Monday, April 15, 2013

New Old Town

During World War II, German forces razed more than 80% of Warsaw.  After Soviet troops took over, much of the city was rebuilt. The Soviets built apartment blocks; this was communist ideology in architectural form. Roman Mars' 99% Invisible, a unique podcast dedicated to design, recently presented this feature on the New Old Town in Warsaw.  In it Amy Drozdowska and Dave McGuire, speak with Warsaw-born anthropologist Michał Murawski about Warsaw’s complicated post-war history. They explain how the New Old Town in Warsaw is a replica; a carefully constructed re-imagining of what the city was. It is believed that Stalin thought a new, communist Poland would be more easily achieved if the former capital city was completely obliterated. What's more the idea of the Old Town was to be more valuable to the new Soviet powers than the former town itself.

The New Old Town is in effect a facade, a stage-set intended to create a certain ideological atmosphere. This was built by Stalin's forces to mask the reality that Poland was being taken over by foreign powers, and to ward off public nostalgia for a pre-Communist Poland, by manipulating the public into believing that they have not lost their past, their traditions, their former identities (not just through architecture but "history paintings"—the major inspiration for the rebuilding of the city were the paintings of an 18th Century Italian artist named Bernardo Bellotto). In doing this the new powers gave the impression that they had respect for the "old" ways of life.

Nostalgia has been considered a melancholy disease that produces erroneous representations of something that is lost (see Svetlana Boym's The Future of Nostalgia). In this case, the old town needed to be rebuilt, in order to be forgotten. If not, the public might long for what they were missing (or at least what they thought they were missing) and therefore make enemies of the new communist powers that brought in the new buildings and ideologies.

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