MDM. Marszałkowska 1730-1954
This is one of the most monumental photobooks ever published in Poland.
A substantial linen-bound volume of exceptional quality for its time, it contains nearly four hundred pages of propagandistic oration about the construction of the new centre of Warsaw designed for the proletariat (the book is opened by Adam Ważyk's famous poem Lud wejdzie do śródmieścia / The People will Enter the City Centre). This story, concentrating on a specific fragment of the city, reaches back to the iconography of the 18th century (which was accounted for in the book's title: Marszałkowska 1730-1954), but also nods towards the future by announcing great urban projects, above all the Palace of Culture and Science (opened for public use in 1955). The intention behind this glance back in history is obviously not to glorify the past, but to rewrite and create a version of history that is compatible with the new communist authorities.
In the album, the story of the construction is organized chronologically, while the story is told through photographs – mostly full-page – accompanied by short descriptions. It contains a lot of mini-stories that could act as separate photoreportages. Altogether, it comes across as an aptly composed film chronicle: one day after another is filled with work duties and the struggle to realise ambitious plans. The suggestive course of images is complemented by press clippings and architectural drawings, turning the whole into a multi-layered chronicle.
It starts with the history of central Warsaw's Marszałkowska Street, its compact pre-war architecture, and the later heavy war damage, which is followed by the primary part – photographs of the process of building the MDM complex and documentation of the completed buildings. Even though we are looking at specific technical stages of the project – beginning with the demolition and the levelling of the ground – we are in fact dealing with a metaphorical narrative. A new order is being built here, on the ruins of the old regime. Somewhat coincidentally, largely thanks to its great photographs, MDM is an immensely interesting documentation of life in destroyed Warsaw, coming back to life in the first years after the war.
The propagandistic character of the publication is based on rhetorical strategies typical of this genre. The confrontation of old and new follows the well-recognized dialectic pattern – photographs of ramshackle pre-war suburban houses are juxtaposed with the bright and modern apartment interiors of the MDM. Following the model of the pre-war publications of the architectural avant-garde, the tenement houses are substituted with working class estates, filled with light and greenery. The communist propaganda, on the other hand, introduces an innovation in the form of anecdotal and satirical motifs. We see resentful and reactionist types who are sceptical about the outcome of the work on the MDM, but soon end up as objects of ridicule. In other words, this is not just about the new residential complex, but also about the new reality and the new socialist human.
These model figures are personified by the Stakhanovite workers at construction sites and the future residents of the MDM, appearing in monumental portrait shots and identified by their full names, like for instance, carpenter Franciszek Materski. These people and their stories are intentionally presented in these photographs, in order to convince the reader that at the heart of this grand work stands the working class. However, MDM is in fact most of all a typical work meant to legitimise the authorities, and created for the authorities themselves by architects serving their vision. Stanisław Jankowski – the album's editor – was one of the leaders of the Marszałkowska Residential District design team. This luxurious and epic publication is material evidence of sorts, an engineers' report from a thorough and ideologically-motivated work.
The book is extremely precise in its use of photographs by many prominent authors, such as – among others – Zbyszko Siemaszko, Edmund Kupiecki, Władysław Sławny, Henryk Lisowski, Edward Hartwig, and Maria Chrząszczowa. The pictures, usually very appealing visually, are powerful in themselves, whereas the rhetorically catchy spreads, arranged into a narrative sequence, form a coherent whole – a quintessential socialist realist piece. This convention is also characterised by its evident imports from the pre-war aesthetic styles of constructivist avant-garde and pictorialism. Besides pictures of labourers at work and artists decorating the MDM edifices, one can also find a lot of expressive and modern shots of machines, the construction site, and the architecture itself. The photographs depict details of the buildings, as well as streets and Konstytucji Square at different times of day and from various perspectives, resulting in very dense and effective material documenting and narrating the entire architectural endeavour. The album can be considered a kind of artistic supplement to the architectural and urban project, and at the same time a photographic interpretation of the final effect.
Paradoxically, in spite of the heavy propaganda charge, it is one of the few such carefully thought out and evocative Polish architecture books. Bierut's equally monumental 6-letni plan odbudowy Warszawy (Six-Year Plan for the Reconstruction of Warsaw), often compared to MDM, is, at the end of the day, much less photographically interesting.