This text is devoted to a short episode in the history of Polish architecture from 1945 to 1989. This episode is neither decisive nor a breakthrough; actually, it has been almost completely forgotten until recently. It has not left too many material traces and even those remaining are entirely on paper. I am referring to the designs foreseeing an “architecture of the future” from the 1960s and 1970s which I will address within the international context. These concepts which the relevant literature calls by a number of names—futurological architecture (referencing the so-called “futurology”), futuristic architecture or mega-structures—require consideration in such an international context since, from the very beginning, they were part and parcel of the great global ferment of visionary “paper architecture.” As it is not possible to touch all the aspects of this subject in a short text, I would like to point out first of all the areas of interests of Polish designers and critics of this phenomenon, including its possible root causes.
During 1956–1976 period, the world architecture was swept through by a real wave of visionary projects which, alongside many other sources, drew heavily on the futurology of that era. This notion translated in a serious concern for the future and, above all, in the way it would look like and how it could be channelled in the desired direction. This interest, spreading across a broad spectrum of society, directly triggered the establishment in many countries of the world, including those behind the Iron Curtain, of numerous research institutions dealing with forecasting. Some of these institutions survived the collapse of futurology (which occurred around the mid-1970s) and still exist today. The most striking and extensive legacy of futurology was represented by the large number of usually optimistic visions of the future reality (although pessimistic projections were no exception either). The time horizon was usually determined by the year 2000, a rather mythologised year in those decades. These visions were introduced in (scientific and popular) books and, above all, in various types of magazines and newspapers, including dailies. Architecture offered such visions, too. Interestingly, futurology and futurological architecture, although interdependent—the latter drawing to a large extent on the claims and assumptions of the former—were inspired by the same phenomena characteristic of the first three decades after World War II. They were elements of what George R. Collins called a “sputnik mentality” of that era (especially the 1960s), strongly marked by pop-culture, conquest of the outer space and the attendant unimaginable capacities, the development of communication technologies and cybernetics (more generally of science and technology), science-fiction (at its heyday around the mid-20th century), the profound changes in society and morals, dreams of the imminent civilisation of leisure time, and finally the concerns related to baby boom, with the concomitant and real danger of collapse of the precarious balance between the two rivalling global political and military blocs.
Apart from all these factors, structural and material progress within architecture itself was of considerable importance, predominantly inventions such as modular truss structures of various types or pneumatic structures, as well as all types of plastics, considered as construction materials in their own right. Their use was seen as a chance for architecture to catch up with contemporary technology and become truly “modern.”
The visionary architecture of the 1960s and 1970s, despite the fact that it was strongly connected with futurology, is not usually presented in its own context in today’s literature. It is much more often analysed through the concept popularised by Reyner Banham, namely the term megastructure. The British scholar made this notion a very capacious umbrella term to stress not only the motivation underlying a particular vision, which need not be fully apparent or clearly formulated by the author, but also the formal aspect of architectural or urban-planning structures. The very term megastructure was defined by Banham in a way that in fact distorted its original meaning, which precisely proved to be the power of this definition. The author highlighted the processual nature of megastructures and the many and varied architectural formulas covered by the phenomenon: “from raw concrete (beton brut) through tetrahedral spatial frames to […] transparent inflatables.” As I discussed elsewhere: “Banham was inclined to keep the name megastructure also for those architectural creations that […] are the result of pushing to certain extremes the ideas that have been key to this phenomenon from the beginning, especially the ideas of flexibility and mobility. As a result, just as they were connected by certain dependencies of a ‘genealogical’ nature, also at the conceptual level, large buildings are connected as a result of this shift, often […] constituting a city condensed into a single complex structure and small independent units (capsules) or, in extreme cases, only in wearable devices put on by people and making up their private architectural environment.”
Polish Architectural Futurology in the “Circles of Influence”
One of the most important attributes of futurology (and of architecture) consisted in the fact that it was an international phenomenon. Thus, despite the undeniable and indisputable differences between the reality of socialist Poland and that of Western countries which benefited incomparably more from the effects of the postwar decades of scientific and technical revolution (that influenced the progress in various fields, including architecture), it was there that “futurology” itself was born (as well the futurological architecture) which in socialist countries encountered very serious obstacles of ideological nature on the path to its development. However, architectural visions of the future were also created behind the Iron Curtain, in Poland as well. Since these proposals were part of an international network, we must interrogate the core of this network which aroused a particular interest in Poland.
The circles of influence of Polish designs of the “architecture of the future” can be best discovered by leafing through the press of the time, first of all periodicals dedicated to architecture (Architektura and Projekt), but also socio-cultural magazines. Quite a large number of articles written about such visions, mainly foreign and to a much lesser extent Polish, document the keen interest in the subject. In the press, architects from two creative circles were frequently mentioned: the French so-called “spatial urbanists” headed by Yona Friedman, as well as the Japanese “metabolists,” closely related Kenzō Tange and Arata Isozaki. Less cited were US creators such as Richard Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri, and incidentally only the British group Archigram, key determinant of the neofuturistic current in architecture during the 1960s. Soviet architects were also present, just to name Vyacheslav Lotsev, Igor Gunst, Konstantin Pchelnikov, Alexei Gutnov or Ilya Lezawa. Practically unnoticed was a thriving Austrian community (with the exception of Günther Domenig and Eilfried Huth, the authors of the then well-known design for Ragnitz, 1965–1969), Italian groups Archizoom and Superstudio, the Dutch Constant and, first and foremost, the architects from Central-Eastern and Southern Europe. Only the Etarea city, imagined by the Czech architect Gorazda Čelechovsky, was covered by Architektura.
Such a limited list of authors mentioned in the press may prove the merely tangential interest in the visionary trend in architecture, for which a very small canon of constantly repeated names and concepts was sufficient. To a certain extent, the list replicates the patterns of influence that had been present in Polish culture for a long time. Even disregarding the fact that the work of Friedman and other “spatial urban planners” (among whom there were not only native Frenchmen; Friedman himself is Hungarian) was pioneering for the megastructural trend in many points, perhaps it would not be so well known to us if it were not for the fact that these artists were active in France, a country that throughout the 19th century (if not long before) and for several decades of the 20th century was seen by Poles as the “centre” from which new styles of art, especially painting, were imported into Poland. In architecture, at least as far as the 20th century was concerned, this was not so obvious (e.g. the circles of interwar architectural avant-garde were indeed polycentric), but there is no denying that Paris, France at large, were the places where Polish architects were probably most eager to look to during the communist era; actually, many of them, when emigrating, decided to live there.
As for the popularity of the Japanese, it seems that it was primarily a reflection of their general success in the international arena of visionary architecture. Their fame was well-deserved. Apart from Friedman, it was Japanese who introduced the idea of flexibility and variability, and they probably contributed the most to popularising the idea of dividing the megastructure into a relatively stable supporting structure and its interchangeable filler. Finally, it was the Japanese Fumihiko Maki who created the concept of megastructure in 1964. Above all, it seems that Japan was perceived, and not just in Poland, as a country where, thanks to the technological and economic advancement, “the future had already begun.” Hence the close monitoring of what was going on there in architecture seemed by all means justified and besides far “safer” than an interest in American accomplishments in this regard.
But why is it that the group associated with the British magazine Archigram was not very popular? After all the United Kingdom also riveted the keen attention of the artists and architects working in communist Poland. Most importantly, UK architects were from afar the most influential of the entire megastructural movement, their projects inspiring quite a lot the young architects throughout Western Europe and even (later on) the “metabolists.” It seems that the main reason here was the “pop” aesthetics of Archigram, which was paradoxically attractive and rejuvenating leading to unleashing layers of architectural and visual imagination in those inspired by it. On the other hand, they had a positive, even enthusiastic attitude towards Western consumerism, but they were also peculiarly ironic. It seems, however, that for Polish critics the architecture of the future was a much too serious problem to accept such approach. At the same time, it was contemporary and excessive popular. Commenting on more or less thinkable concepts of foreign visionaries, local authors were always aware of the terrible state of Polish architecture (especially housing) and of the fact that what was built in the country was the “architecture of the future” due to the immanent durability of its construction. This meant that the futurological discourse often intermingled with or transformed into a discourse devoted to the current and most pressing problems.
The general prevalence of Western authors, among the foreign ones, in Polish writings dedicated to architectural futurology was a consequence of the sources used to gain insight into the topic. These were mainly Western, French, German or British, press and specialised literature gathered by the libraries of the Faculties of Architecture of Polish Universities of Technology and the branches of the Polish Union of Architects (SARP). There is no denying, however, that the focus on the Western activities was in line with the general Western-friendly predilections of Polish designers. They felt invariably strongly tied with the Western trends in architecture, also because Poles had their contribution to the development of the doctrine of modern architecture. Therefore, the community saw the import of Socialist Realism from the Soviet Union as a great “trauma.” While Socialist Realism drew on the architecture of American Art Déco high-rise buildings, it was seen as an “assault” upon the relationships between Polish architecture and its Western counterparts. Was this trauma also present in the other countries of the Eastern Bloc, though? This isn’t an easy question, but it can be noticed that the relatively low interest in architectural works from these countries cannot be related to their “futurological” trend. It is rarely that some texts devoted to architecture of other socialist countries appeared in Polish professional press; and the same applied to Polish books. It seems that there is one possible explanation regarding their extremely lower reception in Poland. If this is not simply the result of the difficult flow of information or the aforementioned trivial fascination with this tendency in architecture, then perhaps we deal here with a neat understanding of futurological architecture as a Western domain, meaning that describing it and creating analogous concepts would automatically put Polish designers on a par with Western designers. Therefore, ignoring “non-Western” projects of this type, partly intentional, prevented the “inscribing” of domestic concepts into the Central European, non-Western context.
Of course, it should be remembered that the interest in a topic does not necessarily mean a positive approach to it. And indeed, futuristic architectures, especially the foreign ones, because they especially attracted the attention, were strongly yet not scathingly criticised in Poland. However, this criticism did not generally contribute to the attractivenessf this trend among designers, especially the youngest ones: megastructural concepts were a quite popular topic addressed by architecture students during their studies and graduation diplomas. Experienced architects were also inspired by such foreign concepts. However, they were not incited so much by the particular technological solutions or the poetics of design visualisations, although there were few cases of this sort, such as the Prefabricated ‘Home of the Future’ by Zbigniew Bać and Wojciech Jarząbek from 1973 through the placement in the design of cranes as a major functional and in fact as an aesthetic element, and through the characteristic motif of megastructural visions, i.e. the pursuit of stressing “incompleteness” and “processuality” of the structures presented. First of all, this reflects an adoption of the ideas underpinning the futurological designs: the ideas of flexibility and variability of architecture, its division into fixed elements (structure, e.g. in the form of large-scale spatial constructions) and replaceable ones (fillers, e.g. habitable capsules).
Therefore, if Polish visions shared the same wealth of basic ideas with the Western ones, one should perhaps ask how similar or different they were from the formers. There is no obvious answer to this question as both sides of the comparison were not homogeneous groups with clearly distinctive features. In both cases, it is possible to find projects of the same type, e.g. linear cities. In Poland, the most famous project of this type was the Linear Continuous System (ca. 1966) by Oskar Hansen, and in the West—among others—the Comprehensive City (1969) by Americans Mike Mitchell and Dave Boutwell, not to mention the ironic, dystopian vision of the Continuous Monument by Superstudio from the same year. The same happened to another large class of structures widespread in visionary projects, such as “clip-on” or “plug-in” structures. Polish designs of this kind include e.g. Tower and Tower and Bridge Structures (1967–1969) of the team Wiesław Nowak, Jadwiga Grębecka, Tadeusz Kobylański et all., very similar to the concepts developed by Arata Isozaki, e.g. Joint Core System (1960). There were also Polish projects of gigantic megastructures for thousands of dwellers, e.g. the Sun City—Humanopolis (1965) by Jan Głuszaknd finally global cities or “extra-terrestrial” ones, such as Stefan Müller’s Terra X (1973).
Pointing out these analogies and the community of ideas between Polish and the foreign futurologies, one may notice their unique characteristics. At least some of the Polish projects known were “immersed” in the political and economic reality of the time and they seemed to have drawn on it for the (somewhat vague) promise of their implementation. Of course, it was analogous to a large part of the Western authors’ concepts, which were also based on the possibilities indicated by the economic and technical reality in which they were created. In the case of Polish concepts, however, the “good” that was to be exploited was neither very advanced technologically nor a multitude of consumer goods etc., but physical space and public funds. In socialist Poland, architects could potentially use these two resources for the implementation of their ideas to an almost unlimited extent, if only they could convince the authorities, which were the only, actual dispatchers of these goods, to support them. This could have worked out because, at least in the 1960s, the authorities were keenly interested in new concepts in architecture, especially those which might potentially lower the costs of housing, the main political objective in the construction sector of that time in Poland. A case in point might be the entrusting to the team led by Oskar Hansen of the construction of two housing estates: Juliusz Słowacki District in Lublin (design 1960–1963, implementation 1964–1972) and Przyczółek Grochowski in Warsaw (design 1963, implementation 1969–1973). According to Hansen himself, the two housing estates were to implement, at least partially, the assumptions of his own Linear Continuous System [LCS]. Another design by Hansen was very close to implementation. It was conceived strictly as part of the LCS and an embryo of its implementation on a nationwide scale: a five-kilometre line of Ursynów-Kabaty (1966–1968), which was to be part of the Mazovian section of this project.
Linear systems, like LCS, were somewhat naturally predestined to rely on “nationalised,” as in socialism, land and finances ownership. Therefore, they were quite popular in Poland at that time; apart from LCS there were also e.g. “linear concentration” (1968–1970) and Tadeusz Zipser’s “chain-and triangle structure of a modern city” (1964, 1967). At the same time, all of them offered the possibility of economic construction of residential buildings. None of them, however, was implemented.
To sum up this very sketchy outline of the subject: Polish artists and commentators had quite good, though certainly not full, knowledge of international futurological architecture of the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, it seems that they consciously chose only a limited number of visions and projects, mostly designed in the Western countries, to which they devoted more attention and which were, at least in part, a source of inspiration for them. The focus on the West was motivated by the affinities with Western architectural culture felt, despite political divisions. It did not, however, lead to the copying of the concepts created there, but to the creation of their own architectural visions, which explored the same wealth of ideas as in Western Europe, but “rooted” in the Polish political and economic situation.
Emilia Kiecko is researcher at the Laboratory of Urban Planning and Modern Architecture, Institute of Art History, University of Wrocław.