In 1966 Oskar Hansen, along with his team including Svein Hatloy, Barbara Cybulska, and Lars Fasting, took part in a competition for the best design for a building to house the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje. Although a different design was eventually selected by the organisers of the competition, Hansen’s proposal perfectly depicted his way of thinking about architecture. The design itself was truly fascinating, however its concept was difficult to realise, since it stood in contrast to the traditional understanding of time and art through emphasising art’s changeable nature. Hansen took a big step forward, claiming that people are not able to predict which path art will actually take in the course of its development. With this in mind, his aim was to create a flexible museum which would be easily adjusted to various dynamic transformations and suit the evolving needs an exhibition space would need to satisfy. The building was supposed to be created ‘from scratch’ every time an event was to be organised there. The entire museum space was envisaged as being able to fold and unfold like an umbrella, thanks to a genius design of heagonal fixtures lifted on hydraulic ramps. This concept of variable architecture became Oskar Hansen’s primary focus.
Oskar Hansen was born to a Russian mother and Norwegian father, who had distant relatives in Poland. After the war the artist came to Poland, which would later become his new homeland. Between 1948 and 1950 Hansen stayed in Paris on the basis of winning a scholarship. There he met Fernand Léger and Pierre Jeanneret, whilst serving as an intern in their workshops. What he experienced in Paris inspired him to begin his architectural mission, which witnessed the birth of the Open Form concept. Another important event in Hansen’s life was when he met his future wife, Zofia Garlińska, who later became his partner in architectural design. Before he developed his most iconic concepts, Hansen used to design exhibition pavilions. This gave him the perfect opportunity to experiment with architecture and gave birth to Hansen’s own architectural ideas. The most important idea developed by the Hansens was the concept of the Open Form. During the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) in Otterlo, Holland in 1959, Oskar Hansen presented his theory to the public, which consequently became a frequent point of interest for young architects. Hansen’s idea was groundbreaking because it contravened common assumptions of modernist architecture.
Open Form was a mode of philosophy and an attitude which engaged the user/recipient in the process of creating and adjusting works of art to their own needs. The user/receipt thus takes on the creative role of an individual, who acts as co-narrator of the arrangement of space. A project which perfectly follows this idea is the design for a monument titled A Way [Droga] which Oskar Hansen prepared for the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum together with his team in 1958. The design itself is extraordinary. Within it, Hansen made practical use of his own concept of Open Form, that is art in the process of creation, or art happening in the moment. The artist denied the traditional concept of a sculpture or a monument. Following his theory, the entire site of the former concentration camp was to be preserved and treated like a monument. The artist’s sole intervention in the space was the wide asphalt pathway crossing the whole area diagonally. The barracks, the crematorium, the barbed wire – everything was to remain prone to long-term changes, which are inevitable as time goes by. The monument was supposed to transform itself, deteriorate, and be ‘swallowed’ by nature. Eventually the only thing left would be the pathway, acting as a symbol connecting life and death. Through time this place where people were tortured was supposed to become lived in again, become liberated – a place where life thrives and death does not exist. The design was not approved and consequently, the monument was not created. The reason given was that the proposal was too radical and unconventional.
In regards to architecture, Hansen attempted to apply his concept of Open Form in his design proposal for the Rakowiec WSM Housing Estate in Warsaw. This design shocked housing associations at the time. Hansen designed flats which were satisfy clearly satisfy the needs of future residents. As such the residents became the focal point of the design process, with Hansen involving prospective residents in his creative process. They had the opportunity to express their opinions, echoing the underlying notion of the Open Form concept. The Hansens’ proposals were introduced in just two blocks of flats on Sanocka Street. Before they began working on a design, the Hansens interviewed dozens of people and conduct dozens of surveys. On this basis, various proposals for different types of families were designed. There are proposed flats for the elderly, young families with children, and childless married couples. There is even a home designed for a widower raising a young child whilst living with his mother-in-law. (1)
Although the idea was utilitarian, it turned out to be utopian too. At that time flats were assigned by the housing association, which did not pay attention to who they had been designed for.
Nevertheless, Hansen took his creative efforts even further. In the 60s, he formulated his theoretical programme Linear Continuous System, which transposed the concept of Open Form onto urban planning. Once again, a shockingly innovative concept was born. Above all, this notion undermined the traditional, centralist idea of a city which develops around its core. Hansen proposed a system based on the idea of big cities stretching out as four parallel strips of land, in order to connect the north to the south of Poland. This concept of linearity eliminated the traditional division between the city centre and the outskirts. Housing estates were divided by services, retail and industrial spaces, as well as urban greenery. This arrangement was seen as offering everybody equal access to all types of facilities. The Hansens even designed a separate public transport system, with routes that would cross the strips of land, and allow residents to commute between work and home as fast as possible.
The Hansens managed to realise this idea on a really small scale whilst designing a housing estate in Lublin betwen 1960 and 1963, which was then built for a following four years until 1967.
The Juliusz Słowacki Housing Estate in Lublin is divided into a few distinct areas which do not coincide with each other. Each site serves a specific function. The southern zone consists of semicircular five-storey buildings, some eleven-storey buildings, groups of five-storey object, and a communal garden, which fulfills leisurely and recreational needs. This zone is served by two other zones where motor vehicles are allowed. In these zones you can find garages, driveways and outbuildings. In addition, there is a market place with pavilions, a nursery building, retail and service outlets, the headquarters of the housing estate’s administration team, and a community centre (where a church currently stands instead). (2)
All the designs were created on the basis of a survey carried out among the residents of the estate during the launch of the project. According to Hansen, people are the most important factor in architecture. The housing estate mentioned was initially supposed to be fairly austere, with blocks of flats mirroring the natural terrain of the land. However Hansen let his imagination run free while designing the individual flats. Strangely enough, he even included outer compartments for pudding in his designs, since his own mother always used to put hot desserts outside to cool down quicker. Why not to give people such an opportunity?(4)
However the concept turned out to be a bit too ‘avant-garde’ from the point of view of the housing estate authorities.
In 1963, the Hansens designed the Warsaw housing estate, ‘Przyczółek Grochowski’. As a result, a series of 23 blocks of flats was built. The tower blocks are joined to each other, with lower levels at 22 points, thereby creating a long zigzag object. Inside the estate are galleries, which allow everyone to walk along the whole building site with no need to step outside into the rain or snow. This is one of the longest buildings in Poland.
Due to the its number of residents and the sheer size of the whole site, the estate quickly earnt the nickname ‘Beijing’ (Pekin) – You could not even die here with dignity […] because there is no way one could carry your coffin out of your own flat. Instead, they wait with the coffin downstairs. A gravedigger wraps a corpse in a white sheet and slings it over his shoulder. I have seen it myself. They take the dead person down, his arms still flailing around. There is no dignity in it, but you cannot do it any other way. In this place, for obvious reasons, all the furniture you buy must be folded. (4)
The residents claim that the layout of their tiny and cramped flats is really unsuitable, since the kitchen windows overlook the galleries. They let no light inside. From a practical point of view, the design is tempting to any types of criminals. Dark corners, niches, offsets, as well as extremely easy access to balcony doors, enables them to enter the flats with ease. Zofia Hansen, the co-author of the project, was herself entirely aware of the fact that by carrying the project out she made people unhappy. Do you live there? Really? Awful idea. I really sympathise with you. (5)
Hansen was the author of a multitude of designs that were never used to create real architectural objects. As an architect he ‘terrified’ his contemporaries with sheer inventiveness and courage. However, there was no real chance of this ingenious and innovative architecture keeping high hopes alive because of its overwhelming and utopian nature. Hansen’s concept assumed the existence of processes of transformation, which would change the established landscape. The imperfection of the Linear Continuous System was mostly concerned with limiting the choice people had when it came to their place of living, means of transport, and even the way they spent their free time. Any attempt to go beyond this system would destroy Hansen’s uncompromising vision.
Written by Julita Deluga
(1) Filip Springer, Zaczyn O Zofii i Oskarze Hansenach, Cracow-Warsaw 2013, p.98
(2) Marcin Semeniuk, Forma otwarta w twórczości różnych architektów, Budownictwo i Architektura 11 (2012) 35-54, p. 43, http://bc.pollub.pl/dlibra/docmetadata?id=1679, access: 20.02.2015
(3) See: Filip Springer, Nowe miasto i nowy świat. Oskar Hansen chce ratować ludzkość, Wysokie Obcasy, 2011,
(4) Filip Springer, Zaczyn O Zofii i Oskarze Hansenach, Cracow-Warsaw 2013, p.9
(5) Filip Springer, Zaczyn…, op.cit., p. 8.
individual exhibitions (selected):
1957 – Oskar Hansen: 1947-57 Architecture – Painting – Sculpture, A Simple Living Room (Salon Po prostu), Warsaw;
1966 – Oskar Hansen – in search of the Education Method in Plastic Arts, Adam Mickiweicz Museum, Warsaw;
1967 – Linear Continuous System – Oskar and Zofia Hansen, Dom Plastyka, Warsaw;
1976 – A study of Humanization of the City of Lublin (Studium Humanizacji miasta Lublina), BWA, Lublin; Museum of Architecture, Wrocław
1984 – Vers l’art de la forma ouverte, Oslo;
2005 – Oskar Hansen: Warsaw asleep (Sen Warszawy), Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw
2005 – Oskar Hansen: Seeing the World (Zobaczyć świat), Zachęta Gallery, Warsaw
10.07.2014- 06.01.2015 – OSKAR HANSEN – OPEN FORM, Museu d’art contemporani de Barcelona
29.01. – 03.03.2015 – OSKAR HANSEN – OPEN FORM, Museu de Arte Contemporanea Serralves, Porto, Portugal
Julita Deluga, art historian, graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and PLSP (State High School for Visual Arts). She worked as a tour guide in the National Museum in Cracow. She also taught her own visual art workshops and educational workshops for children, teenagers and adults. She has been working in Starmach Gallery since 2008. There, her primary point of focus is, among others, Jerzy Nowosielski’s artistic activity. She also systematises and archives series of works which form a part of the gallery’s collection. Moreover, she participates in organising exhibitions and preparing publications. She was the curator of the following exhibitions: Piotr Lutyński, Lorenzo Brusci. Second Life (Drugie Życie) in 2009 and Jerzy Kałucki Przebiegi in 2013. She publishes her own articles about art (Exit, Format, Format.net, Nowa Dekada Literacka, as well as texts for exhibition catalogues, for example the catalogue of the exhibition entitled Jerzy Nowosielski Subtle Beings (Byty Subtelne), which was organized in Opole in 2013).
Find out more about the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje and a group of Polish architects.
All activities relating to the Collection of Polish Art in Skopje supports the Embassy of Poland in Skopje, Macedonia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage