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Finger licking, or what it's like to be an architect in Poland

19 of October '20

Katarzyna Baranska talks to Dominika Wilczynska and Barbara Nawrotska of Miastopracka about education and work experience as seen through the prism of gender.

Dominika Wilczynska, Barbara Nawrocka

Photo: © Miastopracownia

Katarzyna Baranska: Where did you get the idea to study architecture and how do you recall your studies? Can you point out figures who inspired you then and inspire you now? Were or are there women among them?

Dominika Wilczynska: From the beginning of high school I knew what I was going to study. All the actions and efforts I made were directed at getting into medicine. At the same time, art fascinated me as much as science. I remember my inner rebellion against the division of the world into fields and the search for a more holistic view of it. This was probably one of the main reasons why a while before high school graduation I completely changed my plans and decided to pass for architecture, because it (so I thought at the time) encompassed everything.

My idols from my high school days were artists. I remember being inspired by Kahlo, Abramović and Bausch - strong and uncompromising women who know exactly what they want to convey to the world. And in college - a veritable kaleidoscope - from admiration for the work of MVRDV, to Peter Zumthor, Steven Holl, to Archigram and the Metabolists.

Barbara Nawrocka: In my family, architecture is probably the most common profession, so the idea was not original. An important figure, still from my childhood, was my uncle. The most charismatic man I met. He was the No. 1 architect, the point of reference for all the later representatives and representatives of the profession I met. It was a school focused on engineering, detail and material properties. Its weight, smell and texture.

Dominica:What's interesting is that while during my studies creating conceptual designs and slugging over them after nights was seductive, after graduation I completely missed being seen in front of a computer of some design office. I missed the aforementioned smell and texture of the materials you work with. The real being and feeling of where you operate. Lefebvre would probably say, "I need to experience this space.

Barbara: I missed the human factor and working with the community after college. Such pursuits long seemed to me to be a negation of the profession, which at the time I was a bit seduced by, and from which I was running away. If I hadn't met Marlena Happach ten years ago, who at the time was putting up the M3 pavilion in Sluzewiecka Valley, I wouldn't have been so quick to say to myself "OK, I'll practice architecture, but on my own terms."

Massolit Cooks bistro in Krakow

Photo: Pion Studio © Miastopracownia

Katarzyna: Stereotypically, architecture is perceived as a male profession - women are less likely to succeed in it, and often leave the profession. So where did the idea for a women's studio come from, did it seem too risky to you? What guided you?

Dominika:We didn't even have a moment to think about it. It was a completely natural process. We founded the studio because we like to work together, we think similarly about architecture and we complement each other on many levels. We recommend all young female architects to never ask themselves such questions!

Barbara: "Masculine profession," "women's studio" or "success" are trap terms pulled straight from the capitalist-patriarchal order. I don't want to deny the existence of a feminine approach to design, but divisions defined in this way deepen inequalities at a time when - to be fair - we need quotas. My personal reflections on gender, however, came rather late. In retrospect, I begin to notice a lot of stereotypes, already present at the stage of choosing a field of study. After all, it was said that architecture was the "least technical", or "least male" major at the polytechnic. The sexist world was dividing us into "boys who go for civil engineering" and "architecture girls." (From here I wanted to salute our female friends and industry professionals, wonderful female designers and sanitary engineers!) I think this very damaging division breeds even more frustration when it turns out that the visibility of women in the profession disappears a few years after graduation, and the field that was supposed to be so "feminine" is dominated by men.

Olsza Integration Club in Krakow

Photo: Pion Studio © Miastopracownia

Katarzyna: Criticism of the patriarchal and capitalist order, Henri Lefebvre and his right to the city - is this conceptual apparatus, within which you operate, due to the Cracow University of Technology, your alma mater, or your own research? Where did your beliefs and approach to design hatch?

Barbara: When I talk to young people now, just out of college or still studying, whether at work or at the workshops we conduct, I get the impression that they and they know it all already. I, at their age, was green! Maybe it's due to the new publications, magazines and architectural foundations that have sprung up over the past decade in Poland, which have been very effective in spreading knowledge and putting our field into a broader political and social context? It is also good to have a lot of sociologists in the circle of friends and do projects with them. The ability to estimate the social impact of proposed architectural or urban planning solutions is incredibly necessary. I think it's worth feeding such people to the juries of competitions.

Katarzyna: You have been operating together since 2012, initially as a design group under the name Palce Lizać collective, now Miastopracownia. I must admit that the first name has always fascinated me. Can you explain the source of these names?

Dominika:We made up our minds not to sit down in front of computers right away after graduation. The Finger Lick Collective was born out of the need for activities oriented to the here and now and to explore the city. It stretched the string, testing the capacity of a field like architecture, and operated much more often with joyful happenings than with polylines. Picnics on platforms or sleepovers in a tent between blocks of flats and on a fenced-in housing development were very important lessons in urban anthropology for us. What we are doing now, i.e. meeting places, is for us a consistent continuation of these activities. The only thing that has changed is that we have returned to the classics of architectural tools, namely design. And the names are always the fruit of some situational joke and a rather abstract sense of humor. We like them a lot, but they don't carry the postmodern weight of multiple layers of meaning.

Catherine: I read the name Fingers Lick as a kind of play with the image of women assigned to the kitchen zone, that is, also a play with a certain patriarchal idea of the role of female architects, strong especially when they entered the profession (maybe I'm just a postmodernist!).

Barbara: [Laughs] Being a postmodernist is so great (only the awards don't get you - you have to be careful)! I really like how different people share their interpretations of the name, it's something new every time. We really didn't think about the kitchen at the time! But I agree, there was a lot of fun in it, maybe also bliss, perversity, summer, glitter and - a bit in passing - debunking the myth of the architect demigod and architecture as the most serious field in the world.

Project for the Civic Budget for a green space in front of the Salt Storehouse in Krakow for the CCA Squirrel.
cooperation: Jakub Chrząstek and Weronika Kozak

© Miastopracownia

Catherine: Among your projects one can find local community centers, neighborhood clubs, public spaces, that is, rather places with a social character. Is this a conscious strategy?

Barbara: It's an awareness of the need - both of these spaces and our own personal need - to work for and strengthen localism. The places that fascinate us are primarily community centers. On the one hand, you can talk about them as hybrids, combining cultural, educational and social functions, which can be spaces for building direct democracy, and on the other hand, they are also just ordinary, everyday spots where you send your children to classes, exchange a few sentences with a neighbor or go to consultations. We design interiors for already functioning places, because we think this architecture of everyday life deserves more attention.

Certainly, a turning point in the recent history of Polish pro-social architecture was the advent of EU funds. Recently, several new and beautiful local centers have been built. In my hometown of Ciechanow, we designed the interiors of a historic tenement house, which the magistrate had entirely dedicated to social functions. Thus, to our great joy, the city's flagship investment in 2019 became a local meeting center - with a café, an art gallery, a moms' club, a seniors' club, a workshop space for children and young people, or a studio for researching and promoting Ciechanow's history.

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