It’s a real treat to be able to give this talk in this particular building – National Gallery of Art in Vilnius – because I am going to talk about the phenomenon of late Soviet-era architecture and its current reputation today.
Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN), Warsaw, designed by Lev Vladimirovich Rudnev, 1952 – 55. Photo: David Crowley, 2008
If one surveys the architectural history of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, the buildings that have the lowest status are often the late modernist structures of the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, the architecture of the Stalin years like the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw (1955) are increasingly being held in higher esteem than the buildings that came after them. Despite the association of buildings like the Palace of Culture with Stalinism, they have particular appeal because they offer up a vein of Soviet exoticism and, as such, they call for special protection. In fact, the Palace of Culture and Science in the center of Warsaw was listed in 2007. When the conservators were making a claim about why it warranted protection, they said it’s not just the Soviet form of this building that counts: the memories that it houses are significant too. The fact that the Rolling Stones played a concert there in the late 1960s adds considerably to the place of this building in the collective imagination of the Poles. Architecture simply cannot be detached from the experiences – both bad and good – of living in the People’s Republic. Moreover the building has a clear value in publicity terms: it now occupies a special place in the leisure economy. Its stepped profile has now become part of the international brand identity for the city.
Prefabricated panel housing in Rostok, Germany. Photo: Till Westermayer, 2006 / flickr, reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Sharealike 2.0 license
But what is the fate of the generation of buildings produced after Socialist Realism, the structures that came to form the landscape of late socialism and lack this kind of exotic appeal?
Before I answer this question, let me offer some definitions of what characterizes late modernist architecture. How can we make a sense of these “late” buildings? Perhaps we can see them as belonging to two types. Let’s call one type, 'Socmodernism 1'. This is the technocratic phase of socmodernism. It takes the form of inexpensive, undecorated, industrialized building often for housing but sometimes for work environments too, such as offices and factories. Ubiquitous and universal, 'Socmodernism 1' is usually described in terms of its greyness.
We might describe this order of architecture being closer to engineering than art. Architects working in state offices were obliged to spend a lot of time thinking about building elements that could be fabricated off site, and then craned into place. The most important logic of such schemes was economic. It became, for instance, a design challenge to minimize the number of crane movements in the construction of a housing block. This kind of architecture was to be scalable too: lines of projection could be drawn from the sink to the bathroom to the apartment, to the street, to the micro rayon, to the city, to the country, to the world. Socmodernism of this kind has to be thought about in terms of his banality; its ordinariness: it is repetitious and low quality. This order of architecture was standardized across the bloc and is responsible for that sense of non place for which Eastern European housing estates became notorious.
What was the relationship of this order of architecture to the project of ‘building socialism’? The answer becomes clear if we borrow a concept from historian Michael Billig, one that he calls “Banal nationalism”. We live today in a world which is saturated with images which operate as a kind of low-key nationalism, he tells us. The coins and notes in my pocket, for instance, tell a national story. But the images on our money are so familiar that we don’t think about them. Such imagery forms a kind of banal backdrop to everyday life. For Billig, this is ‘banal nationalism’ - a constant flagging but constant forgetting or overlooking of the nation.
It seems to me that we can talk about ‘banal socialism’ in a similar fashion. In the 1970s in Eastern Europe, socialism’s priorities were flagged all the time: in the press; in the images on postage stamps; in the idea of doing civic duty. All of these were articulations of socialism. But they operated in a banal realm where the promise of a future utopia, the nirvana of communism, had largely disappeared and what remained was a kind of banal, low-temperature socialism. In the 1940s the future had been offered in a contract between the state and the people which said ‘build now to make better world for tomorrow’. By the 1970s, tomorrow had to be available now in the form of, say, a East German Trabant or a Polish Fiat car; a single family apartment in a new housing block or just a packet of washing powder. Supermarkets, washing machines, highways and housing estates formed the landscapes of what might be called ‘banal socialism’.
Now let’s consider ‘Socmodernism 2’.
Did socialism in Eastern Europe always remain in this banal mode? Did the utopianism and promises of the 1940s simply wither to naught? Were all those May Day parades, those propaganda posters produced across the Bloc right up until the end of the system just hollow promises and dissimulation? Well, it seems to me that the promise of utopia did not entirely disappear and that perhaps architecture was one of the rare zones of survival.
‘Spodek’ (Saucer) – Katowice designed by architects Maciej Gintowt and Maciek Krasiński and structural engineers Wacław Zalewski et al - initial design 1963 and completed 1970. Photo: David Crowley, 2008
Let’s consider 'Socmodernism 2'. I am thinking here of virtuoso buildings designed and constructed in the 1960s and 1970s; bravura building that show off their technology. This building in Katowice in Poland is known as “Spodek” (Saucer). It’s a public venue for sports and culture designed by architects Maciek Gintowt and Maciej Krasiński with structural engineer Wacław Zalewski in the early 1960s and competed in 1970. It is a tensegrity structure, an engineered form which exploits the spans which can be produced balanced tension and compression components – a structure associated with Buckminster Fuller.
Vojin Bakić, Berislav Šerbetić, Memorial to Partisan Hospital at Petrova Gora, Yugoslavia, 1970 – 1981. Photo: tomislavmedak, 2012 / flickr, reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Sharealike 2.0 license
Here is later example of 'Socmodernism 2'. It is a monument to commemorate antifascism designed by Vojin Bakić, an artist associated with the New Tendencies Group. A sculptor, he created the concept of this building which was then developed by architect Branislav Šerbetić. Stainless steel panels were clad onto reinforced concrete structure resulting in this organic sculptural shape, perhaps anticipating or echoing familiar works by Frank Gehry. Today, after the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, it stands in ruins – a theme to which I will return.
Memorial to the Slovak National Uprising in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia, designed by Dušan Kuzma and Jozef Jankovič, 1963 – 70. Photo: Sludgegulper, 2009 / flickr, reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Sharealike 2.0 license
And here is a third example, the Memorial to Slovak National Uprising in Banská Bystrica which was designed by Dušan Kuzma, an architect who died a couple of years ago, with artist Jozef Jankovič. It is noteworthy that the buildings which form the corpus of ‘Socmodernism 2’ – like this one - were often produced by teams combining architects, artists and engineers. They were collective works. In the case of the Banská Bystrica Memorial, two structures are bridged over, forming a metaphorical or allegorical architecture that describes the journey of the Slovaks from the pre-Second World War period into Socialism. As one crosses the bridge, one crosses over a tomb to an unknown soldier.
Slovak National Radio in Bratislava, Slovakia, designed by Štefan Svetko, Štefan Ďurkovič and Barnabáš Kissling, 1962 – 85. Photo: David Crowley
Another extraordinary building which is worth seeing is the headquarters of Slovak Radio in Bratislava designed by the Štefan Svetko, Štefan Ďurkovič and Barnabáš Kissling – an inverted pyramid structure with a central core. Most of the public facilities – like concert halls - are located lower ground floor whilst all the offices are suspended off a central column so that they hang in the air. Originally, the structure was intended to mark the end of a major axis running through the city, an arrangement which cemented the building’s status as the future.
Ještěd telecommunications tower and hotel (1963 – 73) designed by architects Karel Hubáček Zdeněk Zachař, and Zdeněk Patrman. Photo: Michal Stehlík, 2007 / flickr, reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Sharealike 2.0 license
And if you saw the exhibition “Cold War Modern” at the National Gallery in Vilnius in 2009, you might recognize this building; the telecommunications tower in Ještěd in northern Bohemia, today the Czech Republic. Both a telecommunications tower and a hotel, it sits on top of a mountain, completing its dramatic form. Designed by SIAL architects including Karel Hubáček, this is a bravura piece of engineering took many years to complete. To deal with the extreme weather conditions on top of the mountain, the construction teams drilled down into the bedrock. This concrete shaft accommodates a “pendulum” to deal with the high winds. The interiors were strikingly modern, even chic. Major Czech glass artists - including Libenský and Brychtová - created meteor-like forms which seem to have crashed into the concrete core of this structure and lend the building a kind of space-age appeal.
The Ještěd telecommunications tower and hotel is an example of what historian David Nye has called “the technological sublime.” This term captures the changed relationship that humanity came to have with technology after the nineteenth century. Historically, the sublime describes the awe felt in the presence of nature, and that, in this moment of awe, we are reminded of the minor scale of our lives and bodies. Wrapped in this experience is, perhaps, a cosmic sense of witnessing the achievements of God. When confronting the technological sublime – namely environments fashioned by man – those limits are breached. Man-made technology marks boundless human achievement.
House of Soviets, Kaliningrad, in construction 1968 – 88 and then left unfinished until 2006 – 2009. Photo: Sludgegulper, 2009 / flickr, reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Sharealike 2.0 license
Certain sorts of architectural structures that seem to capture this hubristic fantasy. They include dramatic cantilevers in which forms are suspended in the air or dynamic wedge-like structures which express a desire to escape gravity (and that seem to be indebted to Soviet Constructivism). Other expressions of this aesthetic include a kind of ‘massiness’ of form. Consider the House of Soviets in Kaliningrad, an extraordinary building which took two decades to be completed.
What holds such diverse architectural forms together as a category of buildings? Firstly, I think “Socmodernist 2” buildings are usual extra-territorial spaces, that is, spaces beyond ordinary experience. This is clear when one considers a hotel on top of a mountain. But it is also worth noting that during the Soviet period in Eastern Europe, a hotel could also be “beyond the ordinary” as a space which “ordinary people” could not enter. Secondly, “Socmodernist 2” is usually bespoke architecture. A tailoring term, bespoke means to have your clothes made specially for you. Bespoke buildings such as these require high design skills, high craft skills and creative engineering. Thirdly, “Socmodernism 2” structures usually combine art and architecture, literally in teams of people making these buildings. My fourth point is a paradox: this is a genre of buildings, but only one which can be defined in terms of their exceptionalism. And fifth, these symbols of socialism required long construction times: some of the buildings were not completed until after the end of the Soviet system.
At this stage of a talk, an architectural historian would offer some reflections on influence to demonstrate, for instance, how “Svetko must have been looking at Niemeyer’s scheme for the Caracas Museum of Modern Art of 1955 when designing the Slovak National Radio in the early 1960s.” I dislike these kinds of analyses because they project a relationship of dependence. Eastern European architecture comes to depend on that produced in the West. It reduces all the interesting questions to one of influence. And there are many other questions to be asked. Perhaps we should be asking what's the relationship of the design and form of a building like Slovak Radio Headquarters to power? Why was it commissioned? What do the state want from a building like this? What was the political ego that wanted this building rather than another one? Is this a form of architecture through which power laid claim on the future? Is this a building that wants to be a kind of ideological accelerator of socialism? Might these buildings aspire to prefigure utopia in some way?
If we consider these buildings today, many of them are in ruins. So if they symbolize anything at all, surely they symbolize the failure of the communist world that produced them. These are buildings that mark dead ends. But why are they failing? Why are they in ruins?
Heinz Graffunder and Karl Ernst Swora (chief architect), Palast der Republik, Berlin, 1973 – 1976. Photo: Jeff W. Brooktree, 2006 / flickr, reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Sharealike 2.0 license
Sometimes these buildings have been destroyed because they are associated with malign power. They have been destroyed because they bear the “sins of their fathers”, and that they are somehow culpable in some ways. In Germany, for instance, the Bundestag decided to destroy the Palast der Republik, a cultural center in the center of Berlin, not only because it was a “ill” in architectural terms (blighted by asbestos) but also because it was a “bad” building in moral and historical terms. This was an act of iconoclasm, strongly connected with a “need” to restore the original face of the city in the form of the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss, a war-time loss. For its champions, the historic palace will restore the historic “unity” of the site as it had been organized in the nineteenth century. The proposal – widely backed – has been to reproduce three historic facades of building, whilst one side of the building and, of course, its interior will be new. The argument about restoration, as numerous commentators have noted, is hardly convincing. Why was German life under the Kaiser more “authentic” than that that in the GDR?
Rossija Hotel, central Moscow. Photo: David Crowley, 2006
Similarly, the Rossija hotel in the center of Moscow on the edge of Red Square was destroyed in 2006 and a new master plan for the site was proposed by the London based architect Norman Foster. The scheme has been beset by problems but for our purposes this does not matter: what is important here claims to restore the original sight lines and spatial arrangements of the medieval city. Modern architecture presents itself as an act of restitution. That’s a strange paradox.
'Supersam' on ul. Puławska designed by Jerzy Hryniewiecki, Maciej Krasiński and Ewa Krasińska and structural engineer Wacław Zalewski, 1959 – 62. Photo: David Crowley, 2005
Sometimes these historic buildings are under tremendous commercial pressures. Land value generates ruins. “Supersam”, for instance, was a supermarket in Warsaw completed in 1962 by a team of talented architects including Jerzy Hryniewiecki, Maciej Krasiński and Ewa Krasińska. It was a very striking structure, particularly its ostentatious roof - a funicular system of tensed cables and cantilevered concrete forms. It was a bold statement of faith in technology when it was designed in 1959. It was also noteworthy as a supermarket, perhaps one of the first of its kind in the Eastern Bloc. Commerce was, however, “elevated” in the “Socmodernism 2” manner by presence of abstract art by the painter Wojciech Fangor, a major artist. Supersam’s fate was sealed by the arrival of out-of-town superstores in Warsaw in the late 1990s. Unable to compete with the French or British businesses, it was slated for demolition.
This is not a particularly unusual story. What is interesting are the arguments that raged about why Supersam should stay and why it should be demolished. The property developer argued that it was an unsafe structure, perhaps exaggerating its frailties. In fact, it was widely reported by engineers that the structure was fully viable. Occupying a premium site in the centre of the city, there were many ideas about moving it too. Perhaps it could change site and function, and serve a new owner, Warsaw University. When it became clear that there was no savior in the wings and the building would be bull-dozered, new voices joined the debate. “Ordinary people” started to write about this place in letters to the press. Protests were organized. Warsaw citizens make their “last visit” there, to record their presence in the building using social media. So much for the arguments about the malign nature of buildings which were the product of malign politics. Supersam became the focus of a conflict between different values: financial values and emotional values. In the end, emotions counted for little.
Interior of Katowice Railway Station architects Waclaw Klyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzynski and Eugeniusz Wierzbicki with structural engineer, Waclaw Zalewski 1959 – 1972
Here is another recent building story. Katowice railway station was designed by team of architects known as “The Tigers.” The railway station occupies a kind of elevated platform that can be accessed by foot traffic across a bridge over a bus and car park underneath. In this way, the station is relatively well connected to city’s communications network. In effect, the station itself is a kind of glass box capped by very striking reinforced concrete roof. It has dramatic pillars which the architects liked to call “umbrellas”. The city came to the conclusion that this is an inefficient building (and perhaps it was). So, working with a Spanish property developer, it decided to develop a new city center in the form of a shopping complex - 250 shops and cafés, underground car park - with a railway station. The merits of the scheme can be debated in architectural terms. But what interests me here was the discussion around this turn of events. Just like Supersam, there was a campaign to save the building. There was a Facebook campaign and international discussion in the architectural press. Interestingly, in the face of opposition, the architect and the property developer changed the way they described their scheme. A new website appeared which not only announced the new scheme but contained a sympathetic portrayal of the original brutalist building. Moreover, a decision was made to incorporate two “umbrellas” as the entrance to the station (somewhat obscured by the blobitecture of the shopping centre).
This gesture didn’t placate the protestors. “This is a destruction of one of the most important Polish architectural monuments” and “We blame the architect” they announced. And just few days ago - the end of August 2010 - when the doors were shut and bulldozers came in, the protestors mounted a kind of vigil. What really interests me here is the way in which the property developer seems to recognize Socmodernism as heritage. A form – the “umbrellas” - which was structural and architectural is shifting to become an image. It’s becoming like a branded identity for the new scheme. It doesn’t have a function in the building, except to say we remember the past.
Katowice railway station is the “victim” of globalization. Other ruins are produced in other circumstances. Bakić and Šerbetić’s “Memorial to the Partisan Hospital” entered into its ruined state during the Yugoslav Wars. It had been built as a monument of anti-fascism and peace, and perversely, in the 1990s, it became a place from which shells were fired and soldiers were quartered. If you go there today, it’s leaking and superating, full of rust and strange primitive graffiti. Military objects, military jackets, and stretchers for carrying the dead litter the floor.
Forum Hotel, Kraków, designed by Marta and Janusz Ingarden for Orbis, the national tourist board in Poland (opened in 1988 and closed in 2004). Photo: David Crowley, 2010
Other ruins have other origins. A late example of Socmodernism, the Forum Hotel, stands opposite Wawel in Kraków, a national symbol, on the other side of Vistula River. A massive cantilever form lifted itself of the ground, it was designed in the late 1970s and opened, belatedly, in 1988, a bad year for a socialist hotel. Now it is empty. Only in operation for five six or seven years, it appears to be left to rot because the developer which owns the building and the prestigious site is in a standoff with the city authorities. Proposals to construct chic apartments have been rejected by the city. And it appears that the building has become a victim in this stand-off: the more ruined it becomes, the more embarrassing for the city.
Monika Wiechowska, “Garden” in the “Hotel Forum 1988 – 2006” photographic series, 2006. Courtesy of the artist
As weeds grow out of the spilling concrete, this space has become more attractive, at least to young artists. In 2006, photographer Monika Wiechowska recorded the building in its decrepit state, in images which show it swathed in the mist rising of the Vistula or with its interiors decaying, apparently abandoned. This is a structure that seems to be going back to nature. Wiechowska’s work speaks to the classical tradition of the ruin - think of Piranesi. Time will out. But when I saw photographs, they also reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s words too. When he looked at Atget’s photographs of Paris, he said: “It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence.” Perhaps the Hotel Forum is the scene of a crime too.
"Hydroclinic". Photo: Nicolas Grospierre, 2004
Nicolas Grospierre’s photographs of the Hydroclinic designed by Aušra and Romualdas Šilinskas in Druskininkai, Lithuania in the mid 1970s point to something similar, namely the idea of the abject building. Abjection describes an often traumatic state of existence, one between being an object and a subject, or of being neither alive nor dead. The abject points to the end of things, but also to a primal state, a state before language. Modernism in ruins is a kind of widespread trope in contemporary art, and, of course, one which is not limited to the former Eastern Bloc but it does seem quite marked in this part of the world. What is its widespread appeal?
“The Embassy”. Photo: Nicolas Grospierre, 2008
The same photographer, Nicolas Grospierre, provides another variation on this theme: that is the idea of taking the ruin and restoring it back to perfection; to make Socmodernism better than it ever was. In another series of photograph, Grospierre presents images that appear to describe the interiors of an embassy from a forgotten or lost Eastern European country, or perhaps an entire Bloc. The country is, perhaps, longer socialist, but its embassy still is. It’s like an island floating somewhere in the world. Photographing actual spaces, he has inserted “tell-tale” details, additions like the security guard or a hanging towel. Empty, the embassy has traces of life. It is not a place – perhaps we might call it a nonplace – and yet it is so “placeable”: we know it’s from Eastern Europe.
So what defines this architecture and these interiors? What defines these spaces? And why are these photographers so drawn to these Socmodernist interiors? Is this a kind of anti capitalist reflex? When the present seems so inhospitable, do we desire the past? Is this nostalgia? Nostalgia is dangerous for art: it is a path to kitsch. Could it be that these images are about capturing the past in order to try animate or anticipate a different kind of future? Perhaps they represent a kind of nostalgia for what could have been.
To end, let me go back to “Socmodernism 1,” to reflect on one vision of the future. “Socmodernism 1” is an order of buildings in which many millions of people make their lives. And the questions facing this architecture remain significant. Today, most architects talk about prefab panel construction housing in terms of technical problems, asking how do we improve the efficiency of these buildings? Or in terms of social problems - how can we make them more secure? I would like to show one example of an artist who thinks about them in a different way.
“Behind the Iron Gate” (Za Żelazną Bramą) is a large high rise housing estate in Warsaw, designed by Andrzej Skopiński, Jacek Czyż, J. Furman, J. Józefowicz, constructed between 1965 and 1971. When it was first developed, it was the focus of considerable popular enthusiasm. Small apartments were accompanied by generous entrances and the lobbies because, according to the new social order, such estates were supposed to produce a new kind of sociality. Unsurprisingly, today “Behind the Iron Gate" is usually associated with social breakdown and with anomie – familiar social problems that are difficult to resolve with small, short-term fixes.
Still from Jarosław Kozakiewicz, “Nature of/for Living”, video, 2007
Jaroslaw Kozakiewicz – a figure who somewhere between an architect and an artist - has taken a longer view. He asked a question in the form of a film: what would these buildings be like if climate change changes the environment in Warsaw?
[Crowley plays a clip from Kozakiewicz’s film “Nature of/for Living”, showing spores growing in the concrete of the buildings of the “Behind the Iron Gate” estate with following voice-over narration:
Despite a long-going public debate that involved the best specialists in the field, the problem of a prefab-concrete high-rise block settlement in the very centre of the city seemed in possible to solve. It would probably still be discussed – were it not for the changes caused by global warming. Major shifts in temperature and humidity levels had a powerful act on the structure of the buildings’ walls. It turned out that the micro-organisms for decades inhabiting the micro-cracks in the walls, had transformed their structure in order to adapt it to new climatic conditions. Cladosporium and Stachybotrys prefer materials with high cellulose content and low nitrogen content – hardboard, plaster walls, paper, cloth, wood, or dust. The optimal temperature for these micro-organisms to thrive in 15-20 degrees Celsius. Plant species, encountered hitherto only in parks and botanical gardens, found a perfect soil in the pores in the buildings’ walls.
The images on screen now show the housing blocks completely covered in green plants. The voice-over continues:
Then it turned out that walls overgrown with vegetation provided a great insulation layer helping to maintain a stable temperature inside the building. Green organisms consume high amounts of carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, and, in some cases, supplement the residents’ diet. Empty apartments awaiting new inhabitants become common property, turned into small vegetable gardens. Thanks to this unexpected transformation, the city centre has gained over 14 hectares of biologically active surface, consuming some 650 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Here‘s an alternative future. It is interesting to think about the differences between this film and those other images which I have presented in this talk here. In Kozakiewicz’s future – the return of concrete to nature is somehow productive. In this way, he tries to kind of claim a different sort of future, one that is different to the doomsdays scenarios that appear in our culture. This is an ironic film, don't doubt me, but nevertheless it builds a future from the most abject objects of Socmodernism, the housing bloc. In it, 'Socmodernism 1' saves the world.
That's the end of my talk.
Tomas Grunskis (T. G.): Did you had in mind to show a lesson how it shouldn‘t be done or how modernism buildings shouldn‘t be treated?
David Crowley (D. C.): I am not a preservationist. I am not coming here to make an argument to say that we should preserve all these late modernist buildings. What I’m very interested in are the debates about preservation; these debates throw up different kinds of opinions and views. These moments of conflict render lots of opinions visible and, as such, present a moment when we can think about how we organise our cities. They also make it clear what happens when we give over the future and the past to property developers and the architects they employ.
T. G.: Ok, but you are telling the sad story about modernism architecture. The question is, do you have any examples of the opposite story, of happy ending of modernistic buildings?
D. C.: Not in this part of the world. Do you have an example?
Julija Reklaitė (J. R.): We are sitting in one.
D. C.: That‘s true. Thank you. I agree. This is a really exceptional example of a building that has been moved from one order to order but keeps it integrity, it seems to me. You know better.
J. R.: And one more question – during your lecture I was thinking about a kind of “selective memory” and I think we can write selective history of our architecture, you know, by selecting which buildings to leave and which buildings to destroy. So what would be the selective history of 20th century or the end of the 20th century in your opinion?
D. C.: I think it‘s important to understand that keeping buildings in the cityscape is not the same thing as writing history, in the very obvious sense that buildings designed and constructed fifty years ago continue exist in the present. We can write as many different histories of our buildings and cities as we wish. But buildings offer something very particular: they are not historical narratives, they exist in the present. So the decision to preserve, renew or destroy is much more consequential than the historian’s decision to include a building or not in their historical narrative.
Skaidra Trilupaitytė (S. T.): Are you familiar with the history of our Palace of Sports and Culture in Vilnius? Because it‘s absolutely ... you just told about some Warsaw buildings here. Well, it‘s Palace of Sports and Culture on the right bank of Neris River, close to this building we are in now. And it has the familiar structure to one of those Warsaw examples you have shown. The developer was a banker who wanted to take it out, to destroy the building. And the interesting point is that the European money just came. So there is an argument that he wants to rebuild it as a congress center and now he is waiting for the decision of the city. But everything depends on the so called „European money“ and I am a little bit, well, skeptical about this, because European funds usually allow preservation of buildings of historical heritage if it provides tourism, leisure activities, whatever, but it doesn‘t really give you sources for heritage preservation. So are there any analogues?
D. C.: What do you think is the future of this building if you would project in five years time?
S. T.: It‘s going to remain here, that‘s obvious. Do you know Massimiliano Fuksas? The famous architect who came here and he proposed some very spectacular buildings to build in the place of the soviet bad building which is kind of destroying our historical side of Vilnius. Architects were skeptical about this. So I think the opinion that this is historical monument of Vilnius now is prevailing. And no one is really talking about taking the building down. But I am not sure about the congress center, it‘s still waiting and we have that few years of stagnancy and no one really knows.
D. C.: May I ask the question: what is the value of a building that stands unused?
S. T.: Well it has absolute historical value because of this roof and it was a commemorative January 13th event in this building, and also Sajūdis liberation movement was established in this building. So of course it has historical value, that‘s for sure, but no one else know what is going to be with the actual structures.
D. C.: So the discussion here in Vilnius is not about the moment the building was built, but it‘s the life that is lived within the building, and that is a matter of the past and the present.
Marija Drėmaitė (M. D.): There is an interesting moment about this building, because of the campaign, the public campaign to preserve the building. It was listed; it is now in the list of the cultural monuments. So that‘s one of the rare examples when 1960s architecture appears on the list of monuments. So it cannot be taken down so simply.
D. C.: A small Lithuanian victory?
Laimonas Briedis (L. B.): Actually, I want to say that it is built on old Jewish cemetery. So in a way, because the grounds around at least to some extent are sacred, by now I think any developer would be very afraid to touch it. So in a way to me that actually ... tells Vilnius’ stories ... layers after layers.
D. C.: Which makes it more interesting?
L. B.: Yes, and challenging. And as I said it has both the blessing and a curse. One of the buildings that were built on that site was the soviet Stalinist era swimming pool, and it was turned down. The developer came and there‘s a funny story that this orthodox rabbi has put a curse on that building in ancient language.
T. G.: I think it would be good to remind ourselves of victories, social victories, fighting for the modernist buildings or cultural spots. I have to remind us of the cinema „Lietuva“, a case that took place few years ago. And actually this battle was won but this building is empty now. Probably the developers are leaving it just to remind us what happened, what we are gaining after this battle. It reminds me few things you told before. You can‘t see this battle but actually it is going on. And this building looks awful now.
D. C.: And will it come to the point when something has to be done...
T. G.: Yes, probably. But I was happy to see how the young architects, just society, were active during this battle. And Julija can tell more about this or anybody from audience could comment this case. It was very interesting because it was almost first time, real battle with developers, but result is very strange now.
D. C.: I am quite struck that there are often strong generational differences behind my stories. Alliances have been made between the young for whom these building are somehow less problematic presences in the cityscape and very senior architects who have professional relations with late Soviet-era architecture. Croatian artist David Maljkovic has been drawn the Exat51, an avant-garde group from the 1950s. Perhaps these generations share a common enemy … architects and planners in their forties and fifties. It‘s a curious situation.
T. G.: Hopefully we don‘t have enemies here in Lithuania. Maybe few, just a few. I have a rhetorical question: what idea or argument, working argument or statement you could tell to preserve these disappearing wonders? What works actually in present days if you have to fight for these buildings or argue that they should stay?
D. C.: I think function still counts. We need to know what is needed and what will be used. Preserving buildings as monuments when they lack function or purpose is perverse. But most buildings are capable of improvement to ensure that the elements of those buildings which were originally quite poor can be sympathetically treated and even improved. I think that we should not be naïve either about the quality of much socmodernist architecture too. Jerzy Sołtan who built in Vilnius in the 1930s designed a number of buildings in Warsaw after the Second World War. He was frustrated by the technical limitations of Polish industry at the time. His conception for the Srodmiescie railway station in central Warsaw is extremely interesting: decorative panels generate a kind of kinetic optical illusion as you pass through the station on the train. But within just a couple of years the lighting had failed and the materials were spoiled.
Lolita Jablonskienė (L. J.): We are talking a lot about preservation here. Thank you for your lecture because you showed another approach, like young artists, to take them as a source. Of course we can see a great divorce how do they see it and how do they present these buildings in their artistic environment and how the real situation is. Can you comment why this is such a great source of inspiration for young artists since for the society it‘s ugly?
D. C.: I don‘t know, but it seems to me that good artists often like to work against consensus. So if the world announces that these buildings are worthless, to find value in them is to work against consensus. Also I think we are told very frequently that the future will be worse. We live in an age of doomsayers who would like to shut the future down. And of course there are good reasons for us to be anxious about the future. But if you are young, you need reasons to be optimistic about the future. And I find in a lot of this work a desire to find an alternative future to the ones that are being foretold presently. And perhaps that future is to be found in unfinished pasts.
Aida Štelbienė (A. Š.): I was thinking about “Socmodernism 1” and “Socmodernism 2”, and was curious how much the difference is in the Western part of Europe? Isn’t it the same that modernism 1 is for mass-produced architecture, for housing, and modernism 2 is for public buildings that in the West are also most outstanding and unique. So the process is not so much different?
D. C.: Yes, I think that‘s probably true. If you saw the Cold War Modern show, you’ll know that one of our preoccupations was to think about why East and West were quite similar, despite the fact that we told for a long time how different they were. When we do the research we know that Khrushchev goes to France to look at panel construction factories in the1950s. This is one example of many such connections. And the result of such exchanges is a kind of mirroring in which East and West look rather more similar than ideology allowed. This said, in the back of my mind, I still have a desire for distinction - to see “Socmodernism 2” as expressive of some kind of latent utopianism in the Eastern Bloc. And this is why I am interested in the formal vocabulary of these buildings, because I can perceive something about them that speaks of their origins. But it is hard to be precise about what that is.
M. D.: Last Thursday we had the lecture from Estonian professor and he had an interesting example: if we take a formal view – it‘s similar in the West and in the East. But then we talk about the devaluation of architecture, for example American corporate building is copied for soviet kolchoz cultural center.
D. C.: In my work I understand that copying is a necessary part of this history. But isn’t the dominant argument always that says the East always comes after West? That is not an inviolable historical rule. There were times and places where it was not the case.
A. Š.: Maybe we can just talk about Eastern School of Architecture, just as Russian constructivism has been very influential.
D. C.: We need a model. I’ve called “Socmodernism 2” an orphan architecture before: we don‘t know who its parents were, yet. And we don’t know to whom it belongs, particularly after the end of the communist system. Is it right to call such buildings examples of Brutalism? Brutalism has very specific genealogy. It was a British response to French works by artists like Dubuffet and architects like Le Corbusier. It was coined by a British critic and seems to have become a universal term for modernist buildings which employ rough cast concrete. And it‘s in the vocabulary here in Lithuanian, isn’t it? Is it a good enough term or can we coin a better one?
Dimitrij Kudin (D. K.): I want to compliment you with the lecture and it‘s difficult to talk to you because we are on a different level maybe. I want to ask you did you talk about Socmodernism 1 in more negative way than Somodernism 2? And why?
D. C.: A good question. While speaking I thought that myself: why I am using this dismissive language? There is a book by a Dutch architecture historian Cor Wagenaar who explores what I have called “Socmodernism 1”. He calls his book „Ideals in concrete“. So in that phrase “ideals” he wants to tell a positive history about a much maligned architecture. And I guess if we would be historically accurate, particularly when thinking about the 1960s, we would have to be more positive than I have been. Think of the moment when somebody moves out of the komunalka and into a new housing apartment. That was surely a moment of optimism for most and, of course, a different perspective than mine.
D. K.: And I think you can find different examples of this architecture and some of them are really high quality.
D. C.: Yes, it‘s always interesting to ask why some buildings are better than others? What, for instance, were the conditions that allowed for more generous spatial norms in some of those social housing schemes and not in others, or better quality materials? Szwoleżerów is an estate in Warsaw, a city that has long interested me, that was designed by senator in the Polish parliament during the 1960s and 1970s, Halina Skibniewska, which is really high quality in terms of build, design and landscaping: as good as anything you would find in Scandinavia. So, why should that be the case when so many other prefab panel homes at the same time were relatively impoverished? It‘s a good question.
D. K.: Yes, I am thinking about Barbican center in London. And it is a good example.
D. C.: Yes, the Barbican center is housing and cultural centre in London built on a post-war bombed out site. It was planed as high quality social housing until 1965, and then, because of the change in politics, it was re-envisaged private estate and finished to a much higher standard. Not social housing, it was bought and sold on the market.
T. G.: I think we have to wait and see what result we will have. I think at the moment we have the silent fight back, organized by the developers. And they somehow are pushing society to do their job – to develop the place or to rethink value or do their homework. Actually developers have to do their work because they own this land. So, as a part of society, we can somehow tell possibilities or tell what we think about these places. But I would not accept that this is the architect’s fault.
Vytis Ūža: It‘s only architects fault, because Massimiliano Fuksas developed nice project in that place, he did some kind of mission as an artist, and I heard many opinions from old architects, really high artists of Vilnius that it‘s bullshit, that this project is bullshit. They are bullshit, not this project. He showed political opinion, and he showed independence. And old architects, they blocked those projects also, and that‘s totally political.
T. G.: You can argue with Massimiliano Fuksas, of course.
A. Š.: Some words about Massimiliano Fuksas. At first when he saw this Sports hall, he said, this is monument and we should preserve it. But later when client came here, he draw totally different picture. There is a contradiction between the big artist and big business. There are two threads concerning socmodernism. It‘s time – it needs time, it‘s a question if there is enough time for these relicts to get objective judgment. And second thread is a free market. It‘s all about being efficient. As you told, these buildings were constructed in another way. From the very beginning they were just inefficient. Of course the only one prompt for them is culture, art. How it is still important to us, how much money we are ready to invest? And it‘s still open question. But I guess it‘s everywhere, not only in postsocialist countries.
D. C.: It is truly. And I take the point, though I am not sure objectivity is necessary......there‘s value in subjectivity too.