As Warsaw reengages with its industrial heritage, the Insider joins Architecture & Design Manager Michael Gifford for a customized architectural walk around Elektrownia Powiśle…
Another Brick In The Wall
“We’ve kept much of the original brickwork untouched, while other portions required a new face,” says Gifford. “You’ll see several bricks still bearing shrapnel nicks from the war, but in my view the most interesting aspect of all is that you’ll find many sections of brickwork that differ in color – after WWII bricks were a precious commodity, so quite often lower-quality bricks were used during Elektrownia’s rehaul and then painted up to match the originals next to them. Over time this ceramic paint deteriorated, and the result is the subtle patchwork you now see.”
Take A Break!
“Even the restrooms here are like miniature museums with their own little stories,” says Gifford. “The inside of each stall is decorated with signage and items recovered from the old power plant, though the ladies get the better deal – you’ll find beautiful electrical drawings from the 1950’s in several of the female bathroom stalls!”
Look To The Light
“Piotr Płoski is an amazing person,” says Gifford, “and he’s crazy about Saabs and retro furniture from the 50s and 60s. He also did the most interesting lighting here, and the chandelier in the main building is a prime example. With this, he used water cut steel tubes to expose the bulbs. I submitted a project for this as well, but I think Piotr’s turned out brilliantly.”
A Second Life
“The design team is still having great fun brainstorming what to do with the things we have in storage, and in this respect it’s been brilliant working with Arkadiusz Chamera,” says Gifford. “Often I’ll sketch out something silly and he’ll turn it into a masterpiece. He’s a genius!” In tangible terms, that’s meant a slew of valves, balustrades and ceramic insulators handed a new lease of life as tables, benches, and other assorted fixtures and fittings.
The skills of Arkadiusz Chamera have been appreciated by all ages, not least due to his wacky metal sculptures: of the oddities, look out for a kangaroo, a boy hiding some flowers behind his back, a woman receiving a manicure, a guitarist and a chap getting a beard trim. “The Beauty Hall,” says Gifford, “has provided a range of themes for Arek’s fun sculptures. The conservators have given us flexibility in how we use the some of the bits and pieces we were asked to save, but I imagine they’re happy that they’ve been turned into real works of art.”
During The War…
Sustaining heavy damage in both 1939 and 1944, Elektrownia’s steel skeleton never buckled. Nonetheless, evidence of the war abounds – look closely at the supporting beams and you’ll find several dents and bruises caused by bombs and bullets.
On The Face Of It
“I love structural gymnastics,” says Gifford, “and a great example is this glass front by APA Wojciechowski architects. Notice how little structure is used to support such an immense amount of glass. The glass has been hung on the inter-sections and, in the same way as a tennis racket, has been engineered to bend during moments of stress.” Visit during particularly heavy winds and that’ll mean it flexing by as much as 35 centimeters!
Hall Or Nothing
There can be no argument, Elektrownia’s most impressive feature is its cavernous main hall. “For me,” says Gifford, “it feels almost like a beautiful Romanesque cathedral.” Criss-crossed with metal elements and vertiginous catwalks at the top, the conservator’s instructions required only one section of the walkways be kept. “But the owner decided to keep more,” adds Gifford, “and I think the catwalks give a real flavor of what it must have been like for the people that worked here.”
Many of Elektrownia’s obscure details are easy to miss, but the great big wedge cut out of its residential section is not one of these. “In Asian architecture a hole is sometimes left in large buildings to allow dragons to fly through them, so my kids call this the Dragon Hole,” says Gifford. “In this case, the reason behind it is a bit more prosaic. We were told by the conservator that whilst we’d be allowed to build a residential block on this spot, we would need to allow passersby on the other side of the street to see the iconic blue box above the boiler building through the opening.”
Blue Is The Color
The cute little blue box above the main entrance once served as the director’s cubbyhole, a perch from which he could observe the comings and goings down below. “The conservator’s report showed five different layers of paint used on it, so we were given the option of choosing any of these five shades,” says Gifford. “Because the exterior featured other blue elements, APA Wojciechowski’s architects chose to keep it consistent.”
On The Table
Even the desks and tables have a story. In one office, that means a receptionist’s desk saved from the old times – complete with original dials, it’s pure retro heaven. Just outside the Food Hall, meanwhile, stands an epic looking design constructed from insulators. “I worked on this with Piotr Płoski,” says Gifford, “and if you look close you’ll see where he brushed off peeling paint to reveal a face-like shape.”
For Control Freaks
On the orders of the city’s conservator, Elektrownia were obliged to save 200 items from the original power plant – White Star, however, decided to save everything that might hold value, which in the end amounted to around 5,000 objects. Approximately a third of these have since returned from storage, and of these none are as visually enticing as the former electric control panels. By the Food Hall, that means a box that was once capable of shutting off the power to both the Palace of Culture and Warszawa Gdańska station. Elsewhere, amid the enigmatic switches and levers, look out for original paper labels that have survived all this time.