Architecture in European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016

Zbyszek Maćków

Curator of Architecture, ECoC 2016

 Zbigniew Maćków (1969), architect IARP. Founder and CCO at Maćków Pracownia Projektowa—established in 1995 in Wroclaw, currently employs over 60 architects and built over 30 significant buildings mainly in Wroclaw. Notable awards: “Life in architecture”—architectural prize, shortlisted in “Polityka Architectural Prize,” four times Grand Prix of “Beautiful Wroclaw,” four times finalist of World Architecture Festival, “Best Public Space” of Silesian Voivodship, two times Grand Prix DOFA, prize of the year SARP, Polish nomination and shortlisted for Mies van der Rohe Award, final ECOLA Award, Gold Medal Leonardo Award and over 40 prizes within architectural competitions. President of local Chamber of Architects (2010–2018), visiting teacher at Wroclaw’s Polytechnic Faculty of Architecture, University of Wroclaw, Solvay Brussels School (1998–2008). Co-initiator of the Nowe Żerniki—new model real estate in Wroclaw (2011–), curator responsible for architecture at the ECoC Wroclaw 2016. Currently founding and leading “Gęsto”—architectural think tank and foundation dealing with new housing typologies and urban sprawl.

So it happened. Architecture, alongside literature, music or art, was selected as one of eight curatorial fields of the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) programme. In this way, for the first time in the history of European Capitals of Culture, it was recognised as an independent field of broadly understood culture. Beyond doubt, architecture has become increasingly prominent in Wroclaw’s general social and cultural discourse in the last 15 years, as proven by initiatives such as the Lower Silesian Festival of Architecture (DoFA) or the annual architectural awards Beautiful Wroclaw. This fact also results from exceptionally good cooperation between important local architectural organisations: the Wroclaw Branch of the Association of Polish Architects, the Lower Silesian Regional Chamber of Architects, Poland’s only Museum of Architecture, and the Faculty of Architecture of Wroclaw University of Science and Technology. This has translated into a record number of architectural competitions organised in the city in recent years, among other things. The years-long process of laying the groundwork for ECoC was dotted by the title of Wroclaw’s application, “Spaces for Beauty,” which literally asked for materialisation.

Wroclaw is special. Similar to other Polish cities, it has its own unique history and story to tell. Harmonious coexistence, respect for the past and establishing a dialogue with the existing context are stressed here from the very beginning. This peculiar set of good spatial manners directly determines a sort of relationship and cooperation that can be called the Wroclaw model. Exceptionally, instead of competing, all professionally active environments cooperate in the name of architectural development and promotion, which translates into good communication with the general public. This apparently trivial formula is actually very difficult to reach because it usually dashes against a reef of various particularisms and egoisms, which explains why such a seemingly simple investment task as the construction of the Nowe Żerniki model housing estate (see also “Nowe Żerniki—The Housing Estate of European Capital of Culture Wrocław 2016,” this issue) has so far happened only here. The Wroclaw model has also contributed to the creation of a city that is a colourful patchwork of interpenetrating cultures and aesthetics; a city of exchange and attentive listening, coexistence and reading the past; a city that has been slowly accumulating layers left by the subsequent generations of inhabitants.

Following this train of thought, a question arises about Wroclaw’s architectural identity. This was our starting point. Celebrating the year of ECoC opened with an important exhibition, Made in Europe, which featured nearly 150 models of buildings put on the shortlist for the EU Mies van der Rohe Award in the last quarter of a century. We tried to find the answer to this question during a series of public debates with Polish architects who have made it to the shortlist. I think that what we found out was the existence of something that I would describe as European architectural DNA. And this is by no means just an aesthetic code. Rather, it is a way of thinking about architecture as an unusually characteristic urban fabric determining the cityscapes in our part of the world, albeit not all of them. In any case, the architectural map of Europe does not overlap with its geographical limits. Therefore, the identity of this type of architecture stems from the typology of its creation and stratification rather than from arbitrary decisions.

During the ECoC year, the Wroclaw Branch of the Association of Polish Architects organised a special project called the Big A and invited to Wroclaw a number of distinguished foreign architects who share a fairly innovative approach to the profession and try to experiment with space in various ways. By organising these three series of lectures, we wanted to remove the odium of “starchitecture” from the public reception of the best architecture. Instead of perceiving the design as the architect’s show-off, we wanted to restore the proper understanding of the process—the fact that architecture today is still tasked with solving day-to-day problems of ordinary humans. The lectures were addressed to the general public and the audience included many non-architects. It was absolutely crucial for me that we could see how architecture is used to solve urgent social problems in poor suburbs of Colombian cities, fight for the quality of the landscape in urbanised Europe, argue for new typologies of residential housing or contribute to the development of a new educational model in the rather hierarchically-organised Japanese society. This year of extremely important discussions made it clear—to us as well as to politicians and decision-makers—that architecture is not just about creating photogenic icons to be put in advertising folders.

The construction of the Nowe Żerniki model housing estate was another important undertaking. I have the impression that all of us have passed the test: architects, developers, city authorities, and finally residents. That all of us, although in different ways, had to refresh our knowledge about how to build a good, liveable city. And that based on the experiences that we have already gained, including the most important one—of living on this estate, we will be able to develop new, better city-building strategies for the near future. Above all, I have the impression that we have understood that the priority of form, which determines our everyday work to such a great extent, is towards the bottom of the list when it comes to properly define urban needs.

The ECoC exhibition programme drew upon various identities of Wroclaw: an exhibition devoted to the Werkbund estate addressed the German heritage while the presentation titled Lviv: 24 June 1937 analysed the extent to which the elites from the former Eastern Borderlands influenced post-war life in the city. Contemporary Wroclaw is a collection of overlapping layers from different periods. There is no other such city in Poland. It has a perfectly preserved pre-war skeleton upon which buildings of various aesthetic origins have been erected. The scale is unique and the proportions of streets and squares are very good. This is the most European of all Polish cities. A number of challenges face us, including what seems to be the greatest one—how to smoothly evolve from a city that dynamically develops basic infrastructure and creates prosperity to a city offering a high quality of life for all. During this upcoming transformation it will be crucial to not lose our special identity and to not fall into the trap of churning out empty copies of random solutions collected from all over world.

One of our priorities was to promote good architecture from Wroclaw, irrespective of when it was created. We wanted to break the spell over architecture created in the most recent historical periods, combat the negative connotations and bad publicity surrounding it. To oppose the catchy media narrative about the ugly, grey architecture made in Poland under communism. A short time ago, a local newspaper asked its readers to list buildings that should be demolished, and half of them were the best examples of architecture from the 1960s. It is our task to counterbalance ignorance and promote good local architecture, to correct the false impression that the best things always happen far away. The first revitalisations still bear the mark of imperfections and middle-of-the-road decisions. However, an important step has been made and the time has come for substantive discussions and drawing conclusions for the near future.

From the very beginning, our assumptions were based on using a relatively coherent sequence of events. As a result, everyone could find something interesting in this colourful mosaic, one event built on another, and yet another one became their complement or post scriptum. My plan and intention were to give potential recipients an appetite for architecture as an important component of everyday social discourse. I hope that the year of ECoC, apart from the tangible “hardware”—over 30 constructed buildings and places alongside a new part of the city in Nowe Żerniki—will revive appetite for everyday conversations about architecture and space.

doi: 10.18278/aia.4.2.7