The man behind the smallest house in the world is back - and this time he’s gone BIG
If once Poland was perceived as a dark, dank country buried in Orwellian gloom, nowadays a new generation of creatives, designers, artisans and architects have lent her a dynamic thrust that’s become impossible to overlook.
Among them, few have been more prominent than Jakub Szczęsny, a man whose projects have reached a global audience on account of their visionary foresight and bold originality.
A pop-up museum inside a bunker at the Heineken Open’er Music Festival; a so-called ‘UFO Chicken Coop’ at the Saint Louis Science Center; and a temporary ‘Polish Refuge’ on a Brazilian terraced rooftop all play a role in a portfolio that is as diverse as it is adventurous. More recently, in April, has come news of a collaboration with the LechStarter program – a corporate responsibility initiative funded by the Lech brewery – to transform urban spaces in several Polish cities via the implementation of a project fittingly titled Space.
Seeking to offer a solution to the lack of community-minded areas in this country’s towns, Szczęsny’s answer foresees the creation of pre-manufactured, steel-structured modules featuring inner courtyards, seating and ample greenery to provide a user-friendly backdrop for concerts, screenings, workshops, social meetings and NGO activities.
“The organizers asked me if I could work on a system-based approach according to which LechStarter would not just give money, but most of all provide the infrastructure allowing for community interaction and for NGOs to function,” says Szczęsny. “In response, my proposal presented a system of modules that can be configured into various shapes, depending on local context, with three individual set-ups pre-prepared by us. Not only does the system comprise of a floor area, but also internal walls, textile roofs and pergolas in which vines can grow. Most of all, the idea is robust, simple, inter-changeable and easy to expand.”
For Szczęsny, it is the latest in a string of commissions and projects dealing directly with the issue of public space. “As a country,” he says, “we’ve done a lot in a short space of time when it comes to shifting the way Poles view the public domain – paradoxically, socialism created a highly anti-social approach that ensured most Poles treated anything outside their front door as ‘not theirs’ and, therefore, not worth caring for.”
“Today, mind you, we’re in a different place thanks to participatory budgets, self-organized citizen groups (both formal and informal), and increased public engagement in urban processes: especially those relating to green spaces, heritage and infrastructure. And in terms of all that, we’re definitely looking West, not to the East and the lifeless corporate or governmental expressions you see in the likes of Dubai or Astana.”
In Szczęsny’s case, lifeless is the last accusation that could be levelled at his work. Arguably best-known for the Warsaw-based Keret House, this 2012 project saw a tiny nook between a pre-war tenement and a 1970’s housing block in-filled with the world’s narrowest house. Covering an area of only 14 sq/m, and measuring just 92 centimeters at its slimmest point, the innovative dwelling soon found itself going viral with, among others, mentions in Vogue, The New York Times, Wallpaper* and the HuffPost.
“I’ve got to say, it changed the vector of my life,” admits Szczęsny, “because of it, doors opened to international work and it’s since even been included in New York’s MoMA – that’s something I used to dream about when I was studying at MoMA’s old museum space when I was just a teenager!”
Whilst visibly proud of the Keret House, Szczęsny refuses to be defined by it with his prolific output guaranteeing his ongoing relevance both home and abroad. A house suspended over another house has just been completed in Boulogne Billancourt, as too has a tower made out of stools that will be given away to people by Caritas in Logrono. Work on a book is underway, and so too are clothing designs – a new side venture passionately embraced by Szczęsny. Bookending that, a leisure complex composed of shipping containers is also due to open in the Polish capital in the coming future.
“If they don’t let developers and the authorities limit their role to barking dogs or service people,” he says, “architects can be valuable partners in both business and public-related processes, not slaves, not tyrants, but poly-faceted and multi-talented partners.” For this to happen, however, Szczęsny notes that obstacles rooted in the country’s own DNA must be overcome before creativity can truly be unshackled.
“Ideally,” he says, “we need to get rid of the master-servant way of thinking. We were one of the last places in Europe where the feudal system was abolished, and to make it even more embarrassing that was only dismantled by the oppressing Russian Tsar! The remnants of this logic can still be seen in many aspects of Polish reality, and that includes our notions of ‘space’. We’ve skirted reformation-linked processes, and on top of that endured 150-years of division plus decades of Communism, so we’ve definitely got a long way to go before we’re compared to the Dutch or the Germans.”
But despite these words of caution, it remains clear to all that Poland is undergoing a wave of transformation that has been buoyed by a creative streak that has been allowed to the surface. Furthering the fermentation of this are practices such as Szczęsny’s own SZCZ studio. “I want to help clients think outside the box,” he concludes, “to help them see the bigger picture and point out details they might not otherwise notice.” Looking at the scope and direction of his work, one would say that his mission has been accomplished.