David Crowley

1980 in Parallax: Architects and Acts of Solidarity


In 1980 the first ever Venice Architecture Biennale entitled ‘The Presence of the Past’ famously announced Post-Modernism as the international mainstream of architecture. It proposed a new canon that was to be more inclusive and polyphonic, and sought to embrace a diversity of narratives, a variety of styles, contradictions and irony. Yet despite these ideals, none of the case studies and architects presented at the Biennale went beyond the European and North-American context. Looking back – once again – in order to look forward, this series of essays addressing the question ‘Whose Post-Modernism?’ reconsiders the Post-Modern canon from the critical distance of 43 years to reinvigorate the pluralism suggested by the Biennale and Charles. It invites multiple voices to collectively remap the year 1980 from various geographical and cultural perspectives beyond the West, while reflecting on its legacies today. Second in the series, David Crowley looks at how ideas travelled between the East and West during the late Cold War period and the impact of the Polish Solidarity movement on local architectural discourse and the practice of two architects from Poland and Hungary.

1980 was a turning point in the history of state socialism in eastern Europe. Strikes in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk on Poland’s Baltic coast in August forced the communist authorities to recognise and negotiate with the newly formed, independent Solidarity trade union (Solidarność). Within a few months, the workers’ organisation swelled into a national movement: branches formed in every office, factory, university and theatre, to send delegates to national congresses to protest the failings of a tired and corrupt regime. Solidarność campaigned for economic and political reforms, the right to religious expression as well as free speech and the reform of education. Censorship was a target too, with novelists, film-makers and theatre directors testing the limits of the regime and, in the spring of 1981, the organisation published its own weekly newspaper, breaking the state’s monopoly on the news. For eighteen months, a period that the Poles call Karnawał Solidarności (the Carnival of Solidarity), the country spun in an exhilarating cycle of protest and concession. The legitimacy of the state was called into question with each demand and every compromise, much to Moscow’s alarm. Only in December 1981, fearful of Soviet invasion, did the Polish authorities put an abrupt and brutal end to the carnival by declaring martial law. Poles woke up on the snowy morning of 13 December to find that Polish tanks were on the streets, and Solidarność’s leaders had been imprisoned or were in hiding.

Opposition to communist rule was not itself new, but the scale, boldness and ambition of Solidarność was. A mass movement with ten million members at its height, it seemed to be living out the ideals of civil society which anti-communist dissidents such as the Czech playwright Václav Havel and Hungarian novelist György Konrád had only imagined in their dissenting essays and novels. How a civil society might materialise in eastern Europe was no longer an abstract thought or a chapter in a book on political philosophy: Solidarność was a motivating idea for many anti-communist intellectuals, not least for planners and architects in Poland. Both professions seemed to have become resigned to their roles as technocrats in service to the state many years earlier. During the carnival, things changed. Even the official Architects’ Union aligned itself to the project of wholesale reform. The meeting of the All-Poland Council of Architects in Gdańsk in November 1980, organised in partnership with Solidarność, resulted in a declaration which was uncompromising in its frankness:

The catastrophic state of housing in Poland is a consequence of the complete crisis in social and economic life. Architecture is only a reflection of the decline of human dignity that has accompanied this crisis. Architects are responsible for this state to the extent that they serve not society but the authorities implementing their policies. In the centralized system that prevails, there is no opportunity for contact between the architect and the resident, and consequently for society to influence the form of our houses and cities. The [state socialist] economic model cannot solve the pressing problems of housing construction. New economic mechanisms are required, especially market mechanisms, local initiatives, restoring the rights and responsibilities of the resident, architect and contractor ...1

The Warsaw Charter

Six months after the meeting, in June 1981, Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science hosted the XIV World Congress of Architects. Planned as an international showcase for the ‘success’ of Polish architecture, it took place when the conflict between state and society was at its height. Guests found a leaflet on their seats in the congress hall, a typescript bearing the distinctive logo of Solidarność and looking like a samizdat leaflet (having been copied on the union’s unlicensed presses). The Warsaw Charter was a ten-point manifesto penned by a group of young architects who had formed an independent seminar a few months earlier under the title of DiM (Dom i Miasto/House and Town) (Figure 1). Their document was a rebuttal of the Charte d'Athènes, a defining declaration of Modernism drafted by CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne) in 1933. A set of instructions for urban development, the Charte d'Athènes was an unequivocal demand for architecture to modernise. High densities and the zoning of industry, of leisure facilities, of motorised transport and of housing would be the most ‘efficient’ organisation of modern life. The core principles of the Charte d'Athènes were largely absorbed by urban planning practices throughout the Eastern Bloc in the mid 1950s. The samizdat charter made this connection explicitly:

We are announcing this Charter in Warsaw, a city destroyed not only by war, but also later by the meeting of modern urbanism with a total socio-political doctrine. Solidarity in the face of the totalitarian threat to the individual and the nation reminds us today that architecture can only be human and beautiful when it is created by free citizens serving a free society.

Stressing pluralism, in terms of architectural style and the disposition of cities, and the place-giving functions of continuity and tradition in the urban fabric, DiM’s Warsaw Charter reflected a cluster of Post-Modernist themes that were starting to infuse Polish architecture. And a strongly ‘local’ accent was found in its characterisation of mass housing as an alienating factor in society, the product of an overly centralised system in which only the interests of one client, the state, were served. One of the authors of the text was Czesław Bielecki, an architect and critic. Publishing under the pseudonym Maciej Poleski, Bielecki was the author of an uncompromising indictment of Soviet imperialism in the Paris-based, leading architectural magazine Kultura, titled ‘Freedom in the Camp’ (1979) and, after martial law had been declared, a wry handbook on how to act when arrested by the police, titled Mały Konspirator (The little conspirator’).2 He’d also published – under his own name – a 50-page essay in Kultura in 1978 with the title ‘Continuity in Architecture’, celebrating the slow organic development of cities over centuries, and attacking the acceleration and industrialisation of architecture in the twentieth century.3 Evidently a rebuttal of Soviet progress, the editor of the magazine published Bielecki’s thesis but felt the need to provide an afterword which celebrated socialist achievements in social housing (presumably a necessary concession to secure the censor’s approval).

A frank and unstinting distillation of Bielecki’s ideas and politics, the Warsaw Charter resonated with many critiques of Modernism being made on the other side of the Iron Curtain at the same time (and so it is not perhaps surprising that it was published in English in 1983).4 Paolo Portoghesi drew attention to it in his 1982 book Postmodern. L'architettura nella società postindustriale :

That Postmodern theses have deep roots in the present human condition is confirmed by the document on architecture issued by the Polish union Solidarity. This text accuses the modern city of being the product of an alliance between bureaucracy and totalitarianism and singles out the great error of modern architecture in the break of historical continuity. Solidarity’s words should be mediated upon, especially by those who have confused a great movement of collective consciousness with a passing fashion.5

Post-Modernism may have provided a framework for critique of the built environment in eastern Europe, but during the carnival period, it remained a strangely exotic and alien phenomenon for Polish architects. One episode makes this clear. Charles Jencks, perhaps the best-known champion of architectural Post-Modernism, was a visitor to the World Congress in Warsaw in 1981. His arrival in the city had been heralded by discussion of his ideas in the Polish architectural press over recent years.6 As his translator and editor Barbara Gadomska recalled, his visit was accompanied by a strong sense of expectation:

I remember a lecture by Charles Jencks at the Faculty of Architecture of the Warsaw University of Technology in a relatively small room. Students entered through the windows, the doors were taken off their hinges to make it easier to get in. The squeeze was unbelievable and we couldn't hear much, but we felt that we were communing with the normal world. It seemed that you could ask any question, that a new era was beginning, and that it was the end of our ubiquitous grayness and cliché.7

Architect Wojciech Kosiński recalled the Warsaw Polytechnic (also known as Warsaw University of Technology) lecture in slightly different terms: ‘When Jencks showed the latest, luxurious designs by Graves and Eisenman, a student stood up from the overcrowded hall and asked “what’s the use of architecture understood in this way for us, Poles, in the present situation?”’8

The View from Hungary

The Polish Carnival drew the interest of commentators from around the world. But perhaps the keenest attention came from Eastern Bloc neighbours, both from the authorities who were fearful that the anti-communist virus would spread, and from the opposition, who were hopeful for the very same reason. The Hungarian opposition was particularly attentive, with a number of dissidents heading north to learn directly from their Solidarność colleagues. Among them was architect László Rajk who came to Poland in 1980 to learn how to print publications in large volumes to improve on the ‘traditional’ samizdat method of copying texts on a typewriter charged with sandwiches of thin paper sheets and carbon copy paper. On his return he become a key figure in the AB Kiadó (AB Press) independent publishing house, designing covers for its books on censored topics (sensitive historical events such as the trial and execution of Imre Nagy, the leader of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, and reports of the strikes in Poland). He also illustrated György Dalos’s 1985, a samizdat extension of Orwell’s dystopian novel, imagining the death of Big Brother and the end of his authoritarian rule.9 To distribute AB Kiadó publications, Rajk also ran a ‘samizdat boutique’ from his flat on Galamb utca, in Budapest. Open every week, visitors could view independently published titles and order copies for collection on their return.

The son of László Rajk senior, a prominent victim of a Stalinist show trial in 1949, Rajk junior had trained as an architect and had a ‘day job’ in a state architectural office, and was actively involved in forms of criticism and experimentation on the margins of the profession. In 1977, for instance, he published a portfolio entitled 5 terv (‘5 projects’) which drew attention to the failings of the centrally planned construction industry in Hungary by means of irony.10 One absurd ‘rendering’ has a typical cuboid family home positioned on its roof, as if by accident (Figure 2). Another is of a precisely designed ‘parapet’ which extends the profile of a panel-construction tower block, adding functionless ‘decoration’ to functionalist architecture.

Following his underground visit to Poland, Rajk combined both architecture and opposition by organising, with other critics of the regime including Bálint Nagy (an architect who had been forced to work as a roofer because of his own political activities), an unofficial urban scheme in which 72 architects contributed designs for the revival of Keszthely (Figure 3), a town at the western-most point of Lake Balaton. The project was architect-led, organised without the support, endorsement or control of the state – the primary client of all large-scale urban development (though individual private house building thrived in socialist Hungary, largely, it seems, because it took pressure off the state to deliver on its promises). An explicit rebuttal of the impersonal and industrial forms of architecture which were constructed across the country in the 1970s, the project also issued an objection to Soviet-style masterplanning. Allocated ‘virtual’ sites in the centre of the town and with no expectation of being commissioned to build, architects made their own, individual propositions, often to rehabilitate existing structures for homes, cafés, bookstores and theatres. Directed to work within the building codes that had operated in Budapest around 1900 by the project’s organisers, the scheme was also a critique of the national building codes of the Hungarian People’s Republic at the time. It was also a living demonstration of the pluralism and potential of civic society to organise itself. Notwithstanding its critical view of official spaces, this scheme was hardly a form of proto-capitalism. In fact, Rajk, one of the organisers, admitted 20 years later that ‘we did not think about capital, not even for one minute’.11

The Keszthely project was governed more by reason and a desire for civility than revolution or confrontation. Nevertheless, Rajk was particularly drawn to the way in which Solidarność in Poland had confronted power – something that he felt was missing in Hungary. Memories of the violent repression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 were perhaps still too fresh.

Rajk’s positive view of the rise of Solidarność in Poland in 1980 was evident in the design for The Striker’s House (Figure 4). Created in response to a competition announced in Japan Architect with superstar architect Tadao Ando as the judge, The Striker’s House is an unorthodox axonometric drawing supplemented by photographic elements and dynamic arrangements of lettering. The house is an angular structure formed of black and red ‘wedges’ arranged on a structure fashioned from what seem to be industrial materials. Revolving on a locomotive turntable, it is an agit-train wagon as if designed by a latter-day Constructivist. Train tracks radiate in all directions and the railway shed is filled with posts and banners dressed with slogans to motivate the striker. Perhaps these are the tools of the commissar or the activist, ready to travel wherever he or she is needed. It was the invention of a remarkable quartet of intellectuals who combined New Left and neo-avant-garde pedigrees. Alongside Rajk was his creative partner, artist Gábor Bachman, with whom he designed interiors and film sets, often in a modish Neo-Constructivist style. They were joined by the dissident writers György Konrád and Miklós Haraszti whose books had indicted the Communist state for its betrayal of socialism. Haraszti, a former Maoist, for instance, had written Darabbér (which appeared in English as A Worker in a Worker’s State), a book about the exploitative use of piece rates in Hungarian factories in 1973. Circulated as samizdat in just eleven copies, he was arrested and charged with incitement against the state. In jail, he went on hunger strike and had to be force-fed.

The Striker’s House as a memorial work, commemorating the wave of strikes in Poland which had led to the Gdańsk Accords in August 1980 between the state and the Solidarity trade union. Rajk recalled:

What we discussed with Konrád and Haraszti, and then finally decided on was the idea that the strike is the extreme extreme of peaceful resistance. It is not only peaceful but you put yourself and your family in danger. It is like standing in front of the guns naked. The resistance is your own self-sacrifice. This is what we want to demonstrate with a house which first loses its exterior and finally stands naked.12

This theme – even though expressed in a coded fashion – made this collage a threatening object in 1985. As a result, its authors were only able to send it to Japan with the help of a friendly contact in the United States embassy in Budapest. This was, in effect, samizdat architectural design.

One reading of The Striker’s House scheme is to see it as an ironic object, commemorating anti-Soviet politics in a proto-Soviet style. But its leftism should not be read as dissimulation. Perhaps this image is evidence both of a kind of nostalgia for revolutionary politics and a note of envy on the part of these Hungarian writers and artists for the alliance between the workers (expressed here in the leftist iconography of industrial civilisation) and the intelligentsia, which in 1980 had given Solidarność such force in Poland, and had played a key part in the eventual collapse of the Soviet empire at the end of the decade. In strictly architectural terms, the carnival left no built traces. This is hardly surprising: after all, it was defined by strikes and other gestures of refusal. But it did result in frank acts of self-reflection by architects about the ways in which their profession had served illegitimate power in eastern Europe.

Combining architectural practice with anti-communist activity, Rajk (who died in 2019) and Bielecki were exceptional figures. And, as such, they had much in common: both became prominent advocates of Post-Modernism in architecture after the collapse of communist rule in east central Europe, publishing key books and designing landmarks of the new era. Rajk’s major architectural achievement in the new world of democracy and free-market economics was the Lehel Market Hall in Budapest, completed in 2002 (Figure 5). A massive structure containing dozens of small-scale retail units, the building is an exuberant fanfare for eclecticism with brightly coloured industrial decking and oversized classical cornices wrapped around a utilitarian frame. Bielecki, too, created a memorable symbol for the ‘era of transformation’ when he designed the headquarters of Polish TV in Warsaw (competition 1997, completed 2009) (Figure 6). Jokingly nicknamed the Tower of Babel, the design quotes other symbolic architectural structures, not least Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. A ‘visionary’ structure that had been designed to broadcast Soviet modernity, Tatlin’s spiral form – now clad with a glass curtain wall – was turned into an expression of irony. After 1989, both architects were actively engaged in the new democratic political structures of their countries too, with Bielecki serving as a representative in the Polish Sejm and aligned with the conservative and Catholic Right. And Rajk, in Hungary, also served as a Member of Parliament with the Alliance of Free Democrats, a liberal party which advocated for minority rights and welfare provision, before its collapse in the course of the first decade of the new century. The paths of these two architects from opposition in the 1980s to democratic politics in the 1990s followed parallel tracks, albeit with different intellectual destinations.

Post-Modernism in architecture in eastern Europe is conventionally – and perhaps too easily – associated with wholesale political and economic transformations that followed the tumultuous collapse of communist rule between 1989 and 1991. New casinos in the style of neoclassical temples, looking like imports from Las Vegas, and the construction of brightly coloured department stores that borrowed their forms from the Memphis group were loud declarations of faith in capitalism in the 90s. But Post-Modernism was not an import from the West like the vibrantly packaged commodities that filled the shelves of supermarkets in the former Eastern Bloc after the ‘fall of the Wall’. East–West exchanges had begun much earlier, and the ideas of the movement’s chief theorists, including Jencks, were well understood by architects. There were also distinctly home-grown expressions of Post-Modernism in architectural design too. (The large number of churches built in the 1980s in Poland symbolising arks, ruins and other emotive forms stand out, a ‘concession’ allowed by the authorities to manage popular mood after the repression of Solidarność.)13 And in championing Post-Modernism, Bielecki and Rajk brought distinctly autochthonous accents to an international phenomenon. For both, the events of 1980 focused their critical understanding of the ways in which their profession had been willing to compromise with illegitimate power.

  1. Reproduced in Architektura, 395–396 (1980), 2, 98. See also Janusz Bolesław Jaworski and Andrzej Kiciński, ‘Refleksje po ćwierćwieczu’, Komunikat SARP, 1 (2007), 25–8.

  2. Written with Jan Krzysztof Kelus and Urszula Sikorska-Kelus and published illegally by Agencja Informacyjna Solidarności Walczącej in ten editions in 1983–4.

  3. Czesław Bielecki, ‘Ciągłość w architekturze’, Architektura, 3–4 (1978), 26–75.

  4. The Warsaw Charter, reproduced in Places, 1/2 (1983), 82–3.

  5. Paolo Portoghesi, PostmodernL'architettura nella società postindustriale(Florence: Mondadori Electa, 1982), cited by Silvia Micheli and Léa-Catherine Szacka, ‘Paolo Portoghesi and the Postmodern Project’, in Re-Framing Identities. Architecture’s Turn to History, 1970–1990, eds. Ákos Moravánszky and Torsten Lange (Basel: Birkhauser, 2016), 187 [vol. 3/3 of ‘East West Central: Re-Building Europe 1950–1990].

  6. During his visit he was also interviewed on a popular television programme, ’30 minut z architektura’. See H. Drzewiecki and L. Kłosiewicz, ‘Pluralizm jest dobry na wszystko – z Charlsem Jencksem rozmawiają H. Drzewiecki, L. Kłosiewicz’, Architektura, 2 (1982), 20–21.

  7. Barbara Gadomska, ‘Wielki świat zajmował się nadbudową’, Autoportret, 3 (2015), 70.

  8. Wojciech Kosiński cited by Justyna Wojtas Swoszowska, ‘Postmodernistyczne gry i zabawy Przyczynek do dyskusji o polskiej architekturze’, Technical Transactions / Czasopismo Techniczne, 9A, (2015), 413.

  9. György Dalos, 1985, trans. Stuart Hood and Estella Schmid (London: Pluto, 1983).

  10. László Rajk, 5 terv (Budapest: Fészek Klub Kiadvány, 1997).

  11. László Rajk interview with the author, Budapest, July 2012.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Izabela Cichonska, Karolina Popera and Kuba Snopek, Day-VII Architecture: A Catalogue of Polish Churches post 1945 (Berlin: DOM Publishers, 2019).

David Crowley
1980 in Parallax: Architects and Acts of Solidarity
1980 in Parallax