Boomtown Warsaw

Contemporary Warsaw is a fascinating sight from afar. A high-rise landscape of eighteen skyscrapers over 330 feet high has been built around the city’s central station and the Stalinist Palace of Culture. Over a dozen more high-rise buildings are due to be built or currently under construction. Such distinguished architects as Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, Helmut Jahn, and Norman Foster are among the designers of contemporary Warsaw. One of the most striking creations is the shopping mall known as Złote Tarasy (Golden Terraces), a commercial and entertainment complex with a spectacular glass roof resembling an Alpine ski slope with its various bumps and dips. The very name Golden Terraces sums up the gold-digging mood among international investors and eager consumerism in Poland before the crisis of 2008–9. Immediately adjacent to the horizontally staggered terraces is the vertically thrusting skyscraper known as the Żagiel (Sail), the façade of which is punctuated by Libeskind’s characteristic angular forms and jagged-edged surfaces. This skyscraper was conceived primarily as an apartment building. In late 2013 the purchase price per square meter was 65,000 złotys; the equivalent of about $17,000 for eleven square feet. Close by, the Hotel Intercontinental with its triangular recess behind a fifteen-story-high leg is another symbol of postmodern architecture (and its dysfunctionality).

The skyscrapers surround Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki), a “gift” from the Soviet Union in the gingerbread style of the 1950s. After the regime change, the new authorities were uncertain what to do with this 613-foot symbol of Soviet hegemony. Some actors wanted it demolished or at least scaled down, but in the end, the Warsaw city council found a more creative solution. They put a preservation order on the Palace and, in parallel, invited international investors to erect high-rise buildings all around the Płac Defilad, Europe’s largest urban square, to overshadow it. The same solution of architectural relativization could have been applied to the GDR parliament building (Palast der Republik) in Berlin. But here, the federal government and the city chose to eradicate all remains of the previous regime.

Despite the many skyscrapers, Warsaw’s city center does not feel like a US downtown where the lights go out after happy hour. The high-rise district around the Palace of Culture is a meeting place for a cross-section of the population, and buzzes with activity until well into the night. A number of arts venues are located here: the theaters Teatr Studio and Teatr Dramatyczny are housed in the Palace of Culture; the city’s best known jazz club, Akwarium, can be found inside the Złote Tarasy. (The demolition of the jazz club’s original premises, built in the elegant modernist idiom of the 1970s, was one of the biggest urban planning mistakes of the transformation era.) The remains of the bazaar economy can also be found here, represented by a few hundred kiosks clustered around the Palace of Culture, in defiance of the nearby shopping malls. Those who find the postcommunist, postmodern ambience of Płac Defilad not to their taste can amble along the traditional shopping street Krakowskie Przedmieście, rebuilt after the war, or stroll about the old town. The royal castle, reerected in 1974, is occasionally (and delusively) cited as a precedent for reconstructing the Berlin City Palace.

The construction boom has transformed not only Warsaw’s city center but also the suburbs and the urban periphery.46 Socialist housing was particularly cramped, and the city had great pent-up demand for improved accommodations. In the metropolitan comparison, Berliners live most comfortably, each with an average living space of 130 square feet as of 2012. The disparity in living space per person in East and West Berlin that existed in 1990 has since leveled. There are more single-person than family households in both East and West Berlin, and average households in both parts are two-person. Warsaw residents continue to live more modestly, with only 91 square feet per person, despite the construction boom that started in the mid-nineties.

Nevertheless, it is a huge leap from the situation under state socialism, when the people of Warsaw had to make do with fifty-five feet of living space per person.47 The average number of occupants has changed, too. In the early nineties, an average household comprised more than three people sharing fewer than three rooms. Apartment sizes were standardized so that residents of middle-class districts lived in almost as cramped conditions as those in working-class areas. In all social strata, then, Warsaw residents were literally treading on each other’s toes. In this situation, family life was a dominant factor, and the legendary matka polska, the Polish mother, consolidated her mythical importance. To escape the confinement and the constant contact, it was necessary to leave the house—a habit that has persisted to this day, and is one reason why central Warsaw streets are so lively at night.

Demand for living space has naturally risen. In the twenty years between 1992 and 2012, over 250,000 new apartments were built, almost exclusively privately financed and not state-subsidized. A divide has emerged between rich and poor that did not exist before 1989. While the poorer classes remain in their old homes, unable to afford newer or larger apartments, a considerable number of Warsaw’s wealthier residents choose to live in gated communities. These have proliferated in the city: an author of the Chasing Warsaw anthology counted over 400 such estates,48 with guards and porters to inspire a sense of security among residents. Demand for protected living environments arose in response to the rapid rise in criminality in the early nineties. The frequent burglaries left their mark on everyday life, even if one was not personally affected. High-sensitivity car alarms howled incessantly at night; residents barricaded themselves behind armored doors and elaborate locking systems, as many did in Prague and Budapest, too. In fact, crime in Warsaw has been decreasing for a number of years. But gated communities also fulfill a desire for social distinction and exclusivity, which the advertisements play on. Society’s reception of them differs in each of the capital cities compared here. While plans for the first estate of this kind in the Friedrichshain district of Berlin unleashed a storm of outrage, the public in Warsaw registered the phenomenon with indifference, or at most discussed the merits and demerits of its aesthetics.

Signaling pockets of exclusivity, gated communities aggravate social tensions. In Warsaw, especially, rich and poor live close together. Warsaw has passed over the intermediary stages by which Western cities have become gentrified. The changes that have occurred in the Berlin districts of Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, and Friedrichshain followed the pattern set by SoHo and Chelsea in New York City and large stretches of London, from Notting Hill to the East End: squatters move into derelict buildings and a semilegal club scene is established; the first galleries, small shops, and bars open; more upmarket restaurants, boutiques, and health food stores follow; finally, luxury refurbishments are carried out. In the fashionable districts of Warsaw, this process took place at high speed. In the formerly ill-reputed district of Praga, turf of the underclass and petty gangsters, alternative stores and bars have opened in parallel with expensive residential estates, next door to dilapidated buildings where the losers of transformation live.

The social divide is symbolized in consumer habits. The new middle class throngs the shopping malls, which boomed even more than private housing construction. According to city planner Magdalena Staniszkis, shopping malls covering a total surface area of one million square yards have sprung up since the nineties. By contrast, the lower classes, who cannot afford brand-name clothing or 3D movies, make their purchases at bazaars or kiosks or in Biedronka discount supermarkets. Offering competitively low prices, these are similar to the supermarkets that have been proliferating for some years across southern Europe. (Biedronka belongs to a Portuguese supermarket chain.)

The construction boom that produced a glut of new shopping malls and apartment buildings helped fuel Warsaw’s economy (see fig. 6.7). The per capita GDP rose between 2005 and the pre-crisis year 2008 by 47.6 percent to the equivalent of $28,200 (adjusted to purchasing power parity). The city achieved the proverbial Chinese growth rate of almost 12 percent annually. The rise in incomes was even more impressive: in 2005, the average monthly gross income per capita in Warsaw was the equivalent of $1,080, in 2008, $2,116.49

Fig. 6.7.  Boomtown Warsaw: economic and income development. Source: Eurostat Regional Statistics (GDP); Rocznik Statystyczny Warszawy (Warsaw Statistical Yearbook) (Income).

Comparison with China is apt not least in view of the road traffic, which has reached Chinese dimensions. The jams on Warsaw’s main thoroughfares and arterial highways started to appear in the mid-nineties due to a simple equation: From 1989 to 2008, the number of privately owned cars increased by over 100 percent (1989: 408,000; 2000: 604,000; 2005: 737,000; 2008: 943,000). With 551 cars per thousand inhabitants, the ratio in Warsaw is now the same or even higher than in many Western European cities. (Vienna, for instance, counted some 400 cars per 1,000 inhabitants in 2013.50) Add to these the many trucks, which multiplied even more between 1995 and 2005 than the new car registrations.51 The amount of light trucks, especially, reached record levels, signifying the importance of small traders and producers for the postcommunist economy (and its traffic jams). The people of Warsaw respond to the constant congestion with calm resignation, no doubt in part because heavy traffic is considered an iconic element of modern city life. Berlin’s “poor but sexy” slogan reflects the same tendency to identify with the less-agreeable aspects of urban life: if dark sides cannot be avoided, one might as well take pride in them.

Warsaw’s traffic snarl is an inherent problem of the lack of urban planning and investment in infrastructure. It is symptomatic of the pitfalls of the neoliberal order that come to the fore in areas that defy privatization, such as local transport and traffic. The history of Warsaw’s metro was due to begin in 1982, when it was resolved by the Polish council of ministers. The Soviet Union offered its assistance, which was certainly more welcome than Stalin’s gift of the Palace of Culture. But not one foot of subway was ever built in the People’s Republic of Poland. Though the first Russian metro carriages were delivered as promised, the country did not have sufficient funds to build subway lines. The story continued in a similar vein after 1989. Intermittent progress announcements were followed by extended delays. Finally, a few stations and a short subsection along the North-South route were opened in 1998. In 2001, the city announced an ambitious plan to complete at least two metro lines within two years.52 But the goal of finishing in time for the European soccer championship in 2012 remained elusive; there was still no East-West route to take some of the load off the notoriously congested bridges over the Vistula.

Other areas of public infrastructure were also neglected. The number of child daycare centers almost halved over the course of the nineties while the number of children in daycare remained more or less constant. In short, there was a reduction in both the quantity and the quality of daycare.53Warsaw’s public parks and open spaces became easy prey. Socialist Warsaw was designed to be a green city with expansive parks and swathes of undeveloped land leading to the center like verdant aisles, transmitting fresh air. It was badly needed: in fall and winter the exhaust fumes from the coal-run power station rested on the city like a gray-brown shroud. The air quality would have been worse still without all the green spaces. Today, what is left of them provides a valuable antidote to the burgeoning road traffic, now the city’s severest environmental problem. Since 2000, Warsaw’s parkland has shrunk by about 272 acres, and over 345 acres of open space has been developed.54 In terms of surface area, that is the equivalent of the entire first district of Vienna. A number of shopping malls and gated communities have been built on former open spaces and marketed as greenfield developments. In the final analysis, the general public pays for this level of laissez faire, which adheres to the neoliberal logic of deregulation, liberalization, and privatization.

As well as revealing darker sides of transformation, a comparison of Berlin and Warsaw sheds light on the opportunities missed in the former city. While Warsaw gained a new face after 1989, the Berlin senate adopted a traditionalist, historicist policy. Guidelines for “critical reconstruction,” designed to revitalize historical street layouts, stipulated a maximum height of seventy-two feet for façades, and building materials such as brick or concrete. It marked a nostalgic approach to urban development, based on the architecture of the late imperial period and the 1920s. Its chief proponent was the city’s building commissioner, Hans Stimmann, who had led the acclaimed redevelopment of the old town of Lübeck (certainly one of North Germany’s prettier towns). Stimmann was appointed building commissioner in Berlin in 1991 and later promoted to state secretary, unaffected by the change of government. His career is an illustration of the bon mot that bureaucrats rather than the elected representatives govern Germany. Because Stimmann disliked high-rise architecture, it was confined to the plans for Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz, for which investors are still being sought.55

While Alexanderplatz looks much like it did in the GDR but with shinier facades, almost all traces of socialism’s architectural legacy have been removed from the government district. Symbolic sites such as the Palace of the Republic and the State Council Building have vanished. The space left by the demolition of the Palace of the Republic in 2006–8 is currently being filled by a reconstruction of the city palace of the Hohenzollern dynasty, the postwar remains of which were razed by the communists under orders from leader Walter Ulbricht. Neither the act of getting even with the GDR nor the historicist style of architecture conveys any sense of new departure. The cityscape is again dominated by stone façades and head-high bossage that makes the individual appear as small as the political players of imperial Berlin intended. Though overpowered by its history, Berlin has become a magnet for young people from all over Europe.56 They do not flock to the old city center at night but tend to gather in trendy districts such as Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg. In Warsaw, the reverse is the case. There, the city center is the main attraction.

Berlin’s historicism not only characterizes its façades but also its residents’ personal attitudes. The members of the educated classes—the predominant middle class group, as the city’s business community is small—aspire to reside in large turn-of-the-twentieth-century apartments in peaceful neighborhoods. Senior positions in public administration or at state universities still have high social prestige attached. Warsaw, in contrast, is characterized by biznesmeni and tradesmen. In 2010 the number of national economic units (most of them companies) reached a new peak of 344,000. It subsequently dropped again for the first time since the late 1980s—perhaps an indication that the long boom is coming to an end. Warsaw residents aspire to own newly built, modestly sized apartments of less than two hundred square feet, which many finance by taking second and even third jobs. Holding down multiple positions is also the norm for many people in Prague, Budapest, Moscow, and Kyiv. There is, then, no reason to idealize the new business boom in the two decades after 1989. The upswing was propelled by hard, restless toil, bordering on self-exploitation. But the niches for small businesses and enterprising individuals that existed in the nineties are now disappearing. The retail and restaurant chains, franchises, and other forms of big capital concentration make it extremely difficult to establish independent companies.

The multiple-job culture contributes to Warsaw’s high GDP and consolidates its position as the beating heart of Poland. The drawback is that Warsaw has to pay over 80 percent of its tax revenue to the central government. That is bad for the local economy and especially for the state of the metro, but good for the city’s self-image. While Berlin is dependent on equalization payments from the more prosperous federal German states and the government, boomtown Warsaw helps the entire country progress.

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