ONE OF A KIND

The Polish Embassy in Vietnam has recently organised a series of events to mark the 20th anniversary of the passing of architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowski, including releasing a book entitled ‘Kazimierz Kwiatkowski (1944-1997) - Memories of a Special Person’...

By LE DIEM on May 10,2017 10:53 AM

ONE OF A KIND

Photos: EMBASSY OF THE REPUBLIC OF POLAND

The Polish Embassy in Vietnam has recently organised a series of events to mark the 20th anniversary of the passing of architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowski, including releasing a book entitled ‘Kazimierz Kwiatkowski (1944-1997) - Memories of a Special Person’, who devoted nearly two decades of his life to restoring what are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Vietnam.

architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowski

architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowski

Many international visitors agree that Hoi An ancient town is their favourite destination in Vietnam, for its unique housing from the 18th and 19th centuries that mixes the architecture and culture of Vietnam and other countries. Not far from Hoi An is My Son Sanctuary, with its impressive Cham tower-temples, and Hue Ancient Citadel, with political, cultural, and religious monuments, which are also major tourist magnets.

Most visitors, though, would never have had the chance to see these UNESCO World Heritage Sites if it wasn’t for the efforts to save them by Vietnam’s Polish friends under the stewardship of architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowski.

After the American War, Vietnam asked for the international community’s support in saving and restoring its damaged cultural and architectural relics. With experience and reputation in restoring relics not only in their own country after World War II but also elsewhere, Poland gave a friendly hand. Working at PP PKZ - State Atelier for Conservation of Historic Monuments in 1980 at the age of 36, Kazimierz Kwiatkowski was the only specialist who took on the challenge, leading a team to Vietnam.

Despite anticipating the difficulties of living and working in a country that had only recently escaped from war, Mr Kwiatkowski could not have imagined the challenges that awaited.

The first task was to repair the tunnels at Cu Chi, an immense network of connecting underground tunnels that were the location of several military campaigns during the American War. Working underground in tunnels at risk of collapse from wear and tear and climate, however, turned out to be easier than his next project: My Son Sanctuary.

Between the 4th and 13th centuries, a unique culture with spiritual origins in Indian Hinduism developed on the central coast of what is today Vietnam. The My Son Sanctuary boasts the remains of a series of tower-temples on a site that was the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom for most of its existence. Carpet-bombing by American B52s destroyed most of the tower-temples, with only 40 out of 300 or so remaining when Mr Kwiatkowski and his team arrived.

ONE OF A KIND

They actually had to walk and sometimes crawl for 5 km to even reach the area. Living 40 km away in Danang, the team spent two hours driving each way due to old cars and rutted roads. Five kilometres before My Son, they had to set off on foot because the sanctuary was surrounded by forests and the road simply wasn’t passable. With a pack of necessary tools and equipment on their backs, they took the clammy walk every day.

After a while, Mr Kwiatkowski decided it was better to live nearby the sanctuary. Modest tents were pitched, with handmade beds of bamboo. There was no electricity or water. Dining was basic, usually rice porridge with green beans and, as Mr Kwiatkowski called it, ‘canned food’, which were chickens they kept in a pen, recalled Professor and architect Hoang Dao Kinh from the National Cultural Heritage Committee, who worked alongside him.

The poor living and working conditions were negligible compared to the other threats the team faced. Unexploded ordnance was everywhere. So their first task was to detect and clear the danger in the area. Eight members of the team gave their lives while completing this task. Along with ordnance detection and clearance, pieces of the monuments scattered around the area were also carefully collected. This was done under the principle Mr Kwiatkowski had adopted, of trying to maintain the original. In his view, the message of the past was history and should not be faked.

ONE OF A KIND

So the team tried to save what was salvageable and restored damaged sections in a way that reflected their original status as much as possible. Given the heavy wartime destruction, the job required a lot of time and meticulous effort.

By 1991, when financing for the task was exhausted, Mr Kwiatkowski called international organisations to provide the funds needed to continue. ‘I will do everything, as long as I can live with these towers,’ he used to say.

While living in the towers, Mr Kwiatkowski visited Hoi An, about 45 km away. As a bustling trading port in the 17th and 18th centuries, the town was influenced by different cultures and architectural styles. Its houses and street network reflect local traditions and those from Portugal, Spain, France, Great Britain, China, and Japan, which make it unique.

From the first time he visited, he believed the town could become an attractive spot for tourists and provide much-needed income for the area. He convinced local authorities and residents to give up the idea of knocking down the old houses, and volunteered to conduct studies and prepare a profile of the town for submission to UNESCO.

Lacking information, he spoke with the owners of the houses and became a familiar figure. He is considered the one who introduced the deserted old town to the world, via insightful articles in international research magazines. Since then, many international researchers of old architecture have paid attention to Hoi An.

While working at My Son and Hoi An, Mr Kwiatkowski also took on the task of restoring monuments in the Hue Ancient Citadel, Vietnam’s imperial capital from 1802 to 1945. Again, war, natural disasters, and the passing of time had taken their toll. He disagreed with those who said the construction was a copy of the famous Chinese Forbidden City. To him, it was particular to Vietnam, reflecting Vietnamese culture, and should be protected.

It was the first time people in Hue learned about restoring and maintaining relics, under Mr Kwiatkowski’s guiding hand. He devoted a great deal of time to restoring the most important parts of the site, such as the Imperial City, the Forbidden Purple City, and the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, and helped it gain listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

In 1997, while working on a project restoring The Mieu, the ancestral temple to Vietnam’s emperors in Hue Ancient Citadel, Kazimierz Kwiatkowski passed away suddenly after suffering a stroke, ending his 17-year quest to restore some of Vietnam’s heritage. He didn’t get to see his devotion to Hoi An and My Son result in them being recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1999 but Vietnamese people will always remember him with love and gratitude.

He was indeed a special person. Despite having only a little Vietnamese, he quickly made many friends. ‘There were times when we wondered how he understood what local people were saying to him, but somehow he could,’ said Mr Le Thanh Vinh, Director of the Monuments Conservation Institute. ‘When we went out together, people called him Kazik, as Kazimierz was difficult to pronounce. He was always friendly and listened attentively.’

Saving and restoring the heritage sites were not Mr Kwiatkowski’s only valuable work. During his labours, he took time to transfer his knowledge and love of heritage to local people and inspired them to continue his good work after he was gone, according to Professor Kinh and other architects.

To commemorate his devotion to Vietnam, a statue of Kazimierz Kwiatkowski was erected in Hoi An, and every year, on the anniversary of his death, Vietnamese people in Poland pay a visit to his grave.

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