Łukasz Galusek, an architect and programming director of the International Cultural Centre in Kraków, talks about his Central Europe: divided cities, personal journeys, the search for transgression and endurance.
Paulina Małochleb: What does an architect see when he heads south of Kraków?
Łukasz Galusek: If the Via Carpathia weren’t eternally stuck on the drawing boards, the road to the south would be easy. As it is, you have to weave around. Best through Spiš or Orava. Either by the picturesque Orava Castle, which in a Herzog film played the Transylvanian redoubt of Nosferatu, or by Spiš Castle, which never played anything, because its own majesty is sufficient. The Spiš towns on the sunny side of the Tatras are captivating: Levoča, Kežmarok, Sobota, Spišská Belá – with the Castle of Mednyánszky, who felt the Spiš landscape, the Tatra light, like nobody else. Later, after the mountains, the patrician Kosice, the lamenting Márai. And the cathedral. A true miracle: bright, soaring stone Gothic so deep in the Carpathians! Passing Tokai, it’s like driving across a table. Through eastern Hungary and its Geneva, Debrecen, and the great mother shrine of the Hungarian Calvinists, rational, white Classicism.
It’s time to veer off slightly to the east. Great Waradyn, today Oradea in Romania, the Secessionist gateway to ‘the land beyond the forest’, Transylvania. Extraordinary country. A Romanian-Hungarian-German tangle, beautiful and difficult, where each town has three names continually in use. With Gothic at every step – urban, rural, untouched. We maintain our southerly course, though the Carpathians have swept around us and again stand in our way. The wall of the Transylvanian Alps is longer and higher than the Tatras. Great beauty. We push through to the other side. Is this now the South? The sun-drenched Wallachian Plain? There’s Bucharest too, a fata morgana, the perfidious Paris of the East. With its decaying belle époque, fantastic art déco, Dadaists.
We’re at the Danube. Which way do we turn?
Not toward the Balkans, through what is now Bulgaria’s Ruse, birthplace of Canetti, but toward the sea. Over the gigantic bridge in the little town of Cernavodă. We ride along the canal that shortens the navigation route from the Danube to the Black Sea, a pharaonic work by Ceaușescu, its construction paid for in the lives of political prisoners. In a bizarre coincidence, the Greeks who founded this city 2000 years ago – and later the Bulgarians, Turks and Romanians – all consistently called it ‘black water’. The canal on one side of the road, on the other the renowned wineries of Murfatlar. To describe this landscape briefly, all that springs to mind is blood and dust, mud and honey. Until the coast appears. The Black Sea. The Greeks called it the Hospitable Sea. Ovid, it seems, begged to differ. In Constanța – then known as Tomis – he suffered the torments of exile. It was sort of the Vladivostok of its day! Not quite 100 kilometres away along the coast lies Babadag. Really. Though some think it’s a fictional utopia.
But you can also go another way, through the Moravian Gate.
True. And you don’t have to deal with the mountains, as the Moravian Gate stands open there. After all, that’s how the Renaissance and Baroque poured into Poland. If you’re not convinced, it’s enough to stop off in Olomouc, bursting with the Baroque flowing into its fountains. Without the Moravians, there would be no Secession. Without the floral Mucha, without Olbrich and the leafy, golden balls on the pavilion of Vienna’s Secession, which heralded the arrival of the holy spring, Ver Sacrum. I like to think about Moravia as a garden. About the monk Mendel between his rows of peas and the beginnings of genetics. Or about Joseph II, the ploughman emperor, who in Slavíkovice near Brno takes a plough in his hand to show a peasant how to make a furrow. From his bold reforms sprang progress, modernity. Because Moravia is also a hortus industrialis. The industrial power of the Rothschilds, Primavesis, Löw-Beers, Tugendhats, Batas. We’ve already learned to appreciate the heritage of modernity. The Brno home of the Tugendhats, an ultra-modern villa designed by Mies van der Rohe, is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Rothschilds’ Ostrava steel mill – one of the most exceptional places I’ve seen – by all means deserves this inscription.
Moravia is almost a suburb of Vienna. Where next?
A trip on the trans-Alpine railway from Vienna to the Adriatic, the former Austrian Riviera, to Gorizia, ‘the Habsburg Nice’, to Trieste, is today laborious, you have to transfer. It’s more comfortable and faster to go by the motorway, looping around the mountains. Along the edge of Burgenland, where Martin Pollack lives, you get to Styria and Carinthia. The flip side of these Alpine charms is the unsettled account of mutual wrongs by the Austrians and Slovenes. We can nonchalantly ignore them, as the Carinthian and Nobel laureate Peter Handke does; we can enquire into them empathically, as Martin Pollack shows in The Woman Without a Grave, a story about his Styrian-born aunt. Let’s leave literature behind; ahead of us is Ljubljana, the Slovenian Athens. Its architect, Jože Plečnik, was deaf to fleeting ‘isms’, and seemed not to fit into the 20th century. It was relatively recently that his deep humanism came to be appreciated, his exceptional rootedness in the architectural legacy of the century. From Ljubljana it’s not far to Trieste, and yet they’re two different worlds.
A certain place divides them in an almost tangible way. The Nanos Plateau can halt the capricious continental weather. Rainclouds, fog, snowstorms. Beyond it, over Karst and the coast, the sky is usually clear, sometimes windy. Passing by it, I have the irresistible impression that it marks the boundary between Central Europe and Mediterranean Europe. Between something intimate and familiar, and something urban and global. We’re separated from the Adriatic only by the limestone plateau of the Karst. When you drive down from it to Trieste, you see at the bottom a city staring at the horizon. The blue of the Adriatic is overwhelming. It shimmers in the windows of the palaces by the riviera, pours into the Piazza Grande, flows into the city through the Canal Grande. But today’s Trieste is a shadow of its former splendour. A slight slip of the tongue makes it into ‘triste’ – sadness.
To what degree is Central Europe an imagined space?
Simona Škrabec once said that for her, Central Europe is a circle with a movable centre. I’m attached to the idea that we ourselves, in moving around, define our centre and periphery. I feel equally good and at home in Kraków, Silesia, Transylvania, Moravia, Istria, Trieste… perhaps because I love our little scrap of the continent; I see it as a whole, and simultaneously I recognize the distinctiveness, the uniqueness of particular lands, little nooks. I’ve never been a tourist. I try to be a newcomer who’s returning. That’s my rule. To return, with each successive return to better understand the place, to go deeper. I’ve also been fortunate in the masters where I’ve found guidance, or who have showed me how to handle such a specific space, with such a specific culture – Central European. I’m speaking of Claudio Magris, of his Danube and Microcosms, readings that I constantly return to. About Jacek Purchla and his school of understanding cities. About Robert Traba and his school of reading landscapes. Last but not least, about Krzysztof Czyżewski and his school of borderlands, his courage in looking into places that are painful, difficult. I hold to the principles they have inculcated in me: wander, look, read and converse.
And concerning the imagined nature of Central Europe, I have to say that it’s a space that is incontrovertibly real, and simultaneously it can’t be comprehended without imagination. That’s why culture seems to me to be a better key to it than history is.
What have your wanderings in Central Europe taught you?
They’ve taught me that almost every place has at least two names. And they’re not variations, still less equivalents in different languages. In each of these names is encoded not only somebody’s presence in a given place, centuries-long or entirely recent. Also reflected in the names is belonging. All of them are real, because there existed or are still living people who have used them to speak about their home, about their little fatherland. But most of all, what’s recorded in Central European place names are emotions. Sometimes pride, other times longing, not infrequently regret. There are names that some can never consent to. I have in my memory Sándor Márai, whose throat would never allow the word Košice to pass! Wrocław and Breslau, Stanisławów and Ivano-Frankivsk, Cluj and Kolozsvár, Rijeka and Fiume, Klagenfurt and Celovec, Pozsony and Bratislava, Szabadka and Subotica… I could go on for a long time. Each of these names has its temperature. It would be good if they cooled down a bit, but if they disappeared, Central Europe would disappear along with them. It would become a meteorological concept. Unfortunately.
Does that mean you look for differences?
I feel best in places that are complicated. That must be because I come from Silesia, from the Cieszyn area. There, borders – former and current – intertwine as in few other places. I’m fascinated by this intercutting. For example in Cieszyn, where you can cross the Olza border river without difficulty, not even swimming, but wading up to your knees. Where you can shout to people on the other side. And simultaneously, for almost 100 years it was an unpassable border. When it was set in the interwar years, the houses on either side of the river stand as they do today, looking into each other’s windows, and simultaneously finding yourself on the other side became difficult, often impossible.
Giving two names, building a second market square, setting up a second train station, didn’t do much – you could see with the naked eye, at least from Castle Hill, that it remained one and the same town. But people my age, born half a century later, by now belonged to two different nations. Some learned about “Lithuania, my fatherland” and tried to imagine a Polish noble’s manor – because there aren’t any in Silesia. The others, though they’re from the same city but across the border, recited Karel Hynek Mácha’s Máj, a poem set in northern Czechia, beyond the Elbe.
Does culture distinguish us more than borders do?
If not for the border, after school they could play football together, and simultaneously because of the border their imaginations became rooted in far-off worlds... It wasn’t just a question of language, because the strangest thing is a feeling of closeness, shaped along with school, television and national culture, to something far away – like Mickiewicz’s Lithuania or Sienkiewicz’s Zbarazh – and simultaneously alienation from something so close as a house and the children playing in the garden on the other side of a Silesian river.
Not far from Cieszyn lies Bielsko-Biała, where I attended secondary school. Today it’s a single city, but for centuries it was two, in two separate, huge countries. The cities lived on the border and because of the border. On the Biała River. I’ve crossed it countless times, buying dairy products on the side that for centuries belonged to the Holy Roman Empire of the German People, and bread in the former Polish Republic, which from there reached far to the east, toward Zaporizhia. The two powers met in a single shopping bag.
Since we joined the European Union, you can eat ice cream from Cesky Tesin by the ‘Polish’ Cieszyn Castle before it melts. The Friendship Bridge being uncrossable would have been a memory if not for the pandemic... The closed border is once again painful for a city that had managed to grow together. “I miss you, Czech,” somebody wrote in huge letters by the Olza. “And I miss you, Pole,” somebody painted on the other side.
Do we think in terms of borders even when they’re not there?
Yes, we have them in our heads and they always limit us! Let’s not imagine that, for example, we could be born somewhere else or have a different identity. Though we would still be ourselves, for the majority of us it’s unimaginable that we could be, for example, Lithuanians, Germans, Czechs... Meanwhile places like Cieszyn have shown me the artificiality of borders. And even more. For our grandparents, moving from one side of the river might have been a question of lower rent, or an easier commute. For us, 50 years later, it meant being born a Pole or a Czech. This relativity fascinates me. It must be because I also like to make myself at home elsewhere, to look at myself and at my country from outside – from out there. And I move this ‘out there’ to various places. I get distance.
How are the physical traces of change in Central Europe revealed? And how can we find them?
You have to look into the nooks and crannies. Whether it’s in our homes or in our cities, because they also have their dusty attics. Nearby, or further off. If you rummage around, look carefully, there are plenty of these overlooked places or things. Behind them are hidden people, in places where some kind of stories happened. But one thing is certain: at a certain moment we discover that the trails are broken off, the threads are torn. Somebody disappears without a trace, and we in turn arrive somewhere. It turns out that in a place that interests us there’s a known ‘after’ and an unclear ‘before’. That’s precisely Central Europe, this ubiquitous discontinuity. And we, the Central Europeans, exist to mend the torn fabric. Perhaps around here the Hegelian spirit of history was a giant moth? But joking aside, the places where not many people look are my clues. I also find something specifically Central European in places that are beautiful but abandoned. They’re a certain variety of contaminated landscape that you talk and write about, but it’s not the same.
For Pollack, whom you refer to, very often the contaminated post-Holocaust landscape is simply a void.
In the Łemko lands you can find doors standing in the middle of a field. Or you’ll find a cluster of periwinkles blossoming over the mouth of a former cellar. So if you’re asking about the traces, I’ll tell you that in Radocyna at the source of the Wisłoka it finally got through to me that a purge may have, so to speak, its landscape physiognomy. It’s an empty valley with periwinkle mounds here and there.
Absence looked different in Transylvania, where I often looked in during the 1990s. A decade earlier, when the noose of crisis was tightening around Ceaușescu’s neck, he exchanged the Saxons for German marks, which he used to patch up the Romanian budget. After the satrap was overthrown, whole villages of Saxons set out for Germany. To make it to the other side, before the border snapped shut again. Almost everybody left, and I showed up there as if I had gone the wrong direction. And I realized that I was seeing a land just after an exodus. Like from the Lower Silesian stories about 1945, ’46, ’47, about the still-warm tiles, the kitchens abandoned in the middle of dinner. 50 years later I saw something similar with my own eyes. And at the same time I could poke around in church courtyards and fortified churches, which absorbed me at the time, and which suddenly were no longer needed by anyone. Because the faithful had disappeared, and the tourists hadn’t arrived yet.
How did you feel during this journey, following somebody’s recently laid tracks?
I can’t recognize Central Europe as a concept or a construct. On the contrary, I have an excessive sense of its reality. I’ve already mentioned the courage to face pain. I’m surprised by some of my conclusions about its properties. Pain shakes us out of illusions, it stimulates you, like a prickling. It invalidates generalities. It makes things real like no other experience. It can be bizarrely tangible in space. And exceptionally long-lasting. Let me talk about Trieste again. In 1920, the Italian fascists burnt the Slovenian National Hall there. Long before Kristallnacht. Another 20 years of enmity were heated up, which came to a boil during World War II. A two-sided, Italian-Yugoslav vendetta went on. Both sides were fully engaged. The immensity of the pain doled out is symbolized by the foibas, the sinkholes in the stony valleys surrounding the city, where the victims’ bodies were thrown. We still don’t know how many there were; the bodies can no longer be exhumed. The Iron Curtain, built around the fringes of Trieste after the war, froze the issue. More bitterness was poured in by the thousands of Italians expelled from Yugoslavia, commemorating in Trieste the loss of their homelands. A city of the aggrieved!
It was only in 2020 that the presidents of Italy and Slovenia, Sergio Mattarella and Borut Pahor, met there and shook hands. It happened on the precise 100 year anniversary of the burning of the National Hall. I treasure its architecture; it’s one of the best works of Central European modernism, actually designed by an Italian, Max Fabiani. But far more important than the artistic dimension is the moral one. In a place like that there are no more illusions. No more imagining.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino
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