Wednesday, December 19, 2012
In a situation where benefits are being decimated, estates cleared, the NHS privatised and urban planning regulations torn up, it's easy for politicians (and developers) to claim that architecture is a side-issue, of interest only to aesthetes (probably southern). So it might seem that the campaign to save Preston's Bus Station from demolition is a distraction from the issue of austerity and what the response to it should be - but, in fact, if there's a better illustration of how austerity works and how hopeless the Labour Party have been in opposing it, I can think of few better examples. But, first things first - the building itself. Preston Bus Station was designed in the late 1960s by local, later to be international architects Building Design Partnership. 'Bus Station' hardly covers what the building is. What we have here is a Bus Station and multi-storey car park, with a vast, airport-lounge like interior boasting cafes, newsagent, hairdresser (!) and so forth - a Public Building in the truest sense, taking a mundane thing and making it as comfortable and pleasing as possible, lack of maintenance notwithstanding. The finishes of the building - the wood, tiles and metal of the interior, the op-art concrete waves of the facade - are of the very highest quality. Nothing today, bar the most expensive 'signature' architecture, is this well-made. But being a good Public Building is not going to do a structure many favours today.
I've been trying to puzzle out what is exactly happening with the Bus Station on Procrastinator and to be honest I'm still none the wiser. For most of the 2000s the proposal was to demolish the station and replace it - and the surrounding area of the '60s Markets and office buildings built at the same time by RMJM and BDP - with Tithebarn, a 'mall without walls'. Always a strange idea in a declining city that already has two large malls, Tithebarn was an early casualty of the recession, effectively cancelled in 2011 when John Lewis pulled out. That seemed to give the place a reprieve - earlier this year, at a public tour and talk on the Bus Station, I spoke to a few local politicians and councillors*, who said that they were keen to keep the building - the only obstacle was Lancashire County Council, who wanted a new bus station built by the Railway Station. This idea, that it's in 'the wrong place', comes up a lot, although it's puzzling - it's ten minutes walk from the railway station, but right next to the Guildhall, the Markets, the magnificent Harris Museum and Art Gallery and the shopping centres, basically everything a non-Prestonian might want to see or do in Preston. Nonetheless, Lancs Council are apparently adamant that they will not fund a refurbishment (though it may be cheaper than demolition), so if the current building is demolished, there will (eventually) be a new bus station and LCC will (probably) be funding it. Here is what they want it to look like.
(image via Dominic Roberts)
Now you've got your breath back, I should point out that though this is what Lancs County Council want, they are not planning to do this anytime soon - they are not demanding the Bus Station be cleared out of the way. Why would they, when they want to build it somewhere else entirely? So the reason given is the cost of maintaining the current Bus Station. A recent costing puts this at £23 million, a bizarre figure - earlier estimates put it at £4 million, and even councillors concede the figure is probably around £10 million. £4 million is a lot of money, particularly when council budgets are being crushed in Eric Pickles' iron fist, but the fact is that the Bus Station costs £300,000 a year to run. Local socialist councillor Michael Lavalette estimates that a 50p increase in car park costs would pay for the building's annual maintenance. So all this suggests that someone, somewhere, wants a prohibitive figure put on the building so that they can make the we-are-protecting-services-not-buildings-for-ponces argument, to get rid of the Bus Station ASAP. What for, though?
What is key here is that Preston City Council also voted to demolish RMJM's 1960s Market building adjacent. That is, the other council-owned part of the former Tithebarn site. Like the Bus Station, although not quite as architecturally stunning, the market is a good piece of civic design, and it is well-used. Nonetheless, the Preston City Council meeting that decided to demolish the Bus Station and markets met for a paltry 30 minutes. I'm sure a lot of people in the city and outside of it have talked more about the Bus Station on an average Monday than that. So it seems pretty obvious that a fix is in. What sort of a fix? Well, what the council want in place of the Bus Station, for the moment, is a surface car park. Given that there's already a cordon sanitaire of dead space between the Bus Station and the ring road, that means a vast, exurban empty space in the middle of the city, to deliberately create the sort of vast, anti-urban car-centred wasteland that has destroyed Southampton - only without the actual shopping mall those spaces serve. The city's idea appears to be - as far as I can tell - that they will carry out the programme of demolition that was meant to precede the Tithebarn scheme, giving them a big empty space that they can then sell to a developer at that mythical moment, When The Market Picks Up. That is, Preston is choosing to inflict on itself what Bradford now has, a huge bloody hole where it used to have a city centre. This, incidentally, is also what happened to Portsmouth City Council in 2004, when it demolished the Tricorn Centre, after a similar campaign that pit bluff, don't-know-a-lot-but-I-know-what-I-like councillors against local and national architecture enthusiasts, who proposed several plausible schemes for refurbishment, redesign and renewal to no avail. The Tricorn was replaced with a surface car park, on which a 'Northern Quarter' was meant to be built, when The Market was most definitely Up. 8 years later it hasn't been, but maybe When The Market Picks Up....
This is the fate that Preston is choosing to inflict on itself. If it's only a matter of Lancashire County Council's hostility, why are Preston so keen to frame it as being about the Bus Station's allegedly exorbitant expense? Unlike similar acts of philistinism, like Tower Hamlets' sell-offs of Robin Hood Gardens or Henry Moore's 'Old Flo', or Birmingham's flogging off of sites occupied by John Madin's Library and NatWest tower, there are no buyers waiting in the wings. Unlike the Tricorn, the building is structurally sound, it works, and it is popular, winning the Lancashire Evening Post's poll for best building in the city - no mean feat when the Harris is nearby. Like the Tricorn, there are several plausible plans for its redesign and reuse, to sort out its problems with circulation, its excessive size, and so forth. Preston and its architecture have been, through the council's philistinism, in the news for the first time since, well, the 1960s. Every council wants an Iconic, nationally recognised building. Preston now has one. So why not appeal to Lancashire County Council's good sense, and mount a council-sponsored campaign to save the building? It still seems like the most plausible reason is that they really do want to replace the Bus Station with a surface car park, in the hope that one day a developer will want to build them a mall. After (or rather during) the massive game-changer that is the financial crisis and the obvious bankruptcy of cities built on debt, shopping and driving in and out, Labour councillors - in both Lancashire and Preston - still can't think of anything their cities might be other than shopping centres. In fact, austerity now gives them an even better alibi. Can't you see - we've got no choice...
Petition to save Preston Bus Station is here.
*one of whom told me a story about this delightful new hotel, that he'd been the only councillor to vote against it when it was in planning. When asked why, he said 'because it's a terrible piece of architecture'. He was told 'that's nothing to do with us'.
Sunday, June 10, 2012
I'm not going to declare this blog defunct quite yet - I have some intentions for it, if I ever get the time - but it should be recorded here that I have the following publications out now. Both are on architecture and politics and both are sort-of topical via location with certain current sports events, if only through happenstance.
this records at great length, in three-dimensional form, architectural and political impressions of Chatham, Gravesend, Dartford, Barking, Silvertown, Poplar, Stratford, Middlesbrough, Billingham, Redcar, Preston, Barrow-in-Furness, Birmingham, West Bromwich, Walsall, Coventry, Bristol, Brighton and Hove, Croydon, Sutton, Plymouth, Oxford, Leicester, Lincoln, Merthyr Tydfil, Ebbw Vale, Tredegar, Blackwood, Newport, Edinburgh, Leith, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Cumbernauld, Belfast and the City of London.
this records across much shorter length and in e-book form, architectural and political impressions of public squares in St Petersburg, Berlin, Kharkov, Warsaw, Łódź, Katowice, Ljubljana, Kiev and Moscow. Available in Russian!
More soon, or if not soon, eventually.
Wednesday, November 02, 2011
Pull the Units Down
Despite earlier gripes I'm going to be giving several talks about Uncommon over the next month or so; one at the Architectural Association in London (of all places) on 10th November; one in Oxford as part of their Zero Books Season on 15th November; and another in Zagreb at the Centre for Drama Art on 17th November (no link as yet). There's also a campaign to make 'Cunts are Still Running the World' Xmas number 1. As you can see above it is a cause richly worth supporting.
Talks on other matters, connected to another thing, more of which will be revealed presently: I'll be expounding on post-Soviet squares in Cambridge on 8th November; on the paradoxes of modernism and conservation at the ASCHB on 9th November; on the 'socialist skyscraper' at the Historical Materialism conference on the 11th; and at Pushkin House in London I'll be taking part in a season on Constructivism, laterally connected with the current RA exhibition: one solo talk on Communist Constructivism on 23rd November, and taking part in a debate on the built legacy of the Soviet avant-garde on the 30th.
Some writings: Urban Trawl in Aberdeen; below, in case missed, long ramble about industry; linked to that, long and equally rambling post on the Lloyds Building for The 80s Blog. I've also written a short text for photographer Robin Maddock's book lovingly depicting that most jolie-laide of British cities, Plymouth, God Forgotten Face.
Go and read these instead: the now-regularly blog-updating Agata Pyzik causing a scrap on matters Ostalgic with this superb Frieze piece; the excellent English-language Polish politics/economy blog Beyond the Transition; Jones the Planner on an English city which oddly hasn't completely screwed itself up; Douglas Murphy on Summerland; and the 70s, 80s and 90s blogs are still generating the best online writing around.
Garden Festival as Crystal Palace
Below is the full version of a piece published on Comment is Free a few weeks ago about a book I found in a bookshop in Lee, and thought 'aha! This is the source of the famous Wienerisation! (which any reader of Robin Carmody will be familiar with). It's about a third or so longer and somewhat less zippy.
There's one thing which the leaders of both of the main parties seem to agree. It is expressed in different ways, and with different degrees of sincerity. For Ed Miliband, it's a question of rewarding the 'producers' in industry rather than the 'predators' of finance capitalism; for George Osborne, 'we need to start making things again'. Yet there's no doubt that both the Conservative Party (from 1979 to 1997) and the Labour Party (from 1997 to 2010) presided over a massive decline in industry and 'production'; both of them favoured finance and services over industry and technology. Yet here is an apparent change of heart. What does it mean, this apparent divide between producer and predator, industrialist and speculator, this apparent desire to turn the long-defunct workshop of the world back into a workshop of some sort?
Answers might lie in a book published thirty years ago, one which was once a fixture of British political debate – the historian Martin J Wiener's 1981 polemic English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit. Keith Joseph handed a copy to every member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet. But compare it with the rest of his notorious 'reading list' to the Tory cabinet of the early '80s. Most of that list consisted of the classics of neoliberalism – defences of raw, naked capitalism from the likes of Friedrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman, the books which are often associated with an economic policy that decimated British industry. Wiener's book was different. Not an economic tract as such, it was more of a cultural history, and its apparent influences were largely from the left. A short analysis of English political and literary culture, the centrality it gave to literature evoked Raymond Williams; its insistence on the sheer scale of English industrial primacy showed a close reading of Eric Hobsbawm; and by ascribing industrial decline to England's lack of a full bourgeois revolution, it had much in common with Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson's famous 1960s 'thesis' on English backwardness. In fact, Wiener seldom cited right-wing sources at all.
Wiener claimed that British industrial capitalism reached its zenith in 1851, the year of the Crystal Palace, its protomodernist architecture filled with displays exhibiting British industrial prowess. After that, it came under attack from both left and right – in fact, Weiner argues that the left and right positions were essentially indistinguishable. Whether ostensibly conservative, like the Gothic architect Augustus Welsby Pugin, or Marxist, like William Morris, opinion formers in the second half of the nineteenth century agreed that industry had deformed the United Kingdom, that its cities and its architecture were horrifying, that its factories were infernal, and that it should be replaced with a return to older, preferably medieval certainties. Wiener claims the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings as one of this movement's successes – an unprecedented group that, in his account, fundamentally believed that its own era uniquely had no valuable architectural or aesthetic contribution to make.
This horrified reaction to industry, and most of all to the industrial city, affected middle class taste (and Wiener has it that working class taste invariably followed suit) – the ideal was now the country cottage, and if it couldn't be in the country itself, then the rural could be simulated on the city's outskirts, as in the garden suburbs of Bedford Park or Hampstead, followed by the 'by-pass Tudor' of the early 20th century. The real England, insisted commentators of left, right and centre, was the country, despite the fact that since the middle of the 19th century, for the first time anywhere, a majority lived in cities. One of Weiner's sharpest anecdotes concerns a book of poetry about 'England' distributed to soldiers during the First World War. Not one poem even mentioned the industrial cities where those who fought had overwhelmingly come from. By the '20s, competing political leaders posed as country gents, whether the Tory Stanley Baldwin, marketed rather incredibly as a well-to-do farmer, or Labour's Ramsay MacDonald, who presented himself as a simple man of the dales.
This sounds far from a Tory argument. Britain's industrial and urban reality was ignored or lambasted in favour of an imaginary, depopulated countryside, and its industrial might and technological innovation suffered accordingly – what could the Conservative Party possibly find to its taste in this? That becomes clear in the third of Wiener's points. British capitalism, he argues, had become fatally ashamed of capitalism itself. It was embarrassed by the muck, mess and noise of industry, negligent of the great northern cities where that was largely based, and embarrassed at being seen to be 'money-grubbing'. Wiener, like many a leftwinger, argued that this came from the English middle class' love affair with its betters, the usually fulfilled desire of every factory owner to become a country gent, a rentier rather than producer. But he also suggested it came from a misplaced philanthropy, and a pussyfooting discomfort with making a profit from making stuff. In the form of the City of London's finance capitalism it had even found a way to make money out of money itself.
Now the book starts to sound like the Tory Party we know today. British capitalism, it argues, needs to rediscover the free market, the profit motive and the 'gospel of getting-on' that it had once disdained. Wiener's adversaries here become now-familiar Thatcherite punchbags – the BBC, for instance, an institution of paternalist arrogance which haughtily refused to give the public the money-generating entertainment it really wanted; or the Universities, devoted to the lefty talking shop of the 'social sciences' rather than robustly useful applied science. Enter David Willetts. English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit divided the Tory Party between those who welcomed this new swaggering capitalism – heirs to 19th century Manchester Liberalism – and those who really were Conservatives, who were horrified by this scorn for the country, old England, conservation and preservation. The Tory Party still tries to balance these two impulses, rather ineptly - Grant Shapps praises garden cities and Philip Hammond raises the speed limit, Cameron advocates concreting over the green belt and Gove slates modernist architecture.
Yet there's a reason why nobody reads this book anymore - because Wiener's central thesis was so resoundingly disproved. He predicts that in bringing back 'market discipline', Thatcher will rejuvenate British industry and the 'northern' values it inculcated – instead, the industrial centres of Tyneside, Clydeside and Teeside, South Wales and the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and the West Riding all faced a cataclysm on such a scale that most have still not recovered. Wiener might have praised cities and industry, but the former usually voted Labour, and the latter entailed strong trade unions. Neither point was to endear them to the new, swaggering capitalism. The cities were even further emasculated; their organs of local government defeated and destroyed, their base of coal, steel, shipbuilding and textiles downsized or simply wiped off the map. How did this happen? Perhaps because of that politer way of making money – the City. Wiener scornfully quotes one Rolls-Royce executive in the 1970s who tells him that he is in the motor industry for pleasure, not for profit; if he just wanted to make money, he says, he'd be in the City. And from Spinningfields in Manchester to Canary Wharf in London, former industrial sites now house the trading floors of banks that had to be bailed out like the lame duck industries of the '70s. And where industry really did transform rather than disappear, it took on new, hidden forms – the exurban business park or the container port, all safely away near the green belt, enabling the fantasy of old England to continue unobstructed.
The book faced a common fate for those who try to separate out finance and industrial capitalism, as if they could be prised apart. Britain is more obsessed than ever with an imaginary rural arcadia which bears less and less resemblance to the places where we actually live, but the profit motive has been strengthened in the process, not limited. It seems amazing at this distance to imagine anyone could have thought otherwise – a counterfactual Thatcherism which revived industrial Britain, with Heseltine's Garden Festivals as the new Crystal Palaces. But what is especially bizarre about the current orthodoxy – from which none of the main parties are exempt – is that Wiener's attack on all but 'useful' moneymaking activities is continued, without the concrete industrial products or technological advances that there was once to show for it. There is a counter-theory, which has it that neither speculators nor small businesses are the real 'wealth creators', but rather the masses who have nothing to sell but their labour. Their voice wasn't heard in Wiener's book, and it isn't heard in the current political debate.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Entertainment can sometimes be hard
I'll also be belatedly launching Uncommon at Bookmarks on Tuesday the 27th September, at 6.30pm. The second actual print review of my largely unnoticed diamat book on Pulp is now in the Wire, and very sweet it is. If you would like to review it my email address is adjacent, but here are some online reviews that were very welcome - the wonderfully named Musical Urbanism, a great Hegel-quoting one at Red Mist Reviews, also ...i can stay and Adelle Stripe's Dark Satanic Mills, who also draws welcome attention to Lisa Cradduck's etchings that so enliven the book; Lisa is also offering signed editions of them via Adelle.
Here are some of the usual bits and bobs - not much in the way of new writing due to moving house and finishing my PhD (but viva still pending). More at Urban Trawl; a review of a compendious book on Communist Fashion in the current Radical Philosophy; a review of two oddly prescient books on the estates of Hackney, for Icon; see also this. There's also some contributions to anthologies or other people's books which I keep meaning to plug on here: I have a 'modest proposal' for Sheffield in Julie Westerman's lovely Brutalist Speculations and Flights of Fancy; a long essay on Brutalism and Heritage for Regenerating Culture and Society; an essay on the early, good stuff in BDP's self-immortalising Continuous Collective; an interview with the artist on post-Soviet metropolis and wilderness in Ruth Maclennan's monograph Anarcadia; and an expanded version of the Soviet chapter from Militant Modernism (with added material based on, like, actually visiting Russia) is in the excellent Star City - The Future Under Communism. But more, much more than this, I've blurbed Andrew Jordan's very fine HMP Haslar socio-fantasy Bonehead's Utopia, which is essential reading.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
Coming Home to Roost
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Signs of Life
There is below this now-customary round-up an actual blog post, unregurgitated, for the first time in a long time. It's on the hot topic of Simon Jenkins' favourite piece of Polish urbanism and why it is a great deal more complex and interesting than that might imply (or than he probably knows). I'm aware there's not much point in writing about anything now other than how they're all in it together, but here's a few things for light relief. A BD building study on the Unison building in Euston Rd is now up on the Urban Trawl blog; there's a review of Iain Sinclair's Ghost Milk for the Independent; I can be found procrastinating about Renzo Piano's Shard in Artforum; and the Red Pepper piece on why big modernist council estates are in fact a good thing is now online. There's also a nice review of Uncommon in the Morning Star, perhaps fittingly the only review as yet in print. Finally there are lots of new things on Flickr, largely as a means of stopping my hard drive from dying horribly.
Some interesting other things worth drawing your attention to: Meet the Leeds Libraries, a set of public facilities left in disrepair in that Capital of the North; Sunlit Uplands, a set of haunting photographs of Midlands suburbia; a machine that makes the motor vehicle look sensible; a co-operative village skyscraper in China; and an excellent website previously unknown to me on the gentrification of Southwark. And Jones the Planner makes it to insurgent Southampton, site of course of one of the greatest town planning fuck-ups of the last thirty years. And there's stiff competition.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Reconstruction Time Again
I have spent a third to a half of the last year living in Warsaw at Dom Pyzik, and somehow have ended up not really writing about it (well, with let's say a few exceptions). Partly this is because I'm working on Something that will have lots and lots about it, partly it is because of having too many other things to do, but for whatever reason this is something that should be addressed. So this post will go to at least try and make up for this rather amiss situation. There's much, much there to write about, although almost all of it that I have planned will be saved for the Something mentioned above, here's a taster; and something to make clear that this blog hasn't completely become a glorified CV.
The thing about Warsaw that everyone knows (other than Joy Division or Bowie references) is that 85% of it was destroyed in 1944, and that it was then reconstructed to the letter after 1945. Strangely, this coexists with another idea of Warsaw as a centre of wide streets, towers and general Warsaw Pact monolithism. Accordingly, for a certain type of architectural critic or historian, Warsaw is irresistible. It is, for traditionalists, the road not travelled - a city where, instead of modernism, we got a dignified reconstruction of the old world. In fact, neither of the statements is exactly true. Recent research makes clear that the 85% figure includes much that was more damaged than irretrievably destroyed, and it's also clear that the reconstructed city took frequently huge liberties with the historical fabric - how could they not? And after some acquaintance with it - ie, through coming here to eat at Pod Samsonem - it's also clear that the modernist objection to the place - as a Disneyfied simulacrum of interest only to tourists - isn't quite right either.
The Old Town is a place of paradox - a project of the Communist Party, it is loved by nationalists; the only 'authentically Polish' part of Warsaw, it is anything but authentic. Here, you can see every one of the four orders of simulation described by Jean Baudrillard in 1981, occurring in Stalinist Poland between 1946 and 1976. It is the sheer inauthenticity, and the only Soviet trimmings that are visible only slightly below the surface, which stop it from being merely cute. Although cute it undoubtedly is. Well, mostly.
The best way to reach the Old Town, or rather the Stare Miasto and Nove Miasto (both are quite impercetibly linked) is via the Trasa W-Z, a West-East promenade that was very much part of the project, and was later lined with tower blocks. Its sandwiching function gives its name to a still-produced local cake. Even before the edges of it started being filled with high-rises, it was a project far from the usual notion of historically scrupulous reconstruction, using as much as possible of the original fabric and street plan. Instead, in order to make the whole apparation of the destroyed city's re-emergence into something functionally viable, a road was cut under and across it. The city's 1950s Stalinist Victory monument was moved here (rather than being demolished) at some point in the 1990s, to the point where she now seems to guard the reconstruction.
Then you get to a glowing, tile-lined underpass, as modern as can be inside but clad in heavy, psuedohistorical masonry, an example of what Vladimir Paperny describes as the heavy, earthbound nature of Stalinist 'Culture Two', where speed itself must of necessity be weighed down. There is, however, a pedestrian route to enter the Old Town from ground level as well, and it is equally unexpected:
It is an underpass with a connecting escalator, and it's a piece of the Moscow Metro in Warsaw. Literally so - the project was designed and built by employees of Moskva Metrostroi. The lamps are Soviet in derivation, showing that peculiar heaven-in-the-bowels-of-the-earth style that was fundamental to Soviet underground systems. the statues, too, are of, first, the People's Army, and second, the builders, who are always also the Builders Of Communism. Both of the sets of statues are under glass panels, very probably to stop them from being vandalised - this protection is also very unexpected in a country which prides itself on anticommunism. So you emerge, in theory, from 1950s Moscow into 17th century Warsaw:
This is the vestibule for the 'Metro'. There was, in fact, a Moscow Metro-style Metro being planned and in some cases even dug around the same time. It was cancelled when the relatively reformist Gomulka regime took power as an expensive vanity project. Gomulka wasn't particularly keen on historical reconstructions either, and said that the Royal Castle would be rebuilt over his dead body. It was, a couple of years after he died - it's the building with the lovely (pre-patinated?) Slavic copper spire in the photograph above. It was built in 1976, although unlike many of the other reconstructed buildings, it doesn't declare the year of (re)construction on it, as if confidence in the illusion had lessened somewhat. From there, you come to the tourist bit:
When the reconstructed Warsaw is praised, it's usually this which is meant - a giant great cobbled square, surrounded by a jagged skyline of sweetly marzipanlike Mitteleuropean buildings, with a market inside. When it is written about, especially by a certain veteran British political commentator/architectural writer, it is usually presented as the Polish capital's agora, its real city centre. Yet it has no tube station, no real facilities other than often very expensive restaurants and stalls with nick-nacks, and hence is surely the Disney city centre that it is often accused of being. The centre of Warsaw, at least in my experience, is defined by the modernist geometry of the Eastern Wall, Stalin's 'gift' of the Palace of Culture and the futurist Central Station - all nearly a mile away. This place is an adjunct, an oddity, divorced from the city's everyday life. Or at least this is what it seems to be, but complexities multiply when you get away from the square.
The Old Town is only one part of reconstructed Warsaw. There are a great many reconstructed 18th century classical buildings, and they are usually a lot less interesting, because this is high architecture, with blueprints, named architects, details that must be reproduced in order for the buildings to really exist as reconstructions. These belong to Baudrillard's first order of simulacra - just the remaking of something that already exists, as faithfully as the technology allows. These are usually just outside the Old Town, leading towards Nowy Swiat and to the city's real 1950s centre. So they're also often interspersed with the modernism of the Gomulka era. But there's another modernism of a sort etched onto the buildings themselves:
What makes the bulk of the old town buildings so interesting is that there isn't really an original, or at least not in the sense of something unchangeable - these were buildings that had been constantly added to and remade over the centuries, so the 1950s could so much the same. These are the second order of Stare Miasto Simulacra. The buildings are vividly coloured to the point where they don't look remotely old, and the sgraffito work, applied in the 1950s, is reminiscent of the animation of the era, the cut-out and montage films by the likes of Jan Lenica. Their cute, angular forms are hardly comparable with the heroic workers of socialist realism, but nor are they abstract. The one below is on the Old Town's only modernist building (ie flat-roofed and without historicist dressing), and it's notable that you barely notice the difference:
These drawings, etchings, paintings and mosaics are deliberately childlike things, cute pieces of 1950s design which have somehow ended up part of a project to evoke the 15th century. To think that they are separate from the ideology is a mistake, however. Look at the two images at the top of this post - one of them of the medieval city undergoing reconstruction, and the other of the Stakhanovite bricklayers who were doing all that work, and at record speeds - and note also that they're in the same cartoonish style as the Little Mermaids above (note also that the second of the two has not been restored - it's best we forget about the 20th century workers who built it). Sometimes they are figurative, neo-renaissance statuary, based on something historically significant that was there before:
and elsewhere, they're straightforward abstraction, of various kinds, either slightly disturbing dismembered bodies, with later and unsubtle additions.
Some of the sgraffito work is also sortof figurative, Disney stuff on some level, the sort of thing that might have been done in medieval Warsaw should they have wanted to do so even if they didn't:
and then there's a move into lush, shimmering, chromatic abstraction.
Step into any of these blocks and you find that they are actually part of another order of simulacra altogether. The majority of these pretty pseudohistorical facades are the masks for public housing, and that's coincidentally the reason why the place lacks the feeling of being a City Centre - because what it really is, is a council estate with sgraffito and restaurants. At times, this is really very vivid - as with the long deck-access block that marks the Old Town's southern corner. Take away the detail, and this is straight-up modernist municipal housing.
That this is a tourist destination, however, can be easily ascertained - the difference is that everyone is home in bed by a sensible time.
But if there's any doubt, just read the other etchings on the walls.
The fourth order of simulacra in the Warsaw Old Town is Mariensztat, a place which really didn't exist before, but which is aesthetically completely of a piece with the earlier orders of simulacra that make up most of it. It's a historical area, but it was completely replanned on a new pattern by the Communist authorities, and became their first showpiece housing estate.
The approach is exactly the same; the painting, now worn enough to almost look convincingly historic; the winding streets; the cobbles; and the sgraffito, which here too is surely the cutest thing ever implemented by the Six Year Plan of an iron-fisted Stalinist regime:
Mariensztat opens out to a large public square, with another very pretty bit of trimming (this time, a mosaic clock) at the corner. If being unkind, one could point out that this is not a style massively unlike that of Nazi architecture at its more vernacular and volkisch (rather than mock-Hellenic) end - Paul Schultze-Naumburg wouldn't have felt completely out of place here. What makes it most unlike the Nazi aesthetic is that strange, out-of-place cutesiness. Not the cutesiness of the carefully worn, and higgledy-piggledy, but of the very 1950s, wholly of-their-time clocks, paintings and drawings. The inspiration seems to come a little from Warsaw's one-time Prussian Gauleiter ETA Hoffmann, a child-like fairy tale uncanniness which is surely the most unlikely response to mass murder in the corpus of public art and city planning. Warsaw had, and still builds, gigantic monuments to its heroism, self-sacrifice and fortitude, but here everything is Lilluputian and pretty. The impulse seems to be comparable to that of post-war modernism, that was remaking the rest of the city by the time the reconstruction was finished - the urge to shake off all of that horrible weight and instead create something light, joyous and dreamlike.
The satellite dishes that line the houses, though, imply that those within the Old Town simulacra have other fantasies and simulations to think about.