Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer located in New York City. He's contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Metropolis, Architectural Record, and other publications.
A new exhibit displays Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak’s talent, which strove beyond the postwar standards of mass-production and prefabrication in her home country.
If you’ve spent even a fleeting amount of time looking at Brutalist or Eastern Bloc Instagram accounts and design books, you’ve seen Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak’s most famous work.
Her Plac Grunwaldzki (Grunwaldzki Square) complex is a Wrocław skyline fixture, and one of the most unique works of residential architecture built in Communist Europe. This tower cluster, colloquially known as “Manhattan,” has at last come to Manhattan for Patchwork: The Architecture of Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak at the Center for Architecture. A 17-foot-by-8-inch model of one of the towers currently occupies the atrium of the Center, and employees note it sometimes blots out the sunlight.
Michał Duda, Curator of the Wrocław Museum of Architecture, which hosted an earlier iteration of this exhibit, noted in remarks at its opening that “In fact Jadwiga hated Brutalism; she just wanted to be slick and smooth.” The exhibit contains highlights of her highly fruitful career, which spanned from 1954 to 1993. Women architects in Poland often worked in concert with architect husbands, who typically received more credit. Grabowska-Hawrylak’s husband was an engineer but she secured her rightful credit, becoming the first woman to receive the Honorary Award from the Association of Polish Architects (SARP), the most prestigious architectural award in Poland, in 1974.
The exhibit, showcasing both her built—largely concentrated in Wrocław—and unbuilt works from Como to Manila, displays a talent that strove beyond the often routine standards of mass-production and prefabrication in the Polish People’s Republic.
Grabowska-Hawrylak was born in Tarnawce in Southeastern Poland in 1920 and moved to Wrocław to study architecture in 1945 when the city was in ruins. Just months before her arrival, Wrocław was still known as Breslau and belonged to Germany since 1740. The last point at which Poland (in the pre-national form of its Piast Kings) ruled Wrocław was in 1335. In 1945, Poland acquired the area surrounding it as a sort of compensation for Russia’s annexation of much of Eastern Poland. After World War II, new migrants arrived to a battered and considerably demolished alien city filled with the relics of its ejected German population—statues of Frederick The Great and Moltke the Elder were pulled down, with pedestals retained until Polish replacements could step up to take their place. German script was chiseled off of buildings and streets entirely renamed.
Wrocław’s reconstruction was not an early postwar priority given Poland’s larger focus on rebuilding its far more comprehensively obliterated capital of Warsaw. War-damaged buildings in Wrocław, as with many other cities in Poland, provided many raw materials for Warsaw’s reconstruction. Work on Wrocław did not start seriously until 1952, partly because most of the city’s built heritage was of no active ideological interest to the state.
With very little from its Piast Dynasty days remaining, save the city’s main cathedral, authorities concentrated their attention on reconstructing buildings from eras that were at least Pre-Prussian, focusing on Gothic Bohemian and Habsburg Baroque architecture. Grabowska-Hawrylak’s first work was a historic reconstruction of Baroque Burgher houses around the city’s market square. The loose era the city aimed for was 1800, which was 60 years into German rule, but judged to be before its architecture was more thoroughly Prussianized.
The fact that Wrocław was not an early showcase reconstruction was actually a mercy in several ways. With serious work beginning only in 1952 it avoided much of the dullest era of Stalinesque Socialist Realism. A shortage of means was also a roundabout boon to historic preservation as with few resources the city was impaired in its quest to de-Germanize the city. If Wrocław sustained very considerable wartime destruction many notable buildings were damaged rather than levelled, and it was obviously more practical to gradually repair functional remnants than to pull them all down. The result is a city that is an intriguing architectural melange, but whose strongest note is still Germanic.
Grabowska, working at Miastoprojekt-Wrocław (“The biggest and the only architecture firm in the city,” Duda drolly observes) rapidly displayed her talents with several residential projects close to the city center. There was a Miastoprojekt in all major cities, all government-operated, and in successive waves of low-cost prefabricated construction it often produced anonymous and mediocre work. In proper socialist fashion, the identity of creators was often blurred but talent could not help but stand out. “It was a kind of machine to make architects anonymous but it did not work very well,” says Duda.
While a majority of the Eastern Bloc’s distinctive structures are civic, most residential projects are quite forgettable. Housing was often the focus of campaigns of necessity, and if many schemes for prefabrication theoretically offered a springboard for creativity mainly they clearly offered a formula for not doing so. The bloki of Poland are generally monotonous. Grabowska-Hawrylak broke this mold with a variety of highly interesting experiments, displaying invention from the start.
Several of her early buildings near the center of Wrocław were built to reestablish a dense urban fabric. She recessed the main facades of several of her buildings, creating interest out of gables and walls enclosing balconies. Her Galeriowiec (Gallery House), displays the structural logic of the building with something of an ice cube tray exterior, with a two-story loggia enclosing a base deck and a higher small balcony off of a bedroom. The arrangement establishes the boundaries of each unit while providing considerable privacy. Her Researcher’s House near to the Manhattan complex is particularly skillful. In it, graphite terrazzo window sills span the full building while the windows shift pattern across the full facade, with narrow bands every fourth section fronting stairways and a more irregular, wider pattern across unit frontages. Obtruding but light slab balconies accent this pattern, skip-stopping a floor in an expanded checkerboard pattern.
The Manhattan complex was intended to fill a consequential gap in the city fabric, near to the city’s technical university and astride the route to Warsaw. A statement project was desired here, one whose height was to match that of the city’s tallest building, a 10-story interwar building at the Market Square. Plac Grunwaldzki is not much of a square; it’s a tram stop accessed by underpasses along a busy street but her complex, a linear complex of towers along a slab is a real landmark. The most common photographic views don’t really make clear how the structure fits together, a series of six towers arranged along a pedestal with smaller commercial buildings filling in the gaps. You wouldn’t recommend this plan today but these aren’t towers in a park;c they’re towers connected by linking low-density commercial buildings which were active on this writer's recent visit.
In 1974 she commented about her design process: “I had to find some way for prefabricated elements to create a non-trivial, original form. Since we can’t yet afford modeling each individual residential building—let’s try to arrange “sculptural” compositions from ready-made, mass-duplicate elements. Concrete can be an excellent material for sculpture.”
The structural clarity of these buildings is not immediately legible, but in a good way. They’re supported by an H-frame which bears the towers without internal columns. The building’s prefabricated curving concrete segments, designed expressly for this project (and subsequently patented) attached directly to the floor slabs on each level and don’t require the support of the facade otherwise. They became emblematic of Brutalism but this was something of an accident. She wanted smoother white concrete and imagined balconies lush with greenery from the start. They were cast with rougher concrete and painted white only recently.
A pristine white paper model of one of the towers is available in Zupagrafika’s “Brutal East” installment of its modern paper cut out structures, alongside the House of the Soviets in Kaliningrad and the East Gate of Belgrade. Paper architecture took on an unfortunate dual meaning in Poland in the 1970s, known, Duda notes, in the architecture realm as “decades of paper” as its economy ground to a halt and projects repeatedly failed to leave the drawing board.
Grabowska-Hawrylak’s unbuilt works, represented with sketches, diagrams, and models at the exhibit are tantalizing. A student hotel using the rounded Manhattan segments was even more Futurist. A tourist center for Como in Italy is all terraced curves, anticipating similar work by Zaha Hadid or Bjarke Ingels by decades. Several of her plans tastefully deal with expanding or responding to the existing historic context of Wrocław. One expansion hooked to the 1926 Central Post Office (now a Postal Museum) by a smaller volume created a tower which grew wider as it rose in direct obverse of the setbacks of the older buildings. Others skillfully wove into the city fabric. There are Safdie-esqe turns towards low-scale prefabricated housing plans, one realm in which the possibilities of prefabrication has truly been underexploited. There’s a prefabricated plan for a low-slung development in Manila, with airy units designed to provide wind and shade and narrow units to ease construction costs.
Many of these plans turned away from towers entirely. One 1988 plan for a housing estate in Oleśnica is simply New Urbanism with modern materials, containing a traditional street grid oriented around squares containing principal cultural, civic, and commercial facilities. Her last built project, a Postmodern turn with the Millennium Memorial Church of the Diocese of Wrocław, boasts Aldo Rossi-esque windows and a knowing shift between brick and concrete lattice terminating abruptly on one spire and taking over from brick to finish the other. It’s reminiscent of Venturi and Brown’s ghost structure enclosures at Franklin Court in Philadelphia.
She had taken up independent design practice with her son in the 1980s and increasingly turned to direct handicrafts, making quilted patchworks as many grandmothers might. She insisted to Duda that patchworks appear within an exhibit of her work. Grabowska-Hawrylak died last June.
In the aftermath of the fall of Communism there was widespread enthusiasm for demolishing what it built, but there’s been a new recognition of the value of its best works. Today, Wrocław celebrates its multinational past and stellar architectural heritage that spans many eras. It’s the best kind of urban patchwork, in which the finest recent squares were knit by Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak.