Stalin’s ‘wed­ding cake’ tallest build­ing in Poland

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Henry Sre­brnik

Some Varso­vians call it, caus­ti­cally, “Stalin’s wed­ding cake.” Oth­ers have wanted it razed to the ground.

It sits plopped in the mid­dle of the city, look­ing like a 1930s-era build­ing, and is now sur­rounded by mod­ern of­fice tow­ers.

It was Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin’s “gift to the Polish peo­ple” when the coun­try was un­der the heel of Soviet op­pres­sion.

Its full name was “the Palace of Cul­ture and Science in the name of Joseph Stalin.” But Stalin’s name was dropped after de-Stal­in­iza­tion in the Soviet bloc in 1956.

Started in 1952 and com­pleted in 1955, the Palac Kul­tury i Nauki, or PKiN, was con­structed by 3,500 Soviet work­men, who were housed in a spe­cial es­tate in Jelonki dur­ing their time there. An­other 4,000 Poles helped in build­ing it.

Work­ing at break­neck speed — with 16 work­ers los­ing their lives — it took just three years to com­plete the build­ing.

Much of War­saw at the time still lay in ru­ins from hav­ing been vir­tu­ally de­stroyed by the Nazis dur­ing the War­saw uprising of 1944.

The Palace, lo­cated at Plac. De­fi­lad, is a 42-story sky­scraper which, at 231 me­tres tall, in­clud­ing its spire, is still the highest build­ing in Poland.

How­ever, work has now started on the 53-story, 310 me­tre Varso Tower, on a site next to the Warszawa Cen­tralna rail­way sta­tion, with com­ple­tion slated for 2020, and it will sur­pass the Palace in height.

The PKiN was built in a mix­ture of the then-com­pul­sory so­cial­ist re­al­ism style with el­e­ments of Amer­i­can art deco and his­toric Polish cul­tural flour­ishes.

Stalin had re­port­edly se­cretly sent ar­chi­tects and plan­ners to New York to study the Em­pire State Build­ing as a model for his sky­scraper.

The fi­nal de­sign was by the Soviet ar­chi­tect Lev Rud­nev, a lead­ing prac­ti­tioner of Stal­in­ist ar­chi­tec­ture in the Soviet Union, re­spon­si­ble for many Moscow build­ings.

The Palace was meant to be a cor­ner­stone of the War­saw to come, planned to­gether with a ma­jes­tic Pa­rade Square.

Built us­ing an es­ti­mated 40 mil­lion bricks and hous­ing 3,288 rooms, its pur­pose was to serve as not just Com­mu­nist Party head­quar­ters but also as a place for the masses, with in­vi­ta­tions to the an­nual New Year’s Eve Ball is­sued to the best work­ers in so­cial­ist Poland.

It is sur­rounded by dozens of sculp­tures of fa­mous Polish fig­ures, in­clud­ing as­tronomer and math­e­ma­ti­cian Coper­ni­cus, poet Adam Mick­iewicz, and physi­cist Marie Sk­lodowska Curie, as well as model work­ers hold­ing works of Marx­ist writ­ers.

With its mar­ble floors and end­less stair­cases and cor­ri­dors with their weighty glass chan­de­liers and gilded fin­ish­ings, the PKiN was meant to daz­zle the masses and pro­vide a fore­taste of a fu­ture so­cial­ist par­adise.

One gi­gan­tic room, the Congress Hall, with seat­ing for 3,000 peo­ple, for years held the Com­mu­nist Party’s an­nual meet­ings.

All that is in the past. That same room more re­cently hosted con­certs by, among oth­ers, the Rolling Stones and Leonard Co­hen.

The Palace is to­day home to the Mu­seum of Evo­lu­tion, the Mu­seum of Tech­nol­ogy, four the­atres, a mul­ti­plex cin­ema, and bars. Most of the build­ing now houses of­fices and com­mer­cial spa­ces.

The ter­race on the 30th floor is a well-known tourist at­trac­tion with a panoramic view of the city. I was there on a very hot day, so it was quite re­fresh­ing.

Given the sys­tem of gov­ern­ment it was meant to sym­bol­ize, no build­ing in Poland has proved more divi­sive and con­tro­ver­sial.

For many years, when­ever the peo­ple of War­saw stared up at the gi­ant mono­lith, they were re­minded of their all-pow­er­ful neigh­bour to the east. It be­came an ob­ject of ha­tred and a sym­bol of Rus­sian hege­mony.

In­deed, on Aug. 1, the day I vis­ited the Palace, there were com­mem­o­ra­tions all over War­saw, com­plete with a cer­e­mony at the Tomb of the Un­known Sol­dier in Saxon Gar­den, to mark the 73rd an­niver­sary of the War­saw uprising.

As all Poles know, Stalin’s fail­ure to in­ter­vene doomed the Home Army’s bat­tle against the Nazis.

Yet, de­spite all that, the Palace has be­come an in­ter­na­tional sym­bol of War­saw, and even, with Com­mu­nism be­com­ing a dis­tant mem­ory, an icon.

Henry Sre­brnik is a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at the Uni­ver­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

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