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A problem in a thousand ways. "Futeral. On furnishing apartments in communist Poland" by Agata Szydlowska

06 of October '23

Three decades ago, communist housing was thrown wholesale into a bag labeled "grandfathered." Then the pendulum swung the other way. The best specimens of post-war design were surrounded by a cult, and are sometimes mistakenly identified with the entirety of housing there. "Futeral. On furnishing apartments in the People's Republic of Poland" by Agata Szydłowska sets the pendulum in the correct starting position.

The over five-hundred-page (and, unfortunately, expensive) work is itself, by the way, a sizable case with very substantial contents. Szydłowska, an experienced entry on design, cultural patterns, aspirations and the People's Republic of Poland, takes us on a richly and variously documented journey through nearly five decades of Poles' struggles with the broader housing problem. Because a decent, own and well-appointed four corners, just like today, has always been a problem. Only that over the years its essence has changed.

constant returns

The years, by the way, ran very fast and in zigzags. The development of postwar housing, and the attitudes and expectations associated with it, was basically a gallop. Every decade, sometimes more often — different patterns and ideas. Stalinism: collective living. Thaw: a return to privacy and a little stablilization. Gierek: big plate and growing into things. The 1980s: an escape into coziness and individualism. What gave a sense of comfort in the 1950s, a decade later was already a disappointment. Needs and aspirations grew, with some satisfied many times, others never. According to the progressive stratification of a seemingly classless society.

"Futeral. On furnishing apartments in the People's Republic of Poland." Agata Szydłowska, published by Czarne.

photo: Jakub Głaz

Housing was tugged at by politics, demographics, economic experiments and technical progress. After 1949: six years of socialist realism, then three years of decent modernist construction, then a decade of top-down imposed dormitories with dark kitchens, then prefabs and so on. On top of that, old tenements, enclaves of single-family houses, country houses and suburban houses. Top-down quotas and norms. Housing and cooperatives. The accretion of things and their replacement. And a whole arsenal of household appliances and consumer electronics that were previously non-existent. Changing fashions and needs. All this and more is in „Futerale.” At the same time Szydłowska avoids easy and stereotypes, funny anecdotes, ripped quotes or references. „Futerał” is not a story about a dozen or so nice and „cult” objects and apartments, but a broad panorama showing what Poles lived in and how they decorated themselves. The famous Rechowiczs' sleigh appears as a mention, not as a main character.

"Futeral. On furnishing apartments in the People's Republic of Poland." Agata Szydłowska, published by Czarne.

photo: Jakub Głaz

housing boomerang

In times of widely available inexpensive household appliances and furniture, it's strange to read about the hardships and financial sacrifices one had to make to live reasonably comfortably. And that's even if you yourself had the experience of hunting for furniture and a washing machine. Today, the cost is primarily to buy an apartment. Back then, in the days of cooperative housing, loans were taken mainly for all sorts of equipment, incomparably more expensive than today, and often difficult to access. Appliances that were necessary for everyday life, but also — and this often appears in „Futeral” — rather a sign of status and social and material advancement, which millions of Poles experienced after the war by participating in Leder's "oversized revolution."

"Futeral. On furnishing apartments in the People's Republic of Poland." Agata Szydłowska, published by Czarne.

photo: Jakub Głaz

Szydłowska leads us through the People's Republic of Poland according to chronology, touching on the topics most important for each period. Topics that like to repeat themselves, because certain problems returned like a boomerang, and several times. Shortages, shortages, defects, slips in the construction of apartments, acquiring and "fixing" (instead of simply buying) furniture, refrigerators, tiles, carpets. However, these are not sentimental reminiscences, but a story documented with texts from old magazines, guidebooks, newsreels and literature. Quotations from the frequent post-war diaries submitted to calls from various magazines are valuable. The voices of the intelligentsia, workers and farmers are heard . The illustrations give a glimpse of their dwellings as documented by sociologists and researchers of ways of living. But Szydlowska draws not only on archival material. She also reports on her contemporary visits to houses and apartments, representative of a particular period or type of residence. She gives voice to their occupants. The result is a wide and rich panorama of- as the author puts it in her introduction — "what is common rather than what is unique."

school of housing

It is also „Futeral” an interesting story about how Poles were taught to live — hygienically, sensibly and modernly. From the elementary matters that had to be taught to rural residents migrating to the cities, to more advanced knowledge of rational furniture placement, coping with cramped square meters and shortages (the great career of DIY and appliances made „by our own industry"). Different and variable over the years were the shades of these teachings: practical, paternalistic, aspirational. The author, who usually avoids over-commentary, dresses them up with acerbic little pinches. As are the manifestations of exaggeration — both in the pursuit of the residential asceticism of the early years of the People's Republic of Poland and the stylistic eccentricities of the 1980s. For example, the juxtaposition of designer interiors from the colorful magazine "My House” with the events and crisis of the early 1980s is telling.

"Futeral. On decorating apartments in the People's Republic of Poland." Agata Szydłowska, published by Czarne.

photo: Jakub Glaz

With a similar distance Szydłowska treats casting as an educational tool the modern architecture itself, which by its form was supposed to shape a way of life far from ostentation and petty bourgeois habits. However, already in the unlucky 1960s for the level of housing, architecture could not be a good teacher. And then the attempts to shape the "new man," his tastes and attitudes, practically abandoned in the Gierek decade of consumption and the growth of the bourgeoisie of the new breed, weakened.

But — not only the bourgeoisie. Admittedly, „Futeral” is mainly about apartments and cities, but single-family homes and smaller towns, much less documented in the literature, magazines and guidance of the time, are also present. A black hole was brewing between the apartment and the country house, which also received attention. Until the 1980s, there was little advice on how to furnish a bungalow or terraced house, even though individual construction was booming under Gierek. Szydlowska fills this gap with an interesting example of her grandparents' house in a small town 70 kilometers from Warsaw.

absent city in the countryside

On the other hand, the countryside, with its great leap into electricity, modernity and urban enervating, appears relatively rarely in „Futerale.” And completely absent is the Pegeer village, with its typical one-story blocks of flats also omitted from many other books about architecture and life in the People's Republic of Poland. Perhaps this niche has already been developed by some scholar in a doctoral dissertation dusting in the archives, but the knowledge of half-urban, half-rural forms of collective life has not yet reached wider circulation.
So let's return to the cities. Did the decades of the People's Republic of Poland succeed in „educating” society to live rationally in apartments? Have attempts at aesthetic and architectural education succeeded? Only partially. The gap between theory and practice was so great that this project could not succeed. But — as Szydlowska notes in passing — the growing conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s in the creation of housing spaces, translated (or simply interacted) with a renaissance of moral conservatism, the fruit of which are today's political attitudes of a large part of the Polish population. It turns out that architecture does, perhaps, have an impact on society, albeit in a different way than the postwar reformers imagined.

"Futeral. On furnishing apartments in the People's Republic of Poland." Agata Szydłowska, published by Czarne.

photo: Jakub Głaz

They also failed to solidify in Poles an awareness of what kind of apartment — its square footage, layout and location in the city — makes sense (something developers have been preying on for decades). Perhaps that's because we've only inhabited decently laid out units with sensible square meters for less than two decades — since 1975, when the norms defining the maximum number of square meters for particular types of housing went up. At the same time, the advantages of these luxurious by today's standards meters were obscured by terrible workmanship or were simply burdened by the stereotype of "communist" construction.

It is also difficult to judge or depict communist housing with text or illustrations alone. Also important are the smells, sounds, and temperature in the apartments and stairwells. The latter were a great contrast to the more and more polished dwellings swathed in furniture and lounge sets. Szydłowska mentions this primarily in connection with the last decades of the People's Republic of Poland, when poorly finished large-panel blocks of flats were built en masse, although even before that vandalism and shoddiness were at their best in apartment houses. The taming of noises, smells and drafts is perfectly reflected in the quoted excerpts from the prose of Miron Bialoszewski moved to a new apartment block in Warsaw's Praga district in 1976.

many margins

It is worth reminding ourselves here that most stairwells and gates were open to the public. Intercoms (especially working ones) were rare. The public space in its then uninteresting way did not stop, as it does today, at the threshold of the building or the fence surrounding it, but went up to the doors of apartments. It absorbed elevators, stairwells, courtyards, lobbies, gates — accessible to everyone. „Nobody's” — Devastated, dirty, stinking. Who knows if the flight from the apartment building to one's own home typical in the 1990s for the aspiring middle class has one of its sources not so much in the forms of housing, but in the condition of the devastated stairwells and gates, which, by the way, looked like they had been taken out of a dog's throat from the very beginning.

Such considerations abound in the margins of "Futeral," which is also helped by solid footnotes, bibliography and iconography. There could even be more illustrations, sometimes at the expense of text describing unpublished photos or magazine pages in the book. It is, therefore, „Futeral” and a solid dose of knowledge and a starting point for further research or publication. It reminds the elderly of the old days, and shows the young the differences between the various decades of People's Poland, often treated today as an archetypal monolith. Finally, the final pages of „Futeral” are a prelude to another important story. It will be interesting to read someday a book of similar quality about the ways of living and arranging in the past almost thirty-five post-transformation years.

Jakub Głaz

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