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Restituted Spaces

Part 2 Project 2009
Piotr Lesniak
University of Edinburgh Edinburgh UK
This project is concerned with issues of spatial power, urban memory and living in the post-socialist situation of contemporary Warsaw. It addresses the most monumental and problematic architectural presence in the city, the Palace of Culture and Science – a Soviet-style skyscraper built on the initiative of Josef Stalin in the early 1950s. The location of the Palace demanded extensive demolition of pre-existing urban tissue before construction could begin. In a city that was almost completely razed during World War II the sacrifice of a major tract of housing that had actually survived was a highly aggressive and ideological gesture.

Today, debate continues to rage around the Palace. The possibility of its demolition has often been considered, while recent plans for high-rise development show it ‘screened off’ by new skyscrapers. But are there other ways in which Warsaw can address this difficult and cumbersome heritage?

The project explores this question from the other side of the river at the point from which the height of the Palace was defined by its architect. The project’s form was generated through a process of enfolding the Palace with a map-like topography in which the urban fabric that was destroyed to make the Palace returns in a virtual form.
The result is a hyper-dense high-rise structure that challenges the existing typologies of architectural form and organization. Funicular-like lifts and ramping streets act as an extension of urban infrastructure - a three-dimensionally planned part of the (pre)existing city - and allows for the possibility for varied journeys and urban scenarios. The program includes a new velodrome, a community centre, a youth hostel and an exhibition gallery which create focal points in the project’s complex tectonic. Here, every citizen of Warsaw has the right to live in one of the available houses, free of charge, for one year in his or her life.

Restituted Spaces is a unique housing project which locks the Palace of Culture in a spectral confrontation and disengages its singular monumentality. It folds the past into the present and returns lost living space back to the city in a new form.

Piotr Lesniak

One of the fascinations of Piotr Lesniak’s project is that it challenges the vocabulary we have for naming buildings. This is certainly a high-rise construction, but it’s neither a tower nor a block; nor is it straightforwardly a ‘building’, at least in the singular, limited sense implied by the term. Instead it seems as if a whole quarter of the city has suddenly erupted and become three-dimensional and spatial in an unprecedented way. It is an extraordinary presence, with – for all its dense compaction and remarkable scale – a feeling of openness, permeability and change.

This is a highly sensitive, culturally-aware and – in the best sense – intensely hopeful project, which addresses the city of Warsaw’s history and future, as well as its contemporary ‘post-socialist’ situation. It relates to the problem of the Stalinist ‘Palace of Culture’, the gargantuan structure in the centre of the city that is Warsaw’s most familiar landmark as well as being – as a symbol of subjugation and violence – it’s most difficult object. There have been many suggestions about how to deal with this, and the painful history it invokes. To this debate, Piotr Lesniak makes a brilliant, radical and disconcerting contribution: the idea of doubling the Palace, of building another, and by doing so draining away the malign singularity of the original structure, in order to trap it within a mirror-like play of oscillating forms.

But of course, the new project is not a simple reiteration of the old. Rather it brings back to life the trace of the part of the city that was destroyed in order to build the Palace, which now rises up and folds around it. A lost area of the city is returned to it, but in a transformed way. It is a gesture of restitution, although the point is not to return property to previous owners. Instead what is returned is dedicated to the future of Warsaw and to its citizens, to each of whom the project extends its hospitality.

Dr Mark Dorrian
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