Oskar Hansen: Opening Modernism - Aleksandra Kędziorek, Łukasz Ronduda (red.) - ebook

Oskar Hansen: Opening Modernism ebook

Aleksandra Kędziorek, Łukasz Ronduda (red.)



Following an international conference organized at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw in 2013, „Oskar Hansen—Opening Modernism” analyzes diverse aspects of the architectural, theoretical, and didactical oeuvre of Oskar Hansen, who was the Polish member of Team 10, a group of architects that challenged standard views of urbanism more than fifty years ago. In chronicling the impact of Hansen’s theory of “Open Form” on architecture, urban planning, experimental film, and visual arts in postwar Poland, this volume traces the flow of architectural ideas in a Europe divided by the Cold War. Through discussions of the ideas of openness and participation in state-socialist economies, „Oskar Hansen—Opening Modernism” offers new insights into exhibition design and the interrelations of architecture, visual arts, and the state.



Książka „Oskar Hansen: Otwieranie modernizmu” analizuje różne aspekty bogatej działalności twórczej Hansena – architekta, teoretyka i nauczyciela akademickiego.


To także zapis wpływu, jaki jego teoria Formy Otwartej wywarła na architekturze, urbanistyce i sztukach wizualnych w Polsce. I nowe spojrzenie na rozwijaną w warunkach upaństwowionej socjalistycznej gospodarki ideę otwartości i uczestnictwa oraz na relacje architektury, sztuki i państwa.


Wśród autorów tekstów (uczestników konferencji poświęconej Hansenowi, zorganizowanej w 2013 roku w Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie) znaleźli się między innymi Joan Ockman, Łukasz Stanek, Felicity D. Scott, Andrzej Szczerski, Tomasz Fudala, Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, Karol Sienkiewicz i David Crowley.


Książka towarzyszy wystawie „Oskar Hansen. Open Form”, której pierwsza odsłona będzie miała miejsce w muzeum MACBA w Barcelonie (lipiec 2014 – styczeń 2015), kolejna zaś w Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves w Porto (2015).


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The Open Form in Architecture— the Art of the Great Number





Oskar Hansen’s Radical Humanism: Open Form Against a Cold War Background


Team 10 East: The Socialist State as an Architectural Project


LCS, or What Is a City?


PREVI: Experimental Housing Project in Lima



Space Educates


The Polish Radio Experimental Studio


The Studio Theater


Architects on the Fringe: Polish Exhibition Design After 1945



Open Form, Public Sculpture and the Counter-Memorial: Encounters Between Henry Moore and Oskar Hansen



Visiting the Hansens



The Didactics of Oskar Hansen


Adaptation Proposal for the Seat of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts’ Faculty of Sculpture


Visual Games


You Live and You Learn: Open Form Put to the Test


Walking with Hansen


We have come to Otterlo to ask and try to answer a simple question: What do we have in common, and how are we to fight for it?

In defining “what,” we may not be able to go further than listing those things we disagree with in architecture as it has been till now. “How” signifies the means which we consider proper and their application in realizing the new idea.


Architecture until now:

has not solved the problem of necessary quantity. The gap in the quantity of apartments and social facilities is decreasing very slowly, and often increasing instead of decreasing.

has, as a “closed form,” not accepted changes in the mode of life, and becomes obsolete before it is even realized.

has broadly disregarded the tenant’s psychological needs and is often inhuman.

has been wasteful of financial means.

Architects, who believe in the miraculous function of the Closed Form as the means for overcoming the stalemate of quantity, have been designing minimum apartments of the past half century—and these ineffectually. The demand is constantly increasing, and the standard of “quantity” housing is decreasing. Indeed, even the most magnificent attainments of “small quantities” based on the Closed Form, like Vällingby or the Cité d’Habitation in Marseilles, have, for various reasons, failed the test. It seems to me that Brasilia-Capital will be antique before it is completed, for it, too, is based on the Closed Form.

I am not an adherent of a compulsory evolution. However, I do believe that evolution can be accelerated. I consider the organic disregard of free polemics in architecture an anachronistic convention of the Closed Form as well as a repercussion of the traditional system of construction.


I believe that, in a given material situation, the present “swelling” society, which has an arsenal of means, can afford to build homes and public facilities in sufficient quantity, and on an increasingly higher standard.

The problem of quantity, unsolved till now, lies in the manner in which the methods of the Closed Form are used to solve other substances—the large quantity. The sooner we cast off the shackles of the Closed Form—the form on which we have been brought up and consequently often do not perceive its deleterious effect—the sooner will we solve the basic task of architecture.

I consider that the problem of dynamic quantity can be resolved without lowering the standards of quality thought the use of the “open form” as a basis. Acting in the new language of the Open Form we understand by the term “quantity” the filling in of the gap of housing and public utilities left in legacy by the Closed Form and the parallel increase in building with the natural increase in population.

The term “quality” in the language of the Open Form should be understood as the recognition of the individual in a collective.

The basic elements of the Open Form presented above are the meshed vectors which will form the new architecture. The new number will produce new quality and conversely the concept of the new quality will help us resolve the number.

The Open Form, unlike the Closed Form, does not exclude the energy of the client’s initiative but on contrary treats it as a basic, organic, and inseparable component element. This fact is of a fundamental significance to the client’s psychological need of identity.

The rhythm of our times and the functioning of the Closed Form (which appears in a particularly drastic form in the faulty interpretation of industrialization from which emerges the monstrous shape of dull standardization) causes the individuality to become lost in the collective: the individual stands apart from the action. The Open Form is to aid the individual in finding himself in the collective, to make him indispensable in the creation of his own surroundings.

It seems that society should make possible the development of the individual. There should be a synthesis between the objective social elements and the subjective individual elements. This organic necessity of our society—the mutual permeation of superficially opposed elements—will in result produce a more proper distribution of means assigned for this purpose. It will aid in solving the problem of filling in the gaps of the lacking means, and consequently will resolve the problem of quantity. We must consider only those elements objective and social which we attain due to society. Subjective elements are those which we can and wish to resolve ourselves.

In the first group we include action based on area planning in the scale of a country—city-planning on the scale of a region or city. In detail, it will mean the preparation of the “sites” for “one-family houses” on the first floor, second floor, third floor, fourth floor, etc., up to the top floor in a skyscraper. Preparation of “sites” for construction will depend upon the solution of such elements as: the influence of local conditions on the formation of city planning groups; the “passe-partout” for social living; a common means of communication; of installations; of fundamental economics in building; and so on. The choice of the place “where” in the city, by way of answer to public information, will be made by the client. This is the first instance in which the objective and subjective elements permeate each other. After the “site” has been chosen, the tenant decides on the system in which the home is to be built.


Here the second instance may occur where the objective and subjective elements permeate each other. That is, if society will build homes on the order of the client, an architect or some other specialist, invited by the client, may participate. This phase of construction may be carried out by the client himself, or by some other energy but always at the decision of the client. This phase may be carried out successfully on a large scale only if it is previously properly organized and the material base is large and varied and properly prepared. This stage, from the viewpoint of the organization of the construction as well as the establishment and development of the bases, should evolve gradually. Problems will arise and grow gradually and in this connection the answers will evolve organically.

The third instance of permeation is the completely new architectural task: a communicative transmission to our psychology of the organic and bountiful chaos of events in a form received by this manner, not through the elimination of separate forms but by recognizing the separate component elements by means of additional plastic effects.

The manifestation of the Open Form will be therefore the discernibleness of the individual in the multiple, and the discernibleness of the number. In housing we shall have a polemic of viewpoints on the creation of one’s own surroundings, characterized by an appropriate “background.” In social postulated, these will be separate events: people, circumstances, and so on.

The Open Form differs from the Closed Form by recognizing concrete people—not the abstract so-called “average”—by leaving a margin for evoking one’s own latent essence. It is an individual-collective phenomenon and, because of that, multi-stratified and alive.

The problem and scope of the permeation of subjective and objective elements depends upon the traits and needs of the group (community). An enormous role is played by the distribution of material means, the living standard of society, the accessible material base and the psychological elements.

By recognizing the very extensive substance, we enter upon the field of new aesthetics in architecture—the aesthetics of the Open Form. As Dadaism in painting broke the barrier of traditional aesthetics, so the Open Form in architecture will bring us closer to the “ordinary, mundane, things found, broken, accidental” (Pierre Restany). The role of the artist-architect is altered from the previous exclusively personal and conceptional role (imposing the Closed Form in manifestation of which the form is defined beforehand and that most often for non-existing persons) to the conceptional-coordinating role. An all-knowing architect must realize, in the face of the high level of specialization in present times, that he does not know everything himself. Hence, the architect superspecialist is obsolescent in present times.

The wealth of Open Form in architecture as well as its development will depend on the polemics of the various component parts, comprehended as various individualities, playing the leading role in its substance, serving each tenant individually, and not defined beforehand in its manifestation.

The Closed Form has created aesthetics for its own use. The Open Form—the art of events—will also look for its own methods of study, its own means of expression, its own aesthetics. The Open Form, being the form of the sum of events—of the sum of individualities of a given group—should in consequence lead us to the expression of a group form. Taking into consideration the constantly broadening analysis of component elements, their mutual permeation as well as the indivisible structure of society, we approach the idea of complete, universal, whole, continuous space—space of a different psychology, a different and new morality.

From Oskar Hansen, Zofia Hansen, “The Open Form in Architecture—the Art of the Great Number,” in CIAM ‘59 in Otterlo, edited by Oscar Newman, Stuttgart: Karl Krämer Verlag, 1961, pp.190–191.



"Philosophy is better promoted through space than through a philosophical book,” Oskar Hansen used to say. The architect, artist, teacher and theorist whose entire practice came to be based on the theory of Open Form advocated for explaining his ideas through individual spatial experience. For Open Form—the theory that was based on the assumption of changing the hierarchy between the architect and the user, opening the process of design for user’s participation and creating adaptive architectural frames to expose the richness of everyday life—this way of presentation was the most evocative. All his solo exhibitions—starting with the exhibition in Salon Po Prostu in Warsaw in 1957 where a “choke chain” structure stretched throughout the gallery space embracing paintings, sculptures and passing visitors, to his installation at Dom Artysty Plastyka in Warsaw in 2003, where an abstract ribbon construction created a background to expose people wandering around the gallery—were meant to demonstrate the assumptions of Open Form in practice, without translating space into words.

However, the character of those spatial narrations was for the most part temporary.1 The aim of this publication, based on the conference “Oskar Hansen—Opening Modernism” organized in June 2013 at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and accompanying Hansen’s solo exhibition at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, is to bring Hansen’s oeuvre closer to a general audience. 2 The essays collected in this volume evolve from the concept that formed the premises of his further practice: the theory of Open Form. First these are presented in Hansen’s words—the article written with Zofia Hansen, his wife and codesigner of the majority of his projects, on the occasion of the CIAM congress in Otterlo in 1959—then discussed in detail by international scholars.

This volume is divided in five parts to reflect issues we consider most important and intriguing in Hansen’s oeuvre. This structure, drawn from the museum’s conference in 2013, refers to different areas of Hansen’s practice: architecture, urban planning, visual arts and didactics. It also traces the afterlife of Hansen’s ideas in the artistic practice of his students from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts.

The first part, Politics of Scale, focuses on Hansen’s primary ideas—Open Form and the Linear Continuous System— and situates them in relation to postwar philosophical, political and architectural debates. In Joan Ockman’s opening essay, Hansen’s theory of Open Form gains a broader cultural and political background embodied in the context of the Cold War and French existentialism. Hansen’s relations with his contemporaries are discussed in Łukasz Stanek’s article on Team 10 East—a fictional group of Team 10 members and fellow-travelers from Central and Eastern Europe, posited to provide more local and international contexts for Hansen’s thought and career.3 His concept of the Linear Continuous System and its relation to the socialist state is presented in detail by Andrzej Szczerski, then broadened in a short essay dedicated to one of the Hansen’s most interesting attempt at realization of the concept: a project for a low-cost housing estate in Lima.

The second part, Architecture of Events, is dedicated to Hansen’s mobile architecture and media-related projects. In her essay, Felic ity D. Scott presents Hansen’s specific approach to architecture, con ceived as a set of procedures rather than as a fixed structure. Discussing his most recognizable projects of trade-fair pavilions and museum spaces, Scott shows their interactivity and relation to cybernetics. This issue is extended in two accompanying texts, on his design for the Polish Radio Experimental Studio and the redesign for the Studio Theater, both in Warsaw. Hansen’s activity as a curator—or rather as a creator of experimental display designs—is discussed by Tomasz Fudala in his essay on the involvement of architects in the activity of art institutions in postwar Poland.

The following parts, Counter-Memorial and House as Open Form, focus on two exceptional Hansen’s projects that served as spatial manifestos for the theory of Open Form. Renowned though it only remained on paper, his team’s project for the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau is presented by Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius in relation to Hansen’s concept of sculpture and his encounters with Henry Moore’s oeuvre. The summerhouse that he created in Szumin with his wife, Zofia, and son Igor is described in detail by Aleksandra Kędziorek.

The last part, Art and Open Form, focuses on the didactics of Open Form, which Hansen introduced in his teaching at the F aculty of Sculpture of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. The curriculum of the Planes and Figures Composition Studio is presented by Jola Gola, and broadened in a short essay dedicated to Hansen’s intention to adapt the seat of the Faculty of Sculpture to Open Form didactics. Another brief essay introduces visual games that played a crucial role in his teaching in the 1970s. These games, proposed first by his students then introduced to the Planes and Figures Composition Studio’s regular curriculum, are discussed further by Karol Sienkiewicz, who poses the question of the existence of a “Hansenian tradition,” tracing references to Open Form in Polis h neo-avant-garde art. Further associations are proposed by David Crowley in his essay dedicated to the idea of walking, where he tries to situate Open Form in a broader context of processual and action art of that period.

The present volume is one outcome of the research and exhibition project dedicated to Oskar Hansen’s oeuvre and his theory of Open Form that was launched by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw in 2012. Its first manifestation, the conference mentioned above, curated by Aleksandra Kędziorek and Łukasz Ronduda in collaboration with Łukasz Stanek, has been followed by the museum’s publications dedicated to the Hansens’ house in Szumin (The House as Open Form. The Hansens’ Summer Residence in Szumin with essays by Aleksandra Kędziorek and Filip Springer and photographs by Jan Smaga), to the concept of Team 10 East (Team 10 East. Revisionist Architecture in Real Existing Modernism , edited by Łukasz Stanek) and to Hansen’s oeuvre, as presented in this volume. The release of these three publications coincides with the opening of the Hansen solo exhibition at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, a touring exhibition that will continue to the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves in Porto, among other locations.

The activities of the museum’s Hansen projects also embrace his summerhouse in Szumin, which thanks to the generosity and hospitality of the Hansen family has been open to the public since May 2014. Listed on the Iconic Houses Network of the most architecturally significant houses created in the 20th century and now under the custodianship of the museum, the Hansens’ house in Szumin serves as a vivid example of Open Form architecture. Also in the scope of the museum’s project is Hansen’s interior for the Pol ish Radio Experimental Studio in Warsaw, the reconstruction of which is planned for the near future. The research on “Hansenian tradition” in Polish visual arts has resulted in numerous acquisitions for the museum’s collection, including archives from KwieKu lik and from Prof. Grzegorz Kowalski’s Studio at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts.

Taking this opportunity, we would like to thank all those without whom the realization of this extensive project—and first and foremost the release of this publication—would not have been possible. We express our gratitude to the Hansen family and to Igor Hansen in particular for their trust and support through various stages of the realization of this project. The Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts Museum, led by Jola Gola, the assiduous researcher of Hansen’s work, generously shared with us their archives and time. Łukasz Stanek and Mark Wasiuta offered their support from the initial stages of the project, contributing to its conceptual shape. We would like to thank also the Bergen School of Architecture and its former president Svein Hatløy, Oscar Hansen's student and friend who continued his legacy, for their kindness and support in promoting the idea of Open Form. The release of the present volume was possible thanks to the support of Katarzyna Szotkowska-Beylin, the editor of the Museum Under Construction publication series, and of many others who we would like to thank in their place. The project was financed from a grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA grants, and cofinanced by Polish funds. It was also supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw and the British Council.

1    Both structures, the “choke chain” from the Salon Po Prostu exhibition and the installation developed for the exhibition at Dom Artysty Plastyka, have been re-created for the touring exhibition “Oskar Hansen—Open Form,” curated by Soledad Gutiérrez and Łukasz Ronduda in curatorial collaboration with Aleksandra Kędziorek. The exhibition is presented at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) from July 10, 2014 to January 6, 2015, and at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves in Porto, Portugal, in 2015. The examplary result of Hansen’s concept of and spatial lectures on Open Form is his summerhouse in Szumin, Poland. See The House as Open Form. The Hansens’ Summer Residence in Szumin, photographs by Jan Smaga, texts by Aleksandra Kędziorek and Filip Springer, Kraków: Karakter Publishers, Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2014.

2    Attempts to broaden international recognition of Hansen’s work have been previously undertaken in several publications, see Towards Open Form/Ku Formie Otwartej , edited by Jola Gola, Warszawa: Fundacja Galerii Foksal, Muzeum ASP w Warszawie, Frankfurt: Revolver, 2005; Iane Calovski, Sebastian Cichocki, Hristina Ivanoska, Oskar Hansen’s Museum of Modern Art, Bytom: Kronika, 2007; Piktogram. Talking Pictures Magazine, 2007, vol.5/6; 30 Years Later: A Look at Oskar Hansen’s Studio/Po 30 latach. Spojrzenie na pracownię Oskara Hansen, edited by Jola Gola, Grzegorz Kowalski, Warszawa: Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts Museum, 2013; and others.

3    This concept is elaborated in the publication Team 10 East. Revisionist Architecture in Real Existing Modernism, edited by Łukasz Stanek, Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2014.



Joan Ockman is a historian of architecture, critic and educator. Her publications on modern and contemporary architecture include Architecture Culture 1943–1968: A Documentary Anthology (1993), The Pragmatist Imagination: Thinking about Things in the Making (2000) and Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America (2012). She has taught at Columbia, Harvard, Cornell, the City University of New York, the Berlage Institute and Cooper Union, and is currently Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. She is completing a book on architecture and the Cold War.



In April 1957, in the new climate of the post-Stalin thaw, the Polish journal Twórczość published a special issue on French culture. Among the contributors was Jean-Paul Sartre. A dozen years earlier, Sartre’s lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism” had been denounced by leading Marxists, from Henri Lefebvre in France to György Lukács in Hungary. At a conference of intellectuals held in Wrocław in 1948, the Soviet ideologue Alexander Fadeev went so far as to call Sartre “a hyena writing on a typewriter.” 1 A postwar philosophical sensation, existentialism was, from the standpoint of communist orthodoxy, a product of the despair and disillusionment engendered by bourgeois individualism.

Humanism and Marxism

By the early 1950s, however, Sartre was the preeminent spokesman of the French Left, having embraced Marxism as the “unsurpassable horizon” of contemporary thought and existentialism as a critical “enclave” within it. His contribution to Twórczość, “Marxism and Existentialism,” reappeared the following fall in his own journal, Les Temps Modernes, as “Questions de méthode.” It argued for the compatibility between existentialism and what he saw as the core of Marx’s philosophy, namely a radical concept of humanism. Three years later, in 1960, he would republish the essay as anextended preface to his magnum opus,Critique de la raison dialectique.2

In “Questions de méthode” Sartre assailed doctrinaire Marxism for its determinism and abstractness, insisting on the need for a deeper psychological analysis and more concrete anthropology. The fatal flaw in the existing understanding of Marxist materialism, in his view, was its lack of a revolutionary theory of subjectivity. “Our intention is not,” he stated in reply to his critics, “to ‘give the irrational its due,’ but, on the contrary, to reduce the part of indetermination and non-knowledge, not to reject Marxism in the name of a third path or of an idealist humanism, but to reconquer man within Marxism.”3

Notwithstanding the divagations of his own intellectual itinerary, Sartre’s humanism—a synthesis of Marx’s early writings, Husserlian phenomenology and Freudian psychoanalysis—responded to a wide European experience. An effort to make sense of the trauma of the Second World War and the looming threats posed by the Cold War and the atomic bomb, it was steeped in the ethos of the recent resistance movements across the continent, in which he had personally played some part, and the sufferings of the wartime occupation and prison camps, which he had also endured. Like his unfinished novel cycle Les Chemins de la liberté [Roads to Freedom], three volumes of which were published between 1945 and 1949, it grappled with the largest philosophical and moral issues of the day: oppression and alienation under both fascism and capitalism, the relationship between political activism and ideological commitment, and freedom as the ultimate aim and responsibility of human existence.

Such concerns could hardly have failed to resonate with a socially and culturally engaged Polish architecture student living in Paris in the late 1940s. Oskar Hansen had joined the Armia Krajowa [Home Army] during the war, his country’s major antifascist resistance movement.4 In 1948 he received a French government scholarship to pursue studies in Paris. To my knowledge he never mentions Sartre in his writings or interviews, and it is not my intent here to suggest any direct influence. Yet the overarching project to “reconquer man within Marxism” was in the air du temps. Although Hansen’s theory of Open Form did not come to fruition until after the diktat of socialist realism was lifted in late 1956, it had its germination in the immediate postwar period and in the intellectual and aesthetic crosscurrents flowing between Poland and Paris. It partook of a view of “man” as a subject who is not merely a cog in a system, but an individual who actively participates in the making of his own history.

Not just in the making of his own history, though, but in the making of his own physical environment: Hansen also shared with Sartre a fundamental belief in the primacy of lived space. For both the philosopher and architect, the possibility of human freedom and self-determination is intrinsically bound up with the openness and availability of the spatial-temporal field in which one is situated. In “Questions de méthode,” Sartre insists that Marxist analysis must go beyond its classic preoccupations with class interests and relations of production to concern itself with the actual sites where human consciousness is shaped: “the milieu of our life, with its institutions, its monuments, its instruments, its cultural ‘infinites’ […], its fetishes, its social temporality and its ‘hodological’ space,” he writes, “this also must be made the object of our study.”

Sartre invokes the notion of hodological space on multiple occasions in his writings of the 1940s and 50s. He derives it, not without qualifications, from Kurt Lewin, a Gestalt psychologist who contributed to founding several new fields of social research in the U.S., including group dynamics and environmental theory.5 Applying “hodological principles,” Lewin used topological representation to describe and diagram the pathways interconnecting individuals with their environment. Like the word “odometer,” the instrument on the dashboard that measures the distance an automobile has traveled, “hodology” comes from the Greek word for path, route or road. As opposed to the objective geometry of Euclidean space, hodological space is fluid, qualitative and subjective. It is the space of embodied consciousness moving through the world, a road map of directions according to which daily life and future projects are mentally plotted and carried out. Elsewhere, in an essay on the painter David Hare, Sartre describes it as “furrowed by paths and currents, contracted or expanded by our actions, colored by our emotions—a space that clings to us like our clothes.”6In the largest sense, hodological space is coextensive with “life, animal and human life as it appears when it undergoes refraction in a human environment.”7

Hansen’s own life work, which he would describe as an “art of environment,” 8 comes close to Sartre’s metaphysics of lived space. Like Sartre, he conceived of the physical environment as a psychogeographic frame of reference both refracting and refracted by its occupants. “It acts on us and we on it,” as Sartre writes. 9 For Hansen this reciprocating relationship became the basis for an original spatial practice, one that ceased to approach architecture as the making of authorially defined and signed objects, but rather as a continuous negotiation between a foreground and what he called an “absorptive background”—a space designed or coordinated by someone visually and technically specialized to do so.10 The relationship between the foreground and the absorptive background could be represented by means of a sculpturesque topological model that Hansen called an “active negative,” an analytical and pedagogical tool intended to register subjective perceptions of the given environment. [FIG.1]

The Context of the Context

Like Sartre’s existentialism, Hansen’s Open Form needs to be understood in a larger context: as a reflection on, and critique of, a specific historical and existential situation. The background against which Hansen’s thought and work developed functioned very literally as an “active negative” (to use this term in a slightly different way from Hansen himself). The Cold War divide between East and West, the bad faith to which it gave rise on both sides, was the antithesis of any idea of openness. For Hansen it obstructed the pathway to an emancipatory life-space. It was imperative to reject binary logic; this meant transcending not only the corrosive materialism of Western capitalism but also the corrupting authoritarianism and bureaucratic mindset of existing communism.

What Hansen ultimately aspired to construct was a “new imaginary”11—a utopian spatial vision of how people could live together peaceably in a society that was collective and egalitarian in organization, ecological in its relationship to nature, and contemporary in form and technology. This radically humanistic aspiration remained exceptional in the culture of postwar architecture for both its missionary sense of conviction and its degree of formal elaboration. By the time he was able to articulate it at the final meeting of the International Congresses for Modern Architecture (CIAM), it had become his preoccupying concern, a litmus test for all spatial production. For the rest of his life, his belief in its revolutionary potential never wavered, even if he was stymied repeatedly in his efforts to realize it at large scale.

Between Poland and Paris

The formative period of Hansen’s architectural development spanned, as already suggested, from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, a decade that saw the imposition and then revocation of the mandate of socialist realism in Poland. It was also bracketed by two CIAM congresses: the seventh at Bergamo in 1949 and the valedictory meeting at Otterlo in 1959. Hansen took part—and for a moment center stage—in each of these events, which gathered the international elite of postwar modern architecture. Although the insurgents of Team 10 would pose a more lethal threat to CIAM than communist culture in the 1950s, the latter not only provoked a confrontational “East–West discussion” at Bergamo but its specter continued to hover over the organization’s activities throughout the decade.12

But let us start at the beginning. The year and a half that Hansen spent in France from late 1948 to early 1950 was crucial to his maturation as an architect and visual artist. Two figures who had major impact on his artistic development were Léger and Picasso. Each at this date embodied the ideal of the heroic, socially committed modern artist. Léger, in whose popular international atelier Hansen enrolled along with his close friend and compatriot Lech Kunka, had long been an outspoken advocate of working-class values and a participant in French communist debates. In 1945, after returning from a wartime sojourn in the U.S., he had formally become a member of the Communist Party. [FIG.2] Picasso, to whose studio Hansen managed to obtain an invitation through his acquaintance with the Polish architect Helena Syrkus, and who thereafter occupied the highest place in his pantheon, had joined the Party one year earlier, in 1944. He was international communism’s leading cultural luminary. In late August 1948, a month before Hansen left for Paris, both Picasso and Léger had traveled to Wrocław to take part in the Soviet-sponsored World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace.13 [FIG.3]

It was Pierre Jeanneret who became Hansen’s mentor in architecture. [FIG.4] Hansen owed his employment in Jeanneret’s office to a recommendation from Jerzy Sołtan, another Polish architect, who was then working in Le Corbusier’s office. Jeanneret had played an unsung role in the French Resistance, and his politics as well as his modest persona distinguished him from his more famous cousin, who had not hesitated to spend a year currying favor with Pétain’s government in Vichy. In the late 1940s, despite their longtime close association and a dearth of work in his own office, Jeanneret preferred to steer clear of the atelier on Rue de Sèvres, which had become crowded with new employees in the ramping up of activity around the commission for the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, one of the emblematic projects of France’s postwar reconstruction program.14 Hansen, who had the opportunity to observe Jeanneret’s relations with Le Corbusier firsthand, could not fail to appreciate the Swiss-French master’s talents, especially after seeing the Marseilles block under construction. [in 1949, FIG.5] Yet his admiration remained tempered. He would later come to view Le Corbusier’s monumental architectural ego as antithetical to the objectives of Open Form.

Among the projects on which Hansen worked while in Jeanneret’s office was a housing scheme for 40,000 inhabitants in the Paris suburb of Puteaux. This introduced him to an issue that would preoccupy him throughout his career: designing for the “great number.” Chosen as one of 29 schemes for presentation at the Bergamo congress in 1949, the Puteaux project was also intended to demonstrate the application of the functionalist principles encoded in the Athens Charter, CIAM’s most important document, through the use of a new graphic system, or grille.15 Hansen’s involvement with Puteaux led to his attendance at Bergamo as Jeanneret’s assistant.

The rolling out of the grille had been touted as the congress’s headline event, but it proved much less contentious than the exchanges that occurred on the fifth day in a session devoted to aesthetics. Chaired by Sigfried Giedion, this was a continuation of discussions that had taken place at CIAM’s previous meeting, held two years earlier in Bridgewater, England, concerning the “synthesis of the arts”—collaborations among painters, sculptors and architects on monumental civic projects—and, more broadly, the stake of the common man, the so-called man in the street, in modern architecture. In his turn in the discussion Le Corbusier declared that it was essential for architects to remain receptive to “tous les choses des Arts plastiques.”16 In response to an earlier speaker’s comments, though, he expressed the view that architects and artists need not be so obsessed with matters of permanence and scale. In the case of mural paintings and sculptures, more important than monumentality was their poetic inspiration and harmonious integration into the overall spatial composition.

It is possible that Le Corbusier also referred to tapestries in his remarks. So Hansen recalled half a century later,17 although the official transcript of the proceedings does not record it. Tapestries had recently become a topic of heated debate in France. Once a proud example of medieval craftmanship, known for their labor-intensive production, tapestry-making had turned into a luxury industry over the last century and often drew on kitsch and inferior imitations of paintings. In this context modern artists like Jean Lurçat were attempting to revive and renovate the field through technical rationalization and a politically engaged workers’ ethos. Le Corbusier, for his part, had mostly been content to benefit from a number of commissions, and the year before had begun translating some of his signature motifs into sketches for Aubusson. The virtue of tapestries, in his view, was the ease with which they could be rolled up and transferred from one wall to another. Like paintings, they satisfied their owners’ abiding desire for art, but by virtue of their large- scale and “nomadic” nature they were destined to become “the ‘Mural’ of modern times.”18

Le Corbusier’s remarks provoked a polemical response from Hansen, who is identified in the transcript simply as a “Polish student.” Although easel painting might still have value as part of an art student’s education, he allowed, architects should not mar the walls of their buildings with conventional forms of decoration. Referring derisively to those dallying with the “renaissance of the French tapestry,” he called for painting and sculpture to be conceived in relation to the specific site where they were to be displayed and to be incorporated into architecture as integral components of a “true creation in space.”19

Hansen’s somewhat disjointed comments, at least as they read in the transcript, echo ideas that Léger, who had been debating Le Corbusier on the subject of mural painting since the early 1920s, had put forward at CIAM’s third meeting in Athens and on numerous other occasions.20 They also anticipate the environmental conception of space that Hansen was to pursue upon his return to Poland in his own artwork and his first exhibition designs. In any event, again according to Hansen’s retrospective recollection, his comments received a loud round of applause from those in the hall, including Le Corbusier himself. They had the further result of earning him an invitation from CIAM’s leadership to attend its first summer school, scheduled to begin two weeks later in London.

By chance, Hansen’s intervention at Bergamo was followed shortly by that of Helena Syrkus. Repudiating the functionalist aesthetics enshrined in the Athens Charter—which she and her husband, Szymon, as two of the leaders of the modern movement in Poland in the 1930s, had had a major hand in formulating—she now engaged in a public act of samokritika [self-criticism], denouncing modernist architecture as a formalistic aesthetic tainted by capitalist ideology. Although revolutionary in its day, Helena Syrkus argued, the preoccupation with the structural skeleton had become fetishistic and should yield to “greater respect for the spirit of the past.” Against a vapid Western internationalism (and also counter to Hitler’s genocidal policies), the Soviet Union was now encouraging the nations in its bloc to give priority to their own culture and history. The reconstruction plan for the new Warsaw was evidence of the success of this approach, she affirmed.21

Syrkus’s statement was, expectedly enough, received badly by most of those the assembled. The modernist guard quickly closed ranks. James Johnson Sweeney, an invited guest who had recently served as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, quoted a letter criticizing abstract art by President Harry S. Truman to show that philistine taste knew no geopolitical boundaries. Later, in his retrospection on the conference, Giedion would express relief that the threat from the East had been contained.22

Hansen’s reaction to Syrkus’s speech can only be guessed. In late August he traveled to England to participate in the last ten days of CIAM’s summer school. At the final review, a housing scheme he designed was singled out as being of “special merit” by an international jury composed of Ernesto Rogers, Cornelis van Eesteren, Maxwell Fry and Robert Furneaux Jordan.23 Rogers sought to persuade him to remain in England and pursue a career there. But in a fateful decision, Hansen made up his mind to go back to Poland after first returning to Paris to complete a housing competition with Jeanneret. Notwithstanding the danger signs in Syrkus’s apology for socialist realism, he seemed to believe—like Jerzy Sołtan, whom he also helped convince to return to Poland at this date24—that work for architects would be plentiful in the reconstruction period ahead. He also felt himself an outsider in England; not only did he not speak the language, but in the increasingly suspicious Cold War atmosphere he had been accused of being a Russian spy.25 Not least, he believed he had a responsibility to contribute to the rebuilding of his homeland. “There were ruins waiting for me,” he later explained.26

The competition in Jeanneret’s office was for a site in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, another Paris suburb. Like Le Corbusier’s commission for the unité in Marseilles, it was sponsored by the French reconstruction ministry and was intended to generate new solutions for prefabricated housing, with particular emphasis on cost, speed of construction and innovative technical and environmental systems. Charlotte Perriand also collaborated on the project. Had it won, it is possible Hansen would have remained in France to contribute to its realization, but it took seventh place.

Inner Emigration

Shortly after Hansen returned to Poland in spring 1950, the Cold War heated up further with the outbreak of the Korean War. Fears of another world war and the potential for atomic catastrophe escalated as each side ratcheted up its rhetoric and maneuvered to consolidate its sphere of influence. Cominform, set up in Moscow in 1947 to coordinate communist parties in satellite countries, expanded its role in the international peace movement, initially launched at the conference of intellectuals in Wrocław, and was instrumental in issuing a call for a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons that became known as the Stockholm Appeal. Though quickly denounced by the U.S. as a ploy to undermine its military superiority, the petition collected 473 million signatures from close to 80 countries by the end of 1950. At a meeting of international architects in Paris, Polish representatives reportedly walked out when they were rebuffed in their demand that the organization endorse the petition.27

Cominform also officially established the World Peace Congress as a platform for staging further conferences on the model of Wrocław. At a conference in Paris in April 1949, a “peace dove” drawn by Picasso made its initial appearance. Another congress, scheduled for late 1950 in Sheffield, England, was effectively blocked by the Attlee government by denying visas to a number of leading figures. This triggered a last-minute shift of venue to Warsaw, where the congress opened in mid November to a massive welcome by the local populace. Picasso’s dove flew again, joined by giant photos of Stalin, Polish president Bolesław Bierut, and French atomic physicist Frédéric Joliot-Curie, who presided.28 In another speech laced with invective, Alexander Fadeev excoriated the U.S. for warmongering in Korea.

This was the dramatic political climate into which Hansen plunged upon his return from the West. President Bierut also announced Poland’s new Six-Year Plan in summer 1950, placing 1,425 major construction projects on the national agenda. “Today, we are building the bright, happy edifice of socialist Poland,” he declared, “based on the granite-like foundations of people’s patriotism and proletarian internationalism, on the unshakable foundations of solidarity and brotherhood with the great Soviet Union.”29

Hansen married his wife Zofia and embarked on two more years of master’s studies at the Warsaw University of Technology under his old professor, Romuald Gutt, while beginning to teach at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, first assisting Sołtan in industrial design and then working with other instructors. He also undertook a few design commissions and took part in several competitions. In 1952, however, just before he was supposed to receive his degree, he ran into trouble over a project he designed with Lechosław Rosiński for the refurbishment of a former cinema on Nowy Świat Street as a temporary city hall. Called before a tribunal of official architects headed by Józef Sigalin, the chief architect of Warsaw, he was charged with violating the aesthetics of socialist realism. The seriousness of the infraction is difficult to grasp from the rather innocent-looking color rendering that survives. [FIG.6] But Hansen had incorporated an ingenious form of structural expressionism into the project, proposing to make visible the unseen static forces acting on the building through stress-vector ideograms inscribed on the interior wall surfaces and a denotative system of polychromy on the ceiling. This unconventional attempt to “bare the device,” as it were, harked back to the experiments of the modernist avant-garde. As a result, he was threatened with expulsion from the profession. He survived the incident, but it marked a low point in his nascent career and initiated a five-year period during which he retreated into his studio and largely withdrew from the public sphere.

Czesław Miłosz writes in The Captive Mind that dissident Polish artists and intellectuals perfected the art of masking their feelings under socialist realism by going through “successive waves of emotion: anger, fear, amazement, distrust, and finally thoughtfulness.”30 Hansen spent the first half of the 1950s painting, sculpting and thinking.31 More than just an escape valve, studio art became an arena in which to work through the large issues, both aesthetic and political, that preoccupied him. Continuing in the Picasso-esque vein he had begun to mine in Paris, his artwork took on an autobiographical dimension, at times inflected with humor, but also expressing a sense of alienation and absurdity. [Self–Portrait, 1953, FIG.7] His paintings frequently possessed a nightmare quality in subject matter and coloration. A painting of 1953 titled Trial under Tin Roof was a reaction to his ordeal with the city hall project. [FIG.8]

But a completely abstract work completed not long after his return from France signaled an important new direction and pointed the way to his future environmentalism. Study of the Directions (1950) consisted of a group of six small spatial compositions painted on wood boards, five of them containing a single asymmetrical stripe on a monochromatic background and one a small square. [FIG.9] Propped up against a dark wall at intervals corresponding in dimension to the elements that were painted, they were about the space around them as much as about themselves. Hansen would later state of this work, “I started dreaming about the painting of silence, of expectation, about the background of processes and questions.”32