An architect who lacks empathy is a threat to the world
Interview with professor Ewa Kuryłowicz, one of the most outstanding personalities in the world of architecture.
By Marcin Szczelina
Photos: Bartek Barczyk
MARCIN SZCZELINA: You’ve just come back from the Architecture Biennale in Venice. What are your first impressions?
EWA KURYŁOWICZ: Favorable, I liked it. I believe that this biennale of architecture was about architecture. Perhaps without such impressions as provided by Junya Ishigami (editor’s note: in 2010 the architect won the Golden Lion for the best project at the main exhibition at the Architecture Biennale in Venice), but you could see the models from the studio of Peter Zumthor – unfortunately they could not be photographed, but we were “shooting from the hip” (laugh). I liked the exhibition at the Arsenal very much.
Ewa P. Porębska, editor–in–chief of “Architektura Murator”, wrote that this year’s biennale was boring. Many architects share her opinion.
Because this year, there is no star at the biennale. But we didn’t want any stars. I remember the Congress of the Union of Architects in Turin in 2008, when for the first time the organizers announced that there would be no glitz or a setting – fantastic – that was at congresses in Barcelona or Istanbul. In Turin, this was said firmly: no. It was found that architecture was objectified, architects became products that developers are following – they pay architects well, but sell them as a part of their business. So in Turin, we were told: we won’t be supporting architects “selling” in this way, because architecture must be a more autonomous art. I remember the ending of this congress, the presentation of the awards, which had the character of a school academy – boredom, dull as dishwater. We were sitting in the audience, sighing for Barcelona and Istanbul, but this is the moment: away with the stars of architecture, it is supposed to be normal. So it is normal. As part of this ceremony, there was a concert of the RAI orchestra that played the repertoire of, among others, Edgar Varèse; it is fantastic but quite difficult music. We were sitting among others with Stefan (Stefan Kuryłowicz, prominent Polish architect, partner in professional and private life. He died tragically in 2011), during the concert we didn’t look around the audience very much, then suddenly we realized that almost everyone has fled. High, demanding art is difficult in reception – even for architects, as it turned out.
This year’s Biennale is not geared or curated by celebrities, such as Rem Koolhas – also criticized for that the fact that “his” biennale was too “elementary” – and yet it managed to show very good architecture. I wasn’t bored. There were so many beautiful things to see – architecture never bores me.
Biennale in Venice this time takes place under the slogan “Freespace”. How do you read the message of the curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara’s?
I haven’t, as this message is rather illegible. Curators have dropped such a slogan, picked up by Finns, for example, who said that real freedom is in a space where people have to do with culture, i.e. with books – hence their pavilion was dedicated to libraries. Austrians read and tried to interpret this slogan in a more abstract way, through space. Norway was also interesting, but it was quite difficult, people had trouble with it. I was put off by the award-winning Swiss Pavilion, it seemed to me petty–bourgeois because the world doesn’t end with Europe. I try to travel around the world, now we will be doing the Schindler’s contest again with the students from the architecture faculty at the Technical University in Warsaw, this year it will take place in Mumbai. In Mumbai 60% of people live in slums, there are skyscrapers next to them, which are single-family homes, it is a completely different reality. Showing scale problems in Swiss cuisine is too petty–bourgeois and Eurocentric for a global event.
And how did you find the Polish Pavilion?
I don’t understand it, unfortunately. It looks pretty in the photos, there are a lot of beautiful fragments, which are some kind of artifacts. Unfortunately, they do not make up a clear story. When the Poles prepared a pavilion several years ago, which “listened” (Editor’s note: it is about the exhibition “Making the walls quake as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers” from 2012 prepared by Katarzyna Krakowiak and curated by Michał Libera) – anyone who entered this empty space knew that something was going on. This year, a similar attempt was made in the British pavilion…
Yes, in this case I have no idea why. This empty space didn’t tell me anything.
Most of the reviews suggest that empty space is a reference to brexit, Great Britain’s exit from the EU.
All right, but this is an exhibition of architecture, not a political one. Because of brexit, British architecture will disappear? Being on the spot, I even asked the man who was on duty at this “exposition”: “If I do not see anything here, does it mean there is nothing there?” (laugh). And he said: “Yes, it should be like that. You can also go upstairs.” So I asked: “And what can you see upstairs?” He responded: “Venice.” And I said: “With all due respect, but I’m looking at Venice right now. Is that everything?” He said: “No, no, at 4 p.m. we invite you for tea.’ Ambiguous. But also – not “boring”.
How does the Polish Pavilion look like in comparison to other national pavilions? What does the exhibition say about Polish architecture?
Polish pavilion is very illegible – and this is a disadvantage. Because in the national pavilions in Giardini, however, exhibitions are shown that somehow relate to what is the most up-t-date in architecture in a given country. Of course, nowhere does it boil down to the standard presentation: during these two years we did this and that. No. But what did the Poles show? Warszawianka Team designed by Jerzy Sołtan, who worked at Le Corbusier; all this shell of “destroyed places, because no one was able to handle them”, like the unfortunate Skra that collapses. For us, these are valuable things, but they are very local and incomprehensible to people from abroad. If this exhibition showed a free spirit of the first project of Warszawianka – it was a beautiful architecture and a beautiful assumption – I think that it could defend itself. But it didn’t happen. This year’s Polish pavilion comes close to pride; there is a fear that the creators made it for themselves. Their interpretation is not universal enough to have a chance to reach everyone and present the jewel of the Warszawianka project. In my opinion, this exhibition is a lost opportunity. But this is not the first time I do not understand the Polish pavilion. (laugh) In general, there’s a problem with exhibitions about Polish architecture abroad, they cannot present us well, present the idea. I don’t know why it is like that. Perhaps this is due to the fact that there is simply no good, open debate about architecture in Poland. There are opinions, lots of prizes, but we still do not draw any conclusions.
“There’s a problem with exhibitions about Polish architecture abroad, they cannot present us well, present the idea. I don’t know why it is like that. Perhaps this is due to the fact that there is simply no good, open debate about architecture in Poland. There are opinions, lots of prizes, but we still do not draw any conclusions”.
Exactly. I have the impression that architects and architecture critics in Poland are very hermetic.
Recently, the Conference on Architectural Contests in Chęciny took place. I went to the evening discussion, which – to my surprise – lasted until midnight and it still did not end there (laugh). The debate was very violent and very interesting, because many young people attended it, who had different, often accurate comments, although bitterly formulated, as to the competitions and how they are organized. I’ve made a point, among others, that of course we have to discuss about competitions, we have to improve them, but the most important thing is that we, architects, as a community, must unite. Because we have a horrible opinion among people who are watching us.
And where does it come from? I like to quote you and I remember your saying: “Generally speaking, communication in Poland is quite poor, we cannot do it well enough, we should all work on it”.
My female Ph.D. students have recently done a research – one completed environmental psychology and research was done via her workshop – the results showed that what most people are annoyed by in the area of studying architecture is the lack of communication skills. Communication is based on asking the right questions, openness and empathy. And empathy in Poland is very weak. But this can be learned; there should be training, workshops, especially for architects. Because an architect who lacks empathy is a threat to the world.
This Ph.D. student who graduated from environmental psychology also asked prominent architects in Poland, what they know about a human being. It turned down that they know very little. And they know that… they know little. They argue that they are overwhelmed with work that they do not have time to learn about human beings. Some people were irritated: that is the idea with participation, after all, people do not know each other, they have some imagined ideas and generally interfere with design. One architect declared that he human being was in the first place for him, and then he realized that he learned everything he knew about man during his studies. And that is basically it.
Retuning, however, to the debate on architecture. In 2009, I participated in a panel dedicated to architecture during the Culture Congress. This panel was led by prof. architect Krzysztof Ingarden with professor of sociology Bohdan Jałowiecki, and architects Robert Konieczny, Romuald Loeglerand and Marta Urbańska, who at that time caused a fumy little scandal, because she quoted the words of Alfred Jarry from Ubu the King, which was understood literally by a participant in the audience. Ewa Rewers, a culture expert from Poznań, who came to me after the debate and said that she listened to it with curiosity, because it was one of the very few cases when architects spoke together and did not talk about other architects badly.
Behind the scenes?
I think, agreeing with the professor in this respect, that there is something in it: we cannot, or maybe we do not want to appreciate what someone has done well. We stress the mistakes instead of achievement. As in this famous joke: “an architect walks with his son, and anther one says: I would have done it better”. (laugh)
Architect is a profession of public trust, and I get the impression that a Polish architect doesn’t communicate with the public at all. Robert Konieczny is probably an exception here, he communicates well with the media and isn’t ashamed to go to a morning tv show to tell “ordinary people” about his work.
An average Pole knows almost nothing about architecture. I am not sure if it’s only our fault, or rather a matter of general national neglect of culture in Poland.
You said once that Stefan wanted the profession of architect to be respected in Poland. Not out of vanity, but because be an architect means bearing enormous responsibility for your work. It seems to me that people do not really know what exactly an architect does. Of course, apart from acting wise.
And extorting money. And s/he would most like to earn money in all these competitions. (laugh)
How can one change this way of thinking?
Talk, talk, and talk. Explain, talk and explain. Don’t be offended. If they invite – go, of course not everywhere, because now “everywhere” is difficult. But where you can go, let other people hear you, and not manifest something – definitely. Because we have to make the correction that current times are difficult, but I hope that they will change.
Today I had an inaugural lecture at the faculty of architecture at the Warsaw Technical University. I called it “Architecture for a good life”, I did not talk about “the good change” (laugh), but that good is noticeable due to the fact that there is evil in the world. There is more evil, this is how our world is. But maybe you have to say it out loud: good doesn’t exist without evil. And this translates very much into architecture. In the lecture I told today that architecture for a good life is not didactic, that it shouldn’t force people to do anything, that you can do many things with a smile. I talked about looking at people, seeing that they were young and old, healthy and disabled, etc. I was taking about observation in good faith, I kept saying that architects should not lecture: you have to live like that because I say so.
How do you think, in what place is Polish architecture now? How is it perceived abroad, does it matter, does it not matter?
In a moment I’m going to Bucharest for the SHARE conference, to which I was invited as a keynote speaker. Stanisław Deńko, Urszula and Marcin Brataniec, MVRDV, Werner Sobek, OMA are also going to be at the conference. If they invite us, they respect us. Last year I was invited to Kiev, so at least these countries from our circle see what is happening in Poland and are interested in it. As for other countries, I have some experience with Germany, judging in the BDA-SARP competition, where Polish projects gain recognition, and where the attitude towards us has changed a lot, because the level of work from our architectural schools has changed in favor (I have been in this completion for many years now and I can say that the level has improved a lot). They see it abroad.
But in these most important places, such as the main exhibition at the Architecture Biennale in Venice, we are still absent.
Yes, because we still have not come to such a stage where architecture is treated as a full-fledged art. That us why these attempts to “convert” architecture into art that we could observe in this year’s Polish pavilion are simply dishonest. It is impossible to blur the prevailing approach to architecture as expert knowledge, evaluated in black and white, not widely analyzed in a professional manner and at the same time affordable and suddenly see artistic activity in it, which is rarely “scored” among contracting entities. And just as in Poland the overwhelming architectural criticism has an activist background, among many others possible, its assessments are also radical and simplified. We will not make progress in this way. Well, but we are not Switzerland, we don’t have so much money and time to do projects.
“We didn’t use to work so quickly in the past. When I think about myself from twenty years ago, I know that if someone gave me two weeks to make a project, I would have said he is crazy. Today this is a norm”.
I have a feeling that if they speak about Polish architecture abroad, then in the curiosity category. If something from Poland appears on the cover of an international magazine, it is a building of Robert Konieczny.
Robert is very consistent in promoting his work, he pays a lot of attention to it. He understands this need and he moves very well in this field. These older studios, like ours, probably don’t have such a habit to seek promotion and media attention. First of all, it was not possible before, and second, we didn’t see such a need. And yet, we have great architects from this “older” generation, such as Jan Szpakowicz, who designed a magnificant house in Zalesie Dolne or Jacek Damięcki. They treated architecture as art, these are pearls, but still they are not visible. We have to go forward, we have to show ourselves. The young generation in our studio, which takes over the baton, is also approaching it actively.
You are surrounded by architecture, you teach at the university, you have a foundation of Stefan Kuryłowicz that promotes architecture, including the “Theory and practice” competition…
The Foundation – slightly different than in the case of many others – wasn’t set up to promote the patron per se. We wanted to do something that Stefan could do if he lived. Stefan was an architect – teacher. We have both been working at the Technical University from the very beginning, we wanted to work there together, but they told us that married couples aren’t allowed to. (laugh) Stefan was a pedagogue, he wanted to teach everything: running, sailing but architecture above all. The desire to commemorate this was one of the motivations for our foundation. Another was the fact that I believe, like Stefan, that if an architect tries to please everyone, than he is no architect, because not everything we do can please everyone. An architect must have the courage to be able to stand for what s/he believes in. And if they criticize him/her, let them, they will stop eventually. Maybe what s/he created, will be demolished; maybe it will survive and it will turn out after some time that it was good. Stefan was really good at it. From the very moment when he was no longer with us, we try to continue his work. We promote bold projects with the Practice scholarship and bold reflections with the Theory competition. The great jurors help us with this, which I will always be grateful for.
Recently I’ve heard from someone that there is no architect as great as Kuryłowicz in Poland.
I shouldn’t comment on that, but as you ask, it’s probably true.
Is it a matter of personality?
I think that it is a consequence of how a person goes through his/her life. Stefan, at the age of 14, was left alone with his mum, sisters and grandmother. His father went to Canada and he wanted to bring a family there, but failed. The entire family had a difficult time, because it happened in the Gomułka period and his rule (1956 – 70-editor’s note). Foreign trips? It was impossible then. Stefan went abroad after our wedding, when I stayed as a “hostage”. Really. Everyone in those years travelled, visited, Rome, Paris, and he? At most to Budapest and Sofia. He fought for survival, while helping his mother, grandmother and sisters. It was a school of life for him that “set” him up forever. That’s why he behaved like a man; he knew he would only have what he would earn; it wasn’t like this that he would get something form life. Besides, both of his parents were architects and left home with such an ethos that – I have the impression – he also managed to transfer to the SARP: that you have to be respectful, that you have to be consistent, because this is how you gain respect. Stefan learned a lot from Zbyszek Zawistowski, who was the president of SARP during marital state; he was an amazing man who by his actions made people respect him.
In any case, Stefan was effective as an architect and he was involved in social activities for the profession in a sometimes – original way.
But doesn’t this stem from the fact that – I’ll defend today’s architects a little – that architects cannot afford social work today?
It’s true, times have changed. We didn’t use to work so quickly in the past. When I think about myself from twenty years ago, I know that if someone gave me two weeks to make a project, I would have said he is crazy. Today this is a norm. If you cannot do it, they will find someone better, who won’t have a problem with it. So really, it’s different. In addition, what was formerly to be covered by work, logical thinking, desire, is no longer possible. Today architect must know the law, without a lawyer is like without a hand.
However, you manage to combine teaching and professional work, running one of the largest architectural offices in Poland and with social work. You actively participate in SARP. How do you assess the condition of the association, does it carry out the assumptions it has been established for? I have often criticized various SARP activities in the media, however, I think it is an organization that architects need. In your opinion, SARP is developing well?
Let’s start from the beginning: my studio is managed by a fantastic Board, of which I am a part; female and male partners – here I have a great support. At WA PW, I am also lucky to work with a great team of people with whom we understand each other in a split of a second. Regarding the Association – well, it is not currently developing dynamically, because, in my opinion, there are too few young people in its structures. It is also a matter of raising the young generation, which, I feel, focuses too much on itself. This can also be observed in the academic classes I run. The inability to work in a team is the norm, we have to learn from scratch. This is the generation we have, but this situation results from many factors. For example, sport has almost completely disappeared from general education, which teaches attitudes as important in architecture, as the aforementioned teamwork. Sport also teaches you that to lose is not the end of the world. Sometimes I win, and sometimes I lose. Sport shapes culture.
Not only sport is lacking, i.e there are not enough aesthetics lessons in schools.
They are not there at all, and the average examples of architecture are unfortunately often horrible. The interiors of offices and parliamentary halls, or the Sejm hotel are simply ugly. Well, apparently, these are the MPs we have, they come from various environments and arrange their space as they were taught. And we have great interior designers, designers who look great at world exhibitions, in lifestyle and professional magazines. However, this does not translate into interior design of public institutions. Designers are not invited to cooperation – everyone knows everything about the interiors. So education should be wherever possible. A few years ago I took part in the final of the world award of architectural diplomas ARCHIPRIX, in Uruguay. There was a huge underfunding in the architecture department in Montevideo. Old chairs, tables, very modest, due to the lack of financial resources, but the cards on door with names of individual institutes and cathedrals, the manner of presenting exhibitions, were an example of a very simple, beautiful lettering made by an architect. Aesthetically everything was perfect; we do not have that in Poland. You can sometimes see it in our department of architecture, on a simple example of an advertisement board, how architects display their ads, encourage students to take classes or internships, or work in their offices – unfortunately, sometimes by hand, glued in a messy way. We must learn to take care of every level of our lives. It must be a reflex.
Observing your career, following the success of the studio Kuryłowicz & Associates, which you co-create, teaching career, as well as reading the interviews you give, I can confidently say that you are a fulfilled person, professionally and privately. Are there any more dreams and challenges that you are aiming for?
Yes, a book! I’ve been working in the Warsaw architecture department for 41 years, because I started very early. I worked while studying as an assistant teaching drawing and painting. I also started design work at the time. I am aware that the way we work in our team at WA PW, based on the project practice at Kuryłowicz & Associates, is very unique, has always been perceived as avant-garde. That is why I am preparing to write a book about design and how to approach it, based on my experiences. It is now the time for me to pass my knowledge – theory, teaching knowledge and design experience to others. It may come in handy.