Communism and Capitalism – lessons to be learned

Warsaw’s varied modern architecture is a testament to the turbulent history Poland’s capital has endured. It is a city shaped by the various “–isms” of the twentieth century.

During the Second World War it was almost completely destroyed during two uprisings, leaving a landscape of rubble for the post-war authorities to build on. On a European scale, almost no other large city was destroyed to the extent of Warsaw and this meant that newer architectural styles and concepts could be implemented. In contrast, the amount of war damage incurred by Dublin is almost non-existent, and therefore Ireland’s capital is relatively untouched and a ‘short’ city by comparison. While Dublin may have such notable yet rare set pieces as Liberty Hall, Warsaw is host to many modern towers. This is an important distinction as the scale of the buildings and how congested they are play a large part in how one experiences a city on a daily basis.

The key difference between the two cities is in urban design. Dublin is relatively congested and is styled as a ‘city of villages’. To an extent this is a fair depiction as housing estates are abundant, yet high density apartment blocks are a more recent development. This is in marked contrast to Warsaw where modernist planning put the car first, resulting in highways right through the city centre. Districts appear as isles of housing and blocks connected to each other and it is not a pedestrian-friendly environment. Dublin has tight networks of family housing, Warsaw is more of an archipelago of buildings. In part this is dictated by geography but the conscious planning decisions of the post-war period play the larger part. Ultimately, Warsaw serves as a case study of how varying ideas on architecture and urban planning shaped cities in the past sixty years.

In the immediate post-war period socialist realism prevailed. Socialist realism, a very grandiose style of architecture, focused on monumentality whilst at the same time maintaining classical features. This style is seen in abundance in Moscow where notable examples include the ‘Seven Sisters’ and the illustrious Metro stations. In many cases it is a twist on classical themes such as mosaics, obelisks and statues, featuring socialist ‘worker’ depictions. In Warsaw, Stalin’s largest post-war influence on the city skyline was the decision to erect the massive Palace of Science and Culture, a behemoth that dominates the city to this very day, with a vast amount of empty space around the building that would come to symbolize the communist planning mind-set. The building is reminiscent of American skyscrapers from the thirties whilst also drawing on classic Polish architecture. The MDM complex in the southern city-centre is another good example of this style, with large classicizing buildings and wide boulevards. Finally, the Ministry of Agriculture building is a prime example of the classicizing aspect of socialist realism, with a large colonnade. Socialist realism, with its classicizing references, stood in contrast to the growing popularity of the modern, abstract form in Western art and architecture – Corbusier was developing his ‘Unité d’habitation’ in Marseille at the time and in Dublin the Busáras is an infamous symbol of that modern style.

After Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s thaw Socialist Realism fell out of favour and new modernist designs were preferred. Modernism, bereft of classical facade decoration, already had a significant foothold in Warsaw before the war but the scale of the buildings was much smaller, often two or three storeys tall. This is the time when the iconic ‘commieblock’ really came to the fore. The blocks often have ample space between each other and at times face away from the street. There can be a pavillion with a shop in it but the blocks themselves have no storefront – this represented a radical shift from traditional city building and in modern times this lack of participation with the street itself means a shopping mall culture is easily established, just as it is in an American suburbia.

The Western world at the time, Britain in particular, flirted with brutalism and blocks. Dublin witnessed the construction of the Ballymun Flats – these are now undergoing demolition yet in Warsaw blocks are a fact of life. Entire districts could be focused around blocks, not just isolated experiments like the Ballymun Flats – the block is there to stay. Despite the modernist appearance of a block the interior of a flat would often be quite traditional in nature. The commieblock epitomised the grey, drab image of communism but modern renovations also meant a change of colour, sometimes tasteful and sometimes quite misguided. An important factor when living around a commieblock is the environment – nowadays the surroundings can be quite lush with greenery. The scale of a block can vary greatly, from around four to more than fifteen storeys high. This era also witnessed some sleek, modern design, notable examples being the CeDeT department store, the ‘Ściana Wschodnia’ complex along with the Central Station or the Oxford Tower.

After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe capitalism meant that now business, not government, would play the largest role in the shaping of the city. The icons of this change are the modern towers that now pepper the skyline and are slowly chipping away at the dominance once held by the Palace of Culture and Science. The LIM Centrum building, housing the Marriot hotel, was built during this transitional period and represents the changes of that time.

Modern Warsaw is buzzing with development yet faces some issues. Capitalism means that wide scale marketing dominates, with entire buildings covered in advertising. These ads, frequently quite tacky, seemingly random in design, and heavy on colour can often cover entire façades. Recent notable towers include the Złota 44 and Cosmopolitan, with sensible modern design. The National Stadium built for the Euro 2012 football cup is an example of the adaptation of older structures – a defunct stadium, which once housed Europe’s largest bazaar, was turned into a modern stadium.

The trends of the post-war period are clearly visible in a Warsaw that had ample ground to spare for ambitious projects as opposed to a Dublin that has to adapt modernity to a more historical landscape.Warsaw can serve as a lesson in urban planning, especially in regards to building new residential blocks and how they should interact with the existing environment. For a Dublin that is in dire need of new housing an outside perspective should serve as guidance.

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