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Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Ruins of Warsaw

I stumbled across a wonderful article about ruins in Warsaw in The Journal of Architecture, published by RIBA. The article is by Jerzy Elzanowski of the new Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, and is great for a number of reasons - it's a scholarly look at ruins in Warsaw, it tackles ruins from some perspectives I haven't yet encountered, and it deals with sources that I had never heard of, mostly because they are written in foreign languages. The article is called "Manufacturing Ruins: Architecture and Representation in post-catastrophic Warsaw," from Volume 15, Issue 1.

First, a little background: during World War II, Warsaw was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis. 84% of the urban fabric was left in ruins. (The Warsaw Ghetto occupied 17% of the city and was razed completely following the uprising.) After the war the old city was rebuilt from existing photographs, and was given a unique UNESCO listing as a "Near-Total Reconstruction." Ruins were either demolished, reconstructed, or hidden away in courtyards behind buildings.

Elzanowski references a study by Reinhard Zimmermann, who divides the category of artificial ruins into types:
  1. Kontrastierenden Ruine (Contrastive ruins) - aesthetic shack designed to set up a contrast with existing, unruined architecture.
  2. Kontinuitatsstiftenden Ruine (ruins for facilitating historical continuity) - reconstruction that highlight historical buildings or styles from the past
  3. Transitorische Ruine (transient ruin) a middle category that helps us move from the past to the future.
Elzanowski writes that Warsaw's backyard ruins are comparable to category 1; reconstructions of historical buildings made from salvaged ruins belong to the 2nd category; and a third group, called manufactured ruins, align with third category. This final group, which is his primary concern, uses ruins "as a way of reflecting upon catastrophe in order to mediate between the nearly erased past and the inexplicable present." He gives an example:
"A series of brick memorial walls that mark places of wartime execution as well as Warsaw's old city walls - partially excavated and reconstructed in the interwar period and then constructed anew in the early 1950s to resemble decaying late mediaeval devensive structures - are examples of manufactured ruins."
The walls themselves are not original, or rather, have been so thoroughly redone that the original walls cannot be perceived. Yet this network of walls, scattered throughout the city, is a center of commemoration. The ruins were erased, yet these walls claim authenticity, and in recent decades have gained popularity and connected with the population.

Elzanowski laments that the once-existing and still-existing ruins are not more prominent in the city, calling ruins "a marker of reality in a post-catastrophic condition," and explaining that without ruins, it is hard to appreciate what the city endured, and the city is rendered in two dimensions rather than three. (I would say 3 dimensions rather than 4, but the point is understood nonetheless.) The development of the pseudo-ruined walls is, according to Elzanowski, part of the process by which Warsaw first rejected ruins and then sought to accept them into "public historical consciousness." He writes that the wall
"has become the only remaining link between the original post-catastrophic ruin and the purely graphic and entirely two-dimensional brick-as-logo that has recently come to embody Warsaw's commemorative culture."
Between total reconstruction and total demolition, the walls find a middle ground that is mentally healthy for a city coming to terms with its horrific past. As a parting shot, Elzanowski writes that this very dynamic, whereby an inauthentic ruin is the most authentic ruin in Warsaw, may be the best guide for understanding a city that has ironically lost both its built heritage - bombed and then simulated from scratch - and its ruins. As we have seen in our studies, ruins always contain these types of ironies and contradictions, and their symbolism is never simple. The situation in Warsaw highlights this fact, and gives us additional food for thought in our attempt to understand where ruins fit in existing cities and in the field of preservation.

As an aside, one of the most interesting parts of the article is regarding the decision of what to do with bombed-out Warsaw. While some advocated rebuilding, and others wanted to move the capital, historian Ebernhard Hempel wrote in an article, The Beauty of Ruins,
"...it will not be possible even to partially rebuild our old town centres, with their historic buildings...Witnesses of the past should not dominate our lives but they must rather inspire because within them we see the foundations upon which rests our present. Therefore, they should be preserved and maintained; where possible, they may also require a habitat where they can develop. Some parts of our inner cities will resemble the Roman Forum. Piously treasured ruins could also for us bear witness to the greatness of the past..."
What a wonderful and imaginative way to think of your city.

As a second aside, I found myself comparing Elzanowski's description of the walls in Warsaw with our very own ruined wall here in Jerusalem - the Kotel. The Kotel is not an original wall from the Temple - it is rather a remnant of a retaining wall to the Temple Mount built by Herod. Yet Jews had no access the the Temple Mount, and nothing today remains above-ground from that structure. As the only remaining piece of architecture connected to the Temple, the Kotel gained a certain importance in Judaism, as our sole link to that history and its traumatic conclusion. While its authenticity is greater than the walls Elzanowski describes in Warsaw, I still think the comparison is interesting and apt. In the case of the Kotel, the perceived reality is more powerful than the actual reality.

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