Every city has its own particular, even peculiar, brand of space.
Warsaw is no exception, and is particularly endowed with peculiarity, and a variety of species.
Take Plac Pilsudskiego for example with its eulogy to emptiness framed on all sides by low rise techtonics in a variety of styles. Space has never been so unanimous. The whole square (and it is a square) is in some ways a grand epitaph to the destruction that was levelled here. The square is its own building so to speak… 2 dimensions not three, more space than stone. It is an epitah with no name.
Another great example of the peculiarly spacious city of Warsaw is its underground system. When I first used the metro (though this will come as no surprise with those of you familiar with Glasgow’s ‘clockwork orange’) I was aghast at the volume of space within these cavernous subterrene halls. Ok, so it’s only one line, but look at that space. It’s all the more amplified, especially as you get further out from Centrum, by Warsaw’s uncongested feel. You’d never get this in any other European capital.
Another unmissable Varsovian landmark, and perhaps Warsaw's piece de resistance, it took me a while to realise the beauty of the Palace of Culture was not the building per se but the space (the 77 hectares) that surrounded it. Like a volcano abruptly rising out of an ocean, the Palace of Culture erupts space like no other.
The Centrum district of Warsaw, of which the above picture represents one half, is divided into two by the punishingly long decumanus maximus of Aleje Jerozolimskie. Bisected into north centre (Srodmiescie Polnoc, above picture) where Centrum proper is located, and south centre (Srodmiescie Poludnie), where the vast basin square of Plac Konstitucji lies, the centre of Warsaw is an eye-opening event for anyone with even the most partial of sight.
Within these two halves Centrum in fact embodies most vigorously an ethos of architecture and town planning that defines the whole city. This ethos of course is the absolute incongruity of juxtapositional elements. While Srodmiescie Poludnie points to the past with its various Secessionist and Socrealist stone relics and varying degrees of spaces, its northern counterpoint, with the dominating Palace of Culture and Science and the awkward Modernist shapes of cuboids, bubbles and pillars, points emphatically to the future.
Where Srodmiescie Poludnie (with perhaps the exception of the oversized Plac Konstitucji) retains the human element in its survivor tenements and manageable streets, Srodmiescie Polnoc (annihilated during WWII) goes exorbitant, and waylays the human in the most terrifying fashion.
Srodmiescie Polnoc (between Marszalkowska and Nowy Swiat) following WWII. In the centre of the picture you can make out the tall skeletal frame of the Prudential building which was painstakingly restored to its former glory.
The problem with Srodmiescie Polnoc, specifically the area between Marszalkowska and Nowy Swiat and Jerozolimskie and Swietokrzyska, is that it is, with its ignominious high rise tower blocks overseeing everything, as much residential as it is anything else. As such, there exists a neglected suburban scheme-feel about the area. In some of the passages behind the cuboid Galeria Centrum on Marszalkowska there is a complete absence of any spatial fluency, (imagine a labyrinth with fifty metre high walls). This might have been all well and good for the sixties when most of these things were thrown up, but now they are out of place and out of time.
What there is in terms of space in this area might be termed as ‘the bleeding effect’ where space drips from one area to the next, where it coagulates and clots due to the contiguity of structures, causing bottlenecks of people and cars, and where perma-dark passages only ever see the light of day during the sun’s more zenithal summery moments. What few fin de siecle buildings exist have their aesthetics levelled in one fell swoop by their propinquity to devastatingly horrid modernist bloks.
This discontinuity and fragmentation of architectural style and of space, of light and gravity and of urban geography, invests Warsaw’s centre with a certain peculiar quality that confers a subliminal sense of panic on the quotidian citizen. In terms of architecture and town planning, Centrum is, in other words, cosmetic surgery gone wrong. It is a precinct of horror, a tragedy on the city stage for all to see. It is perhaps for this reason that the whole area is a shopping centre, advertising openly welcomed. Indeed, the panic invested in the pedestrian means that he or she will at some point wish to conceal themselves from it, most probably in one of the many retail outlets here.
The Marszalkowska Monoliths - Virtual Tombstones for the Annihilated Area.
Maybe by turning the centre into a shopping mall and by accessorizing the faded facades of sixties modernism with multi-coloured ads, Centrum will take on a newer feel, more ‘twenty-first century’, more approachable than ever before, offering people the opportunity to come inside, explore this new world, and avoid such spatial angst.
'Sciana Wschodnia' (the Eastern Wall) at the beginning of the 1970s. In the 1960s, a complex of residential and office buildings went up on the eastern side of Marszalkowska Street between Jerozolimskie and Swietokrzyska. The 'Pasaz Srodmiejskie' with their Central Department stores and the Relax Cinema became one of the most popular places in Warsaw. The above picture reveals a certain idyllic quality with few cars and even a parasol-ed mezzanine in CDT (then one of Poland's largest department stores) on the left. Today, however, the city has not evolved, yet traffic is tenfold, detroying any sense of 'city life' that might once have been. Now, on the contrary, this area is a seething, writhing mess of pollution and chaos.
Looking at the newly built Centrum area in 1965. Again, notice the lack of traffic.
2009, almost half a century later. The same facade, except this time every surface screams.
The above are only a few of Warsaw's many species. Many others exist: the miniaturised Nowy Swiat, Plac Trzech Krzyzy, Stare Miasto (the old town), the great suburban dormitory of Ursynow. To document them is a thesis in itself. Better to wander perhaps, see them first, feel them in all their pervasive (in some cases 'perverse') sense of space.