New Old Town

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Amy Drozdowska: If you know anything about central European cities, when you hear Warsaw, you think grey, ugly, communist.

Roman: But there is a part of Warsaw that is anything but those things, the old town.

Amy: Walking through these historic districts it’s just like any other quaint European city. Tourist shops, horse carriage rides, church spires. The buildings are beautiful but actually, it’s all fake. It’s just a replica of what once was.

Roman: Like so many European cities during the Second World War, Warsaw was destroyed. It had to be rebuilt.

Amy: Now when you walk around the reconstructed destroyed part of Warsaw, you’ll find these big glass-mounted plaques on display on the sidewalk. In them are old paintings of destroyed buildings in front of you. The first time I noticed one of these displays on the Nowy Swiat street, I was completely drawn in. I studied the painting and then I studied the building above. And just like I was set up to, I thought, “Wow, they did an amazing job rebuilding it.”

Roman: But then, our reporter Amy Drozdowska found out it’s not quite like that.

Michal Murawski: You are entering something which is effectively a stage set intended to recreate an atmosphere of a certain period. But you are unaware of that.

Amy: That’s Michal Murawski. He was born in Warsaw. Now he’s a social anthropologist at Cambridge University. He told me about the incredible process of putting the city back together again. It’s a challenge a lot of European cities were facing after the war. Warsaw’s massive rebuilding of its entire medieval old town was lauded as one of the most impressive rebuilding post-war projects on the continent. They made it look to everyone like they reclaimed what was lost.

Roman: But here’s the thing. Warsaw’s historic old town is not a replica of the real thing.

Amy: It’s a re-imagining. A historic city that never really was.

Roman: So let’s back up for some history.

Amy: Sure. Warsaw was damaged during the war as were other cities. But really, Warsaw occupied by Nazi forces got hit particularly hard. It’s one of the worst cases in the whole war. Practically the whole city was destroyed. People quibble about the exact statistics but most agree that it was something like over 80% of the core part of Warsaw. Really most of the city, especially the parts the Poles considered important. To punish surviving Poles for an 11th-hour attempt to take back their capital. Hitler gave an order: “Pacify Warsaw. Raze it to the ground.”

Radio commentator: Among the ghost of her buildings fight the soldiers and civilians, doctors and workers, Poles and Jews, women and children. They fight for a day, two days, a week, two, three, four, five…

Michal: The destruction was focused on the most important buildings and the most significant historical buildings because they were identified with the past and with the national identity and that was exactly what was identified as the most important to get rid of by the Nazis.

Amy: And as Warsaw burned, the Soviets, ready to take over after the retreating German forces, stood on the other side of the river and watched. Stalin’s forces did nothing to help the Poles in the Warsaw uprising or save their city. It felt that he wanted the insurrection to fail because destroyed Warsaw would be that much easier to take over once the Germans were defeated. After the war, Warsaw was in ruins.

Michal: It was liberated in January 1945 and this is when the inhabitants started coming back to Warsaw and there’s all these descriptions of people looking absolutely shocked. Bags in hand just wandering around dazed, unable to find their old homes and unable to recognize anything.

Radio commentator: This was Warsaw. Maybe again after a year, the true meaning of that battle will be assessed by soldiers and historians. Maybe a bigger and more beautiful city will be built on ruins, to be the capital of a new and better Poland but this one died a soldier’s death for the common cause. And to die in battle is to live forever.

Amy: At first, there was talk of giving up, of moving the capital to another city. But instead, the Poles decided to start over from scratch. Much of the city was rebuilt according to communist plans: Fast, cheap, and big. Apartment blocks, wide avenues, heavy grey buildings. Communist ideology in architectural form. But when it came to the historic district of Warsaw, the Old Town and a long, connecting section called the Royal Route, they decided to restore not just rebuild, and with the way planners were going about it, the historians, archeologists, all the specialists involved, it really seemed like they’re going to bring old Warsaw back to life.

Michal: There was this incredible focus on authenticity in rebuilding the Old Town. So, there was really sort of an emphasis for the Old Town to be built from the same physical matter as the old, Old Town was. So, special kilns were built on the outskirts of Warsaw where the rubble from the Old Town was taken and made into bricks from which the Old Town was to be rebuilt. And the bricks that were reusable that which were sort of lying around in the rubble, they were collected and they were cleaned and they were sort of polished up and they were used in building these new old buildings.

Roman: It took several years but they did it.

Amy: And when the new Old Town was first opened, people were happy, ecstatic to have it back. Even in the west, it was seen as a major accomplishment, a kind of victory after all the destruction of the war, a triumph for the human spirit. The pictures from the time show sort of carnival as it was unveiled.

Michal: You can see from old photographs, people are kind of joyfully wandering around this miraculously recreated place which they thought has disappeared forever. This is something that made millions of people very happy and that thousands of people, of ordinary people, participated in. It was really a very successful kind of social solidarity exercise.

Roman: So, the old city was brought back to life.

Amy: After a bit of time though, people started to notice something kind of strange. It seemed like old Warsaw was a little bit off.

Michal: There are these descriptions that David Crowley, who is a historian that wrote a book on Warsaw talks about people who knew the Old Town before the war wandering around and sort of feeling this kind of uncanny disjuncture between the city they remembered and the city that they are wandering around now. So, it was almost the same. It felt incredibly, sort of corresponded very closely to what they knew before but then, something wasn’t quite right.

Amy: Remember what I said earlier, about Warsaw’s Old Town not being a recreation but instead a re-imagining? It turns out that despite all that effort to use the exact same bricks from the rubble, that show of authenticity was just that, a show. Like Murawski said before, a sort of stage set.

Michal: And this is highlighted even more so by the fact that, you know, the facades, the cobbles, everything seems absolutely fine and then you wander through the doorway, and you wander into effectively a sort of a modern staircase and into a modern flat with this kind of historical exterior. There was this sort of very uncanny sense.

Roman: It’s not just that the builders concentrated on the exteriors of the buildings and didn’t bother creating what was behind them.

Amy: Warsaws Nowy Swiat district was incredibly odd by design because actually, it was different.

Michal: It was never supposed to be exactly the same as it was. So, there is this weird disjuncture between this incredible emphasis on authenticity of old bricks being reused and special kilns being built for this purpose. This big focus on continuity, physical continuity but at the same time, there was a very clearly stated idea that the Old Town shouldn’t be the same Old Town as before 1939. It should be better than it was. So, it should be a more perfect Old Town that existed before the war.

Amy: Before the war, ironically, Warsaw’s historical Old Town is slowly fading away on its own.

Michal: Before the war, it was basically– it was a slum. It was more or less a slum. It didn’t have proper sewerage facilities, it didn’t have proper draining. It was basically lived in by very poor inhabitants with a few kinds of churches and obviously, the cathedral was in it and the royal castle, but beyond the castle’s square, the Old Town square, was the location for a sort of haphazard market and wasn’t considered to be a particularly prestigious part of the city. It has been sort of ruined over time.

Amy: But after the war, reeling from the lost piled upon loss, historical Warsaw took on a new meaning. Now that it was missing completely, it had more power in Polish people’s memory than if it was around. No matter what the form. So to the communist way of thinking, the Old Town needed to be rebuilt so that it could be forgotten.

Michal: The cynical argument is that the Old Town was rebuilt as a sort of ideological camouflage. So, in order to mask the fact that Poland was being taken over by a sort of alien power, this alien power decided to rebuild the old town to make it seem like they had some sort of respect for the Polish culture and Polish history whereas, in reality, they were sort of undermining everything. Undermining the old– the social structure everything that came before then.

Roman: It’s like this: If Warsaw’s historic capital just got leveled over and replaced by grey, ugly apartment blocks, people would long for what they were missing.

Amy: They’d remember their significant city. The seat of the nation’s past.

Roman: And not only long for it. They’ll make a martyr of it.

Amy: Their cherished past killed by communism by the Soviets, the same Soviets, by the way, who stood on the other side of the river and watched Warsaw burn. And the Communists would never win over the Poles. So by burning the old city back, the communist-made it, and hopefully, they’re part in its destruction, forgettable. The past could stop being such a distraction and they could go about their business of overhauling the country.

Roman: So, that’s why they decided to rebuild the Old Town. But the Communists did it in such a way to keep their core ideals intact. And this is where it gets really weird.

Amy: When city planners were looking for inspiration on how to better rebuilt old Warsaw, they went back further than just before the war when the Old Town was far from its heyday. So, rather than the 1930s, they looked into the 1830s. Take one of the most famous streets in the Old Town, Nowy Swiat, New World street. For decades before the war, Nowy Swiat street was one of the liveliest places in Warsaw. Full of shops, cafes, and hotels. Over time, the once uniform buildings there started to take on different heights, as different owners would build on extra levels to expand and improve.

Michal: And then, when it was rebuilt, it was decided that this city of bustling, capitalist, inegalitarian atmosphere of Nowy Swiat was improper, and so, it was rebuilt effectively in the image of how it would have looked in the early 19th century. In this city of classicists, fairly austere, simple style, and nearly all the buildings were reduced to a height of three stories. And so, this is sort of also– this is an attempt to make it into an egalitarian kind of enlightenment street rather than a sort of nasty, capitalist sort of cut-throat, laissez faire street that had been in the 19th century.

Roman: And here is where it gets even weirder still.

Amy: For other parts of old Warsaw, the post-war city planners went back further still to the 1700s to a city that never really existed.

Roman: A city imagined by an Italian painter.

Amy: Remember the sidewalk displays I mentioned earlier, the ones that show pictures of Warsaw before the war? It turns out that the paintings are by an Italian named Bernardo Bellotto. He was what’s called a Vedutista, meaning he specializes in the Venetian art of realistically painting cityscapes and precisely documenting their details. He was invited to Warsaw in the late 1700s by the king of Poland to become court painter and make pictures of the capital. To help his work, Bellotto used a camera obscura, the predecessor of the photographic camera, and he has an incredible eye for detail.

Roman: So the 20 plus paintings he created were a pretty remarkable document of what Warsaw looked like then.

Amy: Except for one thing. Bellotto had a tendency to make a few improvements.

Michal: In one level, the paintings were incredibly precise but on another level, Bellotto was– he was very prone to making stuff up. So, he didn’t sort of steer away from indulging his artistic license. So you have, in several examples, he prettified the buildings he was painting.

Amy: Like adding a story to a building here, adding some decoration there, maybe changing the number of windows in a building. All sorts of little things that made the paintings more pleasing to him. The king of Poland loved it.

Roman: And so, it turned out later that the communist…

Amy: They like Bellotto’s paintings because they showed a full range of society, not just the elite. They also liked his paintings because they were of the city before the heyday of capitalism. When Warsaw as they saw it, was still pure. In fact, there was plenty of other documentation of Warsaw’s historic section. A group of architects and students did painstaking work during the war before the destruction, creating blueprints, taking photographs.

Roman: And a lot of those blueprints were used in the Warsaw reconstruction but when it came to rebuilding the Old Town, Bellotto’s paintings became the primary source.

Amy: And now, you can see the evidence.

Michal: There’s a building called John’s House which is a sort of 18th-century townhouse basically sort of added to these kinds of friezes the sort of carvings to the facade. I think the number of floors was changed as well. Some of the roof detailing was changed. If you look at a photo if you compare a photograph of this building from 1939 and then a photograph of how it looks today, and the painting, you can see the stuff that Bellotto added to the building exists now in reality. So, his sort of flights of fancy were materialized in the way that the building looked after the war.

Amy: So these historic Warsaw buildings like John’s House, they never existed, at least not like they do now.

Roman: And the city continues to recreate itself in the form of these paintings.

Amy: Recently, they finished a huge remodeling of the Royal Route, widening the sidewalks, renovating the church facade.

Roman: So, it looks exactly like it does in Bellotto’s paintings but never like they actually looked before. It’s like making an imaginary city come to life

Amy: In the end, Warsaw has it’s Old Town back. Groups of children on school field trips, trip dutifully through it. Tourists, conspicuously absent from the rest of the city flock there. And Warsavians themselves largely avoid it. It’s a place where you kind of grudgingly obligated to bring out of town visitors.

Roman: Your Fisherman’s Wharf, your Navy Pier, I’m sure you know and hate the one in your town.

Amy: Maybe you’ll walk through there on a Sunday or a holiday with your family but you don’t think of it as the real Warsaw. It feels more like Disney’s Epcot Center. There’s a certain young hipster contingent in Warsaw that revels instead in the ugliest part of the city; The failed communist experiment. They scoff at the Old Town because it’s so fake, such tourist trash.

Roman: But Murawski says they’re wrong. It’s the Old Town that really represents what the city and the nation itself has been through.

Amy: It’s equal parts truth and falsehood. Ideology and art, it’s trauma and the untidy recovery that comes after.

Roman: 99% Invisible was written and produced by Amy Drozdowska and Dave McGuire with help from Sam Greenspan and me Roman Mars. It’s a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. This episode is brought to you in part by Sidewalk Radio with Gene Kansas, a monthly radio show and podcast about the art, architecture design and planning of Atlanta Georgia and beyond. It’s the kind of show that I want to exist in every local community in the world. They also raised funds to repair sidewalks in and around Atlanta’s historic communities which is awesome. Find out more at

Comments (15)


  1. C.

    I’ve just stumbled upon this show and while I find it extremely interesting as a whole the part on Warsaw Iis sadly a bit lacking.

    The main problem is the picture of Warsaw as comprising of a tiny reconstructed old town surrounded by a monotnous sea of ‘huge, grey, ugly communist architecture’ (a sample of very professional architectural vecabulary by the way)

    1. First of all it is simply factually incorrect. The old town and the Royal Route are neither the only not the biggest areas with pre-war architecture in Warsaw. For a short list you have:

    – a large area of relatively luxurious late 19th – early 20th century tennement houses (most of downtown south of Jerozolimskie Avanue, left intact as Germans made it their living quarters during the occupation)

    – an even larger area of largely neglcted late 19th – early 20th century tennement houses and vintage industrial architecture in Praga district, at the left bank of the river (this was already controlled by the Russians when Hitler’s order of levelling the city was carried out on the right bank)

    Notice that both areas mentioned above – contrary to what is said on the show – attarct quite a lot of tourists, largely because significant part od city’s nightlife can be found there, as opposed to the Old Town which is goes to sleep pretty early

    – distircts of Ochota, Mokotów and Żoliborz which were outer suburbs largely build up in the inter-war era and therefore contain a nice selection of early 20th century styles (think Bauhaus etc.). These were also left largely untouched by the planned destruction of the city center.

    And even in the areas of the city center where the destruction was the biggest there were still individual buildings left standing which were later incorporated into post war city planning, adding to a peculiar mix of architecture typical for downtown Warsaw. Various bad things can be sad about the architecture of central areas of the city, but ‘uniform’ or ‘monotonous’ are not among them. There are of course large commieblock neighbourhoods further from the center, but these were largely build outside of pre-war city limits, on areas that in 1939 would be farmland or sparsely settled outer suburbs.

    2. The other thing is that under this ‘huge grey ugly communist architecture’ you are mixing up two very distinct architectural styles, a) socialist realist (also known as socialist classical) style of high Stalinism

    and b) le Corbusier influenced modernism, which replaced the former rapidly as a dominant architectural style after political changes of 1956.

    This difference is essential for understanding the main issue here, that is why the communist decided to rebuild the Warsaw Old Town (and many others similar areas – you may not be aware of it, but the old towns of Poznań or Wrocław or Gdańsk are also to a large degree post war reconstructions).

    It can be argued that those reconstructions were essentialy connected with the ideology of socialist realism – the architecture ‘national in form, socialist in essence’, in other words a certain mixture of local traditions and even some form of nationalism with universal communist ideology. An interesting example of a transition between a proper reconstruction and a socialist realist architecture in it’s pure (as exeplified in Warsaw by Palace of Culture or Constitution Square) is Mariensztat district, not far from the Old Town. To the untrained eye it may look like some kind of preserved or reconstructed historical district, while in fact it has nothing to do with what stood there before the war – it is a residential neighbourhood designed and build in late 40s in a human-scaled version of socialst classical style.
    Does it really look ‘huge grey and ugly’?

    Now what most people refer to ‘grey communist architecture’ is what came after 1956, that is the local version of le Cobusier influenced modernism. It was basically architectural mainstream back then everywhere in the World – and architects and city planners in communist countries embraced it as soon as political pressure to stick to socialist classical style was over. Under this ideology in architecture reconstruction of the past in any form was seen as an anathema, and the reconstruction of old town centres largely stopped. Notice that this is the same period (late 1950s-early 1960s) when the British demolished large parts of their historical city centers to give way for motorways and concrete tower blocks. It was a global current in thinking about architecture and city planning, not restricted in any way to the eastern block countries.

    The above argument is neccesarily very short and simplified, but the point is: if you see a former eastern block city consisting of reconstructed old town and commieblock residential areas around it (Warsaw, as mentioned, not really being good example of) then you have to know that this parts were probalby bulit in different times (the reconstrution before 1956, the commieblocks in 1960s or later) and that the architects and planners which did this acted under vastly different ideologies. Some of those Corbusianist designers of 1960s commieblocks would likely oppose the earlier reconstruction (as creating ‘movie sets’, being ‘fake’ etc), had they have any say in it. It is a gross simplification to see all of post WW2 eastern block architecture as stemming from a single, uniform idea.

    3. And the last, about corbusianist modernism being ‘huge, grey, ugly and communist’. There is a strong movement currently in Poland of vindication of this architecture, people are starting to see value in it, dscussing the ways to preserve better examples of it and the proper way of repairing or improving the not-so-good ones. Actually a person who consistently refers to all of post WW2 modernism as ‘huge, grey, ugly communist architecture’ as one of authors of this piece does, would (not just among the architecture buffs) be seen as a phillistine, to put it mildily.

    1. alex

      C. ! You are sharp ! you got a blog or something ! I llstarts reading it

    2. Blue

      Denying the link between Soviet political beliefs and post WW2 modernism is folly. Le Corbusier’s aesthetic—dehumanizing and brutal—were a quite explicit attempt to elevate the power of central planning over small scale democracy. It wasn’t “global”. It was an explicitly political project pushed by one of the most reprehensible and dehumanizing autocracies in history. So the comment was correct—they are indeed huge, grey, ugly and, quite explicitly, communist.

  2. Any reading recommendations for someone who wants to dig deeper and read more about the city and its history? (Academic monographs welcomed over travel guides!)

    1. stephen

      This is what I want to know as well! (I came here hoping to find out)

  3. adam

    I don’t agree with what is written here about the old town. Aside from St. John’s and the uncovering of earlier gothic components of some buildings, most buildings were a faithful reconstruction even using recycled bricks. And there are about 10 buildings in the old town that are virtually authentic inside and out. Murals or frescoes in more cases were new accurate pre-war documentation was hard to come by.

  4. adam

    and I should add all of the gothic basements are original, merely reinforced in some cases. almost all of the basements were preserved as was the original building footprint, medieval street pattern and even silhouette. Yes in cases as on Nowy Swiat street, some buildings were not rebuilt favouring the original 18th century look of the street and on these streets people may not have recognized some stretches. Further along Krakowskie Przedmiescie the same treatment was applied, but almost all of the churches are original having survived virtually intact.

  5. Let me start by saying that 99% Invisible is my favorite podcast ever, and I really love every story you do, including this one. In fact, I listened to this podcast when it originally came out over 2 years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. Fast forward to now, I am about to start my masters in Historic Preservation and I have been reading James Marston Fitch’s “Curatorial Management of the Built World.” In the last chapter he discusses the reconstruction of Warsaw after WWII. He explains that during the restoration and reconstruction, the Polish conservationists had to decide to what stage of history each structure should be “returned.” Using John’s Cathedral (not to be confused with John’s house, above) as an example, Fitch explains that the conservationists deliberately decided against restoring the gothic facade, and instead choose to restore the building to an earlier state with the stepped gable as depicted in Bernardo Belotto’s paintings. To determine their accuracy, Belotto’s paintings were compared with the extensive catalogue of measured drawings that the architecture students at the polytechnic were required to make of the old buildings in the Stare Miasto (it appears that they had an abundance of accurate pre-war documentation). Fortunately, most of the drawings survived the war and they were used in conjunction with the painting of Bernardo Belotto to provide the basis of restoration and reconstruction in Warsaw. Anyways, I hope this only adds to the interesting history of Warsaw.

  6. Peter

    I’m a big fan of the show and I was delighted to stumble upon this piece about a city I’m currently living in… that is, for the first couple of minutes, because I couldn’t bear to listen to it any longer.

    The comments above explain in detail why referring to the ‘communist ideology’ in architecture as ‘huge, grey and ugly’ is a huge blinking neon sign of ignorance. I’ll add to it that claiming that ‘the old town that never was’ is probably the worst headline for the Warsaw’s historic district and its reconstruction one can imagine. Architecture students have documented this area before (and, if I remember correctly, also during) the war in a better and more detailed way than any other in the city ever has and largely thanks to their efforts (and prof. Zachwatowicz’s fight to preserve the documentation) we can now walk the streets looking like those that once were.

    You can read and see some more about it in a ‘Building a new home’ book among others:

  7. The Polish effort of reconstructing Warsaw shouldn’t be attributed to the Soviets. It originated not as a decision in Moscow but as a spontaneous decision of the inhabitants of the city. Some Soviet soldiers took part in reconstruction, but the vast majority of the work was made by the Poles and it was financed by the Polish diaspora (Polonia). Saying that “Soviets rebuilt Warsaw” is doubly offensive – not only they were an occupying army, but their inaction led to Warsaw’s destruction.

  8. Jeremy

    Calling Soviet architecture and urban planning “grey and ugly” is the most ignorant thing I’ve heard in 99% invisible (and i listened to a lot of it). Communist buildings, if properly maintained, do not have to be ugly or grey. Once you get past these easily solvable issues, you realize how we actually need to go back to those “ugly, grey” buildings: they are space-efficient, community-centric, have huge public spaces around them, allow for much greener and healthier cities (in right hands) — all this matters, of course, if you’re looking for something a bit more than bunch of ornate buildings to take photo in front of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories