31 October 2008

Cold War Neon

WarsawElla Chmielewska
In the common imaginary of the West, gray was the colour of the communist city; the drab and uniform tone was only punctuated by the red of the flags. This ideological urban myth could be unsettled by the remaining artefacts of the communist era in Warsaw, though they have been disappearing fast from the surface of the city. Displaced by garish noise of printed advertising and cheap signs of hyper-capitalism, the evidence of the little know urban phenomenon of neonization of the communist cities in the 1960s has been crumbling, leaving only street photographs to attest to the spectacular aspects of socialist modernity.
After the death of Stalin and the political changes of 1956, Warsaw was released from its Socialist Realist shackles, and allowed to become modern. Mies-inspired buildings appeared in the city centre, and elaborate neon signs sprouted everywhere on rooftops and building facades. Architectural and design journals called for surrounding the citizen with beauty, light, and clarity of form and discussed modern uses and the compositional-aesthetic sense of light in architecture. References to the fantasy and ‘magic of city lights and advertising’ and ‘illuminated composition’ illustrated the metropolitan ambitions and highlighted the role of graphic space in urban design. The new metropolitan street was posited as an evidence of aesthetic taste, sophistication, and ‘European elegance’.1
The celebration of light and colour, however, was not to be spontaneous nor chaotic as chaos was seen as characteristic of capitalist cities and their ‘obscene spatial compositions’.2 In a socially progressive city, technology, industry, art and urban detail was to meet in the careful choreography of neon signs that constructed the proper image of the socialist metropolis. Not ‘the nonsensical fashion for neons’ not synchronised with architecture, but the careful design of the street interior, was called for; order, harmony, and centrally coordinated urban composition. 3
At first, the term neonization meant a critical reference to the visual noise on the urban surface.4 Later, the term came to mean the comprehensive programme developed and implemented in the1960s and carried through the 1970s, the programme coordinating harmonious design of ‘night architecture’ and the city’s daytime image carried out by the special office of the Chief Designer of the City.5 The office functioned from 1972 to 1991 alongside the position of the Chief Architect of the City of Warsaw and was responsible for the aesthetics of public space, urban signage and advertising and all issues related to information and decoration in the city, including engaging artists in consultations regarding the colours for building fa├žades, design of neons and illuminated signs, shop windows and public displays.
The Neonization Programme established an elaborate design and approval process requiring careful consideration of site, building scale and detail, the context of other signs, relevant views, colour sequences, as well as the signs’ graphic form, typography, and even the wording. Technical aspects of signs, their sequence of switching, specifications for the materials and mechanisms, were also part of the stringent approval process. Most importantly, the neon signs were not treated in isolation, and the approval process was not a mere regulatory formality. The design of urban signage, advertising and occasional decorations became an important source of revenue for the local graphic artists and architects, and the approval documents provide an astonishing testament to the quality expected and the attention to detail demanded of the projects.
The neons were not simply positioned in available spaces. They were designed into the buildings’ exteriors: forming hypersurfaces, as it were, enveloping the buildings, outlining them, respectful of their form and detail, highlighting their silhouette. They retreated during the daylight, with only a delicate line of writing visible against the sky, or the building surface. The neons, like the posters visible on the streets of Warsaw, were designed by graphic artists and were used in the rhetoric of modernity and the Polish contribution to European (Western) culture.6


1 Jerzy Hryniewiecki. ‘Ksztalt przyszlosci’ (The shape of the future), Projekt, no.1, (1956). pp 5-9; Stanislaw Jankowski, ‘Urbanistyczne wnioski z Festiwalu’ (Post-festival urban reflections) Miasto (The City), 61 no 11 (1955) pp 26-29.
2 Henryk Sufryd. ‘Zagadnienia sztucznego oswie tlenia architektury’ (Problems of the artificial light in architecture) Miasto, 55 no 9 (1959) pp.12-15.
3 Ibid.
4 Olgierd Budrewicz, Stolica (The Capitol), March 1958, p. 9.
5 Stanislaw Soszynski, Chief Designer of the City of Warsaw 1972-1991 (interviews, May 2003). See also: Archives of the City of Warsaw, Neonizacja, 1969-1972, document AB.UA-647-71.
6 Ella Chmielewska ‘Sites of Display: The iconosphere of Warsaw, 1955 to the present day.’ Peter Martyn (ed), City in Art. Warsaw: Institute of Art, 2008, pp.127-143, fig.1-51.

Chmielewska, Ella. 'Cold War Neon' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Ella Chmielewska and On Site review

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