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On architecture and passions - with Jakub Szczęsny talks to Małgorzata Tomczak

10 of March '21

A&B February 2021

What kind of world do we live in today? What limits us, what liberates us? What is the role of architects and what challenges do they face in the early 2020s? Jakub Szczęsny answers these and many other questions in a conversation by Malgorzata Tomczak.

MalgorzataTomczak: Let's start with the cover. It's very political, based on the lightning bolt from Ola Jasionowska's posters - a symbol of the protests that swept through the streets of Polish cities in late 2020. Well, you take no prisoners! How much politics do you think there is in architecture today?

Jakub Szczęsny: In 2014, during my first residency in New York, Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, an architect and lecturer on the subject of totalitarian ideologies in architecture, and Matt Kaminski, a journalist and co-founder of the Politico website, came to my studio on a winter afternoon. The meeting happened by chance, but it came out archly interesting, because suddenly we started talking about politics. A sentence was uttered, I can no longer remember who said it, that we are in a dangerous moment of limbo resulting from the complacency of the global establishment, especially at the intersection of politics and capital, that everyone has what a false sense that politics and ideologies and visions of the future have become unnecessary. Just like Francis Fukuyama. Regardless of the political option, all major politicians said almost the same thing, and differed only in a kind of decorum covering with a thin skin the neoliberal shallowness and love of money and belief in the self-regulation of a society treated as if it were a market for the exchange of goods and services. And then Srdjan, an emigrant from the former Yugoslavia who survived the war there, said more or less something like this:

Gentlemen, such a high must bring us punishment, a full belly can end in either ploughing or constipation.

By then we already had Putin, Orbán and Erdoğan, so it wasn't hard to imagine more countries falling ill to populism. We know what happened a year later in Poland and two years later in the United States, which has always claimed to be a model of democracy. We, since 2015, have been able to watch an invariably curious circus, the results of which include one-man competitions for museums, announced and won without informing anyone except those concerned, the symbolic appropriation of public spaces through monuments made by compromising artists, which immediately become memes, by the way, the fanfare of grand infrastructural gestures with various "centralities" and "nationalities".... But, most importantly, and this is an undoubted and unintended "success" of populists in general, not just Polish ones, there has been an extreme politicization of every manifestation of polarized reality, with public space at the forefront! From Polish streets to the Washington Capitol. The masses woke up from their lethargy either through the propaganda of spin doctors and the politicians they serve, or through the growing sphere of fake news and the crisis of journalism, or as a reaction to the oppression of opponents. I don't know if this is what Srdjan had in mind, but he will certainly have material for many years of research.

Installation House on the Ruczaj River, Rawa River, Katowice, 2017.
The project was realized as part of the Street Art Festival in Katowice, curated by Matylda Salajewska.

Photo: David Chalimoniuk

Malgorzata: You also describe a political picture in Moodboard, where you drew a cartoon. In the introduction to it you write that you committed yourself to specific factual assumptions of a certain article, which I supposedly commissioned from you, but in the end you made a mockery of these commitments. This "morphological discrepancy", however, I will not let you pass. I'll ask you to elaborate on the concept and share with your readers your thoughts on how it functions in the contemporary architecture debate. [Laughs]

Jakub: It could be a nonsensical conglomeration of terms, by the way, I'm very fond of 19th-century interpolations and macaronisms and find it funny to make architecture a science, but we can improvise! The best example of such a disjunction in shaping or describing form is leading to cognitive conflict (clever, huh?!) the incompatibility of the outer form with the inner form, which, by the way, has been curious to me since watching "Yellow Submarine." Remember the scene in which the Beatles enter a small cottage, which turns out to be a huge corridor with a large number of doors to rooms of unknown purpose? Such an effect is produced, for example, by houses with sharply pitched roofs, which make us think we are dealing with something small, and when we enter such a house, we find that we are "hit in the mouth" with a huge volume of vertical living room up to the roof, or we are surprised by the number of more interiors hidden in the attic. I discovered this effect on the occasion of a visit to Jan Szpakowicz's Gothic barn in Millas in the south of France, and later began to exploit it when designing Simple House. After building the show house, people notoriously succumbed to this "morphological discrepancy." Did I excuse myself?

drawing from "A Tale for the Heart's Sake," moodboard in the February 2021 issue of A&B

Author: Jakub Szczęsny

Margaret: Yes, you have defended! We'll come back to Simple House, but for now a fairy tale - you drew us all a fairy tale! Where did you get such an idea?

Jakub: Malgorzata Kuciewicz of Central [Central edited the February 2019 issue of A&B - editor's note] suggested in a conversation that working on the author's issue of A&B would be a great opportunity for me to draw something, as after years of illustrating for "Fantastyka", "Playboy" and "Fluid" I am constantly annoyed that I don't draw enough - hence the idea. And as I'm very annoyed by how we allow ourselves to be divided as a nation, and that no one will suffer the consequences, and we will forever remain in conflict, I decided to reach for the tool of narration and tell about my pains. I wanted it to be emotional, because I am terribly rational on a daily basis, and I read a lot of boring academic texts. Anyway, of course you didn't order any substantive text, and I didn't promise! You gave me complete freedom, for which I am very grateful to you!

Malgorzata: Kubo, in the introduction to the fable you call for the sexualization of the show in our serious architectural world. "Scandal!", I should exclaim. After all, we here deal with such serious topics: the climate crisis in architecture, competitions and others, and you have a kitten number in your head... Watch out, or we'll fulfill this fantasy! [Laughs]

James: We will only be saved by an intensive change of approach to a great many things that have so far been certainties or topics swept under the rug. It will be necessary to pull the corpses out of the closet and loudly begin to invent a new Poland and a new world, in which we will not tear each other's heads off, but will develop a modus vivendi and operandi that will allow us to, willy-nilly, reconcile the interests of the majority of Earthlings and gently restore due place to radicals of all kinds. In order to do that, we have to honestly say, for example, that here in Poland, we are completely failing as a society to deal with sexuality, that we are failing to deal with otherness, that we need to rethink our traditional culture and consciously accept some things as important and silence others, or negate them altogether, and so on.

And by the way, think how much happier we would be if we knew how to talk about it at all.

How much more effectively than 500+ would we solve the problem of low fertility (which, by the way, doesn't solve it at all) if, like the Mosuo tribe of Yunnan and Sichuan, we switched to matriarchy and open polygamy, and sexual promiscuity of both spouses ending in the birth of numerous children?

Only people connected by blood ties live in their hutongs, and women impregnated by different men are allowed to leave their children in the care of a peculiar ecosystem consisting of mother, aunts, grandmothers and sisters. Husbands do not live with their wives, as they belong to "their" family living in their household and only visiting their wives in their homes for a known purpose, or to meet their own children. At the same time, a married woman is entitled to be visited not only by her husband, but also by other members of the community, whose company she is entitled to precisely because she is someone's wife. It is said that the large hutong courtyards of this people look like a mixture of an old people's home and a kindergarten. Interesting, huh?

Margaret: Very interesting, just not acceptable as the norm in the Christian world. After all, we are talking about two thousand years of continuous tradition of monogamy in the hetero version. And I agree with the diagnosis that we don't know how to talk about many topics. Sometimes I wonder if we know how to talk about architecture, let alone moral issues, which have been hijacked by the political narrative of right-wing populists who have a ready-made recipe for what everyone's life should look like day and night.

James: Last year the following story was reported in the American press: summoned by a concerned farmer somewhere in the American provinces, police officers caught a group of a dozen people practicing gangbang in the bushes. Those unfamiliar with the term are invited to google it. To the stupefaction of county sheriffs, the group was made up of men and one woman, naked as Turkish saints, of course, all in their 60s, the oldest participant reaching his 80s. In an interview with Vanity Fair, one of the policemen said that he and his partner were completely at a loss as to how to behave, and that they were shocked that people of that age were having sex at all, and such bawdy sex at that. How many more such surprises will come out of the bushes, making us realize that we've been hiding something from ourselves, that we haven't thought about something at all, or have consciously denied it because the social norms produced didn't give space for it?

Gustav Zielinski Square in Astana, Kazakhstan, 2018

Photo: Evgeny Tkachenko

Malgorzata: It's good that they are coming out, because they expand the field of public debate, despite their status as curiosities. But I persistently return to the architectural world, where you in turn write, draw and narrate the world in which Lemurs and Badgers live, and smuggle in all sorts of tidbits. What a timely and appealing concept. Do you see such Lemurs and Badgers in architecture, too? And who is a Badger?

James: Thank you for your kind words! It's a parable about our passions and their nullity in the face of processes larger than our biographies. Disasters on a geopolitical scale. Admittedly, the lemur is a naïve and exasperated walking stereotype of an artist who can become as vicious as a politician and manipulator like Badger. And as for our profession: architecture is fascinating, but we give it too much importance. In fact, it is the result of socio-economic processes, and whether it is smart or dumb, "pretty" or not, is a product of the cultural level of society, sometimes a coincidence. Take, for example, the aesthetics of contemporary Polish churches against their average level in 1974-1991. Just on this subject, the tendency of lowering the flights and, as a result, the almost complete disaster of the entire organization was well foreshadowed by my aunt from Czerwinsk, who immediately after the "enthronement" of Cardinal Glemp, during a mass in the local parish church, leaning over to me, then a child, said: "Every single priest they send us here is dumber." But she went to church politely every Sunday, turning a blind eye to what the increasingly "less wise" fathers preached from the pulpit. And so the trend of lowering the general intellectual level in the sector in question resulted in Lichen, simply put. Incidentally, Lichen reminds me very much of Venecia Palace near Warsaw; there are, by the way, analogous needs behind both works. All in all, a generation of often completely casual and sometimes even unfaithful creators of our experimental churches were such Lemuhrers. Unleashed from the leash of designing blockbusters in state studios, they were suddenly able to design something amazing, like a grenade explosion in a chicken coop, for "Polish dollars" from a priest or in a community deed. Many monstrosities came out of this, but also true masterpieces, like the church in Kalisz, and this despite all the poverty and improvisation of materials and technology. And returning to the fairy tale, I think that, coarsely simplifying and somewhat contrary to the sociological research of Marta Majchrzak and her team on the behavior and aspirations of Polish youth ("World of the Young 5" in the IQS survey), one could en gros divide us into restless creators and stable "slow pushers" and sometimes "brakers." If one wanted to somehow refer to the aforementioned study, probably such Lemurs would be in the forest community a maximum of ten percent, because only so many individualists will endure a society that, in order to last, requires a large dose of conformity. Probably, the attitude of individuals who are creative and take risks to break the status quo to those who are rather consumers, "duplicators" or "fixers" (I know what this word is associated with) is similar in Polish society.

On the left:
Taburete Towers, Logroño - the wooden stool tower project was created during CONCÉNTRICO - an
an international festival of architecture and design in Logroño, Spain, in 2019

Photo: Penisula, Josema Cutillas

On the right:
Taburete Towers - an installation created during the Bengaluru By Design festival in India in 2019.

Photo: Sartaj Tanweer

Margaret: We give architecture importance because it directly affects the quality of our lives. How we feel in our homes, work spaces, public places depends on it. You are close to Rudofsky's concept, as you admit in your introduction to the fairy tale, which moves us to design or rather build closer to the traditions of local builders, rather than to authorial spatial sculptures, whose rash we owe to modernism, and its cult of outstanding individuals. What is so appealing about Rudofsky that his concept has recently made such a career?

James: I bumped into Rudofsky while looking for sandals for my partner, except that we didn't collide in an aisle in the women's shoe department, but rather online, and cross-worldly, since Rudofsky has long lived in the hereafter. What interested me above all was his intellectual vitality, perversity and holistic thinking. In one biography he managed to fit working as a graphic designer for the fledgling "Domus" and the legendary art magazine "New Pencil Points," designing several extremely interesting villas, curating a series of extremely important exhibitions accompanied by books on architecture, design and urbanism, being a collector, an influential critic andlecturer, a traveler, a talented photographer and watercolorist, and, finally, inventing a business based on the design of simple sandals for his wife Berta, which, when sold, allowed him to build his own house-manifesto in Spain, in addition designed in collaboration with the giant of Catalan modernism, José Antonio Coderch. Rudofsky was an institution and an orchestra man. Although he ran his own architectural practice, he wasn't stuck in the obsession of having to be just a designer, he simply did things that interested him: from asking his fellow architects uncomfortable questions in his books to designing textiles and sandals. Rudofsky also dazzled me by the fact that he was a forerunner in talking about things that seem obvious today, but were controversial in the 1940s and even the 1980s, such as ergonomics, so-called "human-centered design. human-centered design, about the validity of the pre-modern inheritance in construction, which we call vernacular today, but also about the fact that many traditions honored by societies are detrimental to ourselves, such as the uncomfortable cut of English shoes or classic but spine-warping chairs.
His closest Polish counterpart would be Witold Gombrowicz, who lived in the same era. For both, escaping from Mitteleuropa proved liberating, both were extremely curious about the world and ruthlessly critical, plus brilliant and with a sense of humor, not to mention that they both received Fulbright scholarships. Except that Gombrowicz was completely focused on writing. I think Rudofsky is inspiring both as a proponent of blurring the boundaries between the inner and outer worlds, between architecture and landscape, or as an advocate of taking pre-modernity seriously as a source of inspiration for the future, but also as a human being, especially since today reality squeezes us into specializations, sometimes very narrow ones.

Margaret: Let's return for a moment to the space of freedom, which we've already touched on a bit, taking up themes that appear, or rather, do not appear, in today's narrative of morality and the petrification of all norms and rules by culture in its most traditional form. The spaces of freedom in the Western world are perhaps most clearly still seen in the United States. You told me about the communes set up in Tennessee, to which hippies from San Francisco flocked in the 1960s, and which are still functioning quite well today. I admit that although I was aware of it, I wasn't very interested in it. And there, freedom, including sexual freedom, but also economic freedom, artistic freedom, can be exercised without restraint, and interesting themes arise from this, including design. Consciously used social engineering builds new communities centered around a guiding theme, let's say ecology, which in turn build "urbanized" farms. An interesting topic for an architect?

James: Definitely! The Americas, especially the North, were an ideal place for "misfits" from the Old Continent to create new social microcircuits with their housing in the form of urban planning and architecture. From the beginning, this was done by the English Quakers, the German and Czech Mennonites, the Amish, the ultra-communist Amana sect or, still inspiring architects today, the masters of design such as the Sheikhs, whose preserved open-air villages can be visited in Kentucky and upstate New York. The Amish and Mennonites are still in operation, becoming a reference for successive waves of countercultural migrations to the countryside or nature in the late 1930s and then 1960s. Many of these projects have failed, but surprisingly, quite a few are doing well, with new ones still being established: The Farm in Tennessee, founded in 1971, is still in operation today, and as it grew too large, there was a split and dispersal through the creation of a series of villages. Twin Oaks and The Farm, as well as several successful German eco-villages, became the basis for a global federation, which you can read more about at It should also be remembered that the United States, due to its vastness, system and geographic peculiarities, is a perfect place for the creation of "pockets" of very differently conceived freedoms, not only religious or new age utopias, but also villages of far-right militias fromMontana, Oregon or Virginia, whose representatives have in common with hippies or sectarians only that they "sit in the bushes" and find some elements of their country's modern reality sufficiently oppressive to remain in those bushes. Unfortunately, sometimes they come out of them, as in the case of the attack on the Washington Capitol.

Keret House - the narrowest house in the world, Warsaw, Zelazna Street, 2012

Photo: Bartek Warzecha

Malgorzata: You also take up the topics of new micro-layouts with the participants of the post-graduate program, which was established at the Faculty of Architecture of the Warsaw University of Technology. What exactly do you deal with?

Jakub: As part of a project in the second year of the ASK [Architecture for Society of Knowledge - editor's note] postgraduate program at Warsaw's Faculty of Architecture with a group of students from several countries, we investigated a wide range of such non-urban community projects, from Brazilian quilombo to kibbutzim. Some extremely interesting projects for new communities planned from every angle, from economics and social interaction to architecture, have emerged, and there have also been ideas for improving and developing existing mechanisms, such as transforming the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan into a new city, or changing the social housing system in the suburbs of India's too-fast-growing metropolises. If we consider that architects are service providers meant only to design houses, we will slowly lose ground as a profession. If we say that an architect can be empowered to create visions for interdisciplinary processes - we will gain new and diverse roles, because one of our best skills is combining design, and therefore inventing future structures and activities, with the role of coordinator or synchronizer of visions, as we used to call it at HQ.

Malgorzata: You also have a hand in these still alternative design spaces. What is your role in the design of the mountain owned by your curator and friend from São Paulo?

James: My friend Todd, with whom I'm collaborating on art projects in Brazil, is the son of a megafarmer from Tennessee, and since he's a gay man who married a much younger mulatto, he's almost completely out of the mental space of his religious family. It's a stroke of luck that he inherited from his grandmother a mountain adjacent to his parents' property, on which he wants to build a commune for artists and academics from Vanderbilt University, where he himself occasionally teaches. Because of my interest in prefabrication and traditional home typologies of the American South, he invited me to work with him in coming up with a program and framework for this community.

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