Monday, 21 May 2012

Polish Radio Experimental Studio released

[longer version of an article published in The Wire March issue 2011]

On the wave of resurrecting, remastering and rereleasing great moments of the avant-garde past, this is perhaps a mile-step for the history of Polish experimental music. The independent label Bôłt is releasing 3 cds in what is to be continued series of Polish Radio Experimental Studio. Founded in October 1957, only 9 years after Pierre Schaeffer’s studio in Paris, 6 years after Studio fur Elektronische Musik in Koln, and 2 years after Studio di Fonologia Musicale in Milan, and one year before (sic!) the now much cult BBC Radiophonic Workshop, PRES was a phenomenon on this side of the Iron Curtain, inspiring then founding of Új Zenei Stúdió in Zagreb and Elektronski Studio Radio Beograda. The moment was proper. Death of Stalin in 1953, and the Thaw made it possible to release the bounds on culture a bit, and its no accident PRES was founded at the same time as Warsaw Autumn (October 1956), the festival of contemporary music, which was the proverbial door to the rest of the world for the composers in this part of Europe. Interestingly enough, PRES was supported by Radiokomitet, formerly in favor of socialist realism. The international fame was also proved by foreign composers, recording in PRES, such as Arne Nordheim or leaders of French avant-garde, Franco Evangelisti or François-Bernard Mâche.

[compare that now with Krzysztof Komeda's theme from Polański's Cul-De-Sac]

[PRES inspired music appears in many Polish films and animation of this era, especially Polish New Wave]

Given the radio was also to produce TV and film soundtracks, it has become a place of meeting of musicians, engineers, visual artists, designers, architects, filmmakers, set designers, making it a true total work of art. The real founder and promoter of the Studio was musicologist Józef Patkowski, who was trying to attract the young generation of composers to the radio. Pierre Schaeffer, himself an engineer, believed that the new radiophonic medium will transform the experience of sound and will give an access to a new class of sounds: objets sonores, that will liberate music from its material roots. He was right: the new possibilities of creating music opened a whole new world to many engineers such as Eugeniusz Rudnik or Bohdan Mazurek of PRES, who turned into a full scale composers.

The liberation came also through the simplicity, aiming at the purity of the abstract visual arts of its time: first tune produced by studio was an Study for One Cymbal Stroke (for tape) by Włodzimierz Kotoński, recorded in 1959, consisting of a few minutes of Turkish cymbal with a soft medium-sized precission mallet. Source material was filtered into six frequency ranges and eventually 11 pitches. Here, the serial method of composition was transposed into the musique concrete: the original sound of a cymbal was filtered and then transposed into levels of sound, which were then layered onto each other. Quite differently, in Microstuctures by the same composer, the intro material for the further transformations were recordings of stroking the metal, wood or glass objects. This shows how very different were the approaches incorporated into the task of actual producing of music.

It didn’t restrict to that two, of course. Andrzej Dobrowolski’s Passacaglia was based on 5 percussion sounds transformed into 45 sound items, Rudnik’s Collage contained for instance a tragicomic sample capturing a voice of the Party functionary, announcing the “removal of the fish stock from the cold stores”, and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Psalmus was based on the element of a human voice. It is interesting, how the school of Polish sonorists (Penderecki and Dobrowolski among them) was involved in both electronic and instrumental ways of making music.

The young founders of Bôłt not only went through the hours of the old recordings, but decided to test the studio’s output a few decades later by giving its reinterpretation to such remarkable European improvisers as John Tilbury (long time Polish scenes frequenter). Michal Libera, theoretician and free impro promoter in Poland, is cooling the attractive image of brooding through the piles of old recordings in sotsrealist buildings. – Most of it I just had as mp3 at home. You have to have the patience to listen to hundreds of hours music, but then you find such pearls as Mazurek or Rudnik. It was epiphanic. The most idiosyncratic, unconventional, free music was made by sound engineers, not composers. Maybe it shows they’re not flexible enough with the mew media? – ponders Libera.

Also, importantly, they were still interested in producing scores, taking the challenge of the versatile music material itself, that didnt have so much to do with the contemporary schools of music, like Elektronische/Serielle idiom of Stockhausen and Darmstadt school or Schaeffer's dictum. Shaeffer wanted to put the listener into a new situation of listening, and this fact is only complicated by the task Libera given to Zeitkratzer. The possibilities of transposing electroacustic pieces to the amplified instruments seems to have extraordinary possibilities. The fact the PRES composers didn’t have the technical means to realize their ideas, as Reinhold Friedl of Zeitkratzer says, made them to look for other solutions.

In the UK they can obviously be linked with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and indeed it is one of the kinds of artistic expression, that unites, not divides the East and the West in the cold war era. Composers were aware of each other's output, which was possible precisely because of the mutual great narrative, provided by the cold war. Also, a few years ago Simon Reynolds in the Inner Sleeve column in The Wire wrote on the Electronic Panorama LP which contained many of our heroes like Kotoński, Dobrowolski, Penderecki among thier foreign colleagues, again, seeing them as one and the same phenomenon, sadly not mentioning Polish composers in specific. I think while BBCRW composers were clearly interested in popularising concrete music (which lead to producing such gems as the still electryfying theme to Doctor Who by, among others, Delia Derbyshire - basically, a piece of musique concrete for the popular public, Tomorrow's World and The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy), PRES authors still saw themselves as composers in relation to classic notions of music, composition, form etc and avant-gardism of the early 20th century. Perhaps it has also to do with the fact there 'popular culture', in the Western sense at least, didn't exist in the communist Poland as an expression of the rotten capitalist West. BBCRW was also very much associated with the popular idea of futurism: sci-fi books, comic and TV, cosmic exploration, other dimensions of reality, psychedelia, modern design and architecture - and the potential futures they was activating, futures available for me and you - but once again, they were inescapably futures under consumerism, full of goods that you may buy and have. Not so much in the People's Poland, although of course I'd be telling untruth if I said that Poland didnt have popular SF fiction, comic books and cinema:

The fact of living on this side of the curtain paradoxically helped PRES. Out of the three cds released by Bołt, the most up to date and attractive may be the one by Bohdan Mazurek, the only one, that contains solely the archive material. Mazurek is at the same time lyrical and exact, and still very original, even in the face of the revolutions of 60s and 70s, what makes his music so contemporary. Funnily enough, most of Poles know him unconsciously, because his pieces were used in popular TV children programs. But the interpretations on the PRES Revisited and Zeitkratzer Plays PRES take us back to the present day, showing that every music takes place in the present, and that music in general exists to be performed.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Ernst May & a different story of modernism

[a longer version of a review published in ICON 106 March 2012]

It is significant that as we see practically a murder of public financing and social housing policies worldwide and the death of the idea of the welfare state, the more we get exhibitions and publications on the heroic age of modernism, which was encouraging all of them. The magnificent survey Ernst May 1886-1970 - accompanying a thorough exhibition that took place in Deutsches Architektur Museum in Frankfurt am Main last year, the place where Ernst May left his enduring landmark legacy in planning and building – perfectly inscribes into the trend for 21st century-end of times nostalgia and neoliberal fatalism. May, with his immense scope, is one to go to when yearning for the function architecture once had, and lost. He reinvented decentralized city planning and a new type of dwelling – together with Bruno Taut and Hannes Meyer. The fact this is the first English-language book on May is a result of the complicated history of modernism. As someone who didn’t attend the crucial Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne in 1933, but went to work in Soviet Russia instead, he missed the proclaiming of the Athens Charter and a different idea of modernism by Le Corbusier, Giedion and Gropius, who went to work in America soon after. May, Taut, Meyer with their interest in collective, socially managed housing, were for years obliterated by the international style stripped of any ‘red’ complications that triumphed during the cold war.

Such commemorations emerge probably against growing misuse of modernism: either as an ideology that ‘failed’, as we’re told, or that has become a luxurious hobby for middle classes, who now live in privatised social housing. This son of a wealthy Protestant factory owner got his professional break in Britain, studying under town planner Raymond Unwin, then involved in Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire, the pioneering development founded in 1903 by Ebenezer Howard, father of the Garden City Movement. Despite similar examples of ‘Siedlungs’ (settlements) like Hellerau near Dresden and Falkenberg near Berlin, it was the British new ethos – of urban decentralization, ecological conservation, communal land ownership, and humane scale - that shaped him. His various realizations in German cities, including Breslau and New Frankfurt, realised between 1925 and 30, emerged as a part of the post-WWI reconstruction of society: enticing political stability, equality and stable workforce. Within 5 years New Frankfurt contained 15,000 houses, which won May international attention also in the Soviet Union, then in the middle of  its Five Year Plan.

Initially May shared early modernist humanist presumptions. His striving for modernity seemed something natural, characterizing himself as “culpably indifferent to political matters”, left simply with no other choice but to flee Nazi rule. He and his by then famous “Brigade” (among them Mart Stam)  left Germany in 1930 for the Soviet Union, to complete “the biggest task for an architect ever”: building the lands of “enthusiasm”, as Dziga Vertov called it, the new cities on the Siberian end of the world, masterplans for Magnitogorsk, Novokuznetsk, Tyrgan, Leninsk, Kemerovo, Danube Basin and Moscow and at least ten other places (here a fragment of his "City Building in the USSR" from 1931) – something firmly denied under Stalinism. Until the post-1956 Thaw, the investigation on May’s real role in the USSR, as well as a reassessment of his political positions was difficult. At some point his activities in Standartgorproekt (Standard City Project) between 1931/2 included being in charge of over 800 employees and a leader of important governmental organisations. Later he explained his decision through a fascination for the revolutionary Soviet avant-garde. The failure of modern style, or ‘Neues Bauen’ in Russia and its abandonment for the sake of classicism and historicism had more to do with the presence of a modernist faction in the government, which was subsequently purged, as Stalin expanded his power. The austere Siedlungs still remain scattered around Russia, badly kept, looking like messages from  a better future that never happened.

Siedlungs were innovatory not only because of their functional, simple, basic form, but equally importantly because of their rejection of ownership for the sake of rent. This is visible in the design itself, in the equality of the buildings and a huge amount of the communal spaces. “This architecture derived from the idea of living in solidarity, and its realization was based on non-profit housing cooperatives. The type of ownership and architecture formed an inseparable unity which is what accounts for the epochal achievement and value of these Siedlungen,” writes DW Dreysse in the book. After work in Kenya, where the conflict between the British Army and Mau Mau left him disillusioned in the social potential of architecture, he decided to go back to West Germany in 1954, unusually for German architect of his caliber. Here he continued his work in spectacular postwar urban reconstruction for the Wirtschaftswunder. He worked as chief planner for several cities, including Hamburg, Mainz, and Wiesbaden. This amazing life, spanning three very different regimes, is a new, unknown story of the modern movement. It demands to be studied.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The many returns of Socialist Realism

[slightly changed version of an essay that appeared on the online]

Whatever happened to the architecture of the Eastern Bloc? The shock therapy brought in 1989 to install capitalism economically meant a year zero between the past and the present, shattering all the previous networks between countries. What followed was the biggest decline since Great Depression. The late communist economy, a distant shadow of original socialist ideas, dragged down every other dimension of life, erasing also the way cities were planned. Urban and social planning disappeared for the sake of a so-called ‘freestyle’ in architecture, reflecting the new methods of the free market. Suddenly, many carefully planned cities in the ex-Bloc started to look like cheap, Third World versions of North American über-capitalist cities, with horrifically lumpen versions of skyscrapers and financial districts. This so-called ‘style’, characteristic of so many post-Soviet metropolises (most of all, Moscow) wasn’t exactly postmodernism, although it was similar to the stylistic mish-mash of bombastic forms, pastiche historicism and love for money that typified the roughly contemporaneous style in the West. Far more apt is the term coined by Bart Goldhoorn and Philip Meuser on their book about post-1989 Russian architecture, Capitalist Realism.[1] and cultural critic Mark Fisher in a book of the same title (Zero Books, 2009).

The term was actually coined on the occasion of an exhibition by the West German group of painters, like Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke or Wolf Vostell in Dusseldorf in 1963, Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, where they took their name from. Young generation of artists reacted to growing consumerism and media-saturation, and though inspired by Pop art’s attitudes, the austerity of German painters never actually shared Pop’s affirmation of capitalism hidden behind irony.

Who was building these new edifices? Did the architects of the previous system disappear? In Poland often the very same architects, whose practices had been privatized, embraced the new reality, and designed Poland’s new parodies of New York and Chicago. Their ability to work in this idiom didn’t come from nowhere, but from the specific, complicated experiences that Polish architects endured in the 1960s and 70s. In that period, they were employed en masse by underdeveloped countries, most of all in the Middle East and North Africa, to work on building and city-planning projects. In recent years, architectural historian Lukasz Stanek and his collaborators at the ETH in Zurich have been working on a research on the interaction between the former Second and Third Worlds, telling a surprising story about development and “underdevelopment”.

In the new capitalist architecture, the legacy of the socialist times was still visible, now expressed through the most grandiose and then-hated reminder of the old regime, Socialist Realism. Many tend to see Socialist and Capitalist Realisms as oppositional ideologies, which obscures how much they have in common. Traditionalism, nationalism, symmetries, grand scale – all that is reflected in both architectural styles. For example, the 90s and 00s skyscrapers of Moscow and Astana were directly modeled after those of late 40s and 50s Moscow and Warsaw, which in turn had been inspired by 1910s Chicago. What happened between Stalinist Socialist realism and Capitalist Realism were three decades of Modernism, mostly in the form of prefabricated social housing. The model for this actually came from pre-War experiences. Poland, for instance, had built Modernist, co-operative public housing estates in the 1920s and 30s. In USSR, Modernism ceased in the early 1930s when the General Plan for rebuilding Moscow demanded a new, Stalinist style termed ‘socialist in content and national in form’.[2]

The new socialist realist style, deployed after the Second World War, has effects that are still visible in all ebuilt Eastern Bloc cities. Those Polish cities, like Warsaw, that had been nearly completely destroyed by the Nazis, were reconstructed from scratch by the new, Moscow-controlled authorities. The Polish Six Year Plan (1950-1955) saw Warsaw spectacularly brought from the dead. Similarly, a building boom happened in the rest of Poland, with reconstructions of Gdańsk, Wrocław, Tychy, and the building of new towns like Nowa Huta – essentially - a steelworks colony, built by an outrageous effort between 1949 and 1954 in suburban Krakow in a grandiose Socialist Realist style, with boulevards wide enough to be able to host tanks in case of the Third World War. This was the reality of the Cold War – a constant competitiveness in all fields including technology, which the Soviet Bloc could mostly win only by propaganda. But where did the rest of the postcolonial world fit in this division?

In the ‘thaw’ of 1956 Boleslaw Bierut, the Communist Party of Poland, died, and was replaced during great turmoil by Władyslaw Gomułka, who criticized the period of Socialist Realism as “the era of errors and distortions”. This event opened a new chapter in Polish planning and architecture. What was from then state-supported was entirely opposed to the totalitarian opulence of the Stalinist Palaces of Culture - cheap, prefabricated blocks of flats. With a housing crisis still pervading society after the war, the quickly built, though initially well-planned estates started to fill the cities in the whole Bloc. Interestingly, this spectacular achievement put Eastern Bloc architects at the frontline of new ideas for housing solutions, as masterplanners and city constructors.

The success of this attracted ‘developing’ countries from outside the Eastern and Western Blocs to hire the cities’ planners and architects. Large state-owned national architectural practices like Miastoprojekt from Krakow or Energoprojekt from Belgrade started working for Middle Eastern and African countries who were members of the Non-Aligned Movement.[3] Miastoprojekt, the designers of Nowa Huta, won a prestigious competition for Baghdad’s master plan in 1967, a general housing programme for Iraq between 1976 and 1980. They continued to work in the Middle East until the 1980s.

The founding of and collaboration with the Non-Aligned Movement was part of the geo-political development of a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism. And there was a lot in between: the oil-rich Middle East, Africa emerging from colonial rule and Latin America. They were all underdeveloped and needed new kind of cities and housing. The fact that socialist Poland assisted in it was a source of prestige for urbanists, was seen as proof of the success of socialism, and thus expressed the Eastern Bloc’s political and economic support for the newly founded states. Through this, Functionalist urbanism became a global idiom in the 1960s at the hands of architects from the ‘socialist countries’. Master plans of Baghdad (1967) and Aleppo (from 1962), administrative buildings in Kabul, museums in Nigeria (from 1969), and the trade fair in Accra (1967), followed by governmental buildings in Ghana, were all drawn up by Polish architects, and were recently collected in the exhibition ‘PRL™ Export Architecture and Urbanism from Socialist Poland’[4] at the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art in 2010. The exhibition showed conclusively how the USSR and its periphery, which had gone from being rural to industrial economies in rapid time, were considered by Non-Aligned countries to be a model for their own modernisation. During the 1970s this work abroad was increasingly economically motivated, as Poland had to pay off the loans taken in the 70s by the new leader Edward Gierek. As the crisis in Poland developed, it sparked a crisis of belief in ‘real socialism’ among its citizens. Polish architects were especially keen on exporting their work, as their task was completely subsumed under the requirements of the state building industry and bureaucratic apparatus.

Until a certain moment Polish skills and techniques were highly desirable. They stopped being so in the late 1970s, when imperialism moved into the Non-Aligned nations, forcibly shifting alignments: Indonesia faced a US-backed coup in the 1960s; Egypt reconciled itself to the USA after Sadat became president and in Iraq, Saddam Hussein similarly had the USA’s support. From being the forerunners of architectural planning, all of a sudden Poles had to learn and absorb a completely different architectural idiom – a more Americanised form of postmodern architecture and planning. And perhaps now that the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement were no longer neutral, they were no longer so keen to be associated with the Eastern Bloc.

Rather than being modern, from this point former Non-Aligned countries were keen to market themselves as tourist destinations and started to favour more traditional architectural styles, exoticising their otherness. Meanwhile, countries that became wealthy from oil in the 1970s soon had the wealthiest ruling class in the world. Thus they wanted to build aptly representational buildings, focusing less on housing and basic infrastructure and more on display. One can endlessly ask the question of what caused the rise of postmodernism, but it is clear that the reaction happened everywhere. Each country, in the First, Third and Second Worlds, had adopted modern architecture, so in the end an attack was made across the board on a style apparently boring, monolithic and monofunctional.

The replacement was a corporate and parodic aesthetic. Much of the criticism and pomo ideology came from the US, where the new architecture was already incorporating the elements of what was once-considered avant-garde modernism - collage, violent juxtapositions – and calling it new. Postmodern architecture’s leaders like Philip Johnson once created boring modern architecture, then decided to clad it pink and make jokes. At the same time, postmodernism was socially reactionary, stripping modernism of everything social: welfare state, equality, planning. A symptomatic case is The Iron Gate in Warsaw – a famous, Corbusian council estate built in the center of the city between 1965 and 1972, with micro-flats of 11 sq m per inhabitant. It is now overshadowed by tacky capitalist realist skyscrapers such as Atrium (built in 2001) by architects Kazimierski & Ryba, previously the designers of a ‘Sports-City’ in Latakia, Syria. The Iron Gate, criticized as “a good idea went bad”, was itself the subject of a recent film[5] - the interviews with inhabitants showed it is still often popular, with residents using the communal spaces provided in exactly in the way designers projected.

The problem there now, is the light and space permanently taken by corporate high-rises built onto the parkland originally between the blocks. It’s an interesting example of how modernist zoning (the area was zoned solely for housing) was replaced and crowded by banks, office blocks and restaurants, that all belong not only to another ‘zone’, but another social class. When the influential American writer Jane Jacobs opposed zoning, she was opposing the tendency of spaces in estates to become bleak and abandoned. But what followed was the insistance on making places “vibrant”. In the case of the Iron Gate, this meant building around the monolithic, huge and identical Ville Radieuse-style blocks in green space a net of significantly higher, clad with an especially cheap and perishable material - trespa, speculation flats & and imposing office/retail developments like Atrium. Its architects even quote Socialist Realism as a source of inspiration: “It is the only contemporary style noticeable and consequently realized in Warsaw. In the arcades and cornices of Atrium we applied a pastiche of Socialist Realism, to which we added signs of our time”: atriums, elevators, facades etc.”[6]

Some of the new ideas came from Polish architects’ earlier adaptation of modernist rules to changing local conditions in their Non-Aligned clients. This is too easily read as an embrace of ‘freedom’. In fact, Middle East countries, such as Iraq or Kuwait were much more harsh and undemocratic than any Eastern Bloc country - they treated their political opponents in a much more brutal way than General Jaruzelski did after introducing Martial Law in Poland during 1981.

In 1991 Miastoprojekt Krakow transformed itself into a trade company, consisting of fifteen different offices coordinating the overall practice. The highlights of their practice include, for instance, the headquarters for Philip Morris in Krakow. The planners of cities first in Poland and then the Middle East have become the designers of malls, banks, conference centres, private villas and speculative offices. It’s this movement, from involvement in the Non-Aligned countries before 1989 and then new buildings in Poland after, in which the architects evoked Socialist Realism more often than Modernism, that forms the subject of the exhibition ‘Postmodernism Is Almost All Right’, held at the Warsaw School of Economics last autumn.

It would be interesting to more closely examine the strange recurrence of Socialist Realism, first, as the USSR’s equivalent of the capitalist architecture of the US, drawing at the same time on native Tsarist flamboyance, and then later rhyming with the Po-mo shift worldwide and after 1989, fitting so well within the demands of Capitalist Realism. The future of Socialist Realism is complex. In the West and the newly Westernised EU-members of Osteuropa, it is alternately rejected as a relic of the condemned past or unexpectedly embraced – the grand public spaces of Karl-Marx Allee in Berlin or the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw are now often liked by locals, although certainly no new buildings try and emulate them. In the East, sometimes a very far East indeed, the style unironically adorns undemocratic, turbo-capitalist regimes, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and even extends to oil-garchies Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Mecca’s Abraj al Bait skyscraper closely evokes the Stalinist towers of the 1950s, with its grandiose historicist ornament, its axial symmetry and its lofty spire. With a sense of guilt for ‘exploitation’, this kitsch oligarchitecture is occasionally exposed in contemporary design magazines or exhibitions, but is seldom taken seriously. But is there really such a distance between the ‘high architecture’ of, say, cityscape of Dubai or Norman Foster’s sinister glass Pyramid of Peace for the Kazakh capital, and the ‘kitsch’ simulation of Stalinist styles in the same city’s Triumph Astana?

These recent projects and exhibitions on the many worldwide legacies of socialist architecture ask some pointed questions about where we might position the ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’. We find first, an authoritarian Socialist Realist style abandoned in the late ‘50s which is then evoked, stripped of its direct political associations in the new capitalist architecture of the 1990s; and when we try and find out where this evocation of demonized styles comes from, we find the experiences of architects forced to adapt to new trends from the west. Nothing is certain, nothing corresponds to the cliché of totally hostile rival Blocs. More than anything else, we find an era and an architecture that was struggling for alternative scenarios of modernity, rather than limiting itself to a familiar dichotomy between Empires East and West.

[1] Bart Goldhoorn and Philipp Meuser, Capitalist Realism: New Architecture in Russia, Berlin: DOM Publishers, 2006. (the book has parallel text in English, German and Russian)
[3] The Non-Aligned Movement, like the similar Group of 77, was founded during a thaw in the Cold War in 1961 in Belgrade to unite the ‘Third World’ countries that were neither a part of the capitalist West nor the Eastern communist Bloc.)
[4] Exhibition carried out by ETH Zurich's Lukasz Stanek and Piotr Bujas
[5] Heidrun Holzfeind, Za Zelazna Brama (Behind the Iron Gate)
[6] Quoted from a leaflet of the exhibition.