Writer and journalist Hatherley is author of Militant Modernism, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, and most recently A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain (Verso, £20). He blogs at nastybrutalistandshort.blogspot.com.

Owen Hatherley and the 1920s social housing at Plac Wilsona (photo: Fotopolska)

If I think where I’ve thought, occasionally aloud, ‘I love this city!’ (Glasgow, Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Halifax, Bradford, Brussels, Hamburg, Moscow and Naples come to mind) there are usually certain common things getting me excited. Dramatic topography, unashamed modernity, space and scope, a history of struggle that avoids the stultifying museumification that afflicts conventionally attractive cities, an anti-classical urban montage of things that shouldn’t really fit being thrown and meshed together. All these are part of what makes a city fascinating (to me). The city that seemed to fit the criteria best was Warsaw. But then I fell in love there, which isn’t on the list.

The Polish capital fits all of the above provisos, except for the topography – its site, at least, is unremittingly flat. Another aspect that almost guarantees that a city will be interesting and rewarding (for me) is the disdain of received opinion. Cab drivers still assume that any foreigner in Warsaw is only en route to Krakow. It is pejoratively regarded as grim, grey and monotonous. This is largely because after the suppression of the Warsaw Rising in 1944, the Wehrmacht torched and evacuated what was left, with the destruction estimated at 85 per cent. Warsaw appears as a city entirely of the second half of the twentieth century.

There are few cities that embraced all the different approaches of twentieth century architecture and planning so comprehensively and promiscuously as Warsaw, with each style/ideology succeeding and rejecting each other, while occupying the same space. When I first went to Warsaw, I was taken round Zoliborz, a suburb built after the end of Tsarist occupation in 1918. You emerge from Plac Wilsona Metro station – a bizarre 2005 retro-futurist confection – and find yourself in the WSM Kolonie, a 1920s social housing estate to rank with the work of Bruno Taut and Ernst May; its architects, Barbara and Stanislaw Brukalski, are not nearly so heralded. Turn out of these estates, built by a workers’ co-operative, and you might find yourself in an area of conservative, neoclassical houses for officers, built for those who administered the colonels’ dictatorship that ruled inter-war Poland; or in a post-war project, with neat CIAM-approved towers between tall trees; or in the mutant beaux-arts of socialist-realist estate.

Zoliborz is hardly all that remains of the pre-war city. The Old Town was famously reconstructed under Stalinism according to the paintings of Canaletto; and in Praga, on the right bank of the Vistula, a nineteenth century city still exists. Each of these says more about the twentieth century than any ‘authentic’ past; the Old Town is a dreamlike simulacra, a surrealist animation given life, its mocked-up facades covering straightforward workers’ housing. In the middle of it is a socialist-realist escalator by the designers of the Moscow metro, taking the pedestrian to a motorway. Praga, meanwhile, is both a living exhibit of why modernism was necessary, with its overcrowded, jerry-built tenements unleavened by their peeling beaux-arts stucco decoration, and a showcase of the differing responses to it. Praga II, built in the 1950s, veers between the modernist terraces by Szymon and Helena Szyrkus and the proto-postmodernist axial monoliths of Plac Lenskiego. Neither place is static, neither really feels a mere part of ‘heritage’.

Warsaw’s immense tower block periphery, its greyness now largely covered by layers of coloured insulation, is no less complex. Expressionist churches of the 1970s make clear the church’s hegemony under Polish ‘socialism’, shiny new towers are barged into the interstices between blocks, and manor houses and villages subsist just behind them. The city is linked – not as completely as it could be – by a typically spacious and reliable Communist-era metro system (finished in the mid-1990s) and a 1950s-70s overground network, whose concrete-shell stations by Arsenuisz Romanowicz and Piotr Szymaniak are finally being appreciated and restored. The central public buildings, whether Stalino-Manhattanist (Lev Rudnev’s Palace of Culture and Science) or surrealist-modernist (Stanislaw Fijalkowski’s National Library) are labyrinthine, practically cities in themselves.

Like many twentieth century cities, Warsaw is visibly a little ashamed of itself, and a conformist, homogenising instinct is sadly dominant in its new architecture and its relentlessly neo-liberal planning; its last really fine building is over a decade old, Marek Budzynski’s University Library, a Stirlingesque exercise in contrast and montage. Warsaw’s incredible legacy of social housing and social planning is still mostly anathema. When the last estate is privatised and the last Bar Mleczny is closed, then Europe will have lost something very special.

First published in AT231, September 2012