Film shows student design proposals for Polish estate

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Rebecca Valli
Poland manor barn
Philip Wilde ’73/Provided
Architecture students Cameron Neuhoff and Junlin Jiang pass near a former horse barn on the Bzionkow estate in Upper Silesia, Poland.

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

Reimaging 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 World War II. It later housed Russian Red Army officers, became a socialist collective farm and fell into ruin by the end of the 20th century. The estate is the subject of a new film by 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,” Michel said. “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 her great-grandparents’ fate with the help of Danish radio producer Ann Elisabeth Jessen, who was making a radio documentary about Americans whose families hid their Jewish heritage. Michel learned that the Hepners were removed from Bzionkow, relocated to Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) and ultimately sent to Theresienstadt – a transit camp for Czech Jews who were deported to concentration camps in German-occupied Czechoslovakia – where they both perished in the 1940s.

Michel, her husband and filmmaking partner Philip Wilde ’73, and Jessen visited Bzionkow in 2013 when the property was for sale. Dismayed over the state of the many buildings there, she was inspired to see if it could be salvaged.

“I hadn’t thought of claiming the property initially,” Michel said. “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. She and Mergold were introduced through a mutual acquaintance, local architect Noah Demarest ’02, a lecturer in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, and Mergold said the community engagement potential of a studio focused on Bzionkow interested him.

Film card
Ann Michel ’77/Provided
“Reversing Oblivion,” a new documentary by Ann Michel ’77 and Philip Wilde ’73, features Cornell architecture students who visited and designed proposals for a farming estate in Poland that was once in Michel’s family.

“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?” he said.

His class was one of a series of design studios working with stakeholders around the world 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,” Mergold said.

The students spent 10 days at Bzionkow in September 2015; the trip and their studio projects are featured in “Reversing Oblivion,” which premiered Nov. 12 in Germany at the Cottbus East European Film Festival.

The film shows students surveying and drawing the buildings on the estate, in workshops with design faculty in Wroclaw and at a public meeting with residents of the neighboring town of Dobrodzien, where they presented their plans to preserve and transform the estate.

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

Maur Dessauvage, Cameron Neuhoff and Michael Raspuzzi, all B.Arch. ’16, saw Bzionkow’s architectural ruins 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, with the ruins covered in new enclosures to make them habitable. “The translucent shells look to the future, and the aged brick walls keep on living as witnesses of the past,” Desauvage said.

Arista Jusuf, B.Arch. ’16, Jeisson Apolo, B.Arch./B.S. ’16, and Joy Ortiz, B.Arch. ’16, used ethnographic studies that revealed personal attachments to the site. Their design addressed the residents’ concerns about education and a steadily declining population by transforming the abandoned estate into a campus for historic and contemporary Silesian craft and culture.

Also traveling to Upper Silesia were Yue Gu, M.Arch. ’16, Jose Ibarra, B.Arch. ’16, Junlin Jiang, M.Arch. ’16, and Paola Cuevas Baez, Sagar Karnavat, Stefan Krawitz and Andres Romero Pompa, all B.Arch. ’17.

Patti Witten is a writer for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

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