When the opportunity to visit the former Eastern Bloc presented itself I thought a wonderful chance to present readers of the modernist with photographs of fantastic, faded Soviet tower blocks and crumbling Communist monuments was on the cards.
Only a fifth of the city survived the Second World War and the prospect of an almost total post-war rebuilding project would surely leave me spoiled for choice?
As it happens, the gems were surprisingly few and far between. The more distant past and the contemporary dominate. The old city has been painstakingly resurrected as it was pre-destruction and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the other end of the spectrum, much of central Warsaw is starting to look like any other Western urban environment, with 20th Century buildings making way for generic glass towers in homogenous, you-could-be-anywhere streetscapes.
Inevitably, few Varsovians who experienced life in the People's Republic of Poland find much to love in architectural reminders of all too recent oppression, and such buildings aren’t high priorities for conservation.
There are, however, younger residents who lack the Commie baggage of the older generations and champion the 1945 to 1990 city as vital to shaping their identity. Some of them are starting to champion the era in question and change the consensus that encouraging decay as an excuse for demolition is the best course of action.
The recent renovation of a train station is one such example of the city’s burgeoning affection for postwar modernism. Powiśle Station, designed in the mid Fifties, is one of many rail buildings by Arseniusz Romanowicz and Piotr Szymaniak, and like much of Romanowicz’s work, presents a much more graceful and idiosyncratic vision than stereotypical bleak Bloc blocks.
Centrala are the young architects — a self-proclaimed ‘designers task force’ — behind the reinvention of the dilapidated Powiśle as a café and cultural hotspot. Interestingly, they also initiated the process through a campaign that increased affection for the beautiful building amongst Varsovians through the daily free papers.
As Centrala explain: “thanks to the successful conversion we managed to bring back to Warsaw inhabitants not only the building itself but also it’s surroundings. The continuity of the city was restored. The Powiśle building became an icon and a symbol of cultural life of young Warsaw.“
The once run down Powiśle district is now undergoing a renaissance, thanks in part to Centrala and also because of the Świętokrzyski bridge connecting with Saska Kępa, a sedate and refined inter-war enclave. Together with Zoliborz to the north, Saska Kępa showcases the leafy and desirable modernism of the 1920s and 30s rather than monolithic municipal housing blocks that Warsaw had conjured in my mind.
Completed at the turn of the Millennium, the concrete and cable Świętokrzyski is one of a handful of contemporary additions to the city worth admiring, complete with a Chopin-inspired black piano key top, after one of Warsaw’s most celebrated sons.
In the heart of the redeveloped city centre sits another Romanowicz building of note: the strangely charming Centralna Station. Much larger and far uglier than his other delicate masterpieces, and is surviving despite repeated calls for its demolition.
With Stalin’s 1950s gift, the former Communist Headquarters (now the Palace of Culture and Science) looking more like something out of Batman than modernist, a solitary tower block rising above Powiśle Station was left to satisfy my demand for typical Soviet mass housing, and even that possessed a redeeming quirkiness.
What most impressed me about Warsaw’s modernism was the changing attitude towards it. Centrala using Powiśle to provoke change in the opinions of Varsovians and going on to show how such neglected pieces of infrastructure could become prized assets seems to perfectly encapsulate an attitude sadly lacking in the plans for such buildings the world over. That this has originated in a place with an actual reason to want to distance the recent past is all the more incredible.
© Dan Russell
This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 4 'BRUTAL'