Can Poland’s Faded Brutalist Architecture Be Redeemed?

THE BUILDING SITS there like an abandoned ship. Broad, squat and jarring, the Unitra Telpod, a former electronic equipment factory in the Polish city of Krakow, is a depressing sight. Less than two decades ago, the building hummed with activity, and its rectilinear facade, all concrete and glass and steel, dominated the landscape, imposing itself on Krakow’s far more elegant medieval core. Now the offices are closed, shattered glass litters a dusty courtyard and the steel is rusted. It still retains a certain dignity, even majesty, but of a distinctly faded sort.

The Telpod was one of thousands of buildings built in Poland (and, indeed, across the Eastern Bloc) after World War II, thrown up cheaply and quickly to fill the gaping wounds of the region’s ravaged urban landscapes. This architecture was part of a wave of Modernist design known as Brutalism, a term coined by the Swedish architect Hans Asplund and popularized by Le Corbusier to denote the raw, cold and imposing nature of the buildings, which appear as if standing in judgment of a visitor.

Polish Brutalism was inextricably associated with Communist rule. Once, these buildings had promised a new future. Their modernity — their sheer scale — heralded all the potential of a rebuilding nation, and of a more just ideology that would provide an alternative to Western capitalism. By the 1990s, however, the sheen had vanished from the ideology and the buildings, too. Communism was a bad memory, and its architectural legacy inspired, at best, ambivalence. To this day, many Poles mutter about the poor quality and ungainliness of the buildings: gray, soulless reflections of an equally bleak era.

The tides of history move in and out, though, and recently, Brutalism has undergone a remarkable rehabilitation. This revitalization is driven in part by a new appreciation of the structures themselves, and also by a sense that, like them or not, these “strange, angry objects,” as the British critic and author Owen Hatherley has called them, are an irrefutable part of the country’s architectural and social legacy. At a moment of rising anxiety over unequal wealth and social exclusion, there’s also a fresh appetite for an aesthetic that, in its idealized form at least, emphasizes austerity and egalitarianism.

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