‘I was a student of Pierre Jeanneret, Ferdinand Léger, I had contact with Le Corbusier. […] but we certainly couldn’t squeeze ourselves into socialist realism’, recalled Oskar Hansen, an architect, teacher, artist and deviser of the Open Form. Born to Norwegian and Russian parents in Helsinki in 1922, Hansen studied in Vilnius, Lublin, Warsaw, Paris and London, where he was offered a post at the Royal Institute of British Architects. He declined, returning to Poland amidst the postwar reconstruction effort to become, with his wife Zofia, one of the country’s most radical minds in the 20th century.
First presented at the International Congress of Modern Architecture (1959), the Open Form denounced existing design as highlighting the architect rather than the inhabitant, and instead called for a ‘passe-partout’ (as Oskar called it) for people’s day-to-day activities. Displayed in Adolf Krischanitz’s pavilion – originally home to Berlin’s Temporary Kunsthalle, now on loan to MoMA Warsaw – ‘Open Form’ charts the Hansens’s heritage with documentation, models and videos, peppered with quotes from the architects.
Lingering above visitors’ heads is a sprawling structure of triangular modules. Initially employed in designs for international fairs – later in Oskar’s first solo show in 1957 – the structure predates the Open Form but exemplifies the Hansens’s thinking throughout the 1950s: temporary architecture meant to showcase industrial products, like the modular ‘hyperbolic paraboloid’ roofs of the Polish pavilion in Izmir. These commissions became a testing ground for designs that shifted focus from the object to ‘cognitive space’: to the individuals using them.
Elsewhere in the show, crisp, colour photographs show a garden, a wooden façade and a light-flooded interior. Epitomizing Open Form, the couple’s home in the village of Szumin (now under the care of MoMA Warsaw) is an unassuming two-storey villa with a gable roof brushing against the surrounding grass. Missing from the photographs is the way the interior seamlessly blends with the outside, not least because of the imposing table running across one room and continuing outdoors. Doubling as an educational instrument, it can be rearranged into a composition of white or dark-wood planks: similar apparatuses, meant for students of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts where Oskar taught from 1952 to 1983, are also on view in the show.
Most of the couple’s designs for housing estates date from the 1960s, including Lublin’s Juliusz Słowacki (designed between 1961–63). Negotiating individual and collective needs, they approached future inhabitants for feedback concerning the layout of their individual flats, windows and balconies. Despite mostly enthusiastic responses (displayed in part in a vitrine), Oskar was doubtful as to the realization. And rightly so: the proposal failed after personalized flats were randomly allocated to people through waiting lists.
In the mid-1960s, anticipating Poland’s demographic growth, the Hansens embarked on their most radical proposal: Open Form on the scale of urban planning. Shunning existing city planning altogether as dated, they championed an entirely new tiered infrastructure called Linear Continuous System (LCS): belts organized along waterways and roads forming residential, social, transportation and light industrial zones snaking from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathians. Clusters of dots and lines, the designs for those alternative cities verge on the abstract. But the three-dimensional models shown here rouse the imagination.
Today Poland is witnessing a methodical eradication of modernist heritage: MoMA Warsaw’s recently demolished previous venue is a case in point. The surge in walled communities, non-transparent reprivatization and the architect as an ethical individual remain topical. Whether taken literally or as a point of reference, the Open Form is an essentially humanistic offer not bound to any geopolitical regime. As Oskar remarked shortly before his death: ‘The proposal itself is not as important as the question of why it has been made in the first place.’
Main image: Installation view, 'Oskar and Zofia Hansen', 2017, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Poland. Courtesy: Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; photograph: Bartosz Stawiarski