Josh Fehnert reporting from Warsaw: With its flourishing food, design and cultural scenes and a growing sense of self-worth, the Polish capital is finally shaking off the spectre of communism and finding that its groove has global appeal.
Population: 1.7 million Area razed during the Second World War: 84 per cent Residents: Known as Varsovians Capital: Between 1596 and 1794, then since 1918 Green space: 25 per cent of the city
Twenty-five years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the tides of the free market washed over Poland, Warsaw remains a city of surprise and reinvention. Downtown is an eclectic mix of glass-and-steel skyscrapers, Soviet-era housing blocks and sprawling leafy parks. Hoardings carrying gargantuan adverts cling to buildings and, while the capitalism the city was so quick to embrace in the 1990s abounds, a new wave of localism, optimism and creativity is cresting here, too.
To the west of the Vistula River, Warsaw’s seesawing fortunes are writ large in its architecture, where wide boulevards and boxy brutalist buildings are the enduring relics of a Communist-era master plan to rebuild the city after the Second World War. Even the cobbled streets of the touristy old town are not as they appear. These colourful replicas were faithfully pieced together to mimic the buildings that were destroyed in the 1940s.
Warsaw’s architecture is central to a changing mood in the city and is symbolic of a widespread re-evaluation of the Polish capital’s heritage and identity. The once-reviled Palace of Culture and Science (a monolithic gift to the city from Stalin that was built in 1955) has become an unlikely icon of city pride. Further proof can be seen at the western end of the Poniatowski Bridge where lively bar Cuda na Kiju serves craft beers and hosts revellers who spill into the courtyard of the Dom Partii building. This was once the Communist party headquarters that – in a concrete metaphor of the nation’s vehement embrace of capitalism – now also accommodates a Ferrari garage and Montblanc boutique.
On the long-overlooked eastern bank of the river sits Praga, a blue-collar district that survived the falling bombs of the Second World War intact but unloved. It is here that several start-ups have made the most of cheap rents and abundant space to launch businesses that are jump-starting Warsaw’s nascent but growing creative scene.
Design firm Super Super was started in 2007 by Jacek Majewski and Hania Kokczynska, later joined by Rafal Grobel. They now head a team of 11 staff and moved into the Soho Factory development (overused names aside) last autumn. “There’s a freedom in Warsaw,” says Majewski, who was born here and proudly states that his family has lived in the city for the past 100 years. “We’re still in catch-up mode but if you’re ambitious and you want something there are a lot of opportunities.”
Natalia Paszkowska and Marcin Mostafa share the spacious open-plan office with Super Super and are the founders of architecture firm wwaa. Having won the prestigious commission to co-design Poland’s pavilion for the Shanghai Expo in 2010, the pair also garnered international attention for their design of Warsaw’s Sluzewski cultural centre and have their sights set on opening an office in Qatar this year. “We came to Praga because it was the cheapest. I don’t think having an office would have been possible otherwise. It wasn’t hip then but it is now,” says Paszkowska over an alfresco lunch of soup, hummus and pitta at the nearby Warszawa Wschodnia restaurant. In view of the wwaa-designed apartment block she, Mostafa and their two young children call home, it’s easy to see why enterprises such as Super Super and wwaa have co-operated and found sharing space an attractive alternative to setting up a business downtown.
When we visit it is an unseasonable 30c and the city of 1.7 million has a languid, contented feel. Elsewhere in Praga the country’s Narodowy stadium, built for the 2012 European football tournament, roars as late goals guide Poland to a 4-0 win against Georgia in a qualifying match for next year’s competition. The river that divides the city is a newly popular destination for younger Varsovians. Over the past few years they have discovered the sandy beaches of Vistula’s eastern bank that today is thronged with sunbathers relaxing in the untimely heat (the wise avoid the water).
In other good news Praga’s Koneser building, a one-time vodka factory and red-brick gem long slated to become loft apartments, was confirmed this spring as the future site for a Google Campus. As well as shoring up Praga’s international credentials, the renovated space promises to create jobs that will complement the pln1.4bn (€340m) investment from city hall.
“We started from a worse level of development than any city in Europe,” says Warsaw’s pragmatic deputy mayor Michal Olszewski from his dark office off a long, red-carpeted corridor. “Cities are living organisms and I knew that my job wouldn’t be completed in a year.” Having taken office in 2011 under mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Olszewski’s responsibilities now include the environment and economy. Another major concern for the municipality is transport.
Although a second metro line came into full use this year (you can’t miss the pointy-glass, many-entranced stations) and a motorway bypass was added in 2013, Olszewski seems most animated about the city’s cycling initiative, which includes the installation of 198 public bike stations. “In 1994 no one used bikes; nobody would have thought of it then and you’d have been treated like you were crazy,” he says with some amusement. He also suggests that the speed with which the city has embraced travel on two wheels is part of the process of citizens reclaiming public space for themselves. (A fringe benefit is that more cyclists will mean fewer motorists and may stem the city’s terrible dearth of parking spaces.)
South of city hall on the tree-lined streets of Mokotow, a door is left ajar to let in the summer breeze. Inside is the newly renovated office of English-language magazine This is Paper. The whitewashed former dentistry practice now houses five full-time staff and a manufacturing space for the company’s growing range of products. Co-founders Zuzanna Gasior and Aleksandr Zakharov and editor Irma Kubisty are busy planning for the magazine’s housewarming party that evening but take a break to talk about their work.
They explain that the magazine is a way of promoting Polish craftsmanship and art both at home and abroad. “A lot of people move to Warsaw to develop their career. It’s a solitary island where business is done and politics is decided,” says Kubisty. Despite heading to Paris this autumn to continue her studies, Kubisty’s resolute that she will return to Poland’s largest city. “It’s more exciting to be in a place where everything’s yet to be done than squeezing into a crammed marketplace.
“Local activities in Poland disappeared under a flood of luxury goods but in the past three or four years the attitude has changed again to appreciate the local,” adds Kubisty as we amble down sun-dappled Odolanska Street to the nearby Gringo bar for lunch. “I wonder if London, Paris or New York can offer the same quality of life. My sister lives in London and she earns more but she also pays more. She spends hours every day getting to and from work. Here there’s a good amount of people and the right amount of space.”
The pride in Polish manufacturing celebrated by This is Paper may not be mainstream but green shoots can be seen across the city. In a ground-floor apartment across town in Ochota, father-daughter team Janusz and Aga Prus have cobbled together a niche in handmade shoes. We visit the day before the summer edition of the Hush fashion trade show at which the company is set to launch its first three models of men’s shoes. The workshop is in disarray as clamps, vices, pattern cutters and a lit cigarette sit next to an open window.
“When the market opened in the 1990s many craftsmen shut down because people just bought cheap products from China,” says Janusz in a matter-of-fact way as he stubs out his cigarette on the black-and-white tiled floor. His father-in-law (Aga’s grandfather) had been one of the city’s most respected shoemakers in the 1940s and 1950s but had faced adversity from the Soviet occupiers and been forced to close his business on two occasions because of penalty fines. “Warsaw was famous for its shoes between the wars,” he says.
Set up in 2012, their company takes a week to make each pair of shoes but also prides itself on consulting with clients several times to decide each detail of the design. “More and more people really care about quality now.”
As some Varsovians rediscover manufacturing and provenance, the food scene is changing too. It’s not just cold beetroot soups, pierogi (dumplings) and cabbage. There’s also a new generation of restaurateurs and food magazines – including pretty publications Smak and Usta – that are stoking the city’s culinary imagination.
Cousins Beniamin Bielecki and Zbyszek Gawron founded their 50-cover downtown restaurant Bibenda in February 2014 with Katarzyna Majewska. “In the past two or three years there’s been a metamorphosis in people’s interest in food,” says Gawron, whose childhood in Texas has given him a light southern drawl. Before opening the wooden-floored, add-designed space the cousins operated pop-up restaurants and supper clubs and saw first-hand a marked shift in Warsaw’s food scene.
“A few years ago kale was unheard of,” says Gawron, citing an example of progress, as a plate of Zlotnicka pork belly arrives at our outdoor berth on Nowogrodzka Street. “Last spring kale was mentioned in a few articles and now it’s available cut and washed from stores everywhere,” adds Bielecki as he ruffles the fur of the restaurant’s resident (and rather skittish) Czech pointer named Buba. “People used to decorate graves with it in Poland; nobody cared about it even though it grows here,” adds Gawron, noting that people in this agrarian nation are waking up to the potential of their produce.
One of Warsaw’s oldest eating rituals has received a timely and telling facelift. Milk bars are canteens that serve simple, cheap food and are a hangover from Communist times but Prasowy (literally “press bar”) shows how good design can marry the city’s storied past with its present. Inside, the restaurant is clad in black with a simple, self-service system and a no-frills approach. Perhaps more importantly the restaurant shows that despite the hardships and upheavals of Warsaw’s past, it’s possible for a traditional business to be viable while paying heed to an increasingly discerning consumer.
“There’s been a major change since 2004 [when Poland joined the EU]. There’s the economic development and high-speed trains but also something invisible,” says Jaroslaw Adamowski, a freelance journalist. “This place is exemplary,” he says as he motions across the busy square from our comfortable perch outside bar Charlotte. “Here you have the Church of the Saviour next to a sculpture of a rainbow by artist Julita Wojcik. Most people think it’s an lgbt symbol and some conservatives think it’s a disgrace, so they set it on fire; I lost count after the third or fourth time.” Today the rainbow has an in-built sprinkler system and a dedicated police presence to discourage future attacks.
The issue of gay rights is also brought into sharp focus by a parade the following day in which thousands march through the city, past Saviour Square and parliament, in the name of equality. The issue of acceptance is a battlefield in a country where the overwhelming majority identify themselves as practising Catholics.
As Soviet control gave way to a free market and greater freedom of speech, Warsaw’s art scene has also grown apace. “When Communism fell and the ghosts of conservative pre-war society came out of the closet in the 1990s, it was the artists who provoked the discussion about who we are,” says Marcel Andino Velez, the deputy director of Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art (msn). Despite running the msn from a one-time furniture shop while the museum waits for its much-delayed and controversial new building, Velez and the team of 25 see it as their role to be provocative.
Likewise, private galleries Foksal Foundation and Raster Gallery have grown to reflect a maturing international market for the work of Polish artists. “In the 1990s it was hard because there was no money, so sales were low,” says Andrzej Przywara, who moved to Warsaw in 1988 and set up the Foksal Foundation in 2001. “But now there’s a discussion and the city commissions artists to do things. It’s new but people are discovering the city as a liberating institution rather than an oppressive one.”
There’s a saying in Poland that if there are two Poles you’ll find three opinions. It is a fitting metaphor for the contrary forces and opinions that are currently shaping the capital: the rampant brand-heavy consumerism of the 1990s versus a resurgence of localism. Catholic conservatism is set against an increasingly international city, sections of which are calling out for equality. And the idea of collaboration that sits at odds with an economic individualism, which took root after Communism crumbled.
“People here are rediscovering who they are,” says Warsaw-born fashion designer Ania Kuczynska over a glass of wine, sat opposite her eponymous boutique. She explains that it was always her plan to return to Warsaw after finishing her studies in Rome and Paris. “I think I’m one of the first generations to be proud of being Polish,” she says. “I’m a fashion designer from central Europe and I mean that in a positive way.”