The Entire Nation Builds Its Capital: An Interview with Grzegorz Piątek
default, The Entire Nation Builds Its Capital:
An Interview with Grzegorz Piątek, Grzegorz Piątek, photo: PION fotografia / Grzegorz Piątek’s personal archive, center, grzegorz_piatek_portret.jpg
Scholar and architecture critic Grzegorz Piątek spoke to us about two different Warsaws: a return to the ruins left by World War II and the myths surrounding the reconstruction of the city, and whether the rebuilding of the capital was a success.
Anna Cymer: How did Warsaw look in January 1945?
Grzegorz Piątek: At the end of World War II, there were two Warsaws, stretched on two opposite banks of the Wisła river. The Soviet army chased out the Nazi Germans from the Praga district located at the right bank in the middle of September . Having not been destroyed as much as the other city on the other riverbank, the district had already been coming back to life for a few months by then. It was governed by Mayor Marian Spychalski, a communist activist and a great urban planner and architect before the war. So, in January 1945, Praga was already full of life. Descriptions and memories from that time depict streets full of vendors, cars and bustle. This all took place despite horrible conditions – the lack of electricity, water, fuel and food.
At the same time, left-bank Warsaw was a desert. Almost devoid of people following the Warsaw Uprising, it was ruined and looted. Even somebody who saw that part of the capital in autumn 1939 or even after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, – which led to the total destruction of the northern part of the city – would not have recognised the city in January 1945 and would not have been able to find familiar streets and squares. The happiness of the citizens of Warsaw returning home after liberation was suppressed by shock. Even the journals and memories of specialists who were the most involved in the rebuilding, such as Marian Spychalski, Józef Sigalin, Jan Zachwatowicz and Piotr Biegański, display some traces of doubt. The scale of destruction was overwhelming.
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AC: The plans to rebuild Warsaw weren’t first created in 1945. The ideas to restore the city after the tragedy of war had been born much earlier.
GP: Conceptual works on the new look for Warsaw began right after the first war damages of September 1939. Architects and urban planners realised that, contrary to expectations, these damages would be a chance to rebuild the city in a better way, without the mistakes of the past. You need to remember that there were many reservations about the pre-war capital – people complained that it was too crowded, that it had an inefficient public transportation system, too little greenery and public spaces, and also horrible housing conditions.
The city authorities managed to improve some of that during the [Nazi German] occupation. They lengthened Marszałkowska Street, making it pass through the Saxon Garden, and they started repairing and realigning the Nowy Świat tenement houses which were damaged in September 1939. Almost all the architects associated with Warsaw created plans for the architectural and urban planning of the city after the war. Such ideas were born both in circles connected with the Building Department of Warsaw’s local government and in the Architectural and Urban Planning Studio of the Public Housing Cooperative which gathered left-leaning modernists designing community neighbourhoods. Designers living abroad were also active, such as the ‘emigration school of architecture’ in Liverpool or Józef Sigalin, who first resided in the Soviet Union and then moved to the West with General Berling’s army, and who noted down his ideas for the post-war reality in the trenches of the eastern front. Roman Piotrowski and Anatolia Piotrowska and Helena Syrkus found themselves in Kraków right before the liberation and that’s where they worked on designs for the new Warsaw.
It has to be stressed that right after the war, rebuilding Warsaw and turning it back into the capital was not that obvious. The most radical ideas appeared at the beginning of 1945 when people discussed, among others, the construction of a new city somewhere near Góra Kalwaria and maintaining the ocean of ruins as a tangible memorial of the war. For some time, an idea to move the capital to Łódź, at least temporarily, was also discussed, as the city was not destroyed. There was also a proposal to allocate different public functions to other cities – Kraków was seen as a possible capital of cultural and academic life.
The decision to keep Warsaw as the capital and to rebuild it was not rational or economically sound. Above all, it had symbolic meaning. The fate of Warsaw was ultimately determined by two factors. The first one was Stalin’s keen observation that the communist authority over the lands liberated by the Red Army was considered to usurpation by some Poles. What was needed was a symbolic return to the pre-war cityscape, with the Royal Castle, Belweder and the headquarters of city officers. The second factor was more difficult to predict: it was both surprising and irrational. It was the mass return of citizens to the ruins of Warsaw. This wave couldn’t have been ignored – contrary to common sense, people of Warsaw left even relatively safe places and returned to the city that was turned into rubble in order to inhabit the ruins.
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AC: When the decision to rebuild Warsaw was made, institutions responsible for the fulfilment of this task were quickly created.
GP: Marian Spychalski, the Mayor of Warsaw, who at first resided in Praga, was a great advocate for rebuilding and pushed for work to begin as soon as possible. The Bureau for the Organisation of the Rebuilding of Warsaw (Biuro Organizacji Odbudowy Warszawy) he created, was opened right before the official decision of the national government to rebuild the city. Following Spychalski’s orders, the historic preservation officer Jan Zachwatowicz was found in Podkowa Leśna and put in charge of the bureau. After a couple of weeks, the Bureau for the Organisation of the Rebuilding of Warsaw was turned into a state-supported institution, the Bureau for the Rebuilding of the Capital (Biuro Odbudowy Stolicy, or BOS), headed by Roman Piotrowski, a modernist architect who started his career before the war.
I call BOS, employing over 1,500 people, a ‘super office’. Not only because it in practice automatically employed all the architects returning to Warsaw – there was simply that much work to be done. BOS assumed responsibilities, which, in a normal city during stable times, were usually divvied up between many different institutions. It made an inventory of the remains of Warsaw’s buildings – military engineers demining the city were followed by architects and technicians meticulously describing and cataloguing the ruins, as well as by brigades securing landmark buildings. In addition to that, there was a lot of design work going on – people were drawing up plans for the entire city as well as for individual districts and neighbourhoods. BOS issued building and demolition permits, took care of placing offices and institutions in the city by offering them headquarters and preparing budget estimates and work schedules for some years in advance.
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AC: Who was part of BOS? Who were the people managing this ‘superoffice’?
GP: Most of the management came from the pre-war left or from the circles which sided with communists during the [Nazi German] occupation. The head of BOS, Roman Piotrowski, an architect associated with the avant-garde group Praesens before 1939, was previously on the board of the Association for Workers’ Neigbhourhoods and contributed to the idea of socialised construction. His deputy was Józef Sigalin, a pre-war communist, who received an architecture degree only after the war. People said that he was ‘mad over Warsaw’, he spent the rest of his life working towards its reconstruction and expansion. Other members of BOS included Bohdan Lachert, an exceptional representative of pre-war avant-garde, and the landscape architect Witold Plapis.
These were all people of rather radical views but the influences for the activities of the bureau were much broader. The decisions were made by a wide-ranging group of experts who discussed every important project, such as the course of the W-Z (East-West) Route. In my view, despite the toughening political course and communists in the management, BOS was a very pluralistic and open body. The proof of that is the W-Z Route, the last great project of the Bureau, which is a smart compromise between the modernist dream of a modern city with wide streets suitable for cars, sparsely spaced buildings and greenery, and the wishes of the lovers of the city’s historical buildings who wanted to highlight the old cityscape.
What’s important is that BOS consisted above all of specialists and not servile apparatchiks. Obviously, they needed to take into account many political issues, but you can’t say that they designed whatever the authorities asked them to. Moreover, they implemented many ideas that were born much earlier, in a radically different reality. To substitute the uncomfortable tenement houses devoid of modern conveniences for blocks of flats, to increase the distances between buildings, to enlarge the green areas in the city: these are all things that social activists wanted in the 1920s. The most radical visions of the centre of Warsaw devoid of tenement houses and most landmark buildings were drawn in 1945 by Maciej Nowicki, a child of Sanation-era elites, who was undoubtedly not a communist and who later moved to the United States. It’s true that during the first years of rebuilding, the architects followed governmental decrees, but they incorporated ideas which had been in development for a long time, and were definitely not created on the basis of Soviet instructions. The time for that came later, in the Socialist realism period.
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AC: The Old Town is the symbol for the rebuilding of Warsaw but it’s only a small part of the capital. What were the criteria for choosing areas for rebuilding and modernising and what changes were implemented?
GP: It’s a paradox that we associate the activities of BOS with the rebuilding of the Old Town which was not carried out by BOS. In 1947, two years after its founding, the bureau no longer had authority over the preservation of landmark buildings – this was under the newly created Renovation Office of the City of Warsaw.
BOS’s main concern was the city’s urban planning reform – creating a clear visual communication system and fixing the street layouts as the streets were too narrow before the war and were somewhat confusing. There was a plan to build an urban railway. They increased distances between buildings and enlarged the green areas. The ideas for the latter were sometimes radical: there was a plan to almost completely demolish the buildings in the Powiśle district and to make the Wisła embankment visible, and was supposed to become a green area over which important institutions were designed to tower – such as the Dom Partii, the soon-to-be deconstructed Sejm, and the National Museum.
An important concept from right after the war was that of designing an unmistakable centre of Warsaw. Before the war, businesses and offices popped up independently around Świętokrzyska Street and today’s Powstańców Warszawy Square – this is where banks were located and where first skyscrapers were built. After the war, the authorities decided to create a real modern trade, office and financial district, which was supposed to be built somewhere in the area now occupied by the Palace of Culture and Science. Interestingly, even though the palace was not yet in the planning, BOS envisaged that area to be the highest point of the cityscape, except they opted for a cluster of skyscrapers, not a single highlight. The decision to clear up the ruins of tenement houses was made at that time, so the belief that they were liquidated only for the Palace of Culture and Science is wrong.
AC: People returning to Warsaw in large numbers in January 1945 and immediately started reconstruction work and tried to make the some of the demolished buildings liveable. How did this relate to BOS’s works? Did it generate conflicts? How common was the idea that ‘the entire nation is building its capital’?
GP: Above all, it has to be stressed that the mass return of people to Warsaw, literally days after the liberation of January 1945, was an unprecedented event. The practically non-existent city attracted crowds of people. These were former citizens who came back looking for their homes and relatives, but also looters – thousands of civilians living near Warsaw made numerous trips into the ruins in search of useful things in the rubble. People said that there was an ‘age of looting’ in Warsaw right after the liberation, because everybody was stealing back then. State institutions did it in an official capacity, as was within their rights. In order to start their operations, BOS took coal from basements and window-glass and furniture from local tenement houses during the first weeks of its operation.
You could say that in order to jumpstart the capital, such legalised looting had to be undertaken countrywide. The propaganda slogan that ‘the entire nation builds its capital’ describes not only the warm feelings towards Warsaw, but also an unfortunate necessity. Warsaw was the most destroyed city in the country – it claimed 30% of the volume of damages and more than half of their value! Since rebuilding Warsaw as the seat of the state authorities was a priority, some contributions, gifts for Warsaw were needed. From today’s perspective, it’s easy to criticise the fact that districts of many cities in the West of the country were not rebuilt after the war, because their bricks were used to rebuild the capital. But we must remember, that already in the winter of 1945, there were tens of thousands of people in Warsaw who had nowhere to live, while the former German cities were empty and were not attracting crowds of new inhabitants. Moreover, nobody had any emotional attachments to the architectural substance of those towns and their historical value wasn’t appreciated.
‘The entire nation was building its capital’ also in the sense that those returning to Warsaw spontaneously engaged in helping clear the rubble and tried to rebuild on their own. BOS wasn’t always happy with this situation, as some parts of the centre were supposed to have been radically reconstructed – they were treated as a blank canvas, but suddenly people appeared and began renovating houses that, in theory, weren’t supposed to exist anymore. BOS managed to remove a number of more or less destroyed tenement houses, especially after summer of 1945 when a series of construction accidents made it necessary to swiftly dispose of theoretically preserved but damaged buildings. However, life put a stop to these plans in some places. A good example are the tall tenement houses at the corner of Książęca Street and Nowy Świat, right near Trzech Krzyży Square. They were supposed to be demolished from the very beginning, because they obscured the view of Dom Partii from the southern part of the Trakt Królewski (Royal Route). They were temporarily preserved because such solid homes were useful in a destroyed city. As you can see, the preservation was successful – they’re still standing today and there’s probably no threat of them getting damaged.
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AC: Did everybody have a shared vision of the city within BOS or were there conflicting concepts?
GP: Most importantly, many concepts faced reality checks. Some of BOS’s plans turned out to be too ambitious, some impractical. The construction of the University District planned between Pole Mokotowskie and Ujazowski Castle was supposed to have been financed by the United States, but this quickly turned out to be impossible due to political relations during the Cold War. BOS wanted to locate all the military institutions along the Saxon Axis, including the Ministry of Defence, the General Staff, Garrison Command and even Theatre of the Polish Army. This turned out to be contrary to the elemental rules of state security which prohibited locating strategic targets too close to each other.
Most disagreements were related to the scope of the landmark area. The most radical modernists wanted to reconstruct landmark buildings only in the tiny enclave of the Old Town and a fragment of Trakt Królewski, while at the same time landmark enthusiasts planned to stretch the landmark area to other parts of downtown Warsaw in order to recreate or preserve the buildings presenting various styles ranging from different centuries. Nobody felt pity for the newer tenement houses. Even the defenders of old buildings commonly believed that the last artistically valuable period in architecture was Classicism and that the last buildings worth preserving were from the 1820s and 30s. This view influenced many decisions related to the reconstruction. The Old Town, the Royal Route and the Cathedral were reconstructed in their ‘updated’ versions, that is, devoid of elements added at the end of the 19th century. On Nowy Świat, the goal was not to accurately recreate the buildings that stood there right before the outbreak of the war but to create an ‘urban atmosphere’ from the classicist period. These were the ideals – not a faithful recreation but the construction of an atmosphere consisting of stylistically pure buildings that conformed both to the requirements of a 20th century capital and the idea of preserving landmarks.
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AC: Which achievements, ideas and projects of BOS stand their ground today? How should we judge them now?
GP: Despite many compromises and changing political configurations, we are still living in a city planned by BOS. The ideas about greenery, social neighbourhoods, the location of important institutions, the layout of communication routes, the role of the embankment and the Wisła – these are all things that stand their ground today, they still seem right. It is the BOS-designed clear street layout that makes it possible for the public transportation to work well in today’s Warsaw (although BOS might not have predicted such a large number of cars). And the housing conditions. Thanks to the fact that building density is currently three times lower than before the war, there are not many ‘dark apartments’ in Warsaw, with windows opening into a courtyard resembling a well. We simply have to appreciate the fact that so many apartments in Warsaw have a view of greenery or sky.
After all these years, it seems that the scope of the deconstruction of old buildings was determined correctly – the scale of the recreated historic cityscape makes it possible to see the past of Warsaw, but does not limit the growth of the capital.
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AC: Many European cities were destroyed after the war. What methods of rebuilding them from ruins were adopted? How does the rebuilding of Warsaw compare to them?
GP: What happened in Poland’s capital was unprecedented in Europe, both because of the scale of the damages and the accuracy with which the old buildings were recreated. Despite some creativity or manipulation in the rebuilding of old districts, the reverence with which, for example, architectural details were treated, was remarkable in Warsaw. Nowhere else did the conservators roam the ruins in order to find the tiny preserved fragments that were later included in the reconstructed buildings. Warsaw has a distinct Old Town with a preserved atmosphere of the past that was recreated using traditional building and decoration techniques.
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AC: BOS was disbanded in 1950, when it was decided that the general project of rebuilding was finished and it was time to create a new, workers’ city. But the rebuilding was still ongoing. When can we say that it finally came to an end? Or is it still going on?
GP: The continuity of BOS’s activity, despite its disbanding was maintained. The deputy head of BOS, Józef Sigalin, later became the Head Architect of Warsaw and his successors also had their roots in BOS. The pupil and right hand of Jan Zachwatowicz, Piotr Biegański, was the city’s head historic preservation officer until 1954. The ideas created by BOS after the war still had some staying power.
As for the end of this process, I can think of two events that could be seen as a closure for the rebuilding of Warsaw. The first one, is the completion of the reconstruction of the Royal Castle in 1984 – the last reconstruction of a landmark building that was undertaken by the generation that remembered pre-war Warsaw and raised it from the ruins. It was a symbolic and emotional event. If we were to look for an objective, scientific yardstick, the end of the rebuilding of Warsaw would be the year 1969, when the capital regained a population equal to that of August 1939. You could say that in the biological, most fundamental way, Warsaw was reborn.
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