The Reconstruction of Warsaw: Between Abhorrence and Acceptance
Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”
The post-war reconstruction of Warsaw was an unprecedented undertaking. As Jarosław Trybus, director of the Warsaw Museum, aptly diagnoses the current situation:
This is one of the most famous arguments that I know. It has been going on for seventy years, passed unabated from one generation to the next. It’s an argument about the reconstruction of a city which had been flattened and its results. It is a convoluted tangle of causes and effects which can no longer be told apart. Architecture is mixed with politics, urban planning with ideology, and all the while the capital feeds on nostalgia. All of this combined with the real dramas of evicted tenants, enormous compensation payments which were awarded from our tax money to be paid to those who represent the “previous owners”, and slogans condemning the reconstruction chanted by those who long for a pre-war Warsaw which they have never seen, create an explosive cocktail.
As we can see, the reconstruction of Warsaw is not only about rebuilt, or rather built anew, scenic buildings, but above all mostly about a constantly ongoing political exercise of socioeconomic dimensions which invariably stirs emotions.
As a result of the grand undertaking of raising Warsaw from rubble, selective reconstruction was done using references from particular historical moments of the city’s history complemented with new buildings. The turning point for both the macro-scale of the city and the micro-scale of private investment was the so-called Bierut Decree (named after Bolesław Bierut, President of the National State Council and President of the Republic of Poland) on 26 October, 1945, according to which all the land which was within Warsaw’s borders prior to the war now belonged to the city. Theoretically, the buildings on this land remained in the hands of the owners, but in reality they were also taken over by the city. In consequence, in place of the former Old Town which had been created over centuries, a picturesque, consistent Old Town was built, at the same time erasing from the cityscape a typical private tenement house building with its unacceptable aesthetic costume and social hierarchy. The outcome of the reconstruction was also the loss of metropolitan architecture from the turn of the 20th century, which had dominated the skyline up until 1944. While the fate of the Old Town is accepted by the majority, removing the turn of the century secular buildings from Warsaw’s cityscape is now one of the gravest accusations against post-war actions.
We have to be aware of how dynamic a phenomenon the reconstruction of Warsaw is, from both a scientific and a social perspective, including its reception and its current and planned continuation. At the initial moment of the reconstruction, the group centered around Professor Jan Zachwatowicz, the author of the reconstruction of Warsaw’s Old Town and the most important person in Poland when it comes to post-war reconstruction, who held the opinion that the scale of destruction and the Polish nation’s trauma from the war called for and justified actions which would result in the creation of “historical monuments.” Throughout the post-war period, first in social perception and then more openly following the thaw of 1956, the reconstruction was seen almost entirely from a political and ideological perspective as a process imposed by outside communists whose most spectacular legacy was erecting the Palace of Culture. Subsequently, reconstruction came to be seen from the point of view of urban planning goals: implementing plans to heal the city that had been debated in Poland even before the Second World War. What was missing all these years and what became a point of debate in recent years, is a social discourse, which draws attention to the fact that the reconstruction is not only a historical matter regarding restoring monuments, but that it also concerns and affects the life of a dynamically growing and changing city.
It is precisely in this context that the intensely discussed consequences of the reconstruction in all Warsaw’s neighborhoods are related to matters regarding ownership. The changes of 1989 and the regime’s transformation introduced privatization and commercialism into what had been until then the city’s uncomplicated ownership structure. The process of retreating from Bierut’s decree had begun, which in a practical sense entailed the re-privatization of thousands of properties (which had survived the war but were mostly rebuilt or erected on private land), portrayed up until recently almost exclusively as a process of returning historical rights to the pre-war owners. The main reason for the mistrust of this process is land speculation, which has accompanied the process from the beginning. Therefore it is the tenants, the victims of the re-privatization process, who have the most serious doubts about it. According to data from 2016, about 40,000 to 60,000 tenants from different Warsaw neighborhoods are at risk due to the re-privatization of 3,000 tenement buildings. It was also established that in 2013 as many as 40 downtown schools, and 100 in the city, had claims laid against them; the same applied to public spaces, the majority being parks in nearly every one of the centrally located neighborhoods. Even though the matter of schools and parks was sorted out through the so-called “little re-privatization bill” in 2015 that exempted them from the process, there still remained the problem of cases like the school that didn’t have any claims against it but was nonetheless to be privatized along with nearby green areas by city authorities looking for revenue against the will of the neighborhood’s residents. In turn, compensation payments for previous owners (but also for real estate speculators) are paid out of the city budget, paid for by, among other revenue sources, price increases for municipal and transportation services.
It can be said that these changes brought back conflicts and claims that had previously been buried by the reconstruction, triggering a negative image of the work, this time not stemming from the architectural and aesthetic consequences, but from unintended side effects. It coincided with the new interpretation of both the city and Polish history, which brought on a critique of the past reconstruction as a completely political undertaking done during the era of Stalin, which stood in contrast to the newly acquired freedom of action waiting to be exercised.
Therefore the reconstruction of Warsaw as a process located between acceptance and abhorrence is more complicated, because one cannot clearly define the borders between what is accepted and what is viewed critically. On one hand, the rebuilt historical monuments do not raise any doubts and bring joy even if experts remain critical. The proponents of the historical reconstruction are not satisfied, as in their mind the incomplete process needs to be continued by erecting more buildings, and they long to rebuild other city districts in accordance with their former appearance. Private owners and real estate speculators enjoy their reclaimed buildings and lands in the city while simultaneously causing fears among tenants and residents about living space, both on the macro-scale of the nearest neighborhoods and, more importantly, on the micro-scale of individual apartments. In short, it is a never-ending story in which the drama of war remains the only cause that one cannot question or reinterpret.
Piotr Korduba is an art historian and director of the Art History Institute at the Adam-Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He is a specialist in the field of living architecture, culture of housing and interior design as well as the German-Polish art and cultural relationship. He has published six books and many articles. His last book was dedicated to the folk-oriented aesthetics in Polish design and interior decorations in the 20th century in view of their ideological context (Folklore for Sale, Warsaw 2013). He has received several scholarships in Germany (DAAD at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Herzog-August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel) and in Rome (Lanckoroński-Foundation).
Further articles in the series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War” on TRAFO:
Birgit Schäbler, Introduction: The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods, 28 August 2019.
Kevin Mazur, Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria, 4 September 2019.
Mazen Haidar, Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut, 11 September 2019.
Citation: Piotr Korduba, The Reconstruction of Warsaw: Between Abhorrence and Acceptance, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.09.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19668.