Warsaw's Palace of Culture celebrating 50th birthday

Warsaw's Palace of Culture, photo: www.news.bbc.co.uk

It was 50 years ago that the Polish capital Warsaw received what many called a "non-returnable gift of friendship from the Soviet Union" - the city's Palace of Culture. But while at one time many of the capital's residents resented the presence of what is the country's tallest building, today it is seen by most as a perfect place for leisure and entertainment. Radio Polonia's Michal Kubicki reports from Warsaw.

It was 50 years ago that the Polish capital Warsaw received what many called a "non-returnable gift of friendship from the Soviet Union" - the city's Palace of Culture. But while at one time many of the capital's residents resented the presence of what is the country's tallest building, today it is seen by most as a perfect place for leisure and entertainment. Radio Polonia's Michal Kubicki reports from Warsaw.

Many Varsovians call the Palace of Culture 'a pastry maker's nightmare' and joke that it is from the Palace's observation deck that one can get the most beautiful view of Warsaw. Why? Because the Palace of Culture is nowhere in sight.

Monumental palaces - like the one in Warsaw - were erected all over the Soviet bloc. They were supposed to glorify the communist ideology. Media expert Jacek never misses a chance to take his friends from abroad around the Palace of Culture.

"This building is enormous, indeed. It's over 230 metres tall and has 44 floors. And it was to tower over the city dominated as a sign of the communist rule. People disliked it, but on the other hand, it houses 3 theatres, a swimming pool, a congress hall and a lot of other useful institutions. So, people got used to it."

In 1955 the Palace was Stalin's gift to Poland. A monument to the Soviet dictator, due to be erected at the main entrance, never saw the light of day. In 1987, two years before the collapse of communist, a huge altar was built there at which Pope John Paul the Second celebrated a mass for several hundred thousand people.

Warsaw
The history of the Palace of Culture is indeed one of 'double life', in which officialdom and politics proved to be unable to stifle the free expression of the nation's aspirations. For architecture student Jan Sukiennik the political past of the Palace is not that important.

"I believe in the separation of architecture and politics, especially in context with the buildings that were built in the past. I think the Palace of Culture has a lot of character and the older it gets the more character it receives, especially in contrast to the new architecture that's appearing all around the Palace of Culture. For many people it's a symbol of totalitarian rule over Poland, but I would, sort of, ease the connotations."

50 years after its completion, the Palace of Culture is likely to be classified as a listed monument of socialist realism in architecture. Former Mayor of Warsaw Marcin Swiecicki thinks this is a good idea.

"'In the Palace of Culture there are so many sculptures and other details and halls that were made by the best Polish artists, even if subjected to the socialist realism style. So, they really need conservation and preservation and they should not be touched and treated like anything. They should be conserved as a kind of testimony to those times, but also as a piece of art of great artists, even working under socialist realism."

A Museum of Communism is to be set up in the Palace cellars and a small section of its ground floor. The latest appeal for artefacts for the museum resulted in hundreds of valuable donations from the public, from pieces of furniture, communist-era documents and medals to a silk fabric with the face of Marx and a bottle of Sixties' perfume. But as organizer of the museum Marek Kozicki says, it will not focus on the lighter side of life under communism.

"That seems to be funny, but it was not funny. So, we will show this history seriously according to historical facts and will show also the dramatic face of this system."

The Museum of Communism is scheduled to open next year. Poles agree that one could hardly think of a better location for it than the Palace of Culture, a building which - even though only fifty years old - is bound to impress anyone as a major tourist attraction.