about a building

It is perhaps easy to hate Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science. Looming tall from almost anywhere in a city that until recently didn’t seem to have many high rises, the 237 meter tower seems to assert from afar a crushing presence, a strong remnant of the Cold War – a somewhat ambiguous presence: yes, very Russian, very Soviet Russian, very Lomonosov-like. Yet also very New York-like, although a very heavy set, a very weighed down Empire State (the difference is not that significant: the Warsaw building is more than half the height of the Empire State if measured to its mast, something interesting to remember – and more than 60% the official height of the Empire State). But it is also much wider, and unlike the New York building, set into the middle of an enormous plaza that seems to have been empty of other tall buildings until recently.


To open space for this, Wanda told me they tore down many blocks of what looked like a typical Central/Eastern European capital, of which only this remains.


So there you are, a huge parking lot or space for cars (or pedestrians or military parades or now those terrible Polish November 11 fascist demonstrations) – the photograph only shows a fragment of the empty space that used to be a European City Center and was torn down by Stalin as part of his gift to the city of Warsaw.

P4023316 The building has an interesting history. Erected in 1955, at the height of the early stages of the Cold War, it was an assertion of Stalinist power in an emblematic city. More interesting to me perhaps are the stories Roman and Wanda told me: how Roman used to go to the Math Department (or Math Institute) that was for some time in some high floor of the tower, how he used to go as a kid or young student to the Muzeum Techniki, on one of the side facades of the building, and see a lot of interesting exhibitions there (I didn’t ask more details)… P4023345
or how Wanda used to go swimming in a public pool on the sports side of the building as she needed credit for Physical Education during her university-level Art studies. Or how excellent jazz (Miles Davis, etc.) was played there in the enormous Sala Kongresowa – where for sure important Congresses of the Party were also held… or even how the only strip club – the only official one – was also in a restaurant and bar in the building, Restauracja Kongresowa – open only to high officials of the Party or associates open to the public; at least those who had the money to pay for it.

The sides of the building have many stern statues of workers, teachers, reading the Big Canon, some of them with generic “European” features, but some of them also with Asian or African features (also generic) – perhaps to symbolize the friendship of peoples. Of course, also athletes – modestly covered (this is not Ancient Greece, nor even Poland of the 17th Century where Renaissance style statues – but the “modest” cover is sometimes quite revealing), all of them (the teacher, the reader, the worker, the athlete) with very squarish bodies.

And slowly, while walking around the building and hearing the stories, I start to like it somehow. Not the looming towering figure, perhaps, but the idea of having a building half the height of the Empire State and perhaps much wider, all devoted to music, to mathematics, to science museums, to sports, for sure to many other things along those lines (yes, and also to Party reunions and official meetings and perhaps truly horrific people also).

These days, we only seem to see that massive construction in malls, commercial venues, corporate buildings, banks, Met Life things, hotels. Even sports venues seem to be done in a very different way (of course we have huge “arenas” – often named for some company – for professional sport spectacles). Devoting a whole palace of that size to something like “culture” (whatever its intended meaning) seems more remote today than ever – especially culture including mathematics, art, science and sports (doing sports as opposed to watching them). I could understand why Roman seemed to like the Palace of Culture and Science, or some aspects of it. I would also like a building where you can listen to Miles Davis, go to an advanced seminar in Mathematical Logic, see Art and Science Museum exhibitions and go swimming or perhaps doing some judo.

But I can also understand Wanda’s dislike with the wasted City Center. After the “regime change” (1989), the whole area seems to be on a parade of newer buildings that try to overshadow the Palace of Culture:


Right in front, a Liebeskind building (left in the photo), some banks and other corporations – everything very new – remotely reminiscent of some New York areas (Bryant Park, without the playfulness). Corporate Europe standing in front of Communist Europe as if defying and saying “see, you lost!” yet those new buildings feel somewhat insecure, somewhat contrived, somewhat insubstantial in front of the Pałac Kultury i Nauki.

P4023306 On the South Western side of the Pałac, from the 1980s, a Marriott. Yes, a Marriott. Apparently the first tower to start to defy the Pałac Kultury i Nauki‘s preeminence, this building made before the change in the economy is really puzzling – it now looks as some kind of prescient gesture to the times that would come to Poland (and the world) after the change: a building that would seem taken directly from Omaha, Nebraska (or Anytown, Anycountry really), stands across large empty space – filled with cars. And a Marriott hotel, with all its cheesiness and all its crassness. This building is difficult to understand. I don’t really know what this building may have meant as a space to Varsovians in the 1980s, during the Martial Law years, after Solidarność.

All in all, this collection of buildings, centered on the Pałac Kultury and showing older Central European buildings, then the Pałac itself at the center of things, then the Marriott (and an interesting Train Station of which I have no photographs), and then the Corporate New Poland buildings… and perhaps next some new things that are not yet built – all of that is a fascinating architectural complex, with slices and layers of European history there in front of your eyes.

Momus, on Japan and the Kanikōsen boom

This post by Momus is quite intriguing – one of the most interesting reads about Japan in these recent days. In short, it starts by telling how Japan’s flirting with “neo-liberal” consumerism  (and its corollary of forfeiting pensions, medical coverage, unemployment benefits) since Koizumi’s government has actually possibly led to a revival of communist ideals among the youth of Japan. It then goes on describing the phenomenon of the big revival (really, a boom) of the Kanikōsen – the 1929 communist classic, in the form of manga, movies, etc. It finally links the Kanikōsen boom with Momus’s own forthcoming Book of Japans.

The story of the Kanikōsen involves a revolt on a ship (with clear echos of Potemkin here), a crab-canning ship doing the route between Japan and Kamchatka (then in the Soviet Union).

Still from Potemkin Battleship, the Eisenstein movie, 1925.

Of course, it is impossible for me to say much [being almost at the antipodes of Japan] about the plausibility, or the actuality, of something as momentous and deep as a revival of communist ideals in Japan in 2011. But Momus’s initial sentences, and the compelling images he posts, somehow create a picture which captures several discussions, several uneasy thinkings prompted by the current Japanese crisis in its extreme versions, but also connected with the recent European crises, and the Arab revolts.

Somehow the idea of (perhaps not a “revival” but rather) a newly raised eye, a not-so-blasé attitude toward various tenets of what people have called by various names (communism, or collectivism, or even liberalism in Anglo-Saxon countries) has gained new relevance in the past few years. For those of us who came of age during the very different “eighties” (when even if we wanted to show sympathy for leftist ideals the general cultural atmosphere of the world seemed to be fizzling them out), these new teen years seem a curious mix of re-emergence of questions, of situations and possible responses that seemed twenty years ago completely obsolete – a re-emergence clad in the new, tough clothes of the Greek and Irish crises, of the (talk of) collapse of the Euro, of the clashes in the outskirts of Paris, of the daily horror of news of sunken ships with immigrants to Europe (or sweat factory ships – again the Kanikōsen spectrum) – and now, oddly, in the Arab movements of freedom.

And then more recently the collapse, the horror of the Japanese nuclear power plants – and the more pressing questions it bids: does it make sense to continue using energy the way we have been? If not nuclear, then what? Dirty thermoelectric? Why not more solar or wind energy? Why the enormous difference between the supposed danger and the actual situation with Fukushima? What about France, so dependent on nuclear energy – cleaner skies, but other potential dangers? And California? What does it mean, in the grander scheme of things, when the city awash in pashinko parlors, in incredible illuminations (really wondrous around places like Shinjuku) spanning entire façades of buildings – goes dark with no electricity? When Tokyo, of all places, starts looking a bit like Bogotá in the 1990s with hours of rationed energy?

Kanikōsen seems to hover about all this, with its theme of factory-ships (so favored by some people who want to evade labor laws, and fed by the need of so many). The word itself, Kani (crab) also refers to cancer, the illness, in Japanese. The spectrum of cancer is now at the bottom end of the concerns, with radioactive clouds emerging from Fukushima, reaching the water, the milk, the vegetables, in Japan and possibly elsewhere.

Too many metaphoric connections seem to be prompted (in me, at least) by Momus’s post, by the idea of Kanikōsen (which I have not read and do not plan to read), by the words and images around it, by the power of the word “communism” among those of us my age.

In a way, Žižek’s articulation of issues around collectivism and the possible need of a new version of communism, for the sake of simple survival of humanity, is the best response I have seen recently.