11 Aug 2016

Bus Spotting – or why buses are important

The proud municipal livery of the former Birmingham City Transport

Train spotting is now officially cool. Who could resist Tim Dunn’s enthusiasm for that magnificent Black Five steaming alongside a Highland loch as seen in the strangely addictive ‘Trainspotting Live’. It is true that many of the anoraks have yet to catch up with Tim’s snappy dress sense and it is difficult to really get excited about a 40 year old IC125 belching out diesel as it judders you down to London. But I was a train spotter when I was about 11 or 12 and you never forget the magic.

The heritage Routemaster, a design classic

Bus spotters however are seriously unfashionable. There are surprisingly large numbers of the species about and whole sections of bookshops are given over to their esoteric picture books. I share the nostalgia for the old municipal liveries like Glasgow’s jazzy olive and orange or Hull's deep blue with futuristic white flashes. They gave specific identities to cities, and companies such as Midland Red or Crosville defined provincial fiefdoms unknown in earlier historical geography. I hate the bland uniformity of the big companies like Stagecoach and First with their shit liveries, the same everywhere in the country, from Aberdeen to Cornwall. But I have never been much interested in the vehicles per se. I am unmoved by a heritage Routemaster even if Nairn loved them although I seeth with anger at the sight of a Heatherwick ‘Roastmaster’, which perfectly captures Boris Johnson’s vainglorious, flash vacuity. What I am interested in is bus systems and their part in urban design and development.

Boris Johnson's hubris and Heatherwick's Roastmaster

Buses lack the dynamic excitement and raw, sexy, power of trains but they are important. For a start they carry many more passengers than trains. But trains are mostly used by the affluent, and particularly men, so naturally get much more political attention and a lot more public subsidy. Buses are predominantly used by women, poorer people and the old. So providing good bus services should be an important element of policies to improve social inclusion and equality. Yes – well there’s the problem – we haven’t got any. Attitudes to buses are a classic example of class prejudice, as captured in Mrs Thatcher’s pronouncement that ‘for a man to be seen on a bus after the age of 20 is a sign of failure’.

Glasgow's public transport policy still stuck in the Thatcher era

Of course this is absurd, especially as car use by young men is far less common in cities today than it was 30 years ago. Buses are used by a wide cross section of society in big cities like London, Edinburgh and many other places, especially those like Oxford and Nottingham with good networks and large student populations. Buses can and should provide the basis of high quality public transport, complementing metro and tram systems in larger cities. This is a fundamental of sustainable urban planning.

New housing at Upton, Northampton - all about the car

But unfortunately there is a huge disconnect between town planning and public transport planning and of course between public transport planning and privatized-bus-world. Town planning is essentially about physical development so planners like new trophy infrastructure like trams, new rail stations or possibly guided bus, all of which are good but rarely deliverable. In reality, for nearly all new developments, public transport is going to equal bus. Local plan vision statements always include fine words about the importance of public transport and transport consultants write reams of self serving bollocks in Design and Access statements supporting crap planning applications. The  promised improvements however are usually tokenistic. What is really needed is to design estates with road layouts that allow for simple bus routes at high frequencies and for good pedestrian access to bus stops. Most volume builders’ estate layouts are the obverse of this with winding distributor roads and cul-de-sacs, hopeless for buses to serve effectively. There are hardly any good examples of new developments designed around good public transport, at least outside London. Even urban design exemplars like Upton in Northampton are almost entirely car centric. And good public transport also requires improving bus systems as a whole, not just the bit within the estate. This is partly about bus lanes and bus priorities but essentially about more intangible things like ticketing, marketing and information, attractive frequencies and accessible buses. Planners mostly don’t get this.

Heroic London Transport - East Finchley, image courtesy Owen Hatherley

Arnos Grove, image courtesy Owen Hatherley

Buses used to be important to cities. In the early 1900s nearly all sizeable towns enterprisingly invested in electric trams. From the 1920s to the 1950s municipal buses replaced trams and their networks expanded into the inter- and post-war suburbs. Small rural and inter-urban bus companies were mostly consolidated into big groups and nationalized after the war. There was a period of chaotic competition to municipal trams from ‘cowboy’ bus companies but in 1930 the government regulated bus services. In 1933 a Conservative government set up London Transport which integrated tubes, trams and buses in a single public transport system and this became a model for the world.

Heroic London Transport - Stockwell Garage, courtesy socarra 

However 50 years later a dogmatic Tory government swept away bus regulation. Some ideologues had been to Jakarta and saw there a classic free market competition paradigm in the melée of minibuses, vans, bajajs and motorcycles all vying for passengers on the congested and polluted city streets. The Thatcher government saw this as the ideal way forward for public transport in Britain and particularly a way of slashing public spending on buses. Buses had been profitable in Britain but by the 70s, with increasing car ownership and congestion, patronage was going down and subsidies going up. Of course this was the case in all developed countries including American cities where public transport is heavily subsidized. Britain’s deregulation of bus services was unique and typically ideological and reckless.

London: an integrated, comprehensive and coherent bus service

Of course if the loony theory really held good then the greatest benefits would have accrued to London but Mrs Thatcher was too canny to experiment on the capital where free market chaos would inconvenience our rulers and the establishment. So regulation and integration of services and ticketing was retained for London Transport. That is why the plight and poverty of public transport in provincial cities is just not understood by the metropolitan-dominated political and intellectual elites.

Ubiquitous First (Worst) bus liveries, here in Bradford

The Thatcher government quickly sold off the publically owned National Bus Company subsidiaries, along with those of the Public Transport Authorities, set up in the bigger conurbations after 1968 on London Transport lines. Often sold as management buyouts at knock down prices, bus companies were quickly consolidated into three big groups – Stagecoach, Arriva and First (Private Eye’s Worstbus) that dominate the industry today.

Such a waste: the closed Northampton Corporation Transport Offices

The effects of deregulation have been catastrophic. The number of bus passengers has declined by 50% since 1985 across the big conurbations like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, West and South Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear. Over the same period  bus passengers on London Transport have doubled. The reason is obvious - Transport for London specifies the routes, service levels and fares and the system is fully integrated and adequately funded. The differing performance however does partly reflect the increasing economic dominance of London over the last 30 years and also the car centric policies of many of the big cities with fast motorway access and cheap parking lure drivers away from public transport. An ironic example is the huge open car park opposite Centro’s HQ in central Birmingham where you can park all day for £4.

A bus station with design effort – Southampton University

In the Shires the decline in bus usage began in the 50s with the advent of mass car ownership, so that the networks were already pretty threadbare and the decline in patronage since 1985 has been less dramatic. Some medium sized cities like Edinburgh, Nottingham, Oxford and Brighton have managed to buck the trend of bus decline through strong planning policies favouring buses. And, importantly, Edinburgh and Nottingham still own their own bus companies.

Stagecoach to Lincoln's Ermine Estate; no local identity, no evening buses either

The huge problem of deregulation, competition and privatization is the loss of integrated planning, comprehensive route networks and ticketing. The split between public transport planning, which is done by transport authorities, and the operations of the commercial bus service providers resembles the internal market in the NHS. Under arcane competition rules bus companies can only operate ‘commercial’ routes which are profitable and they should not cross-subsidize less profitable services, such as to local shops, hospitals, schools or work places off the main bus routes. Transport authorities must fill in these socially necessary routes with tendered services. Since councils are strapped for revenue they usually specify a very infrequent and basic service and tenders are mostly given to low cost, low quality small operators. So the tendered services are excluded from the publicity and ticketing of the main companies, greatly reducing their usefulness.

A sad joke: Weston Favell, Northampton

The fragmentation of services is so chronic that often the privatized companies don’t even run less profitable evening or Sunday journeys on their main routes. Some cities like Bristol pay them to run later buses to get you home whilst Greater Manchester tenders separate evening services, usually from different companies which won’t accept your return ticket. First provides even a big city like Leicester with a pitiful skeleton evening service whilst in Swansea, amazingly, there are no buses at all on Sunday evenings.

Swansea Bus Station is good but you'll have a long wait on a Sunday night

Deregulation and selling off publically owned bus companies resulted in huge changes in the bus industry, but did not usher in the perfect world of competition that the free marketeers had anticipated. New small competitors did enter the market but, rather than establishing new routes and innovative services, they usually attempted to cherry pick the most profitable routes of the big companies. Often using old, polluting vehicles and employing part time drivers on low wages they could undercut the established companies, but the big boys fought back, becoming more ‘efficient’ by cutting out marginal services to focus on the main ones and forcing down drivers’ wages and conditions. Their main weapon was to use their bigger resources and financial muscle to flood routes with buses, far more than patronage could possibly sustain, and hence to drive out the interlopers. Usually after a period of turbulence the big companies reestablished effective local monopolies and the small companies eked out a business by taking over services abandoned by the big boys, together with low quality tendered and school contracts.

World class Manchester University - third world bus service

The big companies have been successful in some places like Cambridge which had very poor bus services before. By investing in new buses and introducing new simplified high frequency networks with good marketing and publicity they have managed to grow the market. And there are some very successful and innovative companies, like Brighton and Hove, which have extremely high patronage and satisfaction rates. But in the big Northern cities, where integrated public transport should be providing the basis for urban planning and sustainable development, bus services have been decimated (in the figurative sense – the numerical decline is much, much worse). Here competition between the big companies as well as with many smaller competitors was fiercer and longer lasting. Dirty, empty buses clogging the streets was especially a problem, most spectacularly in Manchester where the city centre was brought to a standstill by bus wars during a Conservative party conference. The previously integrated Greater Manchester network is now fragmented with First dominant in the north, Stagecoach in the south and 30 or so other smaller operators all vying for passengers. There is a bewildering array of tickets, only one of which is valid on all buses, trains and the trams. You can see why getting a London-style franchise system is high on Manchester’s Northern Powerhouse wish list. Rural areas too have seen a catastrophic decline in their bus services. And since they rely so heavily on Council tendered services, rural communities are particularly at risk from austerity spending cuts.

Tom Eckersley's Poster for the National Bus Company

The deregulation and privatization of buses was of course part of a much broader assault on public control of local services, and of government centralization. The impoverishment of local democracy, the loss of local accountability, initiative and public enterprise was just the norm. The Labour government of 1997 could hardly conceal its lack of interest but pressure from the cities did result in a new Transport Act in 2000. This sought to deal with the worst excesses of deregulation and privatization through ‘Partnership Working’, but without fundamentally changing anything. The problem was that, whereas councils sought real improvements and control over rocketing fares, the bus companies wanted to maintain their near total control and large profits. And the bus companies held all the cards. So, for example, transport authorities now had the power to require joint ticketing between operators, but they could not specify the fare levels. So bus companies simply sabotaged joint ticketing by insisting that joint tickets cost more than their own tickets.

A further Act in 2008 for the first time opened up the possibility of Councils franchising buses London-Transport-style, but this had to be a last resort where ‘partnership’ could be demonstrated to have failed. The process requires all sorts of complicated ‘tests’ to make it difficult to succeed and specifically transport authorities would have to prove that the potential disbenefits to the bus companies were outweighed by benefits to the public. In other words this was writing a blank cheque for the big bus companies to claim for loss of profits if franchising was introduced. It was clearly intended to make re-regulation a dead letter.

Nexus at least trying to make a difference; Gateshead Bus Station

Despite this, Nexus, the combined transport authorities of Tyne and Wear, pursued the case for regulation. This political commitment was heavily influenced by the fact that the big bus companies were making huge profits of 18-20% on what are effectively monopolies. Clearly competition was not working. In the northern conurbations bus fares had gone up 59% since 1995, compared with 36% in regulated London. This effectively represents a regressive tax on the poorest in society who depend on buses. Also bus companies are raking in public subsidies through fuel rebates, public contracts and concessionary fare payments. Nexus argued that a franchised network would be cheaper and fares lower. But the bus companies refused to provide the financial information required for a detailed business case so a government Tribunal turned down the Nexus bid in 2015. Embarrassingly this decision came only a few months after Osborne had signed the DevoManc deal which included his commitment to introducing bus franchising in Greater Manchester. The DfT was told to change the rules, so there is now no longer a requirement to compensate bus companies for lost profits. However the route to effective local control over bus services and fares is still fraught with huge difficulty and endless delay.

Hull's bus station is part of grand Paragon Station

It is no coincidence that probably the most successful city bus networks in Britain are municipally owned. Although Mrs Thatcher sold off the PTA bus operations, non-metropolitan authorities were allowed to retain their buses. Most councils, including big places like Leicester, Hull and Southampton subsequently sold their bus companies and no doubt regret it today. But there are still a dozen municipal bus operators, the largest being in Edinburgh (Lothian Buses), Nottingham, Cardiff and Reading. Counter-intuitively, they have the advantage of not being part of a bureaucratic inter-council ‘Combined Authority’ but rather have a strong political relationship with a unitary city. Hence they are much more able to take a corporate approach to wider transportation, planning and economic development strategies. Their boards still have a public sector ethos and as far as possible try to deliver a comprehensive service for their citizens, not just a profitable one. However they have to be run commercially as ‘arms length’ companies. This is a problem when it comes to plans for integration and joint ticketing since they act in the company interest, seeking primarily to protect market share and profits, rather than the passengers’ interest or the wider public interest.

Lothian Buses, Edinburgh and the magnificent Museum of Scotland

Edinburgh, with nearly 750 buses, is by far the biggest municipal. It runs an extremely comprehensive network of routes serving all parts of what is a polycentric city, with big business parks, shopping centres, hospitals and universities on the periphery. Lothian, having successfully beaten off Worstbus in the face of aggressive and protracted ‘bus wars’, has now extended the network into adjacent Midlothian and East Lothian towns. It runs an impressive network of night buses and Edinburgh is the only city in the UK where buses run every day, even on Christmas Day – suck that London. Real time information is provided at most stops and Lothian has a very good phone app. The contrast between the bus service in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, where it is provided by First and a multitude of small operators, is very striking, although Glasgow does of course have a large suburban train network and its famous circular Subway.

New buses and new tram kit on Princes Street

Edinburgh’s public transport strategy has been focused on building a new tram - highly contentious as it was years late and horribly over budget, although now is exceeding its patronage forecasts. The tram is a political football and hated by the Edinburgh bourgeoisie. The general consensus is that it wasn’t needed because Edinburgh’s buses are so good. Well yes – up to a point. But the Edinburgh bus system does have significant weaknesses. Firstly the City Council is unwilling to give buses and pedestrians the priority they deserve. Edinburgh, like London, is a capital city where the establishment and elites are feted and appeased, so cars and taxis are allowed to dominate. Yes there are bus lanes and some bus-only streets, but congestion makes bus journeys slow and unreliable, most especially in the Festival. Lothian’s smartcard system is pretty clunky too and because you can buy your ticket from the driver, who spends a lot of time answering queries as bus stop information is very poor, buses take ages to load. So bus journeys can be very time-consuming and frustrating. There are other frustrations too. For example Edinburgh City Council tenders some socially necessary routes, like the number 13 bus which serves the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, but as this is not run by Lothian Buses you cannot use your day ticket or smartcard, which is pretty silly.

Nottingham City Transport: amongst the best public transport services outside of London

The largest fleet of electric buses in Europe

It's all connected: trams, trains, buses and cycle paths

Nottingham is an example of a more holistic transport and development strategy. In addition to running the municipally owned Nottingham City Transport (NCT), Nottingham has developed a tram network (NET), recently extended with two new lines. This is partly funded by a Workplace Parking Levy (WPL), the only one in the country. Despite the opposition of much of the business community and the instinctive hostility of the Tory government, the introduction of the WPL was approved because it had gone through all the steps required by Cameron's short-lived Localism agenda, so ministers were hoist by their own petard. The WPL and other innovative funding mechanisms also pay for the Link bus network which complements the commercial network of NCT, serving local communities, workplaces, hospitals and colleges. And the really impressive thing is that these routes are all operated by electric minibuses – the biggest fleet of electric buses in Europe. By January 2017 electric single deckers will take over the P&R services too.

So why is Nottingham City Transport competing with the tram? 

Nottingham undoubtedly has one of the best public transport services outside London but deregulation and competition law still cast dark shadows. They conspire against integrated networks and ticketing and the best, most convenient service for passengers. The most absurd outcome is that the City, having procured and significantly underwritten the NET tram system, finds its own bus company NCT is directly competing with the new tram. The NET tram route does not even appear on the NCT map, which is beyond ridiculous.

The bus wars are still ongoing. This is not Yourbus, it is privately owned

Then there are still, periodically, bus wars. At present ‘Yourbus’ (sic) runs a number of routes that simply duplicate pre-existing bus services, so there are far more buses than passenger demand. The established companies take a defensive and preemptive approach to such competition, often stuffing timetables with unnecessary buses to keep rivals off stops. The upshot is that city centre streets are often choking with too many buses, which is self defeating as it makes services slow, inefficient and expensive and so less attractive to passengers.

At last! An Oyster Card outside London, but could be better

But Nottingham is the only city to have a travel card like London’s Oyster card – one that can be used on all buses and trams and which has a daily cap on fares. Getting the agreement of the operators to the Nottingham Oyster (inevitably called the Robin Hood card) is a triumph. But it is still something of a compromise and undermined by lack of co-operation from the bus companies. Although the main operators NCT and Trent Barton are innovative, run high quality services with new accessible buses, frequently win awards and don’t go in for bus wars, they still compete. NCT runs the great majority of the buses in the City and immediate suburbs, whilst Trent Barton provide services to adjoining towns and commuter villages. So they compete along the main roads into the city where Trent Barton can be the more frequent service. Both companies offer their own tickets and smartcards and aggressively promote these exclusive tickets rather than the integrated Robin Hood card, which they insist must have a more expensive daily cap if more than one bus company is used. So, for example, interchange with the NET tram is penalized. And because, unlike TfL, the City does not control the on-bus ticket systems there are constraints on how effectively the Robin Hood card can operate. You can’t for example top up on-line, although there will soon be a mobile phone top up.

Realtime display ✓ , Timetables & Maps ✓ , Maintained Shelter ✓

Although the City provides comprehensive information about the bus network at stops, including good real time information, this is fighting against the different publicity of the bus companies. Each company has separate web sites, timetable leaflets, maps and mobile phone apps. The separate apps only show real time information for the single operator, so you frequently have to consult two apps to check the next bus from your stop.

All Nottingham City Transport services, but why the different colours?

This bus is green but not Green Line. Confused? I'm not surprised

And strangely a preoccupation with branding makes the bus network even more complicated and difficult to understand. Trent Barton, confusingly, give their routes names rather than numbers, like Mainline or Pronto and each has its own branding and distinctive livery. NCT buses have numbers but are also colour branded by the main roads they serve, so those going to West Bridgford, where I live, are ‘Green Line’ and painted green. But their competitor ‘Mainline’ also has a green livery. The punters are not surprisingly confused to be told they can’t use their tickets on different green buses serving the same stops. You even get the same number bus on similar routes but run by different companies with non- interchangeable tickets, as Owen Hatherley was bemused and angry to find in Leicester.

A unified visual communication system was axiomatic

This focus on the individual route not the network and over-busy branding is of course completely at odds with the philosophy which made London Transport the model for the world. Holden and Beck deliberately used a standardized suite of high quality designs for infrastructure, liveries, typefaces, publicity – all the elements of the public transport system – in order to create the image of a comprehensive, unified whole. Even when London buses were franchised, so actually operated by private companies, they were forced to retain the famous red livery and logo. In Nottingham and elsewhere the cacophony of branding, marketing and different tickets creates the opposite – a fractured system. A regulated, franchised bus system would do away with such nonsense and allow the City to concentrate on developing its public transport strategy more effectively and enable better forward planning to increase public transport use and promote sustainability.

Fun with the system: Abram Games's Poster for London Transport

But at a time when this country appears to have pressed the self destruct button it may seem quaint to suggest that providing high quality, integrated and efficient public transport for cities should be a priority. It is even sadder that we may come to see Osborne’s city devolution prospectus as a brief ray of sunlight through the thick dark clouds of Whitehall indifference and centralization. With a new government that seems to have no economic or transport ideas whatsoever the future looks very bleak indeed. So it turns out that the bus spotters, with their anoraks, Ian Allen lists, cameras and rallies of old buses are far more realistic and down to earth than me. Alas.

31 May 2016

Cities of the North – our new book

"Their informed and opinionated commentary, gimlet-eyed and witty, is offered without fear or favour ... This is an angry, politically acute account. It is, no doubt about it, a book for the state we are in."
Gillian Darley, Literary Review, August, 2016

Cities of the North takes an irreverent and often amusing look at the changing townscape, special character, architecture and planning of the great Northern English cities. Lavishly illustrated, it is a companion to Towns in Britain published by Five Leaves in 2014 and it builds on the popular Jones the Planner blog. It explores the process and politics of development and ‘regeneration’ which is reshaping Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Hull and Newcastle amongst others, always focusing on the intrinsic character of place.

Cities of the North reviews both the successes and lost opportunities of recent years and considers the implications of the emerging Northern Powerhouse plans for the conurbations.  The book is inspired by and follows in the footsteps of Ian Nairn who opened so many people’s eyes to an appreciation of cities, their often unexpected delights, qualities, possibilitis and potential. Like Nairn, Cities of the North shows a passion and affection for these places and an appreciation of their all too often undervalued qualities.

Adrian Jones is a town planner and urban designer, formerly Director of Planning and Transport for the City of Nottingham and member of CABE’s national Design Review Panel. Chris Matthews is a local historian and lecturer in graphic design at Lincoln University

Five Leaves Publications £13.99

Book Launch
7pm, 30th June
Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham
Refreshments Provided
RSVP: Adrian, Chris or bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
Map: www.fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk

Book Cover 

Inside Pages

17 Apr 2016

Warsaw doesn't know how good it is

Warszawa Powiśle

Warsaw is definitely not on the tourists’ agenda: even Poles will tell you to go to Kraków instead. Neither Stanford’s nor the RIBA Bookshop could provide me with an architectural guide. But in the event that didn’t really matter as our guide was Owen Hatherley, whose knowledge of the history, politics, architecture and popular culture of Poland and Eastern Europe seems limitless. Inspired by his seminal Landscapes of Communism we took Wizzair to explore Poland’s capital.

Modernism finds a way in Old Town

What everyone knows about Warsaw is that it was razed by the Nazis after the doomed 1943 and 1944 uprisings, and then rebuilt by the Communists with monotonous and alienating grey tower blocks, its desolation captured in David Bowie’s 1977 ‘Warszawa’ and the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski. But wait; the painstaking reconstruction of the city centre is also held up by Simon Jenkins, Gavin Stamp and Dan Cruikshank as a model of what should have happened after the war in Coventry, Liverpool, Exeter and Britain’s other blitzed cities, if it had not been for the wicked Modernists and Planners. Needless to say, the story is a bit more complicated than that.

Completely rebuilt – Old Town

It is impossible to understand Warsaw’s reconstruction without some context of Polish history. From the C14th to the C18th the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a great power covering the vast landmass between the Russian, Ottoman, and Hapsburg empires and Prussia. It was multi-ethnic, incorporating much of modern day Ukraine and Belarus, with a significant minority of Germans and, following their expulsion from much of Western Europe, the largest Jewish population in Europe. The C18th was a golden age of enlightenment but Poland was an oligarchical republic with an elective king and, although constitutionally advanced, it was politically weak. Between 1772 and 1794 the Commonwealth was cynically partitioned between Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia, which took the largest share including Warsaw. Revolts in 1830 and 1863 resulted in heavy repression and Russification, so the C19th was a dark period for Polish nationhood. The collapse of the Tsarist empire in 1917 and the disintegration of the Kaiser’s in 1918 allowed Poland to regain its independence.. The new Polish republic, initially a chaotic democracy became a thinly veiled military dictatorship after 1926 but was relatively tolerant at least compared with its neighbours. The Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 was the prelude to brutal invasion, with the explicit intention on the part of both invaders of destroying Poland as a nation and a people. Nearly 40% of Poland’s infrastructure was destroyed in the war and 20% of the entire population were killed. Post ‘liberation’ by the Red Army, Britain and America acquiesced to Poland becoming a Soviet satellite. Stalin seized the ethnically mixed eastern provinces and the Polish population was deported to be resettled in Warsaw and the new western provinces from which the German population had been brutally expelled.

A city history with a staggering death-toll 

Something like 700,000 Varsovians were killed during the war, including over 300,000 Jews of the ghetto. Hitler ordered the city to be razed and 85% of the buildings were destroyed. The ghetto area was systematically obliterated so that new development is literally built on the rubble of the old city. Elsewhere destruction was less absolute and the ruins of many buildings remained, along with much of the street pattern. Concrete constructions generally survived Armageddon. Praga and other areas east of the Vistula, already controlled by the Red Army at the time of the uprising, were not completely destroyed and here in places you can get an authentic feel for late C19th and early C20th Warsaw, like say Oranienburger in East Berlin and now similarly hipster.

Memorial to the Warsaw Uprising

In 1944 Warsaw was not only ruined but largely depopulated. The rebuilding and repopulating of the nation’s capital was a hugely symbolic act; the Nazis had tried to obliterate Poland entirely and the defiant rebuilding of Warsaw from the ashes was crucial to restoring national and cultural identity. All over the city there are monuments to the fallen and to the liberation. Some, like the monument to those deported to Siberia, could only be erected after 1989. Even commemorating the 1944 rising was politically risky in the Communist era. Many plaques mark the sites of atrocities and executions; the most touching are those to individuals, often with a photograph of the deceased.

Socialist Realism, neither socialist nor realistic 

The form of the rebuilt Warsaw reflects political ideologies, nationalism and economic exigencies more than town planning or architectural theories. Initially the assumption was that there should be a new, rational plan to address the many deficiencies of the overcrowded slums of old Warsaw with their congestion, squalor and reminders of Tsarist tyranny. In the event the rebuilding largely followed the old street plan. Architectural style was dictated by the paranoid, murderous and stylistically conservative Stalin, so Modernism was not an option – it had to be authoritarian Baroque.

Winnie the Pooh Street 

One of the earliest redevelopments was right in the centre behind Nowy Świat. Winnie the Pooh Street (yes really, the name was chosen by the public) is a handsome street of classical proportions and orders, a little stodgy maybe but with nice touches like the colonnades, sundial on the campanile which closes the vista and the whimsical name plate. Behind the classical frontage buildings are spacious courtyards of housing and greenery – very different from the crowded slums of pre-war Warsaw.

The Stalinist vision – MDM overlooked by the Palace of Culture

Metropolitan scale

The show piece of Stalinist housing is MDM, south of the centre. Plac Konstytucji, completed in 1952, is a grand Baroque set piece, an austerity version of Nancy maybe. Around the square are bombastic reliefs of the approved orders of society – miner, steel worker, female textile worker, a working mother with her child etc. The cutest relief is a group of workers and their families celebrating the opening of the square, executed before the actual event. Note the little girl with pigtails and her dog. Note too the neon signs introduced in the 1950s to liven up the often drab street scene and give an impression of modernity and consumerism. They are quite a feature of Warsaw. MDM includes shops and entertainments as well as flats and workplaces as it was intended as a model mixed development, although the flats would have been reserved for apparatchiks and Stakhanovites. MDM today is very trendy and you can see why, although it is a pity that the grand colonnaded square is so dominated by traffic and parking – fairly typical of Warsaw unfortunately. Plac Zbawiciela nearby is a circus, even more given over to traffic. It has a nice colonnade but you can’t use it as, outrageously, this pedestrian space has been plundered by adjacent restaurants. The circus is not complete here because a grand church and commercial buildings survived the war, at least well enough to be repaired. Al. Wyzwolenia is an extremely grand street, the terraces apparently based on the Place des Vosges in Paris, and remarkably the rear elevations are as grand as the fronts. Nearby was the late, lamented ‘Supersam’, Warsaw’s first and futuristic supermarket of 1959, too delicate to survive the crudity of Poland’s post 1989 retail boom.

Muranów flats

At Muranów, on the site of the ghetto, there are slightly later blocks of Stalinist flats. The long grey blocks lining the main roads are fairly grim but behind these, through the grand archway with a blank inscription, presumably intended for Stalin but omitted after his denunciation, you enter a more human scale of squares and circuses. Estate agents will have no difficulty in gentrifying this area where some of the stucco terraces look remarkably like Regent’s Park.

A huge rebuttal to the Nazi Pabst Plan



The decision to recreate the old walled town (Stare Miasto) was taken early on, in parallel with plans for the showpiece Stalinist estates of the new Warsaw. Here popular will bent ideology, but the project had to be justified as the recreation of a workers’ district, which the merchant’s houses had become in the city’s C19th industrial expansion. The reconstruction was meticulous, as chronicled in Dan Cruickshank’s recent fascinating TV programme. Buildings were rebuilt from miraculously preserved architectural studies of the 1930s and old photographs. More questionable was the influence of the many prospects by Bellotto, a nephew of Canaletto. What was created is not exactly what the Nazis had destroyed but an idealized and sanitized evocation of Warsaw in the C18th. This townscape-in-aspic conveniently expunges the unwelcome history of nearly 200 years, and like much else in the rebuilding of Warsaw is freighted with symbolism and unspoken meaning.

Like a manicured Gamla Stan

Attention to detail

Warsaw Barbican, twentieth century but could have fooled me

Stare Miasto is delightful, all done with immense care and craftsmanship, often incorporating carefully preserved fragments of the original. The graffito is a special feature, extended to some of the few explicitly modern buildings. Sixty years of weathering has produced a realistic patina of ageing but the place is still like a stage set, with little of the normal street life you normally find in an historic city centre. The restaurant and bar touts in make believe Sarmatian costume add to the unreality. The area is not, however, overwhelmed by tourists and stag parties as in Prague or Riga. Plac Zamkowy is fairly surreal as running below the rather too perfectly reconstructed Royal Palace is an expressway roaring into a tunnel under the old town, a sensible piece of planning which allows for the Stare Miasto to be a pedestrian zone. Warsaw’s first escalator takes you from the imagined C18th down to the C20th road, which tellingly is not shown in the tourists' guides.

Krakowskie Przedmieście and a touch of the Baroque  

Krakowskie Przedmieście runs south from Royal Palace, lined with the palaces of aristocrats and grand buildings including the University (where Copernicus taught). There are fine ranges of stucco buildings on Nowy Świat in a gentle curve reminiscent of Grey Street, or possibly Regent Street. All are reconstructed, or very largely reconstructed. Only the Bristol Hotel and a few concrete buildings of the early C20th had survived. Nearby is the reconstructed National Theatre with classical pediment and portico trying to contain and give form to this sprawling leviathan, cruelly exposed by a vast formless space. Lord Foster has been roped in to provide what is, by Warsaw standards, a well mannered but uninteresting office block meant to provide some enclosure. North of the theatre the C18th Pałac Jabłonowskich, destroyed after the uprisings in 1863 and 1944 was reconstructed in 1996 with Citibank behind the façade.

Catching up with western capitalism and banality 

Crowding the view from the Palace  – the post-Soviet financial centre

The Eastern Wall – culture after the Palace of Culture

Post Communist Warsaw is the largest financial centre between Frankfurt and Shanghai and this is reflected in a rash of priapic towers north of Centralna Station. These are fairly indistinguishable from what is now acceptable in London, but in ensemble more reminiscent of the skyline of any medium sized American city. The most interesting scheme, actually apartments, is by Liebskind in a show-off Deconstructivist style. The new capitalist economy has also brought brash new shopping malls, mostly in the suburbs but with a particularly gruesome one next to Centralna Station – the sort of thing that Westfield and Peel (Intu) would like to get away with. The cluster of capitalist towers is deliberate in order to crowd the Palace of Culture and Science, Stalin’s infamous gift to a resentful city. Already in the 60s the city tried to screen this with the residential towers of the Eastern Wall development. This with its clean lines, pedestrian street and jokey circular pavilion would be quite attractive today if not for the fucking adverts covering everything in sight. Advertisements are the curse of modern Warsaw. But at least the Eastern Wall is still there and of course the adverts could be removed, whereas the admired Modernist CDD Smyk store, although listed, has been demolished, allegedly to be rebuilt.

Imperialism and neo-liberalism, from one clique to another

A welcome relief  from all that glass and steel

The Palace of Culture and Science is one of Stalin’s gothic skyscrapers, an icon of derision. It is the companion of the famous seven towers in Moscow, built to celebrate that city’s 700th birthday. But it was the present that Poland definitely didn’t want. Still the tallest structure, it visually dominated the city, a symbol of subjugation. As a skyscraper it seems quaint, lacking the streamlined modernity of the Empire State or Rockefeller Buildings on which it must have been modelled. The Baroque crenellations, to represent the ‘Polishness’ of the building, are endearingly absurd. Glimpsed views of the spire from surrounding streets look positively Hanseatic and there are some interesting juxtapositions with the new towers of capitalism.

Thumping scale and weight


Many older people would like to expunge this symbol of Russian domination, as the pre war republic destroyed the huge Orthodox Cathedral that the Tsar had imposed on the city. But it is a genuine ‘People’s Palace’ with theatres, cinema, museums, restaurants, bars and even a swimming pool. Younger people have a more relaxed view and happily inhabit its facilities; indeed it has become quite cool. You can appreciate the high quality of the fixtures and finishes while the views from the cloister-like viewing platform are superb. The ride to the top is worth it as much for the elevator operator, who looks straight out of Soviet central casting, as for the views.

The parade ground towards Eastern Wall 

What is a complete mess is the parade ground facing the main eastern elevation (towards Eastern Wall). This huge space is given over to rough car parking and littered with various crumbling barriers, hardly an appropriate setting for a major cultural centre, but then perhaps that is intentional. What is needed is an imaginative new concept for this space and new uses to animate it, which could be symbiotic with the genuinely creative uses within the Palace. And get rid of the gross advertising, for God’s sake.

Plac Powstanćow, aka 'car park and road'

Warsaw is generally not good with its public realm. There is some good paving on Krakowskie Przedmieście including art work celebrating Copernicus outside the university. This street and Nowy Świat are mercifully traffic-free at weekends. Świetockrzyska has been redesigned after being dug up for the new metro, and now even boasts some neat cycle tracks. Plac Grzybowski has been given a designer makeover with water feature and decking which could be pleasant in the summer. But most squares, like Plac Powstanćow Warszawy where we stayed in the Modernist former ‘House of the Peasants’ seem like left over spaces.

As good as anything in Scandinavia

The Khrushchev era

Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin precipitated a new government led by Gomułka, who had himself been imprisoned on the orders of the despot. The city needed new housing quickly and cheaply. The painstaking reconstruction of the Old Town was expensive and slow. Gomułka switched resources away from this and from Stalinist Baroque set pieces and a new Modernist phase of construction began. The northern part of the ghetto has been rebuilt on the rubble as a group of remarkable attractive and peaceful estates of landscaped high rise blocks , with schools, crèches, ‘Houses of Culture’ (community centres) and other facilities. It is close in feel to many of the rebuilt estates of blitzed South London. (Before Lord Adonis and the Policy Exchange get their hands on them, anyway). There are powerful monuments to the murdered Jews. A new Jewish Museum designed by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamäki and Ilmari Lahdelma opened 2013, the seventieth anniversary of the ghetto uprising. Its minimalist exterior is clad with glass fins and copper mesh. A vast opening leads you in, with cavernous exhibitions below, which we didn’t see but are reputedly excellent.

Iron Gate

Housing as billboards 

The ‘Iron Gate’ development close to the surviving C19th market halls is more monolithic. Stark 18 storey Corbusian blocks line up along a linear park, no doubt bleak in the winter as the cold wind whips in from the Urals. Much of the open space between the blocks has been infilled with newer blocks, destroying the original integrity. And of course you get huge adverts on the ends of the blocks to finally bury the Corbusian dream. Nearby is the seventies House of Polish-Soviet Friendship, cruelly converted to a casino. Communist imagery survives however, including the very likely intentionally ironic sculpture of two water nymphs representing the entwining of the Vistula and Moscow rivers.

Extravagant expressways

Most of the stereotypical blocks of workers’ flats are found a Metro ride from the centre. Warsaw is a city about the size of the Birmingham conurbation and they have some similarities, in that the public transport system is underdeveloped, at least by the standards of continental cities, and both are in love with the car. Despite low car ownership Communist era Warsaw built an extravagantly extensive network of expressways, which have since helped promote a decentralized economy of shopping centres and commercial complexes. In the city centre roads were widened not so much for traffic but for the grand parades which were such a feature of Communist ritual. Now they are just for speeding traffic, making navigating the city centre very challenging at times – at least Birmingham is getting rid of its ‘concrete collar’.

The Warsaw Metro

So many good neon signs

Must get one of these for the Nottingham tram system

Meanwhile Gomułka cancelled plans for a Metro as a ‘vanity project’. Line One of the Metro, originally planned in the 30s and designed in 1982, was not opened until 1995. It serves the huge new estates south of the city and beyond the excellent network of trams. The designer was a woman architect Jasna Strzalkowska-Ryska and her stations have very stylish tiling and fittings in the De Stijl tradition. A second line has recently been opened, but despite some interesting art work it lacks the quality of line one, the street entrances especially have been heavily criticized. There is also a suburban train network and an Overground cross-city railway was built in the 1950s to link up the previously separate train termini. Warszawa Stadion and Warszawa Powiśle were built at this time and both have a lightness of touch, playfulness and optimistic feel characteristic of the Thaw era. At Powiśle the super circular ticket office has been transformed into a trendy bar, well worth a visit. Warszawa Centralna was built in the 1970s and is considered a great example of functionalism although strangely not connected to the nearby Metro. Its pedestrian access is also choked with car parking.. The concourse is particularly arresting with its sci-fi lighting and almost Zaha-esque white curves and it is a masterpiece of Polish Modernism. But there are plans to demolish it – Warsaw like Brum is very insouciant about its recent architectural heritage.

Is this Stockholm?

Utopia, found it.

We had challenged Owen to show us some really bleak housing. He took us to vast, contiguous Ursynów, Stegny and Słuzew estates, built in the 1970s. These have the reputation of being the worst in Warsaw and certainly look it in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s searing films like A Short Film about Killing which were shot there. But they were never ‘sink estates’ in a British sense as they housed a genuinely mixed community. When we emerged from Stokłosy Metro it was a lovely spring day, the previously grey blocks had recently been renovated and tastefully re-painted with EU money. The extensive landscaping had matured, so that the overall impression was more Scandinavian Modern than disintegrating Iron Curtain. The varied heights of the blocks, with some low terraces and lots of balconies laid out along pedestrian walkways with generous landscaping and open space was, we thought, very successful. The price that is paid is a ruthless grid of fast roads. However these do have Metro stations and shopping parades, even flower kiosks.

Well placed and good landscaping. 

This doesn't fit the stereotype

Solid stuff

What is interesting is that along the main roads you see block after block of the same basic prefabricated design, but because the heights and layouts are varied, if not imaginative, it does not feel oppressive. The redecoration of the previously grey blocks has been done simply so as to respect their basic structural elements. There are no lurid colour schemes or silly Po-Mo accretions such as you find in similar estate improvement schemes in Britain. Słuzew is laid out along a linear park following a river valley and here we found a super new community centre, wood-built (very appropriate for its location) around a very cleverly designed sheltered area of tiered wooden steps - great for sunbathing, or for shelter from the Siberian winter winds. Nearby however was racist and xenophobic graffiti, suggesting something rotten in the state of Poland. Having once been the most diverse and tolerant country in Europe, following Stalin’s ethnic cleansing it is now the most homogenous and, it seems, one of the most intolerant.

A parallel structure

One of the great features of these vast housing complexes is the Expressionist churches, evidence of the very special role of the Catholic church in Poland. As in pre-1922 Ireland, the church provided a parallel structure of authority and belief for those who saw the state as illegitimate. After initial persecution the Communist government and the Church reached a modus vivendi which benefitted both. Its somewhat belated support for Solidarity gave it great influence with post 1989 governments, reinforcing their generally socially conservative agendas. The churches we wanted to see were unfortunately closed the day we visited, which coincided with a big rally supporting the right wing government’s anti abortion policy. The Ursynów church hasn a stunning almost Rococo window opening in the form of a cross piercing its massive brick façade. Stegny is a sort of industrial Brutalism in  brick, with a monumental detached bell tower. Both speak of a confidence and assertion which is somewhat unsettling.

Muranów cinema

Another powerful means of expression in the repressive Communist era was the cinema. Polish directors like Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieślowski were at the forefront of the international avant garde and ‘Kino’ are found in many housing projects. The Kino at the entrance to the Muranów development has particularly fine decoration and has a marble inscription in the foyer of Lenin’s quote ‘for us cinema is the most important art’. For Poles maybe cinema was important for different reasons.

Władysława Niegolewskiego, near Plac Wilsona

The architect's house, 1928 by Barbara Brukalska & Stanislaw Brukalski

As good as any housing scheme the Bauhaus did – trade union housing 

The most attractive housing we visited was at Zoliborz, near Plac Wilsona metro station, opened in 2005. This is a stylish introduction to the area with its dramatic concrete and glass rotunda and its wavy platform roof. Zoliborz was built before the war, and largely survived it. Initial phases were garden city in inspiration but in the 1920s a trade union housing co-operative began building Modernist housing along the lines of Bruno Taut’s Britz estate in Berlin. The architects were the husband and wife Barbara Brukalska and Stanislaw Brukalski, who built their own house here in 1928 and continued building well into the post war era. The crescents of terraces with communal gardens between are particularly delightful. The ubiquitous use of white contrasts with ‘colour blind’ Bruno Taut’s housing in Britz. What is notable however is that, whereas in Britz or De Dageraad in Amsterdam for example you can walk around freely, in Zoliborz, as in Britain, the estates are now firmly gated and privatized. You can however wander around the local ‘Palace of Culture’ - actually post war but in repro style so looking older than the housing.

The Zoliborz Palace of Culture

One of the original Milk Bars

The traditional Warsaw café – a dying breed

Visiting Warsaw you can’t help being struck by the similarities between post 1989 Poland and post 1979 Britain. Their histories could not be more different, Britain smugly secure on its little island having ‘won’ the war and Poland in the cockpit of European rivalries and sacrificed to expediency by the west. But both have emphatically and uncritically embraced neo-liberalism and reject their respective post war experiences. This is very evident in the built environment and in the public realm, almost more brutally in Poland than in Britain. In its embrace of global capitalism however Warsaw is losing a lot of its unique identity as Starbucks ousts the traditional cafés and McDonalds trumps the characterful ‘Milk Bar’, the still functioning Communist era public canteens, actually in danger of becoming hip.

On the to-do list – Warsaw's public realm

Although this one's been ticked off already

You might call it a public square or a shopping precinct  

The character of Warsaw is hard to pin down. The city turns its back on the wide Vistuala and, apart from the hill of the Old Town, it is flat but the great bridges are a powerful element. Warsaw has a raw energy - lots of it. It is a matter-of–fact city without airs and graces, purposeful, workaday, unpretentious. But there is also a sense of restlessness and lack of continuity and not just in the architecture, possibly as established communities were eviscerated in the war. Nearly all families are newcomers resettled to the city. It is not a crowded city, there is lots of green space and residential areas, even in the city centre, seem preternaturally quiet. Surprisingly given that so much of Warsaw was reconstructed it does not have a feeling of being a new city. Its streets exhibit a wide range of building types and styles, many presumably largely reconstructed in their pre-war styles but not in the slightly cloying, prissy way of the Old Town.

The Poniatowski Bridge

Murals incorporating rubble of old Warsaw in 'House of the Peasants', now Hotel Gromada

Despite its quality, it is difficult to get away from the feeling that the Stare Miasto is a stage set. But that is what people seem to want. Gomułka refused to sanction the rebuilding of the Royal Palace, symbol of past injustices, famously declaring it would be reconstructed over his dead body. And it was, by popular demand in the 1970s. Warsaw has still to fully come to terms with its more recent history. And so has Britain. There is no doubt that the rebuilding of Coventry’s city centre, destroyed in the war, or indeed Leicester’s ancient core, blitzed by highway engineers in the sixties, in the style of Stare Miasto or Nowy Świat would be hugely popular. Of course this tells us as much about our fear of the future as it does about our past; indeed it suggests our need to re-invent the past. Warsaw needed what Owen Hatherley calls the ‘simulcra’ of replica reconstruction to cope with the hideousness of its immediate past history. But history did not stop in 1794 or 1944.

The Bank of Cooperative societies, built 1917, re-built 1948

New development – working with the Palace of Culture

Warsaw has rebuilt itself as a complex metropolis, full of architectural, political and cultural interest, not just a palimpsest of its former self. It is an extraordinarily rewarding place to visit if you look beyond your initial expectations.

‘Adrian loves all women’ – the first Polish transgender MP endorsing the clothing brand Adrian

Thanks to Owen Hatherley for leading this trip and for his expert knowledge and insights. His Landscapes of Communism, published by Allen Lane in 2015, is an absolute must-read. Thanks also to Agata Pyzik for her guidance. Her book Poor but Sexy; Culture Clashes in Europe East and West published by Zero in 2014 gives an insightful analysis of conflicts of identity.

David Crowley’s Warsaw, Reaktion Books 2003 provides a very valuable account of how the city has been shaped since the 1940s. Adam Zamoyski’s Poland, A History published by Collins 2015 provides a good short introduction to a complex subject.

Finally thanks to Grant Butterworth, Nick Ebbs, Toby Ebbs and Nick Sanders for their enthusiastic participation on this trip.