'Cedet', the new building which replaced a modernist icon, the Central Department Store (in Polish: ‘CDT’ or ‘CeDeT’, abbreviations for ‘Centralny Dom Towarowy’) designed in 1948, is going to open in spring of 2018. Its history is rather unusual. First, it bothered the socialist realists, later it was rebuilt after a fire, then it became a victim of a developer. And now everyone admires it.
In the monthly magazine 'Architecture' Zbigniew Ihnatowicz and Jerzy Romański described their idea of a department store in the city centre:
The artistic concept consisted of shaping a strongly illuminated construction that is cut across with horizontal ceilings. It was aimed at emphasizing the commercial character of the building. In forming the ground floor the main idea was to give smooth and convenient walkways, so as to let the crowd of buyers pass alongside the displays or through the middle of the department store.
It was their design that beat 49 other concepts and won the first prize in the architectural competition resolved in spring of 1948. The event was unprecedented: only three years after the war, when the key issue for Warsaw was to rebuild the destroyed city, a decision was made to construct a modern commercial building in the very heart of the city. All this just a year before socialist realism was proclaimed in architecture (which happened in June of 1949).
Ihnatowicz and Romański designed a construction whose style resembled the pre-war functionalism and fulfilled all the Le Corbusier's Five Points of Architecture (free design of the ground plan and the façade, horizontal windows, a flat roof and reinforced concrete columns supporting the walls). The glass surface of the elevation, rounded corners, the undercut ground floor, the inclined parts of the roof, and later also the impressive neon on the façade: all these became identification marks of the CDT Department Store. Along with the glazed commercial building, an office block was constructed. It was placed in the back of the parcel, behind the department store, and its distinguishable features were a special window layout, a staircase hidden behind glass blocks and a top storey which was set back and surmounted with an inclined roof. The building was constructed with a reinforced concrete structure, thanks to which the elevations and partition walls were not load-bearing and thus the architects gained a wide variety of possibilities when it came to shaping them. A great asset of the construction was also a deeply undercut ground floor supported by columns, which formed a roofed entrance to the building but also a walkway and a meeting place.
The whole CDT Department Store complex referred to the best, and rather young, modernist traditions in a big-city version. It was compared to the German and Dutch department stores which were being built in big cities from the beginning of the 20th century. The modernity of the Central Department Store was enthralling. In 1958 the architect Jeremi Strachocki wrote in the monthly 'Architecture':
The CDT Department Store is pervaded with contemporaneity. It’s enough to look at the face of a cabman and his horse seen next to the CDT Department Store to realise how awkward they feel because of their clear anachronism, and how well a modern car suits the building. It's enough to see how painlessly the front elevation was crossed with the flowing serpentine-like neon advert.
What can prove the uniqueness of the building is the fact that Leopold Tyrmand placed the key scene of his novel The Man with the White Eyes precisely in the Central Department Store. The building often appeared in films and both its shape and interiors formed an impressive setting (for example, it can be seen in Aleksander Ford’s film The Eighth Day of the Week based on the story by Marek Hłasko: two characters are accidentally locked inside and they spend the night exploring the floors and departments of the store). The Central Department Store was also a famous place not only for shopping but also for spending free time. There was a fashionable café on the entresol and legendary fashion shows were taking place on the roof.
The Central Department Store, built in the years 1948–1952, was praised not only for its impressive modernist construction but also a series of functional solutions. The Hungarian escalators installed in the building were only the second ones in Warsaw; the first escalators, of Soviet origin, were operating next to the W-Z route. Ihnatowicz and Romański commented: 'The rule of providing 100% of the public with mechanical communication was adopted. The assumed attendance was 5,000 people per hour. (…) The four staircases were actually considered safety cages'. The architects gave a lot of attention to the delivery system. They did not want the delivery routes to intercross with the circulation areas of the clients and pedestrians (which was not easy to achieve on a small parcel at the junction of two busy streets).
With its modern yet balanced form, the Central Department Store fit into the central space of the city perfectly and was its integral part for decades. However, it was not always appreciated. When socialist realism was proclaimed in 1949 as the domineering style of Polish architecture, many modern buildings were severely criticized. 'There is no doubt that the CDT Department Store is an example of clear cosmopolitanism and pure formalism. We cannot blame the authors, since that was the original concept, but we can resent that they didn’t try to correct it later on' – said the architect Józef Joszuński during a debate of the Association of Polish Architects, which was organised on 22 November 1951 in order to analyse the case of the Central Department Store.
'In all this jazz clamor they should have included less drums and horns' – Jaszuński summarised. There was even a committee created; it was supposed to develop 'a new version' of the Central Department Store. A few years later Ihnatowicz and Romański recalled that what saved their design from being altered as to fit the conventions of the socialist realistic style was the fact that its realisation was exceptionally fast; soon the building was almost ready and its reconstruction became unrealistic. During the aforementioned debate of the Association of Polish Architects Ihnatowicz explained:
In the end of the 1950 we heard the first signals that the Supreme Council for the Reconstruction of Warsaw had some objections regarding the artistic effect of the building. In April 1951 a committee was created to change the elevation. There were some conclusions drawn, but, so as not to hold back the works, it was decided to finish the construction according to the initial plan, ask the public opinion to assess it and only then make potential changes.
Fortunately, it did not happen. In 1971 the Central Department Store was converted into the Central Children's Store – a department store with children’s goods. In the 80s the store was named 'Smyk' and up to now most of Warsaw inhabitants use this term to refer to the building by Ihnatowicz and Romański. On the 21 of September, 1975, a fire broke out on the 6th floor. In several hours it took over the whole building and destroyed a large part of it. The reconstruction and renovation lasted up until 1977 and were carried out without due respect to the original project. Many details were not recreated, some simplifications were introduced. That is why many years later the conservator decided to include only the supporting structure made of reinforced concrete which survived the fire in the register of monuments. For the same reason the private investor who bought the modernist building in 2015 was able to demolish it almost entirely. Only the structure of the façade was saved and integrated into the new construction whose creation is called 'revitalisation' in the developer’s documentation.
Under the name of 'revitalisation', 'Smyk' was replaced with an office building which repeats its form. Moreover, the place in the back where the office block stood was taken over by a completely modern banal glass office building. The demolition of the CDT Department Store and its reconstruction, even in a form close to the original, is a dangerous precedent. We must not pretend that a construction built from scratch in the 21st century is the same building that the one which used to stand there for 60 years. The investor 'rebuilt' only a part of the Smyk Department Store (without the office block in the back), but it is a modern construction which resembles the predecessor only in its shape and a detail of the elevation. It has a different function, it was built with the use of new technologies and materials. Despite all this, it still impresses Warsaw's inhabitants. No wonder it does – its shape did not change, but it is new, clean, and the investor even reproduced the characteristic neon on the façade that had not existed since the 70s. But is it still the same Central Department Store?
Written by Anna Cymer, traslated by MW, January 2018