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0108 Katarzyna Uchowicz, Reading Muranów. Memory of a place / memory of an architect. Commentary on the postwar work of Bohdan Lachert (English version)

RIHA Journal 0108 | 31 December 2014 | Special Issue "Contemporary art and memory"

Reading Muranów. Memory of a place / memory of an architect

Commentary on the postwar work of Bohdan Lachert

Katarzyna Uchowicz

Editing and peer review managed by:

Katarzyna Jagodzińska, Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury, Kraków / International Cultural Centre, Krakow


Marta Leśniakowska, Joanna Sosnowska

Wersja polska dostępna pod adresem / Polish version available at: (RIHA Journal 0107)


The text concentrates on the concept of South Muranów – a residential quarter / monument realised in the area of the Warsaw ghetto by the architect Bohdan Lachert. It attempts to show this work as an artistic myth created by the artist. An analysis of the architect's texts and a reconstruction of the circumstances in which the project was realised, as well as the details of Lachert's biography reveal new layers of this architectonic palimpsest. Clear references to the bold visions of Śródmieście (City Centre) by Maciej Nowicki and an adaptation for the purposes of residential quarter / place of memory experiments at transforming rubble, popular in the 1940s, provoke questions about the originality of the concept of Muranów, whose unquestionable value is the spatial composition stemming from pioneering experiments by Katarzyna Kobro, organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Nowicki'c new functionalism. The history of the quarter is at the same time a microcosm of the initial years of rebuilding Warsaw and of the socialist realist chaos after 1949, as well as a record of the search for artistic subjectivity of a Modernist architect in a new reality.



  1. The quarter of South Muranów was created in the centre of Warsaw in the years 1948–1955 and it spanned over the present streets of: Generała Władysława Andersa, Solidarności, Żelazna, and Nowolipie. The urban and architectonic plan was conceived by Bohdan Lachert (1900–1987), a prewar Modernist architect. Located on the area of the demolished Warsaw ghetto (1940–1943), the quarter was built according to the author's concept as a quarter-memorial from prefabricated rubble-concrete air-bricks, in keeping with the arrangement of the previously existing streets. The controversial idea, developed in the atmosphere of complete freedom in which postwar architecture emerged, was reformulated in 1949 after the introduction of the doctrine of socialist realism and, after the elevation was covered with plaster and architectonic decorations, it lost the exterior character of experimental architecture. Lachert gave up directing the construction of Muranów (1951) and handed the work over to Janusz Stępkowski, who continued the construction under his supervision.

  2. Muranów is considered a sensational project in global architecture as the only residential quarter constructed from ruins and on ruins, thus constituting a memorial of the ghetto. Its name originates from the Venetian island Murano, the place of birth of the architect and decorator Józef Szymon Bellotti (d. 1708), who erected here his palace and gave it a name referring to his town of origin.

  3. The term "South" refers to the part of Muranów realised soon after the end of the war (1948) by "Muranów" architecture studio led by Lachert, and later by Stępkowski. This project was followed up by North Muranów, whose concept was developed (in the years 1952–1955) by Stanisław Brukalski, Barbara Andrzejewska-Urbanowicz and Stanisław Szurmak.

I got used to the fact that my projects have almost always been controversial. Neither in Poland nor abroad have the best of them been realised. As for Muranów… it's another story. After 1950 there was a very unfavourable period of a break in the views on architecture, which became subject to the rules of socialist realism. This period complicated the initiated work on the quarter of Muranów. Its present form is very far from my original intentions that inspired the project. The intervention in the urban plan and architecture design, as well as the tendency to eliminate any signs of the author's original concept do not let me feel full satisfaction of the effort I put in this project (Bohdan Lachert, 1979)1.

Muranów: a double perspective

  1. In a monographic study by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak titled Getto warszawskie. Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście [The Warsaw Ghetto. A Guide to a Non-existent City], the area of the former ghetto, where the present South Muranów was erected, was defined as the place-after-ghetto, which is to express any material testimony of the previously existing urban structures.

The place-after-ghetto is empty (though it is covered with architecture), it is emptied and dead (though filled with lively activity). The place remains, yet it had been emptied, deprived of its »content«, its »inside«. The ghetto that was here was destroyed, yet this »here« remains, covered however with the presence of the present Muranów. What remains is frames that contain a different reality altogether, just a topographical point, a cartographic abstraction. Walking today in the area of the former ghetto, we experience a particular kind of paradox of the presence of emptiness. This experience comes with a kind of broadened vision, a doubling of perspective. Suddenly, we start to see what we cannot see (an imagined reconstruction of the ghetto); while in a sense we no longer see what we actually see (the reality of here and now). The topography of contemporary Muranów becomes in a sense a transparent curtain that covers what we really want to see. Absence suddenly becomes present, the place-after-ghetto becomes real, and the ghetto itself – this non-existent city – is recovered in memory2.

1 Muranów, 28 Nowolipie Street, 1934. Photograph by H. Khalówna. (Collection of IS PAN, Warsaw, negative, No. 7446)

  1. South Muranów, constructed on a rubble scarp made of rubble-concrete prefabricated elements in the area of the former Northern Dictrict3, is situated in the centre of Warsaw. Separated from the city like a fortress with a dense borderline structure, it is preceded with a wide terrace with free-standing columns, visually closing the W-Z route (from the side of Generała Andersa Street, previously called Marcelego Nowotki) and opening with a monumental gate in the form of a triumphal arch – elements drawn from the residential quarter at Moscow's Rostovski Boulevard designed by Alexey Shchusev (1933)4. The form of the present-day Muranów is different from Lachert's initial concept, hence the unrealised postwar architecture could also be defined with a metaphysical phrase "a double perspective". The concept of the residential quarter-memorial developed by the architect was to stem from the roots of the ghetto and store the memory of the place, combining its past and new reality on the level of the topography of streets and architecture characterised by a rough texture of ground rubble in grey-pink colour. Lachert's original project, gradually transformed in the course of realisation, was finally reduced to a failed architectonic experiment. Nevertheless, it was the original idea that had special impact on the present perception of the postwar structure and contemporary artistic initiative undertaken in the public space of Muranów (such as the design of Osiedle Pomnik Muranów [Quarter Memorial Muranów] by Odblokuj Association, 2013).

2 Anna Koźbiel and Adam Walas, a now non-existent mural commemorating Bohdan Lachert, 2012. Photography by the author

  1. As a result of an initiative by the Association of Cultural and Social Initiatives "Stacja Muranów", in 2012 one of the gates of the estate at 17, Nowolipki Street there was created a mural devoted to Lachert and Józef Szanajca (1902–1939), made by Anna Koźbiel and Adam Walas (no longer existing)5. The two architects were presented separately, on opposite sides of the wall. A clear portrait of Szanajca (from the side of Nowolipki Street) was inscribed in a neoplasticist composition, referring to the prewar avant-garde work of Lachert & Szanajca6. The figure of Lachert, presented as a thinker, was kept in grey and blue colours on the background of a fragment of the plan of Muranów. The images of architects were based on photographs. Lachert's image was modelled on a photograph published in Literatura magazine, accompanying an interview conducted by Wojciech Adamiecki (1979)7. The historically inaccurate narrative of the mural, presenting the plan of Muranów (1948) and the image of the architect thirty years later (1979), accidentally illustrates one of the most significant motifs in the history of Muranów. More or less at the same time (1976), the architect made an attempt to summarise his experiences of constructing the estate and produced a typewritten text titled "Historia powstania osiedla Muranowa Południowego w latach 1948–1952" ["The history of construction of South Muranów in the years 1948–1952"], as suggested by the architect's granddaughter, Ewa Lachert-Stryjkowska:

By the end of his life, my grandfather gave me something like a diary, or his notes on the construction of Muranów (1949–1950). He discusses his project and explains why finally he refused to finish the construction, even though it was his design. What I find the most interesting part of the history of Muranów is the idea of prefabricating the rubble. The buildings were supposed not to be covered with plaster (so that the rubble would have been visible). My grandfather wanted Muranów to be a monument of what happened there during the war – it was supposed to be a monument of the Ghetto. However, there came a decision from higher up to cover the buildings in plaster, to make designs of all the details, friezes, attics. In fact, at this moment my grandfather's idea was completely destroyed. This was the main reason why he decided to leave "Muranów" studio. He couldn't cope with that, despite the fact that he was always a part of the entire system – he was a Party member, after all, which he never tried to hide8.

  1. The family no longer holds the Muranów diary. The document was referred to by Wojciech Włodarczyk and Waldemar Baraniewski in their pioneering publications on the architecture and visual arts of socialist realism9. The latter paraphrased the contents of the notes – several typewritten pages of copy-paper. This cast away any suspicions that the document had a form of Dziennik Pracowni MDM [A Journal of MDM Studio]10 posted in the Internet. Fragments of Lachert's memoirs were included in Piotr Matywiecki's book Kamień graniczny [The Border Stone], whom the architect had given the typewritten text11. Selected excerpts include the description of a rubble desert, economic and technical conditions of leaving / removing the rubble, a brief draft of the concept of the quarter-memorial, and the imposed changes of the original concept (putting plaster on rubble-concrete elevations and making the architectonic structure denser) after the introduction of socialist realism (1949). The notes were not – as could be expected – in the form of a personal narrative, but constituted merely a short commentary limited to descriptions published in professional magazines at the time when Muranów was being constructed12. The description of the destruction of the architecture, provided by Matywiecki, appeared in Lachert's texts already before the beginning of the work on the Muranów quarter. He described the methodical demolition of the Northern District (the ghetto) in an opinion titled "Zniszczenie Warszawy. Zamierzenia Niemców w stosunku do Warszawy w aspekcie opracowań urbanistycznych…" ["The Destruction of Warsaw. German plans for Warsaw in the context of urban planning…"](1946), working as an expert witness in the trial against Ludwig Fischer at the Supreme National Tribunal13.

Muranów: the memory of an architect

"What is a myth, today? I shall give at the outset a first, very simple answer, which is perfectly consistent with etymology: myth is a type of speech."

Roland Barthes, Myth Today14

  1. When writing "The history of construction of South Muranów", the architect was seventy-six years old. Why did he decide to write a summary of the process of shaping the place almost a quarter of a century after he developed the original concept? One of the reasons was the jubilee of 50 years of his creative work, for which he prepared a statement "Wspomnienia Bohdana Lacherta – architekta i urbanisty" ["the Memories of Bohdan Lachert – an architect and urban planner"], read at the Faculty of Architecture of the Warsaw University of Technology, where he mentioned Muranów as an incomplete and unfinished work15. The same year, Helena Syrkusowa published a vast study titled Ku idei osiedla społecznego 1925–1976 [Towards the Idea of a Social Residential Estate 1925–1976]16. The history of Muranów completed the reflections of the architect with whom Lachert had professional and personal relations, lasting continuously since the establishment of an avant-garde group Praesens (Lachert, Szanajca, Barbara and Stanisław Brukalski, Szymon and Helena Syrkus, 1925)17. The idea of the quarter-memorial was the only example of this kind of social residential estate.

  2. The need to commemorate the place-after-ghetto was related to the personal experiences of the architect, who during the occupation worked in conspiracy. He got involved in it through his wife, Irena Lachertowa, an activist of the Rada Pomocy Żydom [Council to Aid Jews] (Żegota) and of Związek Walki Zbrojnej [Union of Armed Struggle], who described the story of her family in an unpublished "Pamiętnik Agaty Kowalskiej (Ireny z Nowakowskich Lachertowej), Warszawa, wrzesień 1939 – lipiec 1944" ["The Diary of Agata Kowalska (Irena z Nowakowskich Lachertowa), Warsaw, September 1939 – July 1944"], stored in a family archive. From this source we know that the Lacherts were hiding in their house in Saska Kępa, at 9, Katowicka Street, a twelve-year-old Piotr, among others, the son of Maksymilian Goldberg and Alicja Godlewska. Goldberg, an avant-garde architect, a graduate of the Faculty of Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology, a professional partner of Hipolit Rutkowski, had relations with the Modernist circles of Praesens group, while Goldberg & Rutkowski were before the war competing with Lachert and Szanajca within the field of avant-garde architecture and innovative designs. As the "Diary" and the materials stored at the Jewish Historical Institute suggest that the Lacherts wanted to persuade Goldberg to leave the ghetto. Finally, Lachert took from the building of the court in Leszno only Goldberg's son, Piotr18. Anna Kubiak, employed at the Institute, conducted in 1950 interviews with selected architects titled "Wywiady o zmarłych architektach Żydach" ["Interviews about the deceased Jewish architects"]. Her interviewees were to verify Goldberg's biography written by his wife, who noted19:

[My husband] decided to go to the ghetto – he thought that by staying in Warsaw at houses of friends who offered him shelter he was putting them at risk. In the ghetto, in a very difficult atmosphere, he was teaching young Jews at a construction school about the rules of construction, how to speak and write in Polish because all his life he considered himself and was considered Polish. Visits of his friends and meeting them in Courts were very relaxing for him. By drawing and writing he fenced himself off from the terrible reality. Barbara Brukalska aptly noted at the time, Maksymilian was saving himself as an artist and as a human being, but not his biological existence. The main reason why he was not trying to save himself was the fear that he would pose a threat to someone, that's why he rejected offers of his colleagues and friends20.

  1. Lachert added to the biography a short commentary about the artist, preserved in Kubiak's notes: ''[Maksymilian Goldberg], one of the greatest architects. A phenomenal memory. A subtle and sharp intelligence. Great speaker and great satirist. I agree with his wife's biography that he died while still being alive and that's why he cut himself off from reality even though he still had a good sense of this reality''21. Goldberg died on 28 August 1942, probably transported to the camp in Treblinka. Lachert's idea to create a quarter-memorial of the Warsaw ghetto probably drew also from the need to preserve the memory of his architect friend.

Muranów: quarter/memorial

  1. The beginnings of the development of the idea date back to the fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (19 April 1948), when near the ruins of Muranów there was unveiled the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes – the effect of the collaboration between the sculptor Natan Rapaport and architect Leon Mark Suzin. Lachert expressed then his opinion about the architectural and sculptural concept in the magazine Głos Plastyków (1948)22. His opinion contained many hypothetical hints for the future creator of the architectural plan of Muranów and it is possibly then when – still on the level of vision – the idea for the spatial form of the memorial appeared. Lachert commented on it thus: ''A project of an architect responsible for the construction of Muranów should not diminish these artistic accents of highest quality that were created by the sculptor Rapaport in great sculptures of bronze and granite, perfectly completed with a general arrangement of the monument by the architect Suzin. The monument, located on the site from where the rubble was removed, grows – in a way – from the area of the Ghetto uprising, from the area of the former, past life. The cleaned streets of Muranów are valleys among the rubble, lying on nowadays even two-metre-thick layer. This rubble should be left on the site in the biggest possible quantity to commemorate the days of terror and struggle – to form the ground on which new city and new life will be erected. The visual perception of the two levels of former streets and the new buildings will evoke the historical cataclysm, the historical break"23. The formal arrangement of the future architectonic structure had a prewar genesis, drawing from the experiments of Katarzyna Kobro, an artist member of Praesens group24 ("Unist sculpture, which promotes the organic unity of sculpture with its surroundings, proposes that the shape of sculpture is not a value in itself, but it is an expression of the spatial relations"25). In Kobro's art, the dematerialisation of the form (sculpture) was achieved by separated layers linked by colour, whereas Lachert separated the elements of a coherent structure through the differences of levels, by delineating given sequences of movements in the space of Muranów (which is still relevant).

  2. What was crucial for the emergence of the idea of the quarter-memorial was also the architect's experience as a sculptor. During occupation, in 1943 or 1944, Lachert made a bust portrait of Józef Szanajca (this was the only full-formed sculpture in his oeuvre). Due to limited materials available during the war the structure made of wire and medicine bottles was filled with plasticine26.

  3. After 1945 Lachert established a cooperation with Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz, a sculptor and nineteen years his junior, with whom he developed several architectonic-sculptural projects, among others one of the first monuments devoted to the Red Army, planned on several levels (stairs, platforms, and amphitheatre, 1946)27. Lachert provided an extensive commentary on the merging of sculpture and architecture (as well as close collaboration between the sculptor and the architect in shaping public space) in a survey published in Głos Plastyków magazine (Współpraca rzeźby, architektury i malarstwa [The joint work of sculpture, architecture, and painting], 1946)28. This statement was reflected in his practice as an architect – the same year saw the emergence of the first post-war projects referring to the stylistics of the 1930s, in which noble materials were replaced by siding and ornaments from rubble-concrete. These were: PKO building at 124 Marszałkowska Street (1946), post office in Targowa Street (1946, based on projects developed with Szanajca in 1939) and modernization of Katowicka Street in Saska Kępa as the representative artery of the Office for the Reconstruction of the Capital (Lachert lived there from 1929). All these projects put special visual focus on the cross bond of brickwork, while the rubble-concrete is used as a starting point for the shaping of architectonic detail together with a grey-pink covering layer (siding). The means of transforming rubble-concrete and its technical qualities were examined at the time by BOS (1945–1948). After the announcement of a competition for the reuse of the rubble in 1945, Lachert, as the head of the Department of Architecture and Engineering at BOS, wrote an opinion about the concept of prefabrication undertaken directly on construction site:

The idea allows for using rubble as material for light concrete. The new material will have considerable thermal value, which will make it possible to reduce the thickness of walls. As a consequence, the weight supported by foundations will be reduced and laying foundations will become cheaper. It is possible to produce this material in the shape of large blocks with sizes adapted to mechanical installation of walls. It is possible also to use it in the form of powder and this way freely shape it in the boards of formwork. It will contribute to the freedom of the architect when working on the design. The porous structure of rubble and possibility of forming it into particular construction elements make this material easy to apply in the mechanized organization of modern construction work29.

  1. Before developing his concept of a housing quarter on ruins and of rubble Lachert had already had practical experience, wide technical knowledge, as well as – resulting from the character of the competition – an entire range of possibilities of processing and using this material. The method of reusing the existing material was also examined at the time by other Warsaw-based architects, among others Bohdan Lewandowski (the building of Towarzystwo Reasekuracji [Association of Reinsurance, 1947–1949) and Kazimierz Marczewski (Dom Słowa Polskiego [The House of Polish Word], 1949–1950). The possibility of various ways of shaping the rubble-concrete mass was used by Jarnuszkiewicz in his design of architectonic details: grids, openwork interlace, and relief decorations on the facades of the PKO building and houses in Katowicka Street.