Color Blocking Blokowisko
An Artist in residency project at the Baltic Gallery for Contemporary art, Ustka, Poland.
How did the exterior of socialist apartment blocks change after the transition to a consumer society?
In my project I focused on the houses built according to the principles of an architectural style called functionalism. It features by a lack of ornament and the visibility of the construction material; concrete. The blocks are common in suburban areas throughout the former Eastern Bloc. Functionalist architecture is commonly associated with socialism.
In Poland the blocks were built on large scale since the 70s, when parts started to be premade in factories so the houses could simply be assembled on the building site. The number of houses grew rapidly answering to the promise of ‘an apartment for every family’. They were assigned for free to people on a long waiting list.
Currently, the exterior of these houses is being altered at a quick pace throughout the country. They are repainted in ways which stand in strong contrast to the concepts of their original architectural style. Colours vary from light purple, peach, yellow, baby blue to any other soft pastel hue. I tried to find out whether the repainting of houses is carried out to adjust them to the aesthetic needs of the current society, or if it aims to break associations with the past.
To establish contact with the local community, I sent out 100 letters in which I invited them to share their personal pictures, opinions and stories about the houses. Special attention was given to the times the exterior of the house still corresponded to the original architecture.
Thanks to the conversations I stumbled upon the current process of decommunisation. This shows through the renaming of streets referring to the PRL and the removal of monuments. The National Institute of Remembrance has an organ to suggest these changes; The Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation.
In the history of Poland, the Polish People’s Republic is now described as an occupation by a totalitarian Soviet-power.
'An apartment for every family'
In 2009 a new law was implemented which bans any form of totalitarian propaganda and makes it punishable to show or ship it. (Article 256) The consequences vary from fines up to two years of jail. This law is also applicable for communist symbols. Openly sympathizing with communism is considered propaganda of a totalitarian regime and therefor punishable. A small exception is made when the symbols are shown as part of an artistic or scientific activity.
Fascinated by the radical approach of history and the paradoxical of ‘protecting the democracy’ in this way, I let the subject inspire my paintings and drawings. On top of images from Ustka during the 70’s I manually added colors with gouache.
My aim is to show the paint covering the houses as a separate layer which isn’t attached to the underlying structure, but merely distracting from it. Perhaps it helps the residents to review their houses anew, with a deeper consciousness about both functionalism and the changes currently carried out. After all, irrespective of the interpretation of history, the houses are an unappreciated part of the cultural heritage of Poland.
Aside from images, I found slogans from the 60s and 70s which are connected to the attitude towards the blocks. These were commonly displayed in public space. Examples are ‘Come with us to build a happy tomorrow’ and ‘We are building a new culture for the happiness of the fatherland.’ These were incorporated in my drawings and collages. The results were on view in The Baltic Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Stumbling upon something much bigger than I initially anticipated, I decided to not drop the subject immediately upon completing the residency. Instead, I changed my question to focus on the current political function of the functionalist apartment blocks. I hope to further explore this topic in the future.
The images used for this series of paintings are made at the Children's festival in Ustka, on Ul. Dąbrowszczaków (now Legionów)on the 30th of May 1980.
The pictures were kindly provided by the House of Culture in Ustka, where they keep an archive of photographs from different events.
All images were taken on Dąbrowszaków street in 1980. On the 28th of July in 2017 a notice was posted on the municipal website of Ustka regarding the change of the streetname Dąbrowszaków to Legionów.
Dąbrowszczacy is a term referring to communists and other volunteers (mostly of Polish nationality) - members of the 13th International Brigade of them. Jarosław Dąbrowski during the civil war and Soviet intervention in Spain in 1936 to 1939. They were the implementers of Stalin's policy on the Iberian Peninsula.
In the opinion of the Institute of National Remembrance - the Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation, the above-mentioned name should be changed as fulfilling the norm of art. 1 of the Act on the prohibition of promoting communism or other totalitarian system by names of buildings, facilities and public utility facilities (Journal of Laws of 2016, item 744).