Although the theory of Open Form, created by Oskar Hansen (1922–2005), a Polish architect and member of Team 10, was primarily devoted to architecture, thanks to his teaching at the Faculty of Sculpture of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts it overcame the disciplinary boundaries. Open Form became one of the seminal points of reference in the history of Polish experimental film and performance art of 1960s and 1970s, and an inspiring source for the artistic and pedagogical activities of the next generations of artists.
Hansen first introduced the Open Form at the 1959 CIAM congress (International Congress of Modern Architecture) in Otterlo. He developed it throughout the 1950s, testing its assumptions in projects of various scales: from exhibition designs and housing estates, to the Linear Continuous System [LCS], a project of state-wide urbanisation initiated in the mid-1960s. The main intention of the Open Form was to introduce the undefined, subjective and processual element in architecture. This approach manifested itself in the participation of future users to the process of design and the possibility of further adaptation of the executed project to their changing needs. By arguing for leaving a spatial and formal margin in architectural projects for the users’ individual expression, Hansen opposed to designs which he defined as Closed Form. He characterised these as dominant, patriarchal, passive and completed. He pointed to the projects of his contemporaries such as Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille or Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia that were rather monuments to their architects than comfortable living spaces. Hansen accused them for being “passive towards the changes occurring in time” and thus “outdated from their very moment of birth.” Instead, his theory of Open Form proposed to treat architecture as a framework, a “passé-partout” that frames and exposes the visual richness of the everyday life: “the art of events.”
Treating Open Form as a conceptual basis for all his architectural, artistic and pedagogical activities, Hansen sought for opportunities to explore its potential in different fields and scales of design. He tested it in microscale, designing exhibitions, temporary pavilions, interiors and monuments. Those designs helped him develop one of the crucial components of the Open Form: the concept of an “active” or “perceptive background” (both terms were interchangeably used in his texts to express the “passe-partout” effect of Open Form compositions). Temporary pavilions for international trade fairs like the ones he designed in Izmir (with Lech Tomaszewski, 1954) and São Paulo (with Zofia Hansen and Lech Tomaszewski, 1959), or for local events such as a pavilion for the Warsaw Autumn Music Festival (with Zofia Hansen, 1958) were not only meant to expose the displayed products (or music in the case of the latter), but also turn the visitors into active participants and cocreators of their spatial experiences. The most striking example of such approach manifested itself in The Road monument, a collaborative project submitted for the international competition for a memorial to the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp (with Zofia Hansen, Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz, Edmund Kupiecki, Julian Pałka, and Lechosław Rosiński, 1958). The never-implemented design, which became a milestone in the history of Polish art, rejected the idea of a traditional figurative monument. Instead, it proposed to treat the entire area of the former concentration camp as a space of commemoration. The only element the authors intended to introduce was a black asphalt road which would cross the camp diagonally in a symbolic gesture of crossing out a history that should never repeat itself. The road would also provide a space for individual gestures of commemoration, allowing people to enter the road, experience the decaying ruins of the camp and leave there pebbles for the dead in accordance with Jewish tradition.
While testing the strategies of Open Form in mezoscale, namely in the designs of public buildings and housing estates, Hansen revealed another component of the theory: that of finding a balance between individual and collective, between subjective and objective elements in architectural designs. “Open Form has the task of helping the individual find himself amid the collective, to make himself indispensable in the formation of his own environment,” he stated during the 1960 Team 10 meeting in Bagnols-sur-Cèze. “It would seem that society should facilitate (and not impose, as Closed Form does) the development of the individual. There needs to be a synthesis between the objective, collective, social elements, and the subjective, individual elements.” Such synthesis was not an easy goal to achieve in the realm of prefabricated mass-housing industry of a state-socialist country, yet Hansen, together with his wife, Zofia, made several trials. They provided diversified plans for the apartments in the blocks of flats in the Rakowiec estate of Warsaw (1958); they conducted a survey among the future inhabitants of the Słowacki estate of Lublin (1961, realised 1963–1966) asking them to design partition walls according to their own needs (the experiment failed as the apartments were later distributed randomly); or used coloured compositions on the façades of Przyczółek Grochowski estate in Warsaw (1963, realised 1968–1973) to help people identify their individual space within the massive structure of a 1,5 kilometre long meandering building. What was difficult to achieve in housing estates seemed to be easier in public buildings, although most of Hansen’s public designs remained only on paper. Unfulfilled projects of an extension of the Zachęta gallery in Warsaw (with Lech Tomaszewski and Stanisław Zamecznik, 1958), the Museum of Modern Art in Skopje (with Svein Hatløy, Barbara Cybulska and Lars Fasting, 1966) and Studio Theatre in Warsaw (1974), or a defunct space of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio in Warsaw (1962) explored the concept of “building as a tool.” Aware of the fact that the future development of artistic disciplines is impossible to predict, Hansen proposed adjustable designs for public buildings that would house them—art galleries, theatres and experimental music studios that would stay open to unknown possibilities and allow the users to constantly modify their spaces according to their changing needs.
Oskar Hansen, Lech Tomaszewski, Stanisław Zamecznik, Extension of the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw, 1958. Courtesy of Zofia and Oskar Hansen Foundation, copyrights Igor Hansen
The attempt to find a synthesis of subjective and objective elements in architecture reached its peak in Hansen’s macroscale project of the Linear Continuous System [LCS]. Developed since 1966, the LCS formed a proposal of a new settlement system for a socialist society, composed of four linear cities stretching throughout Poland, from the Tatra mountains to the Baltic Sea. Egalitarian, non-hierarchical settlement belts combined the benefits of a city and of countryside, providing each inhabitant with equal access to sun, greenery and public infrastructure. However totalitarian its spatial ambitions may sound, the LCS was also based on the Open Form ideas—the space for users’ individual expression was provided in the composition of individual living spaces, which, as in the LCS’ Western Belt II project (1976), could be constructed by the inhabitants in the space they have chosen for themselves within the given linear structure.
The Pedagogy of the Open Form
From 1952 Hansen aimed to relate his ideas to the students at the Faculty of Sculpture of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, where he ran the Solids and Planes Composition Studio (1955–1970) and the Visual Structures Studio (1971–1981). His main task was to teach the students the basic rules of composition, the “ABC” of visual language. Although a part of Hansen’s teaching programme was rooted in exercises introduced by his predecessor, Wojciech Jastrzębowski, the studio’s curriculum became quickly permeated with the theory of Open Form.
The programme began with a series of compositional exercises based on dichotomic notions such as heavier and lighter solid objects, static and dynamic forms, or contrasts of shape and size. They were followed by exercises performed on didactic apparatuses—devices designed by Hansen and his assistants to help the students study the problems of “Rhythm,” “Legibility of complex form,” or “Legibility of a large number of elements.” The latter device was nicknamed “The Large Number” in reference to the notion of the “greater number” studied at the time by Hansen and the Team 10 milieu. Another exercise that was unique for Hansen, but informed by ongoing debates, was the “active negative,” a sculptural interpretation of spatial sensations experienced by an individual in a given architectural interior. Developed first in reference to his apartment on Sędziowska Street in Warsaw (designed with Zofia Hansen, 1955, the active negative with Emil Cieślar and Andrzej J. Wróblewski, 1957), in parallel to the studies of negative spaces by Bruno Zevi and Luigi Moretti, and the global interest in Gestalt psychology, it distinguished itself by introducing a subjective, emotional factor.
In 1970s the curriculum was supplemented with open-air group exercises that began outside of the academy from the initiative of young artists and academy’s graduates, and were afterwards introduced by Hansen in the official teaching programme. In December 1971, Hansen participated to a meeting of Young Creative Workshop in Elbląg, where artist Przemysław Kwiek suggested to move the discussion outdoors and replace words with visual communication—“a performed battle of ‘visual tactics’.” The group action, known as A Game on Morel’s Hill, inspired further exercises performed by Hansen and his students in open-air workshops in Skoki and Dłużew. There the students were encouraged to collectively construct an open visual conversation, in which every personal statement could be followed by a subsequent voice; thus to create an open visual dialogue that questioned the traditional roles of author and recipient.
In 1973, when the Faculty of Sculpture moved to another building and Hansen was invited to redesign it, he made an attempt to reshape the whole teaching system according to Open Form. The change was supposed to happen thanks to the transformation of the physical space of the building, with masters’ studios to be replaced by an open space for teaching and learning that questioned the traditional professors-students hierarchy. This unfulfilled concept was brought back in 1981, when Hansen, elected by the students, became dean of the Faculty of Sculpture. Nevertheless, his effort to introduce the Open Form pedagogy as an official teaching method at the academy was rejected by a protest of his colleagues. Hansen abandoned the reform and left the post soon after, retiring from the academy in 1983.
Opening the Dialogue
Although his attempts to convert the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts to Open Form pedagogy turned out to be unsuccessful, Hansen’s activities left an important mark on the artistic lives of many of the academy’s graduates. Together with a parallel studio run by a sculptor Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz, Hansen’s curriculum offered one of the very few challenging systems of thoughts that students encountered during their academic education. Thus the theory of Open Form inspired strong reactions—students eagerly entered into a discussion with Hansen, followed or rejected his assumptions, and enriched them with their own interests. They helped moving the initial architectural concept into different artistic disciplines, and created not a linear, but a multidirectional artistic tradition.
Among those who felt a strong need to enter into a discussion with Open Form was the artistic duo KwieKulik (Zofia Kulik, Przemysław Kwiek) who combined the assumptions of Hansen’s theory with their own concepts of games, group actions and for-camera activities. Years after, Kulik referred to Hansen’s concept again, but in an opposite way, claiming her fascination with Closed Forms. Another approach was developed by Wiktor Gutt and Waldemar Raniszewski, who enriched Open Form with their interest in methods and aesthetics of communication characteristic for primitive tribal cultures. In 1972, they started Grand Conversation, a visual, photographically-recorded dialogue between the two artists that continued until Raniszewski’s death in 2005. A graduate and teaching assistant of both Hansen and Jarnuszkiewicz, Grzegorz Kowalski moved Open Form theory forward not only in his artistic, but also pedagogical practice. One of the most important exercises in his renowned studio, nicknamed “Kowalnia,” was Common Space, Individual Space, his author’s pedagogical concept clearly rooted in visual games held in Hansen’s studio. Thanks to Kowalski’s teaching, Open Form became an inspiring point of reference for next generations of artists, including Paweł Althamer and Artur Żmijewski.
Having had relatively little impact on architectural debates in Poland, Open Form found itself another line of continuation in Norwegian architecture education. The Bergen School of Architecture, established in 1986 by Svein Hatløy, a student and assistant of Hansen, based its first educational programme directly on the pedagogy of Open Form—and continues to do so to a varying extent, passing on the enthusiasm to Hansen’s theory to its sister schools in China.
Aleksandra Kędziorek is an independent scholar and art historian interested in exploring the intersection of architecture and the visual arts.