When San Francisco-based photographer and graphic designer Troy Litten first came to Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, he was fascinated by the region’s visual and cultural aesthetics, shaped as they were by over 40 years of communist party rule. A selection of the photos he took on these early trips eventually made it onto his Instagram account, where he attempted to tap into an online Polish community that shared his interest in socialist design. But one photo got far more attention than the rest: a kiosk in the Polish city of Wrocław.
Designed by Slovenian architect Saša J. Mächtig, the star of Litten’s photo was the K67, a somewhat futuristic polyfibre, steel, and glass modular structure that Mächtig dreamed up in 1966, inspired by the sleek mod designs from neighbouring Italy. Intended to stand alone or as part of a larger configuration, the K67 was extremely versatile, envisaged to be used by vendors or at one-off events as something architecturally akin to interconnecting tubes. Some 7,500 units were manufactured and sold to Eastern Bloc countries, with other making it further afield to Japan, New Zealand, and the United States amongst others.
Housing parking attendants, fast food joints, and newsagents, the brightly-hued K67 was soon part and parcel of everyday life in many Central and Eastern European countries. As Olga Drenda writes in Duchologia polska, a book published in 2016 on society and culture during Poland’s transition to democracy, the emergence of the K67 coincided with the advent of the free market economy in the 1980s and 90s. As street sellers began flogging everything from bootleg cassettes to fruit preserves, the authorities gave them an ultimatum: you can continue your commerce, but only if you trade out of the aesthetically-pleasing K67.
Similar designs, such as those manufactured by Polish firm Kami, also flourished, writes Drenda. And, with the acceleration of capitalism, ever more garish designs soon began to adorn the kiosks’ walls, as advertisements filled every available space. When war broke out in 90s Yugoslavia, the import of the K67 came to a stop, while in the new millennium, the sight of the kiosks filled people with rage — they’d often end up burnt down, while authorities in cities such as Łódź promised to replace them with designs more in tune with the city’s Art Nouveau architecture.
Indeed, as much documentation of the K67 online attests, the kiosks now usually stand derelict. “Many of the kiosks I found were either closed when I visited, with no indication as to whether they were still in use, or obviously abandoned and deteriorating,” says Litten, who spent 18 days visiting 25 towns and cities in Poland last year to document the kiosks. Locating them wasn’t always easy. “I found 25,” Litten says. “About half of these I located prior to the trip thanks to recommendations from the Polish Instagram community and hours of clicking down city centre streets on Google Street View. The other half I just stumbled upon.”
“The kiosks I found in use in Poland were mostly selling groceries and dairy products, plants and flowers, serving fast food, providing key cutting services and parking lot security,” Litten continues. One conversation with a vendor led him to believe many occupants now find them in need of major maintenance — and indeed, many of the kiosks that remain are to be found far away from the modern metropolises such as Poland’s capital Warsaw. “From my experience it seems that kiosks, both K67 and Kami, are still most numerous in cities, towns, and villages that have not yet undergone major urban renewal and revitalisation programmes intended to ‘clean up’ the country’s cityscapes,” Litten says.
However, while the number of kiosks in their traditional homes is diminishing, appreciation across the world is growing. In Berlin, the K67 is a tourist attraction housing Kioski, perhaps the city’s smallest restaurant, while in New York, the MoMA exhibited one as part of the 2018 Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 exhibition. In 2019, Times Square unveiled one during NYCxDESIGN.
Still, Litten feels a re-appreciation of the K67 isn’t likely in the countries where they were most prolifically used. “While a renewed interest in the communist aesthetic is in full swing throughout the former East – as evidenced by the proliferation of ‘Museums of Communism’, or the Polski Fiat tours on offer outside the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw – I’m not so sure this trend will filter down to something as pedestrian and commonplace as kiosks,” he says.
Given the amount of history the kiosks embody – from zapiekanka stands to vendors selling disco polo records – many will hope Litten is wrong. But even if they do disappear for good from the Central and Eastern European countries they first served, at least there’s an ever-growing community of kiosk aficionados like Litten, willing to keep their memory alive online.