How to reconcile the past and the present? What new functions can post-World War II 20th-century architecture serve? Daniel Kovács, the curator of the Hungarian Pavilion at the 17th Venice Biennale, posed these questions to 12 architecture practices he invited to partake in the project Othernity. The effects can be seen in the Hungarian Pavilion at the ongoing Venice Biennale. The interviews below examine two projects prepared by Polish architects from the A-A Collective and BudCud studios.
The name of the project, Othernity, is a play on two words. ‘Modernity’ is one word it brings to mind: with its architectural heritage including modernism, brutalism, and post-modernism that we nowadays critically revise. ‘Otherness’ is the second word hidden in the exposition’s title: it can be interpreted as the difference between contemporary architectural needs, practices, and concepts and their predecessors. The ambiguous neologism seems to be the best way to reflect the diversity of the 12 buildings of Budapest that the architects worked with. The project’s strength lies in the critical revision of architecture created behind the Iron Curtain. What are we to gain from revisiting the past? Not only can we re-discover values that need to be preserved, but also work out practices that would allow for the adaptation, modification, and revitalisation of our modernist heritage. Contemporary interpretations of past traditions are a collection of possible spatial scenarios.
Kovács gave the architects a very specific task. He chose twelve buildings of Budapest, one for each of the architecture practices. The particular projects and answers they offered gave a solid foundation for the broad theoretical framework. At first, it might seem that the international collaborative project would produce conclusions that can easily be generalised. As it turns out, that both is and isn’t the case. I have the impression that the formula emerging from the project is one that has long been used by architects. Each building has to be individually examined—its history and context should be inspected, its technical condition should be evaluated. All of these factors should then be considered in the context of our contemporary needs and visions of the space we want to inhabit together. To put it briefly, we have to answer the question that is the motto of this year’s Biennale, namely: ‘How will we live together?’.
Sometimes slight modifications are enough to give modernist buildings a new life—many of them are actually still used today. Designed to serve the community and constitute a coherent part of the public space, the modernist constructions, frequently employing open plan, are also interesting in their own right. In fact, these buildings are ready to be inhabited and redefined anytime. Such is the case with the TIT Budapest Planetarium designed by László Lux, the OKISZ (Association of the Hungarian Small-scale Industrial Cooperative) headquarters designed by János Mónus, and the Domus furniture store designed by Péter Reimholz and Antal Lázár. However, before these buildings can be repurposed, someone has to notice them, introduce them into public debate and present their forgotten potential. At times, this process is not very straightforward—as the example of the OTP apartment building shows, some buildings gained a bad reputation already during their construction. In other cases, adaptation may be difficult due to the edifice’s strictly established function (for instance industrial) that is incompatible with contemporary reality. In such cases, architecture needs to be redefined—this is one of the challenges taken up by the architects who took part in Othernity.
Solid and Ephemeral: Why Are Buildings Demolished?
Steel constructions and solid concrete blocks do not necessarily grant longevity. Paradoxically, the factors that truly determine the existence and non-existence of buildings are far more ephemeral: they include the relationship with the surroundings, cultural, social, and material value, practicality and congruence with contemporary needs and practices. Othernity is thus a conceptual project—the architects’ task was not only to reconcile past and present within a given architectural structure but also to ignite debate on the constructions chosen by the curator. The objective was to reintegrate the buildings into the city map and use architectural interventions to give them a second life. Their new functions can be discussed by the urban community—the architects provided a starting point for the debate by suggesting possible directions.
“We don’t know what will happen to the Domus furniture store and other buildings chosen for the project. Unfortunately, two of the structures presented in the exhibition were demolished last year. It’s difficult to predict whether the potential of the others will be noticed. Othernity is a speculative atlas of sorts. We hope it gives rise to a debate on contemporary revitalisations of modernist architecture. At the end of the year, the exhibition presented in the Hungarian Pavilion at the Biennale will be moved to the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art in Budapest. Perhaps the event initiates a broader discussion and deep reflection?” says Agata Woźniczka from BudCud, one of the participating studios.
Stacks of concrete blocks, slivers of glazing, jungles of metal constructions. Ideas, designs, form, time devoted to accumulating material and construction, someone’s sleepless nights and overworked hands. Architecture exists on two planes: the physical and the abstract. The former is tangible and possible to experience empirically. The latter is governed by the initial plan that is subsequently transformed. The process is long and complicated: ideas and concepts are discussed and confronted with physical limitations. They gain shape, crystallise, transmute, become inhabited, then abandoned. They leave a trace. This is one of the many reasons why architecture deserves attention and deep reflection. Before construction tapes fence a lot and bulldozers get to work, it is crucial that we remember how intricate a practice architecture is.
Follow the Lichen: The Vivisection of the National Power Dispatch Centre in Budapest
Interview with Zygmunt Borawski, the architect who co-creates the AA-Collective studio together with Martin Marker, Furio Montoli, and Srdjan Zlokapa.
Did you know that the headquarters of the National Power Dispatch Centre would be demolished when you started working on the project?
When we visited Budapest, the future of the building was still being debated. However, the curators weren’t optimistic—right at the beginning they told us that its chances of survival were slim. What grasped our attention was the tension between the Brutalist, somewhat high-tech structure and the historical complex on the Castle Hill. It was a clash of two very different architectural styles within one space. We were convinced the building deserved to be saved and repurposed.
Having noticed the potential of the building, you decided to perform a vivisection and significantly transform the structure. In other words, you controlled the process of decay. Why did you employ this strategy?
The construction was one of the most recent on the Caste Hill yet it appeared to have been the oldest structure there. That seemed curious to us. Once it lost its original function, the National Power Dispatch Centre acquired this enigmatic quality—it became somewhat of a ruin. We saw potential in this situation so we decided to maintain the form, the gross building volume, and the carcass and get rid of the rest.
What enchanted you most about the building when you first visited?
We were amazed by its stylistic diversity but also the construction as such: the massive concrete exterior shaft and the two rows of big steel poles inside. We understood that we could completely strip the building of everything but its skeleton. That operation would produce a completely new interior space.
What modifications and new functions did you suggest in the project?
First off, I have to say that initially we didn’t really have an idea for the building. When we were walking around and taking pictures, one of us noticed a whole bunch of lichens and self-seeding plants on an old gutter. As the construction workers were busy removing remnants of asbestos and other toxic materials, vegetation appeared. We thought it was a great idea to let those self-seeding plants overgrow the building. These men would clean it inside and nature would do the rest. As the curtain wall was made of glass it was enough to get rid of the panes to open the whole structure up. All in all, the vivisection that we performed created space for a new function. We then came to the conclusion that parks and public squares are two paragons of democratic public spaces. The main premise of our concept was to maintain the building and turn it into a freely available public space. It’d be great if buildings that no longer serve their original function, just like the National Power Dispatch Centre in Budapest, could be transformed into meeting points. In our project, we strove to celebrate the beauty of buildings detached from their original context. It should be stressed that our proposal is by no means a revitalisation plan. Quite the contrary—we realised that new possibilities and perspectives arise when we accept death. A dialogue between past and present may be more fruitful than desperate attempts at keeping a building ‘alive’.
You’ve designed a process of controlled decay—your intention was to transform the building while maintaining its structure. Would you elaborate? I think it’d be good to clarify a little: ‘decay’ and ‘burial’ may be associated with demolition, which I know is something you wanted to avoid. Sadly, reality turned out to be quite brutal for the building.
Every process in life is under a certain degree of control—especially in modern states and structured societies. Our death is controlled by the state and by our family who has to bury us. The dead always leave something behind, including material objects. Thinking about these matters, we came to the conclusion that the building deserved such an anthropomorphic gesture. It’s a Romantic vision, akin to how Peter Greenaway understood architecture in his film The Belly of an Architect. At the very beginning of the movie, the main character raises a toast to the Pantheon and asks other guests to clap. By the same token, we decided to give the building a proper burial and let vegetation enlace its skeleton. Its remnants were to be transformed into an architectural framework for open public space.
I feel like your project is based on withdrawal—it’s quite a loaded, compelling gesture, especially in the context of the climate crisis. Was this your intention?
By all means. Many members of our collective were fascinated by the Berlin Green Archipelago—a concept Oswald Mathias Ungers came up with in the 1980s. At the time, Berlin experienced depopulation due to the very complicated geopolitical situation we know from history. Ungers believed that investing resources in renovating all the districts of Berlin was pointless. Instead, he proposed that most vital areas should be developed more densely and the rest of the city should slowly go to pasture, undisturbed by human activity.
Reintegrating a Building into the City Map: The Techno-Baths in the Domus Funiture Stores
An interview with Agata Woźniczka and Mateusz Adamczyk from BudCud studio
What did you think of the Domus furniture store? Did you see its potential or something worth saving in the structure?
Mateusz Adamczyk: It’s quite a particular building. Its amazing construction allowed for very large clear spans. Luckily, as years passed by the space was neither remodelled nor divided. In fact, the Domus is maintained in perfect shape. The only element that didn’t survive was the original façade—the technology used was innovative in its time but is now obsolete.
What are some characteristics of the building?
Mateusz Adamczyk: Each floor is slightly cantilevered over, so the form is very distinct—the ground floor is pushed a little further back in space in relation to the first floor of the building. I suppose the designers of the Domus must have paid a lot of attention to this aspect. I’m not sure whether they decided on cantilevers for purely pragmatic reasons—after all, long queues formed in front of furniture stores in the past—or had some other motives, perhaps related to urban planning. Located at an intersection, the Domus both complements its surroundings and forms a distinct border of the quarter it is located in. The cantilevered floors also create a square in front of the building—a strap of public space, if you will.
Agata Woźnicka: Cantilevers are a part of the international modernist heritage—think the Marcel Breuer-designed Whitney Museum in New York City and the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava. Thanks to Antal Lázár and Péter Reimholz, we can appreciate this architectural form in Budapest, too.
What is the new function you intended for the Domus?
Agata Woźniczka: The clear spans in the Domus are incredibly spacious—originally, the interior was filled with furniture and furnishings. What we wanted to do was to design an abstract, unreal scenography that would stimulate the imagination of its users in a similar manner.
Mateusz Adamczyk: Searching for answers, we decided to examine the context. Budapest is a city where public baths serve a very important function—they provide space for social interactions and relaxation, often becoming local centres of their respective districts. Hence our idea to create baths in the Domus appeared quite quickly and intuitively. However, we weren’t really interested in recreating a traditional public bath or designing saunas. Instead, we proposed that the former furniture store turns into a sensual, soothing space.
Agata Woźniczka: We designed different functions for particular spaces: some are meant to stimulate and energise the users, others are supposed to aid relaxation. We carefully crafted numerous factors that shape the overall ambiance of a space, including colours, forms, light intensity, air humidity, and soundscape. Working on the project, we kept wondering how contemporary baths can employ haptic technology to satisfy the demands of the public. How can technology be used to create a holistic experience of abstract relaxation? With the use of the pre-existing spatial arrangement and appropriate technology, the Domus Baths would intensify the desired sensations. In accordance with the users’ current moods and needs, the baths could provide a peaceful, relaxing, mindful, zen experience or quite the contrary, an energising, stimulating and exciting activity. As each room would have its unique atmosphere, guests could generate their own spatial narrations walking through the building. The themes we chose for each of the rooms stem from the traditional typology of baths: tepidarium (relaxation hall), laconicum (dry sweating room), caldarium (hot room), frigidarium (cold room), and apodyterium (the primary entry hall; in our project, it’s a multisensory ‘garden’).
Mateusz Adamczyk: It’s a place designed for losing track of time—kind of like people who manage to stay overnight in IKEA stores do. We had no assumptions about the average duration of a visit. In other words: the Domus Baths is an extensive public space that arouses the senses and a contemporary interpretation of a year-round public bath. In the long run, giving the space an important social function, even temporarily, could potentially save the building. The Techno-Baths would contribute to the rediscovery and re-evaluation of the space.
Agata Woźniczka: A strategic use of events can revitalise particular places. In recent years we’ve observed the growing popularity of this approach. Forgotten spaces are given a breath of life thanks to spatial installations, festivals, and pop-up events that often draw attention to a building’s architectural and social value. We wanted to reintegrate the building into the map of contemporary Budapest, allowing the inhabitants and visitors of the city to develop some relationship with this space, even temporarily.
Your proposition is somewhat reminiscent of Oskar Schlemmer’s work, including his triadic ballet—the Bauhaus-based experiment with space, form, colour, and movement. Did you research and analyse how particular spatial forms, hues, sounds, and air humidity influence human beings?
Agata Woźniczka: Studying for my PhD, I investigated how colour temperature influences health and well-being. We’ve also read on meditation techniques, harmonic motions, and sound frequencies that have a soothing effect on the human body and mind. We treated the task of creating an environment intuitively, mostly by imagining what sort of spaces we ourselves would like to experience.
Mateusz Adamczyk: It’s interesting that you mention Bauhaus. There is a direct contextual connection between that tradition and our project. When Bauhaus was first established, the bodily and spiritual experience of space played a huge role: attention was paid to breathing, rest, regeneration, nutrition, contact with nature and the immediate surroundings. Similarly, Budapest has a strong wellness tradition—as we’ve already mentioned, public baths are a crucial part of urban, cultural, and social life.
The model presented at the exhibition has a glass façade. Would you use this solution in the actual building?
Mateusz Adamczyk: Not at all – we only introduced the glass façade so that the Biennale visitors can look inside the Domus and imagine the scenography of the Techno-Baths. It’s better to think of the acrylic model as a synthetic representation of the experience we designed. Its main function is to show how each area of the building is a different landscape.
Interestingly and emblematically, both projects transform the buildings into open public spaces whose functions revolve around contemplation, relaxation, and social interactions. BudCud took an experimental approach, creating a colourful, multisensory scenography, whereas AA-Collective decided to strip the building of everything but its skeleton and use that framework to create a year-round urban park. How will we live together? It seems that the existence of open spaces where we can meet is the preliminary condition. It may seem obvious, but as experience has taught us, self-evident conclusions need to be articulated.