Warsaw, Poland in 1945 (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Polish lessons for Ukrainian reconstruction

What can the Ukrainians learn from post-war Warsaw?

Artillery Row On Art The Critics

The Polish word “Zgruzowstanie” first appears in a 1949 poem “Warszawa Zgruzowstala”, composed by the Polish revolutionary, soldier and Socialist realist poet Władysław Broniewski. The title of the poem might be translated as “Warsaw became melancholy” — a deeply understandable reaction. The Polish capital had been systematically demolished block by block during the German occupation.

“Zgruzowstanie” would come to refer to newly invented techniques of recycling and reconstituting blown up and twisted blocks of the old city into new building materials. This postwar innovation in construction methods and refurbishing materials also lends its name to a new and seminal exhibition, which focuses on the reconstruction of Poland after the war. As Moscow’s genocidal campaign against Ukraine continues to wreck peaceful Ukrainian cities and immolate Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, the exhibition at the Museum of Warsaw has become timely and important.

Warsaw’s reconstruction created a new body of technological breakthroughs

Spanning the years between 1945 and 1949, the exhibit relates the fascinating story of the fitful recovery and reconstruction process that the Polish city underwent after the German onslaught. Contrasting historical documents, photographs, newly discovered artworks recording the destruction, and fragments of destroyed pottery from the curatorial team`s own collection of salvaged pre-war bricks and artefacts, the exhibition is elegantly and wittily curated by the Polish architecture historian Adam Przywara. It is based on Przywara’s groundbreaking PhD work, which investigates the submerged history of how Warsaw’s reconstruction created a new body of technological breakthroughs.

Warsaw residents began to return to the devastated city immediately after the Soviet and allied armies reoccupied the city. The few survivors of the allied bombing and controlled German firebombing of the city were also joined by several hundred thousand repatriated refugees. The displaced returned to a harrowing alien landscape of total devastation. The black and white historical pictures depict men and women (mostly women, for obvious reasons) wandering and sifting through hellish scenes of mangled and ruptured Warsaw buildings. The Polish designers, engineers and architects who were charged with the reconstruction of the city were faced with a herculean — and in various ways totally unprecedented — task. The city had been levelled to the earth, and the centre was strewn with tens of millions of cubic metres of rubble and debris. This meant that the remnants of the pulped and damaged buildings, as well as mounds of refuse, needed to be removed but also thoroughly sifted for valuable possessions and any building material that could be recycled amidst reconstruction. The impoverished country possessed no real material reserves or financial capacity to buy up new materials. The infrastructure and factories needed to create more of it no longer existed.

Intermingled with the rubble lay the remains of the hundreds of thousands of Poles killed by the bombing, shot by German soldiers and crushed to death by falling buildings — just as the demolished buildings of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol now constitute a functional tomb for the remains of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who hid to the very end in their high rise apartments.

The post-war scarcity, devastation and lack of building materials meant that the reconstruction effort would need radical innovations in demolition and building techniques. The constraining lack of building materials generated remarkable experimentation with new construction techniques. The results gave birth to new forms of concrete and mixed rock material. The rubble needed to be sorted, cleaned and salvaged if it was reusable and exported out of the city if it was not. New methods reconstituted old bricks into new structures and knocked down the skeletal remains of bombed out structures.

Ukrainians will become a laboratory for creative innovation in building techniques

The Russian war against Ukraine has had the surreal effect of transforming Warsaw into an Ukrainian and Russian speaking city. Millions of Ukrainian refugees have streamed into Poland. With around a fifth of the Polish capital now consisting of refugees, one cannot walk the streets without hearing Russian or Ukrainian. The Ukrainian skies remain closed for commercial air traffic, so Warsaw has become a primary transit point for travel in and out of Ukraine. With its concentration of Ukrainian civil society and political organisations and refugees, Warsaw is now an important place if one wants to understand Ukrainian politics, which is why several delegations of European and Ukrainian human rights lawyers and politicians passing through town have made pilgrimages to visit the show at the Warsaw Museum. The mayor of Mariupol — the Ukrainian city that has suffered the most from Russian bombardment — has visited the show. When I interviewed the mayor last autumn for Foreign Policy magazine, he was impressively lucid about the immense technical challenges for reconstruction that would follow the eventual liberation of the occupied Ukrainian cities.

Przywara explained to me, “I think that what is quite amusing is that contemporary designers and engineers are now working on a lot of the same questions that Polish engineers were grappling with in the mid 1940s.” The exhibition hints at the perennial themes of architectural and urban recovery — “upcycling” is merely the modish name for a set of very old concerns and construction methods. Whilst post-war Poland was operating in a radically different political context than contemporary Ukraine, as Przywara underlines, the process of having to make far-sighted decisions within conditions of scarcity remains fundamentally the same.

This will constitute a problem for the Ukrainians as it did for the Poles, and there is a lot to learn. We are talking about building in a sustainable way, and the roots of that way of thinking come out of the post war rebuilding process. The Ukrainians will emerge from the war having to think through issues of memorialising the war — of building monuments in the housing districts. Ukraine is already starting to go through this phase of innovation in cities that need to be rebuilt, such as Bucha. Cutting down waste in the circular economy as the Ukrainians rebuild their cities will mean that the country will become a laboratory for creative innovation in building techniques.

The reconstruction of Ukraine after its eventual victory will doubtless constitute the greatest building project that Europe has seen since the Second World War. Ukrainians will have a great deal to learn from their Polish neighbours.

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