Zofia Jaworowska, Michał Sikorski and Petro Vladimirov, curators of the exhibition in the Polish Pavilion at the London Design Biennale 2023, in conversation with Aleksandra Kędziorek

ALEKSANDRA KĘDZIOREK: You are presenting the Poetics of Necessity exhibition in the Polish Pavilion at the London Design Biennale (1–25 June 2023). This year’s event has the theme The Global Game: Remapping Collaborations, with Het Nieuwe Instituut of Rotterdam as the first institution to curate the exhibition. Why do you think the biennale has taken up this topic now? How do you approach it in your exhibition?

MICHAŁ SIKORSKI: The theme of the biennale consists of two equally important parts: remapping and collaboration. I suppose that the experience of Aric Chen, the director of Het Nieuwe Instituut, makes him inclined to promote crossing traditional borders, either territorial or organizational: he comes from outside Europe, he works in the Netherlands, and he is curating the biennale in the UK. Chen represents the voice of the post-globalization-era generation – fluently moving from country to country, from continent to continent. Meanwhile, in recent years, the pandemic and the war have changed the way things worked in previous decades, specifically in the sphere of cooperation.

ZOFIA JAWOROWSKA: Today, we are not just reading about how the centre of geopolitics is moving away from Europe – we are experiencing it. China and India have a significant impact on our context. In Europe, the focus is moving eastwards. To that we need to add the social factor: in the face of the war and various crises, people’s need for solidary thinking is activated; we seek a sense of security in acting together and sticking together. This instinct is transferred to various fields.

MICHAŁ SIKORSKI: In the theme of the biennale, I find the word ‘remapping’ the most interesting, and this is exactly what our project is about. On a national scale, we see that Poland is remapping itself as a community. It is redefining its position and the way it functions from the bottom up. After decades of chasing the West, we can turn around and see that as a community we have potential that we hadn’t necessarily previously noticed and is different from conservative dreams. As a curatorial team, and within the scale of our activities, we have taken a similar path with this exhibition. Each of us comes from a different professional environment: Zofia is a translator who is active in NGOs; Petro has an art and curatorial background, while I have a typical architectural and urban design background. Based on our own experience and education, we remap what we can, focusing on the object of our interest: the reuse of building materials, mainly windows, primarily for humanitarian aid, but not exclusively so.

ZOFIA JAWOROWSKA: Because each of us came into this collaborative effort with a different set of skills, knowledge and competences, everyone tells the project’s story a little differently. I don’t think that will change. After all, we are tackling something embedded in a changing context. The exhibition has its origins in an aid project to support Ukraine. Because of war damage, there is a pressing need for building materials. Ultimately, this will change; in fact, it already has. The number and variety of types of organisations involved in this aid are changing; the course of the war has been changing, too. Therefore, we believe that the interpretation of our pavilion will also be updated because it is very much embedded in the current reality.

AK: As the concept of the exhibition has grown out of earlier grassroots initiatives, let us start by talking about the “Resources Group”. What was that about and is it still active?

ZJ: The Resources Group was active for 2 months. This was a rapid response to the beginning of the Russian military operation in Ukraine. The Group’s chief objective was to find accommodation, beds, mattresses, and places to stay in Polish homes for persons arriving at Warsaw West Railway Station from Ukraine. These people did not know where to go, where to turn for help. That phase ended in April 2022. It was challenging work, both physically and emotionally – fighting for some order amidst the chaos. Gradually the needs of those arriving in Poland have changed: those who were looking for accommodation for a few days, or those who had no skills or means to rent something on their own, were replaced by those looking for something more permanent, although the market did not make it easy or even possible. We were unable to meet these permanent needs. We decided to end our activities there and then, when we felt we had done some good, before the pressures ruined the quality of help that we were able to provide.

MS: The Resources Group was a grassroots initiative, completely spontaneous, with no legal status. It was started by Zofia and a handful of friends. In two months, relying on volunteers alone, they found accommodation for 5.5 thousand people. I observed these activities closely. The drive, the agency, the organisational power of the team were truly impressive. I saw that people equipped with specific tools and skills started using them, literally overnight, for totally new purposes. For instance, our friends who were professional producers, typically working in the shallow world of advertising, used their organisational and logistic skills, while software developers built applications, free of charge, to improve the efficiency of the assistance offered. We needed to solve database problems. At first, we did not know how to link the people who were ready to make accommodation available with the people who were arriving at Warsaw West and needed a place to stay. The open source app created at the time is still used and updated now; it comes in handy in other crisis situations.

AK: The grassroots movement in Poland, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, was tremendous. The state and its institutions were slow to react. In a crisis situation, suddenly, it turned out that it is self-organisation….

ZJ: Yes, self-organisation! I believe this was one of the most important episodes in my life. We all felt that we were doing something good; furthermore, that we were acting in a safe way, and that we were hyper-well-organised. We were so proud to have managed that in a critical situation.

AK: What is needed for self-organisation? Infrastructure? People?

MS: The goal.

PETRO VLADIMIROV: And a network of contacts.

ZJ: Yes, a network of contacts is key to an action’s success.

MS: Back then, the narrative was that the state system is failing, that Poland equals zrzutka.pl (a crowd-funding website)…

ZJ: Poland is the kingdom of self-organisation, but I don’t know if that’s always a good thing.

PV: It is an interesting observation, because I always thought it was Ukraine that was the kingdom of self-organisation.

ZJ: Of course, Ukrainians are one level above! In Poland, self-organisation is really doing well, according to the popular saying “Polak potrafi” (Poles can) – because Poles must manage somehow when the state turns out to be inadequate, failing. Self-organisation is beautiful, but it often results not from idealism or pure goodness of heart but from a situation in which someone else should react to a need, but they fail to do so.

PV: Ukraine can be quoted as an example of a country in which the authorities and society have long led separate, parallel lives, independent of one another. Euromaidan was built on the slogans of “people against government”. People self-organised quickly and efficiently to achieve their objective. Since the outbreak of the current war, we have observed how the nation is turning into the state – how the two layers are merging, integrating.

AK: Do you envisage the possibility for the Resources Group to revive, to serve another purpose, if needed?

ZJ: I think so, and I think it can be done quickly and efficiently. For now, there is no need. Some of the former volunteers of the Resources Group have now joined the OKNO (WINDOW) initiative, for which they help to load windows for transport.

AK: That is the project you started together with Peter and the BRDA Foundation in June last year. Why did you start by collecting windows, of all things?

ZJ: I felt the need not to stop – to go on working. Previously, I worked for NGOs, and I understood it was time to start something of my own. I was involved with the issues of housing and building, and I wanted to continue in that field, but I realised that help for persons from Ukraine had reached its maximum capacity at the grassroots level, and it would be difficult to find a niche or a field to tackle. We reached the moment when the institutions of the city and the state needed to take over. I also realised I would not be able to handle activity that would be emotionally extremely taxing – direct confrontation with the theme of war – so the war had to remain in the background. I met Petro only after the war broke out. We started to work together, combining our expertise and Petro’s knowledge of Ukraine, and we arrived at the conclusion that there was a shortage of windows in grassroots reconstruction.

PV: In an explosion, the windows are the first to go. In Ukraine, most of the windows are of poor quality; they are not triple-glazed plastic windows but rather wooden windows from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They fall out even if the explosion occurs a few hundred metres away and the property has not been damaged. Before the war, 80 per cent of window frames and glass were imported into Ukraine from Russia and Belarus. The only Ukrainian glass factory was located in the town of Lysychansk in the Donbas region.

It was partially destroyed when Lysychansk was occupied. The price of building materials went up. When we were working on this project, Ukraine had regained the Kyiv and Chernihiv region as well as part of the Kharkiv region. People were returning from Poland and finding their houses had no windows, so we decided that it was windows that would be most needed.

ZJ: They are still needed. Almost all of the windows we have sent to Ukraine so far have gone to private individuals. The new owners are installing them in their homes using DIY methods to gain protection from the cold, wind and rain, and a basic form of security.

It is worth mentioning that this project is 95 per cent based on recycled windows. We can obtain these windows free of charge; new ones are monstrously expensive. We wanted to find a way of supporting the reconstruction that was low-cost but at the same time effective and well quantifiable, so that the help would be tangible and, of course, visible.

AK: In doing so, you have become part of the much-discussed topic of the circulation of materials in architecture.

MS: We had been interested in this subject before, but we lacked the impetus to translate the experience of the Belgians at Rotor studio or the Swiss from baubüro in situ into the context of our own activities. The war provided the impetus – a meaningful application and motivation. Indeed, the WINDOW project is part of the Zeitgeist that is connected to the popularisation of reusable building materials. Anything that avoids the need to produce new materials makes sense because it reduces carbon emissions and preserves energy resources.

AK: How is this organised? Do you collect windows in Poland, ship them to Ukraine, and then immediately distribute them to private individuals, or do other organisations act as intermediaries?

PV: The bottom-up reconstruction in Ukraine is experimental. When we started the WINDOW project, we made contact with five community organisations in Ukraine. In the course of our work, some of them have changed their objectives, becoming involved in the removal of debris from areas affected by the armed conflict. We have built the longest and most fruitful relationship with the District #1 Foundation, which operates in the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Kherson regions. It was this team that took Polish windows and began distributing them to private individuals.

AK: Before February 2022, District #1 brought together individuals who wanted to develop Kiev’s nightlife and dealt with fashion and open-air events. After the Russian invasion, they immediately changed their operations and started using their resources to rebuild homes…

MS: …and from ultimate hedonism, they turned to ultimate altruism.

PV: When we started collaborating, they were already going from one town liberated from Russian occupation to another and helping rebuild the demolished houses: they were replacing windows, installing roofs. It was then that they had an idea to raise cheap wood-framed homes for fast assembly. By winter, they had three of those built; now they are planning to build about fifty more. They are veritable real estate developers by now. (laughs)

ZJ: But they are building from donated materials, so it’s a rather different business model!

MS: They are certainly as effective as real estate developers, though.

PV: It is interesting to observe how people who used to go to help remove rubble are now beginning to build houses. This change happened over nine months – super fast, and it is indeed wonderful. They receive the windows from us and then manage the needs on the ground. By coincidence – but stemming from need – whenever Ukraine recovers some territory, this is where our windows go. More than half of them went to Kherson.

ZJ: In fact, 56 per cent in 2022 to be precise, although this is difficult to track exactly: there is a war going on and our partners are very busy. Currently, among other things, they have been building modular houses for families who have lost their homes, so we have only partial documentation from the field. I believe it highly possible for someone to read about our project in Ukrainian media and say: “I will take care of those windows for Kherson. I will take a truck, get in, bring the windows, and distribute them among my fellow citizens in Kherson district.” We are talking to District #1, and these conversations will be part of the catalogue for the London Design Biennale exhibition – and from these conversations, we will know in more detail what was happening on the Ukrainian end. For now, we know the statistics – what went where, how they took care of it, we have photographic documentation, but so far we have not had time to talk at length, heart to heart. The results are good, and we’ve gone on to the second edition of the program. We’re going further afield: we’ll be sending windows to Kharkiv and Kherson.

AK: So, self-organisation is also needed on the other end. Most NGOs donate the funds collected for Ukraine to institutions. The strength of your project is that the aid goes directly to individual people or grassroots groups such as District #1.

PV: The way I see it, the state and its institutions are now busy with the war, whereas the reconstruction efforts are grassroots work. People are not waiting for someone to come and give them things. If they are able to assemble a window and if they have the necessary materials, then they will do it, no problem. To support them, we have put together instructions as part of the project – showing different methods of installing windows, which is especially useful if the window is too small or too narrow for the window opening.

MS: Not everyone can install a window themselves. It’s not easy if you have a mixture of windows from different places, and of different types and sizes. It is not often that a recycled window fits perfectly into the opening left by the broken one. So, how do you fit a window that is too big or too small? Miastopracownia studio – curators of DoFA, the Lower Silesian Festival of Architecture – asked Zofia and me to lead a workshop as part of the festival. The topic that we set for the workshop was this seemingly simple question: how do you fit a window of a given size into an opening of a different size?

Working with the students was super interesting. Instead of reinventing the whole world and tearing down the foundations of architecture, as sometimes happens in such workshops, we asked the students to draw the details. The results were so interesting that the topic was picked up by the architects from the Prolog group (who also participated in the festival). Then, together as part of the BRDA Foundation, we created an open source catalogue showing various possibilities for assembly. It is reminiscent of the instruction manuals that come with Ikea products. This is an example of remapped collaboration: we initiated it at the invitation of the curators, then the idea was picked up by others and complemented by other studios. Now we have taken it back and are presenting the results as part of an exhibition at the London Design Biennale.

AK: Before we go back to talking about the exhibition, please explain why you started demolishing the Warsaw Atrium office building.

ZJ: It wasn’t us! It was the investor and the demolition company! Our participation in this is purely symbolic. It started with the Strabag company deciding to donate 215 windows from the demolition of this building. With frames. That’s the most important thing with demolition windows, because without frames you only get a fixed window that cannot be opened or tilted. Windows with frames are sought after and the company’s employees did make an extra effort during demolition not to break or cut the frames, but to dismantle them in their entirety. We have sent them to Kyiv and Kharkiv.

Atrium has given way to larger developments, but it is an example of quality construction from the 1990s. We saw in such demolitions an opportunity to source materials on a larger scale – not just windows. We want to get involved in this, to donate some of the materials to aid efforts in Ukraine and Poland, and to sell some of them and thus raise funds to continue the WINDOW project. So far, we have operated based on donations and grants, but it would make sense to continue working while there is still a need for windows in Ukraine. If we raise funds by selling materials from demolition to be reused or recycled, then everyone wins. We joined forces with the Polish National Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning, under the BUDO project. As a Foundation, we are responsible for the logistic-organisation component of that project: we gather information about building demolitions and materials from those demolitions. We are hoping to launch a shop that will finance our activities and will provide a useful tool at the same time. The other potential lies in our expertise and research capacity. In collaboration with the National Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning, we are preparing an exhibition: a requiem for the Atrium building that tells its history and introduces its architects, users, and the demolition company. We also propose using the knowledge of the Widoki studio – authors of a research project about the aid centre for persons from Ukraine which functioned in the Atrium building. Many interesting things were happening in there, for instance, counter-terrorist training was conducted. It turns out that this is not uncommon in buildings designated for demolition.

PV: The case of Atrium is important in the context of reuse. In 2020, a taxonomy regulation came into force in European Union countries that promotes environmentally sustainable investments. Demolition materials have to be reprocessed somehow – something has to be done with them. It is a good solution to donate them to humanitarian aid. Large demolition and development companies are beginning to understand that it should not be all thrown away as rubbish; the circulation of materials can have a tangible benefit – it has social potential. We are witnessing changes in how the construction industry thinks.

MS: We witnessed a similar process in the area of working remotely, from home. It was not possible, but then the lockdown happened, and suddenly it was possible. We believe the same thing will happen with reusing materials from demolition. In the context of war, they became useful in terms of helping others, and processes that even a few months before were unthinkable in our economic situation suddenly – overnight – became rationalised and legitimised. And they will probably stay with us a while longer, rather like Zoom or Teams meetings.

ZJ: In my opinion, however, they have a longer way to go. We met with representatives of Cyrkl company, which specialises in recycling and reusing construction waste and all sorts of industrial waste. They find clients for these kinds of materials; it is a very interesting model of operations. We spoke at length about different opportunities for reusing materials from demolition. There are many factors to consider – and they all really need to be considered. Firstly, some materials legally qualify as waste.

How can you bring the waste back onto the market? After all, waste is not traded. Secondly, demolition companies derive a profit from diverting these materials at their discretion. How do we encourage them to share part of their earnings with NGOs, for example? How to involve designers in these activities? If they know that some materials are going to be dismantled at a given time, they could use them. Could there be a system for reserving these materials? How do you guarantee that they will be available? How do you create a database of them?

How do you describe them? How do you re-certify them? Linking all the threads is very complicated, and I don’t think anyone in Poland has dealt with this before.

MS: In other European countries, however, enthusiasts have been exploring the subject for years. A whole league of avant-garde material reuse has come together; it is an open environment. Everyone is keen to help one another.

AK: Zosia spoke about a company that breathes new life into materials from building demolitions, and about your own plans to finance the Foundation’s activities from the sale of materials for reuse. Michał mentioned that the Belgian Rotor Foundation is operating a store selling such materials. All these activities are grassroots – not part of a top-down material reuse registration system. Is the material reuse movement mainly based on self-organisation?

MS: They are grassroots, but they are all aiming to build a structure: creating databases and systems. They want to get into the mainstream. Barbara Buser from baubüro in situ also speaks about this in an interview for our exhibition catalogue: she encourages everyone to do something similar, because this is how the idea will be disseminated. I think recycled materials will follow the same trajectory as photovoltaic cells and energy-efficient buildings. A few decades ago, people who were reaching for these solutions were seen as niche post-hippies; today, such policies are top-down mandated at European level.

ZJ: Barbara Buser’s RE-WIN project also sends windows to Ukraine; off her own bat, Buser incorporates large amounts of recycled materials into architectural designs. She recently sent a truck full of reclaimed items such as furniture, sanitary objects and so on to the CO-HATY group, which equips vacant buildings in Ukraine and adapts them to the needs of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons).

MS: Many people independently undertake similar activities. Lara Moutin was involved with sourcing windows for Beirut when, in 2020, windows were shattered in a ten-kilometre radius of a gigantic explosion at the port. In any conflict zone or emergency situation, windows and doors are among the first-line essentials.

PV: Lara Moutin’s project is called Windows for Beirut, but it is different from ours. She did not import windows from neighbouring countries, but she focused on distributing the funds she collected in the target location. Members of her team created a supply chain of sorts: they bought glass from one entrepreneur, paid another entrepreneur to cut it to measure, and yet another to fit it in the window frame. This was also a great example of self-organisation.

ZJ: That’s why we felt it was important to highlight in the Polish Pavilion at the London Design Biennale, in the exhibition space and the accompanying catalogue – in the context of the theme of Remapping Collaborations – that windows are a universal object, needed in all places where a crisis befalls. In the catalogue, we showcase Barbara Buser’s work in Switzerland, Windows for Beirut in Lebanon, and our WINDOW project, and we look at how these threads intertwine and outline the broader theme of remapping collaborations.

AK: We are talking in February, when the exhibition is still under construction. What is it going to look like?

MS: We came up with a simple set-up of two adjacent rooms: one recreates the warehouse space where the windows are stored, and the other is a symbolic representation of the domestic space with examples of their reuse. We are engaging the London Design Biennale – a popular education-cum-entertainment-cum-commercial event – to organise another windows collection. The windows collected in London will go to Poland, and ultimately to Ukraine.

PV: In this way, we want to show a not run-of-the-mill way of helping Ukraine and, simultaneously, broaden the perception of the exhibition as a means of achieving additional goals. An exhibition does not have to be limited to presenting something that has already happened; it can also encourage future action. The understanding of the exhibition shifts from the object on display to the process itself – to what happens to the objects after the biennale is over.

ZJ: Of course, it would be nice if our exhibition also travelled a bit. After the exhibition in London, the windows that are the central object of this space will disappear because they will already be in Ukraine, so we will have to acquire more windows for each place we visit.

MS: The exhibition is a protocol that can be implemented in different locations. In London, it involves a few dozen windows, due to the limitations of the exhibition space and the likely load on the ceilings of the exhibition building. We could rescale the event for a larger space.

ZJ: It is a dream of mine that the project “catches on” and we will find other window donors. Perhaps it will draw new people in. I am open to window franchising. Sending windows from the United Kingdom – that is, from outside the European Union – will be a challenge, but such franchising is simple enough within the EU. Soon we will be talking to Concular studio in Berlin, which also deals with reuse of construction materials. We sent them our catalogue of DIY solutions, just to say “hey, look what we’ve done.” They responded that they found it interesting and that they would like to talk because they have access to a large number of windows from demolition. Perhaps the Berlin franchise will happen sooner rather than later.

AK: It’s great that one activity gives spontaneous rise to another and that you have been networking with other organisations working on similar themes. What other themes have you smuggled into the exhibition space?

PV: Our exhibition is primarily about the theme of reuse but triggered by social action. This is an interesting issue. The reuse of building materials is usually discussed in the context of ecology and environmental protection: it reduces the carbon footprint and thus helps to fight global warming. We are looking at this issue from an unprecedented angle: the social nature of reusing building materials in times of crisis. Polish people are eager to donate windows to us and are curious to see where these windows will be sent.

MS: It is also about aesthetics. The aesthetic thread, implicit in the title of our exhibition, seems crucial to us: familiar definitions of architecture – with the Vitruvian triad of permanence, utility and beauty at the forefront – have taken on new depths in the context of reuse. Architecture is at an interesting juncture. We have the impression that aesthetics resulting from the reuse of building materials and new definitions of rationality are beginning to crystallise. ‘Aesthetics’ is a more capacious term than a mere opinion that something is pretty or not; it is about a more in-depth meaning that is woven from different values. Over the past decades, architecture has been strongly associated with the designer’s ego, with style, with a recognisable aesthetic. This phenomenon culminated, of course, with the arrival of the architect superstars. This is not the kind of architecture that you can design with reclaimed materials.

We assemble buildings from fragments that are durable and utilitarian, but we don’t fully control the aesthetics of the final product. Nor can we recycle these materials excessively, as such interference would be missing the point – it would increase energy consumption and the carbon footprint. We design buildings that are easy to demolish. When I started my studies, as a role model I was given a Swiss architect who would have concrete poured over and over again until perfection was achieved. This was how he demonstrated total control of and mastery over his work. Working with secondary materials precludes such behaviour, but this does not mean that designers have to give up on aesthetics. It’s just that these aesthetics will be different. We are curious to see what will be born out of it.

In the exhibition, we are showing an object with the working name of ‘The Totem’: an example of how to mount a window that does not fit into an opening. There is also a curtain made from building materials and a seat made from recycled extruded polystyrene. So, we are modestly experimenting with designing objects from reclaimed and recycled materials.

PV: It is a design biennale, after all.

ZJ: We respond in multiple ways to the biennale’s main theme: Remapping Collaborations. The area of recycled materials engages a myriad of collaborative issues.

MS: I must say that in my professional life I have never previously encountered such good will as that which exists in the reclaimed materials niche. I think this is characteristic of people committed to a higher cause. In the pursuit of a noble goal, partisan interests and the designer’s own wellbeing become secondary to the drive to systemically change ways of doing things. ZJ: Studios that use reclaimed materials in their designs are eager to share their good practice examples and their knowledge, to talk about their experience. Their attitude has aid potential. Recycling reclaimed material and its reuse in a new context is also a form of collaboration – or at least a form of dialogue between the old architect and the new designer.