Architecture of the VII Day at Dox Centre

Church construction in Poland was a form of protest against the government

Church architecture in Poland in the communist era shows what people could accomplish without state help. Church construction was not supported by the state, but people managed to build them anyway, often taking very creative approaches. The designs also reflect a large number of influences from traditional to modern. They also showed a form of grass roots opposition to the communist state.

Architecture of the VII Day at the Dox Centre for Contemporary Art shows the history of churches built in Poland between the years 1945 and 1989 despite the Communist state’s antipathy to religion. The exhibition has photos from ground level and also drone shot from overhead, along with some stories and details relating to each building. The exhibition at Dox runs until May 22.

A few panels show statistics of when the most churches were built, as well as the economic conditions that most encouraged spurt of building.

Using left over and illegally obtained materials, parishioners built 3,780 churches. These were not only meant as an expression of the local people's interest in religion, but they can also be seen as a protest against the government.

Since the end of World War II, more churches were built in Poland than in any other European country. Most were built during the 1980s, when church construction was neither permitted nor prohibited. This coincided with Polish-born Karol Józef Wojtyła serving as Pope John Paul II, and also with the rise of the Solidarity movement.

The regime ignored church construction projects in the hope that this would help it stay in power. The fantastic architectural designs of churches stood in sharp contrast to the centralized state’s rigid urbanism, and are a testament to the creative force of those who built them, the organizers said.

In post-war Poland, millions of conservative, devout people from small towns moved to industrial cities newly built according to the Soviet functionalist template. But this template had no room for a parish church – a building where these newly industrialized communities could meet and consolidate themselves. Parish communities in Poland thus began to fill the spiritual emptiness of Communist ideology by building their own places of worship, the organizers added.

The exhibition was put together by Iza Cichońska, Karolina Popera and Kuba Snopek, who have been attempting to document these Polish churches and the circumstances in which they were built. Since they were made in a gray area, there are not the usual records and permits.

These structures defy the prefabrication trends of Eastern bloc architecture. The names of architects, for example, have to be tracked down as well as other information. Some architects are virtually unknown for other work but turn up several times in relation to the churches. Without and effort at documentation, their contribution could be forgotten. Other architects brought foreign influences with them, that aside from the churches could not be seen in Polish buildings of the time.

The churches were the result of community efforts based on local financing, something like modern crowd funding, long before this approach became popular.

“Instead of using factory-made prefab sections, churches were built slowly; parishioners met on Saturdays, devoted their free time to the project, and made small donations. During its construction, such a church grew commingled with the history of the local community and became a local legend,” Kuba Snopek said.

“Churches were often built only with shovels, pails, and small mixers, because large machinery belonged to the state, and weren’t loaned out for their construction,” Iza Cichońska added. The construction of larger structures therefore required ideas and the cooperation of sometimes even hundreds of people, whose work was often coordinated by people from mountain areas.

The exhibition has something of a hidden Easter egg. The person who used the drone to take the overhead pictures drove a red car. In all of the drone photos, the same red car can be seen parked somewhere in the photo.

Side events:
April 6 at 7:30 pm — A lecture by architects Érica Lapierre (FR) and Kuba Snopek (PL) / Architecture of the VII Day; in English; the event will take place at Kino 35 at the French Institute (Institut français de Prague)

April 8 at 5 pm — A guided tour of the exhibition with curator Karolina Popera, in English, free with admission, reservation required at [email protected]

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