New Film Highlights Student Proposals for Abandoned Polish Estate

Promotional postcard for Reversing Oblivion
A promotional postcard for Reversing Oblivion, a short documentary film that features architecture students' proposals for an abandoned estate in Poland. postcard / Ann Michel
Architecture students at the farm manor house at Bzionkow
Architecture students at the abandoned manor house at Bzionkow. photo / Philip Wilde
Aleksandr Mergold and students at the farm estate Bzionkow in Silesia, Poland
Aleksandr Mergold, left, and design plan studio students tour Bzionkow. photo / Philip Wilde
The original owners of Bzionkow, Salo and Elsa Hepner
The original owners of Bzionkow, Salo and Elsa Hepner, who died in a transit camp in the 1940s. photo / provided
Architecture students outside the horse barn at Bzionkow
Architecture students Cameron Neuhoff (B.Arch. '16) and Junlin Jiang Junlin Jiang (M.Arch. '16) outside the horse barn. photo / Philip Wilde
Project rendering created by architeture students for the horse barn at Bzionkow
Project rendering created by Arista Jusuf (B.Arch. '16), Jeisson Apolo (B.Arch./B.S. '16), and Joy Ortiz (B.Arch. '16) for the horse barn at Bzionkow rendering / Joy Ortiz
Architecture students outside the cow barn at Bzionkow
Architecture students Maur Dessauvage (B.Arch. '16), Stefan Krawitz (B.Arch. '17), and Paola Cuevas Baez (B.Arch. '17) outside the cow barn at Bzionkow. photo / Philip Wilde
Architecture students outside the cow barn at Bzionkow
Maur Dessauvage (B.Arch. '16) and Sagur Karnavat (B.Arch. '17) outside the cow barn at Bzionkow. photo / Philip Wilde
November 9, 2016

Proposals from a fall 2015 architecture design studio feature prominently in Reversing Oblivion, a documentary film about a largely abandoned rural agricultural estate in Upper Silesia, Poland.

Reimagining a future for the mid-19th-century farming estate known as Bzionkow was the aim of assistant professor of architecture Aleksandr Mergold's studio, Design + Histories / Design + Desires + Fears / Design + Living / Design + Identity. The Nazis seized the property during the Second World War. It then housed Russian Red Army officers, became a socialist collective farm, and eventually fell into ruin through the end of the 20th century. Now, the estate is the subject of a newly released film by filmmaker Ann E. Michel '77, who only recently uncovered the lost history of her family and their connection to Bzionkow.

Until the late 1990s, Michel believed that her grandmother's family had been wealthy Germans. They were, in fact, Polish Jews who fled the Nazis.

"I grew up around German refugees celebrating Christmas. No one spoke about being Jewish," says Michel. "Grandma had fled Nazi Germany with my Dad and his older brother in 1939, but no one in the family spoke about what happened to Grandma's parents, Salo and Elsa Hepner, who ran the estate at Bzionkow."

Michel uncovered the fate of her great-grandparents with the help of a colleague, Lisbeth Jessen, who was making a radio documentary about Americans whose families hid their German Jewish heritage. Michel learned that the Hepners were removed from Bzionkow, relocated to Wroclaw (formerly Breslau), and ultimately deported to Theresienstadt — a transit camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia for Czech Jews who were deported to the concentration camps — where they both perished in the 1940s.

Michel, her husband and filmmaking partner Philip Wilde '73, and Jessen traveled to Bzionkow in 2013 to visit the property, which was for sale. Her dismay over the state of the many buildings there inspired Michel to see if it could be salvaged.

"I hadn't thought of claiming the property initially," Michel says. "But now I want to see it get a new life."

Knowing that young architects might be able to help envision a future for Bzionkow, Michel went looking for the right person. Her connection with Mergold was made largely through coincidence and proximity.

"We were introduced by Noah Demarest ['02], a local architect and lecturer in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, whom I know through my involvement with the Chain Works District redevelopment project here in Ithaca," Mergold says. "Because of several studios I had taught previously, community engagement became a very important component. In this particular case, the complex history behind the estate, both on the individual level of Michel's family and the larger geopolitical context of Eastern Europe and Silesia in particular, were extremely interesting. How does an architect learn to operate in that context?" These questions intrigued Mergold, and he decided to focus on Bzionkow for his fall 2015 studio.

Mergold's class was part of a series of design plan studios that work with stakeholders across the globe to investigate and define problems that can be solved with the input of designers and architects. "These studios are becoming design clinics, similar to the legal clinics in the law school," he says.

The students spent 10 days at Bzionkow in September 2015; that trip and the projects produced in the studio are featured in Reversing Oblivion, which premiered at the Cottbus Film Festival of Eastern European Cinema in November, whose focus for 2016 is Silesia.

In the film, the students are shown surveying and drawing the buildings on the estate and participating in workshops with design faculty in Wroclaw. A public meeting with residents of the neighboring town of Dobrodzien brings the past and future together as the students present their plans for the preservation and transformation of the estate.

The student team of Maur Dessauvage (B.Arch. '16), Cameron Neuhoff (B.Arch. '16), and Michael Raspuzzi (B.Arch. '16) saw the architectural ruins of Bzionkow and the elders of Dobrodzien as "storehouses of memory," and designed Bzionkow: A Place of Care to combine a senior living facility with a children's day care. The ruins of Bzionkow would be covered by new enclosures to make them inhabitable, "so that the spaces between old and new become 'occupiable' as the translucent shells look to the future, and the aged brick walls keep on living as witnesses of the past," according to Desauvage.

Arista Jusuf (B.Arch. '16) worked with Jeisson Apolo (B.Arch./B.S. '16) and Joy Ortiz (B.Arch. '16) to design Craft Culture, which relied on ethnographic studies that revealed the residents' personal attachments to the site and concerns involving youth education and a steadily declining population. The students addressed these concerns by transforming the abandoned farm estate into a campus for Silesian craft and culture, both historic and contemporary.

"The studio emphasized the idea of designing with the intent to preserve the integrity of the site rather than focusing so much on new construction," said Jusuf. "I am extremely proud of the work that our group produced."

Apolo also found the trip very enlightening. "I'm from Chicago which has one of the largest Polish populations in the world, so I was very excited to see Poland as a tourist. But," he said, "it did not feel like tourism. We developed a much more nuanced understanding of the suffering that the region had gone through during several different regimes."

According to Apolo, all of the students formed an understanding of why the people of the region "may feel anger and frustration towards other nations and migrants and saw that it was not just about Polish nationalism. We proposed the creation of a haven for craft that can also serve as a healthy and acceptable way to welcome outsiders into Dobrodzien without remorse or fear, and to appreciate the long history of hand craft present in Silesia."

The other students who traveled to Upper Silesia were Paola Cuevas Baez (B.Arch. '17), Yue Gu (M.Arch. '16), Jose Ibarra (B.Arch. '16), Junlin Jiang (M.Arch. '16), Sagar Karnavat (B.Arch. '17), Stefan Krawitz (B.Arch. '17), and Andres Romero Pompa (B.Arch. '17).

Michel hopes to screen the film at Cornell in the upcoming weeks.

By Patti Witten