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Warsaw – the city that rose from the ashes

Many foreigners visiting Warsaw find it hard to believe that the city which was so heavily devastated during the war now – after 70 years – enjoys such a glamorous and glorious existence. It is not a coincidence that Warsaw is often called the Phoenix. Likewise, it is no coincidence that Daniel Libeskind designed Złota 44 the way he did. Both the architecture of the capital and the form of Złota 44 are rooted in the tragic history of the city.

Early in 1945, Warsaw was a city of ruins, scarred with the gloomy marks of the big war. The then authorities even considered leaving the city centre untouched: a massive war memorial. Fortunately, the idea was abandoned and a tremendous effort was initiated to rebuild the capital. The first step was to set up the Capital Reconstruction Office employing some 1400 people. An outstanding figure among them was Professor Jan Zachwatowicz, a man of great courage, who in 1939 managed to steal a number of boxes from the Gestapo headquarters. These contained document collections seized by the Nazis from Poland’s Central Monuments Office. After the war, the collections turned out to be even more precious than previously believed as they were used to reconstruct many of Warsaw’s buildings. The second stage of the process was to agree in what spirit the city was to be rebuilt – here Zachwatowicz again played a huge role as he opposed the concept of rebuilding the historic centre in a socialist style. It is largely due to Zachwatowicz that Varsovians saw the sympathetic reconstruction of the historic heart of the capital: the Old Town, Nowy Świat Street or the Krakowskie Przedmieście Royal Avenue.

It took many years for the city, after being more than 80 per cent destroyed during the war, to rise like the mythical Phoenix from the ashes. The Old Town and its surroundings were reconstructed in part from the 18th century cityscapes of Canaletto. The Nowy Świat Street regained the glamour it enjoyed during the times of the old Congress Kingdom. However, the principle was adopted that any building created after 1850 was not to be considered a historical monument. In this way, Krakowskie Przedmieście Street was visually to move back in time, causing the city to lose many architectural gems of the late 19th century. One of the first districts to be reconstructed was Muranów, which not without reason rises above other city districts – this is because it was built on meticulously levelled and hardened post-war rubble. Work continued for many years, with the last important Warsaw monument to be rebuilt being the Royal Castle: its reconstruction was completed in 1974.

Today, Warsaw is developing at a staggering pace, as if making up for the lost war years. As you stroll through its streets, you may have the impression that some parts of the city are just out of context and are far removed from the original concept. This is not surprising if you take into account the haste of the post-war reconstruction. The fact is, though, that as modernity approached, more and more buildings began to appear in Warsaw that were perfectly fitted into the landscape, harmoniously blended with the city life and its historical heritage. And it was history that inspired Daniel Libeskind when he designed ZŁOTA 44. The architect’s concept was to construct a building whose shape would resemble the wings of an eagle, symbol of Poland, freedom and Warsaw that is rising from the ashes and still growing.  The main point of reference for the architect was another symbol of the city that brings to mind the reconstruction effort – the Palace of Culture and Science. Libeskind himself admitted that he intended to design a building that would enter into a dialogue with the palace. He definitely achieved that plan. Today, it is hard to imagine Warsaw’s downtown without these two architectural icons.

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