Natalia Raczkowska talks to Joanna Kusiak

Natalia Raczkowska: In the article Comparative urbanism for hope and healing: Urbicide and the dilemmas of reconstruction in post-war Syria and Poland,[1]written together with a Syrian researcher Ammar Azzouz, you address the issue of action despite the overwhelming destruction. Where does people’s ability to resist come from in seemingly hopeless circumstances?

Joanna Kusiak: Let me start by explaining why we wrote this article, because this is important to me. It would not have happened if I hadn’t met Ammar. I went to a lecture where Ammar, then still a PhD student, talked about his hometown, Homs. His personality and story resonated with what we – the people of Warsaw – know from history. Images of Homs turned into a sea of rubble reminded me of Warsaw; furthermore, Ammar – an architect forced into political exile by the war – survived the trauma of urbicide, yet he never stopped thinking about the future of his city. He believes in that future, even though in the current situation there are clearly no rational reasons for hope. Such circumstances require radical hope. It is the kind of hope that is fed not by the current state of affairs but by the fact that the future is ontologically open, or to put it less philosophically, that we do not know what is going to happen. This is both bad news and good news: everything may be destroyed, but it is conceivable that we will create completely new possibilities and new systems. However, we must remember that the latter do not arise on their own accord; instead, action is needed. Radical hope is the practice of not giving in to the terror of the status quo, no matter how unfavourable it may be.

NR: There are many differences between Warsaw and Homs – from their geographical location and cultural context, to the point in history in which they are located. What is it that connects these two cities?

JK: It is indeed difficult to compare Warsaw and Homs, but then urbicide looks the same everywhere. It results in a sea of rubble that levels all differences. I believe that these experiences are universal. We started writing the aforementioned article two years ago. Russia committed a full-scale assault against Ukraine before it was published, and the same thing is happening there now: architects and urban planners, both those who stayed and those who left the country, are organizing and thinking about reconstruction. For now, it is impossible to predict how and when the war will end. Radical hope in the borderline situation of urbicide does not depend on the cultural context. We used the examples of Warsaw and Homs because we come from these cities. We write from within our own experiences, so it was easy for us to universalize the most personal elements. There are more links as Poland and the Middle East have a long history of post-war exchange of ideas and collaborations. Łukasz Stanek wrote about this.

NR: Urbicide destroys more than just the urban fabric. You mention urbicide as a type of geotrauma. What is that?

JK: Man is a spatial being, related to space. Geotrauma is the trauma of both a person and a place – the individual and the collective. In Warsaw, this does not require explanations. Everyone in this city knows that the historical experience of violence is still tangible in its fabric. It manifests itself in three forms: firstly, in the obsession with commemoration – ubiquitous plaques and monuments; secondly, in the material bullet marks; thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, in the memories and bodies of people, including but not limited to the still-living insurgents and civilians – war survivors. Science has long proven that certain neurological characteristics we see in traumatized people are passed down to the generations that follow. We carry the traumas of past generations in our bodies, but also in our society, in the stories that shape us. Commemoration – such as on August 1, when the whole of Warsaw stops and the alarms sound – but also fatigue with the trauma and resistance to the obsession with commemoration are elements of post-traumatic work, of working through trauma. An important part of this process, already at its early stage, is hope and leaning into the future.

In the history of the reconstruction of Warsaw, I was most impressed by Szymon Syrkus. In a letter from Auschwitz, he wrote to his wife that living in a tight space with so many people would be an important reference point for him when building housing estates after the war. At first, this sentence seemed to me totally incomprehensible: a guy imprisoned in an extermination camp wonders how to use this experience in designing architecture – and yet, many people survived precisely thanks to positive thinking. We know this, among others, from psychologist Viktor Frankl, author of books about his experience in an extermination camp. A radical leap into the uncertainty of the future, an equal probability that the worst will happen or, on the contrary, the best will happen – these allow us to cling to hope in extreme situations.

NR: Is radical hope just a thought mechanism that allows one to escape from trauma and imagine the future? Or is it possible to turn hope into action in extreme situations?

JK: Radical hope must not be confused with naive optimism. Radical hope does not assume that everything will be fine. Rather, it involves the production of meanings in a situation in which we do not know whether everything will be fine. It manifests itself in attempts to make sense of such senseless existential experiences as the Holocaust. Syrkus’s behaviour can be called a practice of hope: in an extreme, inhuman situation, he looked into the future, but he was not escaping. He wasn’t pretending that he was somewhere else or that terrible things weren’t happening around him. Instead, he thought: How can I make sense of this experience and translate it into what is important to me? The vision of the city’s future was important to him. He practiced hope from two points of view: individual and collective. I think that the miracle of the reconstruction of Warsaw, which Grzegorz Piątek described so beautifully in his book Najlepsze miasto świata (The Best City in the World), was achieved because many people were spiritually and practically prepared for it. It does not matter, I think, whether or not designs that Polish architects had drawn up during the war were ultimately implemented. What was the decisive factor was the readiness to get down to work when the day after the liberation, or the day after the revolution, finally comes. Thanks to spiritual preparation, reconstruction beyond political divisions was later possible.

NR: How can one practice hope? And how can it be connected with architecture – a highly pragmatic field?

JK: During World War II, the Architectural and Urban Planning Studio was active clandestinely in the Polish underground, while architects living abroad were openly active. The Polish School of Architecture was opened in Liverpool in cooperation with the Polish government in exile. Its students, for example, designed the reconstruction of Warsaw’s Old Town as part of their final papers. In Syria, it is currently very much the same: many architects, urban planners and activists work locally underground under assumed names, while others contribute from abroad. Ammar was employed at ARUP for many years, which means that he practised his profession in Great Britain, but after hours he created projects with other expats. He also implemented a large project called Domicide – a series of video interviews about the annihilation of home. Several episodes are available on YouTube, and I had the honour of participating in one. The key to action has always been mobilization – both underground and among expats – and so it continues to be.

NR: Shortly after its completion, the reconstruction of Warsaw served as a blueprint for many cities, including Lima and Skopje. These reconstructions were embedded in a specific political and economic situation, which is unlikely to repeat today. Is there room for actors other than global capital in contemporary reconstruction efforts – in Syria, but also in Ukraine? What significance might the on-going self-organization of architects have for future actions? What alliances seem important?

JK: After World War II, reconstruction was centralized and organized by strong states in both socialist and capitalist countries. This happened before globalization as we know it today; back then, no one speculated in real estate on an international scale. Now every investment in real estate, whether commercial or residential, is an event on the global market – actors with large capital immediately appear and try to make money off it. In itself, this desire would not necessarily have to be bad, but unfortunately it is often satisfied at the expense of residents or other beneficiaries of reconstruction. In Syria, the Assad regime uses the slogan of reconstruction as a pretext for political purges and raising capital. People suspected of opposing the regime are deprived of their homes. In the displaced areas, shopping malls and luxury apartment buildings are being constructed – large commercial buildings that the majority of the population cannot afford. This makes Syria’s reconstruction bitter, making it harder to find reasons for hope. Spiritual and intellectual preparation for the reconstruction process is needed primarily to avoid being naive when dealing with projects. After every major political collapse there does not have to be urbicide; after all, we remember what happened in Poland in the 1990s after the change of the political system. Actors with large capital always immediately appear and try to cynically take advantage of the situation. At the same time, the shock of war or change makes society vulnerable to such abuses.

Fortunately, globalization also results in a global flow of knowledge. I work with Ammar as well as with architects and researchers from Ukraine to transfer and use the knowledge gained from previous experiences. Knowledge helps us to prepare for what may come.

NR: You mention the homogenization of society as one of the results of urbicide. How does it happen? How is exclusion encoded in space?

Reprivatization in Warsaw is an excellent example. It was carried out under the banner of social justice, but in fact it brought another wave of appalling injustice. We already know from research, publications, and the media that primarily a narrow group of professional businessmen benefited from the reprivatization process. Many of them became richer than the rightful heirs. Of course, the most harm befell the tenants of the reprivatized buildings and ordinary residents of Warsaw because it is from them that public areas, schools, sports fields, etc. were taken away. The problem stemmed primarily from individually understood ownership in a situation of dramatic historical collapse, which the razing of a city to the ground is. Property is an artefact of the domain of law – it only encodes the specific moment of the last change in ownership, while excluding the circumstances in which that change took place. Again, I will use the example from Warsaw because we know and understand this context well. The owner of a tenement house in the ghetto, a Jew, sells it under pressure to save his life. By taking into account only the right of ownership, we render irrelevant the circumstances in which the transaction took place, and we reduce the situation to the simple information about who bought the tenement house and for how much. Such simplification was common in stories known from the Warsaw reprivatization. Property law ignores the fact that Warsaw was rebuilt using public money and social volunteer work. It ignores the participation in the reconstruction of the people who received an apartment as part of the payment for their physical effort. It only takes into account the last transaction, which – in actuality – enables and sanctions money laundering.

That same mechanism is now deployed by the Assad regime. They manipulate property titles, often resorting to violence. Syrians are losing their assets because property titles make it possible to place these people in a specific location in space. People who oppose the regime – which is now a capital offense – cannot simply claim that they want their plot of land back. If such a daredevil is tracked down, as a rule he loses his life, either in prison or at the hands of a hired assassin. Property titles owed to victims are transferred to people associated with the regime in forced purchase-and-sale transactions. The regime thus cynically exploits private property.

In times of war, archives are burned. Without them, it is easy to manipulate property rights – to destroy or falsify documents. It was no different in Warsaw during World War II. Sometimes a forgery can be proven, but we will probably never know the true scale of this practice. Therefore, when thinking about future restitution projects, we must bear in mind the manipulation dimension, as is known from Warsaw. If we resort to simple restitution, we risk reinforcing injustice.

NR: Is the reverse process possible? How can social justice be encoded in space?

JK: Urbicide disasters are a good reason to radically redefine the ownership structure. Land municipalisation in a disaster situation is wrongly considered a socialist tool. And yet the Warsaw decree also had its counterpart in Rotterdam. Socialization of land is widely used because to rebuilding a city would be impossible without it. At the end of the article, we offered a proposal for a set of tools that could be useful if we wish to secure social and historical justice in the new urban fabric. Many restitution projects include, among other things, the issue of restoring some of the social fabric. In pre-war Warsaw, we had enormous social diversity, including a large Jewish population and many residents of other nationalities. A similarly multinational and multicultural society existed in the Balkans before the war and before the collapse of Yugoslavia. Research shows that restoring social diversity fails when we use simple property restitution. Property rights do not constitute a tool that would allow certain social groups to stay in their historic areas because property titles become the subject of commercial speculation during war (or after war, when owners’ heirs sell off their claims). In a situation of historical cataclysm, individualism leads to the deepening of injustice. The social fabric can only be preserved by a solution inspired by indigenous property structures that value collective property more than individual property – we have found no other method. In this system, it is necessary to assume that certain areas belong to certain larger social groups, not to individual people.

NR: Can this type of approach to property rights be introduced in a city that has not experienced a disaster and is not starting from scratch?

JK: The question about possibility can also be a question about hope. The whole world is currently plunged into several types of crises, including a housing crisis and a crisis of the model of individual ownership, whereas speculative capitalism is flourishing. These problems  not only concern cities that have been wiped off the face of the earth. When I am not writing articles about Syria, I am one of the spokespeople for the Berlin initiative of Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen. We strive to socialise two hundred and fifty thousand apartments in Berlin in accordance with Article 15 of the German constitution. In 2021, we organized a referendum on this matter and won it with 60 per cent of the votes. Due to resistance on the part of the city authorities, the goal has not yet been achieved; the last elections in Berlin were won by the CDU, so for now there is no prospect of our demands being implemented. Even so, progress has been made because five years ago such a referendum would have had no chance of success.

NR: We are talking in the context of an issue of “Autoportret” devoted to self-organization. Anthropologists point out that crisis situations trigger people’s extraordinary ability to self-organize and provide help and mutual support. How to develop grassroots activities at the intersection of institutional activities? And what to do if social energy runs out and solidarity reflexes fade away?

JK: The example of Warsaw shows that mobilization is not always universal: it gains and then loses popularity. The reconstruction plans were actually drawn up by a small group of architects, but at the right moment they got many people involved. It is a myth that social change comes through the power of the majority. Social change is always the doing of a well-organized minority of those who put in the work despite the seeming lack of prospects. Finally, a historic moment comes when the balance of power reverses, and when changes suddenly accelerate because people are prepared and have already done some of the work. Changes are never initiated by the majority. There is no point in complaining and hoping that eventually more of us will gather: we just have to do our job. For your own sanity, it’s worth telling yourself that the most important breakthroughs have always come from the work of an enthusiastic minority. As Margaret Mead wrote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

NR: Does solidarity help in action? This word has a special tradition and history in Poland, and we like to argue about it. Do we have a chance to regain that? Does it make sense to bring it back in the debate, to separate it from the “Solidarity” movement? Or maybe we should return to the old ideals? If so, which ones?

JK: We won’t get rid of this word from our vocabulary, and we absolutely should not try to do so. Despite the conflict within “Solidarity” and its subsequent disintegration, it was a powerful social movement and a beautiful chapter in the Polish tradition. It is naive to think that everything will always be cordial and pleasant and that we will avoid divisions, but both the “Solidarity” movement and the reconstruction of Warsaw show that mobilization across divisions is possible at crucial moments. In Warsaw, the priority was reconstruction, with particular emphasis on building accessible housing, as was brilliantly demonstrated by Grzegorz Piątek. People from both sides of the political barricade took part in the reconstruction effort. Even opponents of the new regime recognized that reconstruction was the primary goal: individual beliefs faded away in comparison to that and they wanted to contribute. Let’s not forget this lesson.

NR: How can attitudes from the times of reconstruction, from the birth of a certain movement, be translated into today’s realities? We seem to be experiencing political stagnation, but at the same time crises are mounting: an economic crisis, a housing crisis, and a climate crisis. Each of those requires radical, decisive action. JK: My advice is to follow the example of the former architects of Warsaw and the contemporary architects of Syria and Ukraine. Instead of debating a complicated crisis, let’s ask ourselves what we would do if the crisis ended tomorrow. Are we ready for a crisis-free tomorrow? Do we know what we want? The problem we have is not with the crisis but with our own will: we have forgotten what kind of future we wish for. We have become so focused on the problems that we cannot imagine the alternatives. Perhaps the most important lesson from past and present extreme situations is that we should not take anything for granted, not even crises. You never really know what will happen tomorrow. We can lose everything – and we can create anything.