Architektura & Biznes 2019, no. 2
cover: Sky Pond Villa project by CENTRALA, illustration by Aleksandra Zawistowska
this publication covers Warsaw Wetscape series
In 2019 the February issue of “Architektura & Biznes” monthly was co-edited by CENTRALA. The issue is called “Hydro-mystery”.
Interview with CENTRALA and Małgorzata Tomczak, A&B editor-in chief.
What challenges is architecture facing in the 21st century? Is immaterial architecture less important than four walls and a roof? Answers to these questions form the ethos of the architectural practices of Centrala – the Warsaw-based architecture and research studio. Małgorzata Tomczak talks to Małgorzata Kuciewicz and Simone De Iacobis about the renewal of architecture’s language, hydrobiology, a flowerpot with aquatic plants, and the Rain Pavilion, among other topics.
Małgorzata Tomczak (A&B): Please tell me about the beginnings of Centrala. A few enthusiasts met during the studies and…
Małgorzata Kuciewicz (CENTRALA): …and they set up a platform for joint creative experimentation. The core of the group included Krzysztof Banaszewski, Jan Strumiłło, Jakub Szczęsny, and myself. We did not know each other from university classes, but from participating in student workshops and organising them. Taking part in the OSSA (Polish Meetings of Architecture Students) and EASA (European Architecture Students Assembly) meetings is still a major point in our calendars.
MT: Today, the core of Centrala is you – Małgosia, and Simone De Iacobis. Simone, what brought you to Poland and how did you become part of Centrala?
Simone De Iacobis (CENTRALA): I came here with funding from the EU Leonardo programme with an internship offer in Warsaw in the summer of 2010. I found the potential of Central and Eastern Europe intriguing, not only in relation to architecture. I thought it was a great opportunity.
MT: Centrala has always been a unique phenomenon on the Polish architectural scene. Aside from your architectural and curatorial practice, you were also involved in protecting Modernist heritage. It’s not that common…
Małgorzata: Our work today is even less typical. As a duo, we want to create projects that seek to renew the language of architecture, which means to introduce new or restore its old concepts. We do this in our building designs and artistic projects, but also narratives and fictions, co-developed on the basis of our own research, which change the visions of space through stories, walks, publications. We reconstruct forgotten bold ideas from the past. In 2013, we started exploring Zofia and Oskar Hansen’s house in Szumin. Since 2012, we have been promoting the work of Jacek Damięcki, our mentor. And since 2015, we have been active towards the revitalisation of the Warszawianka sports complex in Warsaw. We obviously don’t work alone, but with a network of institutions, activists, curators. Protection of Modernism previously meant for us restoring the features of buildings indicative of their architectural style (for example, in our work on the Warszawa Powiśle railway station in 2009). Right now, the challenge for us is not to rebuild architectural tissue, but to reconstruct the idea behind the functioning of such spaces.
Simone: Yes, our exploration of the biography of such places as Warszawianka, Szumin, and the estate-monument of Muranów in Warsaw allowed us to realise their status as living historic monuments, which fully reveal their essence only when they are in use. Last summer, for example, we reconstructed an aquatic plant pot as an attempt to bring it back into the conversation about the city, architecture and hydrobiology from an ecological and symbolic perspective.
Hydrobiology and architecture
MT: Why does reviving the knowledge of aquatic plants matter so much? How does it work in the hydrobiological and social contexts?
Małgorzata: Two years ago, we came across a photograph of a concrete plant pot with aquatic plants in Witold Szolginia’s book Estetyka miasta [Urban Aesthetics] from the 1980s. That was fascinating: how come lilies grow in concrete in Warsaw? This must come back! We were sometimes reproached that such a pond was a mosquito breeding ground that stank and caused more problems than a soil flower bed, and that it would be vandalised. But last summer, thanks to our collaboration with the Zachęta – National Gallery of Art and the University of Warsaw Botanic Garden, we conducted an experiment and created a small pond in one of such plant pots. This showed that all those fears were unfounded: plants efficiently cleaned the water, rain compensated for evaporation, and the pond generated a pleasant microclimate. Our action stirred enthusiasm and provoked a discussion.
Simone: We learnt from conversations that the system of such containers had most likely been designed in the 1960s by Alina Scholtz, who collaborated with Romuald Gutt and Halina Skibniewska as a landscape architect in their projects.
Małgorzata: We started collecting photographs which proved that Modernist architecture had originally been accompanied by natural ponds with aquatic plants, because the microcosm of garden ponds was only quite recently replaced by chemically-controlled barren reservoirs [cf. A&B 2/2019, pp. 55–56]. We heard that this was due to Civil Defence regulations in Poland under communism.
MT: What about the symbolic dimension?
Małgorzata: We’ve come to understand that just as we are fascinated by designs from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Mies van der Rohe was inspired by designs from fifty or more years before. He borrowed inspiration from Joseph Paxton’s simple glass Lily House in Barbrook from 1850. Aquatic plants in his architecture were an homage to Paxton, and Alina Scholtz’s lilies planted in concrete were flowers for Mies. Now, we lay flowers for Alina.
Simone: One of the species we planted in the plant pot was water caltrop, whose fruit resembles sweet chestnuts. In the old days in Poland, water caltrop fruit was eaten cooked or baked, or else dried and ground to make flour. Its dried skin was used to make jewellery.
Małgorzata: We realised how little we knew about the world of aquatic plants in contrast to land plants. In the summer, we learnt how to plant them in a mix of silt and peat, in lake water, never in tap water. We found out how to “weed” the pond. We’re now searching for recipes to reconstruct the menu comprising aquatic and shore plants.
MT: You’re also designing a wetland in Warsaw. It’s quite an untypical task for architects because it seems like nature’s mission. You also work with language by bringing back the memory of words: wetland, sedge meadow, peat bog, swamp, fluvisol, marsh, riparian forest, quagmire, morass, reed bed, willowbank, riparian herbaceous bed, flood-meadow, shrubland, etc. They were once part of everyday language of the inhabitants of waterside areas. Nowadays, few people know the differences in their meanings.
Małgorzata: Yes, our new working method is to develop architectural and urban planning designs on the basis of concepts whose meanings have become blurred. In this project, we decoded so-called wetlands [cf. A&B 2/2019, pp. 36–37], because we believe that the “memory of landscape” exists. We suppose that if extreme weather phenomena occur, waters will find old riverbeds. And since the Vistula is a braided river, which was always surrounded by wetlands, it is better to restore them according to a plan. We postulate that the old riverbeds of the Vistula in Warsaw should see local plant compositions created and regional animal species restored, because to respond locally to future climate challenges means to reconstruct various wetlands.
Simone: This process is called rewilding.
Małgorzata: This coincided with our observations concerning the plant pot and our invitation to participate in the Futurama Warszawa exhibition. We could already sense the potential of aquatic plants when the curator of the show at the ZODIAK Warsaw Pavilion of Architecture, Jakub Szczęsny, asked us what to do with the latent flood plains below the escarpment in the Praga area.
Simone: But we adopted a broader perspective by taking a new look at the river. The Vistula is not only a riverbed, but also a network of watercourses, reservoirs and periodically flooded areas. It is a territory, and not a thalweg on the map, which is why we propose to consider the whole hydrographical system as a whole. This offers a new perspective on the presence of the Vistula in Warsaw. We aim to create the Park of Island Transitions established between the embankments – a structure of sand sediment, river bars and sediment mounds, transformed biannually according to the rhythm of floods and sculpted by the sediment carried by the current.
Małgorzata: Park of Roaming Islands.
Simone: And behind the embankments, in the old riverbed of the Vistula, we want to complement oxbow lakes with water allotments, drifting flowerbeds, and the Millennium Hydrotrail. It would become a site of natural swimming ponds, hydrophyte plantations and new water transport links, among other facilities. This would allow for making a safe use of the waterscape. We were inspired by phenomena from across the world: Wilkowo, Văcărești, chinampa, and buildings of the Olęder people [cf. A&B 2/2019, pp. 63–64].
Małgorzata: Warsaw’s wetlands would adapt to the natural periods of water abundance and extreme weather phenomena – they would distribute a necessary amount of water during droughts, whereas during heavy rainfall they would soak up water and accumulate it in order to slowly release it afterwards. Overflow areas that emerge in the city in parallel with the Vistula’s periodical surges could restore the pulse of the river in Warsaw. As I said, allowing for a rewilding of urban nature is a response to future climate challenges.
Simone: Another important aspect of the project is that it restores the river’s natural cycles in the city by emphasising its double surge: with meltwater in spring and rainwater in summer. Floodplains, wetlands, are essentially the world’s oldest “living monuments”, such as the wetlands of Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation [cf. A&B 2/2019, p. 67]. Nowadays, an architectural challenge is to develop the infrastructure of natural waters in the city, retention, and to tap into the phytoremediation potential of plants, including shore and aquatic plants. As in the Świder-bis project or the Walthamstow Marshes in London, opened to the public a year ago, it is crucial to implement the ideas of water recreation and ecotourism in the city. We need to treat the city as a biodiverse area, inhabited not only by humans.
MT: What inspired you to concentrate on architecture’s links with water and its world?
Simone: That lesson was learnt from Warszawianka – the sports complex in Warsaw designed by Jerzy Sołtan’s team in the mid-1950s. To fully understand that design, we visited it many times throughout several seasons and learnt to trace water, locate water seepages, karst springs, find watercourses by observing vegetation, looking where icicles grew. In Warszawianka’s colour aerial photographs we also noticed water lilies on the surface of the retention lake at the foot of the complex. Greenery at Warszawianka was designed by Alina Scholtz, among other figures, so there is also link here with concrete plant pots. It was only thanks to walks and field observations that we could fully reconstruct the structure and idea of how that composition worked. And to represent it in the form of a mock-up shown at the Polish Pavilion at the most recent Architecture Biennial in Venice. The excellence and complexity of Warszawianka and the significance of water as an architectural component, also at the political level, is discussed in the book that accompanied the show Amplifying Nature. The Planetary Imagination of Architecture in the Anthropocene, edited by the exhibition curator Anna Ptak.
MT: What was the idea behind the pavilion?
Małgorzata: The Amplifying Nature exhibition is a story about the processes that regulate the earth’s biosphere, about weather and astronomical phenomena that create architecture. We presented the results of our research conducted since 2012. There were three reconstructions of the ideas of historical designs and two new proposals stemming from their interpretations. We showed all the designs through the prism of the activity of nature: gravity, water circulation, and day-night light cycle.
MT: I’ll now play devil’s advocate and ask you about critical opinions about the pavilion. The most common reproach was that the work you showed was incomprehensible without the catalogue, and that projects for this kind of exhibition need to be made instantly understood, because visitors don’t have much time to spare at such a big event.
Małgorzata: It was a conscious decision. Our findings were saturated over the years, we gathered plenty of materials, which we published in the book. The exhibition adopted the form of a spatial diagram, in which gravity was replaced by water buoyancy. Five designs – mock-ups floating on water without a specified hierarchy – were accompanied by representations of planetary phenomena created by the artist Iza Tarasewicz, something not usually shown in architectural exhibitions.
Simone: The Venice Biennale is not only about the two crazy opening days. It lasts for half a year. Many visitors come later, when there are no crowds and the shows can be taken in unhurriedly. The exhibition reflects our approach to the presentation of architectural research, in which the visitor can put the pieces together to form the composite concept of amplifying nature. We believe in an active and engaged viewer. The exhibition is meant to arouse curiosity and willingness to learn more. Iza Tarasewicz’s contribution was crucial since it generated an evocative spatial experience. She represented gravity and geological time through her interpretation of the Warsaw escarpment formation, which became a water basin that served to exhibit the mock-ups; water circulation was shown as an artistic installation devoted to rain; and light oscillation – by means of representations of dusk and dawn.
Małgorzata: Our exhibition was among the three shows recommended by Hans Ibelings in his review of the Biennial. He wrote: “It is therefore an exhibition that escapes immediate grasp, which is a pleasant experience among all the other displays that so desperately seek unambiguity and lucidity.”
MT: You continue to work with the topic approached in Venice. Amplifying nature – what does this concept actually mean and why is it so important to make it part of the language and practice of architecture?
Małgorzata: The phenomena that form the building blocks of architecture: gravity, light oscillation, water circulation, serve the earth’s reproduction at the same time. This perspective allows us to see architecture as part of the processes unfolding on a planetary scale. Let us show some examples. We presented the Rain Pavilion, which was also inspired by our lesson about water learnt from the Warszawianka complex. It was our first design developed on the basis of ethnolinguistic studies. Getting hold of Władysław Kupiszewski’s writings from the 1960s and grasping the differences between various types of rain: trzaskawica [rainstorm with distant thunder], łyskawica [lightning storm], kapanina [fine dribbling rain, mizzle], ulewa [downpour], and dżdża [drizzle] allowed us to create a structure that brought out the differences between them. An architectural design was proposed that made it possible to enjoy rain, experience its varieties and gain awareness of the planetary water circulation.
Simone: The Rain Pavilion is a medium for hydrological phenomena on any possible scale – from droplets to meteorological regimes in which the sky meets the ground. A funnel that forms a water column shows how quickly it flows during a downpour; for a drizzle we have a moisture-condensing perforated trough that transforms wet mist into visible droplets; for a whipping rain with strong wind there is an inverted bell for collecting water from different directions; during a rainstorm with distant thunder we may enter a drum chamber that amplifies the sound of thunder. The pavilion’s role is not to offer shelter from the rain, but to organise the experience of water circulation. The vocabulary used to convey the variety of precipitation is disappearing. And so is the variety itself…
Małgorzata: Ania Ptak calls the pavilion “A monument to contemporary rain, the types of precipitation in the Masovia region in 2018”…
Simone: …because we can still enjoy the variety of weather phenomena. And the Polish language offers a wealth of architectural inspirations, it’s enough to delve a bit deeper…
Małgorzata: …and to illustrate these concepts by creating architectural spaces that have the power to take the user’s imagination to a more remote scale, not only in geographical, but also in temporal terms. And to take it to inconvenient places, sites of loss, blurred seasons, water shortage, extinction of species. With the perspective gained in our work with Anna Ptak, we no longer distinguish between the interdependencies of the planetary and human spaces. We seek to delve deep into the past and think far into the future, to treat architecture as a discipline interlaced with natural and environmental sciences.
Simone: The disappearance of periodical phenomena in nature does not look like a problem to most people. They prefer to live in comfort and detachment from circadian and seasonal drops in temperature. In isolation from insects and microbes living in the soil. Basking in the eternal sun of the electric lamp. We recognise this loss and believe that architecture can help others realise it too. Inspire their sensitivity to perceive life on many scales and in manifold cycles. That is why another example from Amplifying Nature is the chronobiological house. Its design strengthens the sense of being part of the rhythm of night and day, the sequence of light and darkness, the seasons and weather changes, with all their consequences. We rely on the knowledge of the inner biological clock and developing the diversity of life through negotiating our sense of comfort. Cabrio House is a space organised around a fireplace, a primeval element of architecture that organises people in space, even older than the roof.
Małgorzata: Designing discomfort has its traditions. Gerrit Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chair was not supposed to satisfy the body’s need of comfort. Its hardness allows one to feel the softness of muscles between the wood and bones. Likewise, the kimono limits the repertoire of movements to walking, standing, sitting and kneeling. This stiff and restraining garment, akin to a lobster carapace, emphasises the softness and daintiness of the body. The book Amplifying Nature includes our conversation with the biologist Monika Słupecka-Ziemilska about the circadian rhythm of our bodies and domestic space as an overlap of intimacy and planetary cycles.
Simone: This is why our house is chronobiological. Cabrio House has a roof that opens to the firmament, with no clear demarcation of the living room, the yard, the veranda and the bedroom. With its convertible roof, it encourages a negotiation between our sense of security and desire for enormity and contemplation of the sky, mixing intimacy with the scale of the universe. It allows for inhabiting an environment, sleeping in winter freeze in the heating fireplace area, enjoying the presence of insects in the living room in spring, bathing in summer rain, and counting falling leaves or stars from the comfort of the sofa.
Małgorzata: This project is our opportunity to remind the viewers that there are twelve seasons in Poland – the primary and the secondary ones: przedzimek (pre-winter), spodzimek (late winter), przedwiośnie (very early spring), pierwośnie (first spring), polecie (post-summer), etc., which could influence the shape of architecture, its seasonal rhythm of changes in annual cycles. We are fascinated by the elements of buildings that respond to periodical phenomena in nature. Window shutters or curtains hung in the form of wind-catchers, double-layered windows, whose one layer can be removed in spring, curtain screens hung as mosquito nets, textile sunshade canopies. Elements that unleash seasonal architectural rituals.
Simone: Architecture is like food. We can either eat strawberries from the supermarket all year long or opt for a seasonal cuisine based on local products.
Małgorzata: Which takes effort. But it makes us realise the passage of time and the spectrum of phenomena in which we participate through eating or inhabitation. It also makes us think about which substances we release into the world and which we absorb. So, yes, we like designs that generate discomfort. Especially if our discomfort translates into the quality of life of the non-human city dwellers, for example by reducing light pollution through planning the fall of night, which may foster the activity of crepuscular and nocturnal wildlife.
Simone: Our minor inconveniences may encourage animal populations to settle in urban environments, which may lend biodiversity to the cityscape.
MT: As in your design featured on the cover?
Simone: Our Rooftop Hiking project from three years ago investigated the potential of the roofs of multifamily buildings as social spaces. In the Sky Pond Villa design, created for this issue of A&B, we propose a building for a small Rundling-type settlement with its natural pond transferred onto the roof. The pond is home to plants, insects, birds, small mammals and fish. An urban cosmos. The elevated pond may serve as a refuge for biodiversity in case of flooding the area with contaminated water. It becomes a strategic water reservoir during droughts. It creates a pleasant microclimate during heatwaves. It can be used to grow edible water plants, such as water caltrop.
Małgorzata: Our swimming pond has a forced water circulation. A vertical axis wind turbine powers a small circulator pump, which propels water on the surface of the reservoir, and by filtering it, for example with a hydrobotanical filter, accelerates and enhances water self-purification processes. The movement of water ensures an ice-free strip in winter, indispensable for animals, and keeps the pond from freezing completely. There are also heating rings along the perimeter in order to eliminate the pressure of expanding ice. But energy is dispensed only in rare cases. To paraphrase a line from Stanisław Bareja’s film Man – Woman Wanted (Poszukiwany, poszukiwana), our co-op tower block may stand in greenery without the need to remove the lake…
Simone: We understand the importance of creating urban wetlands, which is why we postulate not only green roofs, but also green roofs with water!
MT: You don’t design architecture in the strict sense, opting instead for conceptual work in urban space in order to change the perception of a given topic. It’s not a common approach.
Małgorzata: Developing knowledge, imagination, problematising certain questions is as important as erecting physical structures. It allows the collective imagination to transform reality. The collective awareness of the elements that make up the city has a tremendous impact on how it is perceived, understood and used, and on the direction followed by decisions that transform it. Today’s challenge is to act with a greater scale in mind, with a planetary imagination.
MT: You propose ethical and wise architecture as a physical and biological environment. Our telephone conversations mentioned the term “designing a nicer end”. What exactly do you mean by that?
Simone: One of the examples we recommended for publication in this issue is a house designed by Wim Goes, whose architecture relates to the cycle of human life. It was designed in a way that makes it disappear after its user’s death. If we think about things on a collective scale from a sufficiently remote perspective, we need to presuppose the end of humankind. The question is: what do we leave behind? We are fascinated by the theme of the upcoming XXII Triennale di Milano [Broken Nature]. As opposed to the species that died out before us, we are capable of conceptualising our end, and that’s why we can design a better and more elegant one…
MT: Thank you for our conversation!
translated by Łukasz Mojsak