Friday, April 02, 2010

Wielki zespół mieszkaniowy

This post, with another google-derived Polish title which, hopefully, is this time grammatically correct, is about a walk through some Warsaw housing estates in an area roughly inbetween Stegny and Mokotow, near-ish to Wilanowska metro station. This is the area where I was staying with the marvellous Ms Pyzik, and hopefully she won't mind an architectural discussion of her manor. Above is the view from the window.

Which is a close up of this, the courtyard of a newish complex of high-rises constructed near the station. Last time I wrote about this place I compared it to the Mietskaserne, the Wilhelmine Empire approach to tenement building - grand frontage to the street, with blocks gradated by price and class according to how much light and how much of a view of the street they have, and courtyards inside. Old-school Modernist planning aims to eliminate this by having clear open space between blocks, but that is a) alienating, repetitive and stuff and b) makes much less money. I quite enjoyed seeing these flats curve around me every day, watching the lights on the emergency stairs switch on and off at night.

Some of the blocks in this estate are more equal than others, something which can usually be discerned by the amount of general extraneous they have on their façades. The reaction against a rectilinear modernism doesn't take the form here of the tacked-on bits of wood or barcode facades of the UK, but seems more metropolitan, more unashamed about its pretensions to luxury.

Or even in some cases, it entails the use of a triumphal monument - here, with no inscription, a monument to nothing but itself - leading to a modernist-via-fascist composite. Just behind the eagle is a fitness centre on the block's ground floor, with large glass walls so you can watch the straining and heaving. As Will Wiles points out, Fitness First does have a very Kraft Durch Freude sound to it.

It's not gated, however, and you can walk around the spaces (mostly car parks) without anyone telling you not to take photographs...except for one gated outpost right at the back. This block is a far more traditional piece of high modernism - regardless of its orientation to the sun, the aesthetics are strictly bauhaus. Inside are glass walkways crossing the CCTV cameras. What happens next, meanwhile, explains why the block's owners might just be keen on stressing the security aspect.

Suddenly, we're practically in farmland. Here, you can see two kinds of modernist estate - on the right are the serried blocks of the '70s, on the left, the ostensibly less regular new towers. But both of them have behind them the same stretch of wasteland, with little more than a track of mud leading out to the next estate. In this stretch are a succession of small houses, some with attached smallholdings which are visibly being tilled.

The area is covered in rubbish, but it's nice to see that spring has started here, even if it feels like it hasn't in London.

There's a lot of this - the same street signs you see on the massive, ultra-urban boulevards of Marszalkowska, this time appended to the fences of one-storey farmhouses and tumbledown sheds. In every other available space, the new blocks of flats spring up, completely unconcerned about their incongruousness. Warsaw feels, for the most part, extremely metropolitan, which makes this vertiginous fall into the peasantry more alarming. The photograph of abandoned zone furniture is for Laura O-F.

Further on from here, we're back in a fairly normal suburbia, rather than the extraordinary modernist/rustic Zone behind the tower blocks.

Property adverts are placed along a row of houses that look, at first, like 90s' pomo, which then reveal themselves to be more mild-modernism. This child is practically pleading to be housed in a nice, semi-detached house rather than a nasty tower.

A few days before, I'd heard the sound of church bells (I love church bells. I don't think this makes me an apologist for the Catholic church) across the high-rises, and was pleased to finally find their source in this steel tower, which is in front of a church school which resembles a Lancashire factory, and another modernist church.

This one is more expressionist than Corbusian, with the raw, bulky, fortress brick mannerisms harking to the Hansa-like redbrick cathedral in the old town, although the beton brut and abstract approach to decoration keep it away from the architectural traditionalism one might expect from a not particularly 'progressive' wing of Rome. By this point we were hanging round places where Pyzik had grown up, although not sharing my sentimentality, she didn't seem overcome by any kind of Proustian rush.

This little girl is the demonic secret identity of the one in the poster begging for her parents to buy a nice new house.

After that, we're at the blocks, and the estate where my guide lived until she was eight. This photograph is there for stereotype's sake, framed cheesily by a bit of barbed wire connected to another structure altogether. But this is what we think it's like, yes? Blocks on blocks are all around. They've all been given some coloured render like the new blocks a quarter of a mile away, and all have open spaces and orientation that the new ones lack. I defer here to her judgement, however, ie - it was incredibly depressing living here and she would never do so again under any circumstances.

There's definitely a lack of stuff to do here, only a couple of shops and a hairdresser. Some of the blocks are painted red or yellow, some are as grey as the concrete underneath, but they all seem reasonably well looked-after.

What I notice as different from their equivalents in Britain is, first, the sheer quantity of it. I find walking round it that it's quite nice - lots of trees and landscaping, a mediocre but not especially obnoxious design which encompasses low-rises as well as high - but it goes on forever, as far as they eye can see. Personally, I'd far rather live here than in a crumbling, damp-ridden 19th century tenement in Praga, but there's no doubt that you see more people there in a few minutes than in half an hour here. But the big difference is that the landscaping inbetween the blocks dissolves into parkland, with a frankly rather lush riverside park curving round the entire estate.

I'm guessing that the park dates from the same time as the estate by the Brutalist structures that delineate the river, such as this Atlantic Wall-style Weir and several bridges. There is a bit of a smell to this river, which no doubt discourages frolicking.

As in Berlin, dogs are everywhere in Warsaw, and there's plenty being walked in this park. This graffiti apparently reads 'we dogs should stick together', and is using dogs in the sense DMX uses the word. Where my dogs at, and so forth.

From then, it's back to the farm, where there are lots more dogs, some extremely aggressive; and a succession of tiny mud passageways through which you constantly worry if you're walking through someone's garden or not. Here, the ploughed land leads most of the the way to another estate, a power station, and an office block with lots of little satellite dishes atop it.

After that, back this time at the People's Republic end of the housing estate, where there's a children's playground and the two parts of a gigantic concrete practice ski-slope.

In the circumstances, after the snow has thawed in the streets, it seems a pure sculptural object, a constructivist monument. Not knowing anything about skiing, the object puzzles me. What if you don't manage to get to the other end? And are merely propelled into the asphalt? What would Health & Safety think?

My puzzlement continues as we find the school has been subject to device-baring defacement.

There is not the slightest logic to this landscape, and different eras and styles succeed each other as if precedent didn't exist. Although this reflects the inequalities of the city - very sharp, although not sharp on a British scale - it makes a walk much more interesting. So in five minutes you can go through farm to luxury estate to post-war council estate to a Siedlung of detached 1930s 'Classical Modernist' villas, of the sort which would be sold for silly money somewhere like this. They're very overgrown, but neither restored nor defaced.

Whether the bars are an anti-burglary measure I have no idea - one would have thought just smashing into the glass stair tower would have been easier.

Some of them are very elegant indeed, although always more Hilberseimer than Corbusier - there are no displays of long ribbon-windows, no daring technical feats, just sober sachlichkeit.

This leads to wide rendered planes which make them look a little bunker-like, the paranoid style in high modernism.

After this, over the road you are reminded that you're not in suburbia at all, but next to one of those long, wide People's Republic boulevards - a sombre, symmetrical '50s Socialist Realist housing complex is on one side, though it lacks its symmetrical counterpoint, with merely the surreal assemblage we walked through on the other side of the road.

Then, we're back in the luxury part of the housing estate, next to a building which tries to cram shops, offices and flats into a curved site - there is some logic here, perhaps, but it's the logic of filling as much profit-making activity into a site as possible, in an area dominated by a massive swathe of unused open space.


Blogger Richmonde said...

Fascinating - thanks!

9:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No google Street view for Warsaw, however a Central/East European streetview system exists...



11:33 am  
Blogger Jack said...

I enjoyed the post, but probably you should only use the loaded term 'Mietskaserne' in quotes. Better to use the actual name of the building typology 'Miethaus' (pl 'Mietshäuser'), for which there is no good translation in English. Tenement suggests it was only for housing, but the building type actually accommodated all aspects of city life. If you haven't already, I recommend looking at Jonas Geist's three volume Das Berliner Mietshaus.

4:44 pm  
Anonymous 風俗被リンク said...

Too different houses and buildings in the same city, that's the same everywhere?

6:27 am  
OpenID yorksranter said...

In this stretch are a succession of small houses, some with attached smallholdings which are visibly being tilled.

This, and


remind me very much of where I used to live in Vienna. I was one of the first people to move into the redeveloped brick gasometers in Wien-Simmering, which were surrounded by a weird mixture of Edwardian industrialisation, reconstruction-era cold war modern, and deep central European peasantry.

All around, huge new construction projects (posh flats/shopping/distribution warehouses/extensions to the central railyards/new airport terminal/central European air traffic control) were going on in advance of EU enlargement. Now, the whole area seems to have been redeveloped...

11:42 am  
Blogger Michael Dembinski said...

Another excellent post.

The ground floor bars are indeed anti-burglary measures. The glass stair tower is common space and there will be armoured doors between this and the private spaces. Warsaw has far fewer break-ins per 1,000 households than does London, yet the high fences, guard dogs, burglar alarms, barred windows suggest far lower levels of social trust in Polish than in the UK.

Burglary rates compared: London and Warsaw.

My posts on Warsaw's architecture.

8:43 am  
Blogger dominic said...

Very , very belatedly (and another great post, I must say) - but a minor point: that isn't an ad for property in the 10th photo; but rather an appeal for a charity that helps homeless children. The slogan reads "You have a home, she doesn't"

for what it's worth

10:16 pm  
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10:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a runner, like running barefoot!

10:28 pm  
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