Going South to Meet the West? The Blurred Boundaries of Polish (Post)modernism

With the two richly-illustrated exhibition catalogues on Polish architectural practices and their intertwinement with post-colonialism, (post)modernism, socialism, and globalization, Lukasz Stanek offers us a great deal to ponder. He does this with a reader-friendly lightness of style and wonderful documentation supported by attractive graphic design, though this does not keep his research from delving deeply into the implications that the export of intellectual labour and political ideology before and after 1989 represented. While PRL™ Export Architecture and Urbanism from Socialist Poland illustrates the significant contribution of Polish architects to framing modernist architecture as a globally effective solution to (urban) development, Postmodernism Is Almost All Right: Polish Architecture after Socialist Globalization reveals the impact of these experiences abroad on post-socialist Poland. The overall story the two volumes make manifest goes something like this: socialist modernism was successfully exported abroad from Poland to Africa and the Middle East. However, by encountering both the traditional and exotic ‘other,’ in addition to a technological and programmatic ‘otherness’ which only professional experience in the ‘South’ could offer, socialist modernism morphed into a post-modernist and post-socialist approach to space and society. Finally, the latter ends up disengaging itself from ideology and civic responsibility alike; modernism is easily dropped off the map and held as a scapegoat for the demise of socialism back home.

Taken together, these works not only upset a number of accepted genealogies on how cities and spaces were produced in the context of developing the ‘Third World,’ but they also emphasize how the alliance of modernism cum socialism as a top export product culminated in the crisis of both. Nonetheless, two main lines of interrogation linger on with persistence after reading Stanek’s works. Firstly, his attachment to the idea of architecture and urbanism as an exportable product raises some further questions about the implications of using this notion, not just from the perspective of professional agency. The author indeed specifies that practitioners recruited by specialized agencies were far from producing a homogeneous approach to design, and also makes clear that the term was embedded in the actual vocabulary of such agencies, as the case of CEPOK aptly underscores. Nonetheless, one would have hoped for a further elaboration vis-à-vis the challenge of adopting such an analytical framework to describe the itineraries of expertise and knowledge, which has recognizably undermined the importance of both local agency and metis.  By means of the wide array of projects selected, Stanek successfully shows how the seemingly homogeneous narrative of agencies offering qualified labour broke down into multiple experiences on the ground. Polservice might have offered a coherent story, inclusive of a glamorous packaging that the pamphlets reproduced in both volumes corroborate, but this coherence is likely to have been broken down not just in Poland itself, but also in the very contexts where professionals had the opportunity to practice. Of these we hear little of, though Stanek mentions ‘local collaborators’ en passant and specifies that they were more often that not unqualified. For the large part, however, the author glides over who these might have been and what the specific impact the collaboration might have had on the genesis of the projects presented.

Thanks to Stanek’s articulate insights and eye-opening contribution, one craves therefore for a third side to the story: what exactly happened in the Middle Eastern sites and North and West African nations where Polish modernism was being ‘exported’? By now we know that even a global practice such as that of Doxiadis Associates owes its ‘amended modernism’ to the crucial contribution of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy and his knowledge of the local vernacular.  This becomes especially interesting when one reads from Stanek that not only the 19th century European block, but also the historical centre of Aleppo, were main cases in point for the reaffirmation of traditional urbanity by Polish professionals having worked abroad.  He stresses the crucial experience of reconstruction in cities such as Warsaw and Gdansk, the new town developments such as Nova Huta and Nowe Tychy, but also the casbahs and souks of the South. These references remain, however, a world apart. It is revealing, by contrast, that architects travelling from Western Europe to Africa throughout the 1960s and 1970s frequently invested its vernacular environment with both ‘archetypical’ and ‘everyday’ qualities, and one is therefore left to wonder if comparable projections may be identified in the varying alliances Polish professionals might (or not) have forged with their contexts of operation. Was the socialist modernism presented abroad by Polish consultants more modernist than it was socialist—and more modernist than modernism exported from Western Europe—being moved by a design that was less prepared to hybridise with the vernacular because it was free from the “white man’s burden”? Rather than a (guilt-laden?) orientalist fascination with the authenticity of local customs, or the challenge to conceive an alternative socialist cityscape, Stanek seems to hint that Polish professionals were mostly intrigued by the technologies and programmes that they had hardly encountered in a socialist world. Speaking more broadly, and if it makes any sense to rely on such cardinal directions, it was the ‘West’ in the ‘South’ that Polish architects encountered and enjoyed, not just the ‘South’ itself.

This leads us to a second set of related questions concerning Stanek’s study. In Postmodernism Is Almost All Right, the author unravels the critical iteration between socialist globalization and postmodernist design by focusing on the notions of urbanity, practice, image, and discipline. Reproductions of original drawings and axonometric views exposing post-socialist projects in context and built in Poland support this endeavor tremendously and must be applauded. In the large majority of these pages one cannot help but notice the contrast between some of the case studies and the multi-story housing blocks that the minds of many commonly equate not just with modernism, but also with socialism. Moreover, when turning to the pages of PRL™ we discover several designers were reluctant to include iconographic references to local tradition in their architectural proposals, as the case of the office building in Jamhuriya Street (Baghdad) exemplifies. In trying to identify some unifying trends in what was a multi-faceted production, one cannot but wonder further exactly what brands of socialism and modernism Polservice consultants were ‘exporting’. And how did all this differ from architectural and urban design production back in Poland, if at all? How did socialist ideals play out in practice and how were they made manifest in design decisions? By being socialist, were architecture and urban design also the vehicle of a genuinely post-colonial modernism, expressed in the avoidance of racial segregation, for example?  Were professionals contracted by Polservice also part of other networks that transcended the requirements of their consultancy services? We learn much on how significantly these experiences influenced the establishment of postmodernism in post-1989 Poland, but not really how design offices busy in the Middle East and Africa might have been occupied with sustaining reformist goals and any trace of critical internationalism before the postmodernist wave would take the scene.

If so many questions are advanced, it is only to emphasize the relevance of Stanek’s work.  Ultimately the author invites us to reflect on the challenges facing any scholar writing (post)modernism’s entangled histories that transcend boundaries between the First, Second, and Third Worlds, as well as North/South geographies. Through his work on the iterative practices of Polish architects working abroad and back in their home country, the author leads us face to face with a cold fact: namely, the limits of architectural agency within processes of the production of space that still remains very relevant today.

Viviana d’Auria, University of Leaven

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