I am just back from a very enjoyable weekend trip to Gdansk with friends – not your usual long weekend destination but nevertheless a city brimming with history and in equal parts both desolate and beautiful.
We arrived at lunchtime and wandered around the Glowne Miasto (largely reconstructed after the 2nd World War) looking for a lunch spot, but everywhere appeared to be shut. Eventually, quite ravenous after our early morning flight we pushed on one of these closed doors and it opened to reveal a warm and welcoming bar interior.
We quickly realised that this was the Gdansk way – closed doors and no visible signs of life through the small windows did not necessarily mean there was nothing happening inside. All around the city retail and hospitality establishments conformed to this ‘norm’ very different to the British way of opening up and maximising visual connections to the street to maximise passing trade.
However what really struck me was the way that cultural institutions also followed this rule with the entrances to museums, galleries and theatres being exceptionally discreet with modest signage and the ubiquitous heavy ‘closed door’.
When discussing this with one of my Polish colleagues of course the climate has something to do with this – after all early March in Gdansk can be pretty unforgiving! However these are universal sustainability concerns and the need to use resources as sparingly as possible knows no borders. (For example the increased frequency of notices on British shop doors saying ‘we are open’ but have just closed the (usually glass) door to preserve heat).
I was absolutely fascinated by the new Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre, opened in 2014 to designs by Professor Renato Rizzi. Thinking about our projects such as West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and the Theatre Royal in Glasgow where we strive so hard to make the foyers visually transparent and porous, I was initially dumbfounded by the entrance to the Shakespeare Theatre. An unforgiven black brick fortress of a building, with no windows to its surroundings, the main entrance is down several steps into a severe small courtyard off which there are 2 unsigned blank black doors. Wheelchair users are directed further along the street and then down a lengthy ramp to arrive at the foot of the steps. This is entirely contradictory to all we aim for in British cultural capital development projects.
However I was equally amazed when we pushed on that closed door to reveal a packed foyer space, full of people of all ages there for the over subscribed building tour and a family event based around their current production.
So is there something more fundamental here in terms of cultural differences and our attitude towards the arts?
In the UK all our cultural projects have access at their heart – be it improving physical access or psychological access to culture. And somehow in Britain this has become synonymous with the physical opening up of our cultural buildings and the placing of the commercial activity at the front door to maximise engagement within our wider communities. In Gdansk it certainly seemed to be the case that the closed door is not a barrier to people discovering the riches behind.
With a much higher literacy rate than the UK and a continuing tradition of using the arts to drive real change, such as the theatre performances that formed an important part of the Solidarity movement, is it that with a more widely culturally engaged population the architecture simply does not have to try quite so hard?
As a passionate believer in the arts being accessible to all, my experiences in Gdansk have rooted themselves in my consciousness and I’m continuing to reflect on what lessons we can bring to bear in our Page \ Park projects, but there is also an important life lesson here – always push on a closed door…..