Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland

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The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland

“The last battle of the colonized against the colonizer will often be the fight of the colonized against each other.” Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

The tempestuous cultural and political history responsible for the establishment of The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland is the fundamental factor that concedes the statuesque structure into architectural discourse, because of the deliberate use of iconographic design tectonics and aesthetics employed to commemorate the renaissance of the Polish State, under the Soviet Rule. Imbuing an impalpable national identity that is rooted in communist ideologies is read through a dominating coherent and conspicuous architectural language unto the Polish nation. Architecture is, in this way, employed as a medium to materialize the political and cultural realities of the Soviet Union after The Second World War.

Fig.1 The Palace as completed by 1955[1].

It is of vital importance to understand why this architectural feat is not celebrated in a similar fashion as other national landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower in France or Big Ben in England. Why is the tallest tower in Poland shrouded in such a distinct cloud of ambiguity?  Why are the austere crenellated surfaces pockmarked with traces of derision and reminiscent of the darkness of humanity? The history it commemorates, although wrought with turbulence has had prolonging influences in the decades that followed, both positive and negative.

Merriam Webster defines communism as a system that advocated for a proletariat overthrow of capitalist structures within a society, societal and communal ownership and governance of the means of production, and the eventual establishment of a classless society[2]. Goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed. It was the official ideology that governed the U.S.S.R, as a totalitarian system of government controlled state-owned means of production. Communist ideologies advocated for radical equality by sacrificing the liberties of the people[3]. Communism is not a self-regulating system, and therefore lacked the natural and organic mechanisms of democratic states run by capitalist regimes.

 In rebuilding Poland after the war, architecture and building became a prime site for political struggle and communist attention as it was the most immediate and interactive interface between the governing bodies of authority and the Poles[4]. Party Secretary Boleslaw Bierut initiated a ‘Six- Year Plan for the Rebuilding of Warsaw’ where modernist stylistic devices were vehemently rejected, as some architects publicly denounced its authority, as a direct consequence of its association with expressing capitalist and democratic ideologies[5]. For example, functionalism as a fundamental tenet of modern architecture, supported everything capitalism stood for, with its political, anti-social and cosmopolitan roots[6].  In addition, it had a recalcitrant attitude towards other postmodern architectural styles, as its self-assertiveness was commanding in nature, emphasizing that greatness could only be achieved through communal hard-work.

Seeing that communism was rooted in atheist principles, communities were no longer united by religion or congregated amongst churches, as the Soviets did not build any during the reconstruction of the city. Therefore, cinemas and other secular cultural institutions were erected in a larger effort to disseminate soviet propaganda. That being the case, the Palace of Culture and Science was the most pronounced social institution for facilitating the promulgation of the revered Soviet Union.

The architectural style of The Palace is immortalized under the bold imagery of Socialist Realism, which was the singular architectural style institutionalized during the Stalin reign of the Soviet Union. In addition, the victory of the Soviet Union that concluded The Second World War was translated into a visual symbol of exemplary grandiose imperial systems. The architectural language of the palace represented the epitome of human values, as they were easily discernible from other contemporary Western Skyscrapers because of this, and were unique in scale and monumentality.

The austere monotone of the exterior is marked in a dull brown shade that lacked the opulent ornament detail from the highly decorative periods before the Cold War. It was characterized by its glorified depiction of communist values such as the emancipation of the working class, by means of realistic imagery. The design of The Palace was intended to express nationality in form, but communicate a socialist narrative from within. This was how they integrated the two nationalities in a way that celebrated the end of the war but was still evident of the Soviet’s ensuing rule over the Poles. The Palace’s exterior is surrounded by dozens of monumental sculptures in the classical style of Michaelangelo’s ignudi, including astronomer and mathematician Copernicus,  Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, pioneering physicist Marie Curie, as well as idealized model workers – the most famous one holding a Ten Commandments-style book inscribed with the names of Marx, Engels and Lenin[7] . The opulence of the exterior continues within the interior, with glistening marble floors, staircases and corridors with weighty glass chandeliers and gilded finishing[8]. It was designed to hold several museums, theatres and sports venues. The interior program featured a plethora of entirely civic uses, with a massive congress hall, a swimming pool and gymnasium, theatres, a cinema, a technical museum, a Palace of Youth and exhibition areas compose the spatial experience[9]. Parquet floors were decorated with red stars, folk-style metal grilles barred windows, allegorical figures symbolized various socialist values such as knowledge and labor, and stripped neo-classical detailing characterized the Palace’s interior. The spiky “Polish parapets” decorating the roof marked the Polish inspiration[10]. On the other hand, the imperialistic façade was composed of a mixture of neo-classic and modern tectonics such as steel, concrete, bricks, ceramics, stone and wood[11]. This echoed the multicultural nature of the Soviet Union’s population.

More commonly known as ‘Stalin’s finger’, The Palace was designed in accordance with the seven sky-scrapers that were realized in Moscow between 1948 and 1955 namely Hotel Ukrania, Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Apartments, the Kudrinskaya Square Building, the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya Hotel, the main building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the main building of the Moscow State University and the Red Gates Administrative Building[12]. Earlier than that, The Palace of the Soviets in Moscow was initially the earliest Soviet skyscraper project that was never realized.

Fig 2. The Palace of Soviets as it appeared in the September, 1939 issue of the American Magazine Mechanix Illustrated (collection of the Author)[13].

Lev Rudnev lead the team of Soviet architects in the design of the Palace. He also spearheaded the design of the Moscow University Building, and therefore, was personally acquainted with the dexterity and the ambitions of the socialist design. In constructing the tallest building in Europe at the time, Rudnev and his team travelled across Poland to cities such as Cracow, Zamość, and Toruń amongst others, to learn about the national style which was modeled under the auspices of medieval and renaissance architecture[14]

Similarly, emphasizing the magnitude and extent of the political presence of the Soviets was crucial, because of the hand they played in winning the Cold War. This triumph transpired into tangible attempts to establish visual representations of the superiority of their societal, economic and political regimes. Thus, the Soviet Socialist System began to permeate the Polish State because of the consequent incomparable allegiance the Soviets felt towards their homeland. Prioritizing the welfare of the community by promising ‘ a new enlightenment in which the entire mass of citizens will live full, joyful, creative, cultural, wealthy and industrious lives,’ was the notorious promise of the Soviet Union , as Warsaw rose from the ashes[15]

However, “The Palace of Culture and Science in the name of Joseph Stalin,” as it was officially gifted to the Poles from the communist leader, disrupts the coherency of the traditional architectural language of the surrounding city due to its immense scale and concrete monumentality. The diversion of all resources towards its construction while most of the city still lay in ruins, further reinforces the power the Soviet government wished to enforce. Moreover, transposing the teachings of Communism through the built form threatened national security, as it inspired contradicting behaviorisms of utopia and violent revolt of the working class.

For instance, a common theme in post-war construction throughout Europe, was confronting enormous challenges in coping with shared experiences of mass death and destruction on an unprecedented scale[16]. Hitler had issued his infamous ‘Command Nr.2.’ that stated that “Warsaw is to be razed to the ground while the war proceeds.”[17] The severe extent of such physical destruction, and the horrific manner of its execution, brought Warsaw to its knees as torrents of devastated people fled the land.  While other cities suffered destruction at the mercy of military operations, Warsaw’s demolition was manifested through deliberate and organized extermination drives by special destruction detachments[18].

Consequently, the war provided an opportunity to resurrect the Polish nation, encouraging urban planners and architects to suggest novel ways to preserve Poland’s heritage, as the post-war climate was sweltering with notions of fear, and terrorized by the memories of death and destruction. On January 17th 1945, herds of Poles returned to Warsaw, and by January 1946, the population had soared to 538,000 from a measly 162,000 the year before[19]. In planning for the renaissance of the new capital of Warsaw, planners opted for more traditional architectural and landscape traditions of the Old City, as it largely exemplified their proud patriotism towards their nation[20]. Architecture that can influence an awareness of social justice and implement cohesive communities was what they aimed for. This was juxtaposed with the communist vision of reconstruction projects, that were largely centered on the erasure of wartime violence[21]. This largely involved paradigm shifts in the Poles’ ways of knowing, so as to give prominence to their resilience and ability to overcome such a tumultuous past.

In spite of this, The Palace of Culture and Science is erected as a tectonic folly, whose communist ideological ambition whipped the Polish nation into a frenzy, as they waited anxiously for the brilliant future that was promised, in hopes of seizing the opportunity to reconstruct their city and national identity. Architecture only exists as a form of cultural expression, dawned from using the built form for basic human needs of survival. In this way, the value of the Palace’s architecture is only justified as a result of the forces behind its history, therefore, complicating the value of this Palace to the Poles.

In analyzing the Palace of Culture and Science, references to the biblical Tower of Babel become more apparent. For example, Babel toppled because people attempted to reach the heavenly realms of God, by constructing a tower that could pierce through any celestial realm. In the same way, the Soviets aimed to assert their power and influence through the immense verticality of the Palace, overshadowing all the technologically efficient Western states, and pointed towards the brilliant future that awaited them. However, as people externalized God, and tried to equate their authority on such a mighty level, they unwittingly relinquished the essence of their morality as human beings, driven by delusions of deity. In this same way, Stalin was misguided in thinking that the rule of the Soviets transcended humanistic realms, thereby allowing for the complete rejection of morals and principles in efforts to be the most powerful state on the earth. Unfortunately, the problem associated with externalizing socialist ideals through the built form as Poland tried to do while rebuilding the heart of its nation, obstacles to genuine ethereal development emerged, thus hindering societal transformations of the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of the Polish people on any personal level. The Tower of Babel and The Palace of Culture and Science stood as the physical representation of the people’s ideology. In the same way that God confused the language of the people so that they could stop building the tower, so did Stalin confuse the national patriotism nascent in the heart of Warsaw during the post-war climate.

Fig 3. Warsaw city centre, situated within the urban context, showing the Palace of Culture and Science[22]

Furthermore, the nature of the violence that tore the nation apart during the war was spurred by fear. A dangerously potent emotion that the poles wanted to forget, as they tried to motivate their prosperity while cultivating a fundamental transformation of underlying beliefs and perceptions of reality[23]. The Poles were demoralized and violently robbed of their country, their dignity and ambitions as a nation also razed to the ground. [24] The fabric of society was shredded from the ragged tears enacted by the barbaric Nazi occupation. Hunger, apathy, unemployment, fear and fierce cold ravaged the nation as direct results of the war[25].  In this condition, it became difficult to reject the help the Soviets extended in their reconstruction projects.

Even before the war, Poland was a great power approaching the slump of an economic cycle. Poland is geographically sandwiched between Germany and Russia, two behemoth powers with large international footprints. Therefore, determining the power of the Polish sovereignty was no easy feat, because it risked being dwarfed by the influences of its neighboring states. Unfortunately, Poland’s central geographic position enabled Her absolute dismemberment[26]. Having lost their state, the Poles struggled to save at least their existence as a nation, and this was only survived by the history of their memories. As a result, the poles have remained intrinsically very patriotic, fighting tooth and nail to preserve their national identity.  Communism was a vehicle of Russian domination, and so the Poles were very discontent with its institutions while idealizing genuine internal autonomy.

Without a doubt, the built form of architecture was soon commodified past its basic use to shelter people from natural forces, and with time, it began to peddle the dreams of a bigger and brighter future for mankind, as they sought influences for a better version of themselves. This facilitated radical constructions, such as that of the Palace, that defied what seemed possible for that age, as they were erected as shrines to the material wealth that circulated nations. They testified power, politics, and reinforced stature. This disillusion proved disastrous especially in the totalitarian regime that governed the Soviet state. Evidently, others feel that the essence of human being is separated from the intrinsic nature of architecture, as they stopped celebrating humanity, which was evidenced by the atrocious crimes that resulted from the warfare. In accordance with this, the heavy concrete verticality of the Palace testified to the futurism that communist leaders like Stalin advocated. It disappeared into the sky, demonstrating the never ending possibilities for the future. It kept the people aware of the inevitability of the changing dynamics, despite the obscure nature of the future.

The heritage of such architecture is what gives the Palace an almost irrelevant position in international architectural discourse today as it stands as a grotesquely hollow, nondescript and detached structure that engulfed Poland with its scale. As the forces of globalization continue to instigate paradigm shifts in anticipating the future, the past becomes pock-marked with contempt and efforts to forget the regimes that failed the people. If the Poles were never subjected to assimilate into communist ways of living and working, would Poland’s international presence be more secure and well-known, like other European behemoths such as France or England?

The generations born after the war have associated new memories and experienced that are untouched by the war to the Palace. After the dexterous purging of all Stalin-associated regimes in Poland in the later half of the 20th century, new feelings of hope and optimism soon came to erode the crippling fear and horrors that were linked to the palace, and its founding principles. Even though some people support Socialism as an intellectual construct, it inflicted cognitive effects that have proved difficult to erase or write over, even with generations whose history and memories were completely detached from the tragedies of the war. How were the Poles to recover from wartime phantoms that haunted those who suffered at the hands of ultimate survival, having witnessed and participated in traumatizing acts of brutality and in mass executions?  Even as Poland gained independence years later, the effects of the atrocities were deeply embedded into the nation’s fabric and the ability to claim their nationality as an independent state was compromised. As a result the Palace as it exists today, testifies to this history.

Bibliography:


[1] David Crowley, “Building the World Anew: Design in Stalinist and Post-Stalinist Poland,” Journal of Design History 7, no. 3 (1994): 191, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/1316115.

[2] “Communism,” Merriam-Webster, accessed December 23, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/communism.

[3] “Communism,” Merriam-Webster, accessed December 23, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/communism.

[4] David Crowley, “Building the World Anew: Design in Stalinist and Post-Stalinist Poland,” Journal of Design History 7, no. 3 (1994): 187, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/1316115.

[5] David Crowley, “Building the World Anew: Design in Stalinist and Post-Stalinist Poland,” Journal of Design History 7, no. 3 (1994): 190, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/1316115.

[6] David Crowley, “Building the World Anew: Design in Stalinist and Post-Stalinist Poland,” Journal of Design History 7, no. 3 (1994): 190, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/1316115.

[7] Agata Pyzik, “Warsaw’s Palace of Culture, Stalin’s Gift: A History of Cities in 50 Buildings, Day 32,” last modified May 8, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/may/08/warsaw-palace-of-culture-stalin-a-history-of-cities-in-50-buildings-day-32.

[8] Agata Pyzik, “Warsaw’s Palace of Culture, Stalin’s Gift: A History of Cities in 50 Buildings, Day 32,” last modified May 8, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/may/08/warsaw-palace-of-culture-stalin-a-history-of-cities-in-50-buildings-day-32.

[9] Mark Dorrian, “ Falling Upon Warsaw: The Shadow of The Palace of Culture,” Journal of Architecture 15, no.1 (2010): 91. DOI: 10.1080/13602360903573619.

[10] David Crowley, “Building the World Anew: Design in Stalinist and Post-Stalinist Poland,” Journal of Design History 7, no. 3 (1994): 190, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/1316115.

[11] “Pałac Kultury i Nauki w Warszawie, ” PKin Without Barriers, accessed December 23, 2018, http://www.pkin.pl/eng.

[12] Mark Dorrian, “ Falling Upon Warsaw: The Shadow of The Palace of Culture,” Journal of Architecture 15, no.1 (2010): 98. DOI: 10.1080/13602360903573619.

[13] Mark Dorrian, “ Falling Upon Warsaw: The Shadow of The Palace of Culture,” Journal of Architecture 15, no.1 (2010): 94. DOI: 10.1080/13602360903573619

[14] “Pałac Kultury i Nauki w Warszawie, ” PKin Without Barriers, accessed December 23, 2018, http://www.pkin.pl/eng.

[15] David Crowley, “Building the World Anew: Design in Stalinist and Post-Stalinist Poland,” Journal of Design History 7, no. 3 (1994): 187, http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/1316115.

[16] Frank Biess and Robert G Moeller, Histories of the Aftermath: The Legacies of the Second World War in Europe (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), 3.

[17] Stanislaw Dziewulski and Stanislaw Jankowski, “The Reconstruction of Warsaw,” The Town Planning Review 28, no. 3 (1957): 213. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/40101617.

[18] Stanislaw Dziewulski and Stanislaw Jankowski, “The Reconstruction of Warsaw,” The Town Planning Review 28, no. 3 (1957): 213. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/40101617.

[19] Stanislaw Dziewulski and Stanislaw Jankowski, “The Reconstruction of Warsaw,” The Town Planning Review 28, no. 3 (1957): 213. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/40101617.

[20] Stanislaw Dziewulski and Stanislaw Jankowski, “The Reconstruction of Warsaw,” The Town Planning Review 28, no. 3 (1957): 214. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/40101617.

[21] Frank Biess and Robert G Moeller, Histories of the Aftermath: The Legacies of the Second World War in Europe (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), 3.

[22] Stanislaw Dziewulski and Stanislaw Jankowski, “The Reconstruction of Warsaw,” The Town Planning Review 28, no. 3 (1957): 213http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/40101617.

[23] Frank Biess and Robert G Moeller, Histories of the Aftermath: The Legacies of the Second World War in Europe (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), 33.

[24] Frank Biess and Robert G Moeller, Histories of the Aftermath: The Legacies of the Second World War in Europe (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), 22.

[25] Frank Biess and Robert G Moeller, Histories of the Aftermath: The Legacies of the Second World War in Europe (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), 23.

[26] Adam Bromke, “Nationalism and Communism in Poland,” Foreign Affairs 40, no. 4 (1962): 635, doi:10.2307/20029586.

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