A Polish visionary who wanted to transform Modernist architecture to respond to the conditions of real life
Oskar Hansen was a Polish architect, a member of Team 10, a tireless experimenter and pedagogue and the creator of the theory of Open Form. He died in 2005, and his innovative genius was never properly appreciated in the West during his lifetime. But as interest in the architecture of the former Eastern Bloc increases, an effort has been made to reveal his work to a wider public: an exhibition curated by Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art travelled to Barcelona in 2014, and to Porto earlier this year. Warsaw’s MoMA also published a collaborative Polish-English scholarly effort Oskar Hansen – Opening Modernism, but typically, this new research comes from the art world. It focuses on Hansen’s didactic, experimental work as an inspiration for conceptual art, and is less interested in his actual architectonic realisations – a fate similar to that of Cedric Price and the Smithsons in the UK. Hansen himself managed to realise few of his projects. The reason for this lies in the complex destinies of postwar Modernism, and how the postwar humanism embodied in the aim of many designers to set up a fairer world met the obstacles of Cold War ideology, economic limitations and social reality.
Hansen was born to Russian and Norwegian parents in Helsinki in 1922. His family moved to Vilnius, then part of Poland, and Hansen graduated from the mechanics department of the local technical school in 1942, when the city was still under Nazi occupation. He fought in the partisan Home Army and after the war was repatriated to the new Poland, where he studied at Warsaw University’s Architecture Department. These experiences, and the fact that freshly communist Poland boasted its internationalism (Poland organised several key socialist summits of that period) brought him a French government stipend in Paris, where the Communist Party was briefly part of the governing coalition. There he honed his skills under the eye of Fernand Léger and Pierre Jeanneret.
‘The rules of the Socialist Realist period meant that Hansen’s projects were rejected or even got him in serious trouble with the party-line architects.’
This was followed by a trip to London, where he attended the International Summer School of Architecture, meeting Henry Moore. Fellow traveller Pablo Picasso’s late period was a huge influence on Hansen’s developing ideas about space. His Parisian period – meeting Le Corbusier, seeing the new ‘machines for living’ and estates, with a touch of Left Bank existentialism – led to him developing a humanist, more ‘open’ and organic Modernism, and he publicly criticised Corbusier at the CIAM summit in Bergamo in 1949. He refused a job offer from Ernesto Nathan Rogers, as he believed rebuilding Poland was his duty.
At that time, the Communists were busy raising Poland’s devastated cities from the grave. But the rules of the Socialist Realist period meant that Hansen’s projects were rejected or even got him in serious trouble with the party-line architects. He focused on working at the Fine Arts Academy, where he launched his studio, conducting private experiments and designing Polish exhibitions abroad – a bizarre opportunity for artists from the Communist Bloc to display experiments that were deemed useful to show off communist advancement to a foreign audience, while being considered too expensive and dubious for realisation at home. With such luminaries of Polish design as Wojciech and Stanislaw Zamecznik and Lech Tomaszewski, and his wife Zofia, he designed pavilions for international fairs in Stockholm, Izmir and São Paulo. His lightweight, organic designs led him to formulate his Open Form idea of an environment-as-process engaging the participant. Open Form was, for instance, demonstrated in his project with Tomaszewski for Izmir where a structure designed as a hyperbolic paraboloid unfolded and expanded in space. His exhibition projects defied divisions such as inside-outside, hard-soft, and centre-periphery; they stressed fluidity of forms, openness and transparency; and came to spectacular formulation with his Linear Continuous System.
Open Form theory embracing art-as-process, engaging the viewer, recipient and user
Launched Solids and Planes Studio at Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts (ASP)
Pavilions for International Fairs of Stockholm (1953), Izmir (1955), and São Paulo (1959)
The Road competition entry for Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, 1958
‘Open Form is about variable compositions - the processes of life highlighted by backgrounds’
A true challenge to his design philosophy came in the form of the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial competition in 1958, where – nevertheless – an international jury presided by Henry Moore unanimously chose The Road, a strikingly original project by Hansen and his collaborators. The Road was radical in its complete rejection of traditional notions of the ‘monument’ as a sculpture, treating instead the whole former camp as a memorial. An asphalt road one kilometre long and 70 metres wide was to run though the whole camp diagonally, but without demolishing the former barracks, crematoria and other infrastructure of death. Instead the remains would be left to decay naturally, overgrown by wild plants, a metaphorical way of bringing back those who were once described as ‘weeds’ by their murderers. It was, in Hansen’s words, a walk ‘from life through death and again back to life’. But this revolutionary anti-monument was never built, rejected by the former prisoners, who couldn’t find themselves or their experience in this project, and instead requested a more traditional memorial.
Hansen proclaimed his idea of Open Form at the Otterlo CIAM congress in 1959, which elicited a great deal of interest, and was instrumental in the formation of Team 10’s opposition to rigid Modernism. The Linear Continuous System was a transposition of Open Form to an urban scale. Today the part Hansen played in Team 10 tends to be neglected, but new research shows that his spirit of cooperation was crucial to the functioning of the group as a challenge to the political restrictions of the Cold War. Open Form was space formed as a response to all human activities, referring to avant-garde sculpture and theory – ‘processual compositions formed by life’ as he called it. Space was to be shaped by the inhabitants – the opposite of Corbusian ideas. Understood abstractly, according to the Open Form approach, forms should emerge spontaneously as an effect of human activity. However, it did not find acceptance in the Polish planned economy, because of the necessity to work with limited resources.
‘Housing zones would be interspersed with zones of industry, services and natural landscape. His idea was to remove the division between centre and the periphery’
His unrealised plans for the wholesale application of the Linear Continuous System to Polish territory envisioned a system of big cities built in four parallel lines spreading from the country’s top to its bottom, in line with industrial zones, ending the idea of a city that develops concentrically. The Polish state opposed the plan, despite the fact that only a planned economy could make it work. For Hansen, there was a direct parallel between the socialist economy and the Linear Continuous System. Housing zones would be interspersed with zones of industry, services and natural landscape. His idea was to remove the division between centre and the periphery, an idea that is still current in post-communist Poland and the whole former East.
His completed buildings were co-designed by his wife Zofia, who rooted Oskar’s ideas in architectonic reality. Two of their major estates are realisations of ‘LCS’ in miniature: the Słowacki Estate in Lublin and Przyczółek Grochowski in Warsaw. Both used the same banal prefabricated panels as any other housing estate of the era; the innovation was all in the plan, not in the materials used, in accordance with Hansen’s utilitarianism. Working under an imperfect system, he still believed systems could have a liberating force. In his housing projects he wanted to create true community by encouraging communal habits, egalitarianism and availability – not just an image of community. After 1989 he became a critic of privatisation and the social segregation of post-socialist Poland, and he carried on developing the idea of Open Form until the end. In 2005, the year of his death, he designed a counter-tower to Warsaw’s central Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science – the paradigmatic Closed Form, enabling dogmatic regimes. His proposal was to build a viewing tower, oppositional to but not replacing the Palace, which would mean ‘not a demolition, but a conversation, like cultured people’.