Postmodern Architecture and Political Change – Poland and Beyond

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the conference “Postmodern Architecture and Political Change – Poland and Beyond” which will take place on September 12-14, 2019 at the German Historical Institute Warsaw. We talked with two of the conveners, Annika Wienert and Florian Urban, about the upcoming conference.

You are the conveners of the workshop “Postmodern Architecture and Political Change – Poland and Beyond”: How did you come up with the idea for this event?

Annika Wienert: My institution, the German Historical Institute in Warsaw, has a program for doctoral and post-doctoral research fellowships with semi-annual calls for proposals. Last year, we noticed an increase in projects dealing with the late phase of socialism in Poland. On the other hand, there is a general interest in rethinking and historicizing phenomena of postmodernism (i.e. art, architecture, and culture of the 1970s/1980s) in various disciplines and countries. To some extend this might be simply a generational issue; we usually need at least one generation of distance to rediscover and analyze the recent. However, I think there is more at stake: We still live in a post-modern world, and have not yet found convincing strategies to overcome the crisis of Modernity. Our conference relates to these two areas of research.

As an art historian, I was delighted when Florian applied for a fellowship to conduct research on postmodern architecture in Poland. This is how the idea for a conference that would put these projects in a political and transnational perspective evolved. There is a lot of research on this architectural currentin different countries of the so-called Eastern bloc right now, especially in Poland. For the most part, this is basic research; scholars really have to start from scratch. An excellent example is the inventory of post-war churches in Poland, many of them in postmodern design. One obstacle is the difficult situation regarding archival material of the last phase of state-socialism, when the regimes were gradually dissolving. We wanted to bring the researchers together to share the insights and findings so far, and to discuss topics and questions for future research.

Obviously, we are not the first to do so. I would like to mention just two examples. Last year, a conference with the brilliant title “Pomostroika” took place in Berlin, and this year an English-speaking anthology on architecture and Society under Late Socialism was released (Vladimir Kulić (ed.): Second World Postmodernism, London/New York 2019). Some of our speakers also contributed to this publication. From our perspective, this confirms we are indeed dealing with a “hot topic”, and a research field that is dynamically evolving. In addition to that, it is of vital importance to raise awareness beyond academia. Some characteristic buildings have already been demolished, many buildings could share the same fate in the near future. Whether we think of them as beautiful or not, it would mean a loss of cultural testimonies from a critical period of history.

Why is it important to put the architectural developments in Poland during the 1970s and 1980s in a transregional context (in relationship to other Central European countries) and maybe even approach the topic in a broader way by straddling the Iron Curtain?

Annika Wienert: There are many different, conflicting or even contradicting definitions and understandings of postmodernism, yet they all agree that accelerated globalization is a key feature. This relates to economy, communication, and individual mobility. We could say postmodernism is a transnational and transregional phenomenon par excellence. Nevertheless, we have to be aware of local contexts, vernacular adaptions, biased interpretations, material and political restraints, and the like.

Wrocław, Dom towarowy Solpol (Wojciech Jarząbek and team, 1992/93). Picture: Annika Wienert

Florian Urban: Many scholars still conceive postmodernism a “Western invention.” In our opinion, architects and urban planners in the socialist countries did not merely copy their capitalist colleagues, but actively designed the further course of postmodern architecture, absorbing diverse local influences. They critically engaged with the information they had and applied their conclusion to the respective tasks and problems at hand. It would therefore be fascinating to learn more about the processes of transfer across the Iron Curtain.

One should also bear in mind that despite certain similarities connected to socialist regimes in general, architectural policy had its varieties in different countries of the Eastern bloc. The Polish example stands out due to a powerful protest movement, which brought the regime to the brink of collapse in the early 1980s and contributed to the progressive decline of socialism. Despite the repressions following the declaration of martial law in 1981, both political transformation and architectural innovation continued, though obviously within the limits set by economic recession. In Poland, elements of a market economy and non-state actors progressively gained significance since the 1980s; this led to more widespread postmodern projects than in other socialist countries. Another distinctive aspect was the increasing influence of the Catholic Church since the 1970s and a surge in church construction that was unprecedented in the late twentieth century, not only in the Eastern bloc but also compared to Western Europe.

How do you hope to shape the future debate on the relationship between architecture and political change with your conference?

Florian Urban: Architecture is political in the sense that any new building is predicated on resources assigned by political actors and constellations of power. At the same time, the political history of a country can be read through its buildings. Postmodern architecture in Poland, in this context, is indicative of the themes that appeared in the 1980s which determine political debates to date to a great extent. These were the rise of nationalist narratives and debates over Polish identity, the increasing influence of the Catholic Church, as well as the discourses on postmodern urban planning (small scale, mixed use, citizen participation, heterogeneous actors, visible historicity) or the expanded conception of historic conservation. Looking at historical mechanisms of architecture and political change may provide insights for current debates.

Warsaw, Dom Pomocy Społecznej (1989, Wojciech Hermanowicz, Tomasz Lechowski et al.). Picture: Florian Urban

Annika Wienert: I hope to deepen an understanding of architecture as a res publica in a literal sense: a public and therefore political issue. Building is always a political operation; it is subject to legal regulations, and dependent on political and/or economic power. More specifically, I hope for new insights into the connection between the fundamental political changes that led eventually to the end of state-socialism. The changes architectural practice underwent in this very period will help to make it easier for preservationists to advocate for the protection of select buildings and for society to, if not embrace, at least accept this kind of architecture. It takes more than a conference to achieve such a re-evaluation in society, but I hope we might contribute a small part. Scholars should help to overcome the reduction of this complex issue to questions like “beautiful or hideous”.

From my perspective, a future challenge will be to connect the respective case studies and national approaches. So far, transnational or transregional research is for the most part a desideratum. This is of course to some extend due to the plurality of languages in Central Eastern Europe. And of course the Global South and Asia are also worth looking at, which complicates everything even more. Scholars such as Lidia Klein and Łukasz Stanek did pioneering research that matter. In addition to that, I consider a transdisciplinary approach desirable in order to integrate the findings on postmodern architecture into recent studies on late socialism. To my knowledge, up to now mainly architectural historians are working on the topic, which is also reflected in the list of our conference speakers. However, it would be fruitful to cooperate with scholars from a variety of disciplines. For example, at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw, Dorota Woroniecka-Krzyżanowska, who is trained in anthropology and Arabic studies, only recently started researching the academic exchange between Poland and Iraq in the field of architecture. Her study is part of a new research project launched by the Orient-Institut Beirut (Relations in the Ideoscape: Middle Eastern Students in the Eastern Bloc), so it operates in a different discursive framework, but I think we should look out for such cross points.


Citation:  Postmodern Architecture and Political Change – Poland and Beyond, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.08.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19402.


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