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Museum of Modern Art of All Poles

23 of January '23

Welcome to you warmly. Today I will perform an unusual acrobatic trick for you, proposing a compromise that reconciles public tastes, with which I will expose absolutely everyone.

Following the discussion in recent days about the "inappropriate" architecture of the building of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, I got the impression that pretty much everyone - from university professors to homeless people under bridges - has already commented on it, so we have already gathered a whole spectrum of postulates, expectations and proposals for how it should finally look like. As the Great Custodian of the Polish sense of taste and good taste, I could therefore undertake an architectural reassessment of this topic, translating the voice of the sovereign into a picture. Here it is. "Building the Museum of Modern Art Reconciling the Taste of All Poles".

Propozycja budynku Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej godzącego oczekiwania większości Polaków.

A proposal for a Museum of Modern Art building reconciling the expectations of the majority of Poles

© Pawel Mrozek

Propozycja budynku Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej godzącego oczekiwania większości Polaków.

Proposal for a building of the Museum of Modern Art reconciling the expectations of the majority of Poles

© Pawel Mrozek

This building, rooted in the national architectural tradition and combining the most beautiful styles of our nation's flowering periods, is equipped not only with exhibition halls, but also supplements the sphere of the sacred with an actual pilgrimage and sacred function. An important role in the museum will be played by the lower artistic and service floors, enriching the museum's program with handicraft workshop rooms and a DIY marketplace where people can exchange or trade their artwork. Proper transport service of the building will be provided by a parking lot for 1,500 cars and 40 coaches, together with a cab rank. On the other hand, the top floors will provide escapades for toddlers, including classrooms for classes in designing the cheerful colors of the blocks' thermo-modernization, as well as several terraces and viewpoints, along with the "Eye of Art" viewing wheel. The rest of the roof area will be occupied by an experimental village of modern Podhale folk architecture. With a rich program addressed to the tastes of all people, this museum is likely to become a shining star on the map of the cultural capitals of our galaxy.

OK. Jokes aside please. I will say quite frankly. When I observe how the sense of beauty and aesthetics of the people of this country over the past thirty years has translated into the quality of created cities and public spaces in Poland, the negative opinions voiced in the context of MSN do not surprise me. This museum is not to the taste of almost anyone, and I am very happy about that. If everyone liked this building, it would even mean that something went wrong in its design.

Powstający budynek Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie - Pracownia Thomas Phifer and Partners

The nascent building of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners.

© MSN press materials

First of all, this building does not compensate for any of our national traumas and complexes. It does not imitate with its architecture pre-war palaces. We do not show it to some imaginary hostile Germans with a Kozakiewicz gesture, saying - with superiority in tone, but through clenched teeth - "Look, we rebuilt it." Nor does the architecture of MSN try to break, like the palaces of ZUS, the headquarters of TVP or Zlote Tarasy, the image of a poor post-communist country where everything was gray and uninteresting, offering a psychedelic orgy of shapes and colors that shout to all and sundry "Here's how Poland bloody ends poverty." Worse, the MSN does not outshine its beauty as a Stalinist symbol of oppression. It's not a commercial temple of debauchery and it doesn't solve Downtown's parking problem. It is a huge, disgustingly clean, striking us with its whiteness, a cardboard box for all those things that we don't give a damn about and will never have any use for, that is, modern art, which we don't understand, don't accept, don't like, and that's why it hits us when we see that such a monumental edifice in the very center of the city will be dedicated only to it. And please don't even get me started here with paeans to our love of art and how much we love it as Poles. This is not true. Everyone would like to instruct an artist how to swing a brush, make a chisel, and an architect how to draw lines, but on the same basis as every Pole knows about medicine, astrophysics and global warming. The real data of the Central Statistical Office emphatically shows that only one in ten Poles goes to art galleries, and the rest are only familiar with culture to the extent that they have a TV set. Ninety percent of Poles are artistic troglodytes and cave paintings. They never entered this race with their sled and let's end this topic.

Badania GUS - Uczestnictwo Polaków w różnych formach kultury w 2019r

CSO research: Participation of Poles in various forms of culture in 2019.


We treat art, not as something we participate in and that fills us with pride. Art for most is something next door, not ours, but our neighbor's, who we look at with envy that he has it better. Hence the desire of most Poles for this museum to blend into the gray of space, for its headquarters with its architecture not to irritate us, and preferably to say "Know your place you miserable modern art, do not get in the way of us hard-working people you freeloader, because we do serious things and you do not."

Unfortunately please, but most of us are not artists and will never be. Let me say brutally, it's even worse. Most of us don't understand a lump of all this art, as the aforementioned CSO study perfectly shows. It is impossible not to go to museums, galleries, not to read, not to watch, not to participate in any way in the cultural life of the country and claim to know about art, architecture, music, etc.

- Ey, sir. Do you know how to play the violin?
- I don't know, I've never tried.

In such a situation, it would even surprise me, to tell the truth, if the statistical John Smith, plucked from his daydream and asked what he thought of the architecture of the Museum of Modern Art, expressed some compliment to it. It would probably mean that, for some reason known to himself, he is lying. This building has no right to please most people. If it appealed to the majority, it would mean that there is something wrong with it, that the architect has committed some conformist piffle and has not risen above mediocrity. The explanation for this is found in the immortal maxim of Engineer Mammon in the movie "Cruise". Most people like only the tunes they've heard once before. If we don't commune with art on a daily basis, don't live in cities full of good contemporary architecture, then any new foreign melody in the space only irritates and frightens us. But this is not an argument against the tune, but unfortunately only a testimony to limited horizons. And do you know what one does with such complaints about architecture in this situation? I brutally explain. Absolutely nothing is done. Ten years from now, this building will appeal to most. And that's even if it was really hopeless. Because this is the attitude of most people to art. They do not look for what is revealing and beautiful in it. They flow passively in the process, waiting until the neuronal connections in the brain get tired of stimulating the frontal lobes with a given visual stimulus. All this is done so that no conclusions are drawn and five calories are saved.

No nation can create its culture or with this culture push and co-create the culture of all mankind marking its place in it, if it is caught up in the ordinariness that surrounds it. For this ordinariness, which suits us and which we do not question, is most often a chewed-up post-production waste created in the creation of culture many years ago and in another place on the map. It is no longer possible to improve anything revelatory from it.

In this context, my attention was particularly drawn to an article in Warsaw's Gazeta Wyborcza, which provocatively presents a hypothetical vision of the museum by Marta and Tomasz Geras, depicting a typically Warsaw neoclassical edifice, which one only has to look at for five seconds to believe that it has always stood there. From an urban planning point of view, by the way, I don't mind something like this in any way, in fact I applaud it, because it is no different from the current design, retaining, more or less, the same dimensions and building lines, and even a uniform subdued color scheme. Since such a proposal, as you might expect, caters to mass tastes, I will try to quickly break the subject down into parts, showing the lack of logic and consistency contained in it. I will quickly cite Mr. Thomas' argumentation in support of his proposal.

The Museum of Modern Art is an institution, by its very nature, dedicated to presenting the latest works; temporarily enjoying priority on the eternal conveyor belt of fashions. It is worth noting, however, that - unlike exhibitions - the Museum's building is not subject to easy replacement; and today's "modern" means tomorrow's "obsolete" like nothing else.

Propozycja estetyki budynku Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie

Proposed aesthetics of the building of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

© Marta and Tomasz Geras

Let me say this. I greatly admire the high quality of craftsmanship in copying and sculpting in past styles that Mr. Tomasz has mastered, because having often been involved in creating models of historical buildings, or working on the historical fabric of a city, I know how much work and knowledge it takes to operate so smoothly and seamlessly with the forms of past eras. This is a special feat, given that practically no people are educated in this direction. Well, and that, unfortunately, is where my praise ends, as the justification that something like the Museum of Modern Art does not deserve a building that in itself would not carry this element of art does not appeal to me. The argument that everything that is modern today will be obsolete tomorrow, so there is no point in making the effort, is an argument that in its essence undermines not only the point of the museum building itself, but the point of the existence and creation of any art, and stands in obvious contradiction to all of mankind's achievements, which it turns out were unnecessary effort, when we could, after all, sit comfortably in timeless caves.

- Mr. Cheops. Give up the pyramid, a simple mastaba will suffice. The pyramid will be obsolete tomorrow anyway.

I am very sorry, but if we were guided by such assumptions as Mr. Thomas and, I have no doubt, a very large number of enthusiasts of such an approach, we would still be running around the savannah today with spears after antelope. While the perfection of this imitation of classicism is impressive and a remarkable curiosity, such a building will never be anything more than ordinary craftsmanship. A clone of some historic European architecture, of the kind that one would probably find a lot of in Las Vegas, China or Dubai, but which will never be art. While cloning history is good for filling in the gaps in the bristling fabric of a city, it doesn't create any quality, it doesn't create history in the first place. Frankly, I can't imagine putting what is supposed to be an artistic temple of Warsaw in something that, in its idea, negates the meaning of all art. It would be like spitting in the face of all these artists.

- But Mr. One Hundred Years of Planning. What are you telling us. For years you've been rolling out the theses to us that good cities are those where the buildings harmonize with each other, where the architecture of the buildings is of secondary importance and doesn't compete for attention, but is background architecture.

I know that such a question is sure to be pressing on the lips of some people right now, so I'll preemptively answer it, because that's what I'm getting at. That's exactly what it is. The whole theory here closes into a beautiful geometric whole. We need cities where architecture harmonizes with each other and forms a background, because we need this background to distinguish those objects in the city space that have special significance, and MSN definitely counts among such objects of the sacred, which should be separated from the profane. What's more, that's why we need a good fabric that harmonizes with each other, so that what we want to stand out against the background of our city doesn't have to be architecturally chiseled andto be forcefully dressed up in peacock feathers, taking on the abstract forms of a colony of mutant mushrooms in the style of Frank Gehry or some embryo of a space monster in the style of Zaha Hadid.

Powstający budynek Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie - Pracownia Thomas Phifer and Partners

The Museum of Modern Art building under construction in Warsaw, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners.

© MSN press materials

Projekt nowego kształtu Placu Defilad w Warszawie

design of the new shape of Plac Defilad in Warsaw.

© Studio A-A Colective

And guess what? It seems to have worked in Warsaw. Something inconceivable has happened. The Poles created for the first time in history something normal and adequate to their role, and they did it without being driven by complexes. As for me, a shock, Poland 2.0, a great illumination. The result is a subdued monumental mass, whose architectural accent is minimalism, not a beach fair in Wladyslawow or wallpaper gallantry from a facade store. Moreover, with its dimensions and its location, the MSN building divides the fallow land in front of the Palace of Culture and Science into new spaces of a very human scale. On the one hand, it co-creates the frontage and creates the interior of Marszalkowska Street with normal urban proportions, while on the other hand it constitutes one of the walls of the future "Parko-plac Defilad" in front of the Palace of Culture and Science, giving a chance to finally create, after more than half a century, real public spaces in this part of the capital, something for which this space is even begging on its knees. Why is this so? Because everything here was done correctly. Fifty years too late, but better this way than never. The needs and expectations of the people on the cusp here were taken on board by the local plans, which, thanks to thoughtful expert work, accurately defined the urban order of the PKiN's surroundings, and in this way the city authorities, no longer worried about the effect, could pass the baton to the architect, to whom no one was gasping over his neck when he created. An ideal, a fantasy, a fairy tale. Everyone did what they were supposed to do correctly. A model process carried out.

If someone wants it to be different, he unconsciously wants it to be bad for all of us, because to get it right, he would first have to dismantle the foundations of our entire system. AND OK. He is entitled to such desires. Only first he should change the central law, trash all the architecture departments in this country, tear up many international agreements, and drive out the artists. And then he can build his own civilization on a new root, in which society democratically creates art. I'm not saying it's impossible, but if someone doesn't like the element of change caused by culture in his life, I kindly suggest that instead of tearing down our civilization, it's easier to move to Australia and live among the Aborigines. Their culture hasn't changed much in 70,000 years and they praise it. We will all fit in. Cross for the road.

However, I wanted to leave the most important thing for last. I have absolute certainty that even if I stood on my eyelashes, I still won't convince the unconvinced. Referring to beauty, when it means something different to everyone, also makes no sense at all. I would be naive if I believed that. However, I know one thing for sure. The entire history of mankind as recorded in art is a procession of artists who went against taste and sought the new. The first stone buildings once shocked in wooden medieval cities. What was wrong with wooden ones? The first Renaissance mansions and palaces astonished peasants from the bailey of a Gothic castle and so on, until glass houses, followed by colonies on Mars, space stations and interstellar yacht architecture. We are but a bead on a timeline consisting of thousands of years of history that has been and, hopefully, also that which will be. Styles in art are a table of contents in its history. If we begin to tear some pages out of this book, reach for anachronisms, stir its order and abandon the writing of our own history, there is a good chance that for posterity our period will be remembered as a black hole and cultural decline. The dark ages, in which a lot of things happened, but not much was left behind. That's why it's important not to look back despite the heckling, but to go our own way, even if it's a thorny one, because the alternative doesn't exist. The alternative is the non-existence of culture, non-participation in the creation of the world's culture and the subsequent atrophy of our national culture. Nowadays, ruled by - there's no denying it - toxic and feral social media, promoting easy and pleasant pap, the creation of culture and high art is not only a high-risk task, but also the duty of a thinking person, because the temptation to applaud conformity is greater than ever and brings alarmingly easy gratification.

Paweł Mrozek

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