Falling in love with Warsaw

It was misty when Patrycja and I arrived in Warsaw. A grim drizzle, persistent and draining, sprayed down on the pensive metropolis. The travails of cheap European travel saw us collecting keys to a rather random room from a security guard who was snoozing in portakabin outside an apartment block.

“We’ll leave it with him because the other guy is an alcoholic,” the room owner informed. Not exactly an auspicious welcome, I’m sure you will agree, but quirky nevertheless.

We finally gathered the keys after midnight, hauling our suitcases through the cobbled streets, jeans wet, bed calling. While awaiting the arrival of an Uber in a darkened neighbourhood, I looked up and saw the flashing lights of a colossal structure peering through the clouds, scything through the heavens. It was the most awe-inspiring building I’ve ever seen. It was the Pałac Kultury i Nauki. The Palace of Culture and Science.

The next day, a sunny Friday, we ventured out to experience the capital city of my girlfriend’s homeland. Once again, I managed to season our excursion with football, arranging an official tour of the Polish Army Stadium, home of Legia Warsaw, the nation’s most decorated club.

Our guide, an eccentric blues guitarist, led us to a concourse atop the main stand, presenting a mesmeric vista of the city. He pointed to the Pałac and told us of his disdain for the building, which he described as an “ugly” work of Stalin. I was shocked, more by my own ignorant naivety than anything else. I was also intrigued.

Later that evening, we paid a special visit to the Pałac, arriving on foot just in time for a golden sunset. Emerging around a corner, sneaking past a public underpass, the majestic building unfurled before us, a bulwark of the vibrant skyline, old and new stitched together in pastel hues against a gentle sky. In that moment, I fell in love with Warsaw, an astounding city of unending mystique. This was my kind of place.

The tallest building in Poland, the Pałac is one of the most divisive structures on earth. Comprising 42 floors, spanning 757 feet, and consuming more energy than a town of 30,000 people, it looms as a brutal yet somehow charming reminder of Poland’s conflicted history.

The Pałac was ‘gifted’ to Poland by the Soviet Union during the post-war vacuum, an apparent symbol of Polish-Soviet friendship. However, in design, construction, meaning and legacy, the Pałac was imbued with far more sinister meaning by certain pockets of society. Some view it as a distasteful monument to communist oppression, holding Poland back rather than allowing it to prosper. Everyone has an opinion about the Pałac, and I was truly enthralled.

After grabbing some pizza, we paid to access the viewing deck thirty floors up the Pałac. The panoramic view of a twinkling capital will stay with me forever. Detractors agree that the observation balcony does indeed offer the best view of the city, if only because it’s the only place from which you cannot actually see the Pałac itself, known colloquially as Stalin’s Needle. I enjoyed the experience immensely, and I would recommend a visit to anybody.

The Pałac was designed by Soviet architect Lev Rudnev in the infamous Seven Sisters style used prolifically around Moscow. Dubbed the Eighth Sister (somewhat patronisingly), the building does include trappings of Polish heritage, while also taking inspiration from the American Art-Deco movement, somewhat ironically. It’s the East’s answer to America’s Empire State Building, a hulking catalyst of contemplation.

An old adage says that foreigners like Warsaw more than its residents, who are wearied by traffic jams and popularity contests. Perhaps there is some truth to that, borne through the heavy sighs of every Uber driver we encountered, but I have never felt more comfortable in a foreign city. I have never felt more at home.

Even to this day, it’s striking how mismatched the Pałac is with the rest of Warsaw’s emerging cityscape, an evolving hub of modernity. This is a cosmopolitan crucible bearing western brands and contemporary ambition, but the dominant structure, the defining emblem, is decidedly eastern in makeup, erection and ethos. It’s an irresistible microcosm of Poland’s post-war identity crisis and the pain it created.

Inside the Pałac, swanky chandeliers and vast marble floors are redolent of Moscow’s palatial metro stations, which - built in the style of Stalin’s socialist classicism - were intended to stand as palaces of the people. This was an architectural manifestation of supposed communist enrichment, delivery opulence to the masses in the most mundane of everyday environments. The same is true in Warsaw’s Pałac, which is now a multifunctional public space housing offices and institutions.

When construction began in 1952, however, no practical purpose was outlined for the building. Amid the rubble of a bereft Warsaw, so thoroughly razed by the Nazis, this oxymoronic monument rose like a phoenix without any physical justification.

Standing 30% taller than any other building in Warsaw, the ideological purpose of the Pałac was clear, at least: it spoke to Soviet power, domination and contrived charitable endeavour. It was a Soviet repost to the Marshall Plan, America’s stimulus package that aided rebuilding efforts after World War II.

With bricks and mortar, rather than cash and promises, the USSR extended an iron fist of support to Poland. The Poles had little choice but to accept.

The actual construction work was an exercise in propaganda, illustrating the perceived power of Soviet-Polish union and cooperation. In reality, 16 workers died during construction, which was hectic and chaotic. Soviet builders were used predominantly, working with materials imported from the USSR. The Polish government had little control over the process, selecting only the location and eventual purpose of the Soviet ‘gift.’

In almost every way, the tower cast a communist shadow over Warsaw. Stalin smothered the city, leaving fingerprints that would last for decades. Emerging from that shade was a difficult process for Warsaw and Poland more broadly. You could argue that it still hasn’t been fully accomplished.

The Pałac was transferred from Soviet ownership to Polish responsibility on 21st July 1955. It originally bore Stalin’s name, a vain power grab in the desperate throes of communist megalomania. In a bittersweet twist, construction techniques used on the Pałac were highly innovative, and the process was replicated throughout Poland on future projects. To this day, the Pałac remains in terrific condition, ironically looming as a prominent tourist attraction, generating considerable revenue for the city in a sharp paradox of communism.

All these years later, the Pałac is still a magnet of criticism, its history and symbolism open to conjecture. Some see it as a desperate avatar of Soviet oppression, a monolithic reminder of widespread human rights violations perpetrated by Stalin in the Polish People’s Republic. Others simply believe the funds used to build the Pałac could have been distributed more fairly to rebuild Warsaw quicker after the war.

In modernity, there have even been serious campaigns to demolish the building entirely, purifying the skyline and removing any psychological scars that linger. Former Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and current Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki are among the dissenting voices to endorse a full demolition.

However, history doesn’t work like that. Memories don’t operate along those lines. Out of sight is out of mind, but beyond mere tourism, the Pałac Kultury i Nauki delivers myriad benefits to Warsaw, I would argue – philosophical, educational, aesthetic, historical and more.

I’m deeply aware of its macabre machinations and I respect those who oppose its domination of the city, but the building is an awesome feat of engineering. From a relatively objective standpoint of foreign viewership, I also see it as an impressive aesthetic masterpiece of greater nuance and poignancy than is often acknowledged.

One school of thought says that architecture and politics should have a more granular relationship than the simple amplification of policy through glass and steel. The former should evaluate the latter – judge it, interpret it, celebrate it or admonish it - through a prism of evolving education.

In this regard, the Palace of Culture and Science is Poland’s bildungsroman. It is an educational tool for future generations, an impenetrable medium through which to share the complex story of Polish enlightenment. We can squabble over its virtues and drawbacks, but it should never be destroyed. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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