It was said that architect Józef Sigalin was in love with Warsaw, and it shows in his life’s work: he dedicated his life to the Polish capital and helped to rebuild the city as we now know it.
He was born on 6th October 1909 in Warsaw, the youngest of his siblings. Sigalin’s family was originally from the Caucasus and likely moved to Warsaw in around 1860. His grandmother Klaudia was an architect and owner of a renowned kefir factory (she used special mushrooms from the Caucasus for the fermentation process). Klaudia Sigalin’s kefir was served in places like Ogród Saski and Ciechocinek. The architect’s father was a dentist, but after a while he closed his practice to work in the family company. Sigalin’s family were assimilated Jews and members of the secular intelligentsia; they weren’t part of the financial elite but were able to afford higher education for all of their children.
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Józef’s older brothers Roman and Grzegorz were architects, and their work inspired the future chief architect of Warsaw. In the 20s and 30s they designed many of Warsaw’s town houses and took part in competitions for public buildings. In 1931 Grzegorz Sigalin together with Henryk Blum and Berthold Lubetkin participated in a competition for the design of the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow (in which Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier also took part) and earned an honourable mention.
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In 2018, Czarne Publishing House issued a biography of Józef Sigalin. Its author Andrzej Skalimowski revealed that Sigalin’s formative moment was the interwar era, which shaped his social sensitivity. Sigalin lived in a difficult time. He witnessed the First World War, the Polish–Soviet War and the tragic economic situation after Poland became an independent country. He was enamoured with Żeromski’s novels and as he observed growing poverty and inequality he decided to join Young Communist League of Poland, and later the Communist Party of Poland. Many of his friends were communists too, as this ideology was quite popular among politically active young people. From 1930 until 1932 Sigalin was a member of the armed forces. Skalimowski clarified that ‘for assimilated Jews it was quite important; it was arguably a confirmation of Polish citizenship’.
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In 1932 Sigalin started at the National College of Construction, and he also helped his brothers with simple tasks at their architectural studio. In 1935 he began his studies at the Department of Architecture at Warsaw University of Technology until they were halted by the outbreak of war. Only in 1946 did he graduate and become a licensed architect.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, Sigalin’s family escaped to the East. First, Józef worked in Kremenets, and after that in Leninabad in Tajikistan. He also lived for some time with his wife in Kharkiv. In 1942 he joined the Red Army’s forces in the field, and a year after that he joined the Polish Tadeusz Kościuszko 1st Infantry Division, the first division formed of Berling’s Army. Years spent in the Soviet Union as well as in the infantry division solidified his position in communist political circles, and he was also able to show his exceptional organisational abilities. On 3rd January 1945, the State National Council passed a resolution that called for the reconstruction of Warsaw, and two weeks later an operational group was formed. Sigalin worked there with Lech Niemojewski, Bohdan Lachert, and Eleonora Sekrecka.
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In the Nad Wisłą Wstaje Warszawski Dzień collection of essays, Sigalin described his first impressions of Warsaw after the war:
The city was a cemetery (…) There was no one. Only on the outskirts of Służewiec, Okęcie and Bielany did people – ghosts – appear. There were no tears of joy. These people had lost the ability to cry.
In the face of the tragedy, after which the city had to be completely rebuilt, new institutions were quickly founded. On 14th February 1945, Biuro Odbudowy Stolicy (BOS, the Office for the Reconstruction of the Capital) was established, led by Roman Piotrowski and his deputy Józef Sigalin. Sigalin’s biographer Andrzej Skalimowski described the atypical situation in which the architect worked:
The situation of Warsaw in 1945 was revolutionary. The city was completely demolished; the new communist authorities and nationalisation of land made changes that were unthinkable a few years earlier possible. The period of reconstruction was also an excuse for the new politics of memory; on the other hand, for modernist architects it was a pretext to rework the flaws of old buildings.
It was an important distinction: BOS members that were architects and urban planners from the Interwar era truly believed that the reconstruction of Warsaw was a chance to build a modern city. Hundreds of architects (BOS employed 1,500 people) planned new streets and houses. Under the tutelage of Sigalin, a design for Poniatowski Bridge was created. Sigalin also decided to tear down many buildings, even ones that survived the war, just to make space for a better urban environment.
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On 10th November 1947, Sigalin started working on the W-Z route project. It was one of the most important of BOS’s projects during the first years of the reconstruction. Józef Sigalin, Zygmunt Stępiński, Jan Knothe, and Stanisław Jankowski created a modern project that also satisfied those who advocated for the rebuilding of monuments. The opening of the W-Z route coincided with beginning of socialist realism in Polish architecture. As Bolesław Bierut, a Polish communist leader, said:
Ideology in architecture is a perfect form of embodiment. What can portray our goals better than new cities.
The team that built the W-Z route was rewarded for its success with a commission to plan an architectural complex in the city centre. The project was built with the ideals of socialist realism in mind. Not only did it consist of residential areas for workers, but the project also had alleys and monumental public squares. The Marszałkowska residential area was never fully completed, but the project still became a sign of a new era. Sigalin wrote:
We are not rebuilding the city, we are creating something completely new. We are changing the Warsaw landscape. It’s time for Warsaw to have a scale suitable for a big modern city, the capital of socialist Poland.
In 1951 Józef Sigalin took over the role of chief architect of Warsaw. After Sigalin took office, Warsaw’s Old Town and New Town were both rebuilt, and he was responsible for the general concept (each building was designed by a different conservator-restorer). Sigalin perfectly understood the importance of having historical sites in the capital, even if it was contrary to his own beliefs. He was trying to rebuild Warsaw into a modern city, with thoroughfares and socialist-realist residential areas, but he knew that due to sentimental, emotional, and symbolic reasons the Old Town had to be rebuilt.
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In 1951 Vyacheslav Molotov asked Sigalin (then chief architect of Warsaw) if he would like to have a Stalinist skyscraper just like those in Moscow. Sigalin had to show enthusiasm towards the project and the Socialist Classical style of architecture. Afterwards, the Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki; abbreviated PKiN) became his responsibility. Sigalin is most remembered for his association with this building.
Around 1954, when the ideals of socialist realism started to deteriorate (it became apparent that it was too expensive and time consuming), the chief architect of Warsaw was heavily criticised by other architects. He was accused of favouritism, excessive bureaucracy, and poorly organising state projects, as well as costly and excessive aestheticism. In 1956, at the annual Polish Architects Meeting, Romuald Gutt stated:
During the last five years, the various sewage which streamed down changed the building landscape into a swamp.
In July 1956 Sigalin resigned from the position of chief architect of Warsaw. He was thinking of giving up architecture, but in the end decided to focus on a topic which fascinated him: the River Wisła. Sigalin was an advocate for opening the city towards the river. He worked on communication between its two banks. In 1959 Starzyńskiego Route and Gdański Bridge were opened. Later on, Sigalin worked on Łazienkowski Bridge and Świętokrzyski Bridge. The former was finished in the 70s and the latter opened in 2000.
The architect’s monographer stated that even if Sigalin failed to integrate the Wisła with the city, with its boulevards he created another recreational function for the riverbanks. Nowadays we can clearly see that the architect was right, as attested to by the new boulevards.
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In 2018 Czarne Publishing House published a biography of Józef Sigalin. The author of the book, Andrzej Skalimowski, wrote about the architect’s projects as well as about his youth, influences, and social sensibility. Skalimowski is a researcher of 20th-century architecture and its relation with politics; he understands the complexities of those times and doesn’t judge easily. When describing Józef Sigalin’s life he depicted an idealist who worked in a complex time. We can also learn about Sigalin from his own writings. The architect kept a journal for almost his entire life and saved documents concerning his projects. In the end, he even managed to categorise most of his notes, which were published in three volumes in the 80s. The book was called Warszawa 1944-1980: Z Archiwum Architekta (Warsaw 1944-1980: From an Architect’s Archive, trans. OT).
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Regardless of the way one perceives Sigalin’s political choices, he clearly had a powerful impact on the contemporary Warsaw. Thanks to his notes we can learn about the capital’s history and its reconstruction after the war. We also get to know Sigalin’s commitment to Warsaw.
Author: Anna Cymer
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