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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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