Skirting the Slab: Innovation on Paper in Communist Poland
Hunter College, CUNY, New York, NY, USA
The prevailing poor opinion of Polish Communist-era mass housing has arisen primarily from the evaluation of its built state. Commonly, its pre-construction design process is left unconsidered, deemed irrelevant. Omitted and overlooked, the era’s design documentation provides a powerful counter image to the country’s built housing environment. While the conventional narrative concludes that Polish mid-20th century architecture was of poor quality in terms of design and execution, the era’s architectural literature counters with a large body of ambitious and diverse architectural schemes set against the confines of rigid standardization and extensive prefabrication.
The numerous housing estates built in metropolitan and rural Poland between the late 1950s and early 1980s, ranging in size from few hundred to several thousands of units, are often deemed the most evocative of the country’s Communist-era architecture. Their poorly manufactured and shabbily installed prefabricated building elements (the ill-famed large slab construction), said to be the product of stagnant state architectural offices, vividly illustrate Poland’s prolonged economic difficulties.
The goal of this paper is to compare built case studies with their design stages in an effort to uncover the complexity of the Communist-era Polish architectural culture. By taking a somewhat long-view approach spanning over twenty years, I plan to demonstrate that the perpetual economic difficulties suffered by the state-controlled economy and the resulting continuously revised building standards and quotas, were in fact instrumental in pressing Polish architects to experiment and research within the state-imposed pre-fabrication, standardization, and modernist guidelines. Unintentionally, bureaucratic stipulation stimulated the architectural practice albeit on paper alone. The plethora of design alternatives featured on the pages of professional publications offer a powerful contrast to the uniform built landscape and only a painstaking re-examination of built housing estate details can uncover the traces of the original designs hidden amid inferior construction.