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The center is on the periphery - a conversation with Aleksandra Wasilkowska

29 of July '21

Interview with Aleksandra Wasilkowska - architect, artist and stage designer - from issue 06|2021 of A&B

He builds, but not only buildings, also sets. He practices ecological architecture, not greenwashing. He doesn't worry about boundaries between disciplines, and draws on art, nature, theater and architecture in his work. He goes a little across the mainstream, and a little ahead of it. If you want to see what architecture in Poland will (or should) look like in ten years and what it will be like, take a look at Aleksandra Wasilkowska' s projects and listen to her story.

konsultacje społeczne na bazarze Różyckiego w Warszawie

Public consultations at the Różycki bazaar in Warsaw

photo: Karolina Marcinkowska

Agnieszka Rasmus-Zgorzelska: Apparently you were a student of French architect Anne Lacaton, this year's Pritzker Prize co-laureate.

Aleksandra Wasilkowska: I was finishing my studies in France, at the École nationale supérieure d'architecture de Bretagne, where Anne Lacaton taught residential architecture as a visiting professor. That was twenty years ago, that is, even before Lacaton and Vassal became known outside France itself. Back then, they mostly built small houses resembling country greenhouses, covered with corrugated polycarbonate. I liked the modesty, delicacy and cheapness of these designs. Lacaton & Vassal 's architecture draws heavily on typologies associated with suburbia, agriculture and the countryside. Their early buildings are reminiscent of familiar greenhouses, sheds, agricultural halls, and use simple materials such as corrugated sheet metal and structures in galvanized iron. Their architecture is manifestly anti-bourgeois.

: What kind of educator was she?

Aleksandra: Lacaton's classes were the opposite of what it was like to talk to professors at the university in Warsaw, who often took the position of stern and embarrassing masters. What was surprising was her modesty and empathy. She was very attentive and spoke almost in a whisper. In retrospect, I can say that a class with her looked a bit like a therapeutic meeting. She didn't impose her way of thinking about architecture on us, she didn't even tell us too much about her own projects, but she asked questions in such a way that we would come to the answers ourselves, and she listened very carefully to what we had to say. Lacaton's wisdom as an architect, then, lies largely in her working philosophy of listening and asking questions, and I suspect that the way she treated us as students is the way she works with officials and residents - she asks the right questions and leaves plenty of room for her own choices. It's an unheard of skill to be able to work with people in such a way as to emancipate their own energy. And an incredible gift to be able to build authority without adopting the expansive and domineering attitude with which a charismatic visionary architect is associated.

: The area in which Lacaton works and the register he uses have suddenly jumped from the category of "strange, offbeat, experimental, irrelevant" almost to the mainstream, they have been valued. Will the change in architecture, which is a rather sluggish field responding to the problems of the planet, now accelerate? Will we pour less concrete?

Alexandra: I remember François Roche, with whom I worked in Paris in the early 2000s, saying that France is decadent, that everything that is really needed has already been built and this excess only needs to be reconfigured, perforated and sometimes even demolished ossified walls. Anne Lacaton seems to think the same way in the sense that she grew up in a country where, from our perspective, everything is too much, everything is already designed, built and controlled; it would seem that there is little left to do, it is enough to take care of what is already there, and indeed sometimes subtraction and reduction should be done. The French landscape is designed and controlled to the point of transporting large boulders several hundred kilometers just to make the landscape look good from a train or car window. Perhaps in this situation of excess and artificiality there is a natural longing for wildness, disorder, reduction, a certain kind of primordiality. Lacaton & Vassal recently became famous for a project in which they refused to accept a commission to develop a modernization of the square. They came to the conclusion that nothing needs to be built there, just cleaning and taking care of it is enough. I also really like their Palais de Tokyo redevelopment project, which was based on the strategy of creating space by demolition, reduction and subtraction. Lacaton & Vassal removed all the unnecessary elements hiding architectural guts there, like suspended ceilings, rubbed off layers of plaster and paint, and opened up the basement and warehouses, which are amazing spaces, to the public. In doing so, they not only brought out the raw beauty of the architecture, but also expanded the museum's space almost threefold, and they did this without building anything, only demolishing some walls.

„Architektura Cienia”, tom I, redakcja: Aleksandra Wasilkowska, wydawnictwo Fundacja Inna Przestrzeń

"Architektura Cienia," Volume I, edited by Aleksandra Wasilkowska, published by the Other Space Foundation

: Can we apply a similar strategy in Poland?

Aleksandra: Lacaton is eminently non-stellar and her attitude gives me food for thought. One should certainly ask the question, do we really need more new buildings today? Or maybe we should reduce consumption, build radically less. I admire architects who, with their licenses and experience, having access to commissions, give this up in favor of non-material projects, clerical work or scientific activity. In the pandemic you can clearly see the abandoned buildings. Surely this is a good time to revise one's thinking about the meaning of the profession and the production of architecture itself. After all, we need public housing, public toilets, better public space, but perhaps we could achieve all of this using the resources we already have, perhaps knowing that construction is among the top industries, right after industrial meat production, that pollute the most, the momentum of growth should be curbed. Just as there should be trash fees for buying new plastic packaging in stores and deposits for returnable packaging, perhaps a system of taxing new building materials that cannot be recycled should be rethought.

Circular economy and the use of demolition materials, rainwater retention, the use of hemp insulation and clay - these are all great things, only unfortunately the law has not kept up. A lot of responsibility falls on the architect, who, when preparing a project, must use certified materials, and they are often non-ecological, but they have the right papers. So what if I want to use clay or hemp concrete in a project. These materials are not certified in Poland, so if something goes wrong on the construction site, the financial responsibility falls on me. The same goes for rainwater retention. To be able to design retention tanks or rain gardens, you need water permits, for which you have to wait. If I am chasing deadlines, it is much simpler and faster to design the discharge of all rainwater into the sewer system. These are, it would seem, small things, but systemic changes in the law, certification of green materials, legal facilitation of green-blue infrastructure design, taxation of materials that harm the environment, concessions for the use of local materials - these would have a real impact on the quality of architecture. Architects are unlikely to make these changes from the bottom up.

I also dream, though I know it's utopian, that just as palaces or temples once were, in the future beautiful buildings of bazaars, toilets, nursing homes will go down in architectural history, and that architects by their attitude will contribute to a more equitable redistribution and a change in the production of architecture in general. I admire Lacaton & Vassal for their ability to design beautiful architecture and "play around" a small budget. Their buildings are part of a certain trend of "poor architecture," non-commercial, empathetic, and it is a good counter-example for a generation raised on "big" type thinking.

rewitalizacja targowiska Bakalarska w Warszawie, widok na ulicę Targową, proj.: Pracownia Architektoniczna Aleksandra Wasilkowska

Revitalization of Bakalarska market in Warsaw, view of Targowa Street, proj.: Pracownia Architektoniczna Aleksandra Wasilkowska

photo: Krzysztof Kaczmarek

continued conversation on next page

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