The world over, architecture has always been, and will likely always be, a potent manifestation of a society’s power, influence and above all, aspiration. Across the post-Soviet world, people today live with the legacies of grand monuments and high-rise cathedrals of Modernism that signified the grand ambitions of rulers past. Calvert 22’s Power and Architecture season explores utopian public space and national identities constructed across the post-soviet world, and the season includes four exhibitions that will run between June and October this year.
The first, Utopia and Modernity (closing on 3 July) exhibits five works spread over the ground and lower ground floors of Calvert 22’s gorgeous space. Polish-born, Berlin-based Przemek Pyszczek’s series Façade captures the bright, block-colour Soviet-era design typically found on urban walls and window-grates. Next to Façade is a selection of photographs from Dmitry Lookianov’s Instant Tomorrow series: images providing a glimpse of a fictive Muscovite apartment, all white walls and minimalistic furniture, in which characters play out oppressive scenes of never-to-be realised suburban utopia.
Adjacent to Lookianov’s utopian ideals is an installation of two Anton Ginzburg films Hyperborea and Walking the Sea; the former about a quest for a utopian life and its potentially devastating impact, the latter a powerful and quietly contemplative film, revealing the sheer devastation of the Aral Sea basin. In 1960 Central Asia’s Aral Sea was the fourth largest saline lake in the world. Today it’s on the verge of becoming a small and dirty waterhole: an example of how quickly environmental and humanitarian tragedy can threaten a whole region, now a fraction of its size thanks to a failed Soviet irrigation project. Ginzburg’s film starkly shows the environmental consequences of the decision in the 1960s to divert the two rivers – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya – that feed the Aral Sea, so they could water the surrounding desert region for agricultural purposes. It’s considered one of the most egregious acts of environmental vandalism the world has ever seen.
But the project that really sets this show apart is Architecture of the Seventh Day, by Polish researchers Kuba Snopek, Izabela Cichońska and Karolina Popera, which explores the history of an extraordinary wave of church-building that occurred in post-war Poland. The project began as a response to a question posed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas at the Venice Biennale in 2014: how is modern architecture absorbed into national and ethnic styles? Researchers Snopek, Cichońska and Popera found their answer in the grassroots churches of Poland and in a meticulous study of the material history of the buildings. Between 1945 and 1989, 3,587 churches were constructed within the nominally atheist communist state, in urban, suburban and rural areas. Unique not only in their defiance of the standardised prefabrication of the Eastern Bloc, but also as the churches were community-led endeavours that relied on local funding and input. The intersection of politics, ideology, church and architecture is at the heart of Cichońska, Snopek and Popera’s project.
With many cities and towns devastated by the Second World War, Communist Poland embarked on a national programme of construction and reconstruction according to the functionalist Soviet template. The machinery of communism churned out prefab, urban Modernist designs, but what was missing from this new blueprint for communist life was the parish church – and the people of Poland decided to build their own. The Project’s title – Architecture of the Seventh Day – exposes the dichotomy of church building in that time: a hand-crafted antithesis to factory-made Soviet architecture.
Neither legal nor illegal, the DIY church builders were caught in a netherworld between official and illicit, political protest and spirituality. All this was done in the absence of state assistance: the role of the architect shifting from modernist technocrat who could only serve state-sanctioned projects, to managers of scarce resources and individual talents. Parishioners-to-be turned into builders and had themselves to gather materials, furnish designs, organise labour and supervise construction. Instead of brutalist architecture churned out on a production line, each church was hand-built by people donating their labour on Saturdays and small sums of money on Sundays.
Cichońska, Snopek and Popera found that the state monopoly on building materials meant people had to find other means of achieving their goal: workers would steal from the factories where they worked; residents would take advantage of concessions allowing for the purchase of small quantities of materials for home repairs. One odd legal loophole stated that a structure completed within 24 hours would be allowed to stand: communities stockpiled supplies and and erected basic-roofed frames overnight that would later be expanded into places of worship. In some villages a church would be built, secretly, inside a barn, whose walls were then torn down to reveal the architectural oddity within.
The exhibition includes fantastic drone photographs of a handful of the churches built during this period. These birds-eye views, while showing the ingenuity, creativity and joyfulness of many of the structures, make abstract and flatten the forms of these fantastic churches, giving these post-Modernist structures a greater visual potency and provocation than their Modernist forebears.
About a decade after the fall of communism, the church-building wave came to an end in Poland. The ground-breaking research by Snopek, Cichońska and Popera now makes it possible to look back on Poland’s DIY Catholicism and ask what it all meant and what new narratives might emerge in the context of the current far right Government in Poland? More information about the project can be found in the excellent digital curation in the Calvert Journal (please click on image below).
Power and Architecture is Calvert 22’s season exploring utopian public space – running from June and October this year. The second exhibition, Part 2: Dead Space and Ruins runs between 7 July – 7 August 2016 and includes work by four photographers exploring the ‘dead space’ left in the wake of the fall of communism, from across the vast landscape of the former Soviet Union.