A Homeless Person Magdalena Ziółkowska

In the same way that toilet paper and other basic goods, including those ensuring minimal human comfort, were rationed and became luxuries in communist bloc countries, so was public space, which was never freely distributed. On the contrary, access to the public sphere was permitted only to those with power, and the powerful treated it as their own, as an asset to which they had the right of ownership solely because they were in power. This meant that public space was not open and accessible to all citizens, or to small groups of them gathered for a shared purpose—at least, not in the liberal democratic sense in which we are able to use it today. Instead, the State was the exclusive administrator and supervisor of public space, conscious of its potential as a site of social discord or public resistance.

The consequences of this control of public space can be observed in the grand narrative of the Polish postwar public program in Warsaw. The biggest social actions of the State were focused on rebuilding the capital from its ruined state in the late 1940s, through the massive production of housing estates and blocks throughout the 1950s. This rapid process, although intended to have a social purpose, actually brought about the opposite result through the increasing psychological isolation of individuals and the feeling of mental homelessness, as they were placed in these huge architectural structures over which they had no personal control. Today, the rhetorical framework in which the meaning and function of architecture was implemented by power allows us to understand the politics of opposition typical for those communist days. Whereas the everyday experience of communism, with all its traumatic paradoxes, could either fall into oblivion, be repressed, or survive through nostalgic anecdotes, the blocks, the most visible remnants of that period, remain to scare us. I myself live in a block from the late 1960s in Łódź, adjacent to the zoological and botanical gardens and the well-known Modernist estate of Józef Mirecki known as “Montwiłł” (1928–1931). Our building is one of 24-storey blocks arranged in a triangle and surrounded by the extensive Zdrowie park.

The policies of the communist state could generally be characterized as lacking a structure of rationality in that the system constantly failed to measure up to objective explanatory methods. Instead, it based its logic of power on a special kind of rhetoric. This rhetoric rarely relied on established facts, statistics, or other kinds of data. Rather, it was “causal rhetoric,” the presence of which created the facts. One of the arguments repeated rhetorically by the state authorities was the need for massive production, especially for workers’ housing estates to house the proletariat, which was now officially in power. This meant that homelessness as such, the lack of a roof over one’s head, was impossible. To achieve this with any speed meant that the propositions developed by progressive Modernist architects of the previous decade such as Helena and Szymon Syrkus or Bohdan Lachert, were replaced in the mid-1950s by three slogans of the new reality: standardization, reduction, and industrialization. After that the imposition of standard constructional forms, as well as reproducible projects, copied and implemented anywhere, became ubiquitous. The similarity and monotony of housing blocks (including mine) was declared to be the highest level of economic development. The ideology of technical progress quickly began to dominate architectural expression, transforming architects into mere builders of predetermined stage designs centered on expressionless building-objects. The planning was organized exclusively in state offices by the national administration, where architects—like visual artists—were given guidelines for mechanically repetitive forms across the whole country. The effort directed to satisfy the housing famine resulted in “blind kitchens,” introduced in 1963, or the programmatic reduction of balconies.

However, it is in the actual experience of inhabiting these repetitive, unyielding areas of sameness, reproduced seemingly without end, that another sense of homelessness finds its place. This homelessness is a feeling of total impossibility, an inability to affect the public sphere, the idea that “home” is a machine-like function of living rather than a set of codes and identity formations. The effect on the individual could be described as a mental dysfunction involving the incapacity of being an agent—that is, an entity capable of action—in this particular case, resulting in an inability to act in any way in the social and public sphere. Apartments in the blocks were distributed according to strict rules determining the number of square meters per citizen, and the better ones were limited to selected social groups and given by the authorities as a reward for loyalty to the system. Thus, the sense of identification with a “home” was bestowed only through and by the Party structure, and the people granted an apartment were constantly made aware of their dependence on the system rather than having any self-generated sense of belonging. Nevertheless, the domestic environment still became a space for the political gestures that were lacking completely in the public space outside of the block’s walls. It offered a nonspace, a parallel reality, a space of otherness, in which private actions on a micro scale could be considered gestures of political meaning. In this way, homelessness was overturned in the process of turning the home into something more than private, not quite public, but a shared space of social exchange hidden from the system’s view.

Given the avant-garde role of the art of survival under the socialist system, it is not surprising that this “home for the homeless” expression was relatively common in artistic circles. Thus artists such as Jaroslaw Kozłowski in Poznań, Ilya Kabakov in the Soviet Union and Mladen Stilinović in Yugoslavia often used their apartments for creating and showing art to a selected few. It was through this method that the “homeless person” in the end found a new sense of belonging in society and was able to bring this sense with him or her into the new postsocialist condition where real homelessness and new kinds of social poverty presented new challenges to social cohesion.