Feeling/Filling Void – Former Warsaw Ghetto Architecture Project – Phase One

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In September 2012 I visited Warsaw. Naturally as a Jewish Israeli I went to visit the former Ghetto area. I was overwhelmed by the void I met – The physical built environment was so different from the bustling urban environment that used to be there. I was disappointed by the inability of the existing scattered memorials to deliver a significant experience. The new Jewish Museum was already standing there, not open to the public yet, but annoying enough with its fancy facades, “decorating” such a trauma affected area. After all, the real story took place outside and not within carefully designed scenery. The thought that a 4 square kilometers area was a “home” for almost half a million people “living” in deadly conditions, and no significant urban entity exists to commemorate, was amazing. On the other hand, I witnessed current Warsaw – growing, developing, and slowly becoming an attractive world city for human and monetary capital. The former ghetto neighborhoods, adjacent to the bustling city center, with their endless communist blocks and the emptiness in between, seemed stuck in time, waiting for a fresh, vivid face-lift.

With the final project in Architecture and Town Planning studies in the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, approaching, I decided I wish to take the challenge and plan in the former Ghetto area. The final project will accompany this fifth, last year of studies, which started in October 2013 and will end in June 2014.

The Poster – Summary of Phase One

In this post, I shall elaborate my first impressions and analyses of the area as summarized into one poster presented in the first submission to the mentors – Ruth Liberty Shalev and Eran Mordohovich and class mates.

A low resolution version of the poster is displayed herein, and I invite you to download the high resolution PDF version and browse it while reading the explanations.

The 90x130cm poster is designed as a large “Nolli” map of a part of Muranów  (one of the former Ghetto neighborhoods) meaning all the elements on the poster are placed on the pattern of the existing buildings footprint, to emphasize the sparse built-up area, the emptiness in between and the lack of urban vitality. Consequently, I called the project (at least for now…) “Feeling / Filling Void“, “in a large renewing urban trauma affected area with conflicted memory”.

First Section – Immediate Observations

First section of the poster shows my immediate observations of the place.
It starts with two columns of scattered memorials, spread on a large area usually with a background of unrelated building blocks. I show the current built landscape of apartment buildings. So different from dense neo-classic urban environment that was the physical infrastructure of a bustling place, but also a symbol of the amazing Polish ability to recover after the war and build “a place for people” – in a totally different political climate, which has its own memories as well – and here is one example of conflicting memories.
On the last column to the right I show some of the few buildings that survived the war (90% of the Warsaw buildings were destroyed in WW2) – The house in Plac Grzybowski, house and Ghetto wall in Waliców Street, and a small fragment of the Ghetto wall between Sienna and Złota Streets.

The three maps below:

  • The left one shows two areas on a base map provided by the Warsaw Tourist Information – Purple area contains “important monumental buildings and areas” colored red, among them the “old city” and “new city”. Gray area is the former Ghetto area which lacks marks of interesting places in this map, but emphasizes the size of this area and its proximity to the city center and main attractions. In a way it is a “negative echo” of the colorfully presented area to the east.
  • The map in the middle is based on “Warsaw Judaica” map provided by the Warsaw Tourist Information. It marks important Jewish related spots, most of them in that “gray area”.
  • The map to the right shows the location of 22 Ghetto Boundary Markers – memorial plaques which are located along the former Ghetto wall and gates.

Those maps are aimed to show how scattered and isolated the Jewish memorials are. Dimension wise, they are “Zero Dimensional”. Let me explain…
In mathematics and physics, a dot in space is zero dimensional, a line is one dimensional, a plane is two dimensional and something with a volume is three dimensional. Now let’s apply dimensions to the city. A city, mainly a flat one like Warsaw, can be seen as a two dimensional plane. Upon this plane, whole neighborhoods as well as very large squares and venues can be described as two dimensional entities. Linear elements such as streets, avenues, green belts, utility lines and exceptionally long building blocks can be described as one dimensional. Point specific elements such as buildings, statues and memorials are zero dimensional.

Conclusion: what happened to the former ghetto area took place in this whole 4 square kilometers area. The life and death people and place was a vast two dimensional urban occurrence. The current zero dimensional scattered memorials fail to deliver the scale and intensity of those events. Another notion is that the memorials mainly deal with the Jewish narrative, which becomes isolated from the whole story of a nation conducting a deadly war on the land of a second nation aimed at a third nation.

The text column to the left contains some examples for places that are gone.  The following quotes are from “Warsaw Judaica” guide. The first two refer to non existing structures: “Great Synagogue (currently non-existent – the Blue Tower was built in its place)” “22 Chlodna Street – the place where the footbridge was located”. The third one refers to the city structure which was changed – streets where moved, cut in the middle, widened or renamed: “Bohaterów Getta Street (Ghetto Heroes Street) – the former Nalewki Street”. The following quote: “Muranowski Square … central point of the Jewish district, ceased to exist” is taken from the “stacjamuranów” website.

Second Section – Development and Conflicts

Next section of the poster titled “Development and Conflicts” contains additional materials and deeper analyses of the area.
The first three columns to the left describe 5 periods of the former Ghetto area. For each period, a physical and factual description is provided (in the two left columns) and a rather mental description is provided on the right column.

  • The first period is pre war, associated with terms such as lively and bustling, where mixed use of living and commerce in neo classic style buildings under free marker conditions was a base for culture and growth of the community and its identity and spirit.
  • The second period is the World War II, when the area was surrounded by a wall of a closed Ghetto, where 125,000 people per square kilometer stayed in horrible conditions of hunger, illness, fear, despair and death.
  • The third period is the “Tabula rasa” remained after the Ghetto area was completely demolished.
  • The fourth period is the communist rebuilding. Socialism was the driving force for rebuilding the area as public housing in long identical apartment blocks bearing modernist and social realism architectural styles.
  • The fifth period, the current one, symbolizes the turn from communism to democracy, bringing freedom and spirits of entrepreneurship, investments, young intellectuals and contemporary high rise architecture.

Titled “Past and Present”, the photo shows the almost only place where several of these periods are represented – fragment of the ghetto wall, apartment blocks and contemporary office building.

To the right, a scheme describes a layered model of the issues dealt with before. The bottom layer is the physical one – bricks, buildings, facades. The second layer is factual – dealing with actual events and way of life. These two layers deal with objective matters. On top of them is the subjective layer of narratives – endless narratives of people, live and dead, from all nations. I wish to make the separation between the objective layers and the narrative layer as it can serve later as one of the initiating points for an architectural action.

Further to the right, on the horizontal strips, I demonstrate through photos the two main groups that use the former Ghetto space:

  • Locals – run their daily life here, some of them elderly people who came to live here after the area was rebuilt, some of them are young creative people, symbolizing developing Warsaw. Their life here is continuous in time and space and at least one dimensional as they move along the neighborhood.
  • Visitors – their experience here is discrete in time and in many cases in space. They come and go, usually looking for a specific experience related to a certain narrative. Since most of them do “memorial hopping”, occasionally even with a bus, their experience is zero dimensional, thus far from delivering a significant commemorative experience.

It is worth mentioning the striking contrast between visiting the former Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau former camps. In the latter, even without viewing the horrifying indoor exhibits, just staying in the premises of the place, with its actual structures and fence, is the most powerful experience. Naturally a physically wiped past and a living city cannot create such an effect, but here’s where the architectural challenge exists…
The next horizontal strip shows three plans of Warsaw and the Jewish area within. This is where we can get a feel of the importance of the Jewish quarter of the city and the city structure as a whole.

The vertical strip to the right shows some examples to the dramatic change the former Ghetto area has undergone from the pre war period to the current one, and it is a tiny bit of the abundant sources of information that provide us inevitable glimpse to the past:

  • On the top we can see an example to “intensity”. The remarkable Warszawa1939.pl website provides us with a pre-war “Google Street View” of Warsaw. In this photo we can see the same building before the war and today, and get an idea how a busy place turned into an empty public area.
  • Next we see how the urban fabric was dramatically changed, from densely built buildings creating continuous facades to a sparsely built area. The area was dense even before the Ghetto period, and some sources claim that there were calls to rebuild this area even before the war. In any case, the question of urban density is brought up here, highly relevant to contemporary urban design trends preferring dense cities, as world urban population is increasing rapidly. The current aim of creating dense cities with a good quality of life is interesting in light of the deadly Ghetto conditions. Can we accommodate 125,000 people in one square kilometer today and provide supreme conditions?
  • Next we see a Nolli representation of a pre-war section of the city, around Elektoralna street, compared to the current image of the same section. Streets have changed, squares have changed, a new main road was built (Aleja Jana Pawła II) – The city completely changed its structure.
  • Next is a glimpse to the dramatic change of street facades – the neoclassic continuous façade in Leszno Street was turned into long but isolated apartment blocks in socrealism style in what is now called Aleja Solidarności.

Third Section – Questions and Ideas

The third and last section of the poster brings the main architectural research questions, suggests some ideas that can serve as a base for action, and shows some inspiring references.

One of the questions is “How do we serve both locals and visitors?”. This question is far from being unique to the former Warsaw Ghetto or to “trauma tourism” places in general. Small, usually old towns encounter this dilemma (Venice, Dubrovnik…), but the conflict is more evident when locals wish to live their daily life while visitors wish to dig and find a troubled past. Berlin for example revives troubled history through numerous sites and interventions and in a way poses this conflict as well.

Another question is “How do we make a spatial action that caters all narratives or non of them yet still commemorates?”. This question is related to notions expressed following my immediate observations as well as the former question. The “layers model” tries to distinguish between the objective layers and subjective ones, paving the way to abandon dealing directly with narratives, leading to the next question…

The next question is “Can memories evolve from a mere physical representation?”. It is probably a rhetorical question, after all architecture may arouse feelings and thoughts and tell stories.

Next is a strip of the Ghetto plans. The Ghetto boundary was changed several times but during the whole period had two main sections. Worth mentioning that the map on the right is a current Warsaw city map distributed in hostels. It is published by cityspy.info and contains a clear mark of the fromer Ghettto wall. The publisher told me that it was marked in the map following a request of hostel operators.

The right column shows images representing and asking “(what) do we want to remember?”. Do we want to remember, and if we do, what do we want to remember? The former built environment? The devastation? The different nations’ stories?

At the bottom titles “Intervention ideas” I suggest a starting point for an architectural act – it has to be at least one dimensional, bringing into shape the physical and factual aspects. Functions located in the suggested act will be related to the factual aspects and together with the physical layer may evoke narratives.

How can various and contradicting factual aspects that existed and existing in this place reflect in the architectural act? Should the troubled time be reflected in shape and function? Or maybe only the opposite – such as health, satiety and warmth? Perhaps a combination can be implemented in such a way that allows various users to choose their experience?

In any case, I feel that the architectural act should be an intrinsic part of the urban tissue of the neighborhood, thus directly commemorating a saga that took place within a bustling civilized area rather than in a deserted place. An area with a promising future, and a troubled yet inspiring past that cannot be ignored.

In the bottom right I suggest various dimensions of actions. I aim for at least one dimensional act, but a three dimensional act is more likely to the proper guideline. In this case, the meaning of three dimensional does not refer to volume, but rather to a multi layered solution, in which the existing above ground city structure is only one layer. The combination of a multilayered solution which is spread on a vast area may yield the desired aim.

The column to the left presents three relevant references that emphasize the dimensions model.

  • The first one is Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. Spread upon 19,000 square meters, although its is confined to a single site, it may be regarded as a two dimensional act. It is also intriguingly multi layered – the above ground level may symbolize a huge graveyard for one, and a playground or a background for model photos for others. This is a physical act that leaves the freedom for interpretation for the visitors. An additional underground level contains a museum that directly deals with certain narratives.
  • The second reference is to “Keret House” – an installation within the former Warsaw Ghetto premises designed by architect Jakub Szczęsny. Located on a 1.5 meters gap between a pre-war house and an apartment building, this installation immediately refers to built environment of the neighborhood. Dealing with the gap remind us the past, but the use of the installation – as an apartment for creators (The Israeli author Etgar Keret was the first tenant of the house), connects the act to the present – renewing Warsaw. Nevertheless in an urban aspect it is a zero dimensional act, and it is interesting to find ways to turn this kind of an urban intervention to a two dimensional and three dimensional intervention.
  • The third reference is to the movie “Inception” directed by Christopher Nolan. Layers of a city literally fold as reality and dream mix, providing inspiration for multilayered interventions…

2 Responses

  1. זהבה שחר פ"ת
    | Reply

    הי גיא,
    ראשית אתיחס לכושר הכתיבה באנגלית.
    נראה שההתיחסות לנושא מאד עמוקה, יסודית, ונרחבת.
    האם הצגת הפוסטרים היתה בשפה האנגלית?
    זהבה שחר

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