The Auditorium in a coma

> Kuba Żary


The subject of this year’s edition of survival was surprising in the context of its modernist venue. However, it turned out to be the perfect catalyst for the years-long discussion about the future of the Chemistry Auditorium, which could become deeper, more nuanced and multilayered.

The Chemistry Auditorium of the University of Wrocław provided a paradoxical background for this year’s presentation of artworks. It was immediately apparent that the eponymous stratification – the motto of the 15th edition, understood as an accumulation of traces left by actions that functionally or aesthetically transform a building – barely left a mark on the Auditorium. With a bit of goodwill, the visit to the Auditorium triggered associations with Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. What appeared after removing a thick layer of dust was an untouched modernist spatial layout, unostentatious interior décor and precisely embedded, custommade equipment. While the aforementioned icons of architecture retain their original state thanks to very intentional conservation or even reconstruction efforts, the survival of the pavilion on the Odra has been the result or somewhat paradoxical coincidences. One of the reasons why we are still able to experience Krystyna and Marian Barski’s opus magnum in its unaltered state is the quality of their design, which has enabled it to successfully fulfil its function for decades. However, when it turned out that the aging structure no longer met the rigorous safety requirements, the same elaborate form pushed the Auditorium into a decadelong inertia. The proposed modernisation of the building, which, in keeping with the intentions of the university authorities, was supposed to breathe fresh life into the edifice, became a source of anxiety for Wrocław dwellers, who remembered the postmodernist panache of the previous retrofitting of the twin Mathematics Auditorium. Consequently, the City Historic Preservation Officer took steps to enter the Chemistry Auditorium into the register of monuments, which happened in 2012. Listing the Auditorium as Poland’s youngest monument saved its form, but also doomed it to years of existence in a coma. From a historical-architectural perspective, the rather small pavilion looks impressively homogenous. However, what saved it from stratification was the overlapping of unpredictable determinants.

The reaction of artists taking part in SURVIVAL 15 to the immaculately pure modernist space, which nevertheless had been saturated with new meanings for years, were varied. Unsurprisingly, taking into account a lively interest in the object and period architecture as such, there was no shortage of didactic actions or even those intended to preserve the Auditorium. Suffice it to mention Aleksandra Sojak-Borodo’s carton miniatures of the building (Self-assembly), the presentation of models of Roman Pawelski’s sculptures, whose Atom is situated in front of the pavilion, as well as the section Chemistry Is Here! curated by Marta Mnich, Patryk Kusz and Mikołaj Smoleński of Jednostka Architektury Foundation. It would be hard to imagine a more adequate space for listening to the visual language of modernism and analysing its grammar than this year’s venue for SURVIVAL. Apart from a cognitive function, the aforementioned actions constituted a voice in the discussion about the building’s future in its current shape – a voice which was undoubtedly optimistic. However, there were also more careful comments.

The tension between the passive durability and dynamic uncertainty of the Auditorium was analysed by Michał Gdak, who prepared three anti-functional seats that were aesthetically embedded in the object’s interior. The benches making up the work Burden perfectly imitated the Barskis’ style while being maximally useless. They visually resembled modernist designs, but departed from the usual connection between form and function. In this way Burden confronted the viewer – who was unable to sit down – with the following questions: Hasn’t the utopian project represented by the unused Auditorium exhausted its potential? Isn’t the interest generated by the building superficial? A gloomy answer may have been provided in Maja Wolińska’s turpist video entitled Strata, which showed close-ups of the slowly decaying generations of dead insects in the Auditorium’s basement. The static shots of the perversely beautiful work speak volumes about the state of lifeless stagnation in which the building has been for years. As the artist explained, the work pertained to a place whose vital functions stopped, an architectural empty shell. A study of decay was also conducted by Tytus Szabelski, whose highly deconstructed and appropriately disorganised photographic installation Crypt featured the twin Chemistry Auditorium in Toruń, which is still being used. Built at around the same time, both objects resist the passage time due to financial and conservation considerations, the need to use the available infrastructure, and the respect or sentiment for the idea behind them – but not because their function has stood the test of time. They serve the role of a sarcophagus containing a historical period and ideas associated with it; a crypt of a long-buried dream about the future.

An equally critical (albeit less uncompromising) spirit permeated other artworks featured at SURVIVAL. The visitors to the Auditorium’s main hall were greeted by Marcelo Zammenhoff’s Fountain of Destiny – an object inspired by the concrete flowerpots constituting an integral part of the building’s décor. Attracting attention with smoke and laser beams, the work cast doubt on the modernist belief in the possibility of using technology for the sake of the greater good. However, the messages shown on LED displays around the Fountain reminded us that the opposite is truer – and much more common. A similar disbelief was radiated by Karolina Balcer’s Ten Floors. A Tower Block, whose paintings showing majestic “machines for living” wobbled like towers made from toy blocks. One of the ramps inside the Auditorium bore a quote from Oskar Hansen – Space is a medium for communicating ideas. In this way Małgorzata Kazimierczak’s playfully tautological work contrasted the heritage of the originator of the open form concept with an object erected at the time of formulating the idea, whose all-encompassing design eventually resulted in its putting out of use. Thus the artist reminded us that since no clear answer could be given to the question about the perfect form, which vexed the post-war modernists, is it possible to come up with one correct solution for the Auditorium’s future?

In this context, an extreme strategy was proposed by the Central Group and their Post-war Modernism Album. The scattered installation, which continued the noteworthy efforts of the ephemeral Surroundings Management Institute, was based on a peculiar definition of spolia – fragments of demolished buildings embedded in the structure of other architectural objects, in this case – moved between buildings representing the same historical period. They not only make it easier to renovate the new “hosts”, but also symbolically transfer memory of objects which today survive only in archival photographs. This proposition opens up an interesting discussion, not least due to the selective approach to ideas that lay the foundations for modernist structures. After all, such highly formal approach to elements of architecture dating back to the second half of the 20th century does not leave much space for the functional rudiments of the entire movement, which focused on building a better future rather than preserving history. In Wrocław the debate ought to consider another aspect, which during the festival was raised by Anastazja Jarodzka and Patrycja Sap’s installation In German or Michał Szota’s Neither There Nor There. Jarodzka and Sap put up a signpost-scratch card in the main hall, which underneath a thin layer of Polish street names hid their equivalents written in German blackletter. Szota in his audio installation drew upon the same topographic determinants, which were read out by a speech synthesiser in German (symbolising Wrocław’s past) and English (reflecting the current aspirations). In a city bearing a fresh mark of radical discontinuity, in which the present does not linearly stem from the past, any conversation about memory preservation will inevitably include memory about traditions different to the currently predominant one. The new add-ons still constitute a part of Wrocław’s urban fabric whose post-war reconstruction has not finished yet, neither architecturally (as the visitors to SURVIVAL were reminded about by the void in Społeczny Square on the other side of the river) nor with respect to identity.

The intentional accumulation of new strata in an object such as the Chemistry Auditorium is a very difficult process, which could bring about ridiculous effects if done unskilfully. Paweł Karpiński’s Revitalisation – based on a temporary retrofitting of a fragment of the building’s glazed façade with Styrofoam – served as a warning sign. Although the intervention looked absurd, its full-size, real-life materialisation could be seen barely several hundred meters to the south, on the elevation of the Mathematics Auditorium. Similar associations were triggered by two works entitled Column – the first one by Maciej Albrzykowski of the Silesium Group, and the second by Krzysztof Furtas. Albrzykowski’s gaudy object stood in stark contrast to the Auditorium’s exterior, not just because of its classical form, but mostly due to the incompatible materials used to construct the supporting structure – Styrofoam, cardboard and gypsum. Furtas’ Column, in spite of being more stylistically coherent with the architectural identity of the building, looked like an implant rejected by the Auditorium’s fabric. The works seemed to function as “artificial” and “fake” elements – although in a conversation about stratification both terms should be deemed arbitrary.

Each year the SURVIVAL Art Review opens up an area for a discussion between art and a public space. By focusing on abandoned or forgotten places, the festival often contributes to their survival. Thus choosing the Chemistry Auditorium of Wrocław University was not a surprise – on the contrary, we could say that it had been expected for a long time. What could seem surprising in the context of the modernist venue was the subject of this year’s edition. However, in the end it turned out to be the perfect catalyst for the years-long discussion about the future of the Auditorium, which became deeper, more nuanced and multi-layered. Of course, the 15th edition of the Review did not conclude the debate. We could only hope that the topics raised by the artists bring us closer to the moment when the Auditorium awakens.


Catalog, 2017, pp. 172-181