Warsaw on the Rise

A new crop of skyscrapers symbolizes the Polish capital’s effort to rebuild its downtrodden image

Designed by Polish-American Daniel Libeskind, the Zlota 44 building, which is under construction, may lift the city's profile. (Tomas van Houtryve)
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Hadid, an Iraqi-born British architect, planned a structure that would dominate the skyline once and for all—the first building in Warsaw to be higher than the palace. Her proposed tower of some 850 feet is destined for a site opposite the main railroad station. Gracefully curved, bowed outward in the middle and tapering at the top and bottom, Lilium’s four wings inescapably evoke horticultural images. There’s not a square line visible, and the building makes a stunning contrast to the palace’s plodding right angles and heavy decorations.

“I love that shape,” says Zemla, before extolling all three of his pet projects: “They’re beautiful.” Unfortunately, though, he and the rest of Warsaw will have to wait to see the Lilium grow. For the moment, the developers have put the project on hold until the economy improves.

Inevitably, some people would dispute Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s belief that skyscrapers are the ticket. Disdaining the race for postmodern glamour, an articulate minority calls for the city to seek instead to recapture the homey atmosphere of Middle Europe before World War II, sometimes idealized as a place of comfortable, easy living, of cobbled streets with friendly little shops, open-air markets and tree-shaded sidewalk cafés.

“When we got our freedom in 1989, I thought we would finally have real quality architecture for human society’s needs,” says Boleslaw Stelmach, an architect specializing in building in historic areas. “Instead, I found myself working in a huge office, not doing architecture but producing buildings like a factory. Well, I would rather see wiser than taller.”

Certainly Warsaw of the late ‘30s was a place of sharp intellectual activity, avant-garde theater, poetry readings, Chopin recitals and the like, but some critics of the skyscraper movement go further than Stelmach and overly romanticize the city’s past. The old Warsaw was not necessarily a civic paragon. There were also poverty, discord and social injustice—the same dark underside as any urban center.

Still, Warsaw’s long history of oppression by Russians and Germans, the terrible efficiency of its destruction and its dogged persistence in reclaiming the past make it a place apart: a city that has been obliged to reinvent itself. Even as the aesthetes and the philistines argue about what it should become, that reinvention continues. Remarkably enough, a sensible compromise seems to be falling into place.

“Yes, the center of Warsaw is going to be skyscraper city,” says Dariusz Bartoszewicz, a journalist specializing in urban matters at the Gazeta Wyborcza. “That’s its destiny. Twenty or 30 of them will be built for sure. Not in the next five years, but over time. It will happen.”

At the city’s fringes, a second wave of innovative design is beginning to reshape the Vistula River’s largely undeveloped banks. The Warsaw University Library is not only low, a mere four stories high, but meant to disappear. Topped by a 108,000-square-foot roof garden and draped with climbing plants whose greenery melds into the green of oxidized copper panels on the building’s facade, this ultramodern repository for two million books is what happens when architects are willing to share glory with a gardener.

The lead architect, Marek Budzynski, is a renowned university professor, but the landscape architect, Irena Bajerska, was virtually unknown until she was brought onto the design team. Her garden has become so popular it is now part of the regular Warsaw tourist routes. Bajerska beams and points out the young couples suited up in their tuxedos, white dresses and veils posing within her foliage for formal wedding photographs, while kids romp on the winding paths and retirees take their ease, reading newspapers and enjoying views of the city and the river.

Across the street, low-rise, riverfront apartment buildings are going up, and a series of planned projects, beginning with the Copernicus Science Center, next to the library, will perpetuate the human-scale development along the riverbank: bicycle, pedestrian and bridle paths, pleasure boat wharves and reconstruction of the Royal Gardens below historic Old Town.


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