Builders of a New World

The modernist architects of interwar Eastern Europe were committed to making architecture an instrument of social transformation.

The Artificial Fertiliser Pavilion, designed by Szymon Syrkus, at the Nationwide Exhibition in Poznań, 1929.

The cohort of architects born around 1900 developed a new idea of what their profession should be like and what its goals should be. Seeing themselves as modernist architects meant not only building in a modern way, that is using the latest technologies, but also radically extending the reach of what architecture should cover – not just society, but also culture and politics. The new architectural aspirations could only develop against the backdrop of changing societal expectations. It is the latter aspect which turns modernist architects into a key group in the seminal changes of the first half of the 20th century in Europe.

The notion that a new holistic approach to building, based on technological progress and new scientific insights, could bring about vast improvement and cure the ills of the 19th century was widely shared. After the First World War this experience was probably more dynamic and this promise more convincing in the region roughly defined as East Central Europe than anywhere else. Here, with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, new states saw the light of the day or, as in the case of Hungary, a state was radically reshaped. All three states were successors to the empires which had crumbled during the war.

Blok, 1925.

Given the situation of extreme economic challenges and political turmoil, these states almost by definition had to take on the challenge of modernization and attempt to harvest the fruits which modernization promised. It was the scope of the East Central European crisis that allowed modernist architects to achieve cultural, political and social relevance. What could be described as the modernist architects’ rise to new relevance was, however, much more than a simple equation of demand and supply, of societal needs and answers as provided by architects. Modernist architects both shouldered expectations of change and shaped them at the same time. 

Modernism goes East

Not much attention has been paid to the fact that the CIAM – the International Congress of Modern Architects, a lobbying organisation best known for bringing together the mercurial Swiss architect Le Corbusier with German modernists in the Weimar Republic, such as the architects teaching at the Bauhaus, and the planners of cities like Frankfurt and Berlin, and which laid the basis for most 20th century town planning through its 1933 (published 1943) ‘Athens Charter’ – was particularly successful in East Central Europe. This was no coincidence. In Poland, architects, as well as other technical experts, depended heavily on the state. Nearly half of the Polish engineers in the interwar period served the state or state-dependent institutions. The qualifications of the graduates of the Warsaw University of Technology’s architecture faculty, as well as their career patterns, reflected the needs of the new state and the imminent opportunities for the much-needed experts. Due to the extreme lack of established experts, the ‘fresh’ graduates progressed quickly, that is at a young age, onto high-ranking positions and duties as the new Polish state embarked  on an ambitious series of urban improvement projects following an initial phase of political and economic consolidation.

Architects were assigned new tasks in the fields of hygiene, health and education in particular, all of which were emphasized by the government as being of central importance. While it is hardly surprising that younger architects were generally more receptive to modernist architecture, the swift advance of the young generation, born between 1891 and 1905, in post-First World War Poland is still striking. Obviously, the fact that this generation did not need to crowd out a strong existing traditional elite contributed to their impressive inroads in the developing building programme. But at least equally important was that they were in command of the latest knowledge and combined state of the art housing technology with a social edge. The emancipation of women was part of the modernizing agenda of the new states. Although the profession remained largely male-dominated, there was a striking number of female architects, in addition to the well-known Helena Syrkus (nee Eliasberg, 1900-1982) and Barbara Brukalska (1899-1980), who both enjoyed impressive careers. 

Blok, 1926.

The example of Helena Syrkus’ life partner Szymon Syrkus (1893–1964), who has been described as “perhaps the foremost exponent of Functionalism anywhere in Eastern Europe” shows the international commitment of this generation. Like most of his colleagues, Syrkus was internationally educated. Between 1912 and 1917 he studied at the technical universities of Vienna, Graz and Riga, as well as the Academy of Fine Arts at Cracow and finally the newly established Warsaw University of Technology, from which he graduated in 1922. Between 1922 and 1924 Syrkus spent periods in Paris and Berlin, with excursions to the German Bauhaus and De Stijl representatives in The Netherlands. He only returned permanently to Poland in 1924, at which point he became crucial to the formation of an avant-garde strand in Polish architecture and played a fundamental role for architects in society.

Generally speaking, modernist architects in Poland expressed the social mission of architecture in a clearer way than their counterparts in the West did. This also reflected the aspirations of architects. Szymon Syrkus, who had studied in Riga during the First World War and was fluent in Russian, referred to the fierce debates in Russia around 1930 and argued that many of the more radical solutions, such as communal kitchens, would also be relevant in the Polish context. Syrkus refrained from imitating the communist programme and from closely copying Soviet examples. Yet, the radicalism of the approaches taken in the East served as a reference for him: “Architecture” he demanded, had to “exert a direct force targeted at the transformation of the ways of life”.  These statements, which Syrkus made in 1930 during the preparation of what came to be known as CIAM IV, a congress on the so-called ‘functional city’, could easily be complemented by other statements by Syrkus and other likeminded Polish architects. The pronounced tendency to stress the social role of architects was also informed by the fact that the state and social organizations as sponsor played such a strong role for architects in the region. This link became even more pronounced due to the global economic crisis of 1929, which led to the almost complete disappearance of private sponsors.

In an early article defining his mission, Szymon Syrkus declared that “architecture changes the social pattern, as the social pattern changes architecture”. In accordance with his companions within the avant-gardist Praesens group, Syrkus explained that “all forms of artistic creation should be subjected to the supreme social role of architecture”. In so doing Syrkus was following a trend that was also current in the Netherlands and Germany. Architecture was seen as the art most oriented to the new technological opportunities, and in its combination of space, sculptural elements and the use of colours architecture promised to merge the different artistic strands. Why did architects find it so easy to appoint themselves to positions of agents of modernization and why were they so successful in convincing wider circles of their point? The topics to which architects related their discipline were anything but marginal. Considerations on the impact of rationalization on society, on implementing a new healthy lifestyle via housing, or on new and efficient forms of constructing the city all formed the very essence of thinking about social change. Themes like the ‘new woman’, the liberating role of sport and leisure, or new ways of bringing up children appeared to be not only the natural domain of architects, they could also easily be connected with each other and to the great questions of the time.

Praesens, 1926.

If many of the Bauhaus architects, particularly Walter Gropius, regarded standardization as the key to solving not only the post-war housing crisis but also easing social tension in general and reconciling society with modernity, this promise was even more convincing in the framework of East Central Europe and especially Poland, with its disastrous housing situation. Indeed, architects like Barbara and Stanisław Brukalski and Helena and Szymon Syrkus were fascinated by what standardization and an industrialized building process seemed to make possible. Syrkus hailed the opportunities offered by completing flats in a manner that resembled the methods Ford used to manufacture cars. Together with his wife Helena he developed a programme, using the capacities of the Polish steel industry, to build 100,000 standardized flats.

Attempts to reorganise modernity mainly targeted the family as the link between society and the individual. Therefore, housing and urbanism turned into the most important fields of action of social engineering. What made architecture so topical in the hyped discussions on applying Fordist models, or achieving an efficient technocracy via rationalization, was not only and not even in the first place the technological dimension which characterized modernist architecture, but rather the very fact that architecture represented a most suggestive interface between new technologies and human beings. While the actual technification of architecture notoriously fell short of what its protagonists hoped for, the conception of new forms of housing offered an opportunity to transform society at its basic level. One of the red threads in Helena Syrkus’ memoirs is her pride in co-operation with sociologists, economists, statisticians, and other experts of social change.

Szymon Syrkus was the founder and a key member of the influential Polish avant-garde group BLOK, which was established in 1924 and was a precursor of the group Praesens, which lasted from 1926 to 1930. BLOK was characterised by intense tensions between artists of more radical, constructivist convictions and those advocating a greater flexibility for artists. It came to an end in 1926. Some of the members joined the new group Praesens, whose founder Szymon Syrkus saw architecture as a key discipline of the new group’s activity: “By way of experiment, the architectonic approach provides new opportunities, not only artistic as it might seem, but also social.” Praesens’ members shared leftist political convictions and many were members of the Polish Socialist Party, which dovetailed with an emphasis on collective work.  Architects like the Syrkus couple, Barbara and Stanisław Brukalski, Bohdan Lachert and Jozef Szanajca focused on projects with a clear social impact. Within only a few years this led to yet another organisational split. While the more artistically oriented members of Praesens formed the group a.r. (artyści rewolucyjni, awangarda rzeczywista, that is revolutionary artists or real avant-garde) in 1929, the modernist architects established a new group programmatically called Praesens kolektyw (collective). The addition of ‘kolektyw’ underlined a new focus on architecture and stressed that the latter had to be conceived and realized collectively through teamwork. By 1930, Praesens had become much more geared to practical issues with the question of housing being a central concern. Of Praesens kolektyw’s 14 members in 1933 a remarkable four were women, mirroring the comparatively much higher number of female architects in the younger echelons of architects in Poland in relation to Western countries.

Praesens, 1930.

The chairman of CIAM, the Swiss historian of art Siegfried Giedion, was impressed by the work of Praesens and the journal of the same name. Szymon Syrkus was able to draw on the Praesens group to form the Polish CIAM group. Apart from minor changes, the group remained intact up to the outbreak of the Second World War. The Syrkus couple delivered several reports to the CIAM and held different positions in the CIAM hierarchy, for example heading the CIAM’s committee on regional planning from 1936 onwards. Szymon Syrkus was one of three members proposed when the CIAM planned to install a core group in order to improve the organisation’s effectiveness.  Helena Syrkus – vice-president of the CIAM after the war – served as interpreter, translator, keeper of the minutes and support for Giedion on several occasions.

Technical questions with social dimensions allowed Syrkus to use the special problems he was dealing with in the Polish context to particularly enhance his international standing. For this purpose, Syrkus also managed to successfully include Polish experts on housing and co-operatives in the CIAM organisation. The CIAM offered a politically open concept, characterised by a radical approach toward planning, with strong leftist leanings. Moreover, the CIAM provided state-of-the-art knowledge in urban planning and social housing – two areas critical to the Polish situation. In directly connecting to the international discussion, the Polish planning-experts could realize – at least on paper – a “great leap into the future”. Conversely, Poland had a lot to offer to the CIAM, providing the potential of political leverage the organisation so badly needed. Warsaw, at least so Syrkus claimed, could become a laboratory where the ideas of the functional city could be tested on a grand scale.

The Collective Glass House

This was first tested in a series of housing estates that Helena and Szymon Syrkus, and Barbara and Stanislaw Brukalski, designed in Warsaw for the housing co-operative WSM (Warsaw Residential Co-Operative), linked to the Polish Socialist Party. From the late 1920s onwards the WSM provided the Praesens architects with the opportunity to build and to experiment with new solutions. The WSM commissioned architects who combined social engagement with socialist ideas and enthusiasm for functionalist architecture. In Żoliborz in Warsaw’s northern suburbs these architects erected a model estate which in many respects set the tone for later projects. Of these the most noteworthy is the workers’ estate in Rakowiec, a western district of Warsaw, planned by Szymon Syrkus and Helena Syrkus. These model projects, built between 1926 and 1939, were also used to test ideas discussed at the CIAM congresses. The WSM ambitions and estates far exceeded providing economic housing. Their social dimension came to the fore in the institution of the Dom Społeczny, a community house combining different services and run by the WSM tenants’ self-help organisation called, significantly, Szklane Domy, the Glass House. The WSM estates integrated numerous reformist institutions in its housing complexes.

An aerial view of the WSM estates in Żoliborz.

This was a response to a profound housing crisis. After the First World War there was a shortage of around 60,000 flats in Warsaw and, according to official statistics, 5 persons tended to share a living space which averaged about 22 square meters. Given the lack of significant private initiative to build low-cost housing the new state tried to fill the void via the Państwowy Fundusz Mieszkaniowy (National Housing Fund, PFM). Established in 1919, the PFM provided credit preferentially to housing co-operatives. A Committee for the Expansion of Warsaw was responsible for handing out the credits. As the WSM lamented however, the impact was limited and the co-operative therefore proposed the establishment of a Social Housing Enterprise, which emerged in the second half of the 1920s. The Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego (National Development Bank, BGK), established in 1924, also worked to remedy the lack in housing. The BGK funded housing directly and via a number of other intermediate institutions from the late 1920s onwards. Of course, what the WSM was finally able to realize remained in the realm of four digit numbers, falling short of the high-flying expectations – and of some of the achievements of social housing in the West. Despite this, the WSM’s achievements were remarkable in comparison to other building efforts in Warsaw and Poland, and also in many Western countries, however. Moreover, the WSM provided a framework for modernist architects to interact with societal actors and politicians. In this framework and building on the facilities established within the WSM Szymon Syrkus was able to develop his programme for industrialised housing for 100,000 units per year. To be achieved within a 5-year plan and through massive state support, such a plan necessarily posed the question of nationalising private property.

The WSM aimed to prove that cheap and convenient dwellings could be achieved through mutual assistance and that “the cultural needs of its [the WSM’s] members” could be met through solidarity. Consequently the workers had to be interested in the question of housing. The whole building process was characterised by an intense interest in the everyday-life of the tenants. As Barbara Brukalska, a member of Praesens and responsible for one of the first constructions in Żoliborz, put it: “To build cities, not on the basis of abstract principles but thinking of the people, the thousands of simple men for whom we have to organise the space in which they live, work and rest and for whom we must conceive an architecture of such objectivity and stability that it can be defined as classical, and so solidly anchored to contemporary reality that it can at the same time be defined modern – this is the duty of our generation.” Brukalska argued that “new lifestyles should be made possible, not imposed” and that the “unnecessary limitation of a prospective resident’s freedom [is] an abuse of the builder’s powers”.

At the Centre of the World

Barbara Brukalska

In a telling observation the architectural historian Andrew Saint hinted at the significance of the zip-pullover the Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer featured on a portrait of 1928, only three years after the zip was invented. One could with equal right refer to a portrait of Barbara Brukalska, showing the architect as a very stylish example of the modern woman and all the features this epitome encapsulated. As design professionals both architects had a clear sense of the communicative aspect of their work, of the message they sent. The same was true of the deliberately informal clothing style which distinguished CIAM congresses. Modernist architects made a point of freeing themselves from the conventions of a bygone time and of giving up traditions which defined the specific fusion of professional calling and the personal way of life. The choice – or calling – to be modern, often had stronger implications and stemmed from stronger motivations in East Central European societies, which often still comprised traditional social structures and were just developing metropolitan scenes, than in the West. Even in the exceptional situation of Szymon Syrkus’ imprisonment in the Auschwitz concentration camp the Syrkus couple recalled the glass-plate of their table at home as a reminder of their shared ideals of modernism. 

The Syrkuses’ aspirations had a concrete basis in the urban developments of the late 19th century. Urban growth in East Central Europe, broadly speaking, set in later than in the West but was then far more dynamic. This relative dynamism becomes particularly apparent when comparing how cities from the region ranked in a list of the 20 largest cities in Europe around 1850 with the situation around 1900. Warsaw and Budapest belonged to the “most impressive winners” in these 50 years. The enormous growth of both cities created challenges of political legitimacy in the urban sphere as well as bringing in planners and architects as potential problem solvers. Yet, this also constituted the framework in which visionary planning could develop. In the late 19th century, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the developer of the Suez Canal, even predicted that Warsaw would become the largest European city in the 20th century “due to the fact that this is the place where East meets West and where the most colossal exchange to be imagined, the exchange between the continents, will take place”.  Warsaw’s position before the First World War as the most westerly big city of the Tsarist empire, and situated in a notoriously unstable province came, however, at a cost. As a fortified city with almost no autonomy the city statutes had prohibited significant and planned enlargements and resulted in massive overcrowding. With more than 100,000 inhabitants per square kilometre in its central districts, Warsaw had the densest population in Europe in the years before the First World War.

Four tables were shown at the CIAM IV congress to illustrate the Warsaw situation. Three tables illustrated the functions of housing, work and recreations, the traffic-system and Warsaw in its region. Unusually, the fourth table illustrated Warsaw’s air pollution, based on data provided by the Public Institute for Hygiene in Warsaw. As Helena Syrkus stated, this was the first recorded measurement of this nature throughout Europe. In collaboration with the architect Jan Chmielewski, Szymon Syrkus would develop this into one of the first truly modernist city-plans, known as Warszawa Funkcjonalna, ‘Functional Warsaw’. Based on the logic of traffic and equipped with the tool-kit of functional city planning, Chmielewski and Syrkus envisioned that the differences between town and countryside would be levelled out through a broad zone branded Warszawa Maksymalna or Wmax, stretching some 100 kilometres north to south and east to west. They developed a new and easy-to-communicate system to depict statistical information, in particular in its dynamics. Warsaw was consequently presented as a city at the intersection of transcontinental traffic lines: “In our conception the scale of the region is interconnected to the scale of central Poland, Europe, and even the world in such a way that on pressing the key Żerań [one of the places in the concept to be developed, M.K.] we hear the echo of Tłuszcz and Żyrardow—Moscow and Paris, and at the same time Modlin, Czersk, Stockholm, and Suez.”

A Map from ‘Functional Warsaw’, 1934.

As a counterweight to the conceived spots of active development, so called “inactive-zones” were to function as an antidote to the negative effects of the metropolis. 120 The authors of Warszawa Funkcjonalna planned urban infrastructure at the intersections of major traffic arteries, which was meant to structure the wild settlements outside the inner city. They placed particular emphasis on establishments for the community. This was regarded as essential for a radical redefinition of the city. Syrkus and Chmielewski admitted that the vision of a functionally organised Warsaw was utopian as long as real estate remained predominantly in private hands. And they admitted that ample attention had to be paid to the prevailing social conditions: “We do not want, like the technocrats, to get carried away by technical enthusiasm in order to forget the crisis, unemployment, and the homelessness of the masses. We know all too well that at this very moment, when production and consumption are in such disorder, and when the path-breaking social forces unfold such a dynamic, we can only theoretically prepare Warsaw for the future, the Functional City.” Interestingly, however, and probably for the sake of the adaptability of the concept, there is no allusion to a specific political system, though the authors displayed a positive view on a “planned economy”. Warszawa Funkcjonalna would gain Polish architects international attention and prestige. Helena Syrkus put considerable effort into having Warszawa Funkcjonalna translated, published and disseminated.

After the death in 1935 of Poland’s dictator Jozef Pilsudski (a former Socialist who took power in a military coup in 1926), the Polish government shifted further to the right. It was now more clearly taking inspiration from Europe’s authoritarian leaders, particularly Mussolini, as they more assertively expressed their political aspirations through architecture. The working conditions, and thus the lives, of the East Central European CIAM members became increasingly influenced by the turning political tide. From around 1937 onwards the Syrkus couple’s correspondence with their CIAM colleagues complaining about a general lack in commissions and of politicians losing interest in modernist designs also began to include worries about the changing political scene as such. Again, the example of Szymon Syrkus is enlightening. Those attributes which contributed to Syrkus’ success on the international scene of architecture now became questionable: his radical embracing of modernist forms, his international connections and internationalist identification and, not least, his leftist sympathies which went beyond housing reform and the improvement of workers’ situations. These attributes ran counter to the rise of “moral nations” in Poland in the late 1930s. Forces which the Syrkuses perceived as reactionary quickly gained political ground. Taking inspiration from the rising fascist states, regarded the tightening international situation as confirmation of the need for nationalist politics at home. Increasing anti-Semitism, and the introduction of anti-Semitic measures as official policies, meant that Szymon Syrkus’ Jewish background began to matter in a way that, from what we know, it never had before 1937.

The Syrkus couple’s correspondence with other CIAM members provides a clear picture of how deeply the changing political and social situations affected their professional and personal lives. In Szymon Syrkus’ letter to Siegfried Giedion of June 1937 Syrkus reflects in detail on where the CIAM, its eastern groups, and the CIAM architects in Poland stood. He came up with a mixed impression. Syrkus presents a success story of increasing co-operation, of linking advanced regional planning in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and praises the qualities of the CIAM as such. More importantly, Syrkus provides a bleak picture of the situation in his home country. Syrkus and Roman Piotrowski, vice-presidents of SARP (the Society of Architects of the Republic of Poland), had lost their positions.  Elections in May 1937 had resulted in a clear victory of the “tightly organized right”, Syrkus explained. The dominance of CIAM ideas in the SARP thus came to an end.  These tensions did not so much reflect stylistic issues, but opposing opinions on the societal role of architects. After the war Roman Piotrowski remembered how those architects from the CIAM Praesens camp who advocated radical social reform quickly lost ground. These architects had advocated a strong state initiative, even state-run planning bureaus during the economic crisis of the early 1930s. 

Helena and Szymon Syrkus at home in 1947.

These general conflicts over the architect as social actor versus the classical private ‘free’ professional now developed an outspokenly political aspect. The respective conflicts emerged over solidarity measures for the republican side in the Spanish civil war. But they became particularly expressed in protest against the increasing and now overt anti-Semitism at the Faculty of Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology. Radical leftist politics also became associated with “alien Jewish Communism” within the SARP. In 1938 the Warsaw branch of the SARP gave itself new statutes which excluded almost all its Jewish members. At least 59 architects had to leave the organisation. In 1939 all Jews were formally expunged from the SARP membership lists. Helena Syrkus reported to the CIAM’s Hans Schmidt in September 1938 that although they had still work, the sponsors were no longer the right ones – that is, only private instead of public financing was available.

Indeed, in January 1939 the Syrkus couple decided that they had to leave their home country. Helena Syrkus reported to the Dutch CIAM architect Cornelius van Eesteren that she and her husband had already known for a long time that they had to leave Poland, but had stayed because they wanted to keep supporting the CIAM cause there. It was now clear to them that this was no longer possible. The government’s decision to exclude Szymon Syrkus from the task of finally realising Warszawa Funkcjonalna was seen as the writing on the wall. In several letters Helena Syrkus urged Walter Gropius, who had emigrated to the USA, to find a way for her and her husband to enter the US by taking some kind of work. The couple prepared CVs, improved their command of the English language and considered different tasks with which they could be of use in the US – all to no avail. Gropius had brought his trusted old Bauhaus colleagues Marcel Breuer and Martin Wagner to the US. The stricter immigration quotas meant, however, that the success rate for East Europeans was much lower than for those from Western Europe. In July 1939, during his last pre-Second World War meeting with CIAM colleagues in Stockholm, Szymon Syrkus learned from the emigre German architect Wilhelm Schutte that the German architect Friedrich Pabst had allegedly already been appointed as town planner for Warsaw, and was to take up his post on 1 October 1939.

Underground Modernism

From the first day of the German attack it was clear that Warsaw – now to be ruled from Cracow – was to be stripped of its role as a Polish capital and a centre of Polish culture. This meant both its destruction as a Polish city, and the extermination of the Jewish population. This began with the unrestrained warfare against the civilian population in 1939, continued with radical measures taken against the Polish elite and against actual and perceived resistance, and included numerous victims of expulsions, resettlements and forced labour, all culminating in Warsaw. Yet even the Nazis had to admit that the city they took over had little in common with the propaganda image of a hopelessly backward and primitive country. Warsaw proved provocative and a challenge to its new occupants in terms of its modern architectural achievements and with regard to its nature as a complex metropolis, and this was reflected by the German administration’s talk of the “Warschauproblem”. The German occupation administration had considerable leeway to tackle this perceived problem. The administration’s action plan reveals the clash of a brutal racist logic and an almost naive modernisation euphoria in extreme form. Allegedly “civilising achievements” in administration, road construction or the regulation of the river Vistula served to legitimise population politics deprived of any normative or moral constraints. 

The Brukalski house in Żoliborz

Warsaw became the “most agonising spot in the whole of terrorized Europe”, in the words of the Polish writer and Nobel prize-winner Czesław Miłosz. For the Polish architects and planners who survived the German invasion, German politics vis-a-vis Warsaw posed two big challenges beside personal hardship. They had to remodel their plans in the light of the new urban realities of the three waves of destruction in 1939 (when the city was Blitzed by the Luftwaffe), 1943 (when in the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising, the area of the city housing the Ghetto was razed to the ground) and 1944 (when in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising the rest of the city was almost completely destroyed). Moreover, their housing settlements, realized or planned, had to be reconsidered in the light of the war experiences and the German assault on the urban community as a social fabric. The establishment of the ghetto along with the wider Holocaust, measures against Polish resistance, resettlements, forced labour and the first steps towards building or establishing German quarters, though all different in character and scope, must all be seen as attempts to destroy the local population. Both challenges informed – and thus to a certain degree also caused – the work of Pracownia Architektoniczno-Urbanistyczna (PAU). This architectural-urbanistic workshop was established in 1940 as an underground group of a remarkable range of modernist architects and urbanists. At the height of its activity PAU comprised more than 80 active members. Helena Syrkus later noted one of the main points which typified PAU as its interdisciplinary composition. The organisation comprised economists, sociologists, and psychologists, as well as architects.

The main lines of German policy served as a negative foil to PAU, while the main achievements of modernist, CIAM-associated architects before the war formed their major point of departure. These were in particular the housing estates realized within the framework of the WSM, and the plans for Warsaw as a Functional City. The circumstances under which PAU acted are hard to imagine as they reflected the extremely harsh conditions of German occupation policy. Helena Syrkus’ memoirs contain large sections devoted to her PAU experience. She fought right into the 1970s to have the group’s achievements presented in the right light. For her, a central point was the group spirit and group cohesion that characterized PAU.  The main beliefs of the pre-war period – improving workers’ situations by applying scientifically based insights to building better communities, placing oneself in a wider international strand of thoughts, and social engagement – also informed, within the limits dictated by the new reality, the activity of this group during the war. For evident reasons international communication ceased. But PAU had still access to international literature, as Syrkus importantly stressed. But PAU could not deliver concrete projects. Building activity in Warsaw almost came to a complete stop during the war and even the most urgent remedial works often did not get done. For this reason discussing questions of modern town planning, continuing urbanist projects started before the war, and developing schemes for future urban life took a central place in PAU activity. Helena Syrkus fittingly likened the workshop to Thomas More’s island Utopia.

WSM Rakowiec, designed by Helena and Szymon Syrkus

Collaborative work was key within PAU in the tradition of both the CIAM and Praesens. But building communities was also intended as a survival strategy and a blueprint for the future post-war society. The settlements which PAU planned during the war were designed so as to facilitate interaction among its inhabitants. The experience of war led to a radicalisation of the underlying ideas. Just before he was imprisoned by the Germans in the Auschwitz concentration camp, Szymon Syrkus had stated in a paper given in September 1942 that “Our goal is building, but not the erection of a few buildings, but the establishment of a new material and spiritual environment according to plan under new economic, social, demographic and physiocratic conditions.’ The ideal PAU housing estate was termed an ‘osiedle społeczne (social housing estate) and was to encircle a primary school. Each of these estate units was made up of a number of ‘kolonia, smaller colonies grouped around a kindergarten. The scheme was strikingly extensive in scope, both spatially and temporally. The projects were only meant to serve as the initial steps towards and examples of a future with numerous estates, each intended to house some 11,000 inhabitants. In the long run – four phases were specified up to the year 1975 – not only were the northern districts of Warsaw and their vast empty spaces to be transformed but, in fact, the entire city and eventually the whole region was to be changed. In the centre of each estate were ‘współżycie zbiorowe, areas where communal activities could take place. Each housing estate was meant to function like an organism. Syrkus and others formulated a theory behind social housing estates in 1942 which was secretly published under the title: Communal Service – an aid to creating a sense of community in housing estates, taking into account the experience and statistical data collected so far. The community structure was thus not seen as something to be added to an already extant estate but rather conceived as a “skeleton structure” of each colony, underlining a rather organic perception of architecture. In Helena Syrkus’ eyes the new housing estates were to perform a defining role in its inhabitants’ lives: “The employment place should not serve as the only formative agency, rather the part of daily life spent in one’s home should contribute, through a network of communal institutions, to building new forms of communal living and culture.”

For Szymon Syrkus, spiritus rector of PAU, 20 October 1942 brought a harsh but still tolerable period of the war to an end. On this day Syrkus was picked up by the Gestapo at the PAU premises, whilst surreptitiously working on the reconstruction of Warsaw. Jan Olaf Chmielewski, Syrkus’ partner and co-author of the plans for a Functional Warsaw, was imprisoned at the same time. Syrkus was transferred to Auschwitz, but luckily, he was not imprisoned as a Jew. Syrkus’ second stroke of luck was becoming employed as a draftsman in the central building division of the Waffen-SS at Auschwitz. By dint of the extraordinary shortage of architects in Germany, Syrkus’ expertise became an extremely valuable asset. Within the cruel cosmos of Auschwitz, Syrkus’ ‘privileged’ position also allowed him to exchange letters with his wife Helena, who was still in Warsaw. These censored and strictly limited letters reveal how Syrkus stuck to and even deepened his personal vision of modernism under extreme circumstances.

WSM Żoliborz, designed by Barbara and Stanisław Brukalski.

The majority of the letters comprise architectural and urbanism questions, which may at first glance seem quite astonishing. In his first letter, of 17 January 1943, Syrkus asked his wife to continue the work which had thus far defined their lives. Syrkus repeatedly refers to their shared convictions. These, according to him, were defined by their belief in architecture’s social mission and their desire to continue learning and developing their professional personae, particularly with regard to their work with the CIAM. References to their collective forms of working also appear frequently. Against all the odds Syrkus tried to make sense of his experience in the camp. In a letter of May 1943 he reflected on the post-war urbanist future which lay ahead, the work awaiting the Syrkus couple: “Die Zeit ist gros” (We live in momentous times). At the end of the year Syrkus wrote to his wife that “I am not tired of life, having survived this year. Leaving the ivory tower has served a purpose”. He asked his wife to read as much as she could on architectural matters. A shortage of accommodation for the poor would arise after the war and PAU architects would be ideally placed to build the needed flats cheaply in an industrial way according to new insights and knowledge. Syrkus was convinced that enormous new opportunities would follow the long period of waiting for a chance to begin building on a massive scale. Syrkus’ plans became more concrete as the war entered its last phase in the summer of 1944. That June he wrote: “during all this time that I was not working on  the minimum flat I kept on thinking about this problem”. The break, Syrkus argued, had led him to better understand the character of his work and the specific way his wife and he himself solved problems.

It is astonishing that at the end of the war the Syrkus couple immediately began thinking of how to rebuild the CIAM. This urgency must be understood against the background of the gravity of the situation in post-catastrophic Warsaw. The Syrkus couple believed that the CIAM’s input was necessary for the grand solutions that an urban catastrophe of unprecedented scale required. Viewing Warsaw as a post-catastrophic city helps to link the devastation suffered there with the general social and political problems of East Central Europe. Many cities in Eastern Europe, albeit in most cases less dramatically than Warsaw, had been the victim of wartime destruction through the frequent movement of the frontline. Generally speaking, cities like Warsaw, Kyiv or Minsk suffered much more from the Holocaust and measures targeting specific social groups and minorities than cities in Western Europe. Urban destruction and eradication of entire societies thus went hand in hand, with Warsaw serving as a particularly dramatic example of an intentional “urbicide”. As a consequence, far-reaching measures of urban renewal were required.

Modernists Divided

Koło, designed by Helena Syrkus during the war and built in 1947.

Warsaw during the uprising of 1944 was – apart from Stalingrad – the most significant example of a city turned into a battlefield. The brutal crushing of the 1944 uprising by the Wehrmacht and SS not only caused at least 150,000 military and civil casualties on the Polish side. The ruthless tearing down of Warsaw’s urban structure, with a focus on places of memory – such as archives and libraries – was inflicted on the city in the aftermath of the uprising. After the war, WSM resumed its activity, and a new Bureau of Reconstruction (BOS), led by CIAM architects like Jan Chmielewski and the Syrkuses, was set up to co-ordinate activity – though best known for the meticulous reconstruction of the old town, BOS initially tried to develop the city along modernist lines. First, new housing estates with a strong social and community focus, following the lines developed within PAU and the WSM before and during the war, emerged. The most impressive example was the Koło housing project, designed by Helena Syrkus during the war and realized by Helena and Szymon Syrkus between 1947 and 1950. For the first time architects were now able to use the prefabricated building methods they had developed before the war. To the Syrkus couple, as well as to Stanisław and Barbara Brukalski, it seemed like a direct line of continuity between the avant-garde of the interwar-period and the promises of socialism could be established. Second, the urbanist schemes governing reconstruction were also directly continuous with the Warszawa Funkcjonalna concept. A number of planners had continued developing the planning for a Functional Warsaw, adding the details which were lacking in the original concept, and going to great lengths to consider the social implications of the planning during the war. These plans highlighted the even greater need for regional planning than before the war, with the loosely structured city as a model.

Installed by the Red Army’s liberation of Poland in 1944-45 and its imposition of rigged elections in 1946, the new Polish Communist regime did not initially prescribe a particular architectural style; Helena Syrkus joined the ruling Polish Workers Party in 1944. But in 1948, as the Cold War intensified, and architects were made to choose between their political and architectural loyalties. The consolidated communist regime could be seen as pushing the informal alliance of the modernising state of the 1930s to the limit – and breaking it by establishing a clear prerogative for the political side. The latter became fully evident when architects were forced to convert to the new dogma of Socialist Realism. Conversion to this new style of artistic expression was not something that could be gradually achieved. Architects had to make it clear, often publicly, that they understood what a new era expected of them. Socialist Realism, which had already been forcibly introduced in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, was to underline that state’s leading role. Communist leaders in Poland also deemed this new style of building necessary to win the hearts and minds of the workers who might otherwise find the sober charm of modernist buildings alien. Socialist Realism also allowed for a ‘national style’ of building – whatever this might really mean.

The introduction of Socialist Realism did not necessarily end the potential careers of the protagonists of interwar modernism during the window of opportunity which closed in 1948. It did, however, form a deep caesura for these careers. The Bureau of Reconstruction was integrated into the newly established central planning bodies, while the WSM ceased to exist as such. The compromises modernist architects had to make were considerable – in terms of style and also, eventually, with regard to the international networks which were part of the very logic of interwar modernism. With interwar modernism being discredited as cosmopolitan, international contacts as such became suspicious – and most often simply curtailed. Though a convinced socialist himself since long before the Second World War, Szymon Syrkus was increasingly looked at with suspicion due to his international contacts and his identification with pre-war modernism. Syrkus lost his position in BOS and moved to a chair at the Warsaw University of Technology in 1949 – which he lost again in 1951. Helena and Szymon Syrkus regarded social progress and modernist architecture as two sides of the same coin, which for them meant the embracing of socialism even if this meant the sacrifice of old personal bonds. A striking, albeit still unexplained example of this is the kidnapping of the US architect Hermann Field after visiting the Rakowiec estate with the Syrkus couple in 1949. The Polish security service had been informed by Helena Syrkus of Field’s arrival, though it is unclear whether she had warning of the kidnapping.

Between 1944 and 1948, however, contacts continued, and the Syrkuses re-established and expanded their international networks. The USA was a most important source of feedback. The couple were involved in the planning and design of the touring exhibition Warsaw Accuses, which focused on the Nazi destruction of the city and the plans for reconstruction. The exhibition provided Helena and Szymon Syrkus with the opportunity to tour the US for six months in 1946 – and briefly the United Kingdom. Whilst in the US, they met again with old brothers-in-arms such as Walter Gropius. In the US the Syrkus couple also met the sociologist David Riesman, who later became famous for his book The Lonely Crowd. Riesman had already been deeply interested in how communities functioned – and the role urbanism and architecture could play herein – in the 1940s. Riesman saw the plans for a new Warsaw as an exemplary answer to the extreme challenges of post-war reconstruction: “a bold contemporary plan which is now being put into effect, the new plan for the community of Warsaw.” Riesman stressed that it was only because of the occupation and destruction of Warsaw that architects were beginning to collaborate with psychologists, social workers, economists and other specialists to plan a socially-conceived city and thus a new kind of metropolis. With the Syrkus couple in mind, David Riesman regarded architects as the key figures of the time. Architects, according to Riesman, were the true visionaries, not least due to the fact that they had been condemned to inaction during the war: “One small group in our society, the architectural fraternity, has continued to produce and to stimulate thinking in the utopian tradition – thinking which at its best combines respect for material fact with ability, even enthusiasm, for transcending the given.”

By March 1949, however. Gropius wrote that communication with “those behind the Iron Curtain” was becoming increasingly difficult. In a 1946 manifesto, Helena and Szymon Syrkus, along with the German modernist Hans Schmidt and the Dutch architect Mart Stam, had demanded to extend CIAM’s scope, reflected also in a new name, “International Congresses for Social Architecture & Town Planning”. Restraining private property of the land was equally on the agenda as “a planned economy directed by the democratic organizations of that society”. But what had, beyond all divides, characterized the pre-war CIAM, namely shared language, formulation of problems and general agreement on desirable solutions, was now much more difficult to establish. At the seventh CIAM congress 1949 in Bergamo, the fracturing could no longer be contained. In a well-known declaration, Helena Syrkus, then vice president of the CIAM, stated that the demands of the Charter of Athens had been fully implemented in Warsaw. Now it was about setting the next logical step, which to her meant to proceed to Socialist Realism. It would only be possible to defend and preserve international culture through the defence and preservation of national culture under Soviet guidance.

The CIAM was dissolved in the late 1950s. This eventually led to an interest in that organization’s history in the 1970s. Martin Steinmann, who established the CIAM archive at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, got in touch with Helena Syrkus in 1970. Following an extensive taped interview Steinmann and Syrkus began corresponding. Steinmann was determined to get the facts right and Syrkus wanted to give her perspective on what she expected would become the official record of everything she believed in. For obvious reasons Syrkus initially had refused to speak German in the interview, answering questions in French, although she often fell back into the language she had used during most of her CIAM involvement, and in which her memories survived. In 1974 Helena Syrkus re-initiated an intense correspondence with Zurich-based CIAM veteran Alfred Roth. With a nod to nostalgia, Helena Syrkus signed these letters with a lipstick-painted heart, as she had done in the 1930s. Her idealized picture of the essence of the CIAM comprised, in the main, the extremely intense personal bonds between members. CIAM was to be understood as “Congres Internationaux d’Admiration Mutuelle”. This deep feeling of belonging also coloured other characteristics which Syrkus highlights in her exchanges with Steinmann and Roth, particularly the intense identification with modernism and internationalism.

These themes subsequently reappear in Helena Syrkus’ correspondence with Hans Maria Wingler, founder of the Bauhaus Archive. Helena Syrkus took part in the founding ceremony for the new archive building in West Berlin in May 1976, and donated different objects to the archive over the ensuing years. Helena Syrkus was still acting as a broker of modernity, and in this was a typical representative of her cohort of modernist architects and of how modernism was a life-time project to them.  Helena Syrkus’ 1976 invitation to West Berlin, and more to follow, as well as exhibitions devoted to other protagonists of the mission she identified with so strongly, offered a certain consolation to her in the face of the rise of Postmodernism in the 1970s and early 1980s, which she found hard to swallow. Despite the passage of time and her formerly sharp tone mellowed by age, she remained undeterred as regards a central assumption of her generation’s quest. One year before she – as one of the last of the core group of the CIAM – died in November 1982 – Helena Syrkus wrote to Alfred Roth “Le peuple donnera les forces a ses architects”. The people will give strength to their architects.