Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Monument to Polish Television

The criteria we use to assess architecture can be slippery. That shouldn't be elevated into a virtue; much as I love Ian Nairn, the 'every kind of architecture produces good buildings and bad buildings, the only important thing is quality' line that he often peddled is as asinine as it is vaguely accurate. Without theory, without stylistic and ethical infighting, new forms and ideas wouldn't develop at all. Yet, there are some buildings for which any apparatus of aesthetic analysis is just inadequate, and where any notion of architectural 'quality' is irrelevant. The subject of this post, the Telewizja Polska building in Warsaw, recommended to me by Ms Agata Pyzik and designed by Czeslaw Bielecki, is one such structure.

It appears in a fairly typical Warsaw inner-suburban main road, a long and wide street with blocks of offices and flats set back from the road line itself. Most of them are in the unassuming manner you can see above, prefabricated mid-rises leavened by plenty of green space, trees and balconies. Opposite, approaching from the arterial Independence Avenue, you see something which looks like a fairly typical piece of corporate architecture, like many others in what Rumsfeld called the New Europe, which, unlike the former USSR on its borders, mostly favours a muted Frankfurt style with any excesses tamed, bar the odd more wilfully whizz-bang shopping mall; postmodernism got only a few years here, giving way to the style of EUtopia as a means of building-in any hopes of accession.

At this point I might have been wondering why Agata is taking me to this unprepossessing building. But there are two things about this place of which she has informed me; the first is about the political career of the architect. Bielecki is a former oppositionist under the People's Republic, and later Member of the Polish Parliament, the Sejm, where he represented Solidarity Electoral Action, one of the various more-or-less neoliberal organisations the 1980s' most successful working class movement splintered into after it received an electoral hiding from the former Communists. Polish politics is a complex and dispiriting thing which I only partly understand, but the latter party split into the current two main parties - Law and Justice, the Tories' coalition partners, socially illiberal and economically populist, and Civic Platform, socially liberal (by Polish standards) and economically unambiguously neoliberal. When we visited this place last month, Bielecki was standing for election again - this time for Mayor of Warsaw, with the backing of Law and Justice (he came second). The other thing which made this place worth a visit was, apparently, the fact that there is what seems to be a blatant stylistic reference to a certain famous Communist building.

The sober, curved façade that you see approaching from the main road changes abruptly when you turn the corner. This is the kind of gag that was much beloved of 1980s postmodernists - a building which looks like it's going to be one thing which turns out to be another! - but the sheer quantity of gee-gaws, devices and bits of frippery attached to this building is so prodigious that you can only gaze with something approaching (but not quite becoming) admiration. It's also worth pondering how the building's clients, the Polish equivalent of the BBC, would have presented Bielecki had he won the election, from inside his building. Would it have spurred rapturous coverage, so fulsomely had he jollified their work environment, or would it lead to a frequently televisually expressed grudge?

So it's all very much an architecture parlante, this thing. What this lifelong anti-Communist is doing whacking a fucking mirrorglass Tatlin's Tower into the flank of his wobbly curtain wall is at first especially mysterious, at least until you remember that one of the functions of the Monument to the Third International was as a radio broadcast centre for the Comintern, with its wireless waves circulating the message of World Revolution across the globe. Here, the same device is used to symbolise the circulation of television across Poland. And just as the spirals of Tatlin's visionary edifice were designed to suggest revolution and dialectics, here the landscaping is in waves. They undulate, wobble all the way towards the car park, in this landlocked city.

They wobble towards a completely straightforward functionalist car park. Here, presumably, nothing can be symbolised. What happens next, however, is pretty exciting. Well, it's hard to realise just how exciting until you investigate closely...

Not only is there the big Calatrava-on-steroids mirrorglass and white steel bridge that links the new building to Polish TV's earlier People's Republic-era HQ; there's other delights in wait also, as we wander round increasingly incredulous.

Not just the grand symmetry of the balls at the entrance to the car park...

...but also this, where you can see the thing burst with a flabbergastingly unabashed flourish out of the stone-clad 'sober' side of the building. Astonishing. What we're actually looking at here is the architecture that Terry Farrell in his most grotesque mid-80s pomp would have rejected for being 'a bit much'. Yet it's expressed with such demented gusto, and - in contrast to the many Stalin-via-Farrell atrocities that blight contemporary Moscow, Kyiv or Petersburg, notable for their crushing, blinging banality - it shows a real visual and architectural imagination, although not the sort that should usually be given this much encouragement.

There's public sculpture too, oh yes indeed. I wasn't quite sure what the green woman/alien below was all about, but you can see that she stands proudly below the part of the building where Bielecki shows off the fact that he is familiar with the work of Frank Gehry.

The main action is a globe atop some fibreglass ruins, which crumble picturesquely down towards that airwaves-themed landscaping. There's a space there that we thought was eventually intended for use as a fountain or pool of some sort, as if there wasn't enough going on already. The globe is there to symbolise the global reach of Polish television.

The artists are not in any way chary of letting us know who they are: fact, in one corner of the symbolic ruins from which the Monument to Polish Broadcasting proudly emerges, is the credits for the whole thing, a list of almost hip hop-like length.

At this point there wasn't anything else we could do but bask in the building's ludicrousness, and the unseasonal November sunshine, unconcerned for the moment that the globe was in balance just above us.

Aside from a couple of Metro stations, the ever-more-peculiar accretions to the Warszawa Centralna station and a couple of churches, I can't think of a post-1989 Polish building that has transfixed me as much as this one - architecture here is wise to avoid the horrors that lie just past the Kresy, but is too often dull, a political analogue to the country's oft-expressed yearning for 'normality'. The most prominent works are often produced by middling American architects, whose towers now well outnumber the one very famous tower by a Soviet architect, which is well worth remembering. This building certainly can't offer any sort of way forward - that would be terrifying - but it has something. To borrow from Nairn again, maybe it's equivalent to the cautionary but guiltily thrilling likes of the 'architectural William McGonagall' Robert Lewis Roumieu, as this is a work that is truly nineteenth-century in its combination of devices and motifs developed by others spliced together by a spectacularly tasteless hack who has evidently found that tastelessness is his main strength. The Varsovians of the future will, I'm sure, look back at it with some sort of astonishment, as much as with a justified contempt. Let's just look at it again...

Merry Xmas!


OpenID yorksranter said...

The various globes and silver balls unavoidably bring Fight Club to mind, specifically the scene where Project Mayhem activists roll one off its plinth and into the glass doors of the building it belongs to.

4:39 pm  
Blogger Vin Salad said...

Given Poland’s prominent support for the invasion of Iraq, I can’t help wondering whether the Vegas-style Ziggurat was entirely accidental. Is it trying to draw our attention to the similarities between the two countries? Both sit immediately west of hydrocarbon-rich states that are trying to punch above their weight. Both supply highly-skilled migrants in their thousands to the UK. Both are blessed with elites who perpetuate self-serving narratives of liberation from former oppression.

Far-fetched parallels aside, are there any national broadcasting organisations that can resist that tower / aerial /beacon motif in their buildings, logos etc? It’s that, or an eye , or a globe...

1:05 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The last picture in particular looks to me like a gigantic sculpture of a 35mm film canister, film pulled out and strewn haphazard.

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Blogger Ioana said...

you write: the country's oft-expressed yearning for 'normality'

this pushes a button with me; coming from yet another 'new europe' country i wonder if you could elaborate a little.
well, rhetoric over here tends to hover around our longing for 'showing the world how special we are'. beyond the slogan we never agree on either the ‘special’ part nor the ‘we’ part (and are particularly selective of whom gets included in the 'we' part, depending on what music they listen to, how much they earn, etc)

as a result we got exactly that warsaw polish tv building, only exploded all over the city, with a few old/ historic [insert ‘valuable’=built before 1945] buildings and white boxes interspersed; each piece means something to its author(s) only (and their respective clique), and everyone else ‘prefers’ another for reasons little known and very difficult to repeat (like 'deleuze' or 'i like it big')

i never thought of it as a longing for normality, and on the scale of the whole country, but just reading it here-it makes sense in a way i can't yet grasp

maybe it's just as banal as distinguishing between the (oft misplaced and purely formal) drive of your average architect to stand out and what they can get away with.
and if he-architect has enough clout to run for mayor and place second.. well.. he can surely unimplode previous architectural efforts and express a strange sort of ‘we’ in the process, albeit an extremely schizophrenic one.

thus here the tv building would express -i think-if not normality then at least a 'we'; a frightening & confused 'we' but non the less a very real collective, and in this roundabout unintended way the whole country, and its yearning to fit in maybe? to be a ‘normal’ eu member? no idea yet

so, returning to poland, how does the country's yearning for normality translate into architectural matter in your opinion? does a broad consensus emerge as to what things should look like and why? ‘cause i can't quite imagine it over here.. and you sort of imply it.

oddly, if you’d look at that tv-building as the lumping together of everything previously attempted in warsaw (glossy magazine in architect's hand) then its architecture would appear nearly revolutionary,and definitely brave no? you’d have a visible elephant in the room instead of the proverbial blind bunch of people talking ropes and trunks.


5:24 am  
Blogger Graham said...

I only began to understand the Polish psyche when I came across an archive of their movie posters which have become legendary:

When I say understand, what I really mean is I became aware that art in Poland is derived from a very different well to the rest of Europe.....!

12:43 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Re: 'normalisation' (a writer in this book uses 'banalisation') I suppose I mean the idea, which you hear a lot in Eastern Europe, that a) normal = Western Europe (globally speaking, a bizarre idea) b) means politically a two-party system, with one 'centre-left' neoliberal and socially liberal party and one centre-right and socially illiberal neoliberal party and c) that architecturally, that normality entails embracing a kind of Frankfurt office block International Style. I've not found that many places like the TVP building, which seems more a very 1990s piece of eclectic postmodernism.

I'd also add that 'normalisation' seems to mean something different for architecture in directly post-Soviet states (well, here I can only refer to Ukraine and Russia, where I've been) where postmodern bombast and neoclassical replicas seem much more prevalent than glass office blocks. It's something I'm only gradually starting to figure out, either way.

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