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View from Warsaw

A unique estate of postwar housing, and with it an alternative vision of urban life, is under threat as former publicly owned land is privatised

Over the last two years a small, unassuming postwar estate of wooden houses in Warsaw has become a battleground in the struggle to determine the city’s future. For decades the so-called Jazdów Estate lay hidden and relatively untouched in one of the capital’s huge central parks, only 350 metres from the Polish Parliament. But the estate has come under threat as the city’s neoliberal authorities have begun to privatise urban land, all of which was nationalised under Communism. Standing in such an attractive area, the continuing existence of the Jazdów estate has inevitably become a political issue.

The group of 27 small, lightweight, pitched-roofed dwellings – known unofficially as the ‘Finnish houses’ – looks more like a Scandinavian village than a conventional urban estate. However, the authorities claim that because these little wooden huts in the city centre make Warsaw appear un-European, they have to be demolished, the long-term residents (some of them well-known characters of pre-1989 cultural life) relocated, and the houses replaced with new, visibly ‘luxurious’ flats, worthy of a now-European city. The estate’s residents have sprung to the defence of its architectural and historical significance. The houses are among the oldest buildings in this city levelled by Hitler – erected in 1945, they are several years older than the famous UNESCO-listed Old Town. Enter the activists: with Henri Lefebvre on their lips, they made the area the focus of a campaign for the ‘right to the city’ and in the summer of 2013 the little houses became a temporary hipster hotspot, with galleries, exhibitions, discussions and even an improvised kibbutz.

The houses’ birth was even more dramatic than the recent struggle for their preservation. They were donated by Finland as part of the war reparations they owed the USSR for their brief collaboration with the Axis, and were intended as emergency housing to shelter, as quickly and simply as possible, people whose city had been turned to rubble. Initially, the houses were inhabited by the employees of the Capital Reconstruction Office, among them architect-urbanist couple Halina and Zygmunt Skibniewski, a sort of Polish equivalent of the Smithsons, who designed some of the best Modernist estates in Warsaw. Later, the estate was home to members of the intelligentsia, actors, comedians and musicians. Every house had a bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room (not all that common at the time). All the elements, including hinges and handles, were Finnish, with only the electrical fittings of Polish manufacture.

‘While prefabrication is obviously something for which the Eastern Bloc is famous for all the wrong reasons, this estate of author-less housing demonstrates the possibility of combining the features of mass housing and mass production with an ecological utopia’

Jazdów proves that, contrary to the stereotype, housing in Eastern Europe didn’t always mean endlessly grey concrete panelak-style tower block estates, or scary socialist realist palaces. The houses represented the optimism of socialist postwar reconstruction in a moment before the introduction of Stalinist ideology. Socialist republics were by no means strangers to the new, Modernist ideas of comfortable living – often inspired by dreams of a Scandinavian ‘good life’ – yet poverty in the Communist-run states meant housing was built mostly on the cheap, and that quantity won out over quality. So it was in Poland, where postwar reconstruction completely transformed the city’s appearance. But while prefabrication is obviously something for which the Eastern Bloc is famous for all the wrong reasons, this estate of author-less housing demonstrates the possibility of combining the features of mass housing and mass production with an ecological utopia, a city village. The People’s Republic’s absence of private property meant that a leisurely lifestyle was (in theory) available to everyone, not just the privileged few. The low-density, green and almost rural estate, is perhaps the most extreme example of the spacious planning visible in almost every postwar Polish city. The abundance of communal green spaces meant that even though citizens lacked consumer goods, they could enjoy a certain amount of good living.

Today, the idea of low-density living in the city centre is abhorred by the authorities. It’s certain now that most of the houses will go, and as few as five or six will be preserved for cultural purposes, which will inevitably turn them into a tasteful historical theme park. The conflict over their preservation is a microcosmic example of the larger issue post-socialist cities like Warsaw are facing today, as they are thrown into a turmoil of endless court cases by the descendants of the pre-war ‘owners’ of now-public areas (not only council flats, but also schools, playing fields or other public institutions). The battle over the Finnish houses was over what kind of city Warsaw, and cities like it, wants to become. Having started out as a response to an emergency, then turning into an enclave of the intelligentsia, today the Finnish houses live their third life – as a symbol of public space.

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