The Palace of Culture & Science, Warsaw: Communist aspiration and hubris
On this, my second visit to Warsaw, I have slowly begun to grasp its layout, its geography and, in consequence, some (as yet, limited) sence of its formation and its history. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Warsaw, it is the Capital city of Poland, and straddles the Wisła (Vistula) River, its large city centre forming several districts along the western bank of this Baltic tributory.
Having been virtually destroyed during the mid 20th century, first by the invasion of the Nazi’s, then by the raising of the Warsaw Ghetto and finally during the climactic Warsaw Uprising as the Soviets sat at the Gates of the City in the district known as Praga, Warsaw has subsequently been rebuilt in what must have been a colossal force of collective will, between 1945 & 1960.
The result is a disjointed mix of reconstituted Quaintness, Socialist gigantisism, utilitarian ugliness and an embracing attitude towards modern development. The rebuilt old town hints at the prettiness of its former years but lacks the ostentatious beauty afforded an undamaged city centre, such as Prague or Budapest and seems to struggle beneath the weight of remembrance which helped forge its rebirth. From the Old Town, Warsaw City Centre stretches south along three main arteries, Nowy Swiat, Marszałkowska and Jana Pawla II. The western most of these, Jana Pawla II forms the main commercial district with its high rises and its executive standard hotels.
The three main central arteries intersect at Al. Je Roszolimskie, were the main shopping district and train station are situated and thereafter appears rised the Governmental, administrative and Diplomatic heart of the city.
The modern part of Warsaw, is not pretty, although I have seen and lived in far uglier places, but it is interesting for a number of reasons. For here, the Communist architecture of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, with its high culture pretensions, and commitment to modernity, mixes freely with commercial expansion brought about by Capitalism and the conversion of Poland to a free market economy. Huge operatic Theatres sit oposite motern banks and commercial offices, former private gardens, become public parks, and periodically, brutalist brass plaques traverse pavements and roads anouncing that you are crossing into or out of what was once Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto.
But one building above all others captivates me in this part of the city, not least because its intent is so clear, unambiguous and confident, while its continued dominance over the Skyline of Warsaw, is so obviously, now, compromised.
I speak of the monstrous, dramatic and yet strangely soulless edifice known as the Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki).
In the context of this city of approx.1.7m souls, everything about this building is colossal. Only public parks, railway lines, roads and the land occupied by the new Football Stadium and its associated car parking, occupy a greater amount of real estate within the city.
Built over three years from 1952, it was a gift to the Poles from The Soviet Union and typifies much of Soviet inspired architecture of the time. But what renders it remarkable is how it, from the start, evokes both the confidence and aspiration of Communism at its most expansive high water mark, while simultaneously laying bare the abject soullessness at its ideological core.
For on the one hand, this building aspires to greatness on cultural and aesthetic grounds, both a focal point for the reconstruction of Warsaw and Poland under the Utopian ideal of Communism, and a living breathing day-to-day centre for learning, performance, discovery. The triumphant ascending structure allows man to soar over the city, its shape, evoking a rocket, is a permanent reminder of the march of progress and invention.
But, as with all Communist Art, it is also a supreme testament to the failure of that ideology to live up to its aims to replace what went before. It’s shape and grandeur evoke New York capitalism as much as Egalitarian commitment to the arts. Its intricate and fussy details are poor, secular imitations of the cathedral. The elevation and annoncement of time in the form of the giant clock, (meant as a symbol of the relentless energy Communism required to burn in order to sustain its relentless progressivism), today serves to herald a quickening in the step of the commuting workforce of capitalism as they glance up and see that they are going to have to rush to make it to work on time.
In everything, it aspires to, The Palace of Culture and Science is subverted. In seeking to display the decadence of capitalism’s skyscrapers by monumentalising high culture, the building succeeds only in aping them, while in seeking to be a physical embodiment of Communist fraternity, it succeeded utterly in reminding Poles, of the utter dominance of The Soviet Union over their lives. I has never, I am informed, been popular, and despite sitting at the very heart of the modern city, much of the area behind and around it remains under developed and economically inactive.
Its many nicknames, outlined in the above link, are a reminder that the pompous and the hubristic will always be subverted by humanity in the end. The Poles’ devotion to Catholic Christianity was shown to be far more lasting than any secular replacement. The aspirant message of sending an occupyable spire to the heavens has had less lasting appeal than the unoccupied spires of the cathedrals and churches dotted around the city, whose message is one of mankind’s ultimate subservience to God.
And, of course, there is the forlorn spectacle of a former titan, having outlasted its ideological creator, slowly being eclipsed by the resurgent secular pinnacles of Capitalism.
Poland, with its youthful population, EU membership, resurgent economy and, sobre, restrained, but real optimism, today finds itself under the yoke of another intrusive internationalism in the form of a Globalised economy. Like Britain, Poland remains bound economically and politically to Europe but out of the Eurozone. Like Britain, Poland is incapable, however of ignoring the travails of this currency union, so bound is its economic future and present to its neighbours. But our experiences are different. While in Britain we have experienced the Poles primarily in the form of an influx of educated and earnes, but itinerant plumbers and grocers making their way to our shores and shaming our lethargic working practices, in Warsaw, the effect of the Global Economy has seen, in the last 15 years, a raft of European economic powerhouses set up satelite offices and a rapid increase in the rate of commercial development and economic turnover.
Gifted a well-educated workforce and freedom of economic and physical movement across the EU, Poland has been seen as an oportunity among financial and property investors, manufacturers and retailers for some time.
Warsaw by night: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Warsawskylineatnight.JPG)
The result is an increasingly high-rise and important skyline. To look at the Palace today, is to see a leaden footed old warhorse rapidly in the process of being eclipsed by lighter, fleeter footed monuments to luxury, commerce and wealth. Towerblocks of glass, chrome and modern, lightweight, panels are lit up and open in the early darkness of a January afternoon. It is modernity, just as The palace once was, but it appears as an open, light touch, democratic sort of modernity. The highbrow asperation of the palace seems intimidating, the shirtsleaves and latte marble of the modern equivalent seems inviting, unthreatening and determindly accessible.
While the reality, may be that the Palace affords, Warsaw a lasting legacy capable of enriching the lives of its inhabitants through its various museums, theatres workshops and exhibitions, from outside, this monolithic testament to progress, seems increasingly to be a victim of progress itself.
And yet, in 1952, the architects could not possibly have known this. Utilitarian art was the vogue and utilitarian architecture predominant across Europe, from Clydebank to Stalingrad. To the believer, this creation, at once grandiose and intricate, must have heralded a new dawn: a building designed to eclipse the greatest monuments to God or money and to elevate mans capacity to enrich and learn and conquer.
And they could not have seen for another reason too. For while today the monuments to the dominance of commercial ascendency are a common sight across the cities of the world, in 1952 they were not.
What was common was monumental, aspirant and soaring tributes to deity and faith. While buildings of governance, sovereignty, trade and power could be large and intimidating, they were invariably arranged on a human scale. A trip to the bank manager could incur dread, unheard of today, but from the modestly tasteful office of a modest high street corner building.
Where Man really chose epic forms of construction, it was to remind him of his insignificant humanity. The Cathedral in Durham, Norwich, Holborn or York, was a thing of inspiration and trepidation in equal measure, while the self concious mimicry of the gothic, was at the heart of the design of Westminsters Parliament. The intent was the oposite of inclusivity. It told you that you had arived at the centre of power, and that you could not travel further.
Daily, the burgers of these cities were reminded as they passed their cathedrals to tread in the footsteps of God, but to remember, that his timescales, his powers, his vantage point was far beyond our’s to imagine.
In 1952 that seemed for a short time, subverted. Man could elevate himself through cultural endeavour to the stars. And in today’s monuments, too, we see humanities living Gods, in corporeal ascendency, their offices lit and visible from the street far below a physical reminder of both the democratic accessibility of and illusory impossibility of ascending to the status of living deity.
At a time when we decry governments for their soft touch regulation of the banks and credit agencies which employ what Tom Wolfe called ‘The Masters of the Universe,’ perhaps we should consider that in denying mans own limitations and elevating him physically, to be able to look down upon the world (and its cathedrals), we are for the second time in our history, removing from our lives the regulatory influence Awe and Wonder at the power of higher beings. The exclusivity of the palace or the cathedral were what made men return to their commercial establishments more cautious, honest and, just perhaps, more true.
The Palace of Culture & Science in Warsaw, pays living testimony to what happened the first time, man sought to replace God. And it is a saluatory place.