Rebuilding Warsaw

Christchurch is not the first city in the world to be destroyed by an earthquake, and it won’t be the last one either. As far as modern disasters go, it is actually rather restrained, with a remarkably minimal loss of life – we have, currently, 168 dead. In a similar sized quake in Haiti, they had between 100,000 and 200,000 dead. That’s the tragic thing – they still don’t know how many died – and because we have such a meticulously exact police force in this little country, we’ve got a very slow, but very accurate reporting of exactly who died, where and why.

Not so slow however is the demolition crews, who are ready on orders from Gerry Brownlee, to leap into action and destroy any remaining remnants of heritage and history. If action is not taken against him immediately, by the end of the week there could be a thousand buildings or more destroyed by bulldozer.

In other countries, they take a lot more care of their heritage. Take, for example, the capital of Poland, the wonderful old city of Warsaw.

For hundreds of years it had been the centre of a vibrant community of proud Poles. During World War II they were over-run by Nazi troops, and in 1944 the Warsaw uprising attempted to take back control of the city. They did not succeed.

In a furious act of retaliation, Herr Hitler ordered that Warsaw be burnt to the ground. Monuments and government buildings were blown up by special German troops known as Verbrennungs und Vernichtungskommando (“Burning and Destruction Detachments”). The city was almost totally destroyed by the Nazis during January 1945, until almost no trace of history existed any more: a full 85% of the city was destroyed.

But did the Poles say “Let’s get rid of the old dungas”? Or did they say “These old buildings have killed and they have no place in our future?” There is a memory of place that goes with the heritage of architecture, an essence within the walls that was so important to the people of Poland that they have rebuilt one small section of the city: the area surrounding the old Town Square.

Looking at these pictures, it is hard to believe that they were completely reconstructed from scratch. Impeccably painful reconstruction, brick by brick or stone by stone, the importance of these buildings to the Poles was understood well by them, and their perseverance has paid off. No Minister Brownlee telling them what to do – old Warsaw town lives again.


10 responses to “Rebuilding Warsaw”

  1. Rebuilding of Warsaw was a truly remarkable feat. An example of outstanding community work and unity amongst the people who had nothing left. Many of those reconstructed buildings use the original bricks but not necessarily from the same building. One of the first things to be done was to reclaim and salvage as much of the original building material as possible. This, however, had nothing to do with history and heritage (or very little), it was a simple matter of necessity—there were no other building materials, there were no factories, there were no delivery trucks, there was nothing.

    The war might have ended in 1945 but its scars lasted for many more years (and still do). In the 1980’s I lived in an apartment block where the render on one big wall was still covered with bullet holes!

    My personal belief is that heritage buildings should be preserved because they are the palpable manifestation of our history which in turn is an indispensable component of our evolution as a society. How can we develop a firm sense of national identity and how can we grow to be a nation proud of what we’ve accomplished if we can’t see where we came from? How can we respect one another when we don’t respect our immediate built environment?

    However, there was no heritage conservation 200 years ago. Buildings were constantly reused, modified, changed—they evolved. Consequently I believe that very few buildings need to be preserved in time for posterity. Buildings want to live, albeit on a different time scale from humans. What we have here, coming out of a natural disaster, is an opportunity to evolve. To re-store, re-new, re-integrate, re-affirm. I believe that all these “re-” processes would help us form a stronger bond with our past and give us something unique on which future generations can base their sense of the place.

  2. Slight difference in your analogy – in Warsaw they rebuilt after destruction, using some of the same materials (esp ornament). They are in effect new buildings (and are probably safer for it?). There is no reason why the same couldn’t be done in Chch, even after Brownlee has had his way…

    This is not something that I am advocating for btw…

  3. Indeed – we are also not saying that this is the best / only way – merely that the indomitable spirit of the Polish / Canterbury people should not be crushed by events – and neither should all the buildings.

    We’re hoping to do som more posts for other examples around the world – Coventry is next on my list.

  4. Great – I look forward to reading these. If I may make some suggestions of other pertinent examples – how ’bout the Barcelona Pavilion, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Berlin), the Critical Reconstruction theory that has guided ‘IBA’ Berlin, and my personal favourite, the Croatian town of Split, built upon the Ruins of Diocletian’s palace. Each of these demonstrates an alternative approach to reconstructing (or not) from historic and/or heritage ruins – some may be appropriate, others probably not…

    Here’s my pick of part of a building in Split:

  5. Philip Avatar

    If your interested in warsaw, be sure to checkout the images and trailer linked to over here:

  6. To whom it may concern,

    I am requesting permission to use your photograph of Old Town Warsaw for a textbook entitled: “Masonry History Integrity – An Urban Conservation Primer.”
    It will be available as a free download through the National Park Service, National Center for Preservation Technology & Training at this web site:
    Thank you in advance for permission to use the requested photograph.

    Tom Russack

    phone: 917-528-1883

  7. Radu Ungureanu Avatar
    Radu Ungureanu

    I’m looking for a comparative image of the same place in Warsaw, Old Town – destroyed during WW2 and rebuilt now.
    Could you, please, help me?
    I intend to use it at an academic presentation (I am a lecturer in International Relations at a University in Bucharest).
    Thank you in advance!

  8. Radu, the top image and the bottom image are of the same place – ie top is immediately after the war’s destruction, while the bottom image is the restored buildings in the square today.

  9. Richard Urycki Avatar
    Richard Urycki

    I request your permission to use the top and bottom photos of the Old Town for a Travel Narrative I am writing for my children. Thank You

  10. Elizabeth Trawinski Avatar
    Elizabeth Trawinski

    My husband is trying to find out the name of the city in Poland that supplied the bricks to rebuild the Old Town. Any information that you can provide will be greatly appreciated. Thank You

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