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08 of March '22

interview fromA&B 01/2022 issue

Values, ideas, mission, responsibility - a whole catalog of big words - versus function, market, PUM... We open the year with a bird's eye view of these issues in contemporary Polish architecture.

Grzegorz Piątek

Grzegorz PIĄTEK
- graduate of the Faculty of Architecture, Warsaw University of Technology (2006), architecture critic, publicist, writer, translator and curator. Co-author of the exhibition "Hotel Polonia. The Afterlife of Buildings" awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Author of the books "The Best City in the World. Warsaw in Reconstruction 1944-1949" (2020) and "Indestructible. Bohdan Pniewski - Architect of Salon and Power" (2021). In 2022 his book on the design and construction of Gdynia will be published.

Katarzyna Jagodzinska
: Let's start with what lies beneath the architectural form - functions on the one hand, ideas, values, a sense of responsibility on the other. Where are we in this discussion today? During the pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion about the directions architecture will or can take, about adapting to changes in public space. Does the state of emergency we live in affect architects' reflections or change anything?

Grzegorz Piątek: These changes, as is often the case, precede reflection. It is now two years since the beginning of the pandemic. The first, very radical auguries have already failed: the cities have not died out, we have not all fled to the countryside, our houses have not magically grown larger. Rather, the changes are at the level of lifestyle and way of life, organization. This has accelerated processes that were already happening anyway - digitization, work and remote learning. This had been prepared for a long time, and the pandemic was a forced impulse. Parcel machines, teleportation and remote meetings, like ours today, will stay with us forever. We practiced it and broke the barrier of habit. And will it outlive architecture? The problem is that all the time we're used to thinking about architecture in terms of utility and need, and it's so tied to market mechanisms that utility and usefulness often take second place. If apartments are selling in droves, and many of them in big cities and resort towns are being bought up for investment, it doesn't really matter if that apartment is well laid out. It's just square meters in a spreadsheet, and then gold or dollars in a stock market report. It's more about juggling numbers than meeting housing needs. That's why architecture, in my opinion, will not immediately change under a pandemic. The pandemic has not affected this process at all, on the contrary, it has strengthened it. Uncertainty caused people with money to flee into real estate.

Szkoła Elementary School No. 400 in WilanowSzkoła Elementary School No. 400 in WilanowSzkoła Elementary School No. 400 in Wilanow

Elementary School No. 400 in Wilanów, Warsaw, proj.: Bujnowski Architekci

photo: Juliusz Sokolowski

: Are the ideas inherent in architecture changing today?

Grzegorz: I think unnoticeably in Poland. It's hard to be a fighter in this profession in Poland, because it's heavily marketized. There are not many opportunities to practice it in an experimental and innovative way. Housing is the best example of this. She is now the salt of Polish architecture, because the most has been built for decades, but ideologically nothing is changing. Because the market is so commercialized, it doesn't need innovation or interesting functional solutions. Unless the developer cares to add something special, to stand out in the market with something, architects don't have much to say. Many architects I talk to lament that as designers of residential architecture they have two tasks: first, to squeeze out PUM as efficiently as possible, and not to care about functional solutions, about lighting, about ventilation, they are even expected to bend the parameters that determine comfort, and second, to focus on the facade, because apartments are bought with their eyes. People look at visualizations, floor plans most often can't read, and they often make decisions before the building comes out of the ground. So architects are all about making PUM and pretty packaging, which is why Polish residential architecture is often very aesthetically pleasing and impressive, but usefully disappointing.

Szkoła Elementary School No. 400 in WilanówSzkoła Elementary School No. 400 in WilanówSzkoła Elementary School No. 400 in Wilanów

Elementary School No. 400 in Wilanów, Warsaw, proj.: Bujnowski Architekci

photo: Juliusz Sokolowski

: What does it look like in other fields - office or public architecture?

Grzegorz: Office architecture has much better prospects for innovation, it can give more room for innovation than residential architecture. The difference is fundamental - residential architecture, for the most part in Poland, is sold - the developer sells, subtracts and forgets, without taking responsibility for how the architecture functions and ages. Office buildings, on the other hand, are leased, and it is no coincidence that they are so often modernized and refreshed. One has to constantly fight for tenants. At the expiration of one lease, they look around sideways and look for a better place. Warsaw's Mordor is an example of a district that has become depopulated - not only by pandemonium, also because more modern, better-connected office districts are growing, such as the cluster of skyscrapers at Daszyńskiego traffic circle or the quarters near Gdanski Station.

When it comes to public architecture, a lot depends on the ambition and awareness of the authorities commissioning it. A huge breakthrough is that the city of Warsaw has developed a document, adopted as an ordinance of the mayor in May 2021 - guidelines for the design of schools, the so-called school standards. This makes the process, which until now has been completely wild, marketized, because for the past thirty years schools have been built mainly by tender, where, as you know, the designer has very little control over the outcome, and the primary criterion is price. These standards are based on meticulous studies, determining both the size of the schools and the functional layouts, lighting, landscaping around the school. It is creative in itself that a team of many people did the intellectual work in cooperation with the local government to create such a document. I also contributed my hand to it, but only in the historical outline of Warsaw schools. This is an example of how public architecture can be innovative. We'll see what comes out of it, because no school strictly according to these standards has been built.

Szkoła Elementary School No. 400 in WilanowSzkoła Elementary School No. 400 in WilanowSzkoła Elementary School No. 400 in Wilanow

Elementary School No. 400 in Wilanów, Warsaw, proj.: Bujnowski Architekci

photo: Juliusz Sokolowski

: Still?

Grzegorz: A few good elementary schools in Warsaw have been built recently, for example, the project of Piotr Bujnowski 's team and in Kabaty the project of Maciej Siuda, already with awareness of these emerging standards, but not yet in the rigor of the current ordinance. Arguably, any document can be bent, so much depends on the quality of governance. But I believe that public architecture can provide quality and foster innovation and responsible design, for the reason that it doesn't have to make money. It's just a matter of taking political responsibility for setting priorities and perhaps coming out more expensive. Though not necessarily. A great example of the fact that this architecture does not have to be expensive is the Warsaw studio xystudio, which specializes in kindergarten, nursery and school architecture. They designed a great nursery school in Warsaw Wesola, which was awarded the Grand Prix of the Architecture Prize of the President of Warsaw in 2020. They managed to design it very functionally and aesthetically thanks to good cooperation on the line of investor-contractor-designers. Not only that, it came out cheaper than some nurseries built from tenders.

{Image@url=,alt=Żłobek nursery no. 67 in Wesola, Warsaw, proj.: xystudio,title=Nursery no. 67 in Wesola, Warsaw, proj.: xystudio}

Nursery school no. 67 in Wesola, Warsaw, proj.: xystudio

photo: Marcin Czechowicz

So it happens that wise, conscious and responsible things come out of the tender mode, but I think that Polish local governments still have a lot to discover when it comes to conscious architectural patronage. I dream that they will begin to approach housing construction in the same enlightened way. Right now they mostly don't want to deal with it at all. It has gotten to the point where "municipal housing" is considered synonymous with "social housing," some sort of burden on decent, tax-paying citizens. And yet local governments could be the kind of developers who, while they have to build sparingly, don't have to make money. They could build decent, affordable rental housing.

A pandemic can change everything around us in very unexpected ways. The pandemic, the climate crisis, the growing logistics problems, all of these things will change the way we do business, the way we build, because the time of shortages is coming. Shortages may make the idea of public interventionism popular again, because resources will have to be managed from the top down.

Samorządowy NurserySamorządowy NurserySamorządowy Nursery

Local Government Nursery, Adamow, proj.: xystudio

© xystudio

: Should the delineation of rules, as in the case of schools, be extended to other categories of buildings?

Grzegorz: Rules alone will not save us, what is important is the culture of their application. After all, they are very often bent, they favor various strange interpretations. Either they are interpreted loosely or with too much caution. I believe that these standards are always worth discussing. These stipulations are not once and for all, and we as architects or experts involved in these processes should ensure that they change wisely. Take daylighting. The European guidelines for the lighting of buildings recently came out, and there are things in there that are not yet in the Polish regulations, such as the question of the view. Whether the view is close or far, whether the daylight is direct, filtered through trees or reflected from a neighboring facade also affects comfort. Another example is the issue of men's and women's restrooms. Regulations are arranged in such a way that queues form for women's toilets, and this is because the minima stipulate more mesh in men's toilets. There is probably a discussion ahead whether to make a division between women's and men's restrooms at all. An experiment was done at the Venice Biennale and queues were mixed to shorten them, and it worked. Any developer and designer, of course, can always increase the number of mesh in the toilets, but what's the point if you don't have to.

{Image@url=,alt=Przedszkole Public Kindergarten No. 6 KIDO, Aleksandrów Łódzki, design: xystudio,title=Preschool Public Kindergarten No. 6 KIDO, Aleksandrów Łódzki, design: xystudio}

KIDO Public Kindergarten No. 6, Aleksandrów Łódzki, proj.: xystudio

photo: Stan Zajączkowski

: Since we are talking about ideas, the question of the mission of architects must also arise. How is it that among architects there are so many "theoreticians" working practically?

Grzegorz: I have the impression that most architects exclusively practice. Theoretical works of architects are rather few.

: Not so much in terms of serious theoretical works, but rather in terms of setting their projects in a philosophical and sometimes historical context. This is often the case in single-family house projects, you can give quite a few examples - 81.WAW.PL studio, Architecture Club....

Grzegorz: The success of Robert Konieczny, who created architecture based on a very strong and concise idea, meant that there are indeed many attempts to do the same in single-family housing. These projects are very diagrammatic. I think Robert didn't try to create a new trend, it came naturally to him, but he created a strong pattern for a whole generation.

continued conversation on next page

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