much of Europe), Brutalism is associated with welfarism and the vast public housing blocks that often dominate the suburbs of big cities. Brutalism in America is more institutional; Boston’s behemoth of a city hall and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University (Le Corbusier’s only building in the United States) are two exemplars of the form’s dominance in government and educational structures. In Japan, it is associated with postwar reconstruction. But in Eastern Europe, which contains possibly more Brutalist structures than any other region, the style is particularly contested, a reflection of a turbulent recent history.

Of course, architecture always bears the weight of history; our buildings are indelibly imprinted by the era in which they were conceived. But probably nowhere in Eastern Europe has witnessed more turmoil in the recent past than Poland, a country that has endured successive waves of invasion, genocide and occupation. And, as the rise of the country’s right-wing government illustrates, the contestations of history are ongoing.

All of this has imparted an especially complex (and convoluted) legacy to the country’s Brutalist monuments. Those concrete and steel behemoths that mark the Polish landscape have long been reviled and rejected for their associations with Communism. Now, in a new post-Communist Poland, their fortunes may be changing: They have acquired a peculiar — if fraught — afterlife.

THE COMMUNIST PERIOD in Poland was itself marked by at least two distinct phases. First came a wave of Socialist Realism — a more ornate, classical style that sought legitimacy by rooting itself in local cultures and existing aesthetic traditions. The streets of Polish cities are lined with post-World War II buildings whose decorated columns and facades could easily be mistaken for survivors from an older, prewar time. The most striking of these, Warsaw’s enormous Palace of Culture and Science (the sixth-tallest building in the European Union), is a 778-foot-high skyscraper in the Baroque and Gothic style that towers both literally and symbolically over the city. It was billed as a “gift” from Stalin; for many Poles, though, the building was an emblem of oppression.

In the 1950s, as part of Nikita Khrushchev’s general process of de-Stalinization, Socialist Realism was consigned to the dustbin of history. Much of the subsequent architecture that emerged in the Eastern Bloc in the late 1950s and early 1960s was plainer, more recognizably Modernist in its straight lines and unadorned facades. It was during this period that many of Poland’s Brutalist buildings were constructed. Supersam, a dramatically curved supermarket in Warsaw, was built in 1962, and the Rotunda, a circular bank known locally as a place to meet in the heart of Warsaw, in 1966. Landmarks like the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery (1965), a low-slung concrete structure in Krakow, and the saucer-shaped Spodek arena (1971), in the city of Katowice, were also erected during this period. (Despite protests by architects and activists, both Supersam and the Rotunda have recently been demolished.)

In Warsaw one afternoon, I visited one of the city’s most striking Brutalist buildings: the 20-story Smolna 8 tower, with a broad, dominating facade that sweeps up to a sudden gap at the top, like the gaping jaw of some Neolithic monster. I was with Grzegorz Piatek, a 38-year-old architecture critic who has lived his entire life in Warsaw and is also trying to preserve the city’s Communist-era buildings. As we stood in the gardens surrounding the tower, he told me how Poland’s Modernist structures had, in fact, first appeared as a form of change within the Communist system, a vernacular of liberation for the country’s architects, who were finally permitted to move beyond the strictures of Stalin’s Socialist Realism. Amid the general thawing of the Khrushchev era, many of these architects — among the most prominent were Halina Skibniewska and Jerzy Soltan, the latter of whom studied under Le Corbusier — were for the first time permitted to travel to countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

The style they adopted was largely a replica of Western Modernism. The distinctions that emerged in Polish Brutalism were less a matter of aesthetics than of construction methodology. In particular, budgetary and technical limitations meant that Polish architects were often forced to rely on less durable materials for complex elements like windows, elevators and air conditioning. All of this, and poor management of the buildings after the collapse of Communism, has had repercussions on the quality and longevity of the buildings — a fact that has further contributed to the public’s antipathy toward them.

Ironically, if these buildings began as a creative rebellion against Stalin’s status quo, they would soon become closely linked — both temporally and ideologically — with the totalitarian rule and economic shortages of Communism. This connection emerged by association, almost by osmosis, as the spaces of communism came to define the experience of communism. Structures like Smolna 8, Piatek told me, may have begun their lives as hopeful symbols of openness and regeneration, but it wasn’t long before they became seen as symbols of the Socialist state’s failures.

ALMOST 30 YEARS have passed since Communism came to an end in Eastern Europe — a sudden and dramatic collapse that, in fact, began in Poland, with the rise of the country’s Solidarity labor movement. Poland has undergone a remarkable transformation in that time. The country that existed in the ’90s — one of food shortages and widespread poverty — no longer exists. For several years now, Poland has had one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. Though the ghosts of the past still linger — the current government has (somewhat dubiously) cited the continuing influence of communism in its efforts to revamp the judiciary — the results of the country’s new prosperity are evident in a thriving middle class and a vibrant consumer economy.

Gdansk, in the north of the country, at the edge of the gray Baltic Sea, is the home of Solidarity. In many ways, it is the birthplace of Eastern Europe’s anti-Communist revolution. Here, I visited one of the most formidable housing developments in Poland, and indeed the world: the gargantuan apartment blocks known as the Falowiecs. Erected in the 1960s and ’70s, these eight massive complexes undulate in the form of a wave (fala means “wave” in Polish), some stretching for almost a half-mile; they are among the longest blocks on the planet, collectively housing an estimated 12,000 people.

I visited a family that resided in the largest Falowiec, at Obroncow Wybrzeza Street, right next to a McDonald’s. Michal Jaskiewicz, who lived with his partner and infant son in the building, inherited his 410-square-foot one-bedroom apartment from his grandmother, a member of Solidarity. As he showed me around the Falowiec, he spoke of an aging population, and of how many younger Poles had rejected these Communist buildings. They were inspired instead by a version of what he called “the American dream”: moving to a stand-alone home in the suburbs, buying a car, commuting to work.

We took an elevator to the 10th floor. From up there, it was easier to appreciate the scale of those buildings — the way they stretched like vast centipedes over the flat land, surging toward the sea. We discussed the curious fate of buildings like these across Poland — some had been preserved, some had been torn down, others were simply neglected and crumbling into disrepair.

Lately, though, Jaskiewicz had noticed a new trend. Many of the same young people who had left these buildings for the suburbs were gradually returning. He explained that, for all the faults of Communist housing, the spaces were actually better thought-out, and in many ways more livable, than the suburban sprawl that members of his generation had sought. The housing estates were self-contained units that included schools, grocery stores, hair salons and a range of other conveniences. He talked of an emerging communist chic that was rejuvenating the reputation of these buildings. Speaking of his own family, he said, “It’s true these places don’t have such a good reputation. But we have a good life here.”

BUT JASKIEWICZ’S GENERATION has a different relationship to history. Many younger Poles, even those who lived through Communism, are far enough removed from its oppressions now that they have a more objective perspective on its legacy, including its architecture. The past still lurks, still haunts, but modern Poland is in many ways less agonized about its history, and more confident, than it was just a few years ago.

In Krakow, I went to the Hotel Forum, at the edge of the muddy Vistula River. A jagged concrete structure raised about 100 feet above ground, it was once dubiously described in a guidebook as a bastion of “Soviet hospitality.” The hotel is closed now. A motorcycle racing track has been set up in the parking lot, its piled tires and stench of exhaust indications of another fallen Brutalist behemoth. The back of the building serves as a giant billboard; the day I was there, it sported an ad for a shiny new apartment complex. The irony was inescapable — I thought of workers being made to train their own outsourced replacements.

But the fate of this particular building might in fact be happier than it would have been a couple years ago. Recently, it has found a new life as a hangout for young Poles. When I visited, I found, overlooking the river, a cafe serving burgers and pizza; in the back, in a cavernous space I imagined must have once been the lobby, the sounds of Ping-Pong echoed off the concrete walls. Across the country, as attitudes toward communism ease, many Brutalist structures are similarly being given new, unexpected lives. It was even possible that the decrepit Telpod building I had seen earlier in Krakow would be saved. Recently, a local architecture firm had proposed to redevelop it, transforming it into a “mecca of young creative people and companies.”

I visited the Forum with two local architects, Dorota Lesniak-Rychlak and Michal Wisniewski. Together, we wandered its empty halls and then stood outside. The hotel was raised on thick concrete stilts, like massive legs: Really, it was an engineering marvel. I had assumed this was part of its Modernist character (one of the points in Le Corbusier’s well-known manifesto, “Five Points of a New Architecture,” is that buildings should be supported by columns rather than walls). But the architects explained to me that, in fact, the building had been elevated to preserve the view of medieval Krakow for motorists approaching the city from the south. This Modernist icon, in other words, was built with an appreciation for the past.

And it was true: From where we stood, the red brick fortifications and green turret of Krakow’s famous Wawel Castle, standing at least since the 14th century, were visible across the river, as if framed by the hotel’s harsh concrete. From here, I could see Poland’s layers of history — their easy coexistence, the way these two eras occupied the same portrait, suggesting a possible and redemptive future.

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