THE PROMISE OF THE CAPITAL OF MODERNISM

THE PROMISE OF THE CAPITAL OF MODERNISM

 © Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw photo: Bartosz Stawiarski

The cult of modernist, post-war Warsaw, expressed in terms of veneration for architecture and design of that period, is currently gaining strength parallel to the myth of the pre-war and the what-if-there-had-been-no-war Warsaw. The capital of the People’s Republic of Poland is a mythical place; a city full of tasteful edifices, of creative individuals who despite difficult conditions conceived magnificent forms, of avant-garde art and finely designed spaces unsullied by vulgar adverts. The pro-modernist movement was consolidated circa 2005, and its symbolic moment was the attempt to save the “Supersam”, a retro-futurist commercial pavilion which once contained the first supermarket in Poland (opened in 1962) and which was scheduled for demolition. Finally the Bureau of Monument Conservation allowed the demolition to proceed and the plot owner is currently looking for capital to build a tall office block, but the media campaign and signatures collected in support of the petition demonstrate clearly that thousands remember the modernist Warsaw fondly. Increasingly frequent endeavours to save the 1950s and 1960s neon advertising signs – ones that not a long time ago would have disappeared without a trace – are a mark of the same trend. Having received a grant for the creation of an art installation, Paulina Ołowska spent it to renovate the “Volleyball Player” neon of a vanished sports shop. The Museum of Modern Art took the neon of the demolished “Skarpa” cinema into its collection, recreated the neon of the “Emilia” commercial pavilion and sponsored the cleaning of its glass façade.

In 2009, a fashionable café-club found its home in the fifty year-old building of the Warszawa Powiśle train station (its neon restored as well). Young designer Magda Łapińska began selling ceramic figurines of architectural icons of those times: the “Supersam” store and the “Skarpa” cinema, as well as the “Rotunda”, also threatened with demolition. The Centrala Architectural Group famously gave the Warszawa Powiśle train station a makeover last year, and it has also been publishing provocative designs for other buildings, like the “Rotunda” building and the Central Station.

It is tempting to interpret this wave of interest in everything modernist as the Polish version of Ostalgie. Yet it is crucial to comprehend that under socialism, the very designs which Warsaw is now reviving used to attest to intellectual and artistic ties with the other side of the Iron Curtain; they used to awaken Warsaw society’s “Westalgie”. Designed by outstanding artists, neon advertising signs created an illusion of a consumerist lifestyle; they said goodbye to Lenin long before the Berlin Wall fell. Gazing at the neon signs above Marszałkowska Street, a resident of the Socialist Warsaw may have fancied himself at the Ku’damm, for an instant; his grandchildren, gazing at the retro-futurist architecture of the 1960s, may justly feel their origins lie in the West.