2018 | 28 | 139-167
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The Memory of Opulence and the Freedom of a Pauper: The Constructionmaterial Discourse in the Polish Construction Industry in the Period of the Thaw

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The issue of construction materials was one of the essential topics that determined the architectural discourse of the Thaw era. Reminiscences of designers regarding the pre-war wealth of construction materials on offer, as contrasted with current scarcity, revealed the critical and ideologically subversive potential of this topic. This was because such statements not only questioned the “excellence of the way today’s construction site is organised”, eloquently promoted by the Stalinist propaganda, but also highlighted the actual meaninglessness of slogans regarding technological progress and the introduction of new materials into construction practice, which had been tooted since the latter half of 1953. In reality, the central point was cost-cutting, as shown by the parallel campaign undertaken by the authorities, advocating the use of “locally obtainable and waste materials”, i.e. materials that could be acquired without putting a burden on the inefficient state industry. At the same time, however, this campaign, initiated at the threshold of the Thaw, contained some interesting ideological themes, since in return for the dearth of materials, it offered the citizens a legal prospect of conducting – individually or cooperatively, but in each case independently from governmental control – activities aimed at assuaging their housing needs; this constituted a departure from the centralised model of housing construction as promoted in the Stalinist period. Also, small-size houses made of reed boards, which began to be manufactured at that time, turned the general attention to the applicability of lightweight prefabrication – significantly different from large-size concrete block prefabrication promoted at the time following the Soviet models – in contemporary housing construction. A growing interest in, or even fascination with, individual house-building activity of the Polish population soon became evident in the milieus of construction experts and engineers. These feelings found their expression ca. 1958 in, on the one hand, numerous handbooks promoting the notion of a do-it-yourself house, and on the other, in far-reaching analyses of the “wild”, i.e. unauthorised, housing construction in Warsaw, treated as socially detrimental activity, but also as a testimony to the citizens’ spontaneity and creativity. However, in a long-term perspective, it was hard to believe that “local and waste materials” would reduce the chasm between the still unmet needs of the population and the construction policy of the state. In the period of Gomułka’s government, the cost-cutting measures continued to be implemented, but the aspirations and needs of the citizens who undertook to build their own houses, as well as the ambitions of architects, were growing. This is well-documented by the 1964 contest for cost-effective single-family houses, where industrially produced construction materials predominated. Private construction was thus entering a grey zone, not covered by any economic concepts developed by the state; the time of fashioning houses out of clay was over and the époque of cement-stealing had begun.
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