In Warsaw, a Student-Designed Architectural Response to Dark Times

As this bloody year draws to a close, at a moment when the message “Peace on Earth” seems altogether mute, one might well ask: What power does architecture have? How can it address violence against innocent people, whose lives have been turned upside down? How does architecture respond to staggering cruelty? What can it say? Can it raise consciousness?

The Freedom Pavilion, a project designed and constructed by architecture students and faculty at Poland’s Warsaw University of Technology, suggests one possibility. It’s a thoughtful architectural response to a dark moment. The project is part of a broader initiative led by the school—along with local architects, planners, and designers—to address the reconstruction of Ukraine. This past July, the conference “Architecture of Challenges: Reconstruction of Ukraine” took place at Warsaw’s Royal Łazienki Museum. “I thought there might be something we could do to raise awareness of the need for peace and freedom in the world, as universal values,” says professor Anna Maria Wierzbicka, one of the event organizers and also the leader of a design studio with a focus on sacred and monumental architecture. 

Architecture students constructed the pavilion with assistance of volunteer professional builders. Photos courtesy of Faculty of Architecture, Warsaw University of Technology.


Poland has been inundated with Ukrainian refugees, and the conference on reconstruction was part of a response to their needs. Wierzbicka notes that people in Poland are weary of the war. Searching for a way to involve her students, she developed the design studio project as a way for them—working with faculty, local and Ukrainian architects, consultants, and contractors, and materials suppliers—to “take a stand,” as she describes it, “about peace, unity, and solidarity,” and to raise flagging public consciousness about the war. As a collaborative design-build project, it would also allow the students to engage people outside the university through the creation of a public place in the context of the city. 

The studio’s 20 students (18 women, two men) worked in pairs to generate conceptual design ideas. The design chosen by students and faculty coalesced around symbolic geometry and forms that resonate with the pavilion’s theme. The pavilion needed to incorporate nature, explains Wierzbicka, “which is part of a universal, sacred design language—a place to experience the work of the Creator.” The pavilion’s circular geometry makes it part of a long design tradition used in sacred architecture. It is a timeless, venerated shape—one shared across cultures—that communicates infinity, “without a beginning or an end,” Wierzbicka reflects. It’s also a shape that embraces you, expressing acceptance, welcome, and solidarity. The choice of a light-frame wood structure connects to nature as well. It’s an indigenous, renewable resource, and Poland is one of the world’s largest producers of timber. Such a structure would also be easier for students to build than one made of other materials, such as concrete or steel. 



The site for the pavilion is inspired. It is constructed next to an 18th  century neoclassical building, the Hermitage, which is part of Warsaw’s largest and most celebrated landscape: Parc Łazienki. The pavilion’s plan responds perfectly to the landscape context, which was once occupied by a circular fountain. At its center, the pavilion is planted with a thick garth of sunflowers, “the symbol of loyalty,” notes Wierzbicka. (They are also symbolic of faith, hope, and endurance.) The sunflowers’ golden color suggests the yellow of the Ukrainian flag, with its blue sky above. 

The Freedom Pavilion’s landscape implores one to stop and rest—a perfect invitation for contemplation. The pavilion further welcomes visitors with its sunshades of white, diaphanous fabric that suggest the sails of a boat—another allusion to freedom and peace. Hammocks of the same material, designed and sewn by students, allow one to float amid the breeze in this floral-scented landscape. These swaying, animated veils suggest spiritual presences (especially in time-lapse photos) dancing amid the structure’s slender wooden sentinels. 


Students and faculty built the pavilion with the able assistance of some professional carpenters. It became possible through the generosity of construction industry professionals, material suppliers, and consultants who donated their time and expertise. The Japanese architect Shigeru Ban was invited to open the pavilion July 1 (he traveled on his own tab), at the start of the “Architecture of Challenges” conference, which took place at the Royal Łazienki Museum. The pavilion is due to be disassembled by New Year’s Eve, put into storage, and reassembled next year in a park that extends along Warsaw’s Vistula River. With its engaging design in a highly visible location in the heart of the city, the Freedom Pavilion has attracted close to a million visitors (by one estimate). “It’s a place where you can hide in the city,” Wierzbicka told me, “a place to meditate that communicates the values of freedom that should be given to every human being.”

The Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa describes hope as “the patron saint of architecture,” a patron without which building becomes impossible. The Freedom Pavilion reminds us that hope can be a patron of inspiration as well, even in the darkest moments. 

Feature image: The center of the pavilion is planted with sunflowers symbolizing loyalty. Photos courtesy of Faculty of Architecture, Warsaw University of Technology.


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