In from the cold – built space in the Communist era

13 December 2016

Since the fall of the communist bloc, architecture dating from that period has largely been regarded with disdain by the people of Eastern Europe. Now, however, a growing collective of architects, historians and designers are emerging to challenge the status quo and view these buildings as heritage objects. Greg Noone talks to Lina Ghotmeh, partner at DGT Architects; Dumitru Rusu, co-founder of the BACU Association; and architectural historian Dr Michal Murawski about the conflicted model presented in built space dating from the communist period.

The traders arrived under the light of the moon and perched themselves along the rim of the 10th-Anniversary Stadium. Built from the rubble of the old Warsaw, from the air it didn’t appear as an arena at all, but a vast and perfectly formed crater, scooped out of the earth like ice cream.

A few years ago, this was a place for spectacle, filled to the brim with crowds roaring at the sight of the commemorative festivals, at the Peace Race; the last protest of Ryszard Siwiec. Now though, a decade removed from the fall of communism, the sounds were humdrum. Jarmark Europa – Poland’s biggest flea market – was a place for Varsovians to idly chat about buying a set of battered icons, a porcelain elephant or that set of Kalashnikovs the stallholder had out back.

The party, of course, had never thought it would end. They had built for the ages, cancelling the need to register the popular mood around design in favour of their own priorities. And yet, in so many cases, as democracy claimed Eastern Europe after 1989, the retreat of the state meant that maintaining every one of these structures was no longer an option. Governments never really knew what to do with them, nor possessed the inclination to make a choice, and so private developers decided instead. Stadiums became bazaars, libraries into car dealerships, metalworkers’ guest houses into luxury hotels. Many more began to crumble.

“You could say adaptive reuse is a process that is, in some ways, akin to gentrification in the West,” says Dr Michal Murawski, an expert in the post-war reconstruction of Warsaw. “Often, the more unusual, interesting and progressive process is non-adaption, if the building still does what it was supposed to do initially and does it successfully.”

Consider the Palace of Culture and Science. Completed in 1955 and rising to over 230m, the immense structure has started to become a darling of the Varsovian skyline. Housing four theatres, two universities, a congress hall and a multiplex cinema, it is one of the only Stalinist-era buildings in Poland that has been added to the country’s register of historical monuments. “Somehow, despite much of Warsaw being privatised and given over to private investors, the Palace of Culture has managed to still function in this sort of socialist way, as a kind of grand public building for the city,” explains Murawski.

It’s reflective of a broader appreciation of architecture from the period among Varsovians that seems to run inversely to the era of Poland’s communist period most closely associated with oppression. Architecture from the Stalinist era – with its long boulevards and muscle-bound Stakhanovite statues – is more widely appreciated, not least for its sheer bizarreness. “That was the thought behind Stalin’s architecture, to make it more democratic and have it appeal to a broader audience of people that, perversely enough, is being reflected in the attitudes of Poles towards communist-era architecture,” says Murawski. “It’s simply more exciting and more interesting for more people than the modernist stuff.”

Chip off the old bloc

It’s a state of affairs that the Bureau for Art and Urban Research, or the BACU Association, is keen to reverse. Founded in 2014 and based in Bucharest, this experienced group of architects, historical researchers and conservation experts is keen to preserve as much of the architectural legacy of the socialist era as possible, not only in Poland, but also across Central and Eastern Europe. Their new initiative, ‘Socialist Modernism’, is currently campaigning for the preservation of several neighbourhoods in cities in Romania and Moldova.

“When talking about rehabilitation in particular, things are not going well,” explains Dumitru Rusu, an architect and the group’s leader. “Poor-quality materials are being used, leading to a decrease in value and a generally decayed appearance. Through our projects, we support the demolition of parasitic structures built around selected buildings. We believe closing balconies and any form of abusive rehabilitation should be prohibited, and we want excessive advertising out of the facades.”

Many of their efforts involve encouraging the listing and adaptive reuse of modernist architecture from the socialist era. A recent project proposal involved the transformation of the Romanita apartment tower in Chisinau that, from some distance, resembles a bleached pinecone, into a sanatorium attached to the nearby hospital. “Our colleagues in Bulgaria are also working to give a new function to the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Socialist Party by turning it into a national museum,” says Rusu.

At its heart, the work of the association is motivated by a sense of grievance. Its members feel that, for too long, the originality of modernist architecture and the value it retains as a signifier of a formative era in the region’s history has been ignored.

“We believe the ones responsible for the mistreatment of these buildings are local authorities that promote a neo-liberal agenda that, for two decades, has failed to acknowledge this built heritage,” says Rusu.

Not that the BACU Association has forgotten that many of the structures it seeks to preserve, notwithstanding their aesthetic value, remain freighted by the memory of an ideology that considered human life subordinate to the march of history.

“We understand that this is why this heritage is regarded with suspicion and disinterest today,” says Rusu. “Our purpose is to place it alongside the rest of the universal heritage, beyond political partisanship and ideology.”

War and peace

For most of its existence, Raadi Airfield was home to the 132nd Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment, whose job it was to fly aquiline, fragile-looking planes that seemed ripe to shed their rivets and plated steel at any moment, along with the depth charges and nuclear weapons secreted in their bomb bays. The site is now largely abandoned, save for a newly built structure on its periphery. Completed earlier this year, the National Museum of Estonia is designed to appear as a vast extension of the old runway, and then to take off in its own right. Its very existence is intended as a great culmination of the national story, one defined by occupation.

“In the brief for the competition, there was really no mention of this large military airfield,” recalls Lina Ghotmeh, a partner at DGT Architects. “You could only see it through the movies that were relayed in the brief, because the site was filmed from a helicopter. You could just feel the strength of the place.”

There were obvious reasons why the airfield was not mentioned, at least to the Estonian organisers. The country had only recently attained its independence, and the subject of the Soviet occupation was widely considered to be taboo. Ghotmeh, though, was never inclined to approach the project with conventional wisdom. Her formative years as an architect were spent in Beirut, at a time when scores of archaeologists were happily burrowing into the onion-skin of the ancient city. “The process of research and designing is similar,” she says.

“You have to look into history, look into the traces of a place, and try to reveal something that is almost obvious, or almost has to be revealed, of the place itself.”

Ghotmeh’s design split the competition jury; it was partly through the advocacy of one of its members – MVRDV’s principal Winy Maas – that the project went ahead. “And then, when we won [the competition], the press took over,” she says. A campaign was mounted against DGT’s design, on the grounds that it came close to memorialising the Soviet occupation; in particular, the mass deportation of Estonian citizens to Siberia. Even so, Ghotmeh is glad that the museum initiated a national dialogue on the subject.

“In a way, for me, the project accomplished its role of being a national museum that is not indifferent to history, [one] that is able to initiate a dialogue that is able to be appropriated by Estonians and to be talked about as Estonians,” she says. “It’s not like a nice building that is neutrally occupying a site.”

On the outside looking in

Did it take a foreign firm like DGT to catalyse that debate? “There is always this kind of element of foreigners coming to another country to talk about the other’s identity,” Ghotmeh concedes. “I think it’s already very interesting to be able, as an architect coming from another background, to come to another place and question what identity is, and whether we are able today to kind of put it in one box or another, or whether it exists in multiple forms.”

More broadly speaking, there remains a powerful lure for Ghotmeh in the centrality of ideology within the design of socialist-era structures. It’s something that she feels lacking in a lot of contemporary architecture. “The presence of the ideology makes the architecture that’s left always very strong, very pure, with a lot of spatial qualities,” she explains. Moreover, it’s hardly communistic in conception. Think of churches. “In medieval times, you had the ideology of religion that made the spaces themselves sublime. They had a ritual meaning, and so in this sense, that heritage is worth saving.”

And yet, for what? The design of the National Museum is an act of reclamation, striving towards a historical truth that not only castigates Soviet rule in Estonia but also acknowledges the formative role it played in the country’s resurrection. There remain a few places of similar provenance in the country. Just outside Amari, another former Soviet airbase, rows of moss-covered tailfins emblazoned with red stars serve as gravestones for the old empire’s pilots, lost in accidents during the Cold War.

Set in a deep pine forest, the site is still maintained. Beyond those ruins upon which restoration is reclamation, where building a future shall mean building on to and around the past like a walled garden, it may be the cemeteries, and all the other spaces wherein the humanity and idealism of the era are still regarded with a fond eye, that will survive into the next century.

Rise from the ashes

It used to work both ways, of course. In the winter of 1945, Josef Sigalin – soon to be Warsaw’s Haussmann – sat in the back of an old lorry as it rattled down Nowy Swiat. The city he knew had gone; whole avenues seemed as if they’d been picked up and thrown away. Tram cars lay on their sides, and lanterns and paving slabs lay scattered across the street like crumbled sugar. Sigalin bid the lorry stop. The other soldiers in the back watched as the architect approached a body in the road. Wiping away the snow, Sigalin had found the worn figure of Old King Sigismund, flat on his back and staring benevolently up towards the sky. Four years later, he was restored atop his column in Castle Square.

The Estonian National Museum: an act of reclamation by DGT Architects.
Palace of Culture, Warsaw: a darling of the Varsovian skyline.
A commercial complex in Rucar, Romania, sits as a remnant of the past.
The Romanita collective housing towers for small families in Chisinau, Moldova.
A bird’s eye view of the Estonian National Museum.

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