The district of Jeźyce, in Poznan, Poland, is crammed with art nouveau architecture. Each building is different, each façade an original work of art. In Slowackiego there's the old cinema where concerts are now occasionally performed. Further on there's a school with the figure of the Archangel Michael built into the walls, taken from the old fortifications when they were demolished, and given a new home here high up on the brick wall.
Further on there is Staszica, a wide street which used to be lined with trees – according to J, who grew up in this district – but now only has a few. Almost all of these once grand buildings, architectural aristocrats, are now down at heel, their grandeur faded, relics of a past era of almost century ago, a way of life barely imaginable to us now. Yet there are echoes of this pre-war era, in almost every courtyard we go into, the past flickering alongside the near emptiness and silence of the present. The vast wooden doors, through which horse drawn carriages must once have passed, hooves clacking on the cobblestones.
Beyond the heavy wooden outer doors are courtyards where there used to be gardens and fruit trees but nowadays the garden areas are used to park cars, or are made into garages or have simply been left untended, a mixture of worn earth and gravel, patches of weeds. We push open these massive doors, designed it would seem to keep out the front runners of an army fully equipped with heavy spears and battering rams – for of course I am thinking of an ancient army, modern ones would calmly toss a grenade though even that might backfire in the face of such resistant solidity – and go through into the courtyards. Some of them have a bare, scant and neglected look to them – gravel, some empty bottles lying around, clumps of grass. Others still have the occasional fruit tree growing there, and have been brightened with murals. J says that this project was a government scheme to get the community involved in smartening up the courtyards, giving them attention and care.
|mural - the cafe|
One of these murals shows people sitting at café tables, reading newspapers. Through the first entrance door and the first courtyard there is another archway, this one with ivy drifting across it, a few fronds hanging down, hinting at the effect of a bower. Beyond this archway is the next courtyard or garden, and the mural is painted on the back wall. The paintings are in black and white, and the café customers are not modern people, you can tell by their clothes, and by the café chairs and tables, reminiscent of the thirties or even earlier. I imagine that the theme of the murals was deliberately set as an aspect of the past, so that their memories will be preserved.
In another courtyard a small area has been returned to a garden, with tended plants and flowers in among stones and rocks, and a bench in front of it. Behind this rock and herb garden there's a mural, again in black and white. It depicts a handful of children who seem to be watching one girl who is standing in front of something.
I don't know what it is they are looking at says J, and I look more closely. It has what looks like an iron framework, and rollers within the framework and the girl is holding something that looks like a piece of cloth which is attached to the rollers. There's a large handle for turning, at the side. It's a mangle I say, to help dry clothes. The wet laundry is put between the rollers, the handle is cranked, and the water is squeezed out of the clothes, as they pass between the rollers. I explain this to J who has never seen or heard of such a thing!
Our final visit is to an old apartment block whose outer doors stand ajar. This one does not lead through to a courtyard but has a hallway with the remains of painted decorations still visible on the ceiling. The wide staircase is all made of wood, the banisters, and the steps. They look as though no-one has walked up here in a long time. Silence hangs over the whole building, as if time has grown thick here, congealed into a mixture of dust and crumbled plaster, damp with the passage of old emotions, worn into the wooden steps.
At the top of the first flight of steps there is a doorway, next to a window with small grimy panes, some of them still with the delicate decorations of the original panes. Much of the paintwork on this door has peeled away leaving distorted curling patterns that talk of absence, neglect, misfortune even, frayed bonds between persons and buildings for who knows what reasons, but the past century has supplied many, wars and conflicts, shifting national boundaries, displacement and exile, flight and loss. Outside the door stand two old wooden cupboards and a rolled-up carpet leaning against them. The atmosphere is of abject and desolate abandonment.
But the buildings are gradually being renovated and the newly painted outer doors preen themselves like bright birds alongside their more dowdy neighbours. These new ones are fitted with locks and entryphone systems so we cannot see inside them. But one of them is ajar and I push it open, to reveal the gleam of half lit tiles, and the walls lingering in shadow, the kind of secrets that are kept hidden out of some inner joy so deeply felt that even in silence they throw beams of light, emanations of wishes and desires that spilled over into tiles and walls, into plants and light, into paintwork and carvings. Suggestions multiply like echoes, like music in a vaulted building. I pull the door to, carrying the echo of these images with me. One day the abandoned building may also look something like this, its wooden steps polished, its doorway repainted, its ceiling shiny with opulence, a bicycle maybe, propped against an upper balcony.