Plac Grzybowski is one of the most significant urban spaces located in the city center of Warsaw just a few steps from Palace of Culture. Before war it used to be a busy place mostly inhabited by homogeneous (especially if we compare it to the current social diversity of its inhabitants) Jewish community. The ground floors of most of the building were used by small shops selling different goods mostly made of steel like screws and nails. The genius loci of this place was strongly defined by the huge solid of All Saint's church that was a monumental dominant of this part of the city and a synagogue that luckily survived till our days. The war changed everything...
The destruction of the city completely transformed the surrounding of the square and its role. For the last fifty years it has been like an drifting island among more or less planned architecture. From the one hand we have historical monuments like the church, synagogue and the remnants of the ghetto represented by a few survived tenement houses from the other several blocks of flats from the sixties and seventies and brand new monumental apartment houses and skyscrapers completely changing the scale of preserved buildings. The social composition of the square's users is interesting as well as it consists of old inhabitants from the blocks of flats, new occupants from the apartment houses, huge Vietnamese community and many many more...
Currently it's one of the most fascinating places that can be used as an example and personification of the social and urban processes that take place in whole Warsaw. Maybe this is the right path to look for why it became one of the first places in the capital where the public participation in the process of revitalization and transformation of degraded space took place.
The first impulse for changes and consolidation of the atomized users of the square was given by Joanna Rajkowska, an artist interested in projects in public spaces. Till 2006 she was mostly known from her previous project called "The Greetings from Jersualem Avenue" also created in Warsaw. This time she decided to choose Plac Grzybowski for her action. The choice was a result of her personal interests and at the beginning it was far away from what it became later. She just wanted to work in a place that would have interesting and complex history and some kind of historic trauma as she said. Her aim was to "create a place exempt, as it were, from the dominant conventions, a place virtually ideal, an enclave of fresh air in the centre of the city". In the place that nobody treated as his she wanted to create a place that might work as a meeting point for the people a place that would evoke some kind of interaction and communication between them that can be later observed and recorded.
As a result of those assumptions OXYGENATOR was created.
A small pond, surrounded with grass soon became a place willingly attended by the inhabitants who started to treat the square as its own. This change of attitude concerning the square helped later the inhabitants to consolidate and form a common vision of the place in the consultations with the city authorities.
Oxygenator was designed as a temporary installation and did not get City Council acceptance for longer stay. It’s removal caused organized protest of the residents and the square users who were against the decision and wanted the Oxygenerator to become a permanent element of the square.
The complex situation concerning the people’ will to restore the pod has given birth to the probably most renown example of public participation process in urban planning
in Warsaw. It is noteworthy how a single intervention in urban structure, evoked consciousness among local citizens and united them around a single idea. Making them eagerly willing to have the right to decide and defend their objectives. People noticed that the city may be different than a dull and gray desert .
The oxygenator started a phenomena, people having experienced a working piece of design, become so fond of the solution that they were not willing to see anything different in the place. It not often happens in Poland that people in various age, and from various social backgrounds speak with one voice, thus forming a powerful force of political pressure on the city authorities.
Among other stakeholders in the oncoming planning process they gained significant influence as not many political parties was willing to stand against them.
In the opposition arose a vision of the square as a large monument in hole sacrificed to the polish Ratious Among the Nations. The idea was eagerly advocated by IPN (Institute of National Remembrance) and local PIS activists associated with authorities from All Saint’s parish. Their demand was a large paved square with a pompous monument that would honor in a “proper way” heroic poles. That had support in the municipal aesthetic department (Miejski Wydział Estetyki), as it’s chief Tomasz Gamdzyk argued, Grzybowski square is not a place for provincial pond with ducks.
In his opinion the area should be given a proper status as a metropolitan downtown public space. A more compromised version remembering the poles was expectable by Andrzej Przewoźnik (Sekretarz Ochrony Pamieci Walk i Męczeństwa) his vision was rather a humble monument imbedded in greenery that could possibly be a compromising solution.
The last but maybe not least important stakeholder was the Warimpex company, the owner of the rundown Próżna street houses. Their position was insomuch important because of the cities will for quick renovation of the space. What would turn difficult unless proper conditions were not established in the closest surrounding for the hotel or office investment. Their point was a creation of a large parking area under the square, what would totally exclude high greenery from the debatable land piece.
One of the important issues as regards planning the new was who in fact has the right to decide and have the last word. The square is a part of national heritage, integral part of the city center but as well, a local milieu with inhabitants. Should the square be metropolitan, expressing the spirit of the hole agglomeration, or should it more comply the needs of the local community.
As one of Poland’s leading planner (from Polish Urban Planners Association) argued that the square should be taken care by “uninfluenced” urban planners cause they know best (from their experience) what is most suitable for the city and what means should be undertaken. Meanwhile considering a Local Development Plan method as the most proper one - forgetting that it is often the least democratic(citizen controlled) process – decisions are made by “specialists” and later without bigger consideration approved by the city council. Participation in planning with the locals is often limited to informing according to the regulations.
The discussion concerning the future squares gestalt was live and arguments carried out were often demeaning for particular stakeholders. People felt it is arrogant as the city clerks argued that inhabitants can not just take a square into possession. When political parties got involved the process enhanced its pace. The square issue (as many in Poland) became political one.
From one side we got the ruling coalition (in Warsaw city council) PO-SLD supporting the local community and on the other PIS for which the emotive and aesthetic value was of utmost importance, expressing/aiming the squares historical meaning.
SLD even took the initiative (as political parties usually do, certainly not disinterestedly) and carried out a survey, an legitimate way towards full participation process. More than 480 filled blankets have been issued, clearly stating that no monument is needed nor wanted. The Śródmieście District Council got involved as well, collecting 18 surveys, each filled by hole block communities or by its representatives, providing meaningful/legitimate information.
As the cities president announced a competition for the square design to be held the discussion evolved around the requirements and limitation for the competitors, city council planned to make it as quick as possible to grant money from the 2008 budget.
First pulled down concept was the car park beneath the square, however this did not meant further consensuses.
As the local parish community was still opting for the monument, presenting a project made by architects Krzysztof Czyżycki, jerzy Górnicki together with the sculpturer Maxymilian Biskupski. The project assumed placing on the very center of the square a “tree of life” whose brunches would form a menorah like shape, whereas the space to the church would be defined by tables with names of poles saving the Jews. That was already a second martyrdom concept as the first one proposed for the square - children fasted to trees as a remainder of poles murdered by the UPA was pulled down. An evidence of strain relations between the two communities was a meeting organized in the All Saint’s parish were CSW delegation with J.Rajkowska were not welcomed and the Jewish representatives not even invited. This kind of conflict atmosphere did not contribute well to consensus building practices. What should be clearly stated all sides (less or more) allowed some kind of manipulations. Aesthetics department convinced it knows best what all Warsaw citizens want in this place, and how public space should look like. Rajkowska surely being not right including all locals, to users of Dotleniacz installation, however having 800 signatures under the proposal.
On 44’th session of the city council where stakeholders were invited after a stormy discussion the idea of a monument in any form was excluded. Jan Żaryn whose speech was disrupted after 2 minutes declared issuing an official protest on IPN behalf.
It was decided that the revitalization will be focused on transforming the square into a place of leisure. with some green , and a place for cultural events as well that would not violate the cultural heritage of this place. It was also attached to the assumptions that Marconi's well and tram rails might be restored on the square.
Unfortunately it was not precisely described how the future pond (that became so important for the residents) should look like.
The artist who initiated the changes in some extent was rancorous that at some point she was switched off from the transformation process although she had a full support from the residents.
The contest won by Warsaw studio Pleneria (composed Dariusz Malinowski, Agata Ciesielska, Agata Czarnecka, Monika Radkiewicz and Michael Jaworski). Young designers have proposed a wide pedestrian area in the southern and eastern parts of the square (where cars parked). The central part was intended to provide green with an irregular pond in a place where Oxygenator was. The original element of the concept were the benches moved on the rolls that may be used to rearrange the space.
Joanna Rajkowska was asked by the residents to take part in the competition. She worked together with an architect Lech Mill Maciej Walczyna who prepared an architectural project of Oxygenerator, but the jury did not rewarded her concept.
Has the new design fulfilled the expectation? Has the architects managed the situations complexity? It may be a pity that the square was designed from the beginning and not just put under renovation. The character of the square has changed significantly, once green now striking with extensive pavement structures organized in a pseudo natural way.
One the arguments how squares new design is influencing the economical surrounding is that the metal shops are moving out. It would probably happen anyway but this is a significant mark, how embellishment in urban space changes the original social ambient.
The squares meaning is growing, and the rent-prices as well. Hopefully the square won’t be home (only) for banks and other financial institution (like it happens on Wilsona sq.) that local inhabitants never visit. It’s hard to predict as the commercial properties are mainly in private hands.
The square has a great potential to turn to one of the most representative spaces in Warsaw, together with the hole Emilii Plater street that is already considered as Warsaw Champs Elysees.
At this place we may once again ask whether the urban scale factors or local ambience is more important. Should we consider all downtown spaces as metropolitan one and giving them expected importance or should the (local)human factor decide. That’s a quite interesting subject for further studies. Is it like the head of Warsaw Aesthetics department argued that green fields in city center are not at place, or is it the opposite - a sign of renaissance in densely populated downtowns?
Joanna Rajkowska probably had not been aware how she would impact the city and contribute to evolution of public discussion.
The oxygenator was to make people meet and chat, it definitely delimited the intentions.
Joanna Rajkowska’s installation pointed out a very common problem in Warsaw, of no one’s land and indifference on public realms aesthetics. It helped people like any other to consolidate and understand that the look of the space in their neighborhood is in their hands.
MICHAŁ MISZKURKA, JAN RUBEL