Warsaw cultural transformation sign of Poland's rise

By bne IntelliNews May 6, 2011

Patricia Koza in Warsaw -

The campaigns are over and the wait begins for five Polish cities seeking the title of European Capital of Culture 2016. One Polish and one Spanish city will gain the honour, with the Polish winner to be announced on June 21.

Gdansk's application cites its role as cradle of the Solidarity movement that brought freedom to Eastern Europe. Lublin points to its history of tolerance and east-west cooperation. Katowice calls itself a "city of gardens" on which to base a new concept of urban living. Wroclaw highlights its diversity and its prestigious international music festivals. And then there's Warsaw. "Warsaw is a city of chaos, improvisation, unpredictable processes," wrote Sebastian Cichocki, chief curator at the six-year-old Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) Warsaw. "Warsaw is active, expansive, uninhibited. It is wild. While many other cities must look for their strengths in their past or in the misty future, what is best in Warsaw is either happening before our eyes, or is going to happen any moment."

Warsaw is, indeed, wild and unpredictable, and has little physical past to display - but those may be among its greatest strengths as it seeks the European culture title to help transform itself by using culture for social change. This "Paris of the East" was reduced to rubble by Nazi Germany during World War II, but rose again burdened by massive Soviet-style modernist public buildings, a dreary grid pattern of wide streets, and indistinguishable clumps of cheap apartment blocks. The Royal Castle and Old Town were lovingly recreated by Polish workers (aided by the detailed cityscapes of Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto), but most of its pre-war art and architecture was lost.

The end of communism in 1989 unleashed a string of high-rise office and apartment buildings downtown, but Warsaw is a work in progress - and there's plenty of work to be done. "We are witnessing the creation of a new Warsaw - a Warsaw that is constantly under construction, where each and every one of us can be the constructor," says Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz.

Take Plac Defilad, the largest city square in Europe (at 24,000 square metres), once the site of propaganda rallies and then a disorderly giant marketplace. The central square is dominated by the gargantuan Palace of Culture and Science, the tallest building in Poland, which was Stalin's "gift" to the Poles. After years of public debate over whether to tear down the Soviet power symbol, Warsaw officials have developed an ambitious plan to revitalize the area around it, and the linchpin will be a new permanent home for MoMA Warsaw, construction of which is due to begin by late 2012/early 2013.

Home sweet home

The warehouse-like structure, designed by Swiss architect Christian Kerez, will spread out directly in front of the Palace of Culture. At 35,000 sqm - almost exactly half the size of New York's MoMA (there is no direct connection) - it will consist of a vast glass-walled ground floor and an upper floor of open space covered by a canopy roof.

Estimated to cost PLN480m (€120m), it will have a theatre, two restaurants, a café and a bar, and a major bookstore - and 10 entrances to make it approachable day or night. Half the funding is already budgeted, and the city is applying for EU funds for the rest. Once completed - hopefully by 2016 if Warsaw wins the European cultural crown - the central government will take over operating it. The rest of the square will gradually be given over to commercial and housing projects, but always with an eye to keeping it attractive for pedestrians.

The museum project is essential to reflect Poland's transformation into a modern society, says its deputy director, Marcel Andino Velez. "Polish history is full of traumas," he tells bne. "We find ourselves a counterbalance that presents the world as it is today, without looking back into history."

MoMA Warsaw was established in 2005 in temporary quarters just as many Polish artists were beginning to attract international attention. From its first days, it has been actively pursuing what Andino Velez calls "a debate about modernity." This involves engaging local communities in cultural projects, especially since many inhabitants have moved to Warsaw for its career opportunities but have little emotional connection with the city.

Culture has never been lacking in Warsaw - per-capita spending on culture, which accounts for 4% of the city budget, is the highest in Poland - but the city is mainly seen as the venue for business and politics. "We were so busy making money and raising the standard of living that for the first 15 years, culture was not strengthened," says Grzegorz Piątek, artistic director for the Warsaw 2016 application. "Now one of our goals is to transform the city through culture."

Another goal is to increase the visibility of the commercial creative sector - advertising, film, graphic design, furniture making - which would help associate Warsaw with creativity. City authorities could commission poster designs, leaflets or even seek an innovative design for the city's ugly bus tickets, Piątek says.

Music to the ears of Poles

Warsaw's second flagship project will be a €100m centre for the Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra on the site of a former veterinary school in Praga, one of the poorer districts. It would be the first major cultural attraction on the city's right bank, and would draw the populations on both sides of the Vistula closer together. The centre, designed by Austrian architect Thomas Pucher, will include an 1,800-seat terraced "vineyard" concert hall with world-class acoustics, several rehearsal halls, education and workshop facilities and a small hotel for artists in residence and music lovers on vacation.

The orchestra came into being by a combination of chance and quick thinking. Its predecessor, the Polish Chamber Orchestra, invited the legendary violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin to Poland in 1984 to participate in a concert both as soloist and conductor. To accommodate the repertoire, the orchestra expanded its ranks to 40 members by recruiting talented musicians from all over the country. The concert, broadcast on radio and TV, was such an overwhelming success that the group immediately became a permanent ensemble consisting of 24 strings and a double wind section - with Yehudi Menuhin signing on as principal guest conductor. The orchestra has performed all over the world; of its 130 concerts last year, only 35% were in Poland.

Its director, Janusz Marynowski, admits the group travels so much "because we are homeless." He said the centre would attract more international culture to Warsaw because the ensemble has been invited to perform with artists the world over, but cannot issue many invitations in return. The project still needs the approval of city officials.

Marynowski, Piątek and Andino Velez all worry about what might happen if the culture title goes to another contender. "We are in for an uncertain future," says Piątek. "That's why we need the title. The projects can be quite vulnerable, because of the scale of ambition and the costs."

Warsaw cultural transformation sign of Poland's rise

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