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Immersed in Context: Jakub Szczesny

By Karina Taylor

Polish architect Jakub Szczesny’s ambitions go well beyond designing another dull glass skyscraper. From imagining an artificial island that purifies water through coordinated human exercise, to creating the world’s narrowest house to dialogue with Warsaw's architectural past, Szczesny’s inventive answers to unusual challenges have received international acclaim. Through a series of emails with World Policy Journal, he explained his approach to a more intimate project: a vertical urban garden he designed during a artistic residency in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

WPJ: What’s the importance of residency for creative personalities and their artistic pursuits ?

Jakub Szczensy: To work in this field, one has to immerse themselves in context - deal with real people, gather information, give in to irrational impulses, analyze and make friends with those who can open doors to emotional levels [hidden] deeper within the context. It requires the artist to be on location and partially live the life of the people there, so he or she can attempt to define them in a larger "landscape" of economy, history, climate, culture, you name it. This is also where boundaries between traditionally understood disciplines blur: artists become architects, social entrepreneurs, landscape designers, while people in those respective disciplines see the art living within their work. While the "high art" [packaged] for the rich requires a measure of exposure to art history (especially when it comes to conceptual art), the forms emerging from the contextualized “meta-genre" require a deep understanding of the conditions the work was developed in, by who, for whom, etc. So, a bit in parallel to lengthy, cryptic curatorial descriptions of conceptual pieces, good documentation and explanation is necessary to tell the story of such objects as Keret House, [which exists] in ex-Jewish ghetto space in Warsaw, playgrounds built by Basurama group in Cambridge occupation in Sao Paulo or the very project of Lanchonete run by Todd [Lester].

WPJ: How does location inform creation?

JS: The more I deal with the art world and the commercial system related to it, the more I see that it can be, en gros, divided into two groups of [artistic] people, by which I mean curators, producers, sponsors, activists, and the very artists [themselves]. The first group is most interested in art understood as an activity, abstracted, and in a way abstracting the reality it was made in. The largely understood social context is [either] a starting point, an anecdotal pretext, or simply doesn't matter. Their [preferred] art fits best in spaces that serve as an endorsement of abstraction — be it galleries, “white-cube” alike or not — and it circulates best among the richest "target group" that is also abstracted from reality.

The [second] group depends on the context, using it as a source of content and a starting point in discourses that are sometimes more universal. Its "target group" is less defined, but is mostly a mix of educated gallery-goers, academics, and most of all the people who make the context as inhabitants of some specific space. This way we can define the people to whom art in public space, for example, is addressed to as a geographical “target group" —  simply people who happen to inhabit or use some given space.

WPJ: Your design, Keret House, serves as a residence for artists, and you were Lanchonete.org's first artist-in-residency.

JS: [Residency] requires a specific type of artist that is “sponge-like:” empathic, open and mostly extroverted. Probably I'm such a person, since in last four years, I was "thrown" into a number of new residency projects as the guinea pig- starting with Keret House, [then] through Lanchonete, to finish with a program run by Ideas Louisville and Residency Unlimited, in conjunction with General Electric in Kentucky. My role is a bit similar to [that] of an intelligence scout in the army: I'm parachuted into new places, have to make friends fast, work with the liaisons, tackle the issues or local phenomena, and use it as a base for my work.

WPJ: What made this garden the 'right' contribution to make to Sao Paulo?

JS: Sao Paulo [...], it's the biggest city of Latin America, with the most interesting intelligentsia - including dissidents from the period of dictatorship, and very innovative people like those of the Sao Joao or Cambridge occupations self-organizing communities or industrialists from [the city’s] Jardins district. Paradoxically, Sao Paulo is also a very sclerotic city that always looks towards the future [while] denying the uncomfortable parts of the past. Thanks to Todd’s invitation, a number of synergies started. Suddenly I was attracted by antecedents of Polish-Jewish diaspora who run Casa do Povo, a derelict ex-Jewish culture house, where I started another project, then another project about Polish-Jewish prostitutes and some other new ventures. Sao Paulo is a place of synergy I've never experienced before, also because in many social projects, like in the case of Lanchonete, one can find major "players" from academic and cultural field working together. This way in Lanchonete we deal with people from Casa das Caldeireas, University of Sao Paulo, Escola Cidade, Cidades sem Fome, and Goethe Institut. All of them met during last two weeks to build a vertical garden with folks from the Sao Joao and Cambridge occupations!

WPJ: What about the particulars of the garden's design - what was its principal purpose?

JS: The idea of the vertical garden departs from a simple conclusion that in order to develop sustainable strategy of food production in ultra-urban situation of big Latin-American cities we have to give an example of how to use any available space. In case of Sao Joao we have had just the deep patio [surrounded by] five-story walls. The roof is unavailable due to its technical condition, so there was no way to work with a typical approach of organizing a horizontal surface, as we did for instance with BMW's "City and Garden" project in Warsaw last year. We decided to start a vertical structure by using the walls and windows. The space of the patio became an experimentation ground: we've been looking for different typologies of suspendable flower bags and recycled PVC banners, bamboo scaffoldings, and plastic containers for storing bottles.

It had to be cheap —  if not free — when it comes to materials, require a minimum of tools, and force the future users to plan the space in a way that would clearly divide communitary planting from private "micro gardens.” The occupiers decided to use the surface of the bottom of the patio, the walls up to two and a half meters from the bottom,  as well as parts of the walls around the windows of the staircase, as a space for community planting. Anything available from the windows of individual dwellings w[ould] become private. The “communitarian” part required another decision on how to share the herbs, vegetables and fruits, which is an interesting exercise in micro-economy and self-organization.

WPJ: Who within the community contributed?

JS: On the last two days of the workshop, instructors from Cidades sem Fome, the biggest NGO dealing with urban farming in Latin America, [...] instructed the participants on how to plant, what to plant depending on the amount of sun and shadow, how to include certain species in the daily diet, etc. Parallely, academics from Escola Cidade, the private school of architecture, have taught us [...] how to develop an efficient irrigation system in order to minimize the use of municipal water, which is a big subject nowadays in a city with serious shortages when it comes to water.

WPJ: Who met the project with resistance?

JS: We didn't face any resistance from the inhabitants: those who liked the idea or could spend their time during two weekend learning new things have participated. There was one guy from the occupation, a bar musician, who was joining us every morning straight after night work.

On [that] day, three more people came because the prospect of growing healthy and cheap food for your family is something that universally motivates people. To give you an image: we've had 30 people inscribed to the workshop on day one. In Poland, this would mean 15 people coming the next day, but here, we've had 60 of them!

*****

*****

Karina Taylor is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Violeta Assumpcao]

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