It was as a student in Paris looking for a cheap travel adventure during Christmas break that I got my first glimpse of Warsaw. I had signed up with a couple of friends for a trip into Poland’s Tatra Mountains, and our second-class compartment on the night train was oppressively overheated until, shortly after midnight, cars holding Red Army officers were added in East Berlin, and the heat ceased entirely for the rest of us.
From This Story
Shivering and miserable, I disembarked before dawn at a bleak platform swept by fine needles of icy snow, backlit by large military-style floodlights on lofty stanchions. It was 1961. The air smelled of low-octane gasoline, the signature scent of urban Eastern Europe in those days. Warszawa, the big station signs read. The atmosphere was eerily gulag.
Many trips over the years only confirmed my initial impression: gray, patched together and woebegone, Warsaw was an ugly misfit compared with the timeless beauties of Rome, Paris and Stockholm or, closer by, the three fabulous Austro-Hungarian gems of Vienna, Prague and Budapest.
There was good reason for Warsaw’s pitiable state. Before World War II, it had been a parklike city, a picture postcard of old-world Central European architecture on a human scale. But beginning in 1939, in the war’s opening days, the city suffered grievously from Nazi shelling and the terror bombing that targeted residential areas. The Nazis would destroy the Jewish ghetto, and more than 300,000 of its residents would die of starvation or disease or in death camps. As the war ground toward its final act, Hitler—enraged by the Polish Home Army’s general insurrection, during which more than 200,000 Poles were killed—ordered Warsaw to be physically erased. Over three months in 1944, the Nazis expelled the city’s 700,000 remaining residents and leveled nearly all of what still stood: incendiary and dynamite squads moved from building to building, reducing them to rubble or, at best, charred shells.
No other city in Europe—not even Berlin or Stalingrad—was taken down so methodically. Rebuilding in haste with the poor materials and primitive equipment available in the dreary postwar days of Soviet domination, Varsovians reclaimed a bit of their history by painfully recreating, stone by stone, the beautiful Old Town section, the elegant Royal Route leading to it, the Market Square and the Royal Castle. But the rest of the city grew into a generally undistinguished low-rise sprawl, some of it the patched-up remains of the rare buildings that escaped complete destruction, some re-creations of what had existed before, but mostly quick-lick solutions for a returning population in desperate need of shelter, offices and workshops. Little did anyone suspect that half a century later Warsaw’s agony would serve as an unexpected advantage over other major European cities: since it was no longer an open-air museum of stately mansions, cathedrals and untouchable historical monuments, the city could be molded into a dashing showcase of contemporary architecture.
In the meantime, though, postwar Poland was threadbare, excruciatingly poor, trammeled by the economic absurdities of Marxist ideology and totally in thrall to the Soviet Union. Between 1952 and 1955, Moscow dispatched several thousand Russian workers to give Warsaw its “Eiffel Tower”: the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science, a massive confection of tan stonework 42 stories high. At 757 feet, it is the tallest building in Poland (and is still the eighth highest in the European Union) and resembles an oversize wedding cake. It was billed as a fraternal gift from the Soviet people, but it sent a different message: we are bigger than you will ever be, and we are here forever. Big Brother, indeed.
I can’t count the number of Poles who told me the old saw about the palace’s observation platform being the most popular site in Warsaw because it’s the only spot from which you couldn’t see the palace. Even when Stalin’s name was lifted three years after the murderous despot died, Varsovians detested the palace for the political statement it made and for its gaudy hugeness. After 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, signaling Communism’s fall, younger citizens began to view it with the sort of grudging acceptance that one might feel toward a doddering but harmless old relative.
But what to do about it? In the euphoria of the early days of freedom from the Soviets, many assumed the palace would soon meet a wrecker’s ball. But it is in the very heart of downtown Warsaw—in a way it was the heart of downtown Warsaw—and it contains offices, theaters, shops, museums, a swimming pool, a conference center, even a nightclub. It had its uses. The answer was a cold war-style compromise: peaceful coexistence.
Under the Communist regime, construction had begun on the first rival to the palace: a 40-story, glass-fronted hotel and office building completed in 1989. By then, Eastern Europe was changing with dizzying speed. In Warsaw, five decades of repressed entrepreneurial energies had been released like an explosion, and soon shiny new buildings were mushrooming from one end of the city to the other. Seizing the freedom to speculate, developers threw up office and apartment blocks of dubious quality, inevitably heavy on the basic glass box cliché. Before, people had worried about what to do with the palace; now they worried about what was happening around it.
Poland, the biggest and most populous of the USSR’s former European satellites, was taking to capitalism like a Labrador pup to a muddy puddle, and the largely underdeveloped country was a good bet for future profits. Eager to secure a foothold and capitalize on low wages and high levels of skill, foreign firms rushed in. Company headquarters of a quality that would not be out of place in New York or Frankfurt began going up.