We can build contemporary buildings with regard to the originality of regional architecture – interview with Mateusz Turczyński
Mateusz Turczyński combines modern construction with traditional local architecture. He also documents and protects historic wooden buildings as part of the AdRem Foundation. A civil engineer (with a degree in renovation and monument restoration) and advocate of restoring the traditional architectural division in Poland.
In the interview, he talks about the challenges of designing new buildings that draw on the details of traditional architecture, as well as the idea of revolutionising the Polish system of designing and building houses.
Is the idea to build modern buildings, but with reference to traditional architecture and surroundings, a response to the lack of a coherent aesthetics of single-family housing in Poland? Often single-family housing estates in cities and towns are a mishmash of styles, having little to do with the local area.
The idea was influenced by observations, analyses and field studies, which over the years have led me to a specific conclusion, perspective – the map of architectural division does not exist anymore. Construction in Poland today, regardless of the region, does not vary. Polish architecture looked completely different in the pre-war period. At the time, there were clear difference that gave regions a certain character, or, in the reverse order, reflected them.
Today, this kind of expression is lacking, there is a big architectural mess. We have lost the ornamentation, characteristic features have blurred. We have lost depth and beauty in favour of a unified composition, which we see regardless of location on the country’s map.
Has the architectural divide begun to disappear due to wars?
The wars have certainly had a huge impact. Just like other scars of history with which Poland is marked. For a long time I was convinced that it was the times of communism, the era of concrete and straight lines that blurred all traces of historical heritage. However, after the architectural field research conducted under the AdRem Foundation in Poland and Belarus, I stopped being so sure of this. It turned out that the Belarusians are doing a great job with the legacy they have. The culture of ornamented wooden construction is still alive there – passed down from generation to generation it is a value in and of itself. It seems that in Poland we have changed these traditions into a smalltown inferiority complex. After many conversations with local authorities and individual residents, I got the impression that they are of the opinion that historical elements need to be erased, covered with polystyrene and turned into an ordinary facade without any “fancy” details.
Is it a matter of following modernity or being ashamed of old construction?
Following modernity is a good impulse, in which, however, it is very important to remember the roots and skilfully manage the resources that result from them. I think we have a strong feeling of shame and lack a sense of the value of this heritage. A kind of fear of my own otherness born from the belief that “if I am different, I am worse.” Of course, the opposite is true. It is thanks to its uniqueness that we stop being worse, we gain character. Big city investors who decide to buy farmsteads near Suwałki and Białystok turn out to be helpful here – they notice and appreciate this difference. They want to take good care of it.
Does this mean that they see more depth in history and know that traditional construction is valuable?
I do not know how much this is due to the awareness of history or wisdom. Perhaps it stems from everyday life surrounded by urban infrastructure, from which, after a while, we need to rest. Then, returning to nature and tradition becomes something very desirable.
During my conversations with investors, I heard numerous opinions that it would be good to preserve the look of Podlaskie’s villages because there is something special about it, something “different”. I think that aesthetic reasons appeal to them, none of the investors indicated the historical value of the structures they actively care about.
You are professionally involved in the renovation of traditional buildings, but also in the construction of new ones which draw from local architecture.
Yes, although I’m not active in those areas alone. The investor can order a design, construction of the building or only the design of the facades. I try to respond to all forms of investor demands when it comes to construction, renovation, or restoration of a monument.
My first contact with working on monuments was during my studies at the Lublin University of Technology, at the faculty of renovation and restoration of monuments. I revisited this topic while studying administration, when I wrote my thesis about the Monument Protection Act. Then I realised how badly it is constructed – it imposes new duties on the owner, completely without giving him a sense of uniqueness that also needs to be fostered. If the Act provided support to owners of old buildings, our monuments would be in much better condition than they are currently. These two experiences were crucial to my career path.
Is this kind of development usually made in wooden or brick technologies?
I think half and half. There are brick houses which are then clad to look like wooden ones. In fact, it does not matter, we do not limit ourselves to wooden construction, because our foundation was not established to recreate existing ideas. There are a lot of companies and organizations that focus on recreating. We want to come up with a full range of modern construction that meets the needs of today’s investors. Large rooms, large windows, larger area. Today it is impossible to live in a building reconstructed from the 19th century, we try to take a step forward, that is, plan what modern elements are necessary while remembering and respecting the historical landscape of a given region.
What else does the AdRem Foundation do? Among other things, it documents and preserves historic wooden buildings?
We gather knowledge on two basic levels – literature and our own field research. Literature includes pre-war works that show the diversity and methodology of architecture of that time. It is also a contemporary work, including Prof. Marian Prokopek – a valued ethnographer, researcher of Polish folk architecture or Dr. Artur Gaweł – former director of the Podlaskie Museum of Folk Culture and a long-time researcher of the region. When it comes to the field research mentioned earlier, we are increasingly confronted by a situation where the buildings once photographed and inventoried by us no longer exist today. It is a fight against time, not only when it comes to the structures themselves, but also to the people who were able to make the ornamentation – sadly, they are also disappearing every year. It is becoming more and more difficult when it comes to sources of knowledge about the architecture of old.
The ten years of the foundation’s activity has been a bit like tilting against windmills. Repeated attempts at talks at various levels of local government have been unsuccessful. I signalled the need to create a subsidy programme or support investors who would like to engage in the revitalisation of traditional construction. Unfortunately, this has not been met with understanding or a willingness to act. We really need such a programme, if not on a national scale, then certainly within the Voivodeships. This is not just my opinion – there are numerous publications, and more are being published, that clearly indicate that architecture is our precious cultural heritage which needs caring for, which should be put on display.
There are no actions to protect it.
There are no actions that would encourage investors and homeowners to take care of this heritage, to preserve the character and style of regional architecture. Instead, we build new houses, each one different from the next, not even a match within their region. The same house can be built by the sea, in the mountains, in Mazowsze and Podlasie – it does not matter. In doing so, we lose something very special, unique. Aesthetically, the current trend of building in the Scandinavian style seems to be some refuge, but it is only aesthetics. It still has nothing to do with our heritage, so rich after all, but hidden.
You would encourage people who have the opportunity to preserve an old house to contact the foundation.
Of course. I invite not only investors but, above all, representatives of the authorities to contact me. Only in cooperation with a larger group are we able to create an effective programme for the preservation of traditional construction, based on heritage. Towns, villages, or entire regions would be more interesting for tourists. Driving through Switzerland, Germany, or France we can see that their buildings are well-maintained, they are diverse – after driving a hundred kilometres we notice differences in architecture.
Education at many levels, universally, including that aimed at young Poles, is becoming crucial in this aspect. The groups for which this is particularly important are architects and institutions approving individual projects. It is they who have a unique responsibility in this respect, which the investor should be able to turn to for some guidance. A solution is needed that allows a healthy balance between contemporary trends and historical heritage, combining and harmonising the two. A good example of an extreme approach is the Trakai Historical National Park in Lithuania, which is a partner of our foundation. There is a total lack of acceptance of architecture other than historical. But it is not about imposing anything on anyone. The aim is to strengthen the conviction that we can build contemporary buildings with regard to the originality of regional architecture. I understand that not everyone wants to have a house with shutters, window ledges and all the other ornaments. However, it is possible to meet halfway and create contemporary, modern architecture based on tradition.
From the point of view of the average investor – maybe it is about the fear that, in deciding on a house that draws on traditional local architecture, you can find yourself in the situation where it will be much different from other, "ordinary" houses. And that will look bad.
It depends on the form we do it in. It is best not to be kitschy. The line is very thin – it has to be a subtle reference to tradition. Such a building would look much more interesting than those with no references whatsoever. I offer my investors a visualisation to make the decision easier, to see the end result. I had investors from Białystok who opposed traditional references. They changed their minds when they saw the visualisation.
I will return to the need for a response I mentioned earlier and suggestions from, if not the architect, then certainly the authorities. We need physical resources – books, albums of model traditional construction, which would be available at every building permit authority. Such a collection of historical houses and architecture of the Suwałki region, for example, juxtaposed with visualisations of contemporary projects referring to tradition. The investor, being in possession of such materials, gets concrete and concise knowledge, which they can use in cooperation with the architect.
It is a pretty idealistic vision.
I have struggled with this topic for 10 years and today my optimism is far lower than it was at the beginning of this journey – because the talks ended in nothing. Even if someone from the authorities was interested, the cooperation ended after half a year, on the second or third conversation. I understand this because it is obviously about lack of money. But, for example, a renovated volunteer fire station or municipality building, could refer to historical architecture. It would be nice if the example came from above and the authorities could show residents that it is possible to build a modern building, for example with a glass gable, but with reference to tradition. Historical buildings have been lost in every possible place. The problem is wide, it also concerns architects who have concerns about stealing ideas, so it is best to have it be a top-down programme. Without such support, it is difficult to realise the vision of cohesion between modern and traditional construction.
The Foundation’s operation is also based on funds obtained from ministerial competitions and EU projects. The last funding that supported the foundation’s activities came from the Podlaskie Marshal’s Office for the project “Beauty not described by Kolberg”. It was the Year of Kolberg, whose work is permeated by tradition, except in architecture. At the time, we conducted research in the Grodno and Suwałki regions. It was the only co-financed project – the rest of the Foundation’s activities are financed from private funds, which is a significant obstacle to its development.
Despite this – what gives you the greatest satisfaction in your work?
Certainly, the satisfaction of investors and meeting their expectations, especially when they are not able to fully specify their expectations. On the other hand, in the context of monuments, preservation of tradition, it is definitely the fact that we have managed to save something, to prolong some element of history. In both cases, what is stimulating for me is an actual work in accordance with the influence of man on the space in which we live – its creation at the level of architecture, the framework of our everyday life.
One more question about wood. Why rely on this material in modern construction?
The most important thing for me is the microclimate of a wooden house. It comes from the natural origin of the raw material. Wood offers many more possibilities, and not only in terms of decoration. On top of that, it is an environmentally friendly solution.
Thank you for the conversation and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the development of the foundation, further investments, and the protection of wooden houses.
Thank you very much!
Archiwum Mateusza Turczyńskiego i Fundacji AD REM – afirmanci drewnianej architektury