Going South: Travelogues of Architectural Practice from Socialist Globalisation to Postmodernism

PRL™ by Łukasz Stanek claims to be “an exhibition on magazine’s pages” and its sequel Postmodernism Is Almost All Right would be equally justified to do so. In fact, the two publications document two exhibitions shown in Warsaw, in the Museum of Technology in fall 2010 and in the Museum of Modern Art in fall 2011, representing consecutive stages of a long-term research endeavour on post-colonial planning, global technology transfer and the Cold War, documented on the web platform www.south-of-eastwest.net. The long credit lists underscore the teamwork of several researchers, architects and designers in a collaborative production process. Texts are set in parallel in English and Polish.

What Łukasz Stanek and the researchers around him (foremost Piotr Bujas, Alicja Gzowska and Aleksandra Kędziorek) have assembled is a truly impressive array of nearly lost knowledge, visual material, and planning documents complemented by an oral history project of numerous interviews with Polish architects who designed buildings and planned cities in the Global South. Both publications devote most space to presenting this treasure of architectural documents, ranging from the elaborate hand drawing and watercolours to photographs of architectural models, construction sites and buildings, analytical maps and isometric drawings of urban space and more. Their display aims to “critically address the language of persuasive representation which played an essential role in the export of architecture” (PRL™), and indeed the reader/viewer is quickly persuaded of the skills of the main protagonists ­– the architects – in employing a stunning multiplicity of visual strategies. Having leafed through both publications, the reader truly has the impression of emerging from a fascinating exhibition in two parts.

PRL™ features fifteen architecture, urban planning and research projects in Africa and the Middle East between 1960 and 1990, showing the different scales and approaches of work by Polish architects for clients in Algeria, Ghana, Syria, and Iraq, to name but a few countries. “Socialist competence” in the field of architecture and urbanism was a valued commodity in the global intellectual labour market after the successful fight for independence of many former colonies, as Stanek argues in the introduction. The selected projects range from sophisticated designs for social and commercial facilities in Baghdad (Iraq) to prestigious sports and trade fair complexes in Latakia (Syria) and Accra (Ghana), to several comprehensive urban and regional development plans (e.g. for Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus (Syria), as well as the Tripolitania region in Libya). The urbanist projects illustrate how precise research into traditional settlement patterns was undertaken in order to formulate differentiated strategies for renewal and urban expansion. They are vivid examples of how much more was on offer for export than pre-fab housing blocks or factory buildings stereotypically associated with technical assistance from the Comecon (and no doubt really existing in cities from Ghana to Afghanistan and Mongolia).

The projects are represented by a brilliant selection of architectural documents, framed by Metahaven’s colourful background design concept and several layers of commentary, i.e. an exhibition-style textual strategy. Imaginative headings serve as conceptual tags for the respective projects’ approach and significance, flanked by brief introductory paragraphs and quotes from recent interviews with their Polish architects. Turning the pages, a sparkling caleidoscope of visual and textual references emerges. For example, Stanek applies the term “Post-Orientalism” to capture the design of a clear-cut 1960 modernist office block in Baghdad, devoid of any ingratiating “iconographic reference to local traditions.” This makes an intriguing, bold argument, triggering a host of questions on postcolonial agency and representation, and, potentially, an opening to integrate the then still recent and conflictual experience of enacting and shedding an architectural ideology of “national traditions” in Polish architectural production. Yet the exhibition genre chosen for PRL™ and Postmodernism Is Almost All Right naturally restrains the possibilities for an in-depth textual discussion of such complexities in project histories and theoretical framework. The material assembled here thus does provoke curiousity to learn even more about the interaction of Polish architects and their clients abroads, and to read more of Stanek’s thoughtful, engaging writing on the subject. This is not to diminish the praise of these exhibitions-in-print and the intriguing arguments brought forward by the carefully curated presentation of architectural documents. Yet the professional, auctorial perspective of architects and engineers is clearly privileged. Letting the documents “speak for themselves” places further emphasis on their agency. This,leads me to question whether the manifold institutional, political and urban contexts on the commissioning side are not at risk of being read as mere settings.

Turning to the second publication, Postmodernism Is Almost All Right: Polish Architecture after Socialist Globalization, this question was at once confirmed and dispelled. For here, the consistent focus on the architects from Poland and their output takes us a step further: Stanek proceeds to analyse the consequences of the architects’ overseas experience for their subsequent work back home under “post-socialist” circumstances, focusing on ten projects realised at later stages of their careers in Poland from the late 1980s to the present. Full spread isometric drawings take the reader/viewer on a helicopter flight to discover how these relatively recent projects relate to their urban settings in the present-day townscape of Polish cities from Wrocław to Warsaw. They form the core of the publication, framed by more of the impressive architectural documents produced by Polish architects on commissions in the Global South grouped around four topics: urbanity and the search thereafter in historical urban forms, architectural practice in terms of technology, programs and organization, but also its redefinition as the production of images rather than spaces, and the resulting consequences for the discipline within the processes of the production of space in liberalizing market economies. Stanek analyses these different dimensions of architectural production on global commissions as a laboratory of postmodernism, once again keeping the textual comment rather brief, but making his points through a wealth of visual evidence. He argues that the familiarity with “postmodernism as the new mainstream in architectural practice and discourse” acquired by Polish architects while working in the Middle East and Africa bore decisive influence on architectural culture in Poland “after socialism,” and even afforded them a competitive edge – encompassing not only post-modern design choices, but the corresponding profound redefinition of architecture as a discipline, with the consequence of “programmatically detaching [it] not only from socialist ideology but also from social obligations.” Thus, by strictly keeping the focus on the production of a certain group of architects, Stanek derives a compelling analysis indeed from the grand tour around half of the world, and turns it into a profiled discursive intervention in contemporary architecture and urbanism in Poland. Chapeau.

Elke Beyer (ETH Zurich/IRS Erkner)

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