When the Web Works

While I am, in theory, a big proponent of the digital humanities, I'm also frequently underwhelmed by projects sold under that label. That's why I was excited recently to find a low-key, creative, straightforward example of how the internet can contribute substantively to humanities scholarship.

I'm talking about a Facebook page titled Warszawski Modernizm 1905-1939, run by Grzegorz Mika, a 2009 graduate of the Warsaw Institute ofTechnology. The site's in Polish, but it's not text driven. Google Translate can pretty quickly explain most headings and captions.

What does the site provide? In essence, it's an image gallery. Mika has gathered several hundred photographs of modernist architecture built in and around Warsaw during the interwar years, plus a few of buildings designed by Warsaw-based or trained architects but built in other cities. He organizes the photos under rubrics such as "Single-Family Homes / Villas," "Apartment Buildings 1934-1939," "Public Buildings 1934-1939," "The New Architecture of Warsaw Suburbs," and "The Interiors of Commercial and Service Facilities."

Why is this undertaking so impressive? It recovers a nearly forgotten era of modernist experimentation. World War II nearly leveled Warsaw, and reconstruction efforts during the communist years focused not on, say, 1930s functionalist suburban housing but on the medieval old town, the Royal Castle, and the baroque and neoclassical buildings along Krakowskie Przedmiescie. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the city has concentrated on reinventing itself as a fully contemporary and global metropolis; pre-WWII residential buildings have not been high on its list of preservation priorities. 

The photos make powerful cumulative viewing, partly knowing the traumatic events that separate us from their utopian moment, but also because one has an opportunity to view a regional aesthetic, as expressed in everything from dancing clubs to high schools to posh shops.

Warszawski Moderznism does not employ a game engine, flashy animation, or 3D graphics. It is not a traditional essay wrenched apart into nonlinear textual nuggets and interspersed with sound and video clips. While it is collaborative--people have contributed documents and images to help enrich the site--it is also essentially a labor of love (or of mourning). Material usually deemed "peripheral" to the main narratives of architectural history because of geography, language, and war's destruction is made readily available to anyone with internet access.

This kind of "digital humanistic" scholarship is imitable and absorbing, and it requires little or no specialized technical knowledge about computers, databases, and programming. And if you "like" the site on Facebook, you periodically receive updates about new additions and related news. I've never met or corresponded with Grzegorz Mika, and he doesn't know me from a hole in the ground, but his site has brightened my day, repeatedly, over the last few weeks.

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