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Can architecture be judged fair? A polemic against the texts of Tomasz Malkowski and Kuba Snopek [A&B 1-2|2021].

05 of March '21

January's Hits and Kits A&B launched a discussion about the Polish architecture scene, environment and criticism of an intensity and scale I can't remember. It was taking place on Facebook, which I don't use very often, so I found out about it all belatedly. In the February issue of A&B, I read a letter by Kuba Snopek provoked by a statement by Tomasz Malkowski - one of the authors of Hits and Kits alongside Anna Cymer and Maciej Miłobędzki, among others. It must be admitted that while the latter tried to formulate their statements in a mild and diplomatic manner, Tomasz Malkowski abandoned all diplomacy with swagger and energy.

He made claims against the jury teams of the most prestigious competitions of realized architecture in Poland, claiming that they reward political and social correctness, not looking for architecture - in his opinion - outstanding. He wrote that these teams do not consider the architectural values of, for example, commercial architecture, because, he guesses, it is tainted by a flaw resulting from an improperly socially positioned client, while they add non-existent qualities to mediocre and correct architecture, considering modesty as its main asset, which is, however, in his opinion, architecturally bland in the domestic edition. Kuba Snopek, on the other hand, lamenting that Malkowski's criticism of the jurors is unconstructive, not giving his own proposals for evaluating architecture, but only mentioning foreign examples, in passing "threw" a few pebbles into thein the direction of the Polish architectural community, either by calling it a "world," or by suggesting that domestic critics follow "trodden paths," which is supposedly "typical of the Polish debate on architecture." He also wrote that he sees no use for architects to judge architecture, as they should not be "judges in their own case."

I have no intention of discussing the two authors in detail; I will address the issue a bit more broadly, albeit briefly. Concluding the introduction, I would still like to point out that polemics based on the exchange of malice and containing insinuations of a general nature, and at times a riposte, is like a teaspoon in tea - from such stirring the tea will not get sweeter....

Thevaluation of architecture and the search for criteria for its evaluation has never been and will never be a finite process, and certainly not something easy. Architecture is a discipline, it is both a science and an art, it is a profession, and finally it is an institution in which criteria and values inherent in other institutions that have something to do with architecture are mixed. In the preface to the excellent publication in the "A Harvard Design Magazine Reader" series, titled "A Harvard Design Magazine Reader. "Judging Architectural Value "1 Michael Benedikt, author of the excellent book "For an Architecture of Reality," which masterfully exposed the gibberish jargon of postmodern newspeak2, lists four groups of places / institutions / centers where architecture is subject to evaluation, and the values that are applied to the evaluation there. And so he distinguishes: places/institutions where architects publicly reward each other; places/institutions where architecture is evaluated by the public; institutions of clients, who express their evaluation through orders placed; and evaluations by related industries.

Each of these groups emphasizes important values in its own peculiar way. Peer evaluations of architects - as much as they do and will do! - take place in the pages of magazines and journals, through competitions, giving special statuses to creators. The criteria within this group concern the quality of the functional program, the composition of the masses, mastery in the use of new technologies, precision and finesse of the construction used, detailing, the narrative sphere of the object. The public, when it evaluates architects and architecture, accentuates issues of the quality of building use, the interplay of the building with the life of the local community and the broader social context, the architect's responsibility to society and the degree to which he/she keeps it in mind, especially when the client is private and the user is, after all, public. These assessments are in the domain of local government institutions and the competitions and publications they organize, their expression in public investments. Among other things, clients value the quality of cooperation with the designer, the ability to maintain the budget, the punctuality of the delivery of subsequent batches of documentation. This evaluation usually takes place during conversations and interviews in the process of selecting an architect (private client), in the so-called whispered promotion, on a social footing or while visiting other cities. The fourth group is made up of other industries that interact with architecture, such as environmentalists, engineers, installers, interior designers and craftsmen. The place for their evaluations is industry competitions, but also magazines, and the quality of cooperation or flexibility of architects is evaluated.

Contesting the quality of architecture evaluation in our country, it is worth looking at whether in Poland these groups sometimes mix too much, whether they adequately accentuate their own point of view and their values. It would be good if this division was clear and transparent. So that the prizes would not be "for everything" in each competition, but for certain qualities precisely, which a given jury will clearly formulate and from this angle it will keep an eye on the projects/objects being evaluated, moving other values to the bottom of its list; it will keep an eye on its own competencies and the values that are most important to it. It would certainly help to understand such an evaluation. And it would then be easier to criticize it, which can always happen....

The second issue I would like to raise is the types of architectural criticism, which should also be clearly distinguishable, and jurors should declare themselves what kind of criticism they practice through their choices. Alexandra Lange, a theorist of architectural criticism, in her book "Writing About Architecture "3, clearly described four - there's something in that number! - approaches to criticism that are worth using separately for purity of thought transmission. The formal approach, which refers to the form and aesthetics of architecture (e.g., Ada Louise Huxtable); the historical approach based on the history of the development of a given architect/architect's work (Paul Goldberger); the approach based on the experience of experiencing a given architecture and the emotions it causes (Herbert Muschamp); and the activist approach (Jane Jacobs), in which the critic assumes the role of the viewer, society, its interests and rationale. Looking at the Polish scene of architecture criticism and evaluation, I get the impression that it is currently dominated by an activist approach, within which accentuating the interests of society is perfectly appropriate, nevertheless it is only one of the possible approaches. Filip Springer and his career based on the activist approach is clear evidence of this. However, must all jury teams - who also play the role of critics in the case of completed objects - base their valuations on this approach? I have my doubts. Indeed, this causes confusion and may give rise to suspicions that pro-social values always prevail over architectural values, while not in every competition, as has been said, they should. Of course - one can say that the best architecture is the one that will win regardless of the applied criteria of the previously distinguished groups. But it is not that simple, although it sounds impressive and radical. And certainly objective evaluation is not served by eliminating from the race objects that are tainted by "the stigma of commercialism" or "too rich investor", and not considering their architectural solutions, as it were, from a tacitly formulated definition, although they may be very pro-social.

Competitions, evaluations, rankings have the right to differ, as long as it is clearly announced and consistently carried out. And this is precisely what I feel is the biggest problem in our country. Private clients, when choosing an architect for their new project, organize competitions, which they often judge themselves, with the cooperation of their resident architects, who, after all, although they are in the profession, do not necessarily have the competencies needed to judge architecture. After all, not every architect should hold the position of judge, although by law in Poland everyone can. And this is also where I see the problem. Local authorities in their competitions do not openly declare that they choose the most socially useful buildings. In their choices, this element is not clearly visible, and one cannot find economic or demographic criteria that would prove proven suitability for the community that uses the facility, pro-social superiority verified by relevant surveys or other tools, over other facilities. In environmental competitions, on the other hand, even the sarpanch competitions, as Ola Wasilkowska sadly noted recently, one can find award-winning housing facilities with drastic errors resulting in very poor quality of use for residents4.

Setting one of the four groups higher than the others will accomplish nothing, as will deciding which approach to criticism is better. As Michael Benedikt writes in the text cited above, it is impossible to answer the question of whose judgments and whose values should be considered most important. Architecture is not cars or smartphones that can be ranked. A closer reading of the referenced book brings the conclusion that, operating in a maze of rather complicated conditions, it is actually the architects who attach importance to the opinions of other architects and to the opinions of clients5. The opinion of clients determines whether they will be able to design and implement or not. This is quite obvious. And here is a great field for seeking agreement and defining interests and conditioning awarded contracts with this. The public procurer should accentuate social needs and enforce their provision. He should have good, concrete tools for this. I don't see them so far, although quite a few positive developments on the scene, such as those related to the needs of people with disabilities. The private customer should also be obliged to satisfy the public interest. One of my visits to Berlin a few years ago, when I had the privilege of taking a specialized guided tour for architects, brought me knowledge of how Berlin local authorities, having a strong weapon in the form of issuing building permits, take care to ensure the public interest - in this case, it was the accessibility and proximity of the stores planned in the first floors. Well, the investor, when applying for this permit, made the required assurances that the service areas designed there with a functional program consulted with the district, would not be rented more expensively than...

Can architecture be judged fairly, objectively anduniversally? It can, but, as Benedikt writes, the norm here is fluidity, flexibility. Values change, and the ongoing pandemic shows that the fact of the only unchanging value, which is human life, determines the common denominator of all actions.


Warsaw, February 1, 2021


1. Judging Architectural Value, ed. W. Saunders, "A Harvard Design Magazine Reader," no. 4, Minneapolis 2007.
2. M. Benedikt "For An Architecture of Reality," Lumen, 1987.
3. A. Lange "Writing About Architecture. Mastering the language of Buildings and Cities," New York 2012.
4. A. Wasilkowska, interview with Agata Twardoch, "Architektura-murator" 2021, no. 2, p. 84.
5. Judging Architectural Value, p. xiii.

Prof. Ewa KURYŁOWICZ - architect, professor in the Department of Design and Theory of Architecture at the Faculty of Architecture, Warsaw University of Technology, chairwoman of the Council of the Stefan Kuryłowicz Foundation, vice president and, since 2011, general designer at the architectural firm Kuryłowicz & Associates. Co-author of, among other projects: The National Forum of Music in Wroclaw (2015), the Language Faculties Building at the University of Warsaw on Dobra Street (Phase I completed in 2012, Phase II under construction), the residence of the Ambassador of South Korea in Anin near Warsaw (1998) and many other projects in K&A teams. Judge of SARP and juror of international and national architectural competitions, member of the Chapter of the Scientific Award of POLITYKA. Author and co-author of books, including: "Universal Design. Making the Environment Accessible to the Disabled" (CEBRON 1996, Integration 2005), "The City as an Object of Research" (Scholar 2008), "Passion and Pragmatism" (Trygon 2010), "Architecture, Urbanism, Science" (PWN 2019).

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