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View of Zachęta from plac Piłsudskiego

No. 11

Plac Małachowskiego 3

Text by Magdalena Komornicka


Magdalena Komornicka, in 2018, wrote about the ever-changing Zachęta and the unalterable square in front of it. The text accompanied the Plac Małachowskiego 3 exhibition.

Reading the book of claims and requests at Zachęta, one can conclude that the public has a fairly emotional approach to the gallery, that they feel good here, that they ‘domesticate’ the space, provide advice on how to improve or streamline the building. The audiences suggest that there should be, for example, more places to sit, that the space should be better marked and that the gallery should provide bicycle racks. Some are too cold at the exhibitions, others are too hot, some people consider the ubiquitous stairs to be a hindrance, some complain about ugly toilets, which lack hangers for handbags, backpacks and so on, and some also express opinions and comments on the exhibitions presented at the Zachęta. What would happen if we fulfilled the public’s requests? What would the building look like? What would Zachęta’s operations be like?

Mildred Redd Hall and Edward T. Hall, in their study of the influence of a building on human behav­iour, titled The Fourth Dimension in Architecture, emphasise that it is ‘impossible to conduct valid studies of human behaviour without reference to the context of the environment’. Consequently, when analysing a build­ing, they studied three separate, but related, factors: the construction itself (architectural design, materials, fin­ishing, etc.), the people — employees in the building, and the organisation housed in the given building. They wander what the building says, emphasising that what it communicates has its consequences. How does a build­ing work? What are the first impressions it makes? What do we see in subsequent visits? What is the impact of the building on the employees? And finally, what is it as a declaration of a company?

Going beyond the questions asked in the above-mentioned study, one may ask about the meaning of the senses, in experiencing, in feeling architecture, and ana­lyse buildings from the perspective of the body, which ‘knows and remembers’, which is a measure of the pro­portions, dimensions and weight. One can also fantasise and come up with a variety of ‘what if?’ scenarios, look ing at the architecture from the standpoint of dreams, imagination, memories and sentiments. One could also go for institutional criticism, as some like to do, or brand study, as others would probably do. Study the ‘customer’, the audience, run a book of complaints and suggestions — like we do. One could also think about the extent to which the people impact the building, and the influence of their behaviours, personal stories and decisions on its fate.

Going with Halls’ methodology, Zachęta is the building, all the people working there and creating the space — including 60 full time employees and twice as many regular associates — and the institution, whose ‘main goal is to promote contemporary art in all its cur­rent forms, treated as a significant element of culture and social life.’ A public institution, meaning a common one, at least in some ways. In their study, the Halls stud­ied the building of an agricultural machinery company designed by Eero Saarinen, but when it comes to the building of a cultural institution, we need to expand our considerations to include a fourth factor — the audience.

The history of Zachęta began in 1860, when the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts, an institu­tion collecting and exhibiting Polish contemporary art, was established in the Russian partition, on the initiative of painters. The lack of institution’s own premises with exhibition halls quickly turned out to be a major issue. At the end of the century, two tenders for the Society’s building were held, and the building was eventually de­signed by one of the most outstanding Polish architects, Stefan Szyller. A well-known social activist and philan­thropist Ludwika Górecka bequeathed a plot for the con­struction of Zachęta in Plac Małachowskiego and it was there that the gallery building adjacent to her townhouse was built and later opened to the public on 15 December 1900. Due to the neighbouring building, the only three quarters of the premises of the new gallery were built, and that later determined the further fate of the institu­tion and its employees.

During World War II, the Society for the Encour­agement of Fine Arts was dissolved and the building it­self was seized by the occupying forces. The majority of the collection held at Zachęta went to the National Mu­seum in Warsaw, while the building housed the Haus der deutschen Kultur (German Culture Centre), where Nazi propaganda events were organised. During the Warsaw Uprising, the building was damaged by artillery shells; during the retreat the Germans also attempted to burn it down. In 1945, the Warsaw Reconstruction Office renovated the building, and in 1949 the building became the seat of the Central Bureau of Art Exhibitions. Apart from planning and coordinating exhibitions in the re­gional Bureaus of Art Exhibitions, the institution was tasked with organising exhibition activities in accord­ance with the cultural policy of the People’s Republic of Poland.

During the war, the townhouse adjacent to the gal­lery building was demolished, so since the 1950s, ten­ders and competitions for the extension of the Zachęta have been held. One of the most interesting projects was proposed by Oskar Hansen, Lech Tomaszewski and Stanisław Zamecznik, who submitted it in 1958, which assumed the addition of steel and glass structure to the existing building. Would Zachęta be different today if people were bold enough to implement this design?

‘The construction of Zachęta took two years, and the renovation and adding one quarter of it took twenty’ — the extension of the building started around 1983 and ended in late 1990s. The directors of institution and ar­chitects changed, designs and changed, even the political system in Poland changed, and the construction was still ongoing. During all these years, the structure and status of the institution and the location of its office spaces have also changed — each and every Zachęta employee re­members this time and these changes in a different way, each of them has their own stories and their own version of events. The resulting space is full of steps and stairs, differences in levels, halls, as well as unusual passages, nooks and crannies. The institution itself has also un­dergone significant changes — after the transformation, Zachęta became the State Art Gallery, and in 2003 it was elevated to the status of a national gallery. If we assume, therefore, that changeability is an attribute of identity, then this word can be used to describe Zachęta.

Unlike the building and the institution itself, Plac Małachowskiego remained unchanged over the years. It used to be a driveway and a car park, and it still serves these functions to this day, and the passing time can be seen only in the fact that the makes and models of cars keep changing, from those popular in the beginning of the 20th century, through Fiat 126p, to the cars we use today. Can this space have a different function? Would it be even able to serve any other function at all? Can a square where nobody has stopped so far (unless they parked their car there) be a place of activities? What if a fountain were to be erected in the square, as Stefan Szyller envisioned it, and many employees of Zachęta believed in that idea? Would the audience visiting the exhibition like to sit on a bench in front of the Zachęta?

The history of the place, the specificity of the building, the complicated identity of the institution, the personal stories of Zachęta employees, the feelings and emotions of the audiences and the resulting ques­tions whether the phenomena are the starting point for the Plac Małachowskiego 3 exhibition, which comprises performances, theatre and dance performances as well as installations and activities taking place over the course of four summer months — from June through September. The exhibition, the main theme of which will be place, will focus around the Plac Małachowskiego, which will be closed for vehicular traffic and made ac­cessible to artists and the public, as well as the gallery building itself, and especially its parts, which are not used for the presentation of works of art on an everyday basis. Artists who have already dealt with architecture and history of Zachęta in the past and those who will deal with it for the first time have been invited to take part in the exhibition. They will have everything — the square with the building, the institution, its employees and audience — at their disposal.