Old Town Warsaw
February 16, 2013 10:12 PM   Subscribe

Warsaw’s historic Old Town is not a replica of the original. It’s a re-imagining. An historic city that never really was.
posted by Confess, Fletch (21 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Old Town was such a refreshing change from the rest of Warsaw. Overall, Warsaw is a nice city, but so much of it is either "communist modern" or "21st century European urban modern." Whether or not Old Town is an accurate representation of the past doesn't really matter. It's still an oasis in a city that's not left with much else from its actual past.

On the other hand, the Palace of Culture and Science is a ridiculous eye sore that's so awful it almost becomes likeable. It's like an architectural train wreck that you just can't stop watching. I hated it, but I would be sad if they got rid of it.
posted by fremen at 11:10 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I found Warsaw to be a horrid city, TBW. Like Luton or something. The old town is very much some kind of Disney set. I'd advise avoiding it, visit Krakow instead.
posted by Artw at 11:25 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'll always love ridiculous Stalinist skyscrapers though.
posted by Artw at 11:33 PM on February 16, 2013


I listened to the podcast but never thought to check the site for pictures ... it looks much like I imagined. Also, 99% Invisible rocks.
posted by mapinduzi at 11:41 PM on February 16, 2013


That would be very strange for people who remembered the old town to wander through. Almost like their memories, but sometimes a little bit off. I doubt there are many people like that around now, though.

When my husband's parents' house burned down about five years ago, they had it rebuilt almost identically, but with little improvements. Like a window moved a metre to the left, or a skylight added to a formerly too-dark room. The fireplace was widened a bit. A wall was built slightly closer to the kitchen than it had been before.

My husband finds it very unnerving to visit nowadays. It's so close to the house he grew up in, but somehow not quite right. When he goes to the loo in the night he walks into walls or doors that didn't used to be right there, and can't quite find the light switches on the first try.
posted by lollusc at 11:44 PM on February 16, 2013 [9 favorites]


Something similar is being done -- today -- in Frankfurt. And I'm pretty sure I saw something here -- in a comment? -- about a building in middle Europe that was rebuilt from historic plans, but with modern materials (there was a StreetView type link included, if I remember). In other words, this isn't a new impulse, and while in the US we associate this with Disney, I'm not sure that I don't understand the intent here. It runs against most historic preservation guidelines in the West, but when it's entirely gone.... As long as it isn't passed off as the original, I'm OK with it. After all there's the New Globe. If the interpretation is done within that context.
posted by dhartung at 12:02 AM on February 17, 2013


Preservation is not the same as rebuilding things that were bombed. Why would anyone expect a rebuild to be identical? That's kind of silly. It looks like the flavor is still there, and that's what counts.

Last time I visited the street where I grew up it was very different. Big trees shaded the fronts of the homes there, making it look quite pleasant. But see, the trees grew, and some trees were added since I'd last seen the place, and they grew too. Then the 'dead end' of the street had been extended. Even without bombings and restorations, places change, beyond recognition. Sometimes it's called 'gentrification', sometimes 'urban decay'.
posted by Goofyy at 12:40 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I found Warsaw to be a horrid city, TBW. Like Luton or something. The old town is very much some kind of Disney set. I'd advise avoiding it, visit Krakow instead.

I'm due there later next month for a conference and this is the advice I've been getting from all (especially since my birthday is right after the conference weekend) - so I might just leave early instead of looking around. I'm hearing Krakow from everyone
posted by infini at 1:15 AM on February 17, 2013


Wow. What are the expectations of people who don't like Warsaw? Do you go to Chicago and say, this place sucks I'm going to Williamsburg, VA? Warsaw is a monument to resurrection from ashes. The people there didnt choose to have 80% of their city leveled. They'd probably be happier with a true historic old town like many other European cities. But c'est la vie. Instead they made good with what they have. I find many old towns blur into one huge homogeneous memory but Warsaw exists to me as a loving tribute of its people to what they had... not lost... but had taken away. Krakow is nice but explore Warsaw and you'll find a glorious city full of rich culture and kind people, history and modernity, all wrapped up with wonderful food and easy travel.

If you have time in Warsaw use it to your full advantage.
posted by chasles at 5:44 AM on February 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


I was in Warsaw in 2010 and loved it. I thought it was beautiful. It was a business trip, however, so most of my two weeks were spent indoors. My hotel was right across the street from the tomb of the unknown soldier, so I spent one lovely sunset evening wandering through the gardens there, admiring the unfinished statues. We also wandered down to the river and saw some beautiful bridges. There were lovely black benches scattered throughout the city where you could push a button and hear a bit of music by Chopin. I wish we had the chance to attend a Sunday piano concert of his music in the Rose Garden. And then walk past the church where his heart now resides. His sister literally smuggled his heart from France back to his beloved Warsaw.

My MeFi profile picture is actually from a bus tour in Warsaw. We drove past Stalin's Syringe (that palace of arts and culture mentioned above), but my favorite part was our tour through the old royal forest to see the palaces there. One, in the middle of a pond where Polish bridal parties were lining up to get their wedding pictures taken, still had holes in its sides from where the Nazis had bolted dynamite to the side of it.

That part hurt my soul. The massive destruction to Warsaw's cultural and architectural heritage was so pointed and purposeful. The Nazis razed what is now Old Town and purposefully blew up any and all buildings that had any kind of history or interest purely to wipe out the Polish spirit. To wipe out the Polish culture and people. To literally wipe the Poles off the map. I can't imagine what kind of hatred would fuel that amount of cultural destruction. Reminds one of the fire-bombing of Dresden, no?

We *did* take a day trip to Krakow one weekend, actually. It was beautiful and old and original. I enjoyed that trip, too. We toured the salt mine of Wieliczka in which I convinced my coworker to lick the wall. :)

tl;dr: don't hate on Warsaw before you experience it. It is beautiful in its own way. And, in my opinion, the recreated Old Town is better than rubble or rebuilding with NO respect to its past or what was lost.
posted by jillithd at 6:35 AM on February 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


Very interesting post, thanks. I recently read a Russian novel partly set in late-18th-century Warsaw and so did some investigation of what the old part of the city looked like, and it's fascinating to me to see how the reconstruction was done. If I had been in charge, I would have tried to match old photographs rather than old and inaccurate paintings, but frankly it's a miracle that such a reconstruction was done at all (the Russians have historically had as little regard for the Poles as the Germans did, though to be fair the Poles invaded them more than once and tried to take the Russian throne in 1612), and I'm just glad there's a nice-looking part of town, even it it's a bit fake.

Also, jillithd is on the money: don't hate on Warsaw!
posted by languagehat at 7:42 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Someone needs to clue the author in to Hanlon's Razor.

Isn't it possible the Soviets worked from the paintings simply because they didn't happen to have the photographs on hand, or didn't realize the paintings were idealized? Is there any actual evidence that they were intentionally trying to whitewash history by reconfiguring a minor architectural detail here and there?

It was the Nazis that fucked up the place, after all. The notion that the Poles would resent their new Soviet overlords (which they ended up doing anyhow) if they'd miraculously rebuilt Old Warsaw exactly instead of not-quite-miraculous-in-its-exactitude doesn't really make a whole lot of sense. If anything, wouldn't the Poles be more grateful if it were perfect?
posted by Sys Rq at 7:42 AM on February 17, 2013


> Isn't it possible the Soviets worked from the paintings simply because they didn't happen to have the photographs on hand

No, it's not. Warsaw was part of the Russian Empire for a long time; the museums and libraries of Russia are and were full of maps and images of prewar Warsaw (and other Polish cities).

> or didn't realize the paintings were idealized?

Extremely unlikely. They did, after all, have plenty of nonidealized imagery to compare them with.

> The notion that the Poles would resent their new Soviet overlords (which they ended up doing anyhow) if they'd miraculously rebuilt Old Warsaw exactly instead of not-quite-miraculous-in-its-exactitude doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.

Nobody said it did. And why are you taking the author to task for presenting this fascinating material just because you would have phrased it differently?
posted by languagehat at 8:05 AM on February 17, 2013


Warsaw was ground zero of WWII. No major city was under occupation and wartime conditions longer. No city saw more complete destruction (including Nagasaki and Hiroshima). No city had such a fractures number of elements, there were not two sides (Axis and Allies) but three, and at least 2 or 3 minor ones. Also Warsaw before the war was a cultural center undergoing a renaissance of sorts, one wonders what kind of place it would be today, a London or Paris maybe.
posted by stbalbach at 8:41 AM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have one full day in Poland, I was hoping to pay my respects at Auschwitz.
posted by infini at 9:13 AM on February 17, 2013


You are braver than I am, infini. We could have gone to Auschwitz on our trip to Krakow, but I couldn't handle it.
posted by jillithd at 10:01 AM on February 17, 2013


> Isn't it possible the Soviets worked from the paintings simply because they didn't happen to have the photographs on hand

No, it's not. Warsaw was part of the Russian Empire for a long time; the museums and libraries of Russia are and were full of maps and images of prewar Warsaw (and other Polish cities).


Well, it's a good thing photography was around that whole time, and that Russia didn't go through any major changes that may have hindered free access to archival information.

> The notion that the Poles would resent their new Soviet overlords (which they ended up doing anyhow) if they'd miraculously rebuilt Old Warsaw exactly instead of not-quite-miraculous-in-its-exactitude doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.

Nobody said it did.


Not in so many words, no, but...
For the Soviets, this reconfiguration of the Old Town served two purposes. FIrst, they wanted to send the message that the Old Town—and Warsaw as a whole—would be better than it was before the war. Second, they didn’t want Poles to long for this lost part of the city. By recreating Old Town, the past could stop being such a distraction, and they could get to work on a drastic overhaul of the country.
...sure reads that way to me.

And why are you taking the author to task for presenting this fascinating material just because you would have phrased it differently?

That's not what I was "taking the author to task" for.

There's a lot in the article that appears to be backed up by nothing. The "fact" that the reconfiguration was deliberate? Cite, please. The "fact" that it was deliberate for the reasons given? Cite, please.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:30 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Interesting. The "rebuilding" of Old Warsaw (as well as various other historic examples such as the moving of the monuments in Egypt for the building of the Aswan Dam) forms part of the plot and theme of Anne Michael's novel "Winter Vault".
posted by blue shadows at 11:56 AM on February 17, 2013


For the Soviets.... By recreating erasing Old Town, the past could stop being such a distraction

Because without memories we get to do it all over, and over, and over ....
posted by Twang at 2:06 PM on February 17, 2013


The Old Town has been rebuilt by the Poles, not the Soviets, although the new government was installed by the latter. (The Culture and Science Palace, an absurd stone spire built in place of the old centre, in a vast empty space opened in the heart of the city - that was the gift from Stalin. But I digress). The reconstruction was used as an opportunity to return the buildings of the Old Town to their original form (compare the various views of the St John's Cathedral as an example). During the over 100 years of Russian occupation the Old Town was left to rot and the medieval houses have lost a lot of their charm, with their decorations hidden behind ugly additions, so the photographs were actually less accurate than Belotto's paintings (and these were not the only source).
The first picture of total devastation used in the article shows the area of former Jewish ghetto, where the Nazis had ample time to demolish absolutely everything after crushing the Ghetto Uprising in 1943. For the rest of the city they had only a few months, from the end of the Warsaw Uprising on 2nd October 1944 to the withdrawal in January 1945, and that saved a wall here or there. Considering the fact that they were pretty badly strapped for resources at the time, they did a really thorough job though, concentrating in the first order on historical buildings and archives.
But I think those who sought to bring her back to life did better.
posted by hat_eater at 3:46 PM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I spent some time in Warsaw when I was a kid between 1960 and 1963. My father worked at the US Embassy there.

A particular scene burned itself forever into my memory. There were still a lot of ruined buildings everywhere. One day we were driving somewhere past a large ruined wasteland, maybe 2 or 3 city blocks. Throughout the rubble small groups of little children were loading bricks into wheelbarrows. The children all wore the standard school uniform, a dark blue satiny smock over their clothes, and all of the little girls had white ribbons in their hair. They looked to me, a child just slightly older than they were, like a flock of exotic birds. I think I was introduced to recycling that day.
posted by mareli at 12:43 PM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


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