Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The gift you just can't refuse

A few Poles will tell you they love it. Many Poles will tell you they hate it. But most Poles will tell you that they love to hate it. The Palace of Culture and Science, which dominates the center of Warsaw, celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year.

It is over 250 meters high, has 44 floors, three theaters, a cinema, a swimming pool, and was the present to the people of Poland from none other than Joe Stalin - a kind of ‘thank you’ for the Polish war effort against the Nazis.

And, of course, when Stalin gave you a present, it was rather unwise to say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ It was the gift you really couldn’t refuse.

But the unlovable Palace of Culture does have its fans, especially among foreign visitors to the capital. It is the one distinct building in the center of Warsaw that distinguishes the place from other ex-communist, central European capitals.

Strange then that the architecture of the building is so distinctly un-central European.

Central European architecture is characterized by baroque churches and narrow, tall shouldered buildings squashed into squares surrounded by cobbled streets. And you can see many such Renaissance features right across Poland. But the Palace of Culture – which sticks out like a flaming red sore thumb by the central train station in Warsaw - comes from the Soviet socialist realism school of architecture, much like you can see in the center of Moscow.

Socialist realism was the official doctrine in the Soviet block from 1949 to 1956. It was meant to glorify the work and character of the great communist proletariat.

Girl meets tractor
Polish socialist realist poetry, for instance, sung the praises of the rush to industrialization that was so characteristic of communist regimes. A typical poem would be of the ‘Girl Meets Tractor’ variety. Boy sees beautiful girl in the fields, but she has eyes only for the new tractor that the Party Central Committee has recently delivered. The boy tries to woo the girl, but the girl is much too busy trying to woo the tractor. In the end they all live happily ever after in a paradise of diesel oil.

But architecture was the most important art form for the commies. After all, you can avoid most art works by not going to the museum, but you can’t avoid buildings.

And you certainly can’t avoid the Palace of Culture. The old joke goes: the best place to stand in Warsaw is at the very top of the Palace of Culture, because it is the only place in Warsaw that you can’t see the Palace of Culture.

Socialist realism in architecture seemed to have various principles. Firstly, all buildings must be ugly. Secondly, all buildings must be huge, with massive, almost ancient Greek style columns hold up imposing, monumental doorways.

And one thing that all these monuments to Stalinism seem to have on the outside of the buildings are statues of the proletariat themselves. You can see these figures not just on the palace, but also on the side of buildings on Marshalkowska street. See the big, butch miner cradling his drill in his massive forearms. See the equally big and butch female worker with a dreamy look in her eye, holding what appears to be a tractor repair manual.

The figures remind me of the, almost homoerotic, description of miners having a shower after a hard day at the coal face in George Orwell’s, The Road to Wigan Pier.

But love it or hate it, the Palace of Culture has become, almost be default, the most recognizable symbol of Warsaw. Poles, though, have complicated feelings about the place.

Celebrations for the palace’s birthday party have been muted. Small collection of personal affects from the nineteen fifties when it was built are currently on show. The most interesting of these are the visitor’s books from the time. In massive letters one visitor scrawled: ‘This thing is absolutely horrible!’ Another entry from 1955 complains that, though the authorities had boasted of twelve lifts in the building, only one was working, and massive queues had formed to get to the top.

Queues, ugliness; all part, sadly, of the Polish communist experience.

Poles have never really known what to do with the Palace of Culture. There is now a massive clock at the top, and occasionally they use the place to advertise a film. When the King Kong remake hit the cinemas a few years ago you could see a blow up model of the great big ape climbing up the building.

But today, the only sign, from outside, of the building’s birthday is a smallish sign half way up proclaiming modestly, ‘I’m fifty years old’. But the sounds of champagne corks going off in Warsaw are noticeable in their absence.

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