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Zofia and Oskar Hansen — Framework for Living
In a world of architectural constraints, the Hansens redefined spaces as ever-evolving frameworks, with the House in Szumin standing as a testament to their boundless vision.
Zofia and Oskar Hansen — Framework for Living

The key principles behind the Hansens' approach to architecture were ergonomics and egalitarianism. Their design focused on the comfort of individuals but also on creating architectural spaces. Paradoxically, the residents of the Hansens' largest housing estates claim that these estates are entirely non-functional. How is it possible that the house in Szumin, constructed based on the same principles, appears to be an ideal living space?

Zofia and Oskar Hansen in a candid moment at their house in Szumin.

The Hansens met at a drawing class in the Architecture department of the Warsaw University of Technology. Zofia was a talented, down-to-earth student; Oskar seemed to be her complete opposite – a utopian with his head in the clouds. They complemented each other perfectly from the start.

Together, they created their most acclaimed projects – the housing estates in Warsaw (Rakowiec in 1958, Przyczolek Grochowski in 1963), the J. Slowacki estate in Lublin (1961), and their greatest work - the summer house in Szumin (1967).

Although all their projects were intended to incorporate the ideals of the Open Form concept, which considers architecture a framework of life, changing constantly according to the needs of people present, only their last work became the ultimate embodiment of it. In communist times, architects were obliged to strictly follow the rules imposed by the regime's construction industry. The House in Szumin was the Hansens' only project made fully in accordance with their vision and without any limitations imposed.

At the heart of Szumin's construction, the Hansen family collaboratively breathes life into their architectural vision. Photo from the Archives of Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

The architect couple fell in love with Szumin when they first visited their friends there. Szumin is a little village located in the area of an oxbow lake of the Bug River in Masovia, 70 km from Warsaw. At the time of their first visit, the village consisted of just a few houses surrounded by fields and a river.

The biggest conceptual challenge for the Museum of Modern Art, which currently takes care of the place, was preserving the property's original shape since turning it into a museum would be conflicting with the beliefs of its creators. The house was meant to be a background for everyday events, coming to life with the presence of people. And this is exactly how it works because, although the building is currently rented and run by the museum, it's still often visited by the architects' son Igor and his family. The museum organizes guided trips and workshops, making sure that the place's harmony is not interrupted.

Embraced by the verdant appearance of Szumin's landscape, the handcrafted house stands as a testament to architectural harmony with nature. Its simple, yet meticulously designed horizontal windows accentuate the dwelling's primitive charm, blurring the lines between man-made and natural realms.

Since 1968 when the construction of the house started, it was evolving according to the ideas of the Open Form concept. Over the years, the Hansens built an additional room for their second son, Alvaro, a hallway, a garage, a toilet, and external closets. The objective was to never make a proper plan of the house. Perhaps there were some sketches, but most of the decisions were made during the construction. The existing plans were created based on archival materials and the video footage made by Oskar's students who used to pay him visits. In a way, Szumin was never finished; it kept changing over the years, developing, and expanding. What could perhaps be considered the time of its completion are the dates of its creators' deaths – Oskar's in 2005 and Zofia's in 2013.

In the Hansens' Szumin home, the expansive horizontal window offers an uninterrupted view of nature, merging the indoors with the serene surroundings, a testament to their Open Form concept that sought to harmonize architectural spaces with the environment.

The handcrafted furniture reflects a meticulous design approach, with details that are simple, raw, and even rustic. These elements bring a natural touch, harmoniously complementing the understated simplicity of the interiors.

At first, Szumin was meant to be a summer retreat used mainly during holidays and weekends. At that time, Hansens had no idea that they would be forced to move there permanently in 1996. The architecture of the house is a mixture of Polish and Norwegian elements combined with the style of traditional chalets. Oskar's background was deeply rooted in the Scandinavian building tradition due to his origins – his father was Norwegian, and he also spent the first years of his life in Norway. The most notable architectural solution of Szumin is its sloped roof that reaches the ground, making it impossible to see what is going on inside from the street.

The famous bench sits restlessly on the concrete pedestal, juxtaposed next to the construction of the front of the house. The discerning white markings on the concrete wall underscore the Hansen principle of space articulation, delineating a clear distinction between the outdoors and the interior sanctuary.

The little bench standing in front of the house is an essential part of the property. Hansen liked to say that the bench was the first element of the residence that was built, even though this is impossible from the constructional point of view. The Hansens were the third family that moved into the area. They didn't want to be perceived as outsiders from Warsaw, so they set up a bench which in the Polish countryside served as a meeting point for the locals and provided some rest to the farmers coming back from the fields. Everyone could take a seat there, and it was not uncommon for the architects to join the passerby. If they wanted, they could also just stay inside on the other side of the wall and still hear everything that was going on outside.

Oskar Hansen captured at the prominent concrete wall, both a foundational and aesthetic element, epitomizes the blend of raw simplicity and intimate design that characterizes their home.

In reality, the construction of Szumin began with the wall, which greatly affects the whole space, since the house is, in a way, built over it. The structure of the building is complex – the interior interweaves with the exterior, and sometimes it is hard to tell whether you're inside or out. Oskar turned the wall into a visual message – a white line on a grey background indicates an exterior surface, whereas grey on white denotes the interior. Interestingly, this isn't a hard and fast rule: the Hansens considered a part of the forest surrounding the house their ”summer parlour,” so on that wall, the line is white. Oskar had plans to introduce a similar solution to Przyczółek Grochowski, one of his housing estates in Warsaw, to help the residents get their bearings more easily.

The house remained the joyful playground for the owners, where Hansen worked with colors and compositions.

The property is divided in a highly specific manner. The road is a public space here, the bench with the arcade becomes the place where one is almost inside but not yet, and the wall that separates the arcades from the interior marks the beginning of the private area reserved only for the residents. Just like in the old Polish houses, one enters the place through the short doors with a high threshold so that they can bow to the hosts. The interior is full of elements that catch our eye for aesthetic reasons and reveal their deeper meaning if we take a closer look. For instance, the window on the first floor extending through the whole Oskar's room is located unusually low. When the house was being built in 1968, it was surrounded only by fields, so when Oskar sat by his desk, he had a beautiful uninterrupted view of the horizon. At the same time, when someone rang the doorbell, Oskar could see the road and the visitor when he stood up.

Detail of the doors in Szumin.

The Hansens' house is full of furniture. Zofia's beloved spots where she used to sit the most included one of the chairs in the kitchen and the bench overlooking the garden. It turns out both of them had the same view that allowed her to keep an eye on everything that was going on in the property. Those were her little ”command centers”.

There are two paths dividing the house – the end of the first one is marked with white squares and the second one with the white frame of a square shape. This concept appears also in Hansens' large housing estates. Oskar used to call it ”served” and ”servant” spaces. The former belonged to the dwellers and their homes whereas the latter refers to garages, stairwells, trash cans, and vehicular traffic. The architect believed in keeping them separate to protect the safety of children playing in the yard. This scheme was implemented in Szumin on a smaller scale – on one side there's the bench, the garden, the garage, and on the other the kitchen, the bathroom and the toilet.

Next to their architectural work, the Hansens made multi-purpose pieces of furniture that could be mounted in all kinds of ways depending on the user's needs. They can still be found in almost every room and a part of them was brought there from the Hansens' apartment in Warsaw which the couple had to leave in 1996 after the old owner of the tenement house took it over.

The intimate workspace of Oskar and Zofia reveals a tale of creativity, where brushes, sketches, and handwritten notes converge in a dance of inspiration. As circumstances transformed their summer retreat into a permanent home, every corner of the space bore witness to their enduring spirit and artistic journey.

The garden around the house is divided in two parts – there is a wild forest on the one side and on the other – an orchard designed by the Hansens. The wall around the garden is painted but this time the paint plays a different role. The blue background enhances the color of the apricots growing on trees, and a bit deeper inside the garden Oskar painted the rhytm of the trees growing on the other side. Also the sloped roof covered with grey felt was meant to be the canvas for the vibrant colors of  flowers and fruit trees. One of the orchard's most precious parts is its wooden dovecote. Hansen was passionate about doves since he was a child. It was built in the 90's on the steel structure that's a relic from the 1997' Venice Biennale in which Hansen participated. Today it is all covered with grapevine  from which he used to make his own wine in the past. The dovecote was built in a process analogical to the creation of the Hansens' house: firstly the wall, then the building itself. Here the construction of the dovecote was preceded by setting up a steel structure first. Zofia used to joke that the dovecote was her husband's greatest architectural accomplishment.

The open space upstairs in Szumin remains imbued with the energy of the Hansens; a bustling workspace where ideas and concepts once buzzed and thrived, testament to their relentless dedication and passion to introduce visitors to their Open Form theory.

By organizing trips and workshops, The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw shows the educational value of Szumin which was tremendously important to its owners. In the years 1990-1991 Hansen organized architectural summer workshops for the students of the Bergen School of Architecture, where he was a lecturer. The space of Szumin was used to introduce the students to the Open Form theory. This explains the presence of the multitude of didactic tools designed to frame the views, examine the spacetime and change the colors. Students practiced their composition skills by designing a tabletop which planks could all be turned around. They also  played a game in which they tried to show and make others guess what they had for lunch by the means of colors, for instance a tomato soup with rice was a combination of red and white. —

This material was produced with the support of MoMA in Warsaw. The story was featured in the 4th issue of 'Thisispaper' magazine, printed in a limited edition.
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