Richard J. Evans
- BuyA Blessing in Disguise: War and Town Planning in Europe, 1940-45 edited by Jörn Düwel and Niels Gutschow
DOM, 415 pp, €98.00, August 2013, ISBN 978 3 86922 295 0
In 1941, the architect Hans Stosberg drew up ambitious plans for a new model town, with monumental public buildings grouped around a main square, and leafy boulevards branching off a central avenue which led to the factory complex that would provide the bulk of the work for a population of 80,000. There were to be twelve schools, six kindergartens, twenty sports fields, swimming pools, offices, banks, shops and a number of satellite settlements, every one of them constructed around a main square and equipped with similar public buildings and modern amenities. The whole conglomeration was to form an ‘urban landscape’ divided into cell-shaped districts, each forming its own sub-community within the overall structure of the town. Houses, or ‘people’s dwellings’, were to be supplied with central heating, garages, gas cookers, laundries and vegetable gardens. The old idea of a city as a concentration of densely populated buildings packed into a townscape of narrow streets and winding alleyways was to be superseded by the modern concept of a spread-out complex of roads and buildings that merged seamlessly into the natural environment. Funds poured in from the government, and businesses vied for a favoured place in the new urban landscape. To celebrate the start of construction, Stosberg had special greetings cards made for New Year 1942, which he sent out to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. The words below the picture proudly announced: ‘Birth of the new German town of Auschwitz’.
Vol. 35 No. 24 · 19 December 2013
Richard J. Evans in his review of War and Town Planning refers to cities ‘built on virgin soil, like Patrick Geddes’s Tel Aviv’ (LRB, 5 December). Tel Aviv was in fact built around and over the top of Palestinian villages, largely destroyed in 1948. The villages are now areas in Tel Aviv – Abu Kabir, Summayl, Shaykh Muwannis and Salama – and can be seen on a map published online by the Israeli organisation Zochrot (Hebrew for ‘remembering’).
Vol. 36 No. 1 · 9 January 2014
The senior Warsaw official quoted by Richard J. Evans who pledged in 1946 to rebuild the city ‘from the foundations’ in a manner faithful to its heritage must have died an unhappy man (LRB, 5 December 2013). Apart from restoring the comparatively small area of the Old Town, Warsaw before the 1980s largely followed the Soviet and Eastern bloc model: there was a central civic building topped by a massively ugly Stalino-phallic tower that, on a foggy night, King Kong might have mistaken for the Empire State. The old tower sits today on a messy pedestrian square and parking area, and a short trip in most directions will get you to those serried ranks of dispiriting Pact-era apartment blocks, some of them brightly painted up. The original ghetto was finally obliterated to make way for them.
Poland is full of talented young architects who would like to do something better for their once war-damaged cities. The foundation structure on which the Warsaw tower stands has the dimensions of many pleasant European museums and state buildings. Without the Uncle Joe Meets Uncle Sam spike, it would be more in keeping with the city’s surviving 18th-century glories, King Poniatowski’s Palace on the Water and Orangery. Predictably, the civil bureaucrats whose egos are served by working in the tower have blocked any professional push to decapitate it.
Last year a charming short film called Warszawa, 1935 was screened in the lower building, taking its audience on a virtual aerial swoop over a CGI reconstruction of Warsaw in that year. It showed a city with many lovely boulevards allowing long sightlines – such boulevards still exist in the picturesque town of Zamosc, in eastern Poland – which the postwar authorities sometimes went out of their way to ruin by deliberately building office blocks across them. To proceed today along Sienkiewicz Street, named after Poland’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, you have to make a depressing passage under one of these before you reach a parking lot and a monument to Napoleon. The Gestapo HQ and torture site have been left intact and, as a museum, are now part of the Ministry of National Education building.
There are uplifting things about the city: statues everywhere of thinkers and artists, a new museum of the History of Polish Jews, whose exterior colours at night subtly suggest a prayer shawl. Catholic churches have plaques not only for saints but for poets and novelists. In Warsaw you find yourself yearning, I think forgivably, not for pragmatic urban realism but for the rise of some new architectural genius who would at last repair the work of those lamentable town-planning anti-talents, Hitler and Stalin.