W-70_Life and Death of Previous Era Prefabs
Agnieszka Roś, Robert Dobrowolski & Natalia Skolimowska
The prefabricated housing comes from the modernist ideas. First such buildings appeared in Western Europe in the 20’s. Main reasons for typification were reducing costs and making construction easier and faster. Prefab housing started appearing in Poland in the 50’s. First buildings were built in Nowa Huta, near Cracow, and then in 1958 in Warsaw. The golden era for Polish prefab was the 70’s, when the factories were producing at full capacity. There were many new systems designed in those days. One of the most popular was W-70, by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka. The name is an abbreviation for Warsaw 1970.
In 2013 prefab houses had over 12 million inhabitants. Enormous districts became inseparable from their environment, spreading over vast areas and often forming city centers. The grand scale of the post-war reconstruction resulted in consequences like low quality of finishing and faulty elements. The joints were especially prone to mistakes and likely to be the cold bridges. That’s why people started layering insulation over the facades and covering it with colorful plaster already in the 80’s. What’s more, life span of prefab housing was initially calculated for 50 years. Today we know that the buildings can last more than twice longer. Nonetheless, they will sooner or later be gone. New buildings will arise, but will the memory of architecture where our generation grew up remain?
We imagine that in next 30 years the prefab buildings will be demolished and inhabitants will move to new homes, and the rubble will be reused in technical structures (apparently it’s just great for piers and harbours). Almost hundred years of history will be wiped away from our cities. We want them to leave a mark.
We start with a concrete base. Along with successive teardowns we collect the building material: concrete prefab elements. We bind them into blocks that are then used to form the walls. When the perimeter of the first floor is closed we cover it with a slab. Slab has a small hole in the center, that becomes wider and wider on each level. Winding stairs pierce the slabs. Finally the hole in the slab encompasses it all and slab is just a separation between walls. Only perimeter walls and staircase remain surrealistically pointing to the sky. Thanks to the skylights, all the floors have access to light.
There are five kinds of module blocks that we use to create ever changing sequence. Seemingly random progression gives a coherence and orderliness to the facade.
The building is located in Mokotów district in Warsaw, on a plot between a shopping pavilion and a prefab high-rise. It refuses orthogonal grid established by the neighbors. It sits astride between evenly planted trees. On its site a crane waits for new panels.
The tower is never finished, it grows in the rhythm of demolitions, it feeds on the debris. Common substance takes an unexpected form. Degree of nonuniformity of the tower reflects dissonance between modernist ideas and reality. Echoes of utopian enthusiasm of the prefab era still appear in the construction. We strive to find beauty in concrete panels and finish the story of prefab housing with an appropriate epilogue.
Who influences you graphically?
A graphic representation was for us as important as a project itself. Our main references were among others graphics by Dogma, Ecole Architectes, group Paper Architects and the early works of OMA. In their works, they move away from realism aiming to extract the pure idea. We were attracted by uncommon, slightly unsettling representation on the verge of legibility.
How does the graphic language relate to the thesis?
Graphic design and architectural project were in this case paralelly developed. Many times we felt that architectural design was influenced by a graphics. There is a bit of an internal contradiction. The design itself is surrealistic, but has a very pragmatic root. We hope that the graphic language represents this. Mixed use of stylized drawings and realistic visualizations reflects the ambiguity. The substance we use has a very particular character. Reused concrete prefabricates have a rich, rough texture, capturing this materiality was essential.
What is the effect of the monochromatic palette?
Most commonly Polish prefab housing is represented on the black and white photographs as the buildings themselves have no colour. We felt that, so that we are dealing with artifacts of the past, it is the natural way to represent and there is no need for additional colour. The eye focuses on massive and coarse blocks of reinforced concrete.
How does collage as a means to compose an image reflect back to the way you create this new architecture?
Collage graphic technique is about reusing images, or finding new places and meanings for the existing images. This is exactly what we do with architecture. We cut out pieces and compose them in an unexpected way, giving new meaning to something that is very commonplace.
You reveal the material/buildings in isolation- how does this relate back to the modernist ideals?
The dissonance between the tower and its surrounding relates to the discrepancy between modernist ideas and reality. Modernism confronted with socialistic reality failed. Prefabricated mass housing from 70’s and 80’s in Poland debauched modern utopias, and devaluated modernd architecture. Mass housing spread over vast areas. We are somewhat reversing this process. Although the elements of the tower were made in the mass production, the building itself is an unrepetative piece of art.
How does the animated gif impact the image?
Gifs highlight rythmical character and recurrence of the designed process. We assume the collapse and return of the old prefab buildings. Building the tower made of the returned prefabs is a constant and neverending proces. Gifs also show a bit of a tongue-in-a-cheek approach to a huge topic of a collapsed utopia of mass housing.
Agnieszka Roś, studied at Faculty of Architecture on Warsaw University of Technology and on Via University in Horsens, Dennmark. These days practicing the architectural profession in the offices in Warsaw and in a team with group of friends.
Natalia Skolimowska, studying Architecture at Warsaw University of Technology and Tampere University of Technology, Finland. At present I’m developing my experience in professional setting in Poland. Currious about relationship between art and architecture.
Robert Dobrowolski, based in Warsaw, Poland. Studied at Wydział Architektury Politechniki Warszawskiej and at Politecnico di Milano. Currently pursues his career in architecture and digital art.