Strange Attractors & Historical Revisionism

Statue, Palac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Science) Warszawa

The single most recognisable feature of the landscape of central Warsaw is the Palace of Culture and Science (Palac Kultury i Nauki). An enormous building that both dominates the skyline and creates a kind of urban spatial vacuum, as anyone who has tried to traverse the confusing hodgepodge of parks, markets, staircases and carparks that encircle the building will attest. It is a site that I find myself simultaneously repelled by and attracted to, returning time and time again to bask in its dehumanising and overbearing grandeur.

The Palace conceived as a non-returnable gift to the Polish people by Joseph Stalin in 1947 was opened in a flurry of state-sponsored pomp in 1955. It is exceptional both in its scale and ostentatious inappropriateness for a city struggling to rebuild itself following the utter decimation wrought upon it by Germany during World War II. Designed and built entirely by Russian architects and labour the building stands as symbol of the dictatorial relationship that existed between the Soviet state and Poland during the post war years. Today it houses a collection of theatres, museums, cinemas, conference halls and sporting facilities, a valuable part of the cultural infrastructure of the city.

Palac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Science) Warszawa

Recalling nothing so much as the classic skyscraper (think Empire State Building) in its stepped and spired form the building inverts such modernist allusions by the deployment of an overabundance of classical and folk-art inspired ornamentation. Built in the prevailing Socialist Realist aesthetic of the time the Palace stands apart from contemporaneous developments such as the MDM district of Warsaw that employed a more austere and organically Polish version of the largely vilified style. A style, that following the death of Stalin in 1956 was largely abandoned for more consciously modernist forms.

Central to the underlying ideology that informed Socialist Realism was an ideal of self-improvement through “culture”. As if to drive the point home a series of oversized classical sculptures adorn the ground level façade of the Palace depicting among other pursuits drama, music and literature. Of course, at a time of strict state-controlled censorship, there was no recourse made by these lumpen figures to the actual content of such cultural pursuits. The exception to this being a sculpture of a soberly dressed male worker clutching a book inscribed with the names Marx, Engels and Lenin. Beneath the last name a blank space. Originally this space held the name Stalin, but in the “thaw” that begun in 1957 in the wake of his death this detail was removed. One can just about make out the outlines of the letters, a ghostly absence that resonates through the architecture. Like in the building itself Stalin’s presence is felt through its very absence.

Palac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Science) Warszawa

David Crowley: Warsaw

During my time in Warsaw I have found David Crowley’s book “Warsaw” an invaluable resource. I recommend it to anyone interested in the social, political and historical context of the post-war form of the city. Much of the historical information relayed in these posts has been gleaned from his text.



Nestled at the back of a rather unassuming apartment block on Al. Jeroziolimskie (directly opposite the Palac Kultury i Nauki) is purportedly the world’s only remaining operational example of a Kaiser Panorama. The Panorama or FotoPlastikon is a late 19thC device that presents up to 25 seated viewers a series of stereoscopic ‘views’. The views mostly dating from the late 19th / early 20th C depict various colonised exotic locations with a smattering of pre-war Warsaw cityscapes. The 3D effect of these views is breathtaking with the spatial embodiment one feels through looking at them somewhat at odds with the antiquated technology of their presentation. Each time I return to Warsaw I am pleasantly surprised that the Fotoplastikon is still in operation. On an earlier visit a series of views of post-war Warsaw were on display so it seems that program changes, how often I don’t know. Perhaps a greater story would be how the Fotoplastikon actually survived the devastation of the war. that reduced over 90% of the city to rubble.

If you planning a visit it is open very limited hours:

Tuesday & Thursday 15 – 18.00
Saturday 11 – 15.00
Fotoplastikon Warszawa

The Ruins of Modernity

A series of photos of the ruins of the Stadion Dziesieciolecia (Tenth Anniversary Stadium.) I had planned on doing a more complete series but was warned off photographing by the black clad security goons that patrol the perimeter of this wasteland. The stadium is situated in the Praga district just across the Vistula River from Central Warsaw. Built in 1954 using rubble from the old city it was at the time, both an important symbol of revitalisation and a strikingly modern construction at odds with the prevalent aesthetic of Socialist Realism. Some time in the late 70s the stadium fell into disrepair and in 1989 with the fall of communism the surrounding area was transformed into an ad-hoc marketplace. The market, claimed to be the largest in Europe, attracts traders from all over Europe, Asia and Africa and itself became a symbol of the ‘wild-west’ capitalism associated with Warsaw in the early 1990s. Today the whole site is marked for redevelopment with construction about to begin on a new stadium to house the 2012 European Cup. Where the market will go on one seems to know, the traders were given until September 30th to vacate the premises but the general consensus seemed to be that the deadline would be extended.

Stadion Dziesieciolecia (Tenth Anniversary Stadium) WarszawaStadion Dziesieciolecia (Tenth Anniversary Stadium) WarszawaStadion Dziesieciolecia (Tenth Anniversary Stadium) WarszawaStadion Dziesieciolecia (Tenth Anniversary Stadium) WarszawaStadion Dziesieciolecia (Tenth Anniversary Stadium) Warszawa

Dzien dobry Warszawa

Warsaw 26/9/07

Au revoir Paris

Orly Sud

A couple of posts to cap off my time in Paris. Both had been on the back burner for a little while and leaving the city has provided me with the time/space to finalise them…

Sad modernism

ecole, Rue des Trois Bornes

One of the simple pleasures of wandering around the 11th arrondissement where I have stayed in Paris is the totally unexpected discovery of a number of intriguingly detailed school buildings in the area. From the art deco influenced modernism of the ecole des filles et garcons on Rue des Tallianders to the iconography of the iron-work gates of the ecole on Rue de Marsaille these building possess an aesthetic charm and wit rarely, if ever, present in everyday institutional architecture. So it was with a genuine sense of wonder that I came across the ecole on Rue des Trois Bornes. Tucked away on a tiny side street the school resembled nothing so much as an ocean liner with its porthole windows and curved façade. The nautical theme was a popular variation on the art deco style at the time of its construction in 1932. A theme that is further reinforced by a relief sculpture featuring a stylised representation of a classical sailing vessel that puts one in mind of voyages of Homeric proportions. As fitting a metaphor as any for the education process and indeed life itself. However, it was a sense wonder that quickly dissolved. A small plaque dating from 1991 on the front of the building told of the 1100 children from the 11th arrondissement of Paris that were sent to Nazi death camps in the years between 1942 & 1944. The promise and optimism that I had previously read in the building now replaced by an almost unfathomable sadness.

ecole, Rue des Trois Bornes

Fennesz / Atlas / Sound / Vision

Fennesz/Atlas Atlas/Fennesz

On Friday September 14th I had the good fortune to attend a collaborative performance by musician Christian Fennesz and video artist Charles Atlas. Perched at either side of the large stage of the Pompidou Centre’s main performance hall the pair presented an hour of improvised sound and visuals that were projected on a cinematic scale. This collaborative work eschewed narrative convention for a series of peaks and valleys that played the looping visuals of Atlas against the guitar generated laptop manipulations of Fennesz. This proved to be a pleasingly intense experience. Perhaps, a little too intense for those who were seen to flee the hall mid performance. Fennesz’s music ranged from the oceanic to the threatening with large slabs of digital skree melting into the mix. For the most part he avoided the sense of calmness and dare I say prettiness that has infused his recent recorded works. This was music that relied heavily on the visceral power of volume. Like Fennesz’s music the video of Charles Atlas also employed a strategy of echo and dis-integration. Short loops of archival moving image were juxtaposed and overlayed in a procession of imagery that recalled nothing so much as the endless return of a fevered dream. A smash and grab raid on the archive of the unconscious that drew momentum and intensity from the sound of his collaborator. Loops would disappear to return once more, persistent and fragmented. However, it was the mesh of the two distinct elements that gave the works its power. To claim that the pairing was seamless would be to erase the very real tension that grew from the improvised nature of the performance. A tension that gave birth to a thoroughly entrancing night out.

Théatre du Luxembourg

Théatre du Luxembourg

Those that yearn for the pleasures of pre-cinematic spectacular entertainment in Paris could do a lot worse than take in a show at the marionette theatre in the Luxembourg Gardens. The marionettes are housed in a purpose built theaterette that has been run by the Desarthis family since 1932 . Staring the ever resilient 19th C. character of Guignol the show demands a high level of audience participation to cast its narrative spell. The audience, which consist mostly of overexcited enfants and their minders, writhes and howls as the action unfolds amidst the painted props and rudimentary lighting and sound effects. Within such an atmosphere it easy, momentarily at least, to cast oneself back to a time when the screen was yet to come alive.

Life A User’s Manual

rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud 21/9/07

“Then came the period of long walks around Paris. He let himself wander, going wherever the whim took him, plunging into the five-o’clock bustle of office workers. He trailed along shopfronts, went into all the art galleries, walked slowly through the arcades of the IXth arrondissement, stopping at every store. He stared with equal attention at rustic washstands in furniture stores, bedheads and springs in mattress-makers’ windows, artificial wreaths in in undertakers’ shopfronts, curtain rails in haberdasheries, “erotic” playing cards with macromammaried pin-ups in novelty stores (Mann sprich deutsch, English speaken), the yellowing photographs advertising Arts Studios: a moon faced urchin in a vulgarly-cut sailor suit, an ugly boy in a cricket cap, a pug-nosed youth, a rather repellent bulldog type of man by a brand-new car; in a pork-butcher’s Chartres cathedral in lard…”

Gerges Perec, Life A User’s Manual , Collins Harvill, London, 1988, p. 237.

(original title and pub. date: La Vie mode d’emploi, 1970)