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Our Unwanted Heritage

April 27, 2018 \ Studio
by Natalia Burakowska

What do we do with buildings for which we have no affection, but which might still have some architectural value?

Our Unwanted Heritage

Natalia, a key member of our Conservation CoG and leader in the reconstruction of Mackintosh’s Library at the Glasgow School of Art, spoke about a different kind of architectural heritage this morning: that which we would rather not have.

The catalyst for Natalia’s presentation was a longstanding public debate in her native Poland over the future of Warsaw’s ‘Palace of Culture and Science’, a monolithic 42-storey building designed by Soviet Architect Lev Rudnev and opened in 1955. The eighth sibling to Moscow’s ‘Seven Sisters’ collection of Stalinist skyscrapers, the palace was a “gift” to the people of Poland from Joseph Stalin, during a period of Soviet hegemony over Polish affairs. It was a gift hand-delivered by 4000 Soviet labourers who, for the three-year construction period, lived side-by-side with local workers in ‘Friendship Settlements’. Still one of the tallest buildings in Europe, the palace is undeniably impressive, although for many in Poland – particularly the generation who lived through those years of Soviet influence – the building is a symbol of oppression and should be demolished.

Natalia thus posed the question: what do we do with buildings for which we have no affection, but which might still have some architectural value? An outsider might consider the building like a peculiar relic in a museum, but to the Polish population it characterises a dark period in Polish history, and remains a lingering sore, aggravated by the acrimonious relationship Poland has with present-day Russia.

We’ve witnessed similar debates elsewhere in recent years: notably with post civil-war architecture in Spain, and most recently regarding the removal of Confederate Monuments in the US. However, unlike a statue, which points toward reverence towards the individual or ideal, architecture can be adapted and transformed, and past symbolism crushed by renewed purpose. Natalia spoke about other buildings in Polish history that fell under the weight of what they were built to represent. The Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Warsaw was demolished less than 15 years after it’s construction, when Poland gained its independence from the Russian Empire in 1918.

Unlike on that occasion, when 15,000 detonations razed the building, could a miraculous architectural intervention liberate the Palace of Culture from the moniker of ‘Stalin’s Cake’, and alter the sway of public opinion? Or is 2018, the centenary of Poland’s independence, the time to unite the country with a symbolic, if expensive, gesture?

The ‘Palace of Culture’ was “gift”, but one which an oppressed country had no choice but to accept. What is most important now, regardless of the outcome, is that the decision on its future returns to the Polish people.

Brazilian Brutalism

April 25, 2018 \ Studio
by Raphael Selby

Rare scale, monumentality, treatment of the ground, and sheer mass of concrete is emblematic of Brazilian Brutalism in its confidence and contribution to Brazilian national identity.

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