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"We should go with the spirit of progress". Interview with Katarzyna Urbańska, Małopolska Voivodship Conservator of Monuments

10 of April '24

On January 26, 2024, Katarzyna Urbańska was appointed to the post of Malopolska Regional Monuments Conservator. The architect was associated with the office from 2006 to 2021 — first as an inspector, then as head of the Department for the Inspection of Immovable Monuments. However, the cooperation ended in 2021 with her dismissal from the post by Monika Bogdanowska, then Malopolska Regional Monuments Conservator, who cited "a divergent view of the work in the office" as the reason. The last years of the Malopolska Historic Preservation Office, both during the tenure of Monika Bogdanowska and later of Piotr Turkiewicz, were characterized by months of delays, the burial of important investments, or even a bullying affair. Not surprisingly, during the presentation of the appointment letter to Katarzyna Urbanska by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, it was strongly emphasized how important this day is for the future of monuments throughout the province. Barłomiej Sienkiewicz also stated that the past years have been destructive for the office, which needs to be repaired wisely and responsibly. With great change also comes great responsibility, so it remains to watch the work of the office and hope for a real breath of change.

Jakub Urban: Does the Polish historic preservation system need changes, and if so, how big?

Katarzyna Urbańska: It certainly needs, although it is difficult to say at present what kind. There are currently plans to amend the Law on the Protection of Monuments and to clarify certain issues relating to the actual protection of monuments, especially monuments entered in the register. I wondered about wooden buildings, covered by conservation protection only on the basis of inclusion in the municipal register of monuments. Currently unused, they are falling into disrepair, and their technical condition qualifies them only for demolition. This is a huge problem because the provincial conservator has no tools to protect these buildings. The owners, on the other hand, do not have the means to maintain them or ideas on how to use them. Hence the question is what to do to preserve the history and tradition of the Malopolska countryside.

Jakub Urban
: The solution of translocating these so-called old huts, not preserved in situ, is itself also fraught with a big problem, we are removing them from the landscape and cultural context.

Katarzyna Urbańska: Exactly. In many towns and villages in Lesser Poland, we will still notice these original, historical buildings, which show how urban or rural buildings were shaped in the past. Unfortunately, most of them are out of use at the moment, causing them to fall into disrepair.

Jakub Urban
: Is there any country that is characterized by such a well-organized system of historic preservation, from which Poland could draw inspiration and foundations for changes?

Katarzyna Urbańska: Each country has developed its own system of historic preservation. In many, the renovation or reconstruction of a historic building must be agreed upon by a council or commission consisting of specialists in the traditional buildings of the region. In the UK, Croatia or even the Middle East, the rules, whether for new construction or historic preservation, are something residents take for granted. It all depends on the residents' awareness of maintaining traditions. That's why in many countries, using regional materials for new buildings or preserving the traditional appearance of a building is not unusual.

Jakub Urban
: So to raise awareness?

Katarzyna Urbańska: Awareness that the old doesn't have to be bad at all and that it is part of our history should be spread and promoted among the younger generation, so that we don't let our identity be lost.

Jakub Urban: The current definition of a monument in the 2003 Law on the Protection of Monuments does not give a clear answer as to what a monument is, relying only on the subjective valuation of an object, hence my question, when does a monument become a monument?

Katarzyna Urbańska: It is hard to say. As you stated, it is very subjective. For some, a building from the 1950s may be a monument, while for others it may not have any value in it. When making such an assessment, the main thing to consider is what makes such a building stand out from similar ones built during the same period. Whether it is its form, detail, innovative solutions, this feature should be unique.

Jakub Urban
: The Regency Council decree established that a monument can only be something that is more than 50 years old, so maybe this would be a better solution than the current valuation of monuments?

Katarzyna Urbańska: Not really. Some objects are so specific and original that they too deserve to be preserved and protected. Each era was distinguished by a different style, a different detail, a different form. It is only in the 21st century that this principle can be said to have been diluted, and a variety of objects began to emerge, which cannot be clearly classified to a specific time of construction. However, even among modern buildings, it is possible to identify those that are definitely distinguished by their shape, dynamics, material. These objects will someday deserve to be distinguished by being protected, even inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It seems to me that this is where the definition of a monument should expand.

Jakub Urban: Admitting sometimes necessary conservation creation and interfering with the original substance of a monument, to what extent should architects be allowed to leave a sign of their times?

Katarzyna Urbańska: Each object should be treated individually, depending on the degree of preservation and the original substance. A rotten ceiling, which is not a decorative element, but only has a structural function, cannot be saved, it can only be replaced. On the other hand, staircases, door and window woodwork, polychromes, are the elements to which most attention should be paid. In my opinion, we should go with the spirit of progress and allow necessary works, while preserving what is most valuable, i.e. the values on the basis of which, the building was entered in the register. By using new technologies, we definitely extend the life of the monument.

Jakub Urban
: Asking further about the issue of architectural superstructure or building additions, should something like this be allowed?

Katarzyna Urbańska: Of course, such solutions are permissible in certain objects, but with respect for the character of the building and the place where it was located. In other eras, actions involving superstructure were also undertaken, if only for the sake of expanding the family or changing the purpose of the building. This is evident on the facades of some townhouses. However, when doing so, it is important to ensure that this new form harmonizes with the rest of the building. We should not take actions that could harm the removal of the historic center of Cracow from the UNESCO World Heritage List. Each new development should be carefully thought out, created with respect for the historic surroundings and in such a way as to gently fit into the historic urban fabric.

Jakub Urban: So the Cracow Cloth Hall with a roof garden is out?

Katarzyna Urbańska: If we are talking about preserving the character of the historic building, then looking at the historical premises, the roof garden was not envisaged at any stage of the building's functioning, hence from the conservator's position it is completely unjustified.

Jakub Urban
: I would now like to ask about the use of modern technologies, however, not only in historic preservation, but also in the work of the office. As they are developing faster and faster, for example, spatial modeling of objects in virtual reality, could this increase the efficiency of work in the office? Is there any chance for the approach to evolve in Polish conditions?

Katarzyna Urbańska: Talks are currently underway regarding the full digitization of the office, but this work will be implemented gradually due to the extensive archival resource. The introduction of such solutions will definitely increase the efficiency of the office's work.

Jakub Urban: Another of my questions is how to find a balance between the development of the urban fabric in the form of new investments, without irrevocably destroying historical monuments. A great reference can be the recent high-profile case concerning the overpass on Grzegórzecka Street in Cracow, which shows that investment and historic preservation can have divergent interests and priorities. Is it at all possible to find a balance between them?

Katarzyna Urbańska: It is always possible to find a balance, hence meetings are held on key investments for the city, the purpose of which is to point out the right direction.

Jakub Urban: The Horatian golden mean is beautiful ideologically, but difficult to achieve in practice.

Katarzyna Urbańska: I believe it is also possible in practice. It's all really about working out a certain compromise.

Jakub Urban: Finally, probably the most difficult question. It will probably be nothing revealing that the provincial office for the protection of historical monuments in Cracow is considered in the general public perception to be one of the worst functioning in Poland, what could be the reason for this and how to fix it?

Katarzyna Urbańska: I think that currently we are no longer performing so badly. I am getting very positive voices not only from Malopolska. Let me just say that in the previous year, i.e. 2023, out of 26,000 applications, the provincial conservator completed only 5400 cases. Since I took over the leadership, we have already completed about 2,000 cases, unfortunately, since the beginning of the year we have recorded the receipt of 8,000 new cases. With a backlog of about 20,000 cases, without acquiring additional full-time positions, catching up will unfortunately spread out over time, but we are trying to prioritize the oldest cases and those related to the possibility of financial support. The efficient operation of the office is definitely helped by the current working atmosphere, I am really proud of my colleagues and how quickly they were able to adapt to the new conditions of the office.

Jakub Urban: How long can this process take?

Katarzyna Urbańska: Looking optimistically, we may be able to get rid of most of the backlog by the end of this year, but due to their scale, this time may be extended.

Jakub Urban: Thank you for the interview.

interviewed: Jakub

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