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Warsaw's communist past and capital present live in buildings and spaces
30.5.2008 - Michal Kubicki

Warsaw is a city whose skyline is dominated by the Stalinist-era Palace of Culture and where a heated debate is under way on how to turn the vast space around it into a genuine human-scale city centre.

Warsaw’s Jerozolimskie Avenue, close to Parade Square - possibly the most vast undeveloped open space in any European capital. It has the Palace of Culture standing in the middle. Before the war it was the centre of Warsaw. But is it the centre of the Polish capital now? Here's what some locals had to say

‘There’s no city centre in Warsaw at all. People have no place to go, to spend a whole day and meet with friends. There’re only lots of shopping malls but it’s not a social space.’

‘Do you like Warsaw’s city centre?

‘I like it because it’s kind of a mixture between communist architecture and brand-new commercial centre, the image of new Poland you know – communist times and new, capitalist free-market society…’

Needless to say, the history of Warsaw goes back several centuries beyond the communist period. Michal Tatjewski, a young architect from an NOG - the Warsaw Development Forum – is a member of a team which lobbies for integrating the historic town fabric into what is now an undeveloped space around the Palace of Culture. Warsaw – he says – has its spirit.

‘It has parts which were built in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. They are very interesting and have their own spirit. We have of course to find modern answers but we mustn’t forget about history and the specific character of such streets as Nowy Swiat, Poznanska and Chmielna. These streets exist and some of them can be continued in the space which was destroyed during the war and which was – because of different systems and different visions – left empty.’

Professor Lech Kłosiewicz of the School of Architecture at Warsaw’s University of Technology argues that in its present shape this empty space is not a genuine city centre.

‘These vast spaces as were created around the Palace of Culture which stands in the middle, like a candle in a birthday tart…they don’t encourage people to stay longer. The people run through this space, there’s continuous traffic, they’re in movement; this is what’s contradicting with the idea of the city centre.’

In a poll for a Warsaw City daily, over 70 percent of respondents have opted for town-planning projects that would preserve the town’s atmosphere and human dimension. Lech Klosiewicz explains the idea:

‘…to fill up city fabric with more structures but not necessarily so high. These tall buildings do not contribute to the direct use by the citizens. They are mostly offices and banks. What serves people are large number of small spaces – cafes and small shops offering a variety of attractions, so the essence of the issue is that Warsaw during the reconstruction process lost its human scale.’

Almost two decades after the collapse of communism, Warsaw seems to have entered a period of renaissance. Work has begun on a futuristic skyscraper designed by the renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. Does Warsaw need tall buildings to counteract, as some people see it, the Palace of Culture. Michal Tatjewski again:

‘We shouldn’t dominate Warsaw with high-rises. They must be one of the elements of the city, not the dominating ones. The idea of Libeskind is interesting because the building is in the very dense centre, very near the Palace of Culture, but it doesn’t try to hide the Palace. His idea is to build a landmark which will make a dialogue between different periods, styles of architecture and between different materials.’

Prague: Shopping malls are popping up all over
30.5.2008 - Ian Willoughby

One change in the urban landscape in the Czech Republic in recent years has been a massive increase in the number of shopping malls. Rare a decade ago, large shopping centres are now part of the everyday lives of millions of Czechs. And while the number of malls keeps on growing, some major retailers are also making inroads into the corner shop market. Radio Prague’s Ian Willoughby reports.

In the centre of Prague you will find Palladium, one of the latest and, with 170 shops, biggest shopping malls in the Czech Republic. The explosion in shopping centre building began only a decade ago, but has become a real phenomenon. I asked a few people in front of Palladium for their views on that development.

“For those who don’t have much time, say people who are at work all day, it’s practical – they can find everything under one roof. But on the down side, they’re bad for small businesses – they swallow them up.”

“I don’t like them, because I don’t like really crowded places – I get kind of overwhelmed. And they’re all the same – the same shops, the same people, nothing new.”

“I think they’re great, because they make it possible to buy everything in one place and they increase competition. They’re great.”

Tomáš Drtina: “One of the reasons why we have that many shopping centres here is that our regulations are not as strict as for example in the Netherlands of the UK. Which enables developers to, let’s say, introduce more projects.”

Says Tomáš Drtina of market experts INCOMA Research. He tells me the Czech Republic probably has more shopping malls per head than any other country in the central and eastern Europe region – and traces developments over the last decade.

“In the very first wave, in the late ‘90s, there were mainly edge-of-town projects, large shopping centres, usually looking like a hypermarket plus a simple shopping mall. Now the structure is much more differentiated. We have retail parks, we have inner-city shopping malls, we have the first outlet centres…so we have a, let’s say, interesting offer for all kinds of customers.”

And some of the biggest players are hoping to increase their market share – by opening relatively small stores. Travel a short distance from the tourist-filled centre of Prague and you’ll find one of the first branches of Tesco’s Expres chain of small shops, which follow a model that has proven successful in the UK. Tesco, the Polish chain Zabka and others are slowly but surely making inroads into the Czech local retail segment.

“Most of the big international retailers would like to introduce smaller concepts now – not just big hypermarkets but also small supermarkets or even smaller stores. Different types of customers prefer different types of store formats. But it takes time and it’s really important to use good locations, and there are not that many good locations. Definitely their networks will be larger in the future, but it will really take many months and years.”

In the meantime, the boom in big shopping malls looks set to continue: on top of the 60 or so already in the Czech Republic, Tomáš Drtina says there are plans to build another 50 in the next few years.

Bratislava's building boom - do developers have too much freedom?
30.5.2008 - Ivan Basrak

There's a building boom going on across much of Central Europe. In capitals like Prague, Warsaw and Bratislava cranes dominate the skyline as builders try to keep up with demand created by rapid economic growth. That growth is creating jobs and wealth and new architectural gems. But it's also bringing problems including traffic chaos and fears for the urban environment. Our special program this week begins on a building site in Bratislava.

The sound of construction. If you stand anywhere in Bratislava, you are bound to spot several new developments sprouting up around you. The city’s skyline is changing rapidly and radically. Landmarks such as the castle are being dwarfed by larger, high-rise buildings, while the tree line on the surrounding hills, is being pushed back by new villas. For some, the new high-rise office buildings symbolize economic development and Slovakia’s progress since the collapse of communism. But, it is already clear that there are negative aspects to this construction boom. And it seems like more and more people are not only feeling these effects in their daily lives, but are also speaking out against them. Traffic jams, green areas disappearing, residential developments too expensive for most – Bratislava’s residents seem to have finally had enough. Katarina Simoncicova represents the „Bratislava Openly“ civic organisation, which is fighting for greater levels of citizen participation in Urban planning. She summarizes a common concern.

"The most frightening thing is that for us the buildings will stay here, regardless of whether they were a mistake or not. The investors can always decide to leave. No-one is going to remove these buildings in the near future."

But it is not just the activists who have decided to take a critical view to the long awaited construction boom. Stefan Slachta is Bratislava’s new Chief Architect, and he openly admits that the construction boom has in some respects gone too far. His personal bugbear is traffic and the transport infrastructure.

"I think the biggest impact is on the city’s infrastructure, which is not able to sustain the demands placed on it by the new developments. This is especially the case with transport, whether dynamic or static. Each new high-rise office building brings with it a massive influx of new road users. This means that the solutions which have been implemented over the last couple of years, such as the new bridge across the river Danube, are simply not enough."

Mr Slachta is also quite clear about what has so far been responsible for the badly planned, or unplanned development. While in public meetings broad and sweeping claims such as „lack of conceptual planning“ or often made, Mr slachta admits that it is not just a legislative failure, but a failure in the implementation of policy and available legislation by the authorities responsible for urban development.

"Legislation governing the processes of urban development is not ideal. But I have to say that often the problem was that the individuals in charge would back down to the developers and investors. And, unfortunately, public interests were often ignored. But I believe there are some levers that the authorities could use to pressure the investors into developing new public spaces."

Strong words from a man who is very much a part of the structures he is criticising. Marcel Slavik is the Deputy director of an association which represents the administration of residential buildings in the Petrzalka district of Bratislava. His disenchantment with elected representatives is clear.

"The current understanding of democracy in Bratislava can perhaps best be labeled as voting a tyrant into power for 4 years. Planning is currently done within a closed group of a few people, who usually do it to further their own interests, and activists have to fight hard just to find out what is being planned. Democracy should be about the continual involvement of citizens in decision-making about the city’s future, and this is presupposed in international as well as domestic law. The problem is that the authorities have decided not to adhere to the law."

While there are certainly more than enough issues related to urban development to occupy public meetings, today it seems that it is the fact that more and more of these meetings between residents and representatives are being held, that is worth celebrating. If many of the failures in the construction boom can be traced to inefficient or non-representative decisions by the relevant authorities, then direct public scrutiny of their work seems to be one vision that Slovakia’s capital should hold on to. It’s chief architect is after all well aware of what is at stake.

"The capacity of a given location is of course limited, and needs to be taken into account. And today, whether it is the crowding of residential areas at the expense of open spaces, or the construction of High-rise office buildings in locations which simply lack the capacity to expand their transport infrastructure; I believe we are creating problems which will be very difficult to solve in the future."

Slovenia remembers its great architect - and his timeless appeal
30.5.2008 - Michael Manske

To mark the 50th anniversary of the death of its greatest architect, Slovenia has unleashed a flurry of exhibitions and symposiums abroad to try to bring more recognition to Jože Plečnik. With shows currently running in Belgium and Japan, Slovenian architects are also hoping to breathe new life into the so-called Slovenian School of Architecture.

Jože Plečnik's imprint can be seen across the small Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana: the stark red-and-white National Library, the Church of St. Franics, the city's iconic Triple Bridge, and a host of civic improvements ranging from kiosks to markets to office buildings. His prolific building throughout the 1920s make him to Ljubljana what Baron Haussmann was to Paris, or Robert Moses was to New York: a singular force that reshaped the face of the city.

Plečnik's style was classical but unconvential; he's also been described as anti-functional – delighting in strong visual imagery. During the early part of his career, he managed a number of successes, including new secessionist buildings in Vienna and the rennovation of Prague's renowned castle. Shortly thereafter, he became a professor in Ljubljana, where he began his many years of transforming what was then a city in Yugoslavia.

Like many Slovenes, Plečnik had to deal with the problem of repressed national identity. Indeed, the fact that he was a Slav prevented him from succeeding the great Otto Wagner at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, under whom he studied. Likewise, Plečnik's design for a monumental Slovenian parliament – a cathedral of liberty – found little enthusiasm in Yugoslavia. (It still exists only on paper, and now on the Slovenian 10-eurocent coin.)

The architect's classical leanings and devout Roman Catholicism led to dwindling support in post-war communist Yugoslavia, and the great architect slowly slipped into obscurity.

It has only been recently, and with the rise of postmodernism, that has seen a new spark of interest in Plečnik. While the 1960s saw his star fading, a major exhibition in Paris in the 1980s marked the beginning of his return. Last year, the 50th anniversary of his death, saw a surge in exhibitions that was then accelerated by Slovenia taking over the EU presidency. This month, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in the EU's capital, Brussels, has launched a summerlong exhibition of the great Slovenian architect.

Rok Klančnik, head of the Slovene House in Brussels, says that Plečnik's works have true lasting power – especially compared to the 1960s -- and that Plečnik's appeal is timeless.

«The popularity, the art, the beauty, never vanishes – something we can't say about the architecutre of the 60s. Just take a look at it now in Ljubljana, or Vienna, Prague, Belgrade. The architecture of the 60s is today considered very, very boring, or even archaic. While Plečnik's works today are considered very beautiful and a great cultural heritage.»

The Art Gallery of Tokyo University is also hosting a Plečnik show this summer. In conjunction with this, a symposium will be held in which Slovenian and Austrian architects will present Plečnik's architecture to their Japanese peers. According to Klančnik, the appeal of Plečnik's is universal:

«Architecture and art for him were a universal thing, a global thing. Not in the sense of today's economy, or as globalization right now – but as a universal thought. As a state of mind. And this is a truth that even the architects in Japan, in New York, in Brussels, or say, even in Pretoria in South Africa, can adhere to and agree with.»

Slovenian officials are hoping that the increased exposure will give Plečnik the recognition and standing they believe the architect deserves but did not receive in his lifetime. Plečnik died in Ljubljana in 1957 in relative obscurity. As a consolation of sorts, he was buried in the city's main cemetary of Žale – a cemetary that he himself had designed.

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