For KU architecture professor, prestigious Polish award is more than a solo honor

Wojciech Lesnikowski, a distinguished professor of architecture at Kansas University, displays his Laurel award from the city of Krakow, Poland, for a crowd of press photographers at an event there May 7. To his left is Krakow's mayor, Jacek Majchrowski.

Wojciech Lesnikowski has designed skyscrapers and airports. He’s known some of the world’s most famous architects. In restaurants in France, he can get a seat at the best table in the house with a flash of a medal on his lapel.

He’s not shy about these things. But, then, his father was not shy, either.

In pre-World War II Poland, his father was a soldier, a lawyer and a politician, Lesnikowski says. But he was an avowed anticommunist, and on Wojciech’s 10th birthday, he was taken away to a Soviet Gulag.

He never received praise or glory for his service to his country. But now his only child has.

Lesnikowski, a distinguished professor of architecture at Kansas University, earlier this month became the eighth person to receive a Laurel award from Krakow, Poland’s second-largest city. Established in 2001, the award honors the achievements of people who’ve been associated with Krakow, where Lesnikowski, 75, studied as a young man.

Krakow’s mayor presented him the award in the meeting room for the 43-member city council, inside an old Austrian palace. He received a custom-made trophy, a sculpture of an open book made out of stainless steel — so heavy he hasn’t yet been able to bring it back home.

“You should have seen the reception afterwards,” Lesnikowski said. “The Champagne was flowing everywhere.”

He was met with an array of constantly clicking cameras and microphones thrust in his face, to the surprise of Wojciech (pronounced “voy-check”) and his wife, Julie.

“There were at least a dozen, if not more, photographers,” Julie said. “Then there were the people there for TV news shows, radio, journalists who interviewed him.” It was how she imagined a red carpet would feel, she said.

The mayor spoke glowingly and thanked Lesnikowski for doing the city proud. For a day, he was Krakow’s favorite son, though he hadn’t lived there since 1964.

That’s when he left for Paris, after earning a master’s degree in Krakow and working there for a few years, for an internship with the famed architect Le Corbusier. His Polish citizenship was revoked after he decided to stay in Paris and work afterward, though he got it back in 1974, after his father had died.

He came to America in the 1970s, teaching at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, among other institutions. He worked as an architect in Chicago, serving as the lead designer of a hospital and a skyscraper — the CNA Center, set aside from the rest of the city’s skyline by its bright red hue.

Lesnikowski came to KU in 1988 as a distinguished professor, becoming a single parent to two young daughters soon afterward when his first wife died in a horse-riding accident in Poland. He’s continued to design buildings since, including three new airports built in Poland since the fall of communist rule in 1989. In 1990, he became a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters in France.

“I feel fortunate to have him as a colleague,” said Stephen Grabow, a KU professor of architecture for 40 years who has co-taught several studio courses with Lesnikowski.

Lesnikowski’s instrument of choice when sketching a building is a pen, not a pencil, Grabow says. That requires a good deal of confidence, he said, but it also comes from the classical architectural training he received in Poland, where he was born in 1938 — one year before the German invasion.

His mother was Jewish, so when the Nazis arrived, his father — an attorney and politician — hid the family on the rural property of one of his clients. Lesnikowski’s parents survived the war, but nearly everyone else in their families was dead by the end.

His father fought on the side of the Soviet Union later in the war, Lesnikowski said, and was sent to Krakow as a government administrator after it was over. But when rulers found out about his anti-communist sympathies, the authorities came to the Lesnikowski home on Wojciech’s 10th birthday, in 1948. He didn’t see his father again until 1953, when he was released from a Gulag following the death of Joseph Stalin.

“He has these amazing experiences that you only see in movies,” Grabow said.

One day, young Wojciech was forced to stand in front of his entire school and denounce his father, calling him a traitor and a secret agent for the CIA, which he says he and his classmates all knew to be laughably false.

“From that perspective, I think, I owe my father many things,” Lesnikowski said.

His father lived quietly after his release until 1972, when he died of a heart attack.

Lesnikowski still feels an attachment to Poland, he says, despite what happened to his father there. His education in Krakow opened the door to all his success since, and Poland, France and the United States are all equal parts of him, he said.

He goes back to Poland about twice a year and teaches students there. They look up to him because of his experiences abroad, he says. And Krakow’s business, art and science leaders respected him enough to recognize him with the Laurel award.

“It’s a wonderful feeling at my age, you know, that they all recognize,” Lesnikowski said.

It’s recognition his father, whom he calls a “great man,” never got.

But, then again, “never” is a pretty strong word.