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The myth of the white city

16 of May '23

Review fromA&B issue04|2023

We like to create myths, idealize events and phenomena of the past to make them seem better, more beautiful, more valuable. But mythology-building can also have a political purpose, when hiding certain truths is supposed to create a better picture of reality. We just got a chance to discuss anew the truth about two mythical cities.

Zespół mieszkaniowy Funduszu Emerytalnego BGK (tzw. Bankowiec, po lewej) i biurowiec ZUS-u (po prawej), 1938

The housing complex of the BGK Pension Fund (known as Bankowiec, left) and the ZUS office building (right), 1938

© National Digital Archive

Cities and stories are created in a similar way - they are always created by winners, for winners and according to the testimonies of winners," Sharon Rotbard notes in the very first pages of the book. These bitter words illustrate the phenomenon of our civilization, which likes to record its history by the hands of those who have succeeded, without taking into account the voice of the less fortunate participants in events. Although Rotbard relates this statement to the history of Israel, it perfectly captures the spirit of most Polish historical narratives, from the myth of the Noble Republic to the political and economic transformation, which has long been presented exclusively in terms of success. For just as the military or political success of the Republic in the 17th century was bought with the drama of the lower, non-ruling strata of society, so after 1989 the glorified capitalism was built on the misery of the residents of the state collective farms or the workers of failing factories. For years the point of view of the "losers" was not taken into account, they were not seen by the spotlight of the "propaganda of success".

From left: Grzegorz Piątek "Gdynia Promised. City, Modernism, Modernization 1920-1939" and Sharon Rotbard "White City, Black City. Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa".

© W.A.B. Publishing | © Filters Publishing.

Thus, it is all the more worth appreciating the trend, which was born in the Polish public debate a few years ago, of giving voice to hitherto unseen participants in important events and transformations. The folk history of Poland is being written before our eyes, helping us "discover" that not only nobles and magnates lived here, but also women and serf peasants. Giving a voice to those harmed by the transformation reveals that Polish capitalism means, in addition to glass office buildings and eagerly awaited Western capital, also unemployment, loss of a sense of security, and exclusion, from which certain regions of the country have not recovered to this day. Idealizing the past, creating a narrative that focuses all attention on the winners and beneficiaries of change does not happen on its own, it is often the result of political action, a deliberate taking away of the voice of those whose perspective does not fit the picture. It is still colloquially claimed that Christopher Columbus discovered America, while he rather subdued the peoples living there and brutally took the land from its original inhabitants. Australians or Canadians have only recently been talking about how the colonizers treated the indigenous peoples, only now are they giving them a voice and the right to be part of history.

Kamienna Góra, Dom Zdrojowy, 1930

Stone Mountain, Spa House, 1930

Photo: Z. Elzhanowski © National Digital Archive

As it turns out, architecture is also a tool for writing a winning version of history. For what, if not its hypocrisy, was the deliberate dismantling of the old towns of the so-called Recovered Territories destroyed during World War II? Elblag, Szczecin, Malbork, Slupsk, Legnica, Kamien Pomorski and many other cities with a German or Prussian past lost their historic buildings not as a result of wartime dramas, but as a result of the actions of the Polish authorities, who thus wanted to erase their unwanted lineage. And although that authority is long gone, emotions about the past of some Polish cities are still alive. This was shown by the discussions surrounding the idea of naming some streets in the New Żerniki housing development in Wroclaw after German architects who were active in the city before 1945.

 Kamienna Góra, widok od strony plaży z łazienkami i hotelem Riviera

Kamienna Góra, view from the side of the beach with bathrooms and the Riviera Hotel

© National Digital Archive

Discussing the past anew, looking at heritage from a new, broader and more equitable perspective, is a very lively topic in contemporary public debate around the world. More countries are admitting to having done colonizing wrongs (like the Danes apologizing to the indigenous people of Greenland for their past policies against children), and urban dwellers are increasingly curious about their silenced history. The search for information about German traces, relics and inhabitants is consuming many residents of Szczecin, for example. It may seem surprising that even cities with a simple and proud history, fundamentally Polish and seemingly devoid of dark sides turn out to be written in our consciousness in a mythical setting. Few people knew that in the 1930s as much as two-thirds of Gdynia's buildings were temporary structures, barracks and slums, where newcomers seeking a better future in the newly built port city lived in poverty and discomfort. Grzegorz Piątek, describing in his volume "Gdynia Promised. City, Modernism, Modernization 1920-1939" the history of one of the most important projects of the Second Polish Republic, the flagship work of the government of the time and the "pearl of modernism" that is surrounded by a cult to this day, he based not only on the testimonies of the victors. He took a broad look at the construction of Gdynia, appreciating the undoubted significance of this investment, but not avoiding looking into its background. Thus, he describes both the ideological underpinnings of the construction of a port city on the site of a fishing village, and the architectural qualities of the most important public edifices erected at the time, or the luxurious villa estates. However, he devotes just as much attention to social phenomena: growing inequality, the actions of cooperatives or, in contemporary language, urban activists, the situation of workers building Gdynia or planning to emigrate, for whom Gdynia was also equipped with infrastructure to facilitate their departure. The story of the construction of Gdynia is a growing rift between the propaganda image of the city and its everyday reality. Still relevant today! After all, the city, in which, although housing or social problems have not disappeared, has for years been present at the top of the rankings for the best place to live.

kamienica Scheibego wśród wiejsko-miejskiej zabudowy

Scheibe's tenement among the rural-urban buildings

© National Digital Archive

Grzegorz Piątek writes this story full of contrasts, doing justice to each side. He does not diminish the uniqueness of this great construction project, but does not forget those who, despite their efforts, did not become beneficiaries of this success; while respecting and appreciating the magnificence of Gdynia's modernism, he also shows the other, less glamorous face of the legendary city. Once again, he proves that, as an author, he has an extraordinary ability to combine sound historical and architectural knowledge with social sensitivity. Thanks to his literary flair, he does not treat cities as collections of brick volumes erected by mysterious demiurges (which is how architecture and urban planning are often written about), but as a living bloodstream in which people, their actions and fates are as important as the edifices being built. And just as he was uniquely able to convey the emotions and dilemmas accompanying the lifting of Warsaw from the ruins in his book "The Best City in the World," so here he portrayed the hopes and disappointments associated with a powerful political, propaganda and urban planning project that was to help rebuild Poland's position and identity after the years of partition.

ulica Świętojańska (róg Żwirki i Wigury), typowa zabudowa śródmiejska, druga połowa lat 30. XX wieku

Świętojańska Street (corner of Żwirki i Wigury), typical downtown buildings, second half of 1930s

photo: Ernest Raulin © National Digital Archive

Almost simultaneously with the book "Promised Gdynia" by Piątek, the story "White City, Black City" by Sharon Rotbard was published (by the way, Piątek himself recommended the book to the Filtry publishing house). The Israeli architect, activist and journalist analyzes the history of the construction of Tel Aviv, a city with an even stronger mythology, a more difficult genesis and a complicated political context. The construction of Gdynia was a political project, but the creation of Tel Aviv had an incomparably greater gravity and was observed by the international community. In Poland, the two cities are readily compared to each other as the fruits of the cult of modernization typical of the interwar years and the site of numerous modernist-style buildings. Grzegorz Piątek finds this juxtaposition not very accurate, much more connections, he says, Gdynia has with Italy's Littoria, built in the 1930s on the initiative of Benito Mussolini.

Pomnik Zjednoczenia Ziem Polskich na wystawie w Warszawie, prace konkursowe, 1931

Monument to the Unification of the Polish Lands at an exhibition in Warsaw, competition entries, 1931

© National Digital Archive

Gdynia and Littoria were investments that were meant to show the strength of the new statehood, but they were not the fruit of a difficult, dramatic rivalry between nations and cultures, nor did they serve to suppress one culture by another. In the poignant story of the black (inferior, marginalized, liquidated) city of Jaffa, and the white awaited, beautiful and modern Tel Aviv, Rotbard shows how one city grew out of the harm and destruction of another: "In 1948, Jafa lost not only its residents. For the first time in its five thousand year history, it ceased to exist as a city and a cultural center. It was left stripped of its heritage, bruised and lifeless. What was astonishing was the speed with which this happened, and the totality of this transformation." Rotbard reports on the processes that enabled Tel Aviv to become a vibrant, modern metropolis and an attractive cultural center to this day, but does not shy away from drawing attention to the politics that accompanied it, a narrative consciouslypropaganda purposes shaped narrative, which omitted many of the elements of the city's history (not only the injustice of Jaffa, but also the myth that Tel Aviv modernism was created by the hands of Bauhaus members). It also shows how important a role architecture played in building the story of Tel Aviv from the very beginning, how important a tool it was for Jewish builders, but also how clear a symbol of the time. "[...] if the story of Tel Aviv's White City teaches us anything, it is that it is impossible to separate architecture from the rest of life. The reason Tel Aviv focuses on the story of the White City's architecture, and repeats it over and over again to its citizens and the rest of the world, is that in this way it tries to disconnect us from the process of erasing history - the history of Jaffa," Rotbard writes.

Dom Bawełny, 1938

House of Cotton, 1938

© National Digital Archive

The stories of Piątek and Rotbard are quite different, as the fates of the two cities divide more than they unite, and the narrative style of the two authors is also different (Piątek leans on the port city with sensitivity and a certain tenderness, Rotbard is firm in his descriptions and does not hide his critical judgments). And yet they are worth reading in duo, because these difficult and painful, complicated and entangled in politics and propaganda stories are at the same time an expression of great human determination and faith that it is possible to build a better world. There is still much we can learn from them.

Hala Targowa, 1938

Market Hall, 1938

© National Digital Archive

Anna Cymer

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