by Benjamin Tallis
Appropriately sited on the corner of Aleja Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue) and Nowy Swiat (New World St), a red-hued mosaic celebrates the heroic resistance of the doomed 1944 Warsaw Rising, while its accompanying inscription offers a post-war rallying cry of unity “Caly Narod Buduje Swoja Stolica” (The Whole Nation Builds Our Capital). The familiar narrative of a shattered nation pulling together to rebuild in the aftermath of Second World War destruction is particularly poignant in Poland, where one in five people were killed, and especially visible in Warsaw, where nearly ninety percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed.
However, although the capital did rise, phoenix-like, from the rubble in the spirit of the inscription, this is a deceptively simple cipher through which to read Warsaw’s urban form. The mosaic betrays the fault-lines which underlie the ‘miracle on the Vistula’ and which continue to cleave its urban canvas.
It is too often imagined that communist-era urbanism must equate to grey uniformity, but anyone expecting Warszawa to offer monochrome monotony will be disappointed: this has always been a more diverse and upbeat place than Bowie’s Low lament might suggest. The particularity of Poland’s war experience and its aftermath, the periodic expansion and contraction of the meshes of communist power, internecine arguments over the past and the future and relations with the outside have all left their mark on Warsaw’s cityscape.
Resentment towards the Red Army, which watched from across the Vistula as Warsaw was ripped apart, gave the post-‘Liberation’ communist regime a precarious hold on public affections. Rapid rebuilding was one way to cement the Party’s grip on power, inspiring Stakhanovite efforts from workers dreaming of providing “a home for everyone in Poland,” as Mateusz Birkut, the still-naïve hero of Andrzej Wajda’s film Man of Marble movingly relays. The whole nation also (re)built the capital in another way – bricks salvaged from the rubble of other Polish cities were sent to warsaw in order to accelerate the reconstruction of the ‘old’ town.
Histories of wounded pride and the prominent position of the Catholic church ensured that Warsaw’s old town rose from the ruins in record time. Even today however, the old-town churches don’t quite smell old enough. Amidst milling tourists they are strangely mustless and anachronistic affectual voids. The rebuilt ‘old’ reveals little about competing postwar visions of the ‘new’ apparent elsewhere in the city. As Architectural Historian Iwona Kurz notes, this was explicitly recognised at the time ” In the good, old film Adventure at Mariensztat, (directed by Leonard Buczkowski, 1954) a leading female character dressed up in a folk costume, who has freshly arrived from a small village is sightseeing in Warsaw and she is bored to death with the sight of the reconstructed old town and Krakowskie Przemiesce. She prefers to go to a construction site which is bustling with activity.”
The concurrent construction of the ‘Smyk’ department store and the Marszalkowska residential district showcased the competition between Modernist and Socialist-Realist styles that betrayed wider struggles. Smyk’s six elegantly glazed floors, with beveled, floating corners were unlike anything that had been built in Poland when it was unveiled in 1951. Amidst widespread condemnation from party hacks and their useful architectural idiots, it is a wonder that the Central Department Store was actually built. In Architektura, Jan Minorski wrote “This is an architecture devoid of any educational capacity [which] … just like the non-ideological architectural decadence of Loos’ and Corbusier’s Art Nouveau [shows] the ideology of ruling classes when their days are numbered.” ‘The People’ however seemed to disagree, with 80,000 of them visiting the store in its first three days of opening.
Meanwhile, only a few blocks away, between Plac Konstytucji and Plac Zbawiciela, a capital of capitals was rising. The thickset bombast of the Marszalkowska district would not look out of place in Kyiv or Moscow; hulking, sandy-coloured edifice complexes, decorated with classical colonnades and scant reliefs of workers, soldiers and peasants. This is the imagined community of the ‘whole nation’ that built the capitals atop the classical columns and which lend the area all the elegance of a borrowed suit.
A similar conflict plays out on Defilad Square, dominated by the massive Palace of Culture and Science (1955), – a ‘gift’ to people’s Poland from Josef Stalin. This Iofan-style wedding cake (locally nicknamed the ‘elephant in lingerie’), cuts an impressive and threatening figure, but softens as it is reflected in the windows of the Wars, Sawa and Junior shopping centres. These sleek ripostes to monumental folly were conceived in 1956 for “a Warsaw of the future, full of cars, helicopters, scooters, [of] quick life.” Ironically however, delays meant that the shopping centres were only completed in 1970, as was the nearby Emilia furniture store, with its beautifully corrugated roof – an abstract wave topping out elegant linearity.
Opening in the same year as the state massacre of protesting workers that precipitated the fall of Gomulka regime, these buildings seemingly presaged the relative openness of the Gierek period, with Western money and technology helping shape the beige banality of the Hotel Forum as well as the dramatic, swooping curves of the Central Station. Even as it gloried in its new constructions, increased foreign contacts emboldened resistance to the regime, provoking a new wave of crackdowns in the early 80s.
The solidarity of workers, church and intellectuals in the face of martial law cracked the communist façade and the process of ‘transition’ opened the floodgates for Western capital to shape Poland’s capital, threatening to drown Warsaw’s modernist babies as it flushed out the socialist bathwater. The Palace’s skyline dominanace is now challenged by a crop of identikit office towers that signal a certain kind of belonging in the world of global flows and which blend into undulating CADishness at ground level. Everything is neon-sponsored, even the former party headquarters.
Hipsters congregating in the colonnade bars of Marszalkowska render the columns more ironic than ionic, as yesterday’s worker-heroes look on uncomfortably between the adverts, while in Solec and Powisle, modernist buildings provide the backdrop for cool bars with endearingly warm welcomes. Yet this apparently easy coexistence belies the continued conflicts that will shape Warsaw’s future. In the shadow of the bland new skyscrapers, low-rise Emilia stands out, yet faces an uncertain future as developers wanting to destroy it compete with curators who have set about revivifying the space. Staging the exhibition ‘Warsaw under Construction’ (2012) in Emilia provided a focal point for resistance to the erasure of Warsaw’s socialist era modernism and has seen artists, activists and academics joining forces in the next battle for Warsaw: the battle for more nuanced memories of both the communist period and its modernist architecture.