Post-Carbon Loft

The story of the conversion of a lamp-room into a loft, surrounded by what used to be some of Poland's richest coal mines.

This article was originally published in the special supplement Green Energy that accompanies Domus 950/September 2011

The Polish architect Przemyslaw Lukasik and his family elected to live in one of the abandoned buildings of the defunct Bolko mine in Bytom, a city in Upper Silesia in southern Poland. For centuries, the area was known for its coal mines and steelworks. Today, many have been decommissioned, but some continue to function. Just 20 years ago, trains would slow to minimum speed when crossing through here. Looking out the windows, all was dismally grey and covered in black soot, from the facades of the buildings to the faces of the miners and passers-by. Silesia is changing. It's becoming an interesting place for its architecture and ecological awareness.

Dorota Koziara What made an architect who returned to Poland after years of living in Paris want to live precisely here?
Przemyslaw Lukasik
We were living in a two-room apartment in a so-called "block" when we had a baby. I had just returned from Paris, where I had studied and worked, with Jean Nouvel among others. Bytom is the right place for me. Now there is a group of people who work in completely different fields, but see Bytom's potential. We are attempting to get the project "Made in Bytom" off the ground. We want to show the close link between the two organisms of culture and industry, as well as the interaction between them. We want to touch upon all the things that surround industrial culture. At Bytom, there were five mines that have been closed.

Are any of the mines still open?
Yes, one, which has a coal extraction permit until the end of 2040. As a child, when I walked to the elementary school or rode my bicycle, I passed by these mines. Outside, there was a large sign that read, "No Photographs Allowed". Those were the days of communism. I would go all around the compound wall, and didn't know what went on inside. Miners coming out with some kind of powder on their lashes. All my friends were sons and daughters of miners. When we played ball and parts of buildings would cave in and chimneys fell off roofs, they ran home because they were afraid for their fathers, who were working underground there. I feel that kind of situation to be close to me, so the way I see Silesia is a bit different.
Coloured glass separates
the living room, kitchen and
TV room to appealing effect.
Coloured glass separates the living room, kitchen and TV room to appealing effect.
You have known this city since you were a child, even if Bytom was completely different then. How do you see it today? What are your childhood memories of the place where you live now?
I remember everything and that's why my opinion of this city is not totally objective. Even if I try to keep it as neutral as possible, it probably never will be. The decision to return to Poland from Paris, where I worked in offices that many people wanted to work for, was a very conscious one.
Starting your own business means taking full responsibility for what you do. As you can see, we did not return to Warsaw from Paris, where the market is very dynamic. So far, we haven't even opened an office in Warsaw. We work very locally here. When we came back, we did not choose to live in Gliwice—which is more beautiful and also Silesian and also more organized with universities, students, clubs and restaurants—instead of in my Bytom. This is not the decision of some mega-patriot—absolutely not—even if I am one. It was, rather, a much more unconscious and emotional reaction; but I don't mean to say that I will never leave. I love this city…declarations don't hold interest for me.

What function did this building used to have?
It was the lamp room. Right where the kitchen now stands there were shelves for the lanterns. The miners exited this building through a corridor that led to the mineshaft; they entered here after having donned their work clothing. Each took a lantern and left a metal pit tally engraved with his personal number. The numbers here went from 1 to 2,000, because there were 2,000 miners. When a miner came back up, he put the lamp back and retrieved his tally. A hanging lamp meant the miner had come back up. Here, we are perched up at 8.5 metres above ground level thanks to a rationalisation of one of the engineers, who wanted to facilitate traffic circulation. The miners did not have to go down the stairs first, then go up to the shaft to be shuttled down to the bottom of the mine pit. This way, they were protected from the weather and had safe access to the shaft, which went 60 metres underground.
The decision to make it our house was purely coincidental. One day I came to this neighbourhood, to that storage building you can see from the window, looking for material for a model. Only then did I notice this building. I had never taken it into consideration before. I took an opportunity that was paradoxical, because the building stands 8.5 metres above the ground, which is spectacular and problematic at the same time. The fact that it no longer had an access, the indispensable staircase, made it accessible to my pocket. The stairs we have now were salvaged from another structure. I didn't even have to design them; it was pure reuse. Due to the fact that there was no access, the owner had wanted to demolish it. At the moment of sale, he told me he had permission to blow it up with dynamite, seeing as it was all reinforced concrete. To him, it was a problem, because who in the world would want to live in such a place? When I went to the town hall and said I wanted to convert it into a house, all the clerks thought I was mad. But now they're putting it on the Bytom city calendar.
Graphic art plays an
important role, here
indicating the Bolko bathroom.
Graphic art plays an important role, here indicating the Bolko bathroom.
Looking at this place from the tram, did it ever occur to you that one day you would live here?
Passing by the various mines, I looked at the different shafts without the slightest premonition that this would one day be my home. The spark was triggered when I was looking for a simple piece of sheet metal. I took a chance, that was also a paradox, because the building is 8.5 meters above the ground, something that is both spectacular and problematic. That the building did not have any access at the time, that it no longer had the necessary stairs, made it accessible...to my pocketbook. The stairs that are there now were recovered from another building. I did not even design them; it was is pure recycling. Because there was no access, the owner wanted to demolish it. At the time of the sale, he said he had the permit to demolish it with dynamite because it was built totally in reinforced concrete. It was a problem for him. Who would ever want to live in a building like that? When I arrived in town and said I wanted to reuse the building for housing, the city employees thought I was mad. But today it is included in the Bytom city agenda.

This house has very solid foundations and you mentioned that underneath...
Hearing the miners' stories, it appears that there is an underground shelter but I haven't found it yet. But I will. Work on this building is always in progress. I've lived here for a long time now but I am always making some transformation. I love the changes.
I don't want to promote only my way of seeing things. That would be dangerous. To move my home and my practice here is an attempt to show that things can be done differently.
The postindustrial spirit
lives on in the kitchen.
The postindustrial spirit lives on in the kitchen.
You kept many original elements.
We kept all that we could, because it was essential to me. A sugar-coated version of this loft where traces of the past have been erased would be absurd to me.

Before, you mentioned communications and how important it is. Rarely is this done in the home but I see many elements of visual communications and graphic design in your loft.
I'm fascinated by this aspect because, of course, I'm an architect, but I have always been interested in everything that happens around architecture, so graphics as well. I tried to hang paintings or photographs here but in the end we just limited ourselves to informational graphics for interiors.
What you see here are paraphrases of old slogans used in the People's Republic, such as "Be careful in your work", "Bolko is always with the party." It is my graphic interpretation, of course. But there are also direct way-finding indications like for those looking for the bathroom, for example, go to 3.
Przemyslaw Lukasik and Dorota Koziara during the interview.
Przemyslaw Lukasik and Dorota Koziara during the interview.
Upper Silesia is now in a phase of dynamic development, but much is yet to be done. What is on the rehabilitation programme for this part of Poland?
I am currently working on a large project for the centre of Bytom. The project is one fragment of the renewal project for the city of Bytom and we are collaborating with the French artist Jean-Paul Ganem, who does land art. He will be working with the ecologist Pierre Lussier. He and Ganem are behind the Jour de la Terre (Earth Day) in Montreal. After the first series of agreements had been made, we were joined by the New York-based practice Diller Scofidio.

These projects not only regard Bytom, right? You said that you looked at various sites...
There are many sites and situations that need revitalization and rehabilitation. In addition to areas that are significant from the point of view of the city or the neighborhood, there are, in fact, individual buildings like this one which cannot be defined as objects of revitalization. Here, rather, the rehabilitation of these buildings is only a drop in the bucket, but it can change the look of the surrounding context.
The
minimal
bathroom.
From the
window
the original
mine tree is
visible.
The minimal bathroom. From the window the original mine tree is visible.
From this height you have everything under control...
I have everything under control but it's a philosophy of life, and because I live here with my family, it must be a philosophy accepted by the rest of the family. The children play, their friends come to visit them. The drawing I showed you is probably a little different from what the other kindergarten kids draw or what I drew when I went to nursery school. I probably drew the same houses that the rest of my companions did: a gabled house with a fireplace and a hedge around it. Here there is a slight change. But it is a philosophy and for it to work, it must be assimilated and understood; it must become familiar. I think living in a loft is not right for everyone and this is something that not all real estate developers understand.
It's difficult to do experiments with clients; we try to experiment—not with clients but with architecture and space. And it's difficult to experiment, or to persuade the investor to experiment, if you haven't tested it on yourself. I did a test like that on myself with this house, but I had already launched it before with my office.
We are dealing with peoples' budgets no matter how large or small. Even a single-family house requires considerable sums of money that have been saved for years or borrowed and, if only for this reason, we must be honest with these people. We cannot create fairy tales that they do not understand. This is a matter of common sense. The situation is different for large sums of capital, or big companies that are obviously driven by other motives, but we also need to talk honestly with them. Our profession requires a kind of responsibility that is also expressed in being authentic and communicative, otherwise the project won't work.

To return to communications, you have a great website and you present yourselves with great effectiveness.
I believe that in both private life and at work, you have to have a bit of a sense of humor. I consider the best result achieved by our office to be first and foremost the relationships with our employees. I do not say they work for me but that they collaborate with me. This is not a situation of a master and his or her disciples, but collaborators. And so for this reason, in the office name, the word Medusa is followed by Group and this is not casual. It was together a subconscious and conscious way of defining ourselves.
The most important thing is that going to work should not only be associated with stress, routine and boredom. At least that's what I want.
The loft was formerly the
mine’s lamp-room and stood
more than eight metres above
ground to give workers direct
access to the shaft after
collecting their lamps.
The loft was formerly the mine’s lamp-room and stood more than eight metres above ground to give workers direct access to the shaft after collecting their lamps.
As an architect, what direction do you think the redevelopment work in this area should take?
I don't want to promote only my way of seeing things. That would be dangerous. To move my home and my practice here is an attempt to show that things can be done differently. Instead of building something new, you can pick a place that already exists, abandoned or derelict, and you can transform and inhabit it. This is a process that here was unthinkable and refused until not too long ago. Most of the people here assert that the best thing to do is demolish everything, while we think the opposite, that this is our culture and theirs. I am certain that architects and urban planners will not change it all by themselves. Teamwork is needed, disciplined and organised in different fields, and that's a slow process.
Dorota Koziara, architect

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