Stories from countries which are no more

A belated pardon. Some remarks on the nostalgia for the unwanted heritage of communist Poland

The Polish People’s Republic has formally existed since 1952, although in fact its political being began eight years earlier. In 1989 it became history. Nearly half a century of its existence was a period of rapid industrialisation and, consequently, of mass urbanisation and social migration. On the eve of the Second World War more than three-quarters of all Polish citizens lived in the countryside and just one-quarter in the cities, while half a century later these proportions were reversed. Whether we like it or not, this great social revolution, despite being brutal and having had its victims, has created the modern reality of Polish cities. It will not be an exaggeration to say that contrary to what is taught in architecture schools, the history of Polish architecture is, to a large extent, connected with the development of socrealist and modernist construction. For more than two decades this huge legacy, as well as a large resource of cultural heritage, has remained on the sidelines of our common discourse about memory and the past. After a period of aggressive iconoclasm and a long time of rejection and ignorance, the buildings created in communist Poland are increasingly becoming objects of artistic actions, exhibitions, and publications; and now brought to the attention of the general public, they are provoking a deeper analysis of the reception of the “concrete garden” in which the majority of Polish people have been brought up. I am going to illustrate the ongoing changes with several of the most vivid examples of reinterpreting the unwanted heritage.

The shadow of the Palace

In the early weeks of 2007 two decisions were taken which, for many years defined the themes of the discussion on the future shape of the centre of Warsaw. The first decision, made by the acting Voivodship Conservator of Monuments, regarded the inscription of the Palace of Culture and Science in the Monuments Register. The second, announced by the jury of an architectural competition, recognised the work of Christian Kerez as the best design of the seat of the Museum of Modern Art, which was to be built in the neighbourhood of the Palace. Both decisions met with heated reactions, launching a public debate on the unwanted (or widely considered as such) heritage.
Although the competition took place five years ago, work on the Museum of Modern Art building designed by Christian Kerez has not started and will most probably never start. If constructed, the building could play an important role in the development of museum architecture in Poland. Almost a decade after the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, its minimalist, straight-line volume could have meant a definitive end to the admiration for aesthetics based on bombastic deconstruction. It never happened and simplicity was its most irritating feature for the public observing the results of the competition, as well as some members of the museum management including its director, who resigned his post as a sign of protest. Sponsors of the competition expected the museum building to neutralise the monumental volume of the Palace and at the same time gently supplement the modernist architecture of the city centre. The choice of minimalist, reinforced concrete design frustrated these hopes and brought into even sharper relief the issue of the Palace of Culture and Science, the role and meaning of this structure for our common identity and mentality.

Eruption of discourse

There are two parallel dominant narratives regarding the Palace of Culture and Science, and hence the entire heritage of communist Poland. The first one is articulated by the generation of the post-war baby boom, by people born in the first decade after the Second World War and brought up in the period of the so-called “little stability”. Their entering into adulthood coincided with the eruption of Solidarity, and the political events of the 1990s permanently defined the social attitude – usually hostile and sometimes aggressive – towards the recent past, ironically, our own past. The reaction of this generation to the existence of the Palace of Culture and Science may be summed up by the following call: “We, the Solidarity generation, demand the razing down of the symbol of Soviet domination.”
On the other side of the barricade, opposed to this principled and negative judgement, there is another discourse. It is usually voiced by the baby boom generation of the period of Gierek and martial law, growing up in the drab twilight years of communist Poland and finding their formative experiences in the period of transition, full of economic uncertainty and enthusiastic absorption of western pop culture. Their attitude towards the heritage of the recently past era is not marked by such strong emotions as is demonstrated by the “Solidarity generation”. Fundamental to this attitude is the sense of uncertainty in the fluid period of transition and the consequent rejection of the official discourse from that time – importantly, the discourse of their parents’ generation, where praising the free market was coupled with a conservative cultural tendency. A separate phenomenon expressed by the actions of this generation is the rejection of unreflective iconoclasm from the last two decades directed against the tangible heritage of post-war times. Analysing their attitude to the Palace, many representatives of this group will subscribe to the following words: “We, the transition generation, associate the Palace with an exciting school excursion to Warsaw in the mid-1980s, with the mandatory trip to the 30th floor, with marble floors and the spectacular panorama of the great city, and a toasted cheese sandwich sold from the Niewiadów trailer in front of the Museum of Technology, with our childhood, memory and identity, which we will not allow to be amputated so easily.”

Warsaw – “A socrealist jewel north of the Alps”

If we want to understand this dichotomy, we should take a last cursory look at the story of rebuilding Warsaw. This story opens many interpretative paths but the factual record remains unquestionable. Between September 1939 and January 1945, Warsaw – the capital of Poland – was subjected to unimaginable violence, which left more than half of its inhabitants dead and almost all buildings in the city centre and its immediate vicinity turned into rubble. In the early spring of 1945, Warsaw was a huge cemetery and a “blank page” on which the city had to be drawn from scratch. The new communist regime decided that the first area to be rebuilt would be the historical core of the city preceding the industrial revolution. The work started right after the cessation of military activities. Before the end of the spring, the first plans were ready; the most radical was the vision by Maciej Nowicki, who proposed to rebuild Warsaw on the basis of Modernism and the Athens Charter, creating a city of expressways, dispersed housing and high-rises. But this vision, breaking with the concept of the grid, was not developed; Nowicki left Poland in 1945 and the first widely promoted reconstruction project was not the rebuilding of the city centre but the more politically potent recreation of the monuments of the Old Town.
From this moment on the reconstruction became a conservationist’s journey into the past rather than a modernist attempt at creating a rational living space, which meant that it was for a long time bound with historicist aesthetics. The problem was exacerbated in the crucial phase of rebuilding Warsaw, when the reconstruction effort was largely shifted to the city centre. It was already after the official proclamation of the socrealist doctrine in 1949, which for seven years dominated Polish architectural and planning thought, forever merging the space in the centre of the capital with the aesthetics of the Stalin era. It is worth noting that the death of the “beloved ruler” in 1953 and the beginning of liberalisation three years later, almost instantly removed socrealism from the draft boards of the Polish architectural offices. As early as November 1956 the Architektura (Architecture) monthly, the most important architectural journal in Poland, published a double issue entirely devoted to the most recent designs in capitalist France, including the Marseilles unit by Le Corbusier.
After the socrealism years, when the issue of the Palace of Culture and Science was raised, many ministerial buildings were constructed, the parliament was rebuilt, the W-Z (East-West) thoroughfare, the Marszałkowska Housing Estate (MDM) and Muranów were all opened, and the aesthetic points of Warsaw's designs were switched to modernist tracks. Socrealism left a very rich legacy in Warsaw, it shaped the administrative centre of the country, imposing its patterns on many government buildings in the city centre and entire residential districts. Some of them are true “jewels”, belonging to the most well-designed projects in Poland. The domed building of the Presidium of the Council of Ministers (Marek Leykam, 1952), the spectacular colonnade of the Ministry of Agriculture (Jan Grabowski, Stanisław Jankowski, Jan Knothe, 1952), the urban axis before the frontage of the Ministry of Finance (Winnie the Pooh Estate, Zygmunt Stępiński et al, 1949-1956), are all examples of architectural compositions which overshadowed, in execution and detail, everything that has been built in Warsaw since 1956.
Socrealism also endowed the capital with many solutions typical of Modernism, smuggled in under a stone cloak. Analysing the composition of the parliament buildings, it is easy to notice that the sequence of overlapping volumes, with its striking absence of a monumental entrance, the driveway being the dominating element, and some parts of the buildings remindful of passageways stretched over a street, provokes associations with the seat of Bauhaus in Dessau. The urban pattern of the centre of Warsaw could be analysed in a similar way. Despite the widespread lamentations about the destruction of the “Paris of the East” by the Germans, we should note that the dense structure of the pre-war city centre shaped in the early years of the 20th century could hardly be regarded as a healthy space with sufficient sunlight and fresh air. It was the post-war reconstruction that allowed this part of the city to breath more easily, markedly raising the quality of living and public space.
Modernist planning and architectural solutions dominated the space of Warsaw after 1956. The period of “little stability” produced the Supersam department store, the Za Żelazną Bramą housing estate, and the Eastern Wall of Marszałkowska Street. The decisive stage of reconstructing the metropolitan city centre ended with powerful notes in the shape of investments from the era of party secretary, Edward Gierek, including the Central Railway Station, the Łazienkowska Thoroughfare, and the rebuilt, Royal Castle. The planning decisions taken in this period determined the structure of Warsaw city centre for decades, with all its aesthetic incoherence and planning deficiencies, perceived by many as chaos, provoking anger and often aggression. Ironically, the mentioned buildings, which tangibly create Warsaw's space, are some of the most vulnerable now, while some of them no longer exist.

Rejection, negation and iconoclasm

In the initial stage of transition, before the end of 1989, the ominous emptiness around the Palace of Culture was filled with a noisy bazaar. Taking things into their own hands, Poles domesticated the space of the largest square in the capital, selling all kinds of things. Sacred communist space turned into profane ludic space. In the immediate vicinity of the pulpit from which Władysław Gomułka spoke to a million-strong crowd in October 1956 and two decades later the Polish pope celebrated mass, provisional shacks with toasted cheese sandwiches, beer and hamburgers appeared and stayed for many years. Memory was erased. The culminating moment of disenchantment with the symbolism of the Palace was the Gala of Popular and Sidewalk Songs, organised in 1992, in the Congress Hall and shown on Polish television. Only two years after the Communist Party had been dissolved and almost a quarter of a century after the legendary Rolling Stones concert, the Congress Hall witnessed the birth of disco polo. Such bands as Top One, Fanatic and Atlantis performed on this stage, with an outline of the Palace of Culture as a backdrop, crowned with a roaring stag. When the hit song, Biały Miś (The White Teddy Bear), was being played by the band, Białe Orły, the musicians were dressed up as teddy bears. The Palace “descended to the sidewalk”, disappearing from view behind the stalls, which created a new context for it. Later it also became surrounded by monuments of the new era, ever higher commercial skyscrapers forming a kind of halo around the dominant structure in Warsaw. The Palace literally started to disappear from sight. Its unexpected return to the centre of debate occurred after its inscription in the Monuments Register.


It is worth noting that for many years after the political transformation in Poland, the communist heritage was rarely subjected to any modifications. In the early period of democratic Poland there was a wave of iconoclasm but it was directed mostly against monuments of recent heroes, party activists and Red Army soldiers, which meant that it did not affect the buildings as such, but only changed their surroundings. The Palace of Culture and Science has been symbolically pulled down only once, in the final sequence of Sylwester Chęciński’s film, Rozmowy kontrolowane (Calls Controlled). But in the first decade of transition no one seriously brought this issue up. Warsaw had other unresolved problems, there were no buildings in the centre which could fill the gap and the price of dismantling the self-financing edifice was more than the municipality or the government could afford. In the early 1990s a competition for arranging the urban space around the Palace of Culture was announced. The winning work of Bartłomiej Biełyszew and Andrzej Skopiński proposed a circular boulevard, which would literally surround the Palace, so that people walking along it did not have to look at the socrealist monstrosity. The project was never implemented and years later the circular boulevard was replaced with a grid. But in the late 1990s, when a commercial investor invited the Jerde Partnership company to Warsaw and asked them to prepare a design for the Złote Tarasy shopping centre, they produced a design of the new building with an oval courtyard, which smoothly merged with Biełyszew’s and Skopiński’s circular boulevard. From a bird’s-eye-view, the line around the Palace would look like a huge question mark. Could there be a more symbolic pattern here?
A question mark about the future of Warsaw and Plac Defilad also accompanied the photographic competition and exhibition Warsaw the Day Before (in the Zachęta Gallery), organised in 1998 by the "Architektura-Murator" monthly. On the cover of the issue, summing up the project, there was a sepia photograph of the Palace of Culture and Science. The authors of this undertaking pointed out that Warsaw was already a huge building lot undergoing a violent transformation. The picture of the Palace on the cover suggested the end of a certain epoch, which would leave behind only greying photographs and unwanted heritage, while the new millennium would give us a different Warsaw, where the Palace would not necessarily be the most important structure. An interesting conclusion to this presentation was an article by Bronisław Wildstein1 in the same issue, passionately condemning the idea of council housing as places of vice and pathology. With fury worthy of a better cause, the columnist also took an inquisitorial look at the Athens Charter and the work of Le Corbusier, while describing attempts at creating social projects as reflecting a resentful mentality, for him a symptom of decadence. Indeed, how decadent are these ungrateful people who want to have their own place, however crammed, with the support of the municipality or the government!
The boulevard around the Palace did not come into being. Plac Defilad became overgrown with the moss of stalls and parking lots, and Złote Tarasy, opened in 2006 and blocking the view of the Palace from Aleje Jerozolimskie, erased it even more thoroughly from the cityscape. The falling of the Palace of Culture into oblivion had been going on for two decades in several stages. Similar processes affected most other buildings from the period under discussion. It is worth noting again that the majority of buildings which exist in Poland were built during these times. The scale of these structures makes it difficult to contemplate erasing them from the map and to expect the arrival of a “brave new world”. Especially that since the early 1990s, when this new reality started to knock on our doors ever more impatiently, it soon turned out that its real shape was remote from the notions and visions which accompanied, for example, the authors of the competition which has already been mentioned. The noise of the adverts was only a temporary antidote to the drabness of the blocks of flats. The postmodernist aesthetics popular in the 1990s, based on the acceptance of kitsch and meant as a protest against the angular forms of the blocks of flats, started to turn into its own hardly digestible caricature, in the constrained realities of the Polish construction market. Against the residences modelled on American soap operas and the monstrous buildings remindful of Gargamel’s castle, the blocks from the 1970s started to look almost noble. Their perception had slowly changed, often to the point of acceptance.
The first publications on communist housing appeared in the new millennium, usually critical and often focused on specific names, buildings and problems. Andrzej Basista's book, Betonowe dziedzictwo. Architektura w Polsce czasów komunizmu2 , from 2001 or an issue of Architektura & Biznes, published monthly from 2003 and entirely devoted to the legacy of the People’s Republic, were very early voices in the discussion and described the problem with a characteristic distance, presenting a balanced and objective tone. The exhibition of the work of Oskar Hansen called Zrozumieć świat, staged in 2005 in Zachęta, reminded the public of this great but forgotten artist. It is worth pointing out that while Betonowe dziedzictwo is a work of a conscious observer and participant of these events, Architektura & Biznes , the Zrozumieć świat exhibition, as well as many other subsequent exhibitions, were prepared by representatives of a younger generation of critics and curators, with no unambiguous ideological rejection marking their attitude to communist Poland.
But the situation in the real, tangible sphere looked different from in the symbolic one. When Poland joined the European Union, it took an obligation upon itself to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in accordance with EU standards. One of the implemented environmental projects consisted in offering financial incentives to owners of buildings. These were aimed at improving real estate through thermomodernisation and hence reducing the use of thermal energy. The government programme covering the cost of interest on loans for such investments proved a huge success. In just a few years, an enormous number of buildings in Poland, usually inefficient in terms of heating and consequently energy consuming communist housing, were covered with a layer of Styrofoam or mineral wool which was then overlaid with silicate or acrylic plaster. Currently the process of thermomodernisation is slowly dying out, as most buildings which require it are already covered with a protective layer.
Observing the effects of this process, you get the impression that the anti-communist iconoclasm, postponed for economic reasons, reached Poland with a number of years delay. The improvements meant that details disappeared under the Styrofoam, eves over entrances were removed, and window frames were replaced with new ones. But the most harmful change was the complete licence in the use of colour when redecorating the façades. Most flats in the blocks were privatised after 1989, becoming the property of their occupants, who were obligated to form condominiums. Hence the ultimate shape of the thermomodernising investments was decided by way of negotiations between the architect and representatives of the condominiums. In most cases the inhabitants and co-owners of the blocks determined the final look of the building, often choosing very intense exterior colours, sometimes fluorescent. The housing estates from the middle of the communist period, which formed an urban unity, started to lose their coherent shape. The buildings started to compete in standing out from the surroundings, and the local government usually remained indifferent to the chaos generated in this way.
Unfortunately, the changes which have occurred on a massive scale will be difficult or impossible to reverse. In 2006 the Supersam building, one of the most interesting examples of post-war Modernism in Poland, disappeared from Unia Lubelska Square in Warsaw. It was razed in order to make place for a new commercial structure. When Poland and Ukraine were selected as hosts of the Euro 2012 football championship in 2007, it became obvious that Warsaw needed a new large stadium. It is very surprising, however, that the decision to liquidate the socrealist Stadion Dziesięciolecia and replace it with a new structure of dubious architectural merit was taken arbitrarily, without any attempt at gaining social legitimacy for this project. The circumstances in which the Brutalist railway station in Katowice was destroyed were similar. The authorities in Warsaw and Katowice, as well as in other cities where such demolition has occurred, didn't take into consideration that these buildings could have an aesthetic or historic value which would make them eligible for protection. The absence of a discussion on the destruction of important buildings and the absence of public reaction are striking.

Acceptance of the unwanted heritage

In parallel to the growing wave of iconoclasm directed against the tangible heritage of communist Poland in the previous decade, one was also able to observe analogous aggressive actions of symbolic character.
It is very hard to understand that in a city which had been almost entirely destroyed, the practice of physical annihilation was unanimously sanctified. But the tribute paid to the victims is not coupled with respect for those who survived and raised the capital from the ruins. There are no monuments or plaques dedicated to the planners, architects and ordinary people who spontaneously joined the reconstruction effort. There is no mention of the fact that the Palace of Culture, when built, was the most modern building in Poland, a genuine symbol of progress and change; an instrument of social change and not just indoctrination. It had several cinemas, museums, concert halls and an indoor pool, which serves the inhabitants of Warsaw to this day. The epoch of mass commercialism which came after communism was unable to offer a similar modernising narrative unless we regard, the worship of consumption, with its temple, Złote Tarasy, as such.
Another factor in the debate on the communist legacy in the capital is the strong emphasis on the modernising projects carried out under Mayor Stefan Starzyński. The rapid development of the city is described in uniformly positive terms, leaving no room for argument and, in a sense, precluding the possibility of voicing positive opinions about post-war reconstruction. Very few want to remember that Stefan Starzyński served his prestigious post as a government commissar and that one of his ideas was to build a new government district at Pola Mokotowskie, with designs which can be compared to the Fascist creations in Rome and Berlin. Moreover, the dominant element of the new district was to be the Temple of Divine Providence, structured as a stepped skyscraper – a spitting image of the Palace of Culture and Science. If we add that the author of this scheme was Bohdan Pniewski, later the architect of some of the most important socrealist structures in Warsaw, including the Great Theatre, the National Opera and the parliament building, we will easily notice how ridiculous the fashion for the interwar period targeted against the People’s Republic was.
In the context of this politically stimulated popularity of interwar heritage, the emerging interest in communist Poland’s heritage may now be perceived as a reaction against the highjacking of 20th-century Polish history by the political Right. It is also an expression of dislike for replacing valuable post-war structures with commercial “parachuted” buildings raised in contravention against the public interest. Another effect of the interest in the recent past is injecting social issues into the sluggish debate on Polish architecture. The greatest postmodernist lie reduced the architectural discourse to the question of form. Criticising the ugliness of the blocks of flats led to another paradox: it broke the dam which had hampered the construction of buildings only seemingly symbolising the return to normality, namely grid housing on a human scale. In fact the post-Modernist ideas paved the way for the gated fortresses of capitalism, buildings dressed in a Styrofoam-stone costume loudly proclaiming acceptance for the aesthetics of pre-war town houses (and perhaps also for the social relations of that time) and introducing two elements of consumerist control into the space of Polish cities: the camera and the fence. This process is most visible in Warsaw, where numerous gated communities created since the early 1990s imitate the Modernism of the interwar period.

Pardoning the People’s Republic

Sanctifying the destruction of the capital and nostalgia for the interwar past belongs to the most important factors shaping the collective memory of Warsaw's history. The spuriousness of this notion provokes a reaction which assumes the shape of acceptance of communist heritage. An important voice in this debate is Filip Springer’s book, Źle urodzone – reportaże o architekturze PRL3 . The narrative covers several chosen examples, mostly Modernist buildings, and the author recreates the political and economic conditions in which the Superunit (one of the biggest blocks of flats in Poland – editor's note) in Katowice and other structures were built. There is no anger here, but simply an attempt to understand the time and place of their creation. In terms of form they do not differ much from similar buildings which exist, for example, in Western Europe. But they are “badly born”, forever burdened with the political context, which is pushing them to the frontline of the ideological war about Polish history. Understanding this process and accepting our past will help us to reconcile ourselves with the surrounding reality and find in it the missing element of memory, which – not necessarily heroic – should also be preserved. We must hope that if the proposed change arrives and that the tangible heritage of communist Poland is pardoned by the public, then at least some of its most interesting examples will be saved, not so much from oblivion but from destruction.

Translated from Polish by Tomasz Bieroń