Krzysztof Ingarden: A Quest for Identity

In June of this year, yhe Association of Polish Architects (SARP), the Chamber of Architects and the City of Krakow, together with newspaper Dziennik Polski, announced the winner of a new competition for the title of Cracovian architect of the year. Here, winner Krzysztof Ingarden reflects on the challenges of his profession in today’s Poland.

Krakow Post: It seems that since the advent of Modernism, architects have often struggled to win public approval – at least in their own lifetimes. Was it gratifying to be recognised in this way?

Krzysztof Ingarden: You are right. I was quite surprised to receive the accolade. Because the prize was related to the Wyspiański 2000 Pavilion, which was chosen by the public as the best building created in Krakow over the last twenty years. So that was of course very nice from one perspective, but also quite shocking. When we designed the pavilion with Jacek Ewy – and the design and construction took us ten years – at that time, it was extremely hard to convince people – local authorities and the lobby of historians in Krakow – that this modern building could indeed be built in the very centre of Krakow.

We were, I would say, absolutely lucky that it was finally built after a long period of public discussion about whether it could or could not be done. When the building opened there was a big misunderstanding as to its form. And some people were of the opinion that it clashed with the historical context. They didn’t understand the building, they didn’t know why we did things a certain way – what was the message, why we used custom-made ceramic tiles on the façade, and what the role of the building was within the old city. Of course, part of the public understood it very well, and favoured it from the beginning, whilst another part was quite against it. The building was controversial. And this presented a clear explanation to me; it meant that if the building was not equally well perceived by all, then it had an original and intriguing new form and message. If we talk about novelties in architectural language, it’s obvious that not everyone will understand them – some time must pass before these new messages become regarded by the public as self-explanatory.

So I would like to say that from the beginning I was quite satisfied that there was a discussion about the pavilion. Now, two years after the opening, suddenly the building is well accepted. At least, that’s how I understand it, because it was selected by readers in first place. So that quick change was shocking for me. But maybe it also means that we took the right path in our analysis of the historical context and of the role that this modern building should play in the city. So in the end I am quite satisfied.

Do you think that generally speaking, Poles afford architects the same prestige that composers and painters enjoy?

Absolutely not, because I think that people tend to hold our profession responsible for everything bad that happened in Polish cities and villages since the Second World War, whilst at the same time there is a lack of appreciation for the good examples of architecture and city planning that were created in the post-war period. And we had to deal with this prejudice, and of course we have had to try and explain publicly many times what is behind this phenomenon.

First of all, we should say that architects do not play any leading role in the creation of our cities. They cannot work without clients – public and private. There are political and business forces which create the “frame of the game” which is being played in public spaces – cities represent society and institutions. Of course, after certain decisions are made, architects then play a role. However, it was not a group of professional architects who decided that huge, pre-fabricated and oppressive housing projects and factories were to be built in the sixties and seventies. That kind of building typology created the current image of many cities and suburbs, an image which endures until today. The legacy of the sixties and seventies has been a very bad living environment for many people. So these were political decisions, and of course economic decisions to a certain extent.

Various kinds of problems piled up one on top of the other, creating bad circumstances for Polish architects to work in. But what kind of work were Polish architects actually able to do within the system? First of all, the group of professionals was small. Owing to the war, a lot of the leading intelligentsia – including architects – died, or in later years left the country, like Maciej Nowicki, Jerzy Sołtan, Wojciech Leśnikowski, Zwi Hecker, Stanisław Fiszer or Bohdan Paczowski, who developed their careers abroad. The majority of those who remained had to adapt their talents to the limiting system of state architectural offices and the poor level of the construction industry. So suddenly, the tradition of the free profession was endangered. And the tradition is very important, because architectural skills and thinking require direct transmission of experience from great masters and teachers to the younger generation. The relationship between a master and a student is a kind of apprenticeship. Of course, several great architects were still practising and teaching in that time, like Zbigniew Ihnatowicz, Jerzy Hryniewiecki, Janusz Ingarden, Bohdan Pniewski, Oskar Hansen, Jerzy Żurawski, Włodzimierz Gruszczyński and others. Many of their ambitious ideas are until today an example of the best architecture of that time, but besides these few exceptions, the majority of projects were not possible to be realised on satisfactory artistic and technical levels. So gradually, the professional tradition and significance of architecture was somehow diminishing. And there was not much of a chance for the younger generation to get inspiration from these works and ideas of the older generation – and even to oppose these ideas in their own practice. A kind of creative struggle between generations is always very important.

I think continuity in the profession is something we have to think about here. And our situation now is crying out for the reestablishment of the proper position of the architect, through high level public discussion on architecture, and the presentation of the best projects and ideas – not only lamenting the worst examples. The media and cultural institutions should establish a good new image of Polish architecture. We are now trying to find a way to create a good atmosphere for younger people to develop their skills, so that the most talented ones can in turn take part in this public discussion, as well as in the teaching profession itself.

This problem is not unique to Poland. It is a problem of all the countries that emerged from Soviet domination after 1989. There was a similar situation also in China, although the changes in China are much faster, as the market is much bigger and more dynamic than in our countries.

Like Seville, Bruges and Florence, Krakow is a city with a remarkably well-preserved historical fabric. Do you think that it is important for so-called heritage cities to commission modern buildings?

It is very important. Because no city is ever a completed city. A city lives with each new generation. There is no reason not to build a contemporary building. Of course, this regards buildings which have some relationship with this continuity – buildings which have some meaning for the city within this historical period of development. Of course, it’s very difficult to build in a city so defined by history as Krakow and the cities you mentioned. But it is necessary to understand this continuity, and to try to find our generation’s place within this heritage.

Rem Koolhaas is reputed to have said “screw the context”. Judging by your handling of the Wyspiański Pavilion, you don’t entirely agree?

Well, Rem Koolhaas, and figures such as Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind et cetera, these are architects who, to use Isozaki’s phrase, “surf the tsunami of globalism”. From that perspective, it is I think impossible to regard context as something interesting. The goal of Globalism is not to understand context, but to maximise the commercial effect, the quick and spectacular effect that pushes the wave further. A work of architecture – likewise a work of art – is treated in this global space as a commodity; everything is commercialised. So I would relate this attitude to the general state of the current condition of media culture. If you think about the notion of space and time, recently critics, artists and architects have put more focus on space. It’s now popular to say that architecture is a spatial art – an art of space. And the interpretation of space has lost its traditional signifiers or anchors, due to the post-modern re-reading of history. However, this point of view results in a certain superficiality, because the question of time and continuity is getting lost. And I think that we should focus more on the problem of time, and the proper understanding of a place in relation to time, and then understand the place in relation to the concept of space – which for me is empty as long as time is not regarded equally. Concepts of space that are unrelated to time – which means unrelated to history – create the potential for interpretations. In Postmodern theories every re-interpretation is possible and equal, so we deconstruct the space and we construct interpretations according to as many points of view as possible. I think that this relativity in the understanding of space and history is dangerous, or rather only important in so far as we can understand that it has its limits.
Getting back to Rem Koolhaas’ famous statement – I think some of his great buildings create interesting contexts by themselves and this method works well in places where the cultural context is weak. However, his spectacular iconic CCTV building in Beijing seems to me completely impotent with regards to the cultural context of the Chinese capital.

Krakow has for a long time needed a conference centre. I understand that the work planned will be one of the largest single commissions for the city since the National Museum was built before the war. Could you tell us a little about the project?

Maybe it will not be the largest, because the city is planning several big projects simultaneously. However, one of the biggest – that is correct. And the biggest located so close to the city centre. This type of enterprise, near to the River Vistula boulevard, Royal Castle and the Manggha Museum, will be extremely significant for the district, because it will encourage people to go beyond the boulevard – to go to the other side of the river. And all of a sudden, the other bank will be more interesting and popular. Together with the Congress project, the city should be thinking about how to revitalise the whole bank on which the Manggha Museum is located. So I think that the project will create a sort of a gravitational centre for attracting other cultural enterprises to that side of the river, which I think is very important.

From the design point of view, this building – even though it is large – is intended to create the image of a moderate building. It is composed of three different heights. The lowest part, the foyer, faces the river, so it has a harmonious relationship with the riverbank. It will be about 16 metres high. From this foyer, people will be able to see the whole panorama of the Old City, starting with Wawel Castle, through Kazimierz, Skałka Church and then further to the south to Podgorze. So it’s a fantastic panorama, not accessible to the public at the moment. It will become a kind of new public panorama for the city. And this was one of the most important things that we wanted to create in this building.

The form of the building gets higher and higher behind the foyer, which is logical if we know the function. The building will incorporate three halls: the largest, for about 2000 people, will be devoted to big conferences and symphonic concerts. The medium-sized hall (600 seats) will also have a congressional function, but it will be a more multi-functional space, including theatre and chamber music, but also banquets and business fairs, because the floor is adjustable – we can create one big flat floor there. I think this type of space is very important for the city. And then the third hall is for 300 people, also a multi-functional space, very good for small theatrical productions, also for small concerts. It’s located near to the conference rooms, so together with the Conference Centre, when we open all the movable walls, it can create about 1100 square metres of exhibition space.

That sounds very inspiring, do you know at the moment when construction is due to begin?

We expect that construction will start next year, maybe in autumn. The decision will be made by the city, but next year.

When Poland led the ant-communist revolution of 1989, the country was experiencing 650 percent inflation. Even here in Krakow, we can see that many historical districts were almost collapsing. What have been the main problems faced by Polish architects over the last 20 years?

Well, at that time, two problems occurred. One problem was that Poland was lacking financial resources to invest in the renovation of those districts that you mentioned. Polish capitalism started without capital. There was also the question of how to renovate and improve the living conditions of people living in housing estates from the sixties. We can compare the situation in Germany, where after the unification, West Germany spent billions of euro in these kinds of investments in the eastern part of the country. And we can now see the results. The cities have been renovated, even the old settlements of the sixties look much better now – buildings were refurbished, elevators were added, colour was added to the elevations, green areas were planted. Poland didn’t have the financial possibility to do this. So you can say that we were going through a kind of crisis. Because the state wasn’t investing in this anymore, and it was too early for private investors to have emerged. So it was a difficult situation.

On the other hand, we may say that these changes are now going in the right direction. Gradually, in the free market economy, the capital of developers, banks and property owners has increased, and these areas have slowly started to be developed. Still, at the same time, one should bear in mind the negative aspects of the economic wave and the impact of the global economy, which maximises the commercial effect, again without paying enough attention to social conditions and the environment, et cetera. But of course, Poland is not the centre of the world economy – only a small wave comes here. So these problems are not so shocking as for example in China.

Of course, after 1989, Polish cities were lacking infrastructure, they were lacking good roads, gas stations, cheap hotels, supermarkets – they lacked basic modern functions. Therefore, the cities’ focus was on the improvement of these functions. Low-cost hotels, office buildings and roads were constructed – until now. These were the major jobs of architects in the nineties. Cultural public projects were not undertaken, with the exception of the Manggha Museum, which was built as a private initiative of Andrzej Wajda and his Kyoto–Krakow Foundation.

It is only just recently, since the year 2000, that the number of cultural commissions has started to increase, and this is a good sign. Cities are now thinking about cultural enterprises such as theatres, opera houses and museums. So for architects it’s an exciting time. Because by and large, in Western Europe all these establishments have already been built, whereas in Poland, the number of architectural competitions is on the rise. Recently, we have had competitions for a new contemporary art museum in Warsaw, for an opera house in Białystok, a concert hall in Katowice, a congress hall in Krakow, contemporary art museums in Krakow and Toruń, an opera house in Szczecin, the Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk, The Museum of Polish History in Warsaw, and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. These are very interesting projects, and I think that these are the projects which will define the profiles of the cities much more significantly than the commercial wave of architecture exemplified in office buildings and housing.

You were intimately involved in the construction of the Manggha Museum with acclaimed Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. Indeed, you are now honorary Polish consul to Japan. What sets current Japanese architecture apart?

I think Japanese contemporary architecture is amongst the best in the world. And not only over the last few years, but since early Modernism and then the Metabolist movement. What is very important is that Japanese architects, since the very beginnings of the Modernist movement, and even earlier, from the end of the nineteenth century, were, whilst very interested in foreign cultures, at the same time profoundly seeking their own architectural style and their own cultural identity.

Each generation of Japanese architects was trying to understand the essence of Japanese cultural characteristics, and how to express them in architecture – they were looking for a Japanese style, regardless of which direction they went – the nationalistic style of the 1930s – the so called “teikan style”, or the style expressed by architects of the new generation of early modernists, like Sutemi Horiguchi in the late twenties, or later Kenzo Tange, then Arata Isozaki, Tadao Ando and others. But anyway, I think that this attitude towards finding a source of inspiration in your own culture is what characterises Japanese architecture. And I think this is the kind of direction that Polish architects should be more concerned with.

Japanese culture is strongly rooted in Chinese and Korean culture, but being an island, it developed its own philosophy and aesthetics through a long historical process. Poland, located in the middle of Europe, was a part of European culture and its architecture followed the principal European stylistic canons over the centuries, eventually developing some idiosyncrasies within each architectural style. But it did not develop a Polish style of architecture. We might say that there is a Polish taste in food, and perhaps there is also some kind of Polish taste in architecture. But it’s not very obvious. And if it exists, I think that we should research into it, and try and define it.

In my work, I’m trying to do that. I was trying to go this way with the Wyspiański Pavilion, and I could say the same about the Polish Pavilion at the EXPO 2005 in Nagoya and the project of the Małopolska Performing Arts Centre, where we analysed the typology of space around the building while we were designing it. And we composed the building using the morphology of forms which we found on the site – also using some materials that we discovered in situ – and expressed it all in a modern form, in a kind of metaphorical way, but in a very direct relation to our discoveries. This is the kind of architecture which is interesting for me – trying to find the deep structure or hidden characteristics of our culture and our historical architecture, and trying to use it, not by means of iconic similarities, but by selecting specific grammar and materials which are meaningful for the place, then composing it in a way which can be adjusted by local taste. That is why I like to compare the taste in Polish food with the taste in Polish architecture. And by doing this, I think we can create meaningful and culturally rooted projects.

Of course, now it’s very fashionable to ask what our identity is within the current global culture. And maybe here is a kind of answer, we can do so by referring to the “matrix of space” – to the deeper roots of architecture created in a certain time and located in a certain place. I think that that’s also the reason why the problem of time and place is so important; perhaps more interesting than that of space, though one cannot exist without the other. “We live in time – places” – as Kevin Lynch concluded in his important book What Time is This Place?.

Stanisław Witkiewicz tried to create a national style of architecture a hundred years ago. What do you think he would make of Poland’s architecture today?

What he did was extremely important. But his approach was different. He was trying to analyse the formal iconic aspects of regional architecture, specifically of the Tatra Mountains region. He was trying to preserve the forms of details, as well as construction methods. The buildings he designed were at the time a bit artificial, since he expanded the scale of the traditional village dwelling into a bigger villa suitable for tourists. Anyway, it was a great attempt to consolidate Zakopane’s regional style, which definitely has its own identity. Perhaps only regional architecture, which developed in a certain place over centuries – in relative isolation – can achieve a status of stylistic identity.

It would be very difficult to expect that Witkiewicz could help us to synthesize Polish architecture today, since it is not possible to implement his method. The territory of Poland has shifted so many times owing to history. The architecture of its cities is a mixture of many traditions and historical periods; it is not possible to create a stylistic synthesis of Polish architectural style. The result would be eventually an artificial all-inclusive eclecticism. Polish architecture did not develop its own strong iconic forms; therefore I think this way of exploration does not lead to successful results. We cannot find the identity of Polish architecture through formal analysis.

I would rather suggest that we might try to define some characteristic features of architectural tradition related to a certain city, or rather a “place” in which we have lived for many years and with which we can identify. The environment in which we live over a long span of time is “imprinted” in us. We learn to recognize it with our body, we learn its history, the meaning and significance of each element of space. We establish a meaningful relationship with the place we live – on different levels of perception. I would like to say that in this long process we create our “matrix of space-time” by which we experience and understand the surrounding elements of the place. Then in turn, if an architect can understand such a “matrix” and use it in his design, he can create architecture that could be well understood by the community living in that place. And if such a relationship with the place and people can be achieved, then we may say that the architecture has a local identity, one that can be readily identified by a resident.

Of course, in the Polish imagination, the willow tree is very symbolic. And you used willow in the Japan Expo Pavilion.

This is exactly what I mean. Ultimately it was wicker, which is from the same family as willow. I was trying to find a material for the Pavilion which had some meaning for us Polish people, and which can be related to the music of Chopin. The main question was how to relate music and material? This is very difficult. So in a way I made a kind of regression, not only in terms of material, but to the landscape. In our imagination, there is a deeply rooted relation between Chopin and the Mazovian countryside, with willow trees dotted across the open landscape and leading far off into the horizon. It’s so deeply rooted that even the statue of Chopin in the Łazienki Palace Gardens in Warsaw portrays the composer under a willow tree.

So it seemed justified that we had to try and find some relation between our pavilion and the landscape. And the symbolic element for me was willow – actually wicker as we could use that material more easily. We couldn’t express the idea of the relationship of the music and Polish culture though any other material. We couldn’t use brick or stone. Of course, for us Polish people, this relationship was comprehensible – for Japanese not. But this relationship was easy to explain to Japanese people. If it is intriguing, then the explanation can be easily found. And I think it was a kind of success – people in Japan understood the building quite well. And I am very happy with that.

We can also say that whilst the material itself is natural and applied through the manual process of weaving, the way we designed forms of wicker modules and assembled them in the building is very technologically advanced. That’s why I explain that in our buildings, low-tech meets high-tech – it was all designed by computers, and the form, composed of two-directionally curved surfaces, was very complex, and in a way very difficult to be constructed, but by means of our technology, we were able to do it with great precision.

Of course, Krakow already has an ulica Ingardena (Ingarden Street), after your grandfather, the renowned philosopher Roman Ingarden. There are several professors – and indeed architects – in the family. Was there a sense, whilst you were growing up, that you were destined for a career in academia or the arts?

There was no kind of pressure in our family that I should study a certain academic field. I was absolutely free to decide what I wanted to do. Of course, at the age of 18, not many of us can decide exactly what we want to do with our lives. And selecting architecture was in my case a kind of accident, because at that time I didn’t know much about architecture. I knew architecture from the history of art – i.e. from books, so I had a vague idea about the profession. But I was interested in art – I was painting, drawing, I was also interested in literature. I was interested in photography and films, even considering studying in Łódź at the film school. So for me, the decision to study architecture was in some ways a kind of compromise – I thought that maybe art and technology could meet in this field, and thus I entered the department of architecture in Krakow. But this kind of profession is not one which you can understand from the very beginning. I think it takes years to understand what it means to be an architect, and how deeply architecture is rooted in culture. To be an architect is actually to be someone who is interested in culture, more than someone who is interested in constructing buildings. I understand the role of architecture from this perspective. I’m more focused on the meaning of cultural objects – which I try to produce.

Which architects do you admire on the world scene today?

Well, of course I like works of several architects, such as Alvaro Siza, Toyo Ito, Rafael Moneo, and some others. I appreciate very much Peter Zumthor’s works. I think that he is one of the most interesting architects at large today. His idea of creating “slow architecture” that is full of meanings and emotions, expressed in a subtle form, was one that developed gradually but very profoundly. This type of architecture I especially admire, so I was very glad that he received the Pritzker Prize this year.

The architect whom I have most admired for years is Arata Isozaki, and I am very happy to have worked with him on certain projects until today. I remember in the mid-80s, when I started my work in his office in Tokyo, that time was more important for my understanding of architecture than my entire studies. I met a person who was both an architect and an artist, someone who regarded architecture from the perspective of critical cultural analysis. Therefore, his approach to architecture and his writings on architecture remain very significant for me.

So, perhaps these two architects – though very different from each other – are the most interesting and inspiring for me at the moment. You might say that they are not surfing the wave of globalism. They are not the leading star architects. The work of Zumthor and Isozaki is more related to culture and the creation of a piece of art, and not to the notion of a work of art as a commodity.

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