Postmodernism Is Almost All Right

postmodernismwasalmostright

“Is Warsaw becoming a city of the ‘Third World’?”—asked the sociologist Bohdan Jałowiecki in 2006. If the city was moving in that direction, Polish architects and planners might have already been well equipped to deal with it. This is because those among the most active today know the cities of the ‘Third World’ from first hand experience in the 1970s and 1980s, when intellectual labor was one of Poland’s top export products. Working in Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates gave Polish professionals an acquaintance not only with advanced technologies, materials, and functional programs, but also with postmodernism as the new tendency in architectural practice and discourse. The postmodern appropriation of traditional urbanity and the rejection of architectural “utopias” of the early 20th century avant-gardes was as popular with the regimes in Baghdad, Damascus, Tripoli, and Abu Dhabi in the 1970s and 1980s, as with investors and large parts of the public in Poland after socialism.

The export of architecture and planning was a source of pride for socialist Poland, feeding into the Eastern Block’s political and economic support for the newly founded states in Africa, Middle East, and Asia. Capitalizing on the post-war experience of the reconstruction of Warsaw, Gdańsk, and the construction of new towns such as Nowa Huta and Nowe Tychy, Polish architects and planners contributed to modernist architecture and functionalist urbanism becoming a global idiom in the 1960s. This included such key projects as the master-plans of Baghdad (1967) and Aleppo (from 1962), administrative buildings in Kabul, museums in Nigeria (from 1969), and the trade fair in Accra (1967) followed by governmental buildings in Ghana.

The political motivations for this engagement had been shifting in the course of the 1970s towards economic ones for the Polish regime was in constant need of hard currency to pay off the loans taken at the beginning of the decade. The exacerbating economic and political crisis of real existing socialism was paralleled in Poland by a disillusion with “real existing modernism.” The failures to reform both of them were experienced by many Polish architects as interdependent, with architecture and urbanism subsumed under the requirements of state building industry and bureaucracy apparatus.

This disappointment with modernism resonated with the critique of undifferentiated spaces of post-war urbanism, prevailing in Western Europe and the United States, and with the rise of postmodernism, inspired both by American consumer culture and the rediscovery of the historical city in Europe.

Yet with the exchanges with the West being restricted, filtered, and increasingly unequal, it was the experience of working in the Middle East and Africa that furnished many Polish architects with testing grounds for new ideas. They included a search for urbanity by a reference to historical precedents, from the casbah to the 19th century European block; the redefinition of architectural practice as the production of images rather than of spaces; and the recourse to established visual and behavioral patterns—topics which became decisive for architecture in Poland after socialism. The experience with modern building processes, from CAD, through construction technologies, technical equipment, advanced materials, and functional programs, to the organization of the office, and contacts with international developers and construction firms became major assets after 1989. No less important was the confrontation with questions of disciplinary identity and the limits of architectural agency within the processes of production of space in liberalizing market economies.

These topics do not add up to a unified design strategy, but rather identify tendencies in architectural culture since the 1970s. They are addressed in this exhibition by a juxtaposition of projects for the Middle East and North Africa with selected buildings designed by the same architects in Poland after 1989. The framing and the selection of details stress the relationship between the building and urban space, from historical centers to suburban neighborhoods. Recognizing the relationship between the building and the city as the specific realm of architectural decision, this exhibition questions the responsibility of the architects for Polish cities after socialism.

Piotr Bujas, Alicja Gzowska, Aleksandra Kędziorek, Łukasz Stanek: Postmodernism is Almost All Right: Polish Architecture After Socialist Globalization, Fundacja Bec Zmiana, 2013

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