Alien City

The destruction of Warsaw in the years 1939-1945 is a prime example of "urbicide” in the history of 20th-century Europe2. The multi-stage process of destruction of the capital was consistent with the criminal policy of the German occupier towards the Polish nature, society and culture. The architectural fabric of Warsaw was damaged to the greatest extent during the September Campaign of 1939, the Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The demolitions affected primarily the left bank of Warsaw, where 9,865 buildings were completely destroyed, the most affected areas being Śródmieście, the Old Town, and the former jewish ghetto, almost entirely razed to the ground3.

Photographic and painted representations of the ruins of Warsaw symbolise the violence of the occupier and the losses suffered by Poland during the war. When Warsaw was recaptured from the Nazis however, the existing ruins served not only as a propaganda image, but also as a new living environment. In many personal accounts from this period, Warsaw is described not as a wreck that can be recognized as a former city, but as an alien ruderal landscape (Latin: rudus - rubble). People returning to the capital used terms that expressed the new, unexpected material dimension of the city. Residents’ memories include ravines of rubble instead of streets or peaks of debris hills in place of buildings.

“This city is so alien to me, so completely alien and different, like a chain of mountains that grew up where I had never expected them to. It is in vain to look for any resemblance to the former landscape of Warsaw in the jagged silhouette of this mountain chain. I get the impression, and this is the most striking thing I have learned from Warsaw, that I am facing a completely new phenomenon of nature, a phenomenon never seen before.”4

Left-bank Warsaw therefore resembles a mountain range, a plowed field or a desert that stretches endlessly to the horizon, with only a few landmarks breaking its monotony. It is an abstract, desolate and gloomy or - as some people said - lunar landscape. As soon as one finds oneself in it, the "approaching" of ruins and rubble echoes the experience of the uncanny (German: Unheimliche), in the meaning given to it by Sigmund Freud5: it locates the sense of strangeness in what is well known. Sight fails in close contact with what remains: you cannot see the streets and sidewalks, you cannot recognize the places you’ve known from childhood. A hike in these conditions can last up to several hours and take place in complete silence. In the direct experience of ruins and rubble, sight begins to give way to sounds, smells and textures6. Landscape becomes less about views and more about intimate encounters. A sensory walk in such a space is often expressed through oppositions that are difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, snow and cold, on the other - heat gushing from the ruins that are still smoldering. Sometimes complete silence, other times - singing coming from ruins already inhabited by someone, echoing among the debris of a dead city. The smell of wet plaster, the reek of fire, the stench of rotting bodies of people and animals; breathtaking dust.

The image reconstructed in the memories of people who return to the city is not static, but changes over time - the ruins and rubble begin to come to life when the temperature rises and the snow melts. There are worms, as well as rats, which are treated like "living waste"7. It can be said that the landscape of Warsaw "emerges from ghostly interweavings: many stories of life and death that created (...) this place"8. This perspective brings attention to the entanglement of organic matter - the bodies of people, animals, plants and microorganisms - and their mutual contribution to the creation of a place. The structure and shape of post-war Warsaw includes contradictions that make cohabitation of the ruins seem impossible at first.

Rubble sticking out of the artificial mound of the Warsaw Uprising and from the sand on the banks of the Vistula River, 2023. Pictures taken by Zofia Krupa.

The Ground Remembers

Strolling through contemporary Warsaw is a stark contrast to its post-war foundation. Wide streets, big city parks and contemporary buildings among many post-soviet leftovers of the communist state: one can hardly feel the amount of anthropogenic and organic waste under their feet. Nevertheless, every landscape is haunted by past ways of life9. If looked at closely, we can find traces of violence in the visible artificial hills and mounds underpinned by discarded rubble and located in areas mostly peripheral to the city's 1945 centre. Moreover, thanks to a study on the hydrographic history of the Vistula River conducted by a Warsaw-based research duo Centrala (Małgorzata Kuciewicz and Simone de Iacobis), it also turns out that much of the debris from Warsaw’s World War II wrecking was used to regulate the banks of the Vistula River.

Debris was first loaded onto iron barges before being delivered to evenly distanced sites along the river’s course. On site, the rubble was laid upon interwoven reeds that sank under the material’s considerable weight. Over time, the river’s natural operations succured in this process begun artificially, depositing sands and organic matter against the spurs. This gradual organic accumulation assisted the engineers, who repeated the process yearly, to manipulate the river’s flow. The narrowing of the Vistula is therefore the result of a long-lasting symbiosis between man and nature, a cooperative process that led to what we today observe to be the natural banks of the river. On the contrary - the Vistula’s braided course is, in fact, a carefully engineered landscape with a significant symbolic value10.

Interdisciplinary research currently being conducted indicates a new horizon of thinking about the importance of ruins in culture. Researchers move away from considerations on the aesthetic dimension of destruction and turn to the materiality of rubble11. They describe societies and ecosystems growing on the ruins of the past12. They pay attention to the practices and relationships that transform ruins and allow living organisms to survive after a disaster. It is a more-than-human approach to architecture, which encompasses all existing things; it is entwined with the earth, altering and redistributing it. The architecture of the earth is an architecture of the ground13. And memory lingers within it.

Rubble exhibits on the artificial embankment in the district of Mokotów, 2023. Picture taken by the author.