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Protect the present

12 of January '21

For a little over a year, a team for contemporary cultural assets has been operating in Warsaw. Its achievements stimulate debate on what and how in architecture should be protected.

Storms in the world of architecture are limited in scope and obviously cannot be compared with "scandals" from the world of pop culture or politics. And yet, the new list of modern cultural assets announced some time ago, which included buildings created from the 1980s to the present day (the youngest is from 2016, the oldest from the late 1970s) has really stirred up a lot of emotions. Are they really needed?

list of modern cultural assets

The list was created as a result of the work of the team for contemporary cultural assets under the President of the City of Warsaw, established in October 2019. Members and members of the council certainly got into it from the merit key, it is difficult to have objections to its composition (all the names can be found on the website). As a result of its deliberations and meetings, but after all, also the previous achievements, research, and scientific works of all its members, the council created a list of objects that it recommends as those that, in its opinion, represent well the time in which they were created, are a valuable record of their era, and as such the council "recommends for planning protection as contemporary cultural assets."

The word "recommends" is worth noting. The list is not tantamount to an entry in the register of monuments, it is merely a suggestion by a group of experts as to the architectural quality of the selected buildings. Let's recall 2006, when the Warsaw Branch of SARP published (submitted to the President of the City of Warsaw a request for protection in local plans) the first version of the List of Contemporary Cultural Heritage, which included more than 130 buildings built during the communist period (mainly in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, later decades were represented by fewer objects). And she attracted criticism, because at the time - only 15 years ago! - surrounding the protection of "socialist" or "communist" buildings, ugly, neglected, gray, representing an era that everyone wanted to forget, was considered by many to be a scandal and a misunderstanding of what a "monument" and "architecture worthy of protection" is.

Biblioteka University of WarsawBiblioteka University of WarsawBiblioteka University of Warsaw

Library of the University of Warsaw, design: Marek Budzyński, Zbigniew Badowski

photo: Anna Cymer

In the same year, bulldozers dealt with the Supersam, which was soon mourned by almost everyone, as the understanding of the heritage of communist Poland's architecture changed 180 degrees in just a few more years. But what effect did that 2006 list have? Of the 133 buildings included in it, a dozen no longer exist (including the Chemia pavilion, Skarpa Cinema, WZ and Praha, and the 10th-Anniversary Stadium) or are in ruins (such as Skra Stadium), quite a few have undergone disastrous renovations and reconstructionsreconstructions (Eastern Wall, Central Department Store), and on the fingers of maybe two hands you can count those that have finally made it to the register of monuments (for the record, it should be noted that many of them are in the municipal records). Some of these buildings are slowly being included in the local plans, which are being created painfully and still too slowly, although even here it is difficult to be honest: the former "Uniwersus" bookstore (or rather, the small plot of land on which the building stands) was cleverly excised as the only one from the emerging local plan for Sielce (the plan's boundaries run logically along the streets except for this one corner of the intersection, which was "in tooth" removed from the plan). The undersigned submitted a comment to this draft plan; the office's response can be summarized: "nothing can be done anymore."

{Image@url=,alt=Centrum Office and Banking Center Kaskada, proj.: Jerzy Skrzypczak, Jerzy Janczak, Maciej Piechotka, Andrzej Darski, Mieczysław Zientarski,title=Office and Banking Center Kaskada, proj.: Jerzy Skrzypczak, Jerzy Janczak, Maciej Piechotka, Andrzej Darski, Mieczysław Zientarski}

Kaskada Office and Banking Center, proj.: Jerzy Skrzypczak, Jerzy Janczak, Maciej Piechotka, Andrzej Darski, Mieczysław Zientarski

photo: Anna Cymer

Why, then, was that pioneering list created in 2006, if it "failed to defend" so many valuable objects? It was much needed! There is no doubt that it contributed to the development of the debate on the architectural heritage of the People's Republic of Poland, the result of which is not only the mad fashion for this architecture that has prevailed for years, but also a complete change in the approach to it. Today it is clear and obvious that it is worth preserving, that it is worth it and that it is attractive, interesting and functional in its own right. And that today we can treat it as a record of the past, but at the same time use it in a million ways.

fashionable and well-liked

Exactly the same purpose should be fulfilled by the currently written list of modern cultural assets. It is high time to debate the architecture of the 1990s, to understand its features, principles, forms. What is needed is knowledge, an explanation of why such buildings were built then, where the ideas, technical or material solutions for them came from, what the world of architects and the design system was like. Such education helped in the case of works from the People's Republic of Poland, it will certainly be useful for the next era as well. Let's learn from our mistakes: it was not possible to save several important buildings from the 1960s and 1970s, because we started talking about this heritage too late, appreciated it too late. Soon buildings from the next era (Solpol!) will start disappearing and we will feel déjà vu, moments later regretting their demolition. There's no doubt that it will probably take a few years at most for Wrocław's Solpol or Warsaw's Curtis Plaza, the Atrium complex, the Panorama Shopping Center, the Hector company headquarters, the school on Kopcińskiego Street or, finally, the still-hated Sobieski Hotel to become fashionable and well-liked.

Curtis Plaza in WarsawCurtis Plaza in WarsawCurtis Plaza in Warsaw.

Curtis Plaza in Warsaw, proj.: Geokart Projekt (Miroslaw Kartowicz, Romuald Welder)

photo: Anna Cymer

It is therefore extremely gratifying to see the courage of Warsaw's contemporary cultural assets team to create a list of valuable buildings from the times that will fascinate in a moment. And just as Warsaw's SARP was followed by other cities after 2006, creating their own collections of objects important as heritage of modernity, let's hope that this time too the capital's initiative will become an inspiration, so that in every city such a catalog of valuable objects will be created.

The Warsaw list includes not only buildings from the 1980s and 1990s, but also much newer ones. These, however, are not controversial, all the more so if one understands the difference between listing a building in the register of monuments and protecting them in the local plan (as the authors of the Warsaw list advocate). It's clear that it's hard to imagine that now or even in a few decades someone would want to take down the Służewski Cultural Center, the Polin Museum or the building of the Academy of Fine Arts in Powiśle and replace it with other buildings.

Akademia Academy of Fine Arts in WarsawAkademia Academy of Fine Arts in WarsawAkademia Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw

Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, proj.: JEMS Architects

photo: Anna Cymer

Maybe these buildings would benefit from some time distance so that we can assess them fairly, but no one questions their value and they seem to be naturally already so woven into the landscape of Warsaw that it seems obvious to include them too in local plans as "untouchable" objects. Just like their 20 years younger architectural brethren, who had the misfortune to be "born" at a time when there were other fashions in design, but also other possibilities. And as a record of these realities, which are remembered today, even today seemingly kitschy individual buildings - "relics" should be absolutely preserved. Because even if the fashion for their forms does not grant us, there will be no other way to tell future generations about those times.

Anna Cymer

The vote has already been cast