Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

The question marks hanging over Soviet-era architecture

In 1955, the Soviet Union gave the Polish people a particularly unpopular “gift.” The towering Palace of Culture in Warsaw was initially despised; many local residents saw it as a symbol of Soviet domination.

The imposing structure was (and still is) the highest in Poland and, as well as looming over the city, its architectural style – partially inspired by American art deco skyscrapers – didn’t fit in with the rest of the city at all. The fact that sixteen workers died during its construction didn’t exactly help endear it to the local population, either.

Today, Warsaw’s Palace of Culture is not only still standing but still in use. Arguably, it has become an accepted part of the cityscape, though it still stands out like a sore thumb next to the structures that have sprung up around it; mostly modern steel-and-glass office towers, or sprawling shopping centres. Now, stranded among these gleaming symbols of capitalism, some say the communist-era Culture Palace stands out even more.

But the Palace of Culture itself is used to house offices, as well as an exhibition centre, a swimming pool, and even a multiplex cinema – which may sound rather decadent by socialist standards, but upon stepping inside the cramped, dark, musty foyer you might think you’ve travelled back in time.

The entire building has an air of belonging to a different era entirely, and some locals say this is partly what makes it an irreplaceable piece of history.

“This is a place where you can feel the history, even if you didn’t live through it,” said Marek, 48, who works in a nearby office block. “From coming here and just walking around, our children can understand what the old people are talking about. They can see it was reality. That’s why this building is important.”

There’s also the fact that it brings in tourists, which is of no small importance in a city so sorely lacking in sights to see. Unlike other cities in the former Eastern bloc, Warsaw is no tourist Mecca, and the local tourist board says the Palace of Culture is one of the city’s biggest draws - along with its minute Old Town, which isn’t actually very old but a rebuild of the original, destroyed in the planned destruction of Warsaw by Nazi Germany.

Partly thanks to tourism, the Palace of Culture is now one of Poland’s most recognisable buildings.

The same is true of other Palaces of Culture across the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc - and they continue to divide opinion.

Not everyone sees such buildings as an invaluable way of educating future generations about the past. Others say that ugly times gave birth to ugly buildings; that they are just reminders of a dark period in history, imposed upon the local population.

But decades after the fall of communism, why do these buildings continue to provoke such strong reactions - not just among the people who live nearby, but among visitors, too?

In Prague, another Palace of Culture was built in the 1970s as a place to host the meetings of the Communist party. This one, too, was hated by most local people. But experts say that the strong feelings these buildings provoke has less to do with the way they look than with the associations people make with them.

“Architecture can provoke a strong reaction, as it is a part of our living space and a part of our collective memory,” says architectural theorist Michaela Janeckova.

“People are assessing the building according to direct experiences they have of it, for example, of having to use the building. But they also assess the symbolic value,” she explains.

“Today, the late modern architectural style is connected with the era of communism, and this provokes irrational reactions.”

The late modern style Janeckova refers to includes what many people think of as ‘brutalist’ or ‘Stalinist’ architecture typical of that time.

“The Palace of Culture in Prague was seen as a symbol of totalitarian power,” says Czech architecture historian Dr Zdenek Lukes, adding that the building was also nicknamed the White Whale or the Titanic, “for its low respect for the city landscape.”

“The quality of the architecture - in this case mediocre - was not so important,” he says..

The building is known today as Prague’s Congress Centre. It occupies a conspicuous position overlooking the city, surrounded by concrete structures of similar style, such as the Nusle bridge.

The problem of not respecting the city landscape though, Lukes says, is “comparable with problems anywhere and not so symptomatic for the East.”

Prague wasn’t the only city to mock the appearance of its Palace of Culture. Nicknames for the Palace of Culture in Warsaw include the ‘Russian Wedding Cake’, ‘Stalin’s syringe’, and Patyk (‘stick’)

Unlike the Warsaw Palace of Culture, though, Prague’s has faded almost into insignificance among many of the younger generation, and attracts little attention from tourists.

Prague’s Zizkov TV tower is a different story. Voted the second-ugliest building in the world and visible from most parts of the city – partially thanks to being lit up in the national colours at night – the tower is one of the city’s most famous symbols.

Standing at the tower’s base, training the lens of his camera on one of its ‘Babies’ (faceless, crawling statues placed on the tower by Czech artist David Cerny, they’re something in between kitsch and creepy, and an attraction in themselves) American visitor Donald Heys tells me this was high on his list of ‘must see’ sights during his three-day trip to Prague.

“I’m not particularly knowledgeable about architecture, no,” he says. “I’m just interested in learning about the history of this part of the world. And this tower is really something.”

Not everyone is so keen, though; especially not older Czechs.

“For older people and also my generation, the TV Tower is an example of Communist arrogance,” says Lukes. “They built the tower in the space of the former Jewish Cemetery, and the main reason was to block TV signals from the West – people were not allowed to receive the Austrian TV programmes.”

“Of course, before the tower was completed, satellite TV had been invented.”

He adds; “For the young generation, post-Velvet Revolution, this history has been irrelevant of course and many of them are now admirers of the tower for its pre-High-tech style.”

This history is however exactly what draws tourists like Donald, who find the Czech Republic’s communist past endlessly fascinating.

The value the TV Tower has when it comes to attracting visitors means it’s likely to be well-preserved for many years to come. But for most, the future is uncertain.

In Warsaw recently, debate raged over the fate of the controversial Rotunda bank building in the city centre, a circular building famous for its distinctive crown-like rooftop design. As time passed, the 1960’s building became in need of expensive renovation, including the installation of air conditioning.

When the owners suggested it would be better to demolish it and replace it with something modern and practical, there was outrage. Not only had the iconic building become a popular meeting place, famous among Warsaw residents, but experts argued that it was a unique piece of architecture.

In the end, the owners decided to renovate. But this was just one of many such debates that have highlighted the problems surrounding aging Communist-era buildings.

In Prague, the concrete Hotel Praha was demolished two years ago to make way for a private investor. A (fairly small) number of people who felt the hotel had significant historical and architectural importance fought to save it, and public opinion became divided over whether the 30-year-old hotel was an eyesore or an important monument.

“This hotel was also one of the symbols of Communist arrogance,” says Lukes. “They built that hotel - in the centre of a popular public park in a residential district with only small family houses - as an anti-atomic shelter for party leaders only, with no chance for it to be reached by normal people.”

“The architecture was not so bad, from the outside, if you ignored the gigantic scale,” he says. Again, the problem was the history associated with the building.

After feasibility studies by major hotel companies failed to find any potential for the hotel, Lukes says, the only real possibility was to destroy it. It has now been replaced with a modern school building, which Lukes says is “more sensitive to the beautiful landscape.”

With the pressures of time and urban development, will we see more of the buildings from this era disappear? Fans of this style of architecture hope not - and the professionals know they have a big role to play in protecting these buildings.

“There is a permanent danger, and I and my colleagues are trying to save the best examples from that controversial time,” says Lukes. “Like the 1960’s Railway Terminal in the city of Havirov, and Prague’s Maj and Kotva Department Stores from the 1970s,”

Janeckova says that factors influencing whether buildings from this era will be celebrated or pulled down range from the financial situation of the owners (as in the case of Hotel Praha) to whether or not professionals, such as architects and historians, can successfully promote the building’s value to the public.

Public perception of these buildings is another big factor. Janeckova says their value “must become part of a common discourse, as happened with functionalism.”

“Even people not interested in architecture come to visit Loos Villa or Villa Tugendhat because they were taught it is beautiful,” she adds.

These two Czech villas, built from reinforced concrete in the 1970s, have become icons of modernist design.

“By the act of visiting them, people are proving they are well educated,” she says.

Janeckova adds that, in most cases, professionals can influence public opinion and involve people in the process of preservation.

“Preservation of these buildings in future also depends on the impact of the fight of professionals against state bureaucracy, that prefers private owners above public values.”

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