Pretty much everybody I asked about Warsaw said that it was horrible, and that I should visit Krakow instead. But I’ve been to Krakow a few times, and Warsaw sounded interesting, not least because of the whole “totally destroyed in WW2 and rebuilt mostly from concrete” thing. Having now spent a weekend there with M (I tagged along on her work trip) I can say that Warsaw is beautiful (in parts) and great fun, especially if you like Polish-style fine dining as much as we do, and traipsing around historic sites as much as I do. Note the distinction.
One place really stood out: the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science loomed over the trip, rather as it looms over Warsaw. My dad told me that it was huge, horrible and impressive, and I have a soft spot for creatively foul architecture – particularly if it looks like the Shandor Building from Ghostbusters.
Ghostbusters. Am I right or what?
The idea of the Palaces of Culture is a fascinating one – they were hubs of artistic, cultural, sporting and other leisure activities in former Soviet Bloc countries, controlled (of course) by the state.
Communism’s gone, but Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science (formerly the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science) remains. It doesn’t just remain, it looms, and I imagine it still gives some older Poles the willies. It’s still the tallest building in Poland at 237m, and takes up the ground space of several old city blocks.
What fascinates me about it? Well, everything. The archaeology of the modern world (wot I do) includes thinking about things like this – stuff left behind, stuff out of time. Also, it’s ugly, but in a really creative and very Soviet way – thumpingly unsubtle – but still I couldn’t stop staring at it. I walked around the outside (which took about half an hour) and marvelled at the horrible statues.
Pull your trousers up, man.
Just out of shot in the image above – the neon sign for a nightclub. What would Lenin say to that? (we know Marx and Engels were up for a party)
Also, bits of it looked like a fancy 1920s American railway station.
And to be honest, bits were falling apart. Weeds were growing up between the stones on the staircases, pushing them apart. Bits of the exterior were rusting, crumbling and falling off.
Some of the things made me smile, like the sign assuring us that the lifts were NOT Soviet, but were new and very safe. And the old-fashioned wooden telephone booths that looked as if George Smiley should be lurking inside one of them.
Also, the art. Oh my, the art.
Words kind of failed me here.
I think it’s appropriate that I visited it first in the rain, with barely anybody else around except some drinkers under one of the entrances and a bunch of police evicting them. I could wander around in a kind of daze, taking crap rainy photos. Then I found this metal marker on the ground beside the main entrance, showing where the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto had run.
That was weird, and a powerful reminder that the Palace of Culture was built in the early 1950s in a city pretty much annihilated – a blank canvas for redevelopment. Some of it was rebuilt just as it’d been before, other bits were turned into the Palace of Culture. So it goes. (Great photos of the construction of the Palace here, and a history of the building here)
All in all, the Palace of Culture seemed like a massive alien spaceship from Planet Stalinism that had landed in the modern, steel n’ glass city centre, right across from M&S and T.K. Maxx. I kind of love it.
Next up, I’ll write something about the equally amazing Museum of Technology inside the Palace of Culture, with its collections of old whisks and its miniature steelworks.