Warsaw is sprucing itself up for the European football championships that it will host next month. This is the latest stage in its transition from the planned socialist city to the city of 21st century consumerism. At times, these two faces stand in counterpoint to each other in the townscape; at other times they merge into one. How do you read a city, and hear its stories, by walking its streets and absorbing its messages?
As I argued in Place Identity, Participation and Planning a few years back, there are multiple identities in any place. Often there are competing identities and some identities are a legacy of the past, posing what can be difficult questions of how we treat our built environment heritage. There are few parts of the world where these issues are more entangled and painful than in Central Europe.
The great European project of the last 60 years is suddenly faltering. A combination of bankers’ folly and greed, neo-liberal dogma, and a legacy of under-development combined with chronic failures of governance is threatening to re-open old rifts across the continent. The sense of identity with Europe is being shredded. The EU rhetoric about territorial cohesion and the celebration of Europe’s diversity is sounding hollow. A few hours wandering the streets of Warsaw provides a sharp reminder of what is at stake.
The Old Town
The Old Town of Warsaw is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. In the hot May sunshine, clusters of tourists obediently follow their guides and pause to hear their presentations of the history that is all around them. They sip their lattes at the sun-shaded tables that sit on the cobbles. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop at a stately pace past the souvenir shops.
This mass consumption of the built environment as culture is a very recent phenomenon. So is the “Old Town” itself. It was only constructed from the 1950s onwards, every detail of the Baroque-Classical facades is authentic and inspires awe in those who travel far to witness its beauty. Las Vegas eat your heart out! This was the real fake when you were little more than a small town in a vast desert.
The authenticity and the meaning of the Old Town derive from Poland’s dedication to the re-birth of the nation, the city and this neighbourhood after the near annihilation of all of them that took place in World War II. The Old Town was painstakingly reconstructed from the rubble, thanks to the skills of the architects and craft workers who pieced it together from old maps and drawings of what had been there before.
Lest we forget, the proposition that Warsaw should be abandoned was seriously contemplated in the immediate aftermath of the war. Ninety per cent of the Old Town was in ruins. The reconstruction was planned by the architect Jan Zachwatowicz, with the plans completed in 1953. This was conservation planning on an unprecedented and heroic scale, taken on in an impoverished country. Place and its meanings mattered that much.
The city of socialist realist heroes
What were those meanings and why was it imperative to refabricate them? The Royal Castle, bombed and set ablaze in the early days of the Nazi occupation was dynamited to the ground in their retreat. Yet this was a symbol of the Polish nation. The King Zygmunt Column, the oldest civic monument and icon of the city, was shelled to destruction on 2 September 1944, then carefully re-created. In restoring the Old Town the Communist regime in the early years sought to engage with and embody in stone the patriotism of this passionate nation. The Herculean scale of the project was also a demonstration of the capacity of the new state to build a new future from the ruins of the past.
But that was not the only narrative of place identity. The rebuilding would create a new city, planned on an expansive grid. The main axis of Marszalkowska would be wide enough for tanks to roll down. The Palace of Culture, in its famous “wedding cake” style minted in Moscow, would dominate the skyline, a permanent visual reminder of the Soviet’s fraternal watch over the streets of Warsaw. In front of it is the podium overlooking the large public space. This is where the be-medalled politburo stood to take the salute as tanks and rockets were wheeled by them each May Day.
Along Marszlkowska were the new blocks of Stalinist flats echoing the grandeur of 19th century Paris: the new order looked backwards for its urban aesthetics. At ground floor level there were / are shops behind columned arcades. Bas reliefs of workers, mothers and soldiers celebrated at super-human scale the heroes of the socialist city.
Warsaw Uprising Monument
On the edge of the Old Town you also find a monument to the Warsaw Uprising, again a realist piece of sculpture casting giant figures and their courageous resistance to the Nazis. The uprising began on 1 August 1944. Perhaps more than any other event it defines 20th century Europe. Russian troops had reached the east bank of the Vistula. The resistance and remnants of the Polish military were armed but had no means of combating the planes and tanks of their occupiers. Yet during the 63 days before they surrendered, a period in which some 200,000 Poles were killed, most of them civilians, the Russians failed to advance.
The monument did not appear until the 45th anniversary of this slaughter. The Polish communist authorities saw no place in the city for the heroes of the uprising. It was only in the days of Solidarity that this symbol and its story were given the prominence that it now has.
The city of global consumerism
The bloody, bitter history is now packaged in the identity of the city for its tourists. This nation of young people seems to have moved on. The skyline behind the Palace of Culture is now bedecked with a splurge of competitive architectural designs, each bidding to be more seductive in its lines or scale than its neighbours. Huge advertisements command the high spots – urging us to buy Japanese cars of chat on mobile phones. Had the politburo been on its podium today it would have looked out not to a parade of soldiers but to Marks and Spencer and giant posters of super-models exhorting us to buy, buy, buy… designer clothes, swimwear, luxuries beyond the dream of the grandparents of the young Poles who flirt with each other in today’s sunshine. Soon they will be joined by fans from across Europe heading here to watch Euro 2012.