Christian Kerez bids farewell to Warsaw

The turbulent history of the Museum of Modern Art's project — discarded as garbage after six years of work — discredits Poland in the eyes of the world, and discourages foreign architects from working in the country.

 

Op-ed / Marcin Szczelina

Warsaw's city center, in the vicinity of the Palace of Culture and Science, has remained unchanged for the last 20 years. No particular authority was ever able to develop this great gap in the city's urban system. So far, only the plans concerning the construction of the city's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) have brought a slight hope that the space surrounding this Communist monstrosity could be revitalized. The MoMA was supposed to be the first building standing in opposition to the overwhelming torpor of the seemingly dead heart of Poland. Unfortunately, the turbulent history of the museum's building and design has shown how contemporary art and architects themselves are treated in Poland.

The first invitation for offers regarding MoMA's design was canceled in 2006. The terms of the general competition were poorly and oddly constructed, preventing foreign architects from competing, resulting in that projects by contemporary architects such as Zaha Hadid or Pritzker Prize-laureate Richard Meier landed in the trash. Following such global-scale discredit, some of the judges resigned from the competition. A new invitation for offers was announced, which was to bring forth desired effects. In result of a long, exhausting, and controversial session, the jury selected the design created by Swiss architect Christian Kerez, who also designed the Museum of Art in Vaduz. However, the minimalist design has not appealed to current head of the MoMA Tadeusz Zieleniewicz, who called on city authorities to dismiss the design, since, in his opinion, the future building would not become a new icon of Warsaw, hence, not replicating the "Bilbao effect" — where the image of a neglected Spanish city was completely changed by the construction of the spectacular Guggenheim Museum.

For the first time in post-communist Poland, the media engaged in a discussion concerning contemporary architecture. And as it turned out, a typical Pole not only had knowledge of football and politics, but also vast expertise in the field of architecture! What Warsaw residents expected from the authorities was the construction, next to Stalin's abhorred "gift" constructed according to the principles of social realism, of a new icon — a symbol of modern Poland. Unfortunately, though outstanding, Kerez' design stood in opposition to the expectations of the general public. A strong voice in the media called for other concepts, "observing our aspirations", and nicknamed Kerez's design a "market", ridiculing its restrained and minimalist form. However, the governing Minister of Culture Kazimierz M. Ujazdowski and the President of Warsaw Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz recognized the Swiss architect's design as the winner of the competition. In protest against this decision, Zieleniewicz resigned from managing the museum, and the city appointed Joanna Mytkowska as its new director. The MoMA transferred to a temporary residence in Panska Street, in the rear part of the Emilia furniture salon, offering a rich and interesting cultural program as well as an impressive selection of exhibitions. In 2008, President Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz entered into contract with the architect.

Since then, problems with the realization of Kerez's design have multiplied. In 2009, the city forced the architect to alter the spatial arrangement within the building, leaving space for the future offices of TR Warszawa. In result, the architect was required to change the entire concept of interiors, and, finally, to re-design the entire building. Construction of the building was postponed. In 2010, Kerez received a financial penalty (approximately €145,000) for delays in submitting proper design documentation. Furthermore, the city changed the land development plan for the Plac Defilad ["Parade square"]. In 2011, the authorities announced that the construction of the MoMA would commence only after the link between Swietokrzyska and Centrum metro stations was finished. In the summer of 2011, the Court of Warsaw received several claims to the plots dedicated to the future museum building. The claims concerned nearly 800 square metres. As it turned out, the city had never settled the ownership rights to this ground.

In a letter dated 25 April, 2011 issued to the President of Warsaw, Kerez warned that should the city have not reassumed their works on the project, he would withdraw from the contract, at the fault of the city. Two days later, the Capital City Development Authority sent a letter to the architect, terminating the contract and imposing a 1,2 million euro penalty on the architect. On 30 April, the city filed a suit against the architect, claiming the reimbursement of contractual penalties imposed in the past, and claiming additional penalty for being forced to terminate the contract. This was 1,7 million euro, in total. Moreover, the city also wants to recover the 2,1 million euro it spent for the design documentation prepared by the architect. Scandalizing as it is, such attitude discredits our country in the world and successfully discourages architects from abroad from working in Poland. Kerez's design was discarded as garbage, and six years were wasted! The the occupation of the former Emilia furniture salon as the temporary residence of the MoMA offers little consolement.

There is only one comment to this entire situation — shame and disgrace. Warsaw will still scare its visitors with the vast emptiness surrounding the Palace of Culture. It will still be one of the few European capital cities without a real Museum of Modern Art. Is Warsaw really a city of losers? Not at all. We were able to organize 2012 European Championships in the city, we were able to build a gigantic and impressive National Stadium in a short period of time, but why are we not able to erect the building of the Museum of Modern Art? Is the Plac Defilad square cursed in any way? Not at all. What lacked in this case was the political will to build the museum. Not only did the authorities delay its construction, but also treated Kerez's design like a hot potato. The city prefers to cater to football fans — there are thousands of those — than to contemporary art enthusiasts. Vox populi, vox Dei.

Who will cry when Kerez is gone? Advocates of the art, curators, artists, and those who visit the temporary residence of the MoMA from time to time. The city has been signaling the announcement of the third invitation for offers regarding the museum's design. Unfortunately, there is a chance that this competition will be boycotted by the best architects, in fear of struggling with the city, even in court. As every Polish makeshift, the temporary residence of the museum will not last forever. We can only regret that such "anti-icon", a building not suitable for our taste and trends passed right under our noses. Well, if we haven't grown up to appreciate contemporary art, we surely wouldn't appreciate Kerez's avant-garde architecture. As a country, we are still trying to get ourselves established in the world, thus we take pride in building new stadiums, opening a full highway connection of our capital city with the world. Maybe once we satisfy our primary needs, we will be able to think of art again. Perhaps in the next 20 years. Marcin Szczelina (@archicooking)