Despite Poland’s ‘concrete calamities’ there is hope, says Alex Webber
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve barely stepped outside my own postcode, so for this week’s column I figured I’d keep it local and instead celebrate the unveiling of what many were predicting would become one of Warsaw’s biggest triumphs of 2022: Plac Pięciu Rogów.
For those of you that don’t know, that’s the point where Bracka, Chmielna, Krucza, Szpitalna and Zgoda meet: a vital communication node that had, over the years, been allowed to deteriorate into a spaghetti of potholes, puddles and gridlocked cars. Salvation, however, was supposedly afoot.
As part of a wider ambition to humanise Warsaw’s city centre, plans for Plac Pięciu Rogów (for the sake of ease, I’ll call it Five Corners from now on) had promised for the provision of a cosmopolitan enclave filled with “shade-giving trees, fountains, benches and outdoor art installations.”
But more than just skin deep, the project’s primary duty sought to reabsorb the area into the very social fabric of the city. With that in mind, I messaged my editor with the concept of a story hooked around the victorious transformation of this forgotten urban hell.
“And on top of that,” I continued, “I’ll whack in a load of history – a few blurbs about what was known as the Polish Harrods, about the 1920s gangland shootout that happened around here, some bits about its wartime role, and a lurid story about commie-era subterfuge.”
As a pitch it sounded golden; a story that would celebrate the rebirth of an area steeped in history. What I hadn’t gambled on, though, was just what would greet me when I actually visited – I’ll be honest, it left me speechless, and so too the dozens of other people that I saw staggering dumbfounded with their mouths agape.
The fountain, for instance, transpires to be more redolent of the kind of plughole you find in the shower of a design hotel.
As for art? Forget about that, unless you count the peeling posters and graffiti tags that adorn the surrounding buildings.
Mostly though, it’s the concrete that overwhelms. Yes, there are trees, but these are so young and skimpy as to go barely noticed. Seeing pictures of the inauguration ceremony, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Mayor Trzaskowski appeared visibly flummoxed.
At this point, I must issue a clarification: my opinions are not intended to scorn a Mayor that clearly loves the city. He later said more trees had been planned but they weren't allowed by the conservator.
Even so, when Łukasz Puchalski, the director of the Municipal Roads Authority, spoke, it smacked of a face-saving move: “We have not managed to implement a project that has reconciled everyone, but rather one that has divided people,” he admitted.
“I propose giving this square at least a year so that the twenty-two trees that have been planted here grow,” he continued, “then we will see how they connect to form a canopy.”
In all sincerity, I hope he is right. Nonetheless, the slightly disenchanting debut of Five Corners has served to further spotlight what seems to be a uniquely Polish problem – an unhinged mania for concrete.
Dubbed “concrete-osis”, the phenomenon has seen scores of squares encased in concrete in a demented attempt at improving the end experience. Aside from turning them into barren, windswept deserts, environmental concerns have also been raised where this strategy is concerned.
Apart from the drainage issues that have arisen, architects have risked creating ‘frying pans’ – heat spots that act to amplify Poland’s heatwaves. Remodelled around ten-years back, Kielce has proved a prime example with temperatures in its Rynek known to soar into the high 40s.
Unsurprisingly, there City Hall has swallowed their pride to announce a competitive process to “re-green” the square and remove some of the concrete slabs that have made it such a menace.
Yet it is a damning indictment on Poland that one can throw a dart at a map and the chances are it will land on a town that has been perverted by concrete: Leżajsk, Parczew, Wągrowiec, Końskowola, Skawina, Bartoszyce, Skierniewice – the list of shame could fill a phone book.
Then you have Kutno. Of the more high-profile architectural blunders, last year’s work on Pl. Wolnośći was particularly vilified and singled out for taking “Polish concrete to a completely new level”. Viewing it first hand, one is rendered silent by the carpet of greyness that rolls out in front.
So why, you might ask, do designers keep making such a pig’s ear of it all? I’ve heard varying theories, but none that make as much sense as those that trace it all back to PRL times.
Back then, you see, town councils weren’t shy about in-filling public spaces with greenery – but as the years marched on, and budgets thinned, upkeep of these became problematic.
Fast-forward to Poland’s modern dawn, and many of these green spaces had become jungles – places where tree roots had writhed out from beneath the pavements and where broken benches had become meeting points for drinkers. Getting shot of it all wasn’t insane, but a logical solution… at least at the time.
Now, a backlash is underway with many town councils hastily backtracking – among those, plans for the Rynek and Pl. Wolnośći in Łódź have been redrawn so as to improve the ratio of greenery and hopes are now high that the city could become a beacon for others to follow.
Of course, not all renovations have been thus far catastrophic. In Lublin, Pl. Litewski stands out for the manner in which it has reengaged the city through the construction of a show-stealing multi-media fountain. Flanked by greenery, but also leaving ample open space for city events, it can stand proud as an example of somewhere that “did it right”.
In my opinion, the same goes for Katowice.
Granted, the Rynek there is guilty of over-dosing on concrete, but in this case I’ll let it slide: where once the whole plot seemed cut-off from public use, today the revised look has seemingly joined the surrounding streets together to form one coherent whole.
Moreover, the addition of five-metre palm trees have lent it a quirky personality that accurately mirror the city’s own eccentric character – being there is fun!
Warsaw, too, has had its successes. Though losing some of its edge since the demolition of the Jewish Theatre and the cult Pardon To Tu bar, the 2010 modernization of Pl. Grzybowski rescued it from oblivion and, as a consequence, turned it into a place beloved by a heady mix of snacking office workers, skateboarders, beret-wearing oldies and TV crews shooting insurance commercials.
Adding to the tapestry of an area already awash with enticing contrasts, it gave a new heart to a place not short of soul. Pinned in by glass skyscrapers, historic tenements and 70s eyesores, Pl. Grzybowski has somehow glued these mismatching elements together in a way that feels organic and smart.
Neither will I overlook Pl. Europejski – strong evidence of what the private sector can achieve, what could have easily been left as a no-man’s land between skyscrapers instead found itself intelligently dressed up with art, an Insta-friendly ‘I Love Warsaw’ sign and attractive swathes of greenery and water slashed amid the gravel.
When it premiered six-years ago, it lifted Wola at a stroke.
I’m not getting that feeling with Five Corners, and though it’s early days yet I’m crossing my fingers that it won’t come to be viewed as another of Poland’s concrete calamities. Is it better than before? Without a doubt. But will that be enough? The jury is out.