Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Signs of Life

There is below this now-customary round-up an actual blog post, unregurgitated, for the first time in a long time. It's on the hot topic of Simon Jenkins' favourite piece of Polish urbanism and why it is a great deal more complex and interesting than that might imply (or than he probably knows). I'm aware there's not much point in writing about anything now other than how they're all in it together, but here's a few things for light relief. A BD building study on the Unison building in Euston Rd is now up on the Urban Trawl blog; there's a review of Iain Sinclair's Ghost Milk for the Independent; I can be found procrastinating about Renzo Piano's Shard in Artforum; and the Red Pepper piece on why big modernist council estates are in fact a good thing is now online. There's also a nice review of Uncommon in the Morning Star, perhaps fittingly the only review as yet in print. Finally there are lots of new things on Flickr, largely as a means of stopping my hard drive from dying horribly.

Some interesting other things worth drawing your attention to: Meet the Leeds Libraries, a set of public facilities left in disrepair in that Capital of the North; Sunlit Uplands, a set of haunting photographs of Midlands suburbia; a machine that makes the motor vehicle look sensible; a co-operative village skyscraper in China; and an excellent website previously unknown to me on the gentrification of Southwark. And Jones the Planner makes it to insurgent Southampton, site of course of one of the greatest town planning fuck-ups of the last thirty years. And there's stiff competition.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reconstruction Time Again

I have spent a third to a half of the last year living in Warsaw at Dom Pyzik, and somehow have ended up not really writing about it (well, with let's say a few exceptions). Partly this is because I'm working on Something that will have lots and lots about it, partly it is because of having too many other things to do, but for whatever reason this is something that should be addressed. So this post will go to at least try and make up for this rather amiss situation. There's much, much there to write about, although almost all of it that I have planned will be saved for the Something mentioned above, here's a taster; and something to make clear that this blog hasn't completely become a glorified CV.

The thing about Warsaw that everyone knows (other than Joy Division or Bowie references) is that 85% of it was destroyed in 1944, and that it was then reconstructed to the letter after 1945. Strangely, this coexists with another idea of Warsaw as a centre of wide streets, towers and general Warsaw Pact monolithism. Accordingly, for a certain type of architectural critic or historian, Warsaw is irresistible. It is, for traditionalists, the road not travelled - a city where, instead of modernism, we got a dignified reconstruction of the old world. In fact, neither of the statements is exactly true. Recent research makes clear that the 85% figure includes much that was more damaged than irretrievably destroyed, and it's also clear that the reconstructed city took frequently huge liberties with the historical fabric - how could they not? And after some acquaintance with it - ie, through coming here to eat at Pod Samsonem - it's also clear that the modernist objection to the place - as a Disneyfied simulacrum of interest only to tourists - isn't quite right either.

The Old Town is 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. Here, you can see every one of the four orders of simulation described by Jean Baudrillard in 1981, occurring in Stalinist Poland between 1946 and 1976. It is the sheer inauthenticity, and the only Soviet trimmings that are visible only slightly below the surface, which stop it from being merely cute. Although cute it undoubtedly is. Well, mostly.

The best way to reach the Old Town, or rather the Stare Miasto and Nove Miasto (both are quite impercetibly linked) 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, it was a project far from the usual notion of historically scrupulous reconstruction, using as much as possible of the original fabric and street plan. Instead, in order to make the whole apparation of the destroyed city's re-emergence into something functionally viable, a road was cut under and across it. The city's 1950s Stalinist Victory monument was moved here (rather than being demolished) at some point in the 1990s, to the point where she now seems to guard the reconstruction.

Then you get to a glowing, tile-lined underpass, as modern as can be inside but clad in heavy, psuedohistorical masonry, an example of what Vladimir Paperny describes as the heavy, earthbound nature of Stalinist 'Culture Two', where speed itself must of necessity be weighed down. There is, however, a pedestrian route to enter the Old Town from ground level as well, and it is equally unexpected:

It is an underpass with a connecting escalator, and it's a piece of the Moscow Metro in Warsaw. Literally so - the project was designed and built by employees of Moskva Metrostroi. 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 of the sets of statues are under glass panels, very probably to stop them from being vandalised - this protection is also very unexpected in a country which prides itself on anticommunism. So you emerge, in theory, from 1950s Moscow into 17th century Warsaw:

This is the vestibule for the 'Metro'. There was, in fact, a Moscow Metro-style Metro being planned and in some cases even dug around the same time. It was cancelled when the relatively reformist Gomulka regime took power as an expensive vanity project. Gomulka wasn't particularly keen on historical reconstructions either, and said that the Royal Castle would be rebuilt over his dead body. It was, a couple of years after he died - it's the building with the lovely (pre-patinated?) Slavic copper spire in the photograph above. It was built in 1976, although unlike many of the other reconstructed buildings, it doesn't declare the year of (re)construction on it, as if confidence in the illusion had lessened somewhat. From there, you come to the tourist bit:

When the reconstructed Warsaw is praised, it's usually this which is meant - a giant great cobbled square, surrounded by a jagged skyline of sweetly marzipanlike Mitteleuropean buildings, with a market inside. When it is written about, especially by a certain veteran British political commentator/architectural writer, it is usually presented as the Polish capital's agora, its real city centre. Yet it has no tube station, no real facilities other than often very expensive restaurants and stalls with nick-nacks, and hence is surely the Disney city centre that it is often accused of being. The centre of Warsaw, at least in my experience, is defined by the modernist geometry of the Eastern Wall, Stalin's 'gift' of the Palace of Culture and the futurist Central Station - all nearly a mile away. This place is an adjunct, an oddity, divorced from the city's everyday life. Or at least this is what it seems to be, but complexities multiply when you get away from the square.

The Old Town is only one part of reconstructed Warsaw. There are a great many reconstructed 18th century classical buildings, and they are usually a lot less interesting, because this is high architecture, with blueprints, named architects, details that must be reproduced in order for the buildings to really exist as reconstructions. These belong to Baudrillard's first order of simulacra - just the remaking of something that already exists, as faithfully as the technology allows. These are usually just outside the Old Town, leading towards Nowy Swiat and to the city's real 1950s centre. So they're also often interspersed with the modernism of the Gomulka era. But there's another modernism of a sort etched onto the buildings themselves:

What makes the bulk of the old town buildings so interesting is that there isn't really an original, or at least not in the sense of something unchangeable - these were buildings that had been constantly added to and remade over the centuries, so the 1950s could so much the same. These are the second order of Stare Miasto Simulacra. The buildings are vividly coloured to the point where they don't look remotely old, and the sgraffito work, applied in the 1950s, is reminiscent of the animation of the era, the cut-out and montage films by the likes of Jan Lenica. Their cute, angular forms are hardly comparable with the heroic workers of socialist realism, but nor are they abstract. The one below is on the Old Town's only modernist building (ie flat-roofed and without historicist dressing), and it's notable that you barely notice the difference:

These drawings, etchings, paintings and mosaics are deliberately childlike things, cute pieces of 1950s design which have somehow ended up part of a project to evoke the 15th century. To think that they are separate from the ideology is a mistake, however. Look at the two images at the top of this post - one of them of the medieval city undergoing reconstruction, and the other of the Stakhanovite bricklayers who were doing all that work, and at record speeds - and note also that they're in the same cartoonish style as the Little Mermaids above (note also that the second of the two has not been restored - it's best we forget about the 20th century workers who built it). Sometimes they are figurative, neo-renaissance statuary, based on something historically significant that was there before:

and elsewhere, they're straightforward abstraction, of various kinds, either slightly disturbing dismembered bodies, with later and unsubtle additions.

Some of the sgraffito work is also sortof figurative, Disney stuff on some level, the sort of thing that might have been done in medieval Warsaw should they have wanted to do so even if they didn't:

and then there's a move into lush, shimmering, chromatic abstraction.

Step into any of these blocks and you find that they are actually part of another order of simulacra altogether. The majority of these pretty pseudohistorical facades are the masks for public housing, and that's coincidentally the reason why the place lacks the feeling of being a City Centre - because what it really is, is a council estate with sgraffito and restaurants. At times, this is really very vivid - as with the long deck-access block that marks the Old Town's southern corner. Take away the detail, and this is straight-up modernist municipal housing.

That this is a tourist destination, however, can be easily ascertained - the difference is that everyone is home in bed by a sensible time.

But if there's any doubt, just read the other etchings on the walls.

The fourth 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. It's a historical area, but it was completely replanned on a new pattern by the Communist authorities, and became their first showpiece housing estate.

The approach is exactly the same; the painting, 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) 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 volkisch (rather than mock-Hellenic) end - Paul Schultze-Naumburg wouldn't have felt completely out of place here. What makes it most unlike the Nazi aesthetic is that strange, out-of-place 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 ETA Hoffmann, a child-like fairy tale uncanniness which 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 Lilluputian and pretty. The impulse seems to be comparable to that of post-war modernism, that was remaking the rest of the city by the time the reconstruction was finished - the urge to shake off all of that horrible weight and instead create something light, joyous and dreamlike.

The satellite dishes that line the houses, though, imply that those within the Old Town simulacra have other fantasies and simulations to think about.