The shadow architecture of Warsaw

Dec 31, 2014, 7:30 AM EST
Maciej Landsberg "Archives Bazaar Różyckiego," part of the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art's ""Shadow Architecture: Lavatories and Bazaars" exhibit.
(Courtesy of the artist )

Aleksandra Wasilkowska, the vice-president of the Polish Architectural Association in Warsaw, doesn’t care much for skyscrapers. At 36, the most promising architect in Poland is making a name for herself by focusing instead on the small-scale constructions of the so-called informal economy. Street stalls, collapsible tables, carts, and makeshift homeless shelters are but a few typologies of what the designer, artist, curator, and writer calls “shadow architecture” — the urban phenomena that follow the rise of an informal shadow economy. Its key figures include street peddlers and traders who operate untaxed and unregulated by governments, not urban planners or corporate designers.

“Shadow architecture consists of elements displaced from official discourse, such as toilets, men’s public lavatories, bazaars and street stalls,” Wasilkowska writes in “Shadow Architecture,” the first book in a three-part series on the forms and functions of the shadow economy's built environment. “It is a kind of spatial structure which eludes central planning.” In her native Warsaw, as in much of Eastern Europe, municipal authorities typically ignore or displace the informal and often-transient market stalls, even as they heavily invest in renovating permanent infrastructure of the city’s business districts. The architectural structures of the informal economy, she notes, are often “hidden away by the city in shameful recesses or on the peripheries as ‘unclean forms.’”


That book is now the basis for Wasilkowska’s new show at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw — also dubbed “Shadow Architecture” — that runs through February 1, 2015. As the Polish capital continues to transform socialist-era public space according to the sanitized image of Europe, Wasilkowska’s exhibition brings to light spaces, like public lavatories and street markets, that typically go ignored by the city’s architecture and planning bureaucracies. Curated by the architect, the show features Wasilkowska’s work alongside pieces by the likes of Pablo Bronstein and Slavs and Tatars, offering a sample of the projects and ideas that place Wasilkowska among the most unorthodox figures in Poland’s burgeoning contemporary architecture scene. 

Like the market stalls she researches, Wasilkowska’s studio space in central Warsaw is tiny: sandwiched between two residential buildings, the split-level office measures just over six feet wide. Yet a huge variety of projects have come out of the diminutive studio, including building renovations, master plans, books, conceptual art, and Wasilkowska’s Polish Pavilion for the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, which she conceived jointly with the artist Agnieszka Kurant. On a recent visit, “Shadow Architecture” materials filled the space, among them renderings and models of Wasilkowska’s planned renovations of both the oldest bazaar in Warsaw and the National Gallery of Poland.

That market, the Bazar Rozyckiego, sits in a poor district in eastern Warsaw. This bazar was the country’s wealthiest when consumer goods were scarce during the state-socialism years. “People from the whole of Poland came there to buy stuff that they could never find in a normal shop,” Wasilkowska said. “Jeans, or American goods, or caviar. Everything that you needed — passports, diplomas.” After communism collapsed in 1989 and goods became increasingly accessible on the official market, the once-thriving shadow economy at the bazar collapsed. Today, the dilapidated and half-deserted market looks like a seedy caricature of post-communist Eastern Europe: concrete mass-housing blocks loom in the background, and Chinese-made goods share shelf space with old disco records and pornography. In a break with their previous neglect of the city’s bazaars, Warsaw’s municipal authorities recently commissioned Wasilkowska to redesign the market, a project that will begin construction next year. The scope of the renovation, however, is limited. The municipality only owns the area surrounding the main public entrance, while the 100-odd booths belong to individual shopkeepers, making it unlikely that the full bazaar will ultimately undergo renovation.

The goal of the project is “to create a public space that doesn’t exist there right now,” explained the architect. Wasilkowska plans to build a communal pavilion at the entrance out of unused market stalls too worn out to renovate; it will be a triangular structure modeled after the food pyramid, in reference to the fruit stalls and bakeries that surround the entrance. Her plan includes a simple kitchen for washing and peeling produce purchased on site, a feature that she observed at bazars in Georgia, which she felt fostered conviviality among both visitors and shopkeepers — a feeling sorely lacking at the Bazar Rozyckiego. The feature, she said, is decidedly Eastern European: the pavilion will be called the “Temple of Bazaristan.” She expects that residents of nearby housing projects, and visitors from across the city, will flock to cook and socialize at the pavilion. The project is a revitalization more than a renovation of the market, she says.

Wasilkowska also has a new logo for the bazar, based on the communal and unofficial nature of shadow architecture: a pair of cupped hands, a gesture, she said, that signifies both “helping and doing something illegally.” The logo, a model of the revitalization program, and other materials focused on “shadow architecture” are all on view at the Warsaw MoMA.

Another work of Wasilkowska’s, which also deals in often-overlooked spaces, will soon be permanently installed nearby at Zacheta, the National Gallery of Art. As part of her renovation of the museum, Wasilkowska designed a toilet that requires visitors to act on political sentiment, not on gender norms. “It’s a very small toilet so you can have just three choices. It’s ‘left’ and ‘I don’t know’ and ‘right.’ You enter and you pee where you want to vote.” A counter next to the exit takes note of the number of visitors to each stall, who relieve themselves and see, in turn, a measure of the political leanings of their fellow museumgoers.

Back at her studio, Wasilkowska surveyed the myriad construction documents and scale models lining her desks and shelves that are now becoming political bathrooms, market stalls, and museum shows. “I try to put emphasis on things that are in the shadow of ‘big’ architecture,” she explained. “Public toilets can also be architectural masterpieces.”