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Rebirth of a shattered city


Warsaw, 1945
© Central Photographic Agency, War

In 1945, Warsaw was simply a name on the map marking a wasteland of ruins. Today, rebuilt and modernized, it has grown to six times its pre-war size.

by Jerzy Hryniewiecki

For many of the world's largest cities, the past fifteen years have been, more or less, a normal period In the continuous process of urban development. Outwardly for them, not much has changed. True enough, some old buildings have been torn down to make room for lean and graceful modern towers in the hope of relieving that universal city bugbear, the ever growing traffic problem.

Other cities have had a face-lifting. There have been the scars of war to erase, both by modernizing and rebuilding old sections, and by raising great complexes of modern buildings which are virtually cities in themselves. A few cities have literally been born overnight during the past fifteen years owing to the vision of some statesman or architect. At least one or two have sprung up from the bare ground providing their designers with a rare freedom to make of them the very last word in modern city planning.

The story of Warsaw is different.

There are few examples in history of the tragic fate which befell this city.

It is a story which begins in 1945 when virtually nothing but ruins remained of the city, yet which today has risen from the ashes and rubble and has amazingly regained its pre-war population of over a million inhabitants. Warsaw offers a lesson on the workings of an urban society which is astonishing. It would seem to prove that neither the complete destruction of a people, nor their property can ring down the curtain of history on the life of a great city.

A visitor to Warsaw today will find it hard to believe that this thriving, bustling metropolis was a wasteland of ruins in January 1945 when the first of the citizens began to trickle back. Where the proud and historic city had once stood, they found nothing but a vague outline visible here and there among ruins and rubble. It was a vast cemetery for hundreds of thousands. Here and there a pock-marked building which had escaped total destruction rose up like a lonely sentinel, and on the right bank of the Vistula, a whole quarter the poorest in the city where ten per cent of Warsaw's population once lived, alone escaped the holocaust.

For all practical purposes, however, Warsaw existed only because of its geographical position and its name.

Even though Warsaw was an empty shell, a city without life, half of its people were still alive, scattered throughout the world in many places but bereft of all their possessions. They had suffered much from the war, but with them they carried memories of the Warsaw they had known, its traditions, its life and its people. The barbarous order which had reduced Warsaw to rubble, could not obliterate this city from the hearts and the minds of her people no matter where they might be.

As the citizenry returned in ever greater numbers, Warsaw's future became the main topic of discussion. Some were all for turning the entire area into a giant construction camp, off limits to the public, in order to carry out a rush rebuilding programme. Others were inclined to pick a new site and rebuild the capital city elsewhere.

There were Utopian visions of a futuristic city, many very attractive but often not too practical because of the lack of economic and technical resources available just after the war to carry out such far-sighted, and, unfortunately, enormously expensive plans. While some wanted to rebuild upon the old city, restoring and recreating the best of the past, others talked about a clean break with the old sweeping away all the past shortcomings of an unplanned city which just "grew" from mediaeval village times, and In its stead creating an absolutely new city based on the most modern and upto-the-minute ideas and tastes.

And, of course, there were the "Brave New World" variety of planners who attacked the problem statistically and proposed a project in which the inhabitants would be classified according to profession and allotted precisely fixed areas of living space on the basis of the density of population.

But real life did not wait for plans, theories and long discussions. Within hours and days after Liberation, thousands of former citizens were flooding back to the deserted ruins. The new government decided to set up its capital there, not because conditions were ideal for an administrative centre, but because the name Warsaw still meant so much, not only to its own people, but throughout the world. In no time at all, the rows of ruined houses and buildings took on the appearance of ant hills as the people themselves set busily about the task of rebuilding their capital with their own hands and with whatever materials they could salvage among the rubble.

During this first period of heroic, but primitive reconstruction of the city, all Poland seemed to be on the move. Not only were former citizens of Warsaw constantly swelling the population, but large numbers of other people too, drawn by the reviving economic system, added to their numbers. There was also a flood of people uprooted from territories no longer a part of Poland who headed for the city, as well as many peasants from overpopulated rural areas. As Warsaw's industries were reconstructed and expanded, a far greater labour force was required than before the war, a fact which also drew more people to the city.

With this phenomenon of an old population and a new population in an old city being rebuilt, Warsaw became a crucible in which not only the people, but sweeping changes in the social and professional structure created a situation of extraordinary dynamism. Within fifteen years this great force has moulded a uniform society out of the most disparate elements. This has been surprising to all but old inhabitants of Warsaw who are well aware of their city's long tradition of assimilating all that comes within its gates.

In the new Warsaw, almost all former inhabitants have changed their residences. Many are doing jobs they never dreamed of before the war. More recent arrivals from generations of country folk have become citydwellers in a very short space of time which has made profound changes in their habits and way of life.

It is difficult for us to realize just how all these population movements have affected the life of the people of Warsaw. It is only by meeting and talking to someone who knew Warsaw before the war and who can compare the old order with the new that we can begin to appreciate the kind of metamorphosis that has taken place in so short a time.

We might compare it to compressing into a brief span of fifteen years all the things that in other countries have taken hundred of years to achieve. We have seen with our own eyes mediaeval squares and 18th century house rising out of the ruins. Yet behind the façades are dwellings with every modern convenience. We have watched the reconstruction of the Gothic cathedral with the same stones with which the original was built, and we have seen the splendid 17th and 18th century palaces of noblemen painstakingly restored in every detail to become cultural and administrative centres.

The restored classical façade of the Opera House, built at the beginning of the last century, has been faithfully copied, but behind it is a modern concert and operatic theatre which is technically one of the best-equipped in Europe. New and broader bridges have been constructed on the piles of the old ones. New homes have risen on the foundations and rubble of those destroyed. The new city of Warsaw draws its character from this harmonious blending of the vestiges of the past with the techniques and living needs of modern life.

Is it then a kind of 20th century anachronism in which museum-like façades spring up artificially to shield the comforts of modern life which lie behind? Certainly not, if we consider the people of Warsaw themselves. This recreation of the past has taken into full account the needs, nostalgia, and feelings of a people whose past was all but torn away from them. This reconstruction has been a labour of love, and one cannot find a single false note.

The task of reconstructing the old demanded tremendous effort from specialists who had to work with absolute precision on what we might term "scientific" rebuilding of the ruins. The measure of their success is found in the fact that the results are not eclectic, nor has their work shown signs of being cold or impersonal. In fact, the earlier stages of reconstruction were so fraught with difficulties and primitive technical resources that as a result often the working methods and materials were relatively the same as those employed in the original constructions. This perhaps, more than any other single factor, brings authenticity to restored Warsaw.

Today it is a fact that most people of Warsaw instinctively try to live In "old-style" houses in preference to modern dwellings built with air, light and parks surrounding them. It may be that living in the "newold" places they feel more like old established residents of the city. But, it is typical of the people of Warsaw to be strong individualists, and it may be they feel more at ease in the less ordered and more fanciful surroundings than those offered by large modern blocks of flats.

With the reconstruction of the city, its old shape has come to life again. The network of streets, established centuries ago, and which were recognizable as an odd geometric pattern in the ruined city, have become the framework for the new plan. Still, the monotonous crisscross of 19th century streets have been made more functional in the new city.

It was inevitable that the resumption of city life and the demands of town planning would lead to conflicts. In these, sometimes one side wins, and sometimes another. But as is often the case, lively Interest, however partisan, lends vigour to the cause.

It is thus that a new school of town planning has emerged in Warsaw in which the emphasis is laid on actual execution of plans which have been shed of their more glowing and yet impractical aspects. The people of Warsaw themselves have learned that their opinions count in the plans of the municipal draughtsmen, and more than once they have caused changes in what they considered unduly abstract plans.

It is true that Warsaw's population has now reached the pre-war figure, but its area has increased sixfold. Density of population in 1939 was appalling. It reached 5,000 inhabitants per acre in some parts of the city's centre. Today the population is properly distributed and green spaces spread out, shaded with trees, where once stood some of the most wretched and densely packed tenements. Warsaw has changed too, from a labyrinth of dreary streets into a city of gardens and open areas.

It is not only in relation to history that we citizens of Warsaw have spanned whole centuries in the space of a few years. The past fifteen years can be split into two separate parts, each representing a different phase of development. The first was a period of primitive, spontaneous reconstruction. Groups of buildings based on new architectonic systems grew up within the framework of a city organically re-established on its old foundations, retaining the boundaries of its former buildings. Former unimportant areas thus have become prominent hubs of communication which draw life to the city's centre.

Difficulties created in trying to reconcile the old with the new encouraged the construction of new housing estates on the outskirts of the city where there is still free land which permits unrestricted development of modern buildings. There was something paradoxical about this great ring of modern buildings pushing skyward around the ruins of a provisionally re-established centre and there was bound to be criticism of the deurbanization trend.

The result was a move in favour of establishing residential districts in the heart of the city, and eventually a number of relatively sparsely populated districts sprang up there. It produces, moreover, an eclectic tendency to repeat the faults, but also the rich ornamentation of architectural forms of the 19th century. But thanks to help from traditional craftsmanship and materials, this trend made it possible to build on a scale appropriate to a large city, even though only out-dated technical means were available.

During this period of rebuilding certain sections of the centre of the city became alive again with inhabitants. The period ended with the building of the Palace of Culture and Science, 750 feet in height, which houses the Polish Academy of Science. Located in the very centre of the city, its traditional approach belongs to another age, yet, by its size and social significance, it marks the beginning of the construction of Warsaw's modern centre.

Today Warsaw lives continually under pressure of an exploding population, and ever more crowded living space. We are compelled to build more and more modern apartment houses, schools, hospitals, and other buildings to meet the growing public needs.

There is the beginning of a great push forward in the fields of pre-fabrication and industrialization in building and in the use of new materials for construction. Against the impressive backdrop of the reconstructed old city of Warsaw, a new city is rising, equipped with all the modern advantages and caring for all the needs of a rapidly expanding population. For, you may be sure, despite the tragedies of war, the uprooting, the destruction, Warsaw's people are filled with life and vigour.

From the shattered remains of the old city, from the miseries of the past, from the hopes and aspirations of its scattered inhabitants, from their sweat and toil, rises the new Warsaw. May the joy of living flourish here everafter.