Inside a Colossal Soviet-Era Maze

In his series PKiN, Jacek Fota delves behind the scenes of the magnificent walls of Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science, unveiling its human and artistic richness.

© Jacek Fota, from the series, PKiN. Alexandr and Eugene, vocalists from the Aleksandrov Choir during a cigarette break in the inner courtyard.

The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw was erected between 1952 - 55 by a horde of Soviet builders, following the standards of socialist realism. An unmissable monument of Poland’s capital, the palace is known by everyone even though most have never wandered around its 3,288 rooms.

At the time when the building was at the centre of a bitter controversy between people who wanted to demolish it for political reasons and those determined to get it listed as a cultural heritage site, photographer Jacek Fota decided to tell the Palace’s hidden story - an intimate tale with the best of Polish artistic crafts of the 1950’s as a background.

© Jacek Fota, from the series, PKiN. Palms at the Studio Theatre smoking room, left behind after performance.

“I never wanted to do a reportage, but rather a documentary about the building”, Fota explains. “It took me 3 months to get permission to go inside but I was determined to do it because nobody had done it before.” Since 2014, he has been exploring this monumental maze, sharing coffees and lunches with those who make it beat.

70 of the images Fota captured were collated in a book, along with interviews Milena Rachid Chehab conducted with 7 people who have known the palace for years - Maria Wojtysiak, an architect and conservation officer who had needed 3 months to tour the entire Palace when she came to work there in 1990; the cat lady who turned the basement into the Feline Paradise; Jan, a turner who remembers having to get consent from Moscow to chisel off a couple of tiles when they had to dismantle a broken pump in the boiler room; Hanna Szczubełek, who has been responsible for keeping the Palace Chronicles for 54 years; Jerzy, a man who is in charge of the main control room and who loses the sense of time when he doesn’t get out of the atemporal building for a while; and Krzysiek, the cleaner, who was transformed by his life at the Palace and now looks at buildings, paintings, sculptures and nature as works of art.

© Jacek Fota, from the series, PKiN. Ventilation room, Zone W.

“I remember my first day at work; I kept repeating: “Wow! It is all so big!” But it was meant that way: people were supposed to feel humble from the very moment they entered the Palace. It was the mighty power of the Soviet Union after all, right?”, he exclaims. Turning his camera on both its vanishing features and its people, Fota has turned an iconic, immutable structure into a vibrant living place.

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Jacek Fota is a freelance documentary photographer living and working in Warsaw, Poland.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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