Disenchantment in a Wunderkammer: A response to Viviana d’Auria and Elke Beyer

In one of his essays from the 1970s, Ryszard Kapuściński recalled: “When I came back from Africa, nobody asked me: ‘How are Tanzanians in Tanzania doing?’ but: ‘How are Russians in Tanzania doing?’ And instead of asking about Liberians in Liberia, the question was: ‘What about the Americans in Liberia?’”

The focus on Polish architects and planners in the two publications, generously put to debate by Steven Harris and Daria Bocharnikova, and perceptively reviewed by Viviana d’Auria and Elke Beyer, might suggest a similar, one sided view on architectural transfer, even if Poland’s role in the Cold War can be hardly compared to the two “superpowers.”

However, both publications need to be seen as markers of a work in progress, developed in the framework of the south-of-eastwest project. This project focuses on the urbanization processes during the Cold War in what was called at that time the “Third World,” and on the role of architects, planners, technicians, and administrators from socialist countries in these processes, which continue to influence the global South today. Since its launch in 2009, the project has been an inclusive platform, developed by a set of smaller collaborative projects supported by various institutions and by various media (research seminars, workshops, exhibitions, publications) and it was based on multiple modes of research (archival research, interviews, fieldwork, urban mapping, speculative diagramming).

From the beginning of the project, its main ambition has been comparative, and in this sense both reviewed publications can only be seen as intermediary stages for the mapping of the complex geographies of architectural exchanges in the Cold War. (Some of these stories were accounted for in a recent themed issue of the Journal of Architecture, Vol. 17, No. 3, 2012, “Cold War Transfer. Architecture and Planning from Socialist Countries in the ‘Third World’”). This comparative character stemmed from the recognition that the metropolitan model of cultural and technological normalization, which dominated the historiographies of the transfer of architectural knowledge in colonial and early post-colonial conditions, is inadequate for studying architects and planners from socialist countries working abroad since the 1960s. In particular architects from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the GDR, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia were working in countries that were hardly Soviet satellites but rather negotiated their position within Cold War dynamics, not only in respect to the two blocs, but also in relationship to various “Third World” solidarities, in particular the Non-Aligned Movement. These dynamics cannot be understood within the center/ periphery scheme, and in Nkrumah’s Ghana (1957—1966) or in Iraq after Kassem’s coup d’état in 1958 and later under Saddam Hussein, such institutions as the Ghana National Construction Corporation or the Almanat Al-Assina in Baghdad, and talented architects such as Victor Adegbite or Rifat Chadirji combined resources that circulated in often competing global networks: materials, technologies, and labor power, but also images, planning concepts, norms, standards, and design tools. But the center/ periphery model is also inadequate to explain the production of space in these countries because the arrival of European architects from socialist countries disrupted the prolongation into the post-colonial period of the colonial master/ slave dialectics, its cultural hierarchies, and collective subjectivities.

With these comments in mind, I would like to address, first, the provocative question asked by Viviana d’Auria: “how socialist” was the “socialist modernism” that the Polish architects offered? Evidently, the protagonists of both publications travelled around within socialist networks of cooperation and contributed to the type of modernization promoted world-wide since Khrushchev by the Soviet Union and its satellites. This model of state-centered, justice-oriented, and promising fast-growth modernization was attractive to many post-colonial governments, for whom the alliance of the United States with the former colonizers was one more argument in favor of the Soviet model. Architects, planners, and technicians from socialist countries contributed to this task by designing industrial facilities, collective farms, large infrastructural projects, but also programs of distribution of welfare among the “masses,” including social housing, schools, and medical facilities.

At the same time, their work was based on the experience of state-led urbanization projects after the Second World War in socialist countries. Some of these experiences were extended abroad, and, for example, the negotiation between heritage preservation and mobility infrastructure developed in the reconstruction of Warsaw found a continuation in the two masterplans of Baghdad (1967, 1973) by the Polish office of Miastoprojekt-Kraków. An important experience included also the large-scale nationalization of land, which architects and planners from socialist countries considered indispensable for efficient planning. Yet nationalization was long part of the colonial “planting and planning” and the specific experience of socialist countries might not have been the one to follow—as the Hungarian architects Charles Polónyi argued during his work in Nigeria in the 1970s. Also interviews with Polish architects show that, more often then not, they were skeptical about the regimes back home and that generally they considered themselves part of post-war architectural culture and its claim of rethinking modernism as “adapted” to local conditions. While in post-Stalinist Poland this meant addressing themes of technology, mobility, consumption, and the internal differentiation of society, in the post-colonial “Third World” these themes would be extended to questions of climatic conditions and the requirements of state representation and national culture. In general, rather than “exporting” socialism, the motivation of Polish architects to work abroad was professional: to be able to realize designs outside of the bureaucratic constraints of architectural production in Poland, to earn significantly more, and to be able to travel—a rare opportunity for most citizens of socialist countries. In this sense, the question about “socialist modernism” can be used to unpack the conditions of their work contributing to modern architecture as the worldwide dispositif of global urbanization, rather than to prolong the list of “other modernisms” which have proliferated in architectural historiography since the 1990s. Among these conditions, the economy of architectural labor, its organization, remuneration, timing, and division, seems to be one of the main ways of distinguishing the work of architects in the networks of “socialist internationalism” from those working in other networks; this is one of the main avenues of the south-of-eastwest project.

Secondly, I would like to respond to Elke Beyer’s comment about the two books privileging the “auctorial perspective of architects and engineers”; and hence the risk that “the manifold institutional, political and urban contexts on the commissioning side are […] being read as mere settings.” I believe that this legitimate concern points to the question of the archive. The main archives consulted for both publications were that of the Society of Polish Architects in Warsaw (SARP) and the private archives of the architects concerned. They proved to be extraordinarily rich, and during our research in Poland we were able to gather over 300 portfolios of architects working on export contracts, with several thousand images of projects designed for destinations abroad. Yet, after the first enchantment at this Wunderkammer, captured in the designs by Metahaven and Jayme Yen, it is important to question what kind of narratives can be developed on the basis of such sources—and what kind are omitted. Not only the archives consisted mainly of images, with very few documents (in particular short versions of CV’s and some letters of reference), but also the selection of images was very specific. Most images stressed the aesthetic and artistic character of architecture, and typically comprised sketches, models, concept drawings (rather than technical and construction drawings), and photographs of finished buildings in spectacular perspectives (rather than photographs from the building site). This is particularly evident in the images from the SARP archive, which were submitted by the architects themselves in order to be granted the status of “creators”: a legal category in socialist Poland which allowed them to claim tax reduction and other benefits. In this context, attribution of projects was essential, and this included not only the architect submitting the dossier, but also his or her colleagues, in particular when they were members of SARP. However, foreign collaborators of these projects from the “Third World” were rarely acknowledged in the SARP archives. In the two reviewed books their names could have been sometimes accounted for on the basis of other archives, in particular state archives that kept the contracts between Polish institutions and foreign contractors.

This “politics of the archive” makes it necessary to complement the studied archives with others, in particular in a transnational perspective. This task has been advanced within the south-of-eastwest project by consulting archives in Ghana and external powers involved in the regions in question, in particular the US and the UK. But these challenges also suggest that the category of the archive needs to be expanded. In order to capture some of the local voices, the daily press in the countries concerned seems to be an important source, which makes it possible to look at architecture not only as an aesthetic and a technological object, but also as one experienced, contested, and appropriated.

Łukasz Stanek, Manchester Architecture Research Centre, University of Manchester

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