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What are we thinking

28 of April '22

column from A&B 04 | 2022 issue

"What a cool shelter. What to convert it to?" - asked a local TV editor seventeen years ago. The editors of the "Wyborcza" newspaper, where I earned my bread crust and sausage tripe, would sometimes send me or another writer to the TV studio to discuss the news on a weekly basis. A few more people from the Poznan media would come in and we would make out together. A forgotten bunker had just been discovered in the Old Town, it seems, full of gadgets from the People's Republic of Poland: field telephones, switchboards, atomb posters, boards with numbers for the MO, the presidium of the Municipal National Council, and so on. "Well. What ideas do you have, then?" - droned the editor. The merry-go-round of invention went into motion: "museum," "hotel," "atmospheric bar."

How about a shelter?" - I bored. A moment of silence and: "But, that how? From a shelter shelter?" - the TV station was surprised. "Well, a shelter. A shelter as a shelter. Maybe it will come in handy someday." The editors looked on with concern and began to explain to the paranoid that NATO, the Union, the States, Fukuyama and peace forever. I replied that yes, but who knows what they will also put down, let's say Iran or Russia in the coming decades. And that peace is sort of the best time to prepare for the lean years. Everyone laughed a little and that's how the forest broadcast ended.

What happened to the shelter, I don't know. What I do know, however, is that the press reported that one in three emergency sirens in the city is not working today, a fact that came to light almost a month after Russia invaded Ukraine. Before that, either no one checked or reported it, and - almost certainly - sirens were dealt with from time to time, and the construction of new shelters - almost never. As the media reported, there are enough of them for three percent of Poles, although there should be at least a quarter of citizens. The guidelines on this issue have only been in effect for four years. Meanwhile, in Sweden, "without a shelter included in the design of an apartment building, a developer would not receive a building permit." - reports "Wyborcza". In our country, it's probably only now that developers will start tempting buyers with a nanobunker attached to a micro-apartment.

As for municipal or public investments, on the other hand, there wasn't much to build under. An audit by the Supreme Administrative Court revealed in March that Housing Plus had turned out to be a total flop. Instead of a hundred thousand units completed by the end of 2019, we have fifteen thousand (by 2021) and twenty thousand under construction. It goes on to say even better: "since the beginning of the social rental housing program, i.e. from 2015 to the end of the first quarter of 2021, 735 moderate rental units have been built against a projected 72,500 by the end of 2025." In contrast, the housing deficit calculated by the Chamber is 640 thousand units. Immediately the authorities will tell us that this is a good thing. If Putin would like to denazify us as well, there will be less to bomb and rebuild. This, by the way, is a universal answer, as found for next year's elections: we did not do (insert any unrealized announcement here), because they would have destroyed anyway.

So we have beautifully overlapped two housing crises: one old and native, the other refugee. Together we were better off. Problem number two could only be embraced thanks to the generosity of Poles, who have the ability to compress in cramped space in their blood (38 percent of citizens live in overcrowded apartments). An extra empty room, once called - precisely - a guest room, is still a luxury. Stockpiling and excess just in case, or as engineers say - redundancy, is not in our swaggering nature. Hence the lack of both shelters and extra rooms, and stations too small to accommodate excess crowds. In short: the lack of a systemic solution to sudden as well as rare problems, including such a trifle as war. A deficit of imagination.

Thus, on the issue of Ukrainians, the attitude of the national authorities resembles a scene from the tenth night of the Old Gentlemen's Cabaret. In it, refugees were drawn to a hotel blowing before the unexpected end of summer. Deluded by the vision of a locksmith who must adjust the keys, they did not receive hospitality. Only when they left did the doorman reveal that there were actually no rooms. "There are only doors leading to them. But I guess that's still a lot, huh?" And he dismissed behind - heck, it's also prophetic - a cool, but nevertheless very cardboard decoration.
The other thing is that cardboard is not a bad thing, as Shigeru Ban proved, it depends how that cardboard or paper is used. In general, it is finally worthwhile, in the face of sudden change, to imagine in Poland other ways of building housing and places of temporary residence: flexible, mobile, non-obvious, responding quickly to sudden crises, easily reworkable, adaptable, relocatable. It still hasn't broken through to policymakers and investors that in addition to the unfamiliar Ban, the Pritzker has recently been given to other architects far from pouring concrete and marking egos. Aravena in the middle of the previous decade, Lacaton and Vassal a year ago, and - great joy - Kéré this year. The trend is clear: actions that are creative, appropriate to the environment, and geared toward solving social problems.

The wartime crisis is therefore a good time for the government - without any particular loss of face - to trash the construction of the "Saxon palace" and the all-Polish airport in Baranow, and shift the money pumped into the salaries and cars of the machers on these unnecessary investments to a program of creative and efficient construction. Adam Wiercinski, who was recently awarded for his container housing, rightly pointed out that the problem lies not in technical capabilities, but in changing mentality, promotion and education. If good systemic solutions were thrown in, the rapid implementation of prefabricated, modular settlements or centers would become simple and cost-effective. If creative and sensitive architects are still paid, the results can be both functional and aesthetic.

And let's not forget about trivial shelters either.

"What will the cities of the future look like?" - for an optimistic headline recently asked. "Like Aleppo, Mariupol, Kharkiv." - reflected without hesitation the paranoid part of my imagination.

Jakub Głaz

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