“Fundstücke” heißt die neue Online-Reihe von Stadtaspekte, die lesenswerte Artikel anderer Magazine versammelt. Unser erstes Fundstück beschäftigt sich selbst mit Fundstücken, und zwar mit Fotografien von einem Kraftwerksbau am Rande von Bengasi. Was soll daran interessant sein? Das kann man sich auf S. 22 des ANZA-Magazins (# 1, 2011) durchaus fragen, weiterblättern sollte man allerdings nicht. Nach der Lektüre des Artikels von Łukasz Stanek weiß man es nämlich. Warum? Stanek spürt dem Kraftwerk, das von einem Ost-West-Konsortium unter polnischer Leitung Anfang der 1970er errichtet wurde, in fotografischen Darstellungen nach. Er entdeckt das Motiv in verschiedenen redaktionellen Umfeldern immer wieder, mal in einer Architekturzeitschrift, mal in einem Messekatalog, mal im Werbematerial eines Architekturbüros. Und er zeigt plastisch entlang der verschiedenen Veröffentlichungskontexte, wie das Foto ganz unterschiedliche Erzählungen illustriert: vom exportstarken, sozialistischen Polen bis hin zur Entwurfskompetenz am Bau beteiligter Architekten.

Building Export from Socialist Poland: On the Traces of a Photograph. 

von Łukasz Stanek1

Pic. 1: Cover of Architektura 2, 1981, “Polscy architekci w świecie/ Polish Architects in the World”.Pic. 1 Cover of Architektura 2, 1981, “Polscy architekci w świecie/ Polish Architects in the World”.

In February 1981, the main Polish architecture monthly Architektura dedicated an issue to “Polish architects in the World” [pic. 1]. While the presentation of designs delivered by Polish architects abroad was not rare on the pages of Architektura, the dedication of a whole issue to this topic was unprecedented. With the economic crisis hitting the country, the editors returned to the pride of socialist Poland: the export of architecture and urbanism. Capitalizing on the post-war experience of the reconstruction of Warsaw, Gdańsk, and the construction of new towns such as Nowa Huta and Nowe Tychy, Polish architects and planners were much in demand since the 1960s and their engagement included such key projects as the master-plans of Baghdad and Aleppo, administrative buildings in Kabul, museums in Nigeria, the trade fair in Accra and governmental buildings in Ghana, followed in the 1970s by large-scale research projects such as the General Housing Programme for Iraq and the regional plan and urban plans of the Tripolitania region in Libya.

Strikingly, none of these high-profile projects is featured on the cover of Architektura. Instead, the full-color image chosen by the editors was a rather surprising one: on the first plan one sees several palm trees; on the second something between a building side and a beach—a lot of sand in any case; and on the third, where one would expect the blue sky meeting the see, one discerns an object with three white large chimneys which could be ocean liner but is, probably, more of an industrial facility.

How to make sense of this choice? Were the editors dreaming about a cruise to a jungle when preparing their February issue in the midst of Polish winter? This cannot be excluded. And yet the cover seems to convey much of the ambiguous atmosphere surrounding the work of Polish architects on foreign contracts, which meant for them not only the possibility of realizing projects, getting away from the grim reality of socialist Poland, but also the rare opportunity to travel and to earn significantly more than it was possible back home. All this resulted in the combination of admiration and jealousy among their peers, and it might be this irony that came to the fore at the cover of Architektura.

But what is it the building shown on this cover? Architektura is not of much help here, but a visit to the archives of the International Trade Fair in Poznań offers a possibility to answer this question. This fair, which during the Second Republic (1918—1939) made itself known as a showcase for architectural experimentation, after the Second World War became one of the most important hubs for trade contacts among enterprises from the socialist block. It is the journal Polish Fair Magazine, published in Polish, English, French, and Russian, that features the building from Architektura. The 3rd issue of 1979 reproduces the facility in black and white and the shot makes it clear that the building does not stand in a jungle but rather on dunes covered with scarce vegetation [pic. 2].

2.Magazine polonaise des foires 3 (54), 1979, p. 18. Archiwum Międzynarodowych Targów Poznańskich (Poznań)Pic. 2 Magazine polonaise des foires 3 (54), 1979, p. 18. Archiwum Międzynarodowych Targów Poznańskich (Poznań)

The picture does not have a caption, but it was included to an article presenting Polish export projects in Libya—a country which since the revolution of 1969 and the proclamation of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in 1977, became one of the most important trade partners of Poland and several other countries in the Eastern Block. The text lists two neighborhoods in El Marj, constructed since the late 1960s near to the city of Barca which had been destroyed in an earthquake, but also mentions numerous infrastructural and engineering projects as well as services offered by various Polish firms. One of them was BUDIMEX, responsible for 600 houses, 1200 agricultural farms, 600 km of roads and two power plants in Libya, including an already completed one in Benghazi. It must be thus the Benghazi power plant that made it to the cover of Architektura, and this is confirmed by the caption in other another issue of the Polish Fair Magazine (1/ 1981), where the building pops up again, now in full color, trimmed to a square format.

The photograph reappears again in the 3rd issue of the Magazine in the same year but now in an advertisement not of BUDIMEX but of another central agency of foreign trade, Energoexport, which, as the text goes, specializes in “power plants and industrial objects” build together with Western firms [pic. 3].

Pic. 3: Polish Fair_Magazine 3 (62), 1981, p. 14, Archiwum Międzynarodowych Targów Poznańskich (Poznań)Pic. 3 Polish Fair_Magazine 3 (62), 1981, p. 14, Archiwum Międzynarodowych Targów Poznańskich (Poznań)

Read today, advertisements like that hint not only at the complex networks of dependencies between state firms in socialist Poland, but also at their various pragmatic forms of cooperation with Western firms; this does not quite fit into the dominant discourse in architectural historiography today, seeing the Cold War through the lenses of the East-West competition.

The best account of the economy behind the building in Benghazi can be found in the BUDIMEX files at the Archiwum Akt Nowych [New Files Archive] in Warsaw—a source where some of the Libyan counterparts of the Polish firms become visible—which show the management of the company under pressure to improve its performance on the international competitive market. This was inscribed into a shift in the motivation for export of architecture and urbanism by the Polish regime in the course of the 1970s. While since the late 1950s the objectives were predominantly geopolitical ones, feeding into the support of the post-colonial states by the Khrushchev administration and stabilizing the post-war order in Europe, this changed in the next decade. With the recognition of the Polish borders by West Germany and with the necessity to pay off loans granted to the regime in Warsaw by Western financial institutions, the economic objectives started to prevail over the political ones. Yet while the Polish technology being more and more outdated, it was labor—and intellectual labor in particular—which became a key export commodity for Poland. From a country of proletarians, socialist Poland was becoming a proletarian among countries, having not much to sell but labor.

If for the Polish regime the Benghazi power plant was, first at all, a commodity, it could have been also looked at with aesthetic gaze, and this can be discovered in the archive of the Polish Architects Association (SARP) in Warsaw. Among hundreds of dossiers of Polish architects, there are two which contain photographs of the power plant. These images, together with a set of schematic drawings of the plant and the administrative building, are to be found in the dossier of Wojciech Empacher, who claims in the accompanying CV to have designed the power plant in Benghazi together with a colleague K. Goliński. A different photograph of the Benghazi plant was included to the dossier of the architect Maciej Siennicki, who lists in his CV the “architectural design and the collaboration on the working design of a power plant in Benghazi” but he does not mention the names of his collaborators, as he is himself not mentioned in the dossier by Empacher.

The CV of the two architects reveals that their paths crossed the Warsaw state architecture office BISTYP, and this clarifies the distributed authorship of the power plant. This office specialized in typical projects of industrial plants, but also contributed to the most innovative architectures in the 1970s in Poland, such as the central railway station on Warsaw or the “Spodek” auditorium in Katowice.

Tracing the publications about BISTYP in journals specializing in building technology and construction allows adding a new set of images of the Benghazi plant to the ones gathered so far. The article published in the journal Przegląd Budowlany [Building Review, 10/ 1976], which featured numerous articles by Polish engineers sharing the experience of building in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, is illustrated by a photograph of the sedimentation plants, and the article shows a black and white snapshot of the power plant as well, centered on its large volumes and three chimneys and surrounded by an array of technical equipment, vehicles, sheds, and vegetation. Yet the most complete account of the plant can be found in a paper from Inżynieria i budownictwo [Engineering and construction, 15/ 1977] which includes an account of the site, the technological specification of all buildings and facilities, but also the organization of the building site and the terms of the contract between all the firms involved, including West-German but also French, Dutch and British firms providing materials and equipment, as well as the Belgian supervisor. The article also gives an account of the most interesting technical solutions, first at all the sun protecting finishings on the roof and on the facades—all of them illustrated [pic. 4].

4.Magdalena Łabęda, “Budowa elektrowni Bengazi II w Libii” [The construction of the power plant Benghazi II in Libya], Inżynieria i budownictwo 15, 1977, p. 169.Pic. 4 Magdalena Łabęda, “Budowa elektrowni Bengazi II w Libii” [The construction of the power plant Benghazi II in Libya], Inżynieria i budownictwo 15, 1977, p. 169.
The photographs from the SARP archive are very different. Probably taken by the architect himself, the photographs in the Empacher dossier frame the abstract quality of some architectural details and the rhythms of the façade, in contrast to the complexity of pipes and conductors [pic. 5].

5.“Elektrownia w Bengazi (Libia)” [Power plant in Benghazi (Libya)], in dossier no. 387 (Empacher Wojciech), Archiwum Stowarzyszenia Architektów Polskich (Warszawa).Pic. 5 “Elektrownia w Bengazi (Libia)” [Power plant in Benghazi (Libya)], in dossier no. 387 (Empacher Wojciech), Archiwum Stowarzyszenia Architektów Polskich (Warszawa).
The images of the power plant Siennicki enclosed to his dossier—under a dramatic clouded sky and yet lit by a sharp light which emphasizes the volumes and the lines on the facades—are presented with an elegant caption (“Power plant in Benghazi [Libya]. Façade of the main building”) [pic. 6].

6.“Elektrownia w Benghazi (Libia). Elewacja budynku głównego” [Power plant in Benghazi (Libya). The façade of the main building], in dossier no. 1254 (Siennicki Maciej), Archiwum Stowarzyszenia Architektów Polskich (Warszawa).Pic. 6 “Elektrownia w Benghazi (Libia). Elewacja budynku głównego” [Power plant in Benghazi (Libya). The façade of the main building], in dossier no. 1254 (Siennicki Maciej), Archiwum Stowarzyszenia Architektów Polskich (Warszawa).
Both sets of images aim at persuading the viewer that the building is a piece of architecture: a claim which was instrumental to the objective of both architects submitting their work to the SARP in order to be granted the status of working “creatively”, which came with specific tax benefits already during socialism. Evidently, in order to make the argument about the creative labor of the architects, their photographs bracket off any other type of labor involved in the process, including that of technicians and engineers, let alone that of the Polish and Libyan workers employed on the construction site.

Curiously, the very same photograph reappears in a promotional folder of the architectural firm called Dona from the early 1990s [pic. 7].

7.The Bengazi power plant in the promotional folder of “Dona LLC,” Zbigniew Kargol, Janusz Przychodzki, and Wiesław Rzepka, early 1990s.Pic. 7 The Bengazi power plant in the promotional folder of “Dona LLC,” Zbigniew Kargol, Janusz Przychodzki, and Wiesław Rzepka, early 1990s.

The gaudy folder, typical for the first wave of advertisements entering Poland just after the end of socialism, shows a collage of designs delivered by the three partners Zbigniew Kargol, Janusz Przychodzki, and Wiesław Rzepka. The power plant in Benghazi appears here in the company of several projects in Nigeria, including embassies, university buildings, offices and industrial plants. This time the image is less a proof of an aesthetic achievement and more a demonstration of the capacity of the partners to control large-scale commissions in free market conditions, collaborate with Western firms, and use modern technology: a capacity gained during the work on export contracts.

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About the article: The research for this essay was developed in the framework of the program Socialist Competence. Export Architecture and Urbanism from Socialist Europe, ETH Zurich/ Warsaw Museum of Modern Art. The author would like to thank Piotr Bujas, Tomasz Fudala, Alicja Gzowska, and Ola Kędziorek for their assistance.
About the author: Łukasz Stanek is Lecturer at the Manchester Architecture Research Centre, University of Manchester. He taught at the ETH Zurich and Harvard University Graduate School of Design. One of his fields of research is the architecture of socialist countries during the Cold War in a global perspective. He recently edited the book Team 10 East. Revisionist Architecture in Real Existing Modernism. His current project focuses on the mobility of architectural knowledge between European socialist countries, Africa and the Middle East after the Second World War.
About the magazine: ANZA is edited in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) since 2011. The Mission Statement of the magazine says: „We are an architectural magazine dedicated to exploring people and spaces through in-depth articles, images, scenes and discussions that go beyond the lines that divide building and sky. In our exploration, we hope to better understand our transforming East-African cities – and their identities – by looking at the past, present, and future with fun, seriousness and humor. In this little way, we hope to shape the planning, engineering, and architecture of our cities; and add richness to our living spaces.“ For more information please visit ANZA Magazine.