Wednesday, May 19, 2010


This is the fourth post I've written about Warsaw, and by now I've almost got some sort of bearings in the city, although the city has, more than any other capital city I've been in outside London, a tendency to morph into several different cities in the space of a few yards. Only a handful of these cities conform to stereotype, but one such can be seen above - one of the (several) central stations, this one dating from the 1950s, and combining neoclassical surface pavilions with a crepuscular underside, its severity only reinforced by the Coca-Cola signs underneath the typography. The rest of this post is about somewhere else, centring on the things listed above, and is N entirely SFW; unlike last time, I've been tardy about researching names of architects/artists and dates - so if anyone knows, please do let me know. for instance, although the Smolensk air crash would lead us to assume that the other extremely right-wing twin will be next Polish president on a sympathy vote, opinion polls while I'm there show him around 25% behind his centrist opponent. There are still a lot of Polish flags left flying from windows, although there are so many memorials here already that the new posters, installed during a 'national week of mourning', seem ephemeral additions to an existing genre.

Aside from the memorials and railway stations, this post is about the signs found in Warsaw last month, and the things found under glass at the same time.

These silhouettes signify sex in a far more interesting way than the hundreds of cards advertising various facets of the sex industry that one occasionally walks over in the centre of town...other signs are rustier, but more stylish.

Then there are the things on the sides of buildings. As in (east) Berlin, Warsaw's modernist architects did some rather striking ornamental dressing-up when they knew the CIAM weren't looking - so this (school?) building here has attached to it a pebble construction which...

...when examined closely looks like some Max Ernst image, an unreadable surrealist assemblage. Agata claims to see a horse here.

A few yards on, and rather clearer, is the first of several monuments to the Polish Home Army, the nationalist resistance force that opposed the establishment of semi-colonial Stalinism after 1944. Accordingly, the state from the '40s to '80s didn't know quite what to do with them, alternately suppressing and immortalising its memory, according to the political needs of the day. This henge features tiny, almost cartoonish, stylised figures...

...but its abstract/figurative mix is not massively unlike the memorials to the Home Army put up after 1989, which are sometimes still fiercely modernist, and miles from the kitsch statuary of post-89 Russia, although similarly gigantist. This one dates from 2000.

The area where the above photos were taken connects with the embankment and the Vistula only through steps, and these are themselves dreamlike urban spaces, baroque setpieces without an ostensible monumental object to frame... least until provided later on. This, the largest of the Polish resistance monuments, is also very, very similar to certain monuments to more unambiguously 'Eastern' subjects in Berlin and elsewhere - abstract plinths combined with hulking figures and densely packed, tortured friezes, bulging out with angst and horror.

Guidebooks like to mention how 'ugly' Warsaw's many memorials are, as if the correct response to the suffering in this city would have been to erect something pretty. What is maybe more interesting is the way they try and create entire cityscapes of memorialisation.

The jagged plinths and the statue are one side of a complex which, rather incredibly, includes an underpass as part of itself - when you get to the other end, the memorial continues, more of the low-relief figures providing a dead-end in front of the Vistula.

Which itself has a warrior of some description added to defend it after the war, which though fairly traditional, has a childlike stylisation to it reminiscent of Aristide Maillol, only with added fishtail and massive sword.

The Vistula does not do riverside in the traditional sense - amazingly, the river was never properly built-up. There are some excellent buildings nearby (eg:), but they don't make a fuss of the fact they've got a river in front of them. The riverbank is entirely a space for walking along, and on the Praga side it isn't even paved.

In what is otherwise a very dense city, it provides a placid, empty relief, with only the cars overhead to disturb the fishermen.

Another walk, at a different time: another example of the strange experiments you can have when modernist good taste is not watching - this University building, where a Jean Prouve/early High-Tech steel frame provides the entrance to a sober, traditional brick building, with the transition marked on the sides by abstract, decorative brickwork.

It's all currently derelict, worryingly, and some kind of stripping-out seems to be occurring inside.

The rest of the post is made up of fragments from other walks, arranged into only apparent coherence. Sue Ryder of charity shop fame, has, along with John Lennon and Winnie the Pooh, her own personal corner of Warsaw devoted to her.

The Ochota station, missed for reasons of not-having-seen-it from the earlier post, is another of Arseniusz Romanowicz and Piotr Szymaniak's stations, and is every bit as fabulous as Powisle, Wschodnia or Centralna, and an especially well-kept example of the socialist googie they invented for themselves.

The sheer abundance of it, the unnecessary piling on of attractions and details, is dizzying - as if not content with the preposterous swooping roof and the floor-to-ceiling glass, mosaic and patterning is added even to the concrete roof. Here, one wonders if Deconstructivists have been peering here and nicking ideas.

Ochota has a great deal of interwar architecture, whether neoclassical villas and public buildings of much the same ilk as Fascist Italy or the Functionalism of streamline curves and metal loggias. It's comfortable, pretty, affluent, but the idyllic part of Ochota is a mile or so south.

This is an estate partly designed by Szymon and Helena Syrkus, committed Communists and CIAM delegates, who created something less exciting in terms of elevations, but in terms of the greenery that has grown up around it, this is very impressive - built around a pond, a park, and facing another massive memorial complex, of a different order.

On one side, you have this absolutely lovely space, co-operatively owned tower blocks with accompanying trees reaching nearly to their entire height; on the other, the Soviet War Memorial, a wide, empty space framing a park.

The giant Soviet soldiers flank an obelisk; the ceremonial route goes past named plaques for red army officers and innumerable numbered pebbles for everyone else. The people's army. At the moment, they're all under scaffolding, which gives them the appearance of some sort of conceptual artwork, socialist realism with an abstract metal cage put over it.

Like all Soviet memorials in post-Warsaw Pact states, it is legally protected - this being the condition for the Red Army leaving your country. There are fresh flowers at the base of the obelisk in the centre, and Smolensk appears to have surprisingly cemented Russian-Polish friendship. The reason for this is not so extraordinary - before the crash, Russian news was reporting the apology for the Katyn massacre and the new gas deal between the two countries together, as a signal to the home audience that the apology had decidedly ulterior motives.

To end with the things under glass. David Crowley's Warsaw details how there was a very deliberate attempt at creating an architecture and culture of consumerism during the Thaw of the 50s, and in architecture this resulted in vitrines in the streets. Some of these, such as at the massive East Wall complex in the centre, have been demolished and 'normalised', others are left empty, but the principle of ostentatious window display continues, especially in the underground passageways underneath the central stations.

One of the Thaw stores is the lovely Emilia, which is joined at the back by glass walkway to the former Furniture store that is now the Museum of Modern Art. As part of the current exhibition, a whole row of the display windows have been given over to artists. The most alarming of these display spaces shows the mannequins that formerly inhabited it subject to dismemberment and drastic Helmut Newton reconstruction.

Here, the showroom dummies are resequenced into a bizarre scatological robotic porn tableau. In the many catacombs under central Warsaw, the shops and kiosks that squeeze themselves into the passageways beneath Centralna and Centrum, you see the likely inspiration, a lingerie shop in the corner of a Metro station, which offers a variety of mannequins to serve every taste.


Blogger Michael Dembinski said...

Three points in an otherwise excellent post with brilliant architectural observations for which as a Varsovian I'm most grateful.

1) Kaczyński twins 'extremely right wing'. A gross simplification. Socially conservative (very much so), Euro-sceptic, anti-gay, anti-abortion, Catholic, patriotic. Like US Republicans. BUT economically socialist; redistributionists who believe that anyone with anomalous amounts of wealth must have come by it nefariously. Do not believe in free enterprise, instinctively feel state should control industry and commerce. Like Michael Foot-era Labour Party then.

2)The Home Army was established to fight Nazi occupation and was disbanded in January 1945. Other organisations (WiN, NSZ) fought the Soviet-backed regime into the early 1950s; these were quite clearly beyond the pale during the communist era.

3) The monument on Powiśle, from 1975, is of a Soviet or Polish-communist sapper; the outwardly-radiating lines symbolizing the blasts that must have killed scores of them while cleaning up mines left by the Nazis.

My own posts about Warsaw's architecture

8:08 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Hi Michael, many thanks for the comments and the link, and especially for clarifying points 1 and 3 (though re: 1, there's always been an pro-redistribution right-wing - 'one nation Tories', as they were called over here).

The sappers memorial does have an AK insignia on it somewhere, as I recall. Which brings me to 2 - maybe the phrase was a bit convoluted. I wasn't intending to imply that the AK itself was an anticommunist resistance army; but it was, while concentrating on the war against the Nazis, also fundamentally opposed to the communists (esp after the breaking of diplomatic relations over Katyn) and at least the Neal Ascherson book I read on the subject claimed that the forces who did fight the communists in the later 40s had an AK background. The point was more that the AK were periodically mentioned in communist-era propaganda, and their memory was periodically suppressed (especially in the 40s and early 50s). Which is why the amount of communist-era AK monuments interests me - they were building monuments to something that fundamentally opposed them.

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