Several cities reconstructed immediately after the war present themselves as if nothing much had happened—unless you knew it, or ventured round the corners where the ornament on the gabled tenements is conspicuously flimsy, you wouldn’t know that the red-brick Gothic and Baroque of Gdańsk was largely a product of the 1950s; similarly, it’s only by comparing images of St. Petersburg today with photographs of the city pockmarked with bombsites from the appalling siege of Leningrad that you could realize how extensive and thorough its reconstruction was. These are less famous examples, but one city presents itself both as a reconstruction and as something entirely authentic—Warsaw. The thing about Warsaw that almost everyone knows is that 85 percent of it was destroyed in 1944 as collective punishment for the Warsaw Rising, and that it was then reconstructed to the letter after 1945. Strangely, this coexists with another idea of Warsaw as a center of wide streets, towers and general Warsaw Pact monolithism, with the peculiar consequence that the city is alternately hailed and excoriated by architectural traditionalists. Accordingly, for a certain type of architectural critic or historian, Warsaw is irresistible. It is the road not travelled (at least in the West)—a city where, instead of Modernism, we got a dignified reconstruction of the old world.
In fact, neither of the famous statements—total destruction, total rebuilding—is exactly true. Recent research makes clear that the 85 percent figure includes a great deal that was severely damaged but not irretrievably destroyed, and reconstructors were selective. Astonishingly, late-nineteenth-century buildings that had survived were actually being demolished in the early 1950s. It is also clear that the reconstructed city frequently took huge liberties with the historical fabric—given what had happened, how could they possibly not have done? And having spent a lot of time in this oddly almost neglected part of the Polish capital, it’s clear that the Modernist objection to the place—as a Disneyfied simulacrum of interest only to tourists—isn’t quite right either. New-Old Warsaw is above all a place of paradox. A project of the Communist Party, it is loved by nationalists; the only “authentically Polish” part of Warsaw, it is anything but authentic. An architectural historian, Marta Leśniakowska, caused something of a stir in her authoritative Architecture of Warsaw for the dismissive tone with which she described the rebuilt city; buildings are “vaguely inspired by” particular historic buildings (while plaques affixed to them assure you that this is that building); one of the most ostensibly successful parts of it, the rebuilt neoclassical “Royal Route,” has “façades loosely reminiscent of the buildings destroyed in 1944.”
Moreover, it is a particularly strong piece of evidence against the proposition that Postmodernism was a product specifically of capitalism, of the “End of History,” as here you can see a government that by all accounts saw itself as fulfilling the will of History, utilizing every one of the four orders of simulation described by the philosopher and occasional architectural commentator Jean Baudrillard in 1981, in his Simulacra and Simulation, a pivotal text in defining the suddenly ahistorical, retro-oriented culture that followed the oil crisis in 1974. Baudrillard defined these as the “first order of simulacra,” where you have a faithful copy which claims to reflect something entirely actual and real, although it admits that it is not the “original” of that real thing; a “second order,” which is an inaccurate copy, where we are aware of some foul play, some distortion; a “third order,” where you have a “copy without an original,” although this completely decoupled copy still claims to be something in some way faithful and real; and a “fourth order,” where there is no longer any adherence to any kind of fidelity or veracity, but only a “sign,” something which makes references to “real” stuff but has become completely free-floating, unashamedly artificial.
It is this sheer inauthenticity, and the propagandistic trimmings that are visible only slightly below the surface that are part of what makes the Old Town interesting. But we’re already conflating several different things when talking about the “Old Town.” It represents a spin on three distinct phases in the actual development of the real Warsaw once upon a time. There is the Stare Miasto, the Old Town, the original walled city, largely from the 16th century, enclosed by rebuilt walls; there’s Nowe Miasto, the New Town, built in the Baroque era as an extension to the original; and the Trakt Królewski, the “Royal Route,” a largely 18th-century neoclassical artery that reaches from the edge of the Old Town for a couple of miles before dissolving into an indistinct district of villas and embassies. Seen that way, the rebuilding ends at the exact point that Polish statehood does, with the swallowing of Poland by its neighbors in the 1790s—but at the edges of that a couple of neo-Renaissance streets of the middle of the 19th century were also rebuilt, so in practice the rebuilding stops at the point where what in Britain we’d call “Victorian” architecture begins, with its facadery and eclecticism—ironically enough, given that the practice of Socialist Realist architects so often resembles Victorianism itself. This also had the consequence that the area of Warsaw most completely destroyed—the northern districts turned into the “Warsaw Ghetto” by the Nazi occupiers, which were levelled in their entirety in the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising in 1943—is not even slightly reconstructed, being instead replaced by a Socialist Realist showpiece, a slightly cut-price equivalent to MDM; only one extremely short street of brick tenements survives as a tangible remnant of what was once the biggest Jewish city in the world, and the memorials that have been built there since—beginning in the 1940s with Nathan Rapoport’s moving Socialist Realist Monument to the Ghetto Fighters—are surrounded by buildings that have no pretension to “speak” of what happened here. To be fair, how could they possibly—though evidently the choosiness about what parts of the city should be preserved could be interpreted as being about more than just architectural discrimination.
What was rebuilt is intensely scenographic, as it should be given that it was notoriously based as much on the 18th-century paintings of Bernardo Bellotto, one of the painters who used the brand name “Canaletto”—who took a fair amount of historical liberties even then—rather than on documentary record. It is all based on the “correct” way to see the various ensembles of spires, columns and gables—but for our purposes in this book the best way to reach the Stare Miasto is via the Trasa W-Z, a west-east promenade that was very much part of the project, and was later lined with tower blocks. Its sandwiching function gives its name to a still-produced local cake. Even before the edges of it started being filled with high-rises in the 1960s, it was a project far from the traditional notion of historically scrupulous reconstruction, where if you must do it, you must use as much as possible of the original fabric and street plan. Instead, in order to make the whole apparition of the destroyed city’s reemergence into something functionally viable, a road was cut under and across it. The city’s 1950s Victory monument, a standard piece of Stalinoid angry-yet-maternal womanhood, was moved here in the 1990s from its former position in front of the National Theater (rather than being demolished), to the point where she now seems to guard the reconstruction.
Then, if you’re in a car or on a tram, you get to a glowing, tile-lined underpass, as modern as can be inside but clad to the exterior—to the scenic view—in heavy masonry, as surely the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would have done had it built motorways. There is, however, a pedestrian route to enter the Old Town from ground level as well, and it is equally unexpected: an underpass with a connecting escalator, which is, rather amazingly given the non-building of the much-trumpeted Warsaw Metro in the 1950s, a directly transposed piece of the Moscow Metro in Warsaw. Literally so—the project was partly designed and built by employees of Moskva Metrostroi, and there are inscriptions in Russian if you know where to look. The lamps are Soviet in derivation, showing that peculiar heaven-in-the-bowels-of-the-earth style that was fundamental to Soviet underground systems. The statues, too, are of, first, the People’s Army, and, second, the builders, who are always also the Builders of Communism. Both sets of statues are under glass panels, very probably to stop them from being vandalized—this protection is also very unexpected in a country which prides itself on anticommunism. Entering the Old Town via this route you emerge from 1950s Moscow into 17th-century Warsaw.
The vestibule for the “Metro” is a reconstruction of the florid Baroque “John House,” visible in one of the most famous of the “Canaletto” paintings of Warsaw, and it doesn’t seem particularly affected by its posthumous transformation—reincarnation?—into an escalator leading to a motorway, with a public toilet attached. As we know, the Warsaw Metro was cancelled when the relatively reformist Gomułka regime took power, Gomułka considering it an expensive vanity project. He was keen on building a lot of housing, fast: hence those towers along the Trasa W-Z. The General Secretary wasn’t particularly keen on historical reconstructions either, allegedly declaring that the Royal Castle—left out of the original reconstruction, as a matter either of expense or residual fidelity to socialist ideas about monarchs and their palaces—would be rebuilt over his dead body. Its rebuilding was completed a couple of years after he died. It is hard to imagine the Old Town without it, with its strangely flat pink front facade and soaring, distinctively Slavic verdigris spire. It was built in 1976, although unlike many of the other reconstructed buildings, it doesn’t declare the year of (re)construction on it, and it appears as a much more obviously historicist venture, scrupulous and sober—the first order of simulacra, as if confidence in the illusion had lessened somewhat, so that the little visual clues as to the real date had to be toned down. There was little of that in the 1940s and 1950s. What is most striking is that the reconstructions from the Stalinist era are just a lot more fun.
When the reconstructed Warsaw is praised, it’s usually the Old Town Square which is meant—a giant cobbled expanse, surrounded by a jagged skyline of sweetly marzipan-like Mitteleuropean buildings, with a market inside. This impressive visual effect, like a real civic hub, a real town center, means that for the neophyte it is easy to mistake it for the Polish capital’s agora, its heart, and to extend this to the Old Town itself. It didn’t take long staying here and living with a Varsovian to realize that it is no such thing. The Old Town has no Metro station, no tram stop save for the one at the other end of the Moscow Metro. It has no facilities other than museums, antique shops, (relatively) expensive restaurants and stalls with knickknacks—though there is one solitary milk bar to be found if you look hard enough. The center of Warsaw, in terms of where Varsovians go to work, go to bars and nightclubs, shop and promenade is defined by the Modernist geometry of the Eastern Wall, Stalin’s “gift” of the Palace of Culture and Science and the Futurist Central station—all nearly a mile away—and aside from the Royal Route little of the reconstructed city is regularly used by people who live here. This place is an adjunct, an oddity, divorced from the city’s everyday experience, and hence is surely the “Disneyland” city center that it is often accused of being. But, again, appearances are deceptive. The reason why this place is so quiet is that these tenements were built as public housing. The often elderly residents don’t like noise, and so block any attempt to bring the din that usually signifies “liveliness” into the old city walls. It is quiet not because it isn’t a “real,” lived place, but because it is.
Returning to Baudrillard’s inadvertent description of New-Old Warsaw, it is worth noting that the reconstructed 18th-century classical buildings along the Royal Route are usually from the First Order of Simulacra. They were “high architecture” when built, and so some of them actually have blueprints, named architects, or details that must be reproduced in order for the buildings to really convince as reconstructions. They are more often the remaking of something that already exists, as faithfully as the technology allows. The earlier, 16th- and 17th-century buildings didn’t really have an original, or at least not in the sense of something unchangeable—these tall, dreamy tenements, with their fairytale skylines of attics teetering in tiers to provide extra stories, had been constantly added to and remade over the centuries, so the 1950s could, while remaking them, feel free to do much the same. These are the second order of Stare Miasto Simulacra, where the designers have had some fun in adding completely mid-twentieth-century rooflines, mosaics, sgraffito, reliefs, murals, signs and other extraneous things which don’t pretend to be from some earlier age—except perhaps for the more universal one of childhood. The buildings are vividly colored in a panoply of blues, purples, oranges, yellows, with scuffed, worn bits that look as if they’ve been deliberately beaten about to look older. The applied art is strongly reminiscent of the animation of the era, the cut-out and montage films by the likes of Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk, or the illustrations common then in children’s books. These cute, angular forms are hardly comparable with the heroic workers of Socialist Realism. Elsewhere, they’re straightforward abstraction of various kinds, either slightly disturbing dismembered bodies, bits of neoclassical sculpture arranged at random, or, on some tenements, a move into lush, shimmering abstraction, with mosaic patterns in flying polygons forming a continuous frieze midway up a neoclassical house.
These cute fantasies of builders, maidens, fairies, mermaids and suchlike are charming, but it is a mistake to think that they are entirely separate from the ideology. Look at the two sgraffito pieces adjacent, and you realize that they are propaganda of a sotto voce kind. Both are flaking away, but one much more than the other. The one in better condition bears the Latin title “Varsovia,” and shows the city of the 17th century, with the Vistula filled with ships just behind it. The other, flaking at so rapid a rate that it may be illegible by the time you read this, depicts the Stakhanovite bricklayers who were reconstructing that city, and at record speeds. They’re in the same cartoonish style as all the Little Mermaids and sprites, but much less well-restored, as if the socialist provenance—or even the fact it was built, in the 20th century, by workers—were best forgotten. Step into the courtyards of some of these blocks and you find that they have the paraphernalia of mid-century mass housing—there is even a long deck-access block of flats at the Old Town’s southern corner, where the dressing as a Renaissance arcade is fooling nobody.
The third order of simulacra in the Warsaw Old Town is Mariensztat, a place which really didn’t exist before, but which is aesthetically completely of a piece with the earlier orders of simulacra that make up most of it. There were houses here, on this steep hill that curves down to the Vistula, but they bore no resemblance to what is there now, which was completely replanned on a new pattern by the communist authorities. This, not the blaring Stalinism of MDM or PKiN, became their first showpiece housing estate, built, as Marta Leśniakowska points out, “using socialist competition methods,” i.e. via an ideologized, pseudosocialist version of payment by results (but what results!). The approach, visually, is exactly the same as the Old Town itself. The paint, now worn enough to almost look convincingly historic; the winding streets; the cobbles; and the sgraffito, which here too is surely the cutest thing ever implemented by the Six-Year Plan of an iron-fisted Stalinist regime. Mariensztat opens out to a large public square, with another very pretty bit of trimming (this time a mosaic clock, to designs by Zofia Czarnocka-Kowalska, responsible for some of the most charming artworks in the Old Town) at the corner. If being unkind, one could point out that this is not a style massively unlike that of Nazi architecture at its more vernacular and völkisch. What makes it most unlike the Nazi aesthetic is that strange, out-of-place ultramodern cutesiness. Not the cutesiness of the carefully worn, and higgledy-piggledy, but of the very 1950s, wholly-of-their-time clocks, paintings and drawings. The inspiration seems to come a little from Warsaw’s one-time Prussian Gauleiter E. T. A. Hoffmann, with inanimate but harmless things coming to life. It is surely the most unlikely response to mass murder in the corpus of public art and city planning. Warsaw had, and still builds, gigantic monuments to its heroism, self-sacrifice and fortitude, but here everything is Lilliputian and pretty. The impulse seems to be comparable to that of postwar Modernism—the urge to shake off all of that horrible weight of history and instead create something light, joyous and dreamlike. But that modernity is applied; the casual visitor would still assume that he’s in a real old town which happened to have been subject to a very progressive public art programme.
The satellite dishes that line the houses might imply that those within the Old Town simulacra have other fantasies and simulations to think about, and that the fourth order can be found there, on their TV screens—but, actually, you can find it in a large housing estate just round the back of the Royal Route, off the lovely Nowy Świat (“New World”) Street, built, like the Modernist and Socialist Realist estates of the same era, by the public housing body ZOR. The houses along the main arteries, Nowy Świat and Krakowskie Przedmieście, are the first order, claiming (if not always accurately) to reproduce an original, which is often signposted by plaques. Historians have shown how this tasteful reconstruction, with its uniform roofline, actually replaced a much more chaotic, capitalistic street of mixed heights, blanketed with ads and signs; and the way that it joins onto the more standard Stalinist boulevard of Aleje Jerozolimskie shows again that consciousness that a “scene” is being created; on one side, the “new,” in the form of the domineering headquarters of the Polish United Workers’ Party, a starkly authoritarian edifice; and on the other, the heritage, whose artifice is here signposted for the only time along the Royal Route, via a Modernist mosaic of communist guerrillas and the legend THE WHOLE COUNTRY BUILDS ITS CAPITAL. It tells you just at the entrance that what you’re seeing is a construct, and then leaves you to it. But this development, the central street of which is rather tellingly named after Winnie-the-Pooh (or Kubusia Puchatka, as he’s known in Polish), is completely fictional, and unlike at Mariensztat the sleight of hand is far more obvious. While quite happy to reproduce a facsimile of the grand curving street of the Royal Route, the planners of postwar Warsaw were less keen on reproducing the typical cramped courtyards behind—they shared the aversion to these spaces, with their unflattering contrast of handsome front and miserable back, with the ideologists of the modern movement. Behind the frontages are low-rise tenements with pocket parks in between.
Many of the details have, like much of reconstructed Warsaw, a small-town feel that sits strangely in this metropolis of nearly 2 million people. There is a little tower with a smiley sun on it that drags us almost into Poundbury territory, so cloying is the reference to provincial Gemütlichkeit, without the hints of Surrealism that you find in the Old Town. The arcades that run through the blocks feel Socialist Realist in their incongruity, rather than being derived from some kind of indigenous tradition; at one end of it all is the Ministry of Finance, a Sovietized Art Deco block with reliefs of heroic workers charged with the task of electrification, and at the other a symmetrical, stepped eight-story block with historicist details. What makes it feel particularly peculiar is the way that
the blocks of flats straddle the roads that lead out towards the “real” center, with (at the time) its mix of ruins and Socialist Realism or (now) its glass office blocks. The roads that take you out of the simulacra run underneath. This doesn’t happen once, but twice, so when looking out towards the rest of the city you see instead a series of grand arches giving way to nothing. There is only one real precedent for this, and it is the Stalinist Potemkin city at Tverskaya; and the architects are quite clearly drawing attention to this fact. And as a place to live or to grow up in, this was and is quite something, combining all the virtues of centrality, urbanity, greenery and streetlife, plus those archways are now often closed to the public on the Royal Route, which gives it something of the air of a gated community, one of Warsaw’s many—a sad but apt fate for an estate designed for the top level of apparatchiks, Stakhanovites and court writers. It is as lovely as it is unreal.
The other question is whether or not there is a difference between the “unreal” old towns of Gdańsk or Warsaw and the “real” old town of a city that avoided total destruction. If you compare the Stare and Nowe Miasto of Warsaw with the old town of Lublin, an eastern Polish city near the borders with Belarus and Ukraine, one of the most important cities of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, you can find several aspects that contrast sharply. For one, perhaps unsurprisingly, you find that a real old town is also often an exceptionally poor town. The squares, gateways and streets of Old Lublin are exceptionally pretty, and also exceptionally strange. More than in Warsaw, there are several traces of the unusual forms the Renaissance took when it was adopted in Poland, the free hand that designers had in the absence of actual Roman precedent nearby to draw from; there is, in short, a lot less in the way of good taste. There are many of the ornamented attics that Lev Rudnev transplanted onto the tops of his towers in the Palace of Culture and Science, and there is ornamentation and statuary of a deeply weird order, chubby little figures that are no longer Gothic but very far from the realistic forms of their Italian inspiration; there are sgraffito patterns that give way to bare brick when the plaster flakes off. Historically and architecturally it is fascinating, but many of the houses and tenements are in a state of advanced disrepair, to the point where some would by now surely have to be replaced rather than renovated. Enter one of the courtyards and you don’t find thinly disguised mid-century public housing, but an age-old squalor. The best view of the Lublin skyline is from a dodgy street market in a derelict interzone. How strange, when the simulation is scrupulously maintained and the “real” left to rot.
Copyright © 2015 by Owen Hatherley. This excerpt originally appeared in Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.