A Modest Proposal

Warsaw’s city architect wants to create a traditional urban core. But it’s in an exceptional place.

This July—a little more than one year after Poland joined the European Union—the Palace of Culture, Warsaw’s “gift” from Stalin, celebrates its 50th anniversary. The symbolically charged 30-story building still dominates the skyline of a city almost 80 percent devastated by the Nazis in the final days of WWII (a scorched-earth retribution for the Warsaw Uprising) and then tucked away behind the Iron Curtain for five decades after that.

But two years ago, facing rapid development fueled by an influx of foreign investment and EU funds, the mayor created an office to oversee urban development and hired Michal Borowski as Warsaw’s city architect. Borowski’s office recently unveiled a new plan that will transform the cityscape over the next decade with much-needed infrastructure and high-profile projects. Its most controversial element is an ambitious proposal to redevelop the area around the Palace of Culture, known as Defilad Square, and give Warsaw something it currently lacks—a real city center. But the struggle to balance modern commercial demands with a difficult past raises the inherently political question, What should this city become?

Borowski has proposed low-rise development that would restore the prewar street layout and add 15 to 20 new buildings, none higher than 130 feet. The area would become a business district with cinemas, retail shops, hotels, offices, and a few nods to public space, including a Museum of Contemporary Art and a Museum of Communism. “To do a commercial city center—and it will be very commercial with its malls and new hotels—without any public institutions like museums would be a risk,” Borowski says.

However, Dariusz Bartoszewicz, an architecture critic for Poland’s leading daily newspaper, thinks the plans err on the side of boring in a misguided attempt to recapture the look of a traditional European city. “Warsaw was so completely destroyed by the Nazis and fifty years of Communism—with all the hopeless architecture and housing estates—it would be impossible to re-create a traditional center,” he says. “You could build a traditional city—or something more crazy and strange. Warsaw is already strange, so why not the latter?”

Borowski’s plan doesn’t allow for new skyscrapers—an approach some consider a mistake at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Stefan Kurylowicz, one of Poland’s leading architects, wouldn’t mind seeing a few skyscrapers to challenge the prominence of the Palace of Culture and give the center a real “downtown” feeling. “Look at New York: it is relentlessly urban but fascinating,” he says. “I would try to create something that gives Warsaw the feeling of a really active city.”

But Borowski believes the new center’s real purpose is to create high-quality public space—something Warsaw desperately lacks—and to connect the area with remaining historic districts, namely the Royal Route and the reconstructed Old Town. He envisions wide boulevards, pedestrian areas, and public squares flooded with light. As for the Palace of Culture’s prominence, he says, “I understand that Warsaw will never be as it was, but we have the Palace of Culture and we have to use it to a certain extent.”

The important question remains: Will the people of Warsaw have the chance to help determine the future of their city for the first time in decades and discover that, contrary to popular belief (after 1989 all plans, urban or otherwise, stank of Communism), an urban plan can be very democratic? “The only democratic way to have a dialogue with the people,” Bartoszewicz says, “is to show [the plan] to them, so if they don’t like it they can try and change it.”

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