The air in the room thickened as a young Hansen took the stage at the seventh CIAM meeting in Bergamo. Being just twenty-seven at the time, unknown to the crowd, the Polish student stood up to boldly criticize Le Corbusier for going commercial when favoring the industrialized tapestry business over art, conceived for a specific ambiance. His passionate, charismatic intervention received a loud round of applause from those gathered in the room including, as Hansen recalled, the ‘pope of modernism’ himself.
Soon after the congress Oskar returned to Paris, where, thanks to a scholarship granted by the French embassy and a few connections, he had been working in the studio of Pierre Jeanneret for the past year. The architect quickly became his mentor and although Hansen also admired the work of Pierre’s famous cousin, his appreciation remained tempered. He was always allergic for Le Corbusier’s immense ego, which later he would consider antagonistic to the theory of openness in architecture.
The atmosphere of Paris in the early fifties was magnetic. Thinkers, artists and fashion designers flooded the city lured by its creative liveliness. Having left Poland, a country heavily scarred by the war, in the time when communism reached its most oppressive phase, Hansen soaked up all these new incentives like a sponge. When he wasn’t working with Pierre in the studio, he would spend hours hanging around in the art museums or developing his aesthetic ideas in the ateliers of Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso.
The observations and experiences Hansen gained in Paris were crucial for his formative period and laid the foundations for his future theories.
Despite a promising career in the West, Hansen returned to Warsaw, where, as he believed, a plentiful of work in reconstruction awaited architects. The young man’s expectations hit the wall soon after his arrival. Just before graduating, Oskar got himself in trouble with his design for the Swiat cinema and was accused of violating the aesthetics of social realism. Forced to withdraw from the artistic and public sphere, Hansen spent a long five years painting and sculpting in his atelier, where, together with his wife Zofia, he continued to investigate the idea of an Open Form.
Ideas on ‘openness’, ‘freedom’ and ‘transformability’ in architecture gained momentum in the second half of the twentieth century. Beyond accommodating differentiated lifestyles of a modern society, an occupation shared by most of the Team 10 architects, Hansen introduced a new perspective on thinking about the individual. He saw architecture as a medium ‘to aid the individual in finding himself in the collective, to make him indispensable in the creation of his own surroundings.’1 The built environment, or metaphorically speaking the ‘background’, invited everyone to become a performer and united singular activities into one shared act. Only through this constant interaction between the individual and the collective, one could fully emerge as a social being.
Oskar sought for setting-up a system that could facilitate this interplay without determining the outcomes or without deciding on a final result of the work. This translated into architecture able to transform and reconfigure according to the will of its user, a framework allowing for adaptation and a structure engaging in a ‘dialogue’ with the addressee, architecture that could become a backdrop for ‘the art of spontaneous events’.
The Auschwitz monument
The winning, however never implemented, entry for the competition of the memorial to the victims of fascism at Auschwitz, grounds the theory of the Open Form and simultaneously marks Oskar’s return from ‘exile’. The Hansens moved away from a traditional understanding of a monument as a static form by proposing a radically conceptual project: the road monument. Instead of drawing out a closed, sculptural mass, the team laid out a black, asphalt path stretching the length of one kilometre with a width of seventy meters diagonally across the camp, petrifying and preserving everything that stood on its way: the barracks, chimneys and wired fences. The rest was left to be taken over by nature and slowly decay.
The work instigated interaction and was to be completed by the viewer. When moving down the road, the visitor would engage with architecture, leaving behind traces of his thoughts and experiences, himself becoming a part of the monument.
Despite opinions calling the proposal ‘exceptionally brilliant’ the project failed to win the support of the Auschwitz Committee consisting of former Auschwitz prisoners and was never realized.
The Hansens’ legacy
Today the ideas of Oskar and Zofia Hansen seem to be valid more than ever. With the discipline facing the crisis with its attempts of accommodating for the needs of a rapidly growing population, it is worthwhile to re-evaluate the work of the forgotten architects. Open Form ideals and designing for a ‘Great Number’ exceed the sheer notions of transformability and participation. Stressing man’s psychological need of identity, the Hansens sought for architecture allowing for the individual to find himself within the collective. And this pursuit continues to this day.
1. Oskar Hansen and Zofia Hansen, ‘The Open Form in Architecture- the Art of the Great Number’ in Oscar Newman, CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Stuttgart: Karl Kramer, 1961: 190