The goal of Justyna Chmielewska graduation project is to restore the physical presence of the river Strzyża in Gdańsk, and explore ways in which residents can coexist with the flooding creek.
Can you (briefly) explain your choice of subject?
Over the past thirty years I have observed the gradual disappearance of the Strzyza stream from the landscape of my hometown of Gdansk. I still remember exploring its lush riparian forest with my grandfather when I was a child. But over time, shopping malls and highways replaced the forest. I was curious to understand the reasons and for consequences of the stream’s disappearance. The government buried two kilometres of the Strzyza underground and sold the land above to various investors. The stream has turned into canals. The consequences of canalizing it are catastrophic for the inhabitants. Heavy rainfalls in recent years and little space for the water have led to more and more floods.
In the past, the Strzyza used to be the main driving force behind Gdansk’s economic development. As early as the 11th century, monks built water mills that used the access to fresh water and the fast-flowing current of the stream to produce various goods. The once useful and resourceful stream is now an unwanted and dangerous element in a city. The clash between the current needs and fears of local people and the unpredictable flooding of the Strzyza’s landscape was an interesting starting point for me. I wanted to find out if ‘living with’ the Strzyza, instead of fighting against it, is still possible.
What or who are your sources of inspiration and can you briefly explain this?
My inspiration comes mostly from the site visits. Conversations with people, photo documentation, walks at different times of the day and year certainly contributed to my better understanding of the stream. The spaces around the Strzyza are leftover and forgotten, visited by homeless cats, drunks or lost walkers.
However, these same spaces are also places of experimentation and temporary, unusual DIY constructions. The main inspiration for me was the free-spirited creativity of local people, who find something beautiful and meaningful even in the garbage: funny decorations and flower pots made of old car tires, flood-protective sandbags, stray cat houses made of re-used wooden logs. The genius loci of this place is marked by the small-scale, local activities of the inhabitants. That is why my project focused on designing simple new DIY actions that contribute to minimizing flooding and familiarizing people with the stream. All materials used in the project are re-used objects found along the Strzyza: concrete blocks, concrete tiles, bricks, old car tires, old toilet seats, sandbags, etc.
State and (briefly) describe the key moment in your graduation project.
The most important turning point in my master’s thesis was the acceptance of the Strzyza’s complexity. Instead of forcing the conceptual and minimalistic thinking, I accepted the chaotic and multi-layered stories of this stream. I combined a large-scale urban intervention (engineered uncovering of the stream) with small-scale DIY interventions by the residents. Public, communal and private choreographies together can contribute to accepting the presence of Strzyza, getting to know it anew and noticing its multidimensional value.
Can you (briefly) explain what design(ing) means to you?
In my master’s thesis, I focused more on the process of discovering, accepting and living with the stream, and less on the final image frozen in time. The context (highly privatized rivershed) led me to design a process, instead of an object. When I design, I try to add as little as possible. Rather, I try to re-arrange, re-shuffle, re-use, create choreography, a set of tools and actions.
Designing is about taking the time to get to know the place. With design I try to make memories speak. In my graduation project I tried to reveal the memories of past generations and how they used to dwell along the Strzyza. These past memories, the history of the Strzyza’s landscape and the resourcefulness of the monks served as an inspiration. I found contemporary resourcefulness and craftsmanship in reusing and repurposing the garbage and a new, contemporary need: flood protection in times of climate change.
What hope / do you want to achieve as a designer in the near and / or the distant future?
In the near future, I would like to organize a series of talks and meetings about the Strzyza. They could take place around sewer manholes, which in some places are the only connection between the canalized stream and the city surface. Together with the inhabitants of Gdansk, I would talk about the Strzyza, exchange memories and together revive the stream that is now frozen in concrete.
The government buried two kilometres of the Strzyża underground and sold the land above to various investors. Today, some plots that cover the Strzyża belong to commercial companies, some to privatized neighbourhoods, and the rest is still owned by the municipality. There is no coherent planning policy for the stream as a whole. The consequences of channelling the Strzyża through underground pipes are catastrophic. Rainwater collected in the concrete canal of the creek has nowhere to go, and so it floods the city. Because the stream is invisible, citizens are not warned about rising water levels.
Besides the damage caused by dangerous floods, the disappearance of the Strzyża also means the loss of our collective memory. During medieval times monks harnessed its rapid waters to produce beer, but now we have lost touch with this rich river landscape. The only time we see the Strzyża is when it floods the city.
The goal of my graduation project is to restore the physical presence of the Strzyża and explore ways in which residents can coexist with the flooding creek. In an age of climate change, bringing our lost rivers back into our lives is a necessity. Their natural riparian landscape buffers and stores rainwater. Their meandering watercourses flow more slowly than canalized ones. A planned reappearance will bring the Strzyża back into the consciousness of people living alongside it and new resilient actions will help us to live ‘with’ the stream rather than experience its absence. The way to restore the Strzyża is through various interventions: from engineered investments on municipal land to simple DIY actions on privatized sites. The multitude of owners along the river make a single top-down plan impossible. Existing conditions call for choreographed and precise actions facilitated by collaborations between various owners. Only together can we deal with the consequences of the lost ecosystem of the Strzyża.
Justyna Kinga Chmielewska
Academie van Bouwkunst Amsterdam