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Who is creating progress in architecture?

23 of February '21

Just as public institutions are indebted to the spectacular edifices of museums, concert halls and theaters built after 2004, today it is public investors who are setting trends and transformations in architecture.

On February 2, 2020, the list of buildings nominated for the Mies van der Rohe Award was announced. This is an important, prestigious award, so the race to win it also excites circles not directly related to the architecture industry. The award became widely known in Poland in 2015, when it went to Szczecin - the best newly constructed building in Europe was then recognized as the Mieczyslaw Karlowicz Philharmonic building.

Mieczyslaw Karlowicz Philharmonic Hall in Szczecin, design: Barozzi Veiga

© Nykowski Spaceruje

However, the competition began to evoke emotions earlier, together with the construction in Poland of more spectacular seats of museums, philharmonics, theaters - buildings that had a chance and made their mark on the international arena. After all, it is to those investments that we owe the development of the debate on architecture and the interest in it by the popular media. They were the ones that finally cured Polish complexes - because, appreciated and awarded abroad, they included our country in the international circuit, symbolically ending the "bad" times of gray blocks of flats, and turning the Polish landscape into one as colorful and modern as the "Western" one. A decade of building beautiful, large, impressive seats of cultural institutions in Poland has affected not only the landscape of our cities, but also the growth of interest in architecture and the emotions of viewers, users, residents.

But the dynamics of change in the world is great and we are already living in different times. We have not yet had time to enjoy the investments under the sign of the "Bilbao effect", when it turned out that it is necessary to build more modestly, more cheaply, taking into account not the global effect, but local needs. Climate change and the annihilation of the natural environment ceased to be a scientific theory, and became a part of everyone's lives struggling with extreme weather events and pandemics. It has become clear that it is no longer possible to live as before, without looking at the consequences of one's actions. This has also resulted in new thinking about architecture.

Is the list of 449 buildings from 279 cities in 41 countries nominated for the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture - Mies van der Rohe Award 2022 a good overview of what is important in contemporary architecture? It seems that this biennial competition can be considered a fairly authoritative overview of projects that are modern, yet responsive to contemporary challenges. Already in 2017, the main prize in this competition went to the renovation of the massive DeFlat Kleiburg blocks in Amsterdam, and in 2019 the modernization of the prefabricated Grand Parc Bordeaux estate was awarded. This already shows a shift in priorities, a turn away from understanding architecture as a collection of beautiful blocks to looking rather for methods to improve the quality of existing space.

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Grand Parc, Bordeaux, France, projet: Lacaton & Vassal architectes

© EUMiesAward

The trend is growing: in even a cursory review of the buildings nominated for the award this year shows what's important. There are urban infill buildings, there are ecological and intimate residential buildings and urban experimental and mixed-use buildings (because we already know that mixed-use is the future of architecture), and there are a striking number of visions for remodeling, extensions and modernization of existing blocks. Small scale, simplicity, locality prevail. With a high degree of probability, one can consider that it is one of these modest and tailored projects for a small community that will win this edition of the competition, which has just begun.

How do the Polish sites nominated for the award (i.e. submitted to the competition by Polish experts and organizations) look against this background? They fit into this mainstream of change. Of the twenty Polish architectural realizations that made it to the list of nominees and will now be evaluated by the competition jury, there is the modernization of a post-industrial building, there are conversions of existing blocks, experimental housing complexes, there are objects of very modest forms and small scale, and there are as many as four objects created for the needs of a small local community, buildings serving the excluded or allowing contact with nature. Even the museum included in this group is small, modest, inscribed in the intimate buildings of a suburban village. It is certainly a reason for satisfaction that Polish architecture keeps up with the changing trends, that among the new realizations it is possible to choose many that not only correspond to the most current reflections on architecture, but are also valuable and interesting in terms of form.

{Image@url=,alt=Muzeum Jozef Pilsudski Museum in Sulejówek by PIG Architects,title=Jozef Pilsudski Museum in Sulejówek by PIG Architects}

Jozef Pilsudski Museum in Sulejówek by PIG Architects}

© Jakub Certowicz

Among the buildings that represent Poland in the European architectural competition, something else draws attention. Only three of these twenty buildings - are investments of strictly commercial entities - developers. All the others were built by public investors or those who are not only profit-oriented (a religious order, a charitable foundation, a housing cooperative, a non-governmental organization). Those who closely observe the Polish architectural market will not be surprised by this: year after year, it becomes clearer and clearer how much the world of construction investments is "splitting". Private, commercial investors are mostly stuck in their habits, unreflectively producing more skyscrapers, office buildings, shopping malls, maximum-density housing estates. There is not a long list of developer investments that somehow break these standards that have been in use for at least two decades, that offer some new solutions. It is the public developer who sets the direction of change. It's obvious that local governments pay to build local activity centers, build subway stations, bus stations, cultural institutions. But in the course of these developments, a certain range of formal and spatial solutions, architectural ideas, references to the surroundings is also being shaped, which is becoming universal.

Centrum Local Activity Center in Rybnik project by MWArchitekciCentrum Local Activity Center in Rybnik project by MWArchitekciCentrum Local Activity Center in Rybnik project by MWArchitekci

Center for Local Activities in Rybnik of the MWArchitekci project

© Michal Jedrzejowski

The changes we are seeing in world architecture today are much less about construction and purely building activities. They are primarily related to a paradigm shift: in the face of the climate catastrophe, the way we think about space, about city planning, is changing above all. From global it is becoming local. The scale of investment is shrinking, the focus is on using already existing resources; smaller-scale facilities are being designed, combining several functions, easy to arrange and adapt. The idea of "opulent" has exhausted itself; today one builds cheaply, simply, to suit. Such is the Center for Local Activity in Rybnik designed by Marlena Wolnik's team, the library in Glucholazy by Małgorzata and Antoni Domicz, the Home for the Homeless in Jankowice from xystudio. In keeping with this idea, NArchitekTURA and Bartosz Haduch showed that a memorial does not have to be a monumental monument, and PIG Architects tucked a sizable museum in a pine grove in a residential neighborhood. The nomination for a public housing development, for the revitalization of an urban quarter, for a wooden pavilion for observing nature show how quickly and radically the system of values by which we measure the quality of architecture has changed.

The biblioteka in Glucholazy designed by M. and A. Domicz - architecture studiobiblioteka in Glucholazy designed by M. and A. Domicz - architecture studiobiblioteka in Glucholazy designed by M. and A. Domicz - architecture studio

Library in Glucholazy project by M. and A. Domicz - architecture studio

© Stanislaw Zajączkowski

Just 20 years ago, the pinnacle of modernity and a symbol of development were large corporate skyscrapers - today, the thinking of work (and this has been exacerbated by the pandemic) tends to go towards smaller office buildings, combined with spaces with a different function. Developers don't know it yet - as evidenced by more towers springing up in Warsaw. New thinking about architecture is promoted by public investments, although many of these ideas could already be successfully applied to commercial buildings as well. Especially since we know that they can: the xystudio studio and its extraordinary talent for designing nurseries and kindergartens was "discovered" by a private investor, after all. The office's career began with the construction of an employee nursery school on the premises of the Forte furniture factory in Ostrow Mazowiecka. Now a second building with the same function designed for this investor is nominated for the Mies van der Rohe Award, but the xystudio office has also managed to collect quite a few awards for similar projects for local governments, as well as winning competitions for more.

{Image@url=,alt=Przedszkole Yellow Elephant in Suwałki project by xystudio,title=Preschool Yellow Elephant in Suwałki project by xystudio}

Kindergarten Yellow Elephant in Suwałki project xystudio

© xystudio

This split between commercial and public projects quite clearly coincides with yet another division: between building for people and business to generate income. Apparently, in profit-oriented architectural ventures, innovation has not yet begun to pay off.

Anna Cymer

Illustrations: press materials Mies van der Rohe Award 2022

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