Warsaw for Sale

© The Promised City, pgoto: Martin Wälde

In Polsat’s soap opera Samo życie, the protagonists appear in interiors and locations which are recognisably “Warsaw”, thus strongly related to consumerism: shopping in the Arkadia mall and the Traffic Club book and music mega-store, going to the Multikino cinema, lunching at a Vietnamese eatery, partying in a club, travelling by underground, having fun at the Warszawianka swimming pool, always with a lot of rushing car lights in the background.

But to yield to various city temptations, it is not necessary to watch serials – just look out of the window. Billboards of various sizes; yards of banners covering entire façades or, worse still, random parts of them; half-transparent foil placards in shop windows or on tram bodies. All became a familiar sight in the early years of this century. Women waiting at bus stops are relentlessly reminded how much they are “worth it”. The comforts of flying are recommended to train passengers. The PKO Rotunda building was first tightly wrapped in a banner, then the ground floor windows were covered with photos from thirty or forty years ago that, incidentally, remind the passers-by how this edifice would look like if the banner was not there.

It is quite unclear what precisely is in the best interests of the buildings’ inhabitants or users; good taste and right to daylight are often overridden by the economic argument, as profits from rented space may go towards the restoration of derelict buildings. Only in late 2009 did local regulations ban aggressive advertisements from the bodies of city trams, and national regulations make it more difficult to cover windows with banners. Awareness has been defined by (comfortable) existence. Privatisation of public space happened together with commercialisation of façades.

In the confusion of notions typical to the decline of communism, common space meant nobody’s space. First, empty spaces, so abundantly provided by the generosity of socialist town planners in the period when land had no real value, were spontaneously filled with small-scale trade: a milestone of the Polish road to capitalism. Rows of booths and stalls narrowed liberally designed pavements of main streets and underpasses, nooks and crannies of the Central Station and the park around the Palace of Culture. “Hard” commercial architecture was governed by a similarly viral strategy. In “Za Żelazną Bramą” housing estate, luxury hotels, office blocks and apartment blocks were squeezed into spaces once designed by urban planners as Lebensraum for the residents of cramped flats, and into the green belt meant for the never-built commercial centre which was to serve the housing estates along Aleja Jana Pawła II. In Behind the Iron Gate, a 2009 film by Heidrun Holzfeind from Austria, a resident of the estate comments with a smile: “On one corner there is a three-star hotel, on the other a four-star one, on the third a five-star one, and on the last corner there is my block, six stars, no less”.