The new building of MoMA Warsaw – yes or no?

The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw – or what I like to call “MoMA Warsaw,” though its actual shorthand is MSN (Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej) – has a new building under construction. That building is located in Plac Defilad, slap in the middle of central Warsaw. Plac Defilad, meaning ‘Parade Grounds’, is a communist urban fossil created in 1955 as a central square in Warsaw for the purpose of public gatherings – for example, parades. It is adjacent to the eastern side of the infamous Palace of Culture and Science, a ‘gift from Stalin’ to Poland, built in the early 1950s in the Socialist Realism style, designed by Soviet architect Lev Rudnev.

Part 1 – What should the MSN look like?

I happened to see the said building under construction in back on New Year’s Eve, when I visited my brother in Warsaw. Being used to the sight of construction sites – after all, I live in Brighton, and I visit London quite often – I think I paid attention to the building primarily because it was obstructing my view of the Palace of Culture, my favourite building in Warsaw, which I am used to seeing from all sides – the eastern side included.

MSN obstructing the view of the Palace of Culture, from the eastern side. Photo taken 31 December 2022.

Lately I read Paweł Mrozek’s article on A&B (Architektura & Biznes) website, where he

This museum is not to the taste of almost anyone, and I am very happy about that. If everyone liked this building, it would even mean that something went wrong in its design.

Paweł Mrozek, Museum of Modern Art of All Poles, Architektura i Biznes, 23 January 2023.

I disagree and agree with that. I don’t think there’s any known building that is to the taste of everyone. But if a building existed that was to the taste of everyone – everyone liked it – would that be such a bad thing? I think that’d be a very good thing. A resolution of a conflict between the different tastes. Of course, a natural want of a human is to feel comfortable in their surroundings, and potentially even find beauty in their environment – whether built or ‘natural’. So if a building is built that I like the look of, that’s going to make me happy – seeing it is going to bring me pleasure. (I hope I’m not saying something outrageous here).

The project that won the competition was designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, an American architecture firm based in New York City. The firm’s realised projects are located largely in the United States, primarily Maryland and New York. On the firm’s website, you can find more ever more flattering digital renders of the project. I suggest you go and take a look. They look pretty – but also many of them don’t look earthly. You rarely get a colour palette or lighting present in these renders in the real world!

The renders Mrozek (or A&B) decided to include in the article are below – the facade of the ‘white part’ of the Museum from the east, and the design for the renewed Plac Defilad:

Of course, the trick architectural firms always use for renders of green spaces is that they are always presented as actually green – meaning, it’s either late spring or summer. Occasionally, you get some gorgeous golden colours of autumn, some colourful leaves decorating the ground like an all-organic rug, and the trees still largely covered in abundant amounts of leaves.

Looking at the render of the proposed new Plac Defilad, I have to say – I really like it. It looks pretty – the slender trees with a sufficient volume and joyful shades of green (of course made possible by the lighting made by the computer, not the Sun), their long shades, the interesting black facade of the TR Warszawa theatre, created along with the main MSN building in the same project. And, importantly, the view of the entrance (one of four) to the Palace is unobstructed when looking straight at it.

The white facade in the photo on the left? Well… It’s a pretty facade. It looks interesting, though its reference to Le Corbusier’s pilotis is more than obvious. Does it fit this space? I’m not sure. I’ll have to see it when it’s built. The lighting in the render, again, looks better than life. But the more often I look at it, the less I mind it.

About the MSN architects – Thomas Phifer and Partners

I took a minute – or actually, many, given the length – to have a read through Thomas Phifer and Partners’ “philosophy” (available on their website). It starts with the author’s description of how they’re sitting in front of a painting called Abstract Painting by Ad Reinhardt. I found out that . In this philosophy, the author explicitly makes some arguments about the purpose of the art gallery or museum:

A museum gallery should, then, by the action of its formal and expressive qualities, lead the viewer to that contemplative state, inducing the body to rest in silence while simultaneously opening its pores—just as I widened my eyes in front of Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting—in order become a fully quiet and attentive body.

The philosophy of Thomas Phifer and Partners architects (text by Susanna Ventura)

I’m not an expert on art galleries or contemporary art even less, and I can tell you now that when I last visited Tate Modern, I left after 20 minutes because I was totally bored by the things on display. Of course I plan to go again and see the whole exhibition, to find things I will consider more interesting. But this supports the point that contemporary art isn’t easy to read. Mrozek uses this notion in arguing that the MSN building isn’t meant to appeal to the average Pole, because – and here he leverages statistical data from GUS (Central Statistical Office, Glowny Urzad Statystyczny) – the average Pole does not frequent art galleries.

Mrozek states:

Ninety percent of Poles are artistic troglodytes and cave paintings.

Paweł Mrozek, Museum of Modern Art of All Poles, Architektura i Biznes, 23 January 2023.

And now, who can argue with that?

Now, it’s obvious that Mrozek’s exaggerating in this sentence. So let’s turn to a more proper argument of his:

Most people like only the tunes they’ve heard once before. If we don’t commune with art on a daily basis, don’t live in cities full of good contemporary architecture, then any new foreign melody in the space only irritates and frightens us. But this is not an argument against the tune, but unfortunately only a testimony to limited horizons.

Paweł Mrozek, Museum of Modern Art of All Poles, Architektura i Biznes, 23 January 2023.

Here, he states that familiarity is a condition for most people to like something (though, of course, being familiar with something does not automatically mean one likes it – in this case, it’s simply a prerequisite). His article is quite long, but generally the point is that the point of art is to make new, unfamiliar things, and try new approaches, otherwise it loses all its purpose and meaning. Which is fair. His argument stands well. If the MSN’s role, and art’s role, is to push the new and unfamiliar into the everyday lives of ordinary people, it’s setting off to be doing its role quite well. We’ll see how it looks when it’s finished, and what people’s reactions are then – one month, six months, twelve months after it’s opened.

Mrozek’s Museum of Mocking Art

Mrozek’s mocking proposal for the Museum of Modern Art Reconciling the Taste of All Poles looks like this:

Not gonna lie, the building looks quite cool in the second picture from left – golden hour, the tall tower echoing the pointy silhouette of the Palace of Culture. The ferris wheel also looks impressive – like the London Eye, in the centre of the country’s capital, but elevated several storeys above the ground level. And the attention to detail in this render is praiseworthy.

There are lots of familiar sights all merged together in this render. And after reading Mrozek’s entire article, it makes sense why this should look funny. I just want to say that it doesn’t look that bad in the render, though of course it would look tragic in the physical, real fabric of Warsaw. So let’s leave it where it is – on the computer.

Part 2 – Bright colours mocked by Mrozek, & Yinko Ilori

But to refer still to Mrozek’s mocking proposal for the “Museum of Modern Art Reconciling the Taste of All Poles”, I found this part truly funny:

… the top floors will provide escapades for toddlers, including classrooms for classes in designing the cheerful colors of the blocks’ thermo-modernization

Aside from the sad examples of the “cheerful colors” themselves (sorry for the American spelling on behalf of the A&B English version… I stand for British/Canadian spelling when English is used on this side of the Atlantic!) that I have witnessed time and again in my short but cheerful and colourful (clearly) life, this made me think of Yinka Ilori. Yinka Ilori is a British Nigerian artist & designer whose selected works are currently on display on the first floor of the Design Museum in London.

I visited the Design Museum with my friend who’s primarily Finnish and is doing a PhD in some mysterious (to me) field of mathematical physics or computer science – I think it’s some form of a crossover of these fields, but I’m not really sure. My friend really liked Ilori’s work, and as he said, it was primarily for the colour palette. I, however, really disliked the work for its colours, and thought that maybe if they used a different colour palette, I would’ve disliked it less (or maybe even liked it). Ilori’s work makes heavy use of really bright colours and simple shapes – squares, triangles, circles, semi-circles, simple curves. For example, the photo below shows a mural Ilori was commissioned for and created in Harrow, a district of London:

Yinka Ilori, “Love Always Wins” mural, Harrow, London, 2021.

I am no stranger to bright colours on flat building facades. My whole childhood, I was surrounded by them. I remember vividly when I was in elementary school and my school was undergoing a thorough project of repainting the whole building – the grey facade that had been the same (just dirtier and more worn with each year) since the school’s opening in 1974.

I have two juicy pictures for you, of a vocational school I pass on my way from home to my grandma’s flat. The pictures have not been augmented – they show what the school looks like on a nice, cloudy day. This school had been subjected to being painted in bright colours sometime in the last 20 years.

These photos show why I’m not a fan of bright colours. There are buildings with facades that fight for themselves, without people’s intervention, particularly in their colour schemes. Particularly in Poland, this tendency to paint flat facades of thermo-modernised buildings in different colour combinations – whether pastel or stronger in tone – looks particularly absurd, even infantile, childish. So I agree with Mrozek’s sneering treatment of the bright-coloured thermo-modernised buildings.

Well, at least the new MSN is all white.

Published by kotersey

Graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a First in geography, and from the University of Brighton with a Master's in history of design and material culture. Probably drinking iced coffee and thinking about buildings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: