First of what will be two Warsaw posts, this one on the subject of three railway stations by the same architect, with accompanying drifts around their hinterlands, recuperating some of the earlier observations, although in somewhat more depth and with hopefully a bit less coo-er-gosh about it. Through a short profile of each and the area around, with a bit of geographical cheating, there should be an elliptical picture of a fascinatingly and occasionally disturbingly diverse and uneven city...
Warszawa Centralna is the largest of five railway stations in the Polish capital designed by Arseniusz Romanowicz and Piotr Szymaniak in the 1950s-1970s, three of which will be mentioned here (the others, Ochota and Stadion, might feature in a future post when I've actually seen them). It's best seen on its first view, from the adjacent flyover at night, where its swooping steel wings are part of the rather spectacular Gothick-Stalinist-modernist-commercial skyline. This time, we tried to walk it.
The Central Station has an unexpectedly extensive English Wikipedia page. It's probably - though I may be giving him too much credit here - the sort of building Jonathan Glancey is referring to when he calls the 1960s London Euston station 'a communist-Europe-style steel box'. Like Euston, it's routinely derided, and like it employs some fairly lavish materials, polished stone and expanses of glass, which never quite stops it feeling slightly crepuscular, and trains are reached from underneath the concourse. I don't smell any piss, however, and it still retains a sleek, ruthless futurism.
My view of it here is fairly mediated by a recent reading of Andrzej Stasiuk's 'existential crime novel' Nine, which imagines contemporary Warsaw as an ultramodern hall of mirrors, with a grim circular motion between its stations. The Central station is fairly universally considered a grim, piss-smelling slough of despond which is best demolished altogether. My unsophisticated opinion of it is still 'wow, this is brilliant!' however. Look at the way its blue-grey wings frame the '70s skyscrapers nearby.
They are advertising the hotel itself, but until Agata translated them for me I naturally assumed the message was 'a new life awaits you in the offworld colonies' (as well it might be, given western Europe's reliance on Polish Gastarbeiter). The station's desuetude can be contrasted with Zlote Tarasy, the adjacent shopping mall, which can be reached from an underground passageway, along from the station itself. Its blobular roof structure will sooner rather than later look every bit as dated as Warszawa Centralna, but for the moment it is kept considerably tidier.
At the back of this is the stump of an abandoned residential tower by Daniel Libeskind, and then the Palace of Culture and Science. Here, the wide-open-spaces the enormous complex surrounds itself with are colonised by youths playing a bicycle-hockey thing - they seem completely undisturbed, unbothered, by either the vastness of the building or my taking photos of them.
A Doric Arch, just like Euston used to have! Unfortunately this is cheating - this is a Railway HQ, but not a station. The second railway station is Warszawa Wschodnia, in the district of Praga, on the eastern side of the Vistula - an area which has a very different feel to the rest of Warsaw. It's cut off to the point where the Vistula's banks are marshy and overgrown, rather than choked with riverside stunning developments. But first we'll begin with the area around the Polish State Railway offices in Plac Wilenski, designed in 1927 by Marian Lalewicz. Its harsh, sombre stripped classicism, combined with abundant figurative ornament - all the metopes and friezes you could want - proves that socialist realism was not wholly an importation. On the subject of Russian imports, this part of Praga features a massive, onion-domed Orthodox church, and a crumbling memorial to the Red Army that camped here and watched first the suppression of Warsaw Rising in 1944, just over the other side of the river, and then the subsequent razing of Warsaw to the ground.
The gates have especially neat signage. Praga escaped the massive destruction inflicted on the other bank of the Vistula, so just round the corner from Plac Wilenski is a large concentration of 19th century tenement blocks. Their render and ornament has long since started falling off, leaving strange concatenations of stucco ornament, bared brick, cement and - particularly worryingly on the ground floors - whole chunks of building seemingly eaten away. Nearer the public buildings of the Plac, or the cafes by the main road, it's not too bad...
...but further in, especially in the courtyards, the poverty of the place is most apparent. Parts of Berlin looked like this, a little while ago, but I've never seen, say, Prenzlauer Berg looking as poor as Praga - although, given the artworks and stencils scattered around, there's a few artists living here also. There's a line in more straightforward graffiti. Monica, it's claimed below, has Down's Syndrome.
The area is full of the things which certainly have been erased from Berlin, for the most part - the sheer brick walls, with a window or two punched into them, and inbetween, the large, wasted lots which aren't quite parks or squares. Agata points out that there's a lot of people playing in these spaces, a lot of noise and bustle, which is true enough, and more than can be said for some rather less derelict modernist estates at the outskirts (see next post). In terms of poverty, I've seen little - Peckham ten years ago, Bradford now - to compare with Praga, but it's not lifeless. This is the sort of ruination that counts as picturesque. Fin-de-siecle ruination, not the apparently more intimidating dereliction of a tower block.
There's a large and derelict factory at the heart of the area, which faces some far less derelict things - a new, grey-rendered housing block and a modernist church. Warsaw is full of great modernist churches, a legacy no doubt of the church's heavy influence on politics and society in the '70s and '80s. Like the housing blocks on the outskirts, they seem partly indebted to Corbusier, with their stretched forms, render and occasional beton brut; only it's the rustic-expressionist-poperie Corb of Ronchamp, rather than the rationalist architect of mass housing. It was Palm Sunday on the day we took these pictures. The small votive shrines are the less elegant concomitant of the well-preserved modernist churches.
The actual Warszawa Wschodnia station is at the other end of Praga, and is another modernist station which every possible written guide to Warsaw will excoriate. One of them notes that the extremely long low-rise modernist block in front of the station, built around the same time as the station itself, was probably designed to screen the crumbling tenements of Praga from visitors. It then claims it should serve the same function now to screen off the station.
So I was expecting something much worse than Centralna - Stasiuk makes it sound especially apocalyptic. But on this clement spring afternoon it actually reminded me more of Sheffield's Castle Market, with multiple levels, mid-century modern details, cute signage, and an overwhelming smell of cheap food. There are stalls and shops in every available space, with several makeshift newsagents crammed just into the travertine-lined tunnel connecting the platforms. There's also this lovely bit of Popova-esque stained glass in one of the kiosks.
On the other side of the station, you can see a jagged roof, part of Romanowicz and Szymaniak's socialist-googie manner. Elsewhere, parts of it - the thrusting concrete canopies, and the mushroom-shaped watchtower - seem to want to leave the ground altogether, space-age leftovers that are now somewhat forlorn. The train here takes us to the last of these stations, and the most spectacular.
Although the bulk of Polish public transport is still publicly owned - which explains why, at least in my nine days here, it worked very smoothly indeed - Warszawa Powisle is owned in different places by different companies, which in turn explains why it's been given a few differing restoration jobs at once. Built into a steep slope, it's basically in three parts - the entrance from the street, which is one of Romanowcz and Szymaniak's swooping, bird-like structures; the platform shelters, which are astonishing, practically abstract sculptures, and the entrance from the ground near the river, which has an adjacent cafe. The cafe, which sits alongside an intriguing renaissance-brutalist road bridge, can be seen above, and is renovated very well as a hipstery operation which sometimes plays host to clubs; and the steps up to the station itself, as you can see in the corner, have not been given anything like the same attention.
But while the platforms might be coated in graffiti, it takes more than that to obscure something as striking as this. It might not be the traditional railway station as Jonathan Glancey understands it, but it incarnates the rush and romance of rail travel (when it works properly) with more imagination than, say, the new St Pancras. These railway stations are something really quite special - the application of an only seemingly inappropriate language - the space-age neo-constructivism of googie, something usually applied to roadside structures - to train travel, wrenching it out of the nineteenth century. There's nothing quite like them anywhere else, and if there was any justice, their architect should be given swanky exhibitions and coffee table books.
There is, at least, their documentation on this website, which also features a couple of pics of the building above, which it claims to be a 'Studentenhaus'. Unlike the subject of the next post, the high-rise housing estates of Warsaw, it's a unique, single-design tower block, with what was originally a youth club cantilevered out from the top, a cosmic pavilion projecting itself out towards the dereliction of Praga.