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Jaroslaw Kozakiewicz

Nature of Living, Poland, 2007

Video, 6.55 min.

Courtesy of the artist

Between the years 1965-1972 beyond the Iron Gate in the center of Warsaw, nineteen residential blocks were built as part of a national project. Sixteen floors each, designed for a total of 25,000 inhabitants, the Za Żelazną Bramą settlement turned to be a symbol of communist Poland’s prosperity and its technological progress. The project fit perfectly with the era’s official policies. Settlement was praised highly by Polish architects, the project was recognized for its ‘homogeneous compositional approach to the entire site and monumental scale properly matching the neighborhood’s metropolitan character’, and for an ‘interesting proposition of connecting the site with the compositional whole of the Saxon Axis’.

The buildings’ interiors were designed with the social function in mind. On the ground floor there is a spacious lobby that was to host residents’ meetings; similar, though proportionately smaller, spaces were designed for each floor. Reality, however, disproved theory: no meetings took place, except those in front of the elevator door, and the empty spaces of the entry lobbies and corridors were quickly claimed by the residents and annexed into their apartments as extra living spaces.

When the People’s Poland era ended, the settlement’s perception changed radically. Critics lamented the way the blocks were chaotically scattered across the site out of touch with human needs. The critics were particularly harsh about absurd interior-design solutions: tiny apartments, windowless kitchens, long, narrow and dark corridors, and poor quality standards.

The architecture of the 1960s failed the test of time. It is commonly associated with the soulless, sprawling high-rise residential-block settlements, and the toxic, commonly hated, prefabricated-concrete technology.

Despite a long public debate that involved the best specialists in the field, the problem of a prefab-concrete high-rise block settlement in the very center of the city seemed impossible to solve. It would probably still be discussed – were it not for the changes caused by global warming. Major shifts in temperature and humidity levels had a powerful impact on the structure of the buildings’ walls. It turned out that the microorganisms, for decades inhabiting the micro-cracks in the walls, had transformed their structure in order to adapt it to new climatic conditions.

Plant species, encountered hitherto only in parks and botanical gardens, found a perfect soil in the pores in the buildings’ walls. Then it turned out that walls overgrown with vegetation provided a great insulation layer helping to maintain a stable temperature inside the building.

Thanks to this unexpected transformation, the city center has gained over 14 hectares of biologically active surface consuming some 650 tons of carbon dioxide annually.”