Katyn museum named ‘best public building’ in CEE
Warsaw’s Katyn Museum has been named the best public building in Central and Eastern Europe at the latest edition of the prestigious East Centric Architecture Triennale.
Held every three years in Bucharest, the awards saw 150 projects shortlisted by the editors of Arhitext Magazine and then presented to an international jury panel comprising of prominent architects, critics and theorists.
Seeking to spotlight the architecture of the CEE region, the competition was further sub-divided into six categories covering installation projects, residential buildings, regeneration, interior design, exterior design and public buildings.
Having reached the finals of the Mies van der Rohe awards in 2017, the Katyn Museum went one better this time around after beating off stiff competition from projects in Germany and Austria. Also shortlisted in the public buildings category was The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews In WWII.
Speaking to the architectural web portal Bryla.pl, the design team behind the Katyn Museum explained the challenges they faced: “It was a difficult topic to broach. We have long wondered what a commemoration of the victims of this massacre should look like, and we eventually decided that it should not just speak of death, but also the lives of the victims and their families. We wanted the museum to be an expression of their memory.”
Having won a competitive process to design the museum in 2010, a team led by BBGK Architecki were chosen to spearhead the project with construction work finally finishing in late 2015.
Dedicated to honouring the 21,768 Polish officers and intelligentsia who were executed in 1940 by their Soviet captors in and around the forests of Katyn, the museum quickly caught the public’s attention for reasons that went far beyond the mere depth of its historic content. Hailed an architectural triumph, its eloquent and sensitive style has become a magnet for photographers and design buffs.
Covering a three hectare area in the southern section of the city’s Tsarist-era Citadel, the backdrop is starkly in tune with the museum’s somber message and specifically designed to riff on themes of isolation and emotional detachment. Certainly, standing inside the symbolic forest that’s been planted in the courtyard park, the stillness and the silence can feel crushing at times. It is a place that immediately stirs complex emotions of melancholy and sorrow.
Inside, the two-level exhibition pays homage to those murdered by assembling a collection of personal artefacts recovered from the killing grounds and presenting them inside shelving units that have been intelligently backlit and illuminated so as to cast an almost reverential glow: in these shadowy, hushed confines, combs, belt buckles, toothbrushes, playing cards and train tickets each tell a story of a normal life cut cruelly short.
Shuffling back outside, visitors tread down the so-called Avenue of the Absent, a walkway that curls around the brick walls of the fortress before reaching a series of glazed arcades in which the names of the dead have been inscribed in stone. Here, the enormity of this war crime becomes uncomfortably apparent, and it is with a heavy degree of despondency that visitors ascend a striking, red-tinted concrete stairwell carved into a hillside to return back to where they started.
Lacking the surging crowds of Poland’s other major war museums, few institutions succeed in matching the mood set by the Katyn Museum. Delicately connecting the past with the present, the latest accolade to be bestowed upon this museum has indeed been well-earned.