Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Adverts of Warsaw


Much of Warszawa, from the snatches of it that I saw before my English constitution rebelled against the ferocious cold, still largely looks like Bowie's 'Warszawa' sounds - sombre, spacious, dark, uncanny, utterly modern. But to really translate the synaesthetic effects of contemporary Warsaw into musical form, imagine listening to the song with a Spotify advert interrupting the frosted synth tones every ten seconds. Warsaw appears, at least from my brief and partial impressions, as a city of advertisements. At first, this is thrilling. The car journey into the city from the airport, when it inches towards the commercial centre resembles, if anything, the delirious final seconds of the 'highway sequence' in the original Solaris. As overpasses and underpasses pass under and over the long, straight road, you see on one side the angular steel of the central station, and in front, a row of neon-lit towers - many of them with neon signs flickering on and off - Toshiba, Sanyo, Orange, Marriott, with the latter also broadcasting a pointillist neon pattern show, punctuated by (to me) excitingly unreadable advertising slogans. In the middle of it, unavoidably central, and I know I ought to apologise to Warsawians for my being so predictable, but, let's face it, the central building of the entire city, the Palace of Culture and Science - the only example outside of Moscow of the astonishing, ludicrous Gothic skyscrapers built after World War Two, so tall they disappear into mist at daylight.

Designed by Lev Rudnev and built by imported Russian labour, it actually fits the capitalist city very neatly as a distant, showy urban object, derived as it eventually is - at a couple of removes and with a wedge of ideology inbetween - from Manhattan's Woolworth Building (it's like Ghostbusters! Says my sister). What is atypical, however, is the planning. Ever since the 1960s Warsaw's planners have tried to crowd it out by building office blocks and hotels with the same (enormous) height, but the difference is the way in which it isn't just a tower, but a practical city-in-itself, with wings as large as some streets, with the gigantic Plac Defilad (erstwhile Plac Stalina) in front of it. At night this area is astonishing, one of the most dazzling cityscapes I've seen, an overwhelming argument for consumerism's urban qualities. In the morning it's utterly fucking miserable. Here's Plac Defilad on Monday morning. Click on the picture and you'll note that one advert says 'Life's Good'. Yeah.

So, central Warsaw appears to be built on a peculiar hedonistic principle - the highs may be pretty high, but the hangovers are nigh unbearable, albeit with a certain catatonically bleak power. You'll also note, if you look closely, that one of the housing blocks has been completely covered with a canvas advertisement for a new car. Just below it is the Rotunda, an example of the confident, angular 'Thaw' modern of post-'56 Poland. It features on its walls some heritage images of what the place looked like when it was built, but the glass walls are covered with another gigantic advertisement. It's as if it's saying 'we can't afford for you to see this building as it is, so here is what it would look like if we didn't have to cover it up with ads'. Every available surface must advertise. A little lower down, in the station concourse, a recreation of a pioneering work of abstract propaganda is covered in graffiti. In both cases, a rather similar process of random defacement is at work.

At the other side of the Palace, near the the sweeping steel roof of the Central station...

...which is one of an excellent series of railway stations by the architect Arseniusz Romanowicz (whose Warsaw Powisle station, which unfortunately I saw after my camera ran out of batteries, is a superlative design, one of the best stations I've seen anywhere), for which demolition is periodically to this, you can see the New Warsaw of the mid 90s to mid 2000s boom. It's a motley lot, as ever - the undulating, biomorphic glass roof of a new mall sits next to the Hard Rock Cafe, which sits next to some wonky spec towers, which sits next to the concrete frame of an unfinished 45-storey residential tower by Daniel Libeskind. Intended to be finished by 2008, it reached around fifteen stories before being credit crunched. It is now apparently indefinitely shelved. The area is a bit of a farrago, to put it mildly, but its seemingly deliberate disorder seems another morbid symptom, as if some sort of planning and order were a return of Communism. It looks alternately crankily exciting or bleakly tawdry, depending on light and/or mood.

It has little in common with the two kinds of 'socialist' architecture in the pre-1953 city, either Socialist Realism or Modernism, both of which were tightly planned and controlled. The former was very much a populist architecture, though, a proto-postmodernism which mashed together advanced technology, 'proper streets' (albeit with huge roads inbetween), and extensive ornament and decoration, which is never entirely retro, but is rather in a kind of mutant free classical-gothic-renaissance-whatever manner, with all the aesthetic incoherence of pomo, albeit with little of the bright colours. It's little wonder that the likes of Philip Johnson rehabilitated this sort of thing in the '80s (curiously enough, a mural of his AT&T tower sits next to the Lissitzky mural above). It too needs 'redevelopment' now, and that takes several forms. The monumentalism of the Marszalkowa area, with its showpiece squares, is the dark stuff, Stalinist architecture at its most sombre and also its most 'contextual' (the blocks were all supposed to emulate a 19th century housing block nearby). It is restored in tiny sections, and elsewhere it's either picturesquely sullied or, more often, draped in enormous advertisements - seeing a giant Wayne Rooney blocking light and views for 50 or so flat-dwellers is as good a capsule image of the post-socialist city as any other.

Apparently, the giant ads are a means of funding the restoration of these buildings, but they've been here for so long that nobody seems convinced the restorations will ever actually happen. The shiny new towers imply this isn't entirely an impoverished city, but that money is going to the usual places.

The first skyscraper in Warsaw was built in the '30s for a British insurance company, of all things. One of the few buildings to survive the destruction of the entire city in 1944, it was redesigned by its architect, Marcin Weinfeld, in Socialist Realist style after the war. It has another ad stuck to its top, and there are plans afoot to restore it to its 1930s state, in a strange act of misplaced historical fidelity.

It's not a matter of architectural style, this - the Modernist department store above, designed by Zbigniew Ihnatowicz and Jerzy Romanski in the 40s before the Soc-Realist edicts, is also draped with a giant Lego advert, and the owners promise to restore the building - if they're allowed to demolish one wing of it...


My host very kindly obtained for me a tour around Zoliborz, a district built up between 1918 and 1939, given by a long-term inhabitant who runs Poland's most hep music magazine. It was all enormously informative about the area, which was a mixture of 'national manner' style houses for the officer class and the nobility, Modernist 'colonies' which were variously social housing of a sort and flats for the intelligentsia, and once, embassies, surrounded by the walls of the Tsarist citadel which once stood on the site. He was not impressed by my lack of interest in the national manner, but to be honest it seemed remarkably similar to every other national manner.

The Modernism in Zoliborz was also quite derivative, but interestingly so. The school is the most original building in the area, an expressionistic design which was left pockmarked with the bullets it incurred during the Warsaw Rising.

The housing is, like everything else, sometimes very well restored, sometimes not, and sometimes renovated in a completely random order in a variety of different ways - anyone from Modernist preservation groups like DOCOMOMO or the Twentieth Century Society should stop reading at this point if they're faint of heart.

There is lots of nice planning and planting in Zoliborz, parks and public space which are sometimes gated at random points. Still, the pallor of the buildings seems to be the one point where the place conforms to Eastern Bloc stereotype - grey flatblocks, lots of space, and (as with most of Warsaw) well-dressed pale people in long coats and scarves. I like this place.

At the centre is the square above, which is named after Woodrow Wilson. For a few years it was named after the Paris Commune, which is apparently a bad thing.


The other district I got to have a bit of a look at was around the Wilanowska Metro station. The Metro is '90s, and is a curious mixture of good materials and spacious proportions downstairs, super-low-budget kiosks on the surface. The area was recently built up with tall towers, which ostentatiously try and avoid the serried repetition of the '60s blocks a yard or two away.

There are various types, some are condos for the wealthy and some contain mere microflats, and this seems visible from the relative swishness of the surface materials. They differ from their tower block precursors not by slathering themselves in ornament or wood panelling, but by creating strange outgrowths and clusters, with the end result that while it doesn't look ordered and repetitious, it does mean that anyone living on the 3rd storey of one of the blocks is enclosed by a 16 storey courtyard, so there's less light or air than there would be in a 19th century Mietskaserne. By trying to do everything other than what was done from the 50s to 80s, some strange and imposing accidents have been created - but what continues is scraping, domineering height.


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Blogger owen hatherley said...

Are you from Warsaw? Am I missing something...?

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OpenID yorksranter said...

Plac Defilad should be a band.

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Anonymous Karol said...

Nobody says Paris Commune was a bad thing. Plac Wilsona is the older name (from 1920s), so you should rather say that W. Wilson is (was) apparently a bad guy ;-)

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