The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, nears the finish line ahead of its October opening

Mark your calendar: The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (MSN Warsaw) will open on October 25, 2024, “with an intense roster of performances, debates, discussions, and other activities,” according to its director, Joanna Mytkowska. Designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners and led by director Katie Bennett, the 213,000-square-foot building occupies a site on Plac Defilad, a plaza in central Warsaw. Its prominent parcel sits between the imposing Palace of Culture and Science—a “gift” to Poland from Joseph Stalin during the 1950s, when it was part of the USSR—and a row of contemporary shopping centers boasting Zara and UNIQLO stores. Phifer’s impressive building, finished in white concrete, stands to be a major contribution to Poland’s artistic life.

construction on the site of Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
The surrounding landscape is envisioned as a lush garden. (Marta Ejsmont)

The opening is well-deserved, as it will mark the culmination of a nearly 20-year campaign to build a dedicated home for the display of contemporary art. Founded in 2005, MSN Warsaw primarily acquires art made after 1989, when communism was overthrown in Poland. Its first competition to attract a properly iconic design collapsed after foreign architects weren’t allowed to enter. A second effort resulted in a winning proposal by Christian Kerez in 2006, but after six years that plan was lost due to subway construction and land ownership disputes. A third competition was organized by Mytkowska, who joined as MSN Warsaw’s director in 2007. Phifer’s scheme, which includes a second building for TR Warsawa, a theater company, was selected in 2014. Financed by the City of Warsaw, construction began in 2019.

white interiors
The white spaces feel almost lit from within. (Marta Ejsmont)

The museum is positioned to become an open and accessible landmark for the Polish people. “This is a place for people to meet each other and to encounter art,” Phifer told AN. Mytkowska has built the museum’s holdings since 2011 with public funds. The collection, in her view, “is still very young and strives to address the challenges of the present, emancipation of diverse minorities fighting for visibility, the climate crisis, sexual and racial equality.”

MSN Warsaw’s completion arrives as the nation’s politics veer left: An election last fall saw several right-wing leaders voted out. “Censorship has disappeared, along with pressure on cultural institutions to promote conservative national values,” Mytkowska shared. But new tensions have arisen: “After eight years of populist rule, the cultural sphere lies in ruins and broad ranks of precariously surviving artists and culture workers have been demoralized.” The new MSN Warsaw, under Mytkowska’s leadership, represents the urgent desire to rebuild social relations and strengthen existing institutions.

close-up of white facade
(Marta Ejsmont)

Architecturally, Phifer’s team was inspired by Warsaw’s even, gray light. In navigating how that light might enter the building, Phifer’s solution is to illuminate some galleries via clerestories and some through an Arup-designed system of louvers and scrim. “The light of Warsaw and the art embrace each other and are dependent on each other,” Phifer remarked. Inspired by Roni Horn’s glass works, he likens the white-concrete architecture to “a vitrine that embodies, holds, and contains light.”

The public can access the ground-floor for free, which extends the public terrain of Plac Defilad into the institution. “It is here we hope the world of culture finds its beating political heart,” Mytkowska offered. It will be programmed with a variety of activations, from debates to performances. Inside, the tall vertical core of the museum is a “classically inspired, double symmetrical stair,” Phifer said. Flooded with natural light, it will be the main circulatory space as visitors traverse from the ground floor up into the galleries.

staircases and mezzanines
Vertical circulation takes on a theatrical aesthetic. (Marta Ejsmont)

Rather than an endlessly flexible white box, two floors of galleries are configured like a “house of rooms,” each boasting its own unique proportions but with consistent physical elements. In each viewing sequence, Phifer explained, “you discover a wood room with a bench, reading table, and window. It is a room embedded in the art experience offering a place for pause, reflection, and contemplation, with a visual connection back to the city.”

Construction has progressed at a steady pace, even with the ongoing war in nearby Ukraine; many Ukrainian workers returned home to take up arms when Russia invaded in February 2022.

Throughout, Phifer has been impressed with the quality of the construction. On one visit, he “witnessed these experienced carpenters making these forms with great love and care. They were making them with the precision of extremely precise furniture. On-site they were bending the rebar perfectly, and they were pouring this unique white concrete and vibrating it with great purpose and precision.” He continued:

I think what gets lost in the consideration of materiality is the primacy of craft and the importance of the people that make these works. The people who are making these wood rooms of contemplation embedded in the architecture, the people who are making these remarkable concrete pours, the craftsman who are pouring these special terrazzo floors, understand how these materials are assembled and how they come together to make a holistic, beautifully crafted work of architecture. They have lived their lives doing this work. That, for me, is the epitome of craft. It is a matter of extreme pride.

Visitors will get to see the results of this craft in person when the museum opens in October.

construction of Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
Aerial view showcasing the urban site. (Marta Ejsmont)

Once open, Mytkowska is looking forward to “the regular, rich, multifaceted program and the range of different contacts with MSN Warsaw’s audiences.” For a museum that has always operated in temporary spaces under uncertain conditions, the new architecture represents stability and offers a permanent place for the cultural scene in Warsaw to call home.

After October’s festivities, a show of MSN Warsaw’s collection will open in February 2025, and regular programming will begin the following fall. Next door, the TR Warsawa, to be realized with a darkened steel facade and a main stage that fully opens onto Plac Defilad, is scheduled for completion in 2027.

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