Reclaiming Polish Brutalism: Discover the Emblems of Communism

Falowiec / Gdańsk. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Falowiec / Gdańsk. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

To strip a city of its architecture is to erase its history altogether. Despite a widespread public distaste for Brutalism, the brutalist era in architecture often went hand in hand with political movements promising an egalitarian vision in post-Stalinist Poland. What may now be considered austere and overbearing was originally intended to be anything but; the buildings today carry both an appreciation for their legacy and the burden of unwanted memories.

In a recent article in the New York Times, writer Akash Kapur documents his visit to Poland, bringing readers into his experiences and observations of this complex response to Polish architecture. From sharing its history to short anecdotes from interviews, the piece postulates whether these relics can become alive again.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Courtesy of Wikimedia

More than just changing tastes, the buildings in Poland showcase its long history of invasion, genocide, and occupation. Following World War II, architecture had become a utilitarian practice. Cheap and quick solutions using concrete, steel, and glass were commonplace substitutes for ornate design, sharply contrasting the city's medieval counterparts. The increased prevalence of the Brutalist movement in Poland was indicative of it being a symbol of modernity and a rebuttal to Western capitalism. It represented the mechanism of rebuilding a nation through the power of Communism.

What were intended to be hopeful symbols of regeneration, now sadly turned out to be physical reminders of their failures. Kapur writes,

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.

Falowiec / Gdańsk Falowiec / Gdańsk
Falowiec / Gdańsk. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Falowiec / Gdańsk. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

As a response to Stalin's Socialist Realism, comprising of the Baroque and Gothic style as seen in the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, the rectilinear and bare facade was a form of liberation for the country's architects. This resulted in the creation of buildings such as the twenty-story Smolna 8 tower, along with icons like the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery and the Spodek arena.

However, despite protests by architects and activists, buildings such as Supersam and the Rotunda, both curvilinear public landmarks, were recently demolished. The public's antipathy for this Brutalist architecture stems from its oppressive and bleak demeanor; with limited budgets, less durable materials were used resulting in short-lived and low-quality buildings, coupled with the lack of proper maintenance. 

© Marcin Lachowicz © Marcin Lachowicz

Almost thirty years later, much of the current generation is somewhat removed from the experiences of Communism and hasn't adopted their elders' attitudes about the legacy of their history and its architecture. People who rejected their history for the American dream, now deem their Brutalist towers as "more livable" as they feature the conveniences of schools and grocery stores within. These long-standing stereotypes of Polish housing are slowly dissolving.

Whether an eyesore or the avant-garde, architecture records visions throughout history. Its legacy carries the weight of the individuals who intended to use design as a tool for the greater good. Who, if anyone, should be allowed to determine what is worth saving?

News via: The New York Times

© Marcin Lachowicz © Marcin Lachowicz