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Urban revitalization
Breathing New Live into Historic Sites

The great diversity of architecture that creates a city's unique atmosphere, develops over the course of centuries. In the case of Warsaw this process which is natural for other cites was interrupted by World War II. Warsaw was rebuilt from a pile of rubble, however some streets and squares that were distinctive to the pre-war city were rebuilt differently. Certain streets were rerouted or renamed.

Many places in the capitol are still waiting to be restored to their former status and glory. The most significant of them is Piłsudskiego Square. Usually almost devoid of people and excessively large in scale, this is a unique place in Warsaw. It serves as a symbol of the nation's fate and the battle for independence in Poles' imaginations, memories and hearts.

Now 270 years old, Piłsudskiego Square (until 1925, Saski Square) was one of the major elements of the largest historical urban plan in Warsaw, known as the Saska (Saxon) Axis. Initially Saski Palace stood on the square, first expanded in the early 17th century by King Augustus the Strong and later by his son Augustus III. For two centuries it was considered the most beautiful mansion in the capital. In the late 18th and early 19th century the stately building suffered extensive damage, for example during an uprising by the people of Warsaw and the Polish army against the Russian Army (one of three partitioning powers) in April 1794.

In the years 1838-42, Adam Idźkowski remodeled the side wings of the palace, giving them Classical facades and replacing the central section with a double colonnade. Thanks to it Saski Square was opened up to the Saski Gardens and the palace took on a completely new character. This was a one-of-a-kind architectural solution in Europe. In 1925 the Tomb of the Unknown Solider was placed beneath the colonnade.

The second famous building located on Saski Square was Ossoliński Palace, known as Brühl Palace since the 18th century. Like Saski Palace, it was remodeled and modernized many a time. Henryk Brühl engaged a team of architects, headed by Jan Godfried Knöbel, to adapt and expand the palace complex surrounding a triangular courtyard that sometimes served as a parade ground. The resulting Baroque facade was embellished with sculptures by Józef Deybel. At the end of the 18th century Dominik Merlini gave the main facade and the courtyard buildings a Classical look. Then in 1932-37 the palace was adapted for use as the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the new Polish Republic. The architect this time was Adam Pniewski, who recreated the Baroque facade, but completely modernized the interiors of all the buildings in the palace complex.

In 1944 the Nazis bombarded both of the palaces.

After the war a fragment of Saski Palace's colonnade, just three arches long above the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, was stabilized. Hotel Europejski across the street was rebuilt (in a slightly altered form) along with a courthouse. After the Wielki Theater was rebuilt in 1953 the square changed its shape and the massive rear elevation of the theater became the dominating element.

Piłsudskiego Square has waited for its final form since 1926 when St. Alexander's Orthodox Church, built by the Russians in the center, was demolished. Since 1927 there have been eight architectural competitions for a new layout of the square. None of them ever saw the light of day.

The latest attempt to come to grips with the subject of buildings around Piłsudskiego Square was made in 1993. At the initiative of the Municipal Architect a competition was announced for a spatial and use study. Among the 20 studies submitted, three were chosen for further elaboration:

  • a faithful recreation of the historic architectural ensemble,
  • a contemporary architecture ensemble,
  • an ensemble of modern forms that respects the historic spatial relations.
Following the choice of these three options and discussions on the square's future, conservation, landscape, economic and technical conditions necessary to prepare a development concept for this area were established. Its fundamental principle is the retention and accenting of the Saxon Axis and the reconstruction of the Saski and Brühl palaces. The square will return to an enclosed courtyard in form, smaller than at present (comparable in size to the Old Town Square) and thus more intimate and inviting.

There are varying approaches to the issue of reconstructing the Brühl palace, resulting in two development variations. The first would completely rebuilt the palace as it once was, the second option calls for a modern building in the same place with the same footprint. Both concepts would more or less faithfully reconstruct the Classical Saski Palace, making certain alterations to adapt it to present-day needs and expectations.

According to the established development conditions, the buildings on Piłsudskiego Square will by intended primarily for cultural uses (art galleries, antique shops, cafes), representative offices and public buildings, so that they can best satisfy contemporary economic, technical and cultural demands.

Piłsudskiego Square is a very attractive spot for investors. An enormous office building, to be built behind the Wielki Theater, was designed by the internationally famous architect Norman Foster. Unfortunately the start of construction has been delayed by claims from the pre-war owners of the site. This problem will not arise with the reconstruction of the Saski and Brühl palaces, because they housed public institutions before the war. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken an interest in rebuilding Saski Palace, and the National Bank of Poland has its eye on Brühl Palace.

Just around the corner is another important Warsaw square, one that was a favorite meeting place for Warsaw residents before the war and the heart of the city. This is Teatralny Square. The square was formed in the first half of the 19th century when the Wielki Theater was built on its south side. The square was encircled by arcades with elegant stores and restaurants.

The north frontage of the square was formed by the little St. Andrew's Church, two Classical townhouses and the splendid Jabłonowski Palace. The palace was remodeled in 1817-19 to serve as city hall and it remained the headquarters of the municipal authorities until the outbreak of World War II (in the first days of the occupation the Nazis arrested Warsaw Mayor Stefan Starzyński there). Next to Jabłonowski Palace the late-Baroque Blanka Palace was built (the poet Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński died in its ruins in the early days of the Warsaw Uprising).

In 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, Teatralny Square was turned into a pile of rubble. After the war the Wielki Theater building was reconstructed and enlarged, but only the Blanka Palace was reconstructed on the north side. In the place of the pre-war city hall a monument with great importance for Varsovians was installed: the Warsaw Nike in honor of the Heroes of Warsaw. When the decision was made in 1990 to recreate the northern line of the square, it became necessary to find a new home for Nike. Before construction started the monument was moved a bit north to the W-Z Expressway.

The project to recreate the north side of Teatralny Square called for the recreation of the historic facades of the buildings as they appeared in 1939. The rear elevations, overlooking the W-Z Expressway, could be modern in appearance. It also allowed considerable freedom in designing the interiors of the reconstructed buildings so they could serve as offices and service points.

The first step was made in 1995 by a French investor to rebuild Jabłoński Palace. Today it serves as a modern banking center. Just recently the reconstruction of St. Andrew's was completed (it now serves as a church for artists). At the same time its neighbor was finished, an office building whose facade recreates the pre-war corner townhouse. Soon the last building on the north side will begin, the pre-war Mikulski Townhouse.

Specialists for community organizations involved in historic preservation, the building inspection service and the Province Landmarks Conservator took a much more demanding position in regard to the renovation of three townhouses situated at the southern end of Trzech Krzyży Square, bounded by Mokotowska Street and Ujazdowskie Avenue. The buildings are listed in the historical landmarks register and for this reason hadn't been modernized or remodeled by the tenants for decades. The Landmarks Conservator is requiring the investor to retain the buildings in their original form, carefully conserve the interiors including a wooden staircase, ornamental plaster and a recently uncovered fresco. An old crane stands in the courtyard, left from a pre-war brewery that once functioned in one of the buildings. The investor plans to preserve and make good use of the crane as decoration in a old-fashioned micro-brewery that will be on the ground floor. The upper floors will be set aside for representative offices of renowned organizations and institutions. In two or three years tourists in Warsaw will be able to visit the restored Próżna Street. The planned renovation will recreate the atmosphere of a pre-war street in the Jewish quarter.

Today four apartment houses in near ruins are the only remaining fragment of a once lively street. Before the war the owners of shops and small manufactures lived here, alongside artists and lawyers. The Warsaw Bolt and Wire Factory was found in number 14, J. Lipszyc's Department Store at number 7, and Zalman Nożyk's hardware store was at number 9. He was the founder of the Nożycki Synagogue which stands to this day on Twarda Street.

The houses on Próżna, excluded from the Jewish Ghetto in 1942, survived the Warsaw Uprising but were never renovated. Today they look like something out of a war movie: a narrow street with devastated facades on either side, bricked-up or broken windows. Now the Próżna Street Company, created by the Jewish Renaissance Foundation, intends to created a focus of community life for Polish Jews and those from around the world. There will be a kosher restaurant and a multilingual book shop here. They also want to set up an information center and a little museum in one of the apartments, illustrating the history of the street. And the street's traditional trade in nails and screws will not disappear. Eventually there will also be a kosher bakery, a school and a store with Jewish religious items. All of the upper floors of the restored buildings will one again house apartments.

For three years now the historic appearance has been recreated on Pańska Street. The project involves the recreation of the facades of 19th-century townhouses with completely modern interiors. The development plans foresee the construction of a modern retail area and office buildings. Already the elevations of seven buildings have been recreated along Miedziana and Żelazna streets. Their shared courtyard has been turned into a delightful and elegant shopping arcade.

For the past three years the Royal Castle has conducted work conserving and stabilizing the Kubicki Arcade. It is in very poor condition, but is a historic landmark unique on a European scale. The Arcade was built in the 19th century. Around 200 meters long, the structure is made up of 10 arches (each arch is 8 meters wide and 6 meters high), joined by groin vaults. The bearing walls, 3.3 meters wide, are brick.

Built into the side of the Vistula Escarpment, the Kubicki Arcade serves a double role. It shores up the escarpment, on which the Royal Castle stands, and is also a sort of terrace linking the two parts of the castle gardens - the upper garden on the escarpment and the lower, down at river level. The Arcade also has a lower story, these are the 30 Saski Lodgings - chambers 3 meters high of 20 sq. m each. The Arcade and Lodgings lack any damp-proofing, thus rain water running off the escarpment and from the surface of the Arcade penetrates the foundations. The vaulting and western wall of the Arcade and Saski Lodgings (abutting the escarpment) are extremely damp. The walls have numerous cracks and missing bricks, the vaulting is covered with cracks; the most recent collapse took place in spring 1995 near the steps.

At present stabilizing work is taking place to prevent further destruction. A supporting wall is under construction with a system of drainage, ventilation and a moisture barrier. The renovation and stabilization work is dragging on because it costs an enormous amount of money, more than the Royal Castle can afford (the Kubicki Arcade and the Gardens are part of the Royal Castle Museum). When the work is finally completed in two years or so, conservation and adaptation work can begin. The Arcade and Lodgings will be adapted for eventual tourist and food-service use. Time is of the essence in the renovation of such a valuable and swiftly deteriorating structure, so it would be excellent if investors interested in preparing and using the Arcade could be found as soon as possible.

Not only beautiful old palaces and historic buildings or pre-war streets are in need of revitalization, it is likewise a pressing need for completely modern tower block housing projects.

Nearly every third Warsaw resident lives in a pre-fab concrete apartment building (approx. 600,000 people). Entire housing projects were built in the 1960s, '70s and '80s with this technology, primarily in Ursynów, Bemowo and Wola, and even in the center. For decades the tower block developments have been criticized for being unfriendly to people, monotonous, ugly, and especially of low quality construction. The poor insulation of walls makes the apartments very inefficient and expensive to heat, and the low quality of workmanship causes the buildings to deteriorate at an accelerated pace.

This is the time to prevent the tower blocks from becoming second-class housing. Their complete renovation must get started. This work should extend to the surroundings: the construction of multistory parking garages, the creation of playgrounds and the enlargement of green areas. The buildings' walls must be insulated, windows replaced, balconies, facades and roofs repaired, and ramps built for the disabled. Warsaw's authorities want to introduce a pilot program, drawing on Berlin's experiences in this area, that would demonstrate how to best proceed with the revitalization of pre-fab housing in Polish conditions. Two housing projects with about 300 apartments each have been chosen in a contest to undergo a model renovation. The lucky winners are the Na skraju project in Ursynów and one on Widawska Street in Bemowo.

Work should begin in May 2000. The authorities of the chosen housing cooperatives want to create closed courtyards for the residents use. This would be done by building penthouses on the roofs and corner buildings between the existing apartment blocks. The sale of these newly constructed apartments would then partially finance the rest of the renovation, because all of this depends on money.

The revitalization of the tower block housing projects exceeds the financial abilities of both the housing cooperatives and the local government. The cooperative are the owners of most of these buildings. The local government is obliged to renovate those buildings which are municipal property (about 20 percent of the pre-fab blocks). The city must spend an estimated 3.5 billion złoty just on this purpose.

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