Wednesday, 22 October 2014


I mentioned in an earlier posting that I would say something about Roman Zsawisa, who I knew quite well during my early days working in London.

He was Polish . . . and a different generation to me . . . he told me that he was fifteen when he lived in the sewers of Warsaw during the 1944 uprising when advancing Russian troops stayed on the other side of the river and allowed Nazi German forces to massacre over 150,000 trapped and desperate civilians. So, that would mean he was probably born around 1927 or 1928. I had never met anyone like him, before or since. The situation he described in Warsaw at that time was horrific; whole families burned alive by German flame-throwers. Starved of food and water, driven into the city’s sewers while the buildings above them were systematically destroyed.

He loved talking about it. Just give him a cue . . . ‘Did you ever eat dog, Roman?’ . . . and he would talk for hours about the war. His job in the resistance was hiding places, he told me. Concealment; of weapons, ammunition, radios, petrol, anything and everything to keep the resistance supplied.

I don’t know why he didn’t perish with his colleagues and if he told me how he got to England after the war, I can no longer remember. I don’t know how he ended up working for the GLC Architects Dept but that was where I met him.

I think he was regarded as a right-wing nut there, where all the young architects out of college were working at the GLC out of love and a belief in utopia. God, he hated the Russians with a passion. Could quote Trotsky at you and tell you where he had got it wrong; thought Marx was the devil incarnate. And he was so intense; every little detail picked over. He lived in a detached house in Wimbledon that was so full of books that they were even carpeting the floors. Ask him something, anything, and he would find a book in a cupboard, often in Russian or Polish, with the answer. Never even glanced at fiction; his life was too real.

How do you control an IQ of 164? Well, they got him to research vandalism on the Estates and guess what he found: the door hardware wasn’t doing its job, which is how I got involved. The theory, then and now is one of defensible space. If you allow litter to accumulate, the garden/landing looks neglected and vandals assume no-one cares. If the lift doors don’t work and you have to push a pram up twenty-seven flights of concrete steps, you are fairly certain that no-one cares. Door hardware was always the weakest component and the beginning of decay and neglect. So he invented things: strong hinges, with instructions on how to fix them, how deep to drill the pilot holes, how long the screws should be. Door bolts that were actually stronger than the doors they were being fitted to, locks and keeps that could withstand an attack by a sledgehammer. You may think that being a genius is an undervalued currency these days but Royde & Tucker still turn over a million a year from manufacturing his inventions. They are uniformly brilliant and what’s more, the GLC took his ideas on board and insisted that all Newbuild housing incorporated them. He profoundly affected how even low-cost local authority housing was designed and constructed.

Then along came Alice Coleman. Then, a lecturer in Geography at Kings College, London; now, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Kings College, London. And she waltzed off with his ideas and published them under her own name in a book called Utopia on Trial. But the findings are controversial, still; that’s the trouble with nicking research done by someone else . . . particularly a right-wing nut-job. Actually, that could be regarded as slanderous. I suspect that what actually happened was that she applied academic rigour to his ideas.

I lost touch with him soon after; he came up to Newcastle and stayed with us over a weekend. Brought no change of clothes or pyjamas.

No comments:

Post a Comment