Fuelled by foreign investment, the battered Polish capital of Warsaw is experiencing a building boom, with often mixed results

View from Warsaw: fuelled by foreign investment, the battered Polish capital of Warsaw is experiencing a building boom, with often mixed results

Christian Brensing

Last May, Poland, together with nine other former Eastern Bloc countries, joined the European Community. So ended a more than fifty year long period of enforced segregation from Western Europe. The Polish capital Warsaw with its 1.7m inhabitants has now fully regained its rightful place as one of central Europe’s leading cities. However, even before this historic event, Warsaw had become the focal point of foreign investment into Poland. A city that was more or less completely destroyed during the Second World War and then painstakingly rebuilt in parts, Warsaw attracted a first wave of international investment soon after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989. The signs of this quick boom are very apparent in Warsaw’s fragmented skyline. Speculative developments such as Blue City reached for the sky, but manifested a highly questionable architecture in total violation of any existing masterplan.

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From an urban point of view, Warsaw is still a fragmented city, lacking the definition which, in comparison, benefited the equally war-torn Berlin after the fall of the Wall. But even today only 15 per cent of Warsaw city embraces the current masterplan by the newly elected City Architect Michal Borowski. In the early 1990s, many architects and engineers flocked to Warsaw but left as markets began to dry up–only Arup remained for good, and are now the largest engineering office in Warsaw, currently some 90 strong.

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Yet the boom for real estate is over, and the frenzy in lettings and spiralling rents has died down considerably. With a vacancy rate of 14.3 per cent and an average square metre price of [euro]20, Warsaw is on a par with other cities such as Berlin or Prague. Today investors and architects are focusing on long-term gains, something that is beginning to improve the quality of architecture and urbanism.

This move can largely be attributed to the growing number of indigenous Polish architects rather than projects by foreign designers. Many Polish architects returned to their home country having spent years abroad as so-called emigrants during the Communist era. Stanislaw Fiszer, for example, spent a long time in France before he realized his first buildings in Warsaw. One of his latest is an office building tucked away in a courtyard near the Polish parliament. It bears all the hallmarks of a Post-Modernist interpretation of a historical facade, with architraves and lintels in cast aluminium.

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Budzynski & Badowski struggle with a similar stylistic legacy. Their brightly green patinated Court Building (1999) and University Library (2000) sport a peculiar fondness of decorative symbolism, anything from statues to embossed text blocks on the exterior. Here architecture is celebrated as a huge urban palimpsest where the building’s function is communicated by the almost billboard character of the facade. Enormous sculptural elements, such as Classical columns, caryatids and landscaped gardens and roofs convey a feeling of heroic scale and these buildings are indeed huge (library 61 000sqm and court 45 000sqm) compared with the ordinary houses which surround them. The message is almost ‘Learning from Warsaw’.

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Sadly it is not difficult to find examples of prominent new buildings in conflict with historic relics. The Gielda Building, which houses the Stock Exchange on ul. Ksiazeca is just one example. Architects Stanislaw Fiszer and Andrzej M. Choldzynski’s steel and glass facade faces a historic brick building, rendering it completely out of proportion. Just like the rigorous ING Bank building further up the street, the Stock Exchange sits uncomfortably in the urban fabric. It seems as if some Polish architects have not yet found their own architectural language, preferring instead to integrate elements from various sources in a watered-down pastiche of western European and American models.

However, this is not to say that all of Warsaw’s new architecture fails to respond to its surroundings. The Focus Building (2000), presiding over the busy Armii Ludowej dual carriageway, is a good example of how an imposing modern structure can be integrated into Warsaw’s urban fabric. Designed by Stefan Kurylowicz, the city’s most prominent architects, this bold corporate building has an elegantly engineered glass and steel skin. The new headquarters for the Polish Airline LOT, near Warsaw Airport, is another of Kurylowicz’s recent commissions. Here, the generally high quality of Polish workmanship pays off, and the result is a pristine, precise architecture. The only caveat is that the double facade runs around the building, so it is slightly difficult to imagine the stack effect of rising warm air being fully effective on the north facade.

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So far, ecology does not yet play a major role in Polish architecture, but some recent projects, such as the Agora SA Building (2002) by JEMS Architekci, combine ecological awareness with innovative design. The building is occupied by Poland’s most prestigious newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and was designed in close cooperation with the future user. The extremely deep plan (40m) draws in daylight via its long southern facade and specially designed diagonal courtyards. Wooden louvres, balconies and terraces open up the building from the inside. Transparency and natural materials animate the egalitarian interior where circulation is of prime importance and the editor’s office is not greatly different from any other.

Two other building sectors are flourishing in Warsaw. First, new accommodation is in such high demand that prospective buyers are forced to register on waiting lists and the overheated private housing market can command average prices of US$1200-1600 per sqm. The popular green field development Eco Park by Stefan Kurylowicz is a typical example of new, high quality housing–though the acronym ‘Eco’ should not be taken too literally. What you get for your money is a shell and core flat which you then have to wire up, and install the heating, kitchen and bathroom. (As a result, Polish DIY capabilities are extremely high.)

The second burgeoning sector is new embassy buildings and ambassadors’ residences. Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, South Korea are among the many countries that have either rebuilt their representations or, as in the case ot the French embassy dating back to the ’60s, lavishly refurbished their properties. The newly completed Dutch embassy by Erick van Egeraat and Grupa 5 from Warsaw is one of the most architecturally conspicuous. In beautiful Lazienkowski Park, Egeraat and Grupa 5 have created an eclectic ensemble of the ambassador’s residence and actual embassy. The architects play on the verdant setting by surrounding the estate with a green steel fence of stylized shrubs, while inside van Egeraat weaves his peculiar mix of Modernism and playful exuberance (much to the irritation of some staff). The new British embassy will be designed by Tony Fretton (AR November 2004).

As these projects demonstrate, Warsaw is increasingly becoming a showcase for foreign architects, fuelling the growing Polish passion for design. Norman Foster’s Metropolitan Building (which secured the RIBA Worldwide Awards prize, AR July 2004) lies at the city’s most prestigious Marshal Pilsudskiego Place. Foster, like German RKW Architects, is realizing projects that will set the tone for Warsaw’s architectural future. A future that still looks bright, spurred on by the new EU membership and the relentless optimism of Warsaw’s inhabitants.

COPYRIGHT 2005 EMAP Architecture

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group