The Curious Case of Poland’s Communist-Era Church Boom

The socialist state thought allowing the building of ecclesiastical structures would prevent citizens from protesting; in reality, it became an act of protest.

This article was originally published on ArchDaily. You can read the original version, which includes more images, here.

For nearly two millennia, European architecture was closely affiliated with and shaped by Christianity. Prior to the advent of Modernism, there was scarcely a style that was not promoted, or more likely defined, by the designs of churches. Such a hypothesis makes it difficult to imagine Medieval England outside the purview of Gothic Cathedrals, or Renaissance Italy as separate from its Basilicas. But with the Industrial Revolution and the economic and population growth that ensued, infrastructure and housing became the new symbols and necessities of cultural representation, finding their ultimate expression in the ease and simplicity of Modernism. The field of architecture, so long shaped and dominated by the church, had been subsumed by the changing concerns of a commercially driven society. Of course there were still churches being built, but the typology that once defined architecture in its ubiquity became novel and rare. Or so we’ve all been lead to believe.

Surprising as it might be, in the wake of World War II and under Soviet control, Poland built more churches than any other country in Europe. The majority were built in the 1980s, at a time when church construction was neither authorized nor forbidden, and as a result played a pronounced role in Cold War politics. The construction of these churches was a calculated affront to the proletariat-minded Modernism of the Soviets. In their project Architecture of the VII Day, Kuba Snopek, Iza Cichońska and Karolina Popera have sought to comprehensively document these Polish churches and the circumstances of their construction. Unique not only in how they defied the prefabrication and regularity of the Eastern Bloc, the churches were community-led endeavors that relied on local funding and input, long before these practices became buzzwords in 21st century architectural circles.

Kuba Snopek and Cichońska began their project in 2014 when both were students at the Strelka Institute in Moscow, under the tutelage of Rem Koolhaas. The project began that year as an entry for the Polish Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. The theme for the national pavilions outlined by Koolhaas was “Absorbing Modernity” and each participating country was asked to relate the architectural implications of a philosophy and style to the globalized world that it helped foster.

According to Snopek, “We were looking at everything that happened in Poland, but it was more or less mediocre: the flats weren’t as tall as those in Moscow, the skyscrapers were bigger in New York.” Snopek was about to give up when he drove to Poland with a friend and not 500 meters across the border saw his first church. Researching the structures, two things became immediately clear: “there were a lot of them, more modern churches than anywhere in Europe,” said Snopek; and, “no one in Poland sees them, they just melt into the landscape.” He and Cichońska lost the pitch for the Biennale, but decided that conducting further research on the churches was a necessity, and, now working alongside Karolina Popera, continued their project.

The title Architecture of the VII Day is meant to expose the dichotomy of church buildings created in Cold War Poland—the hand-crafted antithesis to the prefabricated Soviet architecture that defined six days of labor a week in a work-centric society. Developing the project, Snopek, Cichońska and Popera were compelled by the stark differences between the design and construction of the churches and the factory-direct Modernism that began in the 1950s under Khruschev, and defined the mentality of working and living behind the Iron Curtain. Although in the waning years of Soviet rule the Monday to Saturday work week that was common in the early decades of the Cold War was limited to the more typical five days, the longer work week had already permanently emphasized the sanctity of Sunday and the need for the day and its activities to have a separate and distinguished form of visual representation. “Architecture of the VII Day,” says Snopek, “is not about the industry and housing of Soviets, but instead, it represents all that is missing from that type of pure, pragmatic, and industrial architecture.”

How Poland Became Europe’s Biggest Church-Building Nation

All photography courtesy ©Igor Snopek

Although plans for new religious structures began in the immediate wake of World War II, Snopek notes that most of the work done into the 1950s was just post-war reconstruction and not part of the wave of new developments in the subsequent decades. The seeds for many later churches were then planted in the 1950s when an end to Stalinist rule ushered in a more liberal era for Communism in Europe, but it wasn’t until after the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) – a symposium of the Catholic Church conducted between 1962 and 1965 intended to reform the relationship between the church and the modern world – that the impetus for construction began with haste. Vatican II had wide ranging effects on the church, but particularly on the liturgy. Mass would now be conducted in national languages, as opposed to Latin, and the priest would face the parishioners. Snopek attributes this change to a shift away from didacticism in church architecture, creating structures that emphasize community with plans that are more “circular and theatrical.”

A prime example of this historical progression is Nowa Huta, the easternmost district of Kraków, which was an industrial part of the city developed in the late 1940s to bring proletariat workers to the Polish city. Nowa Huta was designed as an ideal Stalinist city, a place which Snopek describes as “like the piece of the Soviet Union extracted from Ural and injected into Poland.” As liberalization happened in the late 50s, there were protests on the streets to bring a church into this prototype of a modern, atheist city. A design by Zbigniew Solawa (above) was unveiled in 1957, but after a wave of repression in the early 1960s – followed soon after by Vatican II – the structure that was finally realized in 1977 was a radically changed design by Wojciech Pietrzyk (below). The church was consecrated by the local archbishop Karol Wojtyla, who would rise to the papacy a year later as John Paul II, and would use that position as an active platform for an anti-communist agenda.

In the 1980s, over 1000 churches were built in Poland. Snopek believes this is linked to two factors: “The first thing that happened is that a person from a Communist country with ‘no religion’ was chosen as leader of the Catholic church, and second, the Solidarity protest—the regime loses its legitimacy. When workers create a huge movement against a ‘workers regime’ it means the regime no longer functions.”

The irony here is that the parishioners were building churches as an act of protest against the government, but the government allowed the churches to be built because it stopped people from protesting. In other words, both parties believed they were achieving their goals. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the pace of church building showed a reciprocal relationship with the levels of protest that preceded their construction. The church would act as a mediator between the workers and the government, and would play a key role in the slow decline of Soviet authority in Poland throughout the 1980s.

The Polish Church and the Emergence of “Gothic Postmodernism”

Poland has a long history of Catholicism that prompted a need for religious spaces, even in a country ruled by Communists. Furthermore, as pointed out by Snopek, “Today and before the 1980s, churches were spiritual places for prayer, but at that time it was a cultural space, a place for community and physical protection.” Not especially religious himself, Snopek recalls visiting churches even in the 90s to see exhibitions and watch independent films. “It was a cultural spot.”

The building designs, however, attest to a much closer link to spirituality, or perhaps at least to an assumption that these spaces that were serving temporarily as community centers would one day transition back to their more pious functions. Under Communist rule, there was only a single architecture publication in Poland, and most architectural inspirations came from it and a smattering of books. Having reviewed issues of Architektura, which showed only two buildings of worship in the years prior to 1980, Snopek believes that inspiration for the churches came from Le Corbusier, Latin American Modernism, and theaters, which were shown in the magazine regularly.

Church architects were also fascinated by Postmodernism, and Snopek sees the influence of Arata Isozaki and early 80s Japan, in a church in Wrocław designed by Wojciech Jarząbek, Jan Matkowski, and Waclaw Hryniewicz (below). Although local architects admired the vanguard styles and materials, the Polish government followed Soviet procedure that restricted access to construction products and machinery, but simultaneously viewed religious building with a policy of hands-off reverence (not a single church constructed under Soviet rule was demolished). Nonetheless, church building was a clandestine process, and the scale of material procurement and speed of construction closely paralleled the generosity of the weekly donations of the parish. While still under Soviet rule, priests would reach out to local craftsman, long out of work in the wake of industrialization, to construct the buildings with hand-laid masonry techniques in use since the Middle Ages; Snopek calls this fusion of style and execution Gothic Postmodernism.

Parishes were responsible for selecting the designs of their church. Many of the architects selected were young (30 and under) and saw Postmodernism as a reflection of the goals of Solidarity and the Polish people. Though Postmodernism amounted to little more than a stylistic challenge to the rigidity of Modernism in the United States and Western Europe, the style had greater political ramifications in the Eastern Bloc. Embracing the style paralleled a need for choice in Polish society (just as in matters like religion) and emphasized that the sterility of Soviet Modernism had failed.

The Relevance of Architecture of the VII Day in a World of Participatory Urbanism

Discussing the goals for Architecture of the VII Day, Snopek mentions that the project’s first phase was an exhibition in the National Museum of Ethnography in Warsaw and a website (in Polish) containing maps, photographs, essays, and anecdotes from the architects, parishioners, and builders. A grant from the Polish government is now allowing the three researchers and their team of over 25 others to create a guide book to churches, and a subsequent English-language publication will be released sometime later this year. The project is also on Instagram and Tumblr. As Postmodern buildings reach middle age and are being reevaluated by scholars and practitioners, Snopek sees the resurgence of interest as an opportunity to bring the churches of Poland into a broader public eye. “It’s a moment to show our heritage,” he said, “show it as one architectural trend, the 70s, 80s, and 90s in Poland.”

As the churches had never previously been researched or regarded collectively, some interesting factors emerged from the data collection. In particular, the maps create a visual account of the divisions that necessitated where, when, and why certain churches were developed. Snopek cited a few examples: “No churches were built on the German border until the seventies, when Poland got guarantees from the Western countries that the border won’t move again;” “Rural churches dominated in the 1980s, but in the 90s most of the churches were suburban and occurred in tandem with a huge wave of urban construction in the adjacencies of industrial cities;” and, “You can also see the divisions of the map of Poland—in the nineteenth century it was three countries, and there are drastic differences in the amount of urbanization in the different areas. The Prussian area is urbanized and has lots of urban churches, while the area under Austrian rule is a traditionally rural place and the churches mirror this.”

The construction of churches in Poland has never ceased, but there was a precipitous decline that began in the 1990s—perhaps indicating that after the Poles had achieved their goal of independence and the “church as cultural center” had fulfilled its purpose, there was a reduced urgency for these spaces. Mirroring the new freedoms of society, church architects were less inhibited, and Snopek calls what emerged as a trend towards “doing whatever they want.” Besides small parish projects, the major undertaking of the 1990s was four large national cathedrals. The buildings are large and ripe with religious and national symbolism, but as a pastiche of styles executed with commercial construction methods, they lack the vigor of the surreptitious, yet boldly-designed churches of the 1980s. Emphasizing individuality in a sea of Soviet monotony, those buildings are some of the most visceral examples of how architecture can promote the mood and leanings of society with broad political ramifications.

The intersection of architecture, politics, and social activism makes Architecture of the VII Day and the churches of Poland an overwhelmingly appropriate and prescient case study for our current architectural discourse. As the Director of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale and also the winner of this year’s Pritzker Prize, Alejandro Aravena recently called upon architects to embrace “professional quality, not professional charity.” Elaborating, he said, “If you think you are a good professional in any field then let’s try to test your skills in these challenging issues. The more complex the issue, the more the need for synthesis.” And Aravena in particular advocates for solutions that resonate with those who recognize the problems. Often discussed as “participatory design,” he has stated: “The starting point [are] problems that every single citizen understands; I mean insecurity in the city, pollution, segregation, congestion, the kind of things where your daily life is affected. Then you contribute with design to try to offer a possibility.” While there were numerous factors that lead to the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe, in the case of Poland’s churches, uniting the public with a common cause – with a possibility – allowed for architecture to be both a symbol and an instrument of social change.

Architecture of the VII Day:

Research: Kuba Snopek, Iza Cichońska, Karolina Popera

Photos: Igor Snopek, Maciej Lulko

Data Analysis: Szymon Pifczyk, Tomasz Świetlik

Project Production: Bęc Zmiana Foundation, Warsaw

Data Collection: Agnieszka Maga Baryła, Kasia Dudycz, Tomasz Koczur, Magda Koźluk, Wojciech Mazan, Kamila Milewska, Ewa Mirska, Ania Młodzianowska, Magdalena Owczarek, Kasia Pabich, Łukasz Pieńczykowski, Karolina Popera, Marcin Semeniuk, Anna Wojtun, Agnieszka Zawistowska, Julita Zembrowska

Texts: Tomasz Koczur, Wojciech Mazan, Kamila Milewska, Laura Osińska, Kasia Pabich, Szymon Pifczyk, Karolina Popera, Tomasz Świetlik, Kamila Twardowska

Website & Design: Alexandr Ayoupov, Olga Sen, Jakub Jezierski

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