For me, the visceral appreciation of freedom came with the sight of a newly painted wall.

It was 1990 and the wall was on a street in Warsaw. For a teenager growing up in the west, my yearly visits to grandparents behind the iron curtain mixed the familiar, the exotic, and the drab. They lived in a grey, slabby, concrete apartment block, the kind that had become the image of life under communism for westerners — and Poles — in the 1980s.

So I stopped in my tracks when I turned a corner and saw a range of pastels — cream, peach, blue, light green — on façades that had previously been uniformly grey concrete, crumbling with neglect. It was quite like spring. It made me realise for the first time just how deeply into the soul a dictatorship can reach if it takes its overthrow to make people put colour on the houses where they live.

Later, I discovered similar musings on colour and politics by Czesław Miłosz, Poland’s Nobel Prize-winning writer. “The number of aesthetic experiences accessible to a city-dweller in [communism] is uncommonly limited”, he wrote in his 1953 book The Captive Mind. He saw monotony, hence drabness, as an essential feature of dictatorship, visible everywhere from architecture to clothing and shop displays. “Fear paralyses individuality . . . the union of colour and harmony with fear is as difficult to imagine as brilliant plumage on birds living in the northern tundras.”

My escape from drabness was often the Old Town with its gabled dormers and cobbled streets. But Warsaw’s picture-perfect historical centre is an anachronism. Atop an ornate façade, the meticulously hand-painted year of construction reads “1954”.

The communists who rode the Red Army’s tailcoats into Warsaw 70 years ago last month were faced with a literal tabula rasa. “There were two rival conceptions” of reconstruction, says the historian Andrzej Skalimowski. One was a new city on modernist lines. The other was to rebuild the Warsaw that Hitler had tried to wipe off the map.

The new rulers’ interest in architecture was inordinate. The politburo discussed the shape of street lamps. Poland’s Stalinist leader could read architectural plans. Above everything hovered Moscow’s keen preference for socialist realism.

Historicist reconstruction had understandable popular appeal as a symbol of national defiance. For the communists, it was a way to legitimise their power. And socialist realism — socrealizm in Polish — looked favourably at traditional styles but frowned, or worse, on modernism.

“An unsympathetic view is that it’s pseudo-historical architecture”, says Łukasz Stanek, a lecturer at the University of Manchester. Socrealizm — whose heyday from the late 1940s to 1956 coincided with the most intense reconstruction — saved the Old Town for the historicists but left the rest of Warsaw prey to exaggerated monumentalism.

The flagship socialist-realist project was the Palace of Culture and Science in the heart of Warsaw. Nominally a gift from Stalin, this gigantic building somehow looks towering and squat at the same time, and makes you feel very little. It was, and partly remains, surrounded by huge empty spaces that are suitable for military parades but not for vibrant urban life. It was a daily reminder of Poles’ subservience to Moscow. The nearby MDM residential complex, formed of flats behind multistorey columns above huge reliefs of proletarian heroes, was designed to “lead the populace into the city”. Or so the slogan went. Of the first 150 flats, 30 went to workers, the rest to officials or other elites. So much for Karl Marx’s “to each according to need”.

Socialist realism withered before congealing all of Warsaw in oversized granite. De-Stalinisation was one reason. Cost was another: monumentalism could not solve Poland’s housing shortage. Modernism’s focus on space, light and rational organisation for the masses suited a socialist state better. The drab concrete housing projects that proliferated later made it easy to overlook, visually and metaphorically, some of modernism’s achievements in Warsaw in the late 1950s and 1960s. They were often public spaces — train stations and street arcades — illustrative of what Stanek describes as a socialist idea of “collective luxury”. Poland’s urban planning enjoyed international acclaim, and Polish planners and architects received large-scale commissions in Africa and the Middle East.

Yet the shortcomings of centrally planned economies soon made themselves felt. Grzegorz Buczek, an architect and urban planner, recalls that residential construction left little room for creativity. Housing designs were constrained by the span of cranes on building sites, or the standard heights of lifts. Monotony was unavoidable.

Materials and workmanship suffered, too. Warsaw Central railway station was built to a celebrated modernist design, but the construction was hurried for a visit by Leonid Brezhnev in 1975. Just weeks after the Soviet leader dropped in, the leaks started. Less prestigious building projects relied increasingly on a small selection of prefabricated concrete slabs of often poor quality.

It was modernism, but as Mikołaj Kunicki, a historian at Oxford university, puts it, “modernism on the cheap”.

“Cheap” was what most Poles most wanted to get away from. The 1989-1990 revolution was a moral victory. But it also started an all-consuming love affair with free markets.

This shift, too, is embodied by one of Warsaw’s buildings. The communist party’s old headquarters is a squat, white construction that owes its clean lines to Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who nodded the design through. In 1990, the building became state property. The vanguard of the proletariat gave way to a new resident: the Warsaw stock exchange.

I see this change as a fable for Poland itself. When the lid of collectivism was lifted, individualism exploded. I was not alone in associating colour with freedom — suddenly colour was everywhere, not always to harmonious effect. The term “pastellosis” was coined for Poles’ new addiction to garishness.

In the economic sphere, too, individualism reigned supreme. Marcin Mostafa and Natalia Paszkowska, a husband-and-wife team of architects in their thirties, share their memories of the changes. “There was an enthusiasm for capitalism”, says Mostafa. “Before 1989, everything happened within a public framework. Now there was a wild west, with no certain norms”.

“Warsaw was changed by entrepreneurial power”, adds Paszkowska. She recalls the space around the Palace of Culture and Science invaded by lockable market stalls from which everyone was hawking goods. “That was Warsaw’s contribution to 1990s architecture”, she laughs, and I can’t quite tell if she is joking. “It was like an Asian market in the middle of a European city.”

The same entrepreneurial energy was unchained on a large scale. Property developers threw up office buildings, shopping centres and, controversially, gated communities. Out with the bathwater went any concern for urban planning and coherence, to the point that by the mid-2000s academics were debating whether Warsaw was becoming a third-world city: a boom town with shining high-rises amid a derelict streetscape.

This convert’s faith in private enterprise has produced paradoxical results. Where prewar private property rights are claimed, development is often delayed. When construction does go ahead, little government control is exercised. There is no master plan or city architect; what planning regulations exist are local or ad-hoc agreements.

“We often get second-tier investors and developers, not final investors, because there is too much risk [for long-term investors] with the lack of a plan . . . The level of control is poor”, says Buczek, who once served on a now-defunct advisory board for Warsaw’s mayor. Another former board member says that conflicts of interest were rife since most advisers had links with developers.

The 1990s were marked by the impoverished language of the globalised corporate office space and by general confusion: a green glass tower rising abruptly next to a modernist low-rise; a skyscraper unexpectedly disrupting the view from a beloved park; a downtown shopping centre sucking the life out of adjacent streets. Still today, advertising can cover entire façades. Pre-1989 modernist gems risk demolition. All the while, the centre remains “gap-toothed”, says Mostafa.

Even constructions by “starchitects”, such as Daniel Libeskind’s new high-rise jutting up by the central station, are often accused of ignoring the context. “Trophy skyscrapers,” scoffs one architect. “High-rises are built consciously to overshadow the Palace of Culture”, says Skalimowski.

But something is changing.

In Paszkowska’s view, “the best post-1989 architects did really good work, the worst very bad work, but nobody knew the difference”. Now, says Buczek, “we have a race for quality instead of quantity . . . The worst developers are surprised because bad buildings got hard to sell or lease”. The government has subsidised young couples to help some developers fill up their buildings. So much for Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of capitalism.

Today people are turning away from the superficial adulation of US suburban life. Fewer aspire to a lifestyle defined by driving, shopping and living in gated communities. The trend of revitalising city centres is catching on, and grassroots groups have organised against specific developments. “Our generation has respect for the pre-1989 period,” says Mostafa. “We’re relearning the culture of the public space.”

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews illustrates the thoughtful architecture that is now emerging in Warsaw. It was completed two years ago on an extremely sensitive site next to the memorial to the ghetto’s victims. The transparent glass shell filled by warm sandstone shapes, designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki, has managed to match the gravity of the location without overwhelming or being overwhelmed by it. It has also given Warsaw one of Europe’s most stunning buildings and one that is currently contesting the 2015 Mies van der Rohe architecture prize.

I have been visiting Warsaw for nigh-on-40 years. On each visit, the city’s buildings offer new revelations about the past or present, and also about the future. “Warsaw is a city that has not really completely redefined itself and maybe never will,” says Kunicki. Seventy years on, postwar reconstruction remains a work in progress, torn from the left and the right, between old-world pride and emerging-world prowess.

Paradoxically for a city so encumbered by history, the path forward for Warsaw seems wide open. Perhaps, says Paszkowska, “Warsaw will be the only 21st-century city in Europe.”

Martin Sandbu writes Free Lunch, the FT’s daily economics newsletter

Slideshow photographs: Sovfoto/ Getty Images; Jorg Greuel; Wladyslaw Slawny; Luca Baldini; Siemaszko Zbyszko/ National Digital Archives, Polska; Ignacy Matuszewski; Grażyna Rutowska/ National Digital Archives, Polska; Reinhard Schmid/ 4Corners; Witold Skrypczak/ Alamy; Zbyszko Siemaszko/ Forum; Marcin Kadzialko/

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