Warsaw's communist past and capital present live in buildings and spaces

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Warsaw is a city whose skyline is dominated by the Stalinist-era Palace of Culture and where a heated debate is under way on how to turn the vast space around it into a genuine human-scale city centre.

Warsaw’s Jerozolimskie Avenue, close to Parade Square - possibly the most vast undeveloped open space in any European capital. It has the Palace of Culture standing in the middle. Before the war it was the centre of Warsaw. But is it the centre of the Polish capital now? Here's what some locals had to say

‘There’s no city centre in Warsaw at all. People have no place to go, to spend a whole day and meet with friends. There’re only lots of shopping malls but it’s not a social space.’

‘Do you like Warsaw’s city centre?

‘I like it because it’s kind of a mixture between communist architecture and brand-new commercial centre, the image of new Poland you know – communist times and new, capitalist free-market society…’

Needless to say, the history of Warsaw goes back several centuries beyond the communist period. Michal Tatjewski, a young architect from an NOG - the Warsaw Development Forum – is a member of a team which lobbies for integrating the historic town fabric into what is now an undeveloped space around the Palace of Culture. Warsaw – he says – has its spirit.

‘It has parts which were built in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. They are very interesting and have their own spirit. We have of course to find modern answers but we mustn’t forget about history and the specific character of such streets as Nowy Swiat, Poznanska and Chmielna. These streets exist and some of them can be continued in the space which was destroyed during the war and which was – because of different systems and different visions – left empty.’

Professor Lech Kłosiewicz of the School of Architecture at Warsaw’s University of Technology argues that in its present shape this empty space is not a genuine city centre.

‘These vast spaces as were created around the Palace of Culture which stands in the middle, like a candle in a birthday tart…they don’t encourage people to stay longer. The people run through this space, there’s continuous traffic, they’re in movement; this is what’s contradicting with the idea of the city centre.’

In a poll for a Warsaw City daily, over 70 percent of respondents have opted for town-planning projects that would preserve the town’s atmosphere and human dimension. Lech Klosiewicz explains the idea:

‘…to fill up city fabric with more structures but not necessarily so high. These tall buildings do not contribute to the direct use by the citizens. They are mostly offices and banks. What serves people are large number of small spaces – cafes and small shops offering a variety of attractions, so the essence of the issue is that Warsaw during the reconstruction process lost its human scale.’

Almost two decades after the collapse of communism, Warsaw seems to have entered a period of renaissance. Work has begun on a futuristic skyscraper designed by the renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. Does Warsaw need tall buildings to counteract, as some people see it, the Palace of Culture. Michal Tatjewski again:

‘We shouldn’t dominate Warsaw with high-rises. They must be one of the elements of the city, not the dominating ones. The idea of Libeskind is interesting because the building is in the very dense centre, very near the Palace of Culture, but it doesn’t try to hide the Palace. His idea is to build a landmark which will make a dialogue between different periods, styles of architecture and between different materials.’