Warsaw: The Palace of Culture and Science

You know that feeling of when someone seems to be giving a present for all the wrong reasons? That was, I suspect, exactly what the people of Warsaw felt when Josef Stalin gave them the Josef Stalin Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki imienia Józefa Stalina) as a present in 1952. Like with Berlin's Stalinallee, Stalin's name was removed from the building's title in the destalinisation process which followed his death, but the building itself has survived to the present day.

In constrast to the buildings on Stalinallee, which were designed by local architects with reference to the Stalinist style, the Palace of Culture and Science was designed by the Russian architect Lev Rudnev, also architect of the Moscow State University building (one of seven Stalinist skyscrapers in Moscow, known as the Seven Sisters). A team of 3500 Russian builders was brought in to construct it and, when completed in 1955, it was, at 231 metres, by far the tallest building in Warsaw. With all that in mind, it's fairly easy to understand how it became seen by many as a symbol of Soviet domination.

One thing's for sure - it's huge. It's still the tallest building in the whole of Poland, plus it's quite wide and has a large complex of buildings at its base. Among the facilities inside are a multiplex cinema, a theatre, museums and a congress centre. In the communist days, the 2880 seat congress hall was where the communist party met.

For the princely sum of 20 Zlotys, you can go up to the 'panorama' gallery on the 30th floor. It's open to the elements at the sides, so a bit chilly on a winter's night, but the views of Warsaw are spectacular.

The interior of the 30th floor is quite grand too. If I wasn't in the throes of another black and white moment here, you'd see that the walls are painted a rich red colour.

A great deal of the really lavish rooms aren't normally open to the public, but the building's website has a list of halls for the congress centre, which has pictures of many of the rooms.

Just as intriguing to me is the basement, where there's a strange little security guard's desk, a small shop-kiosk and a cloakroom. Lifts with dark wood-veneered interiors leave for the higher floors and, round by the cloakroom, people sit waiting patiently for...something.

The parallels with Berlin don't end with Stalinallee; after the ruins of the Berliner Stadtschloss were demolished, there was discussion of building a structure similar to the Palace of Culture and Science on the Schloßplatz site. In the end, the function of towering symbol of socialism was taken up by the Fernsehturm, while the former Schloßplatz was occupied by the Palast der Republik, Berlin's own palace of culture.

After the fall of communism, similar debates erupted around the Palace of Culture and Science as surrounded the Palast der Republik, of whether it ought to be kept or knocked down. The eventual result was that the Palace of Culture and Science was made a listed building, protected from demolition. Not a decision that was popular in all quarters, but it does ensure that this intriguing Warsaw landmark remains for all to see.

Palace of Culture and Science
Plac Defilad 1
00-110 Warsaw

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