In the mid 1990s, when architects often had to travel abroad to get work experience, only the more courageous of them stayed to open offices in Poland. It was an environment characterised by unsophisticated architectural tastes and even more by a lack of money and an abundance of legal chaos. Earlier spatial planning is no longer valid; there are up-to-date plans for only fifteen percent of the country’s land area. One must dare to experiment, find fields for ones creativity and develop a feeling of homeland against all the odds. The works of the Medusa Group, for instance, can be found in the desolate post-industrial urban areas between Gliwice and Katowice, a place of permanently grey curtains. With 4.7 million people in an area of just 12,294 square kilometres, the Upper Silesian conurbation is the most densely populated region of Poland.Architect Przemo Łukasik and his wife Joanna do not live with their heads in the clouds. On the contrary, the view from their new home in the so-called Bolko Loft in Bytom looks out at the dereliction of an abandoned coal mine. Just a few years ago, the miners would climb the steel steps to this raised block of utility rooms where they changed into their working clothes before the lift carried them deep into the earth. However, the industrial age is long gone; the mines are exhausted and unemployment casts a dark shadow over the lives of the people of Katowice and Gliwice. In this place now, Przemo Łukasik and Łukasz Zagała are working on their plans for new housing in a new age. Re-urbanisation, structural transformation - these are the catch phrases which may betoken hope for the future. The two young architects want to see something different in Poland from the typical development of urban space as it has happened around Europe with its preserved, historically intact town centres, its shopping centres and its industrial areas. ‘There is so much to be done here; let’s get on with it!’ - they seem to say - ‘But in our own style.’ Why this should be, and what the secret of the Medusa Group is, these are the questions tackled in the following interview. In the Greek myth, any who looked upon Medusa’s face would turn to stone...
How would you describe the Medusa Group?
There are two of us, Przemo Łukasik and Łukasz Zagała, but we’re a group nonetheless. We formed the Medusa Group in Berlin, in 1996, as an informal amalgamation. We have a special group dynamic: we engage experts, from a pool we trust, for short-term assignments, but we don’t think of ourselves as a company or as employers. There is a kind of hierarchy here, but on the whole we are very open. We listen; and maintain a particular spirit in the things we do and in the way we do them. Anyway, we prefer to use the name Medusa Group than to put our own names in the spotlight.
Do you get your ideas from a specific think tank?
We call it ‘collective thinking’. That usually means us and another half-a-dozen colleagues. We work with students and newly qualified architects and engineers - with freelancers. We try to develop projects together, but do the actual work independently of each other. Everyone is responsible for the things they actually oversee or build.
What were your reasons for returning to Poland?
For a young architect, to contribute to the building of his own country is surely the most appealing task possible! Coming back after twelve years outside the country was tremendous. While we were based in Berlin, the Polish border suddenly seemed to be just a stone’s throw away. We soon began thinking it over; both of us wanted to establish our own thing. It may also have been a kind of homesickness. Przemo Łukasik studied and worked in Paris. We both wanted to go back. We also realised that we had better prospects in Poland. This had become evident over several years. We decided that we were old enough now to give it a try.
Is Silesia the main sphere of your activities?
Over the last few years the economic boom has been felt even here. Warsaw will always remain the most important city; that’s where everything comes together. Then, in order of importance come Poznan, Wroclaw and Gdansk. And only after these can you talk of the former coal mining area. At the moment, Silesia is something like the perfect playground because it has this high concentration of industry - that means it has the right preconditions for architects like us. But at the same time we are looking for assignments all over Poland. They are not big contracts, but they are profitable.
Does the Medusa Group represent a specific influence in modern Polish Architecture?
No doubt the regional aspect plays a big part. But I think, above all, we are architects of the new generation in Poland, with a background which isn’t solely architectural. I could just as easily imagine tendering for a job in Sao Paulo, why not? We are not tied to this place! We’ll always be looking for whatever one human being can give to another - especially in situations where the original cultures are foreign to each other. It’s all a question of dialogue.
Does the Medusa Group work for international clients?
No, we work mostly for Polish customers. We take on assignments for Polish companies, but the greatest part of our business is with private individuals. In this field we have seen quite an explosive growth. We don’t try to procure public funding.
Would you also work for the Nouveau Riche?
There are more and more of them - and plenty who’d be happy to count themselves amongst them! It’s a nightmare for a serious architect. The Nouveau Riche think in the terms that are familiar to them. In other words: money. This has nothing to do with style.
Were your first years in Poland a great challenge? And would you now think of yourselves as established?
We formed our office at an auspicious time. The first three or four years weren’t easy, but at least there was enough going on for us to be able to start competing with other architects; and we could tender for gradually larger and larger contracts. Today, it might be more difficult for newly graduated architects to make a start like this. The economic boom was in the 90s, though at that time, just after our return, we were too young and inexperienced to get involved straight off in a big way. After the millennium there was the recession - but things always have their ups and downs.
Could you have contemplated working as an architect during the repressions of the communist period?
You know, those who really want to work as architects have to find their own good times. You have to create them! Creativity doesn’t mean closing one’s eyes to difficulties. One has to face up to them and make the best of them. Maybe it was a positive thing that the starts of our professional lives were difficult for both of us. Life in cities like Paris or Berlin is expensive - and we were really poor. As far as possible we lived off parcels of Polish groceries our mothers sent us. We didn’t have much money, but what we did have we spent on good computers which we then took with us to the library. Culture is a very valuable thing, especially when one can barely afford it.
These days you are also a teacher. What are your impressions of your students?
When I look at my students today... well, all the information they could need is available, thanks to the internet and even in Poland today the bookshops are well stocked. There’s nothing missing, in fact. But the fact is: they don’t know a thing. Most of my students have no thirst for knowledge, no desire to discover things they perhaps have never heard of before, that they can’t even imagine. We were obsessed by our passions. If we bought a monograph for 25 Euros, we felt like we’d just purchased a car.
Do you think that Poland is ripe for a new school of architecture?
Poland may still only be half way along the path to development, but there are no excuses any more. It shouldn’t be impossible to imagine the avant-garde here any longer. The 45 years of communism severed the continuity of modern architecture and modern thinking. Especially here in Silesia, these were significant years. That’s why, as architects, we feel somehow obliged to educate the clients and introduce them to more sophisticated styles of construction. That is not to say that we are better than everyone else, but it is our profession. We are the ones who know how things can be done. But yes, we, too, have to develop constantly and reorient ourselves in order to keep up to date. This is why we share our knowledge and our ideas; so we can broaden our horizon as often as we can.
Is it fair to compare the German Ruhr coalfields with Silesia?
In terms of industrial history, yes, of course; but in terms of restructuring and revitalisation - in Poland nothing exists to compare to the IBA programme. We believe Polish society needs to develop a new perspective on construction, in a joint effort with the architects. The planners and politicians are still the ones who make the decisions. Such things as the Zollverein coking plant in Essen or Duisburg Harbour: big projects like these don’t happen here. Nowadays in Silesia it’s mostly shopping malls that are being built. The people are only just coming to understand that we are in the post-industrial age. This is a process of awareness.
Is there much assistance from the European Union?
There are lots of funds, and nowadays we not only have customers who are financially well-off, but also those who are capable of filling out the necessary forms to apply for funding. For instance we are currently planning the conversion of an old water tower dating from the beginning of the 20th Century into a museum for modern art; there is also space to stage performances. EU money has become decisive in unlocking the region’s potential. Another example is the motorway between Gliwice and Katowice; it is still very new for us. My wife, who works in Katowice, is often home before I am when she takes the motorway.
Are there any assignments which you would turn down?
Now we are in a very advantageous position. Not many people in Poland know us, but some have heard of our work. They don’t just call us, they also give us jobs. Most of our clients know what our own architectural ideals are. They choose us for specific reasons. If they are looking for something else, then please, there are plenty more architects around. Indeed, we do sometimes have to turn down work. We can’t change the customers simply because we think differently. It’s better to stay friends with one another.
Thank you very much.
Silke Kettelhake is an editor at the Federal Agency for Civic Education’s fluter.de, responsible for film. She also works as a freelance journalist for die taz, Jungle World, de:bug, and the ifa magazine amongst others. She previously edited music clips and advertising spots.