By 2004, when Polish membership in the European Union was sealed (the nation had joined NATO in 1999), the flow of foreign capital had turned into a flood. Warsaw boomed. Lech Kaczynski, mayor from 2002 to 2005, parlayed his headline-grabbing ways into the nation’s presidency. (Kaczynski died in a plane crash last April.) The current mayor, an economist and former academic named Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, set out to reshape the mutilated city’s downtown area, promising not simply to modernize the city but turn it into Central and Eastern Europe’s principal financial address.
“We will change the downtown,” she declared after taking over in 2006. “In the Parade Square area, skyscrapers will be built, which will become our city’s new pride.” Everyone knew what that meant: the square is home to the palace. The time had come to bring on the “starchitects.”
Gronkiewicz-Waltz knew that she could not turn Warsaw into a futuristic never-never land like Dubai or Abu Dhabi—there was too much urban history to cherish and too little oil underfoot to pay for vastly ambitious projects—but international architects and promoters could make the city’s heart glitter. “Warsaw must grow up if it wants to compete with other big European cities,” the mayor said. She meant “up” literally.
One illustrious architect had already made his mark on the city. Norman Foster’s sober Metropolitan Building, inaugurated in 2003, was a mere seven stories high but something to behold: three cornerless, interconnected wedges, each with its own entryway, their facades punctuated by protruding granite fins that seemed to change color according to the brightness of the sky and the position of the sun. It proved to be a surprise hit with ordinary Varsovians—even parents with bored children. With a crowd-pleasing circular courtyard filled with shops, restaurants, shade trees and a fountain, the building boasts amusement park flair. A ring of 18 water jets set into the granite pavement and activated by high-pressure pumps sends spurts to varying heights, leading to a socko 32-foot burst.
But the Metropolitan was only the beginning. “We intend to build skyscrapers, yes,” says Tomasz Zemla, deputy director of Warsaw’s Department of Architecture and City Planning. “To be honest, we want to show off.”
An architect himself, Zemla presides over the city’s future in a spacious, high-ceilinged office in the central tower of the Palace of Culture and Science. “We need to get the chance to compete with Prague, Budapest and maybe even Berlin,” he says, “because it is our ambition to become an important financial center in this part of Europe. Capital in Poland is very dynamic, very strong.” As for the palace, he continues, “We can’t let it be the most important building anymore. You know, it’s still the only really famous building in Poland. Children see it as the country’s image. We need to compete with that. We have to show our ideas. We have to do bigger and better.”
To anyone who roamed the barren city in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s searching vainly for a decent café or restaurant—endlessly importuned by hustlers on the sidewalks, prostitutes in hotel lobbies and pettifogging officials at the airport—today’s Warsaw is an astonishing contrast. The city teems with shops, cafés, bars, restaurants and consumer services. A passion for trade has bred an orgy of commercial graphics—taxis and buses virtually disappear under advertisements, entire building fronts are hidden by roll-down canvas billboards. Young men and women on the crowded sidewalks chatter in the chewy syllables of their Slavic tongue, inevitably larded with Americanisms and computerese like the beguiling zupgradowac (to improve), derived from “upgrade.” Just across the street from the palace, the Zlote Tarasy (Golden Terraces) mall, opened in 2007, provides shelter from the elements under an enormous, impudently weird, silvery blanket of undulating triangular glass panes (like some ectoplasmic creature from the deep heaving up and down to catch its breath). In a vast central space escalators zoom the iPod generation to every chain store and fast-food joint that the world’s marketing geniuses could dream of. Dour, drab old Warsaw is turning into a polychrome butterfly.
Among the first starchitects to seriously challenge the dominance of the Palace of Culture was Helmut Jahn of Chicago, creator of One Liberty Place in Philadelphia and the spectacular Sony Center in Berlin. His elegantly classical Residential Tower Warsaw, 42 floors of apartments and commercial space, is now under construction just a block behind the old Soviet rock pile.
Closer still will be Zlota 44 at its completion. This blue-tinted, 54-story luxury residential complex is the brainchild of the Polish-born American Daniel Libeskind, designer of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the original master plan for rebuilding the Ground Zero site in New York City. It features a dramatic arc of steel and glass swooping away as if seeking escape from the conventional, square-cornered structure to which it is attached (some calculated symbolism there). It was interrupted in mid-construction by a lawsuit filed by local residents who objected to their loss of sunlight and views. Final permission to complete the building was not delivered until October of last year.
Zlota’s stop-and-start progress is typical of the obstacles facing any ambitious administration in a hurry, but Warsaw had the further bad luck to be in full stride when the world banking crisis hit and credit dried up. Suddenly the grandest project of all—Zaha Hadid’s Lilium Tower—was menaced.