Author, architect, critic and curator, Grzegorz Piątek is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on Polish architecture – we speak to him about his thoughts, hopes and fears for the capital…
Define Warsaw’s architecture…
It’s a very contemporary town, so it can’t be measured against older cities. This is a 20th century city, with even our Old Town dating from the 1950s. I’d say the quality of life is generally very good, there’s lot of greenery, good transport and high-standard housing. That’s all a result of a very conscious change. We get nostalgic for old Warsaw but we have to remember that in the pre-war years the standard of living here was very low: it was filled with high density housing and the city lagged behind others in terms of things like electricity, running water, etc. The wartime destruction gave architects the chance to create a city that could work.
Do you have a favorite era?
I’m not a nostalgic person. I believe in the future. The obsession with rebuilding gets on my nerves. You have to move on: that applies in life and should apply to architecture as well. But if I was to pick a favorite era then I think what happened in Warsaw between the 30s and 60s was something of a golden age in terms of architecture. I think the 30s were the first time the city started thinking and putting effort into planning the city. Money was a constraint then, so it wasn’t until the 50s and 60s that many of the pre-war dreams were realized.
The architecture of that time doesn’t always get good publicity…
The problem with places like Pl. Konstytucji are their sheer scale. You always hear that the streets were specially built extra wide to accommodate parades, tanks and marches. That’s a good story, but these parades only happened twice a year. The real reasoning was to plan for the future. This was an era when cities like Brasilia were being built – architects were looking to the future which was all meant to be about the automobile. Now we’ve started to realize the negative impact cars have on a city.
How big a problem is that?
Warsaw is crazy about cars – I’ve read that there are more cars here than in Berlin. In the post-war years the city was designed for cars, but in the 1990s the dream that every household would own a car became a reality. But cars can kill a city – there’s a danger Warsaw will become an American-style city, like a donut with nothing in the center because it’s become too congested and inaccessible.
And the solution?
You need to cover both ends: discourage drivers from using their cars but offer them something in return – e.g. good public transport. We have a good system as it is, but it can be improved. And it’s vital the city plans new neighborhoods better so that residents don’t need to jump into a car every time they want to do something – if you look at some of the new suburbs they don’t even have schools or kindergartens. I sometimes feel that, after 1989, we threw the baby out along with the bathwater. We went from having everything planned to nothing at all. That’s allowed the city to develop as a sum of independent parts – now we need to reconcile private interest with public interest.
These new neighborhoods you refer to, what are your thoughts on all the gated compounds springing up?
I recognize the importance of privacy and security but fencing off entire districts makes the city less practical. It creates the need to drive – you can’t cut through these areas, you have to drive around them. Society, as well, is less coherent because of them. By cutting themselves off, they lose a sense of community.
What fears do you have for the city’s future?
Traffic – up to now the authorities haven’t had the courage to limit it. Also, the growing social divide that comes with the creation of gated communities. And finally, the city’s greenery is one of its greatest assets, yet it’s under constant assault from developers and planners. I agree that Warsaw needs to be denser both to add vibrance to the city and to shorten commuter times, but at the same time its greenery should be preserved.
Is there an area that excites you…
I’m rediscovering the Old Town – it’s such an obvious landmark but most people see it as just an area for tourists: a place where day trippers stop to have an ice cream. But I think architecturally it’s very interesting, especially when you start viewing it as a reconstruction. Start off at the Heritage Interpretation Center on ul. Brzozowa to learn about the rebuilding process, and then have a walk around – you’ll look at the Old Town through completely new eyes.
Anything more recent that you like?
It’s not that new anymore, but the University Library in Powiśle is one of a kind. As a library it’s great to use, but then it’s also got that brilliant rooftop garden – it’s a very rare example of a building that’s both rated by architects and loved by the public. And I have a lot of time for the new Academy of Fine Arts buildings by JEMS – also in Powiśle. You assume that a glass and steel building would be quite severe, but this is actually very warm, well-structured and has tremendous detailing. The courtyard and lobby are open to all, and are filled with wonderful sculptures and incidental elements that just blend into the rest.
Is there anything that drives you mad about Warsaw’s architecture?
In general our architects are good; they’re well-trained and now have the budgets and resources available to Western architects, so what irritates me is this lack of cohesion that Warsaw suffers from. It’s easy to point the finger at it, but Daniel Liebeskind’s Złota 44 project is a good example. It’s a pretentious building that doesn’t live up to the hype. On top of that, I’m skeptical why anyone would want to live in a sealed, air-conditioned compartment anyway. But my biggest disappointment is the Warsaw Spire. Its size alone makes a huge impact on the skyline, but I don’t think that’s the real problem. Skyscrapers are quite exotic for Europe and, up to a point, the more towers that are built then the better a cityscape looks. What I don’t like about the Spire is that it’s badly located in terms of scale when set against the rest of the neighborhood. Also, while I’m sure it’ll be a commercial success, I think its architectural details are poor and don’t live up to the ambition of the building. It’s a very average building inflated to the size of a landmark.
So if you could knock a building down, that’d be it?
The city is quite chaotic architecturally so I don’t think there’s any building that particularly damages it. I’ve got to admit the National Stadium shocked me, especially with that cheap looking façade, but I’ve grown used to it now. Also, there’s that TVN building on the corner of Marszałkowska and Hoża – just horrendous. That black glass cladding was out of fashion before that project was even completed. But really, I don’t think there’s any single building that really ruins the city, we just need more regulation.
Which building would bring back from the dead…
The old railway station. It was nearly completed in 1939, burned and bombed the same year, repaired in 1940, then totally destroyed in 1944. It was something of an Art Deco beauty, reminiscent of the elegant stations you sometimes find in Italy. When it was first being built the press dubbed it ‘the Palace of the Unknown Passenger’ and I think that says it all. But as much as I regret its loss, I see no reason to rebuild it on a 1:1 scale.
And finally, your thoughts on PKiN?
I’ve got a love / hate relationship with it. I’m happy that it’s been placed under protection, but at the same time I think it’s tasteless, conspicuous and arrogant. It’s a hypocritical building: a skyscraper that pretends to be a palace, a steel structure that pretends it’s not… On a functional level it’s flawed in the way it turns its back on the city – even finding the main entrance is a challenge. But it’s now part of our history and can’t be evaluated under the rules we have for contemporary buildings. The question is how to make the area around it more functional. I look forward to seeing the museum of modern art being built around it, but I’m not overly keen on just filling the area with buildings. It’s not the lack of buildings that make PKiN a challenge, but its inaccessibility. The area is an island.