From past to present, Britain’s influence on Warsaw’s landscape reveals a longstanding architectural friendship
For many, it’s become symbolic of ‘new Warsaw’. For others, simply a gargantuan piece of glass inflated to the size of a landmark.
Either way, its dimensions alone make the Varso Tower impossible to ignore. Opened to much fanfare earlier in the year, the EU’s tallest building does nothing if not force passers-by to consider the sweeping changes that have befallen the Polish capital.
Designed by the London-based studio Foster + Partners, at a stroke this prominent piece of architecture has reshaped the city’s silhouette and increased its profile in more ways than one.
But while standing awestruck in its shadow, it’s perhaps worthwhile to pause to recognise the wider impact that British architects have had on Poland’s primary city.
In this regard, it is impossible to overlook the contribution of William Lindley and his son, William Heerelein Lindley. Civil engineers by profession, this dad and lad duo were essential in the implementation of Warsaw’s water filter project.
Commissioned by the President of Warsaw, Sokrates Starynkiewicz, it was his visionary approach to governance that saw the introduction of a horse-drawn tram network and the installation of the first telephone lines in the city.
However, it was his battle against typhus that led him to the door of Lindley Sr. Turning down a similar job offer in Sydney, the Englishman set to work in 1876 and took two years to complete his design for an underground water filtration system.
Supervised by his son, the project was officially unveiled on July 3rd, 1886 – for the first time ever, the people of Warsaw had unfettered access to clean, filtered tap water.
Of course, not everyone was happy – pamphlets were circulated claiming the underground canals were part of a wicked Jewish plot to poison the city; others merely moaned about the cost. On Lindley’s insistence, only the best materials were used and each brick was painstakingly checked to ensure its quality.
The fact that this water treatment functions to this day is a testament to his attention to detail, but beyond the realms of civil engineering its architecture, too, deserves to be lauded.
Sometimes hailed as one of the Seven Wonders of Warsaw (at least by myself), those fortunate to visit on one of their open days will find themselves ushered into a subterranean world of vaulted crypts. Reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral, this semi-secret world is simply stunning to admire.
But having executed similar schemes in such cities as Budapest, Prague, Moscow and Vienna, the name of Lindley isn’t uncommon to hear. Far lesser-known is that of Arthur Gurney, one of the great unsung heroes of Warsaw architecture.
Born in either Leeds or Luton in 1875, Gurney is known to have studied in Kassel and Hanover, before moving fleetingly to Łódź. Arriving to Warsaw in 1899, he took a position as an assistant in Szymon Szyller’s architectural studio and helped in the design of the epic, wedding cake-style Polytechnic.
It is while working on this that he is reported to have met Bronisław Brochwicz-Rogóyski, and the pair soon embarked on a string of projects.
Fluent in Polish and Russian, he was involved in designs for the city’s first skyscraper, a building that still stands on Zielna 39. Gurney, though, was more than just a collaborator in some of the city’s big projects, and he held the pen as lead architect of several buildings that would later come to be considered iconic of early 20th century Warsaw.
In this regard, two structures on Jerozolimskie stand out, the first at No. 99. Thought to have been completed in 1913 for Stanisław Rostkowski, it followed an atypical horseshoe plan with a seven-storey superstructure encasing a shaded courtyard entered via a street-facing low-level gatehouse.
Topped by a pair of turrets on either side, these were never reconstructed after sustaining war damage, but the building still stands to this day exuding a elegant sense of style over the gridlocked street below.
This intriguing and welcoming façade contrasts against his other work on Jerozolimskie at No. 57; sooty and forbidding, if it looks more like a haunted hospital then that’s because it is.
Built in 1912 as a private surgical and gynaecological institute, it soon acquired a peerless reputation for its medical facilities, thanks partially to its use of pioneering Swedish technology developed by Gustav Zander.
Later morphing into the Omega Hospital, it ceased to function only in 2006. Left largely derelict ever since, for a brief time it flourished as the seat of the licentious Nowa Jerozolima club.
For a fleeting period, plans were also laid down for a ‘creative commune’ that would house record labels, design ateliers, editorial offices and photographic studios. After a bright start, these slowly vanished, possibly due to the chilling atmosphere.
Reputed to be one of Warsaw’s haunted buildings, tales abound of people seeing ghostly children disappearing walls, objects moving around and the distressed cries of babies echoing down the empty corridors.
For Gurney’s defining work, though, one must head to what is now Lwowska 15 & 17. Eerily similar to New York’s Dakota building (scene of Rosemary’s Baby and, of course, John Lennon’s untimely death), this corner tenement was created as HQ for the Horn & Rupiewicz construction firm and was richly embellished with the castle-like features that often defined Gurney’s work.
Decorated with dramatic overhangs, bay windows and curious gargoyles and reliefs, its varied story has seen it house a cult ‘colonial’ store selling Indian spices during the years of the Second Republic and a grisly wartime field hospital at the height of the Warsaw Uprising.
Featured in films such as the 2007 crime caper Świadek Koronny, today it has a marked social importance thanks to the presence of a boisterous Belarussian pub in the basement, and on the upper floors, an design-forward B&B that has become a darling of the press.
Unfortunately for Warsaw, Gurney’s stay was cut short as the German forces closed in on the city during WWI. As an Englishman, he had no choice but to flee for his safety.
But Britain’s architectural associations with Warsaw do not end there, and it was a war of a different kind that brought about perhaps one of the city’s big blights. Found at Bagatela 5, the bunker-like, brutalist design of what served as the British Ambassador’s residence was coined by Eric Bedford, a man better-known for London’s Post Office Tower.
Built in the 60s at the height of the Cold War, workers remember how the ambassador himself would visit once a week to check on their progress. “Each Saturday he would arrive in a Rolls Royce, inspect the site and then depart after leaving us with two bottles of Johnny Walker and several cartons of Chesterfield cigarettes.
When it became known that the Polish workforce were holding a topping out party, the Ambassador donated platters of sandwiches and ten crates of vodka – once word got around, it’s said that Bagatela became an impromptu street party as locals descended en masse to enjoy this hospitality.
After the 9/11 attacks, concerns about security led the British to close the compound and it was purchased nine-years ago by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for PLN 22 million – its current use and future remain, for the time being, shrouded in secrecy.
Altogether easier on the eye, it is another diplomatic project has proved aesthetically more successful. A stone’s throw from Łazienki Park, the new British Embassy was opened in 2009 and built to a design by Tony Fretton Architects.
Following a serene and simple form, the 4,300 sq/m facility was built with several environmental and safety measures in mind, as well as a design specifically developed to evoke an air of calm efficiency.
And this brings us neatly into the modern day – for all the attention that the Varso Tower has received, it must be remembered that this is not the only investment credited to the underlings of Sir Norman Foster. For that, refer to the Metropolitan, a building planted in the corner of Pl. Piłsudskiego.
Featuring a doughnut-shaped courtyard in the middle closed inside a pentagonal frame (hence its nickname, ‘the Warsaw pentagon’), concrete fins adorn the exterior façade and accent its modest sense of class.
The first AAA-rated building in Poland when it was finished in 2003, it too has played a role in Warsaw’s history, albeit one associated with its nightlife.
It was here that The Cinnamon once thrived, a club that seemed to espouse the champagne-swilling mood of the transforming city. Guarded by a sniffy door selector elevated to the status of Kingmaker, it was past a velvet rope that an A-Z list of celebs would file to join real estate moguls and stick-thin models gyrating on the bar top. Warsaw had never seen anything like it before.
Those heady days may have passed, but the building remains a remarkable architectural nugget that’s become treasured by the critics – not to mention, a gleaming example of the British architecture to be found in the city.