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22 September 2016

Iconic Dacha

Zofia and Oskar Hansen’s House in Szumin

By Aleksandra Kędziorek. Polish curator Aleksandra Kędziorek is an art historian, associate curator and project coordinator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

‘Philosophy is better promoted through space than through a philosophical book,’ Oskar Hansen (1922-2005) used to say. This remark by the Polish architect, artist and theorist seems to be the best available summary of his own summerhouse in Szumin. In 1968, Hansen, his wife Zofia (1924-2013), also an architect, and two sons, Igor and Alvar, arrived in a small village in a picturesque area near an oxbow lake of the River Bug in central Poland. After falling in love with its landscape, they started to build their summer residence there. An unobtrusive wooden house with a pitched roof became the incarnation of Open Form, the theory with which Oskar and Zofia Hansen tried to revolutionize the building industry of socialist Poland.

Towards Open Form Architecture
Oskar Hansen never thought of their work as that of future icons. As a member of Team 10, a group formed by young architects rejecting CIAM’s concept of architecture as a ‘machine for living,’ he considered his own task to be the creation of architectural frames, which could be filled by the everyday events of their users. Open Form, first presented at the CIAM congress in Otterlo in 1959, stood in opposition to the perfectly finished buildings which stood as monuments to their designers. Instead, it focused on guaranteeing the user his individual expression, even within prefabricated mass housing. In order to realise those ambitions within the socialist state, the Hansens experimented by surveying the future inhabitants of their housing estates, despite much of their efforts being wasted because of a maldistribution of flats and socialist building industry shortcomings.

Their ideas found more productive expression in exhibition design, which at that time – as the socialist government wanted to create a modern image of Poland abroad – was an area that allowed for greater artistic freedom. Modular pavilions for international fairs in Izmir and São Paulo designed by Oskar Hansen with Lech Tomaszewski, a Polish engineer, were supposed to create a ‘perceptive background,’ exposing the exhibited objects and passing visitors. The Hansens also wanted to guarantee the participation of users in art-related projects and let them decide on the shape of the buildings themselves, as in the competition entry for the Museum of Modern Art in Skopje, where an umbrella-shaped hall of temporary exhibitions could be folded and unfolded by the curators, depending on changing needs.

Szumin’s Experience
Although most of their projects exist only on paper, a visit to the Hansens’ home in Szumin can give us an idea of how the world might have looked when organised according to their theory of Open Form. Contrary to most iconic houses, where it is the architecture that plays the first fiddle, the house in Szumin only becomes alive with the interaction of people.

Starting with a bench that invites passers by to sit down for a while and meet the inhabitants, enabling dwellers not to forget about its context, the house provides users with multiple stimuli in order to form an active attitude toward their surroundings. Engaging all their senses – first and foremost, sight, hearing and touch – and playing with their habits by blurring the boundaries between inside and outside, the house encourages a more conscious reception of space. The framing windows, which offer different views depending on the position of the viewer, indicate the importance of the body’s presence in architecture, while the openings exposing other inhabitants’ activities enhance its social character. At the same time, tools like a longitudinal table with a colourful top which can be utilised individually and instruments with movable panels used by Oskar Hansen in his teaching at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, through which an individual can select their own view, open the architecture to individual expression and subjective decision making.

Designed in strict connection with the landscape and climate, the house draws the users attention to nature. The grey and even surface of the roof and colourful boards located in the surrounding garden form backgrounds exposing blossoming flowers and trees in the orchard. A steel structure designed for the Venice Art Biennale in 1977 serves as support for a grapevine and as the basis for a wooden dovecote, which Zofia Hansen, only partly joking, quoted as the best architectural piece of her husband. Every detail in this house, designed with care and respect for nature, helps the users to benefit from the richness of the surrounding world.

The House Reopened
Thanks to the generosity and hospitality of the Hansen family, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw opened the house of Zofia and Oskar Hansen in May 2014 to the public. Visits of the Hansen’s’ House are by appointment only (more information available on www.artmuseum.pl). To coincide with this occasion, the house became the first Polish member of the Iconic Houses Network. The opening of the house was accompanied by the release of a bilingual publication dedicated to Szumin’s architecture with photos by the renowned Polish photographer, Jan Smaga. The House as an Open Form. The Hansens’ Summer Residence in Szumin was released by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and Karakter Publishers in May 2014 and is distributed internationally by the University of Chicago Press.

Publication date 22 September 2016