Are you the traveller travelling through me?

To begin with take heed for I am surely far different from what you suppose;

Do you suppose you will find in me the downtrodden city?

Do you think perhaps you will begin to hate me?

Do you think our meeting will shed blood before its end?

Do you think me grey and ugly?

Do you see no further than this façade, this awkward misshapen structure of me?

Do you suppose yourself spacing on hallowed ground toward a murdered city?

Have you no thought O wanderer that it may all be Maya, iluzjon?


We will say of pure immanence that it is A LIFE and nothing else... A life is the immanence of immanence, absolute immanence: it is complete power, complete bliss.

Gilles Deleuze

They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold, and I deem them mad for thinking my days have a price.

Khalil Gibran

After three years wandering (and wondering) through Warsaw, and 15 months of periodic blogging, it's time to move on and indulge what Deleuze referred to as our 'sacred right of migration'. Warsaw has opened my eyes perhaps more than any of the other dozen or so cities I have lived (and wandered) in. This is no doubt due to the sheer incongruity of Warsaw's spaces, its buildings, the abundance of wildlife living in the city or just passing through, the primordial on the periphery, the great forests out of which Warsaw springs. Warsaw is, in spite of the new economic model it labours under, a peaceful city which is completely at odds with the Paris', Londons, and New Yorks of this world. Warsaw has thus refreshed and revitalised, and re-established lost connections. Granted, in the spirit of Ghibran, I have forsaken the conventions of 'making a living' in the hope that I might actually do it, and thus freed up time (or, perhaps more accurately, not clotted it up in a state of manic busy-ness) to explore the territory, get out and about. Perhaps emphatically, my great stravaiging companion of the past 3 years, Berenika (the bringer of victory), who for the past 18 months has studied the correlations of play behaviour in infant rats with exploratory behaviour in adults, has intimated that at heart I am in fact a rat. This comparison, like Warsaw itself, has pleased me no end!

'Exploring the overgrowth' in Pole Mokotowskie.


Every city has its own particular, even peculiar, brand of space.

Warsaw is no exception, and is particularly endowed with peculiarity, and a variety of species.

Take Plac Pilsudskiego for example with its eulogy to emptiness framed on all sides by low rise techtonics in a variety of styles. Space has never been so unanimous. The whole square (and it is a square) is in some ways a grand epitaph to the destruction that was levelled here. The square is its own building so to speak… 2 dimensions not three, more space than stone. It is an epitah with no name.

Another great example of the peculiarly spacious city of Warsaw is its underground system. When I first used the metro (though this will come as no surprise with those of you familiar with Glasgow’s ‘clockwork orange’) I was aghast at the volume of space within these cavernous subterrene halls. Ok, so it’s only one line, but look at that space. It’s all the more amplified, especially as you get further out from Centrum, by Warsaw’s uncongested feel. You’d never get this in any other European capital.

Another unmissable Varsovian landmark, and perhaps Warsaw's piece de resistance, it took me a while to realise the beauty of the Palace of Culture was not the building per se but the space (the 77 hectares) that surrounded it. Like a volcano abruptly rising out of an ocean, the Palace of Culture erupts space like no other.

The Centrum district of Warsaw, of which the above picture represents one half, is divided into two by the punishingly long decumanus maximus of Aleje Jerozolimskie. Bisected into north centre (Srodmiescie Polnoc, above picture) where Centrum proper is located, and south centre (Srodmiescie Poludnie), where the vast basin square of Plac Konstitucji lies, the centre of Warsaw is an eye-opening event for anyone with even the most partial of sight.

Within these two halves Centrum in fact embodies most vigorously an ethos of architecture and town planning that defines the whole city. This ethos of course is the absolute incongruity of juxtapositional elements. While Srodmiescie Poludnie points to the past with its various Secessionist and Socrealist stone relics and varying degrees of spaces, its northern counterpoint, with the dominating Palace of Culture and Science and the awkward Modernist shapes of cuboids, bubbles and pillars, points emphatically to the future.

Where Srodmiescie Poludnie (with perhaps the exception of the oversized Plac Konstitucji) retains the human element in its survivor tenements and manageable streets, Srodmiescie Polnoc (annihilated during WWII) goes exorbitant, and waylays the human in the most terrifying fashion.

Srodmiescie Polnoc (between Marszalkowska and Nowy Swiat) following WWII. In the centre of the picture you can make out the tall skeletal frame of the Prudential building which was painstakingly restored to its former glory.

The problem with Srodmiescie Polnoc, specifically the area between Marszalkowska and Nowy Swiat and Jerozolimskie and Swietokrzyska, is that it is, with its ignominious high rise tower blocks overseeing everything, as much residential as it is anything else. As such, there exists a neglected suburban scheme-feel about the area. In some of the passages behind the cuboid Galeria Centrum on Marszalkowska there is a complete absence of any spatial fluency, (imagine a labyrinth with fifty metre high walls). This might have been all well and good for the sixties when most of these things were thrown up, but now they are out of place and out of time.

What there is in terms of space in this area might be termed as ‘the bleeding effect’ where space drips from one area to the next, where it coagulates and clots due to the contiguity of structures, causing bottlenecks of people and cars, and where perma-dark passages only ever see the light of day during the sun’s more zenithal summery moments. What few fin de siecle buildings exist have their aesthetics levelled in one fell swoop by their propinquity to devastatingly horrid modernist bloks.

This discontinuity and fragmentation of architectural style and of space, of light and gravity and of urban geography, invests Warsaw’s centre with a certain peculiar quality that confers a subliminal sense of panic on the quotidian citizen. In terms of architecture and town planning, Centrum is, in other words, cosmetic surgery gone wrong. It is a precinct of horror, a tragedy on the city stage for all to see. It is perhaps for this reason that the whole area is a shopping centre, advertising openly welcomed. Indeed, the panic invested in the pedestrian means that he or she will at some point wish to conceal themselves from it, most probably in one of the many retail outlets here.

The Marszalkowska Monoliths - Virtual Tombstones for the Annihilated Area.

Maybe by turning the centre into a shopping mall and by accessorizing the faded facades of sixties modernism with multi-coloured ads, Centrum will take on a newer feel, more ‘twenty-first century’, more approachable than ever before, offering people the opportunity to come inside, explore this new world, and avoid such spatial angst.

'Sciana Wschodnia' (the Eastern Wall) at the beginning of the 1970s. In the 1960s, a complex of residential and office buildings went up on the eastern side of Marszalkowska Street between Jerozolimskie and Swietokrzyska. The 'Pasaz Srodmiejskie' with their Central Department stores and the Relax Cinema became one of the most popular places in Warsaw. The above picture reveals a certain idyllic quality with few cars and even a parasol-ed mezzanine in CDT (then one of Poland's largest department stores) on the left. Today, however, the city has not evolved, yet traffic is tenfold, detroying any sense of 'city life' that might once have been. Now, on the contrary, this area is a seething, writhing mess of pollution and chaos.

Looking at the newly built Centrum area in 1965. Again, notice the lack of traffic.

2009, almost half a century later. The same facade, except this time every surface screams.

The above are only a few of Warsaw's many species. Many others exist: the miniaturised Nowy Swiat, Plac Trzech Krzyzy, Stare Miasto (the old town), the great suburban dormitory of Ursynow. To document them is a thesis in itself. Better to wander perhaps, see them first, feel them in all their pervasive (in some cases 'perverse') sense of space.


The essence of life is not a feeling of being, of existence, but a feeling of participation in a flowing onward, necessarily expressed in terms of time, and secondarily expressed in terms of space.

E. Minkowski (Vers Une Cosmologie)

1. Decay is the flowering of time: it extends into us a sense of width, a wide sense of duration; it is life and death all rolled into one; it is culture, not clutter.

Within a 'simultaneous society' where time has effectively been 'flattened' by speed (projected onto the flat screen of modernity) and denied its duration, man loses his sense of self as a historical being. Decay allows us not just to see and feel time, to touch it even and smell it, but since we ourselves are depleted by similar processes, we contend a solidarity with it.

Decay is not the despair of Ozymandias. On the contrary, decay is a thing of reassuring beauty - it recognises us within the unstoppable flow of the kosmos.

It allows us to participate in time, to move through it; it accords us what the psychiatrist Eugene Minkowski (a man who began his medical studies in Warsaw no less) referred to as 'lived time'.

Decay, in its embrace of death, gives us life.

2. It is somewhat ironic that here, on the Sluzew Wall, decay is symbolic as nature's way of keeping the human species in check, reminding us not only of change and movement and the ephemeral nature of all things (one day a piece is there the next it's gone) but of our powerlessness to resist its force. In the lexicon of graffiti writers these 'pieces' we see on the walls are variously known as 'tags' or 'bombs' or 'burners'. They are a sort of primal marking of territory, a 'territorial signal' to others. When another writer decides to muscle in on this territory it is a matter of course to over-write (in street argot, to 'cap') the extant pieces with his own tag. In this way, he promotes his own super-iority and assumes ownership of the original piece.

Decay then, (as the act of de-composing), is nature's way of capping (and owning) man.

Graffiti is not just about scrawling on walls, though I am sure there are many who think no more of it than just that. Graffiti goes much deeper. It tackles the very bones of existence: creation, destruction, ebb and flow - the endless rhythms of renewal. We would do well to give graffiti a little more credit for involving us so overtly and freely (when was the last time you saw a painting in a gallery 'decompose'?) in this great process. It is no surprise that every metropolis has some. I have yet to visit a city that doesn't. That in itself must tell us something.

Details of a piece. (taken over the period of two years)


Birch trees have a special sacred significance in this part of the world. They are I suppose to northern Europe (and Russia) what bamboo is to south-east Asia. Next door, Finland and Belorus have it as their national tree. For the Siberian tribes of Russia the birch tree is the forest girl: slender, smooth, prone to the occasional weeping; she improves the soil. Poland doesn’t appear to have a national tree but if she did it would probably be the silver birch (Betula pendula).

As a pioneer species, one of the most important functions which birch trees fulfil is that of improving the soil. They are deep-rooted, and their roots draw up nutrients into their branches and leaves, which the trees use for their growth. Some of these nutrients are returned to the surface of the soil each year when the leaves fall in the autumn, thereby becoming available for other organisms in the forest community. An indication of the scale and significance of this nutrient cycling can be drawn from the estimate that birch trees will produce between 3 and 4 tonnes of leaf litter per hectare per year.

All around Warsaw there are great (and small) swathes of birches. In Wierzbno (ironically, the place of the Willow) there is a small unassuming birch entranceway to a block of flats which is made all the more special by its almost perfunctory status. Next door, down at the Russian cemetery, there is a line of birches which runs all the way from Raclawicka Avenue to the southern edge of Pole Mokotowskie, over a kilomtre in length. The latter 370m tail of this, through the allotment garden complex, has been accorded protected status as an ‘aleja zabytkowa’ due to its eco-historico nature.

These trees, whether birch or other, irrespective of their individual age, manage to give Warsaw a sense of deeper time, connecting and rooting the city with a profound and primeval past from which modern Warsaw has emerged. Forests still play a huge part in the city accounting for 14% (7,260 hectares) of the surface area. Most notable of these are Las Bielanski, Rezerwat Morysin and Natolinski, and the Mazowiecki National Park. This 14% doesn’t include the periphery forests of Kampinos or Chojnowski, the respective northern and southern lungs, which are located on the city’s immediate outskirts.

Many foreigners speak of the pretty Polish girls. They are world renowned for their radiant and healthy beauty. But there is another Polish girl who is the silver birch and who is just as elegant, just as beautiful, just as healthy. There is also the added bonus that for 4 months of the year, she is almost completely naked.

A Silver Birch Grove in Powsin's Park Kultury.

(Top: A line of 20 silver birches in the Kashubian town of Swarzewo between Puck and Wladyslowowo)


Aleja Brzozowa (Alley of Birches) in the allotment gardens at the southern end of Pole Mokotowskie.

Despite having lived in this area for almost three years and wandered it through and through, I discovered this sanctuary only a few weeks ago secreted in between the Russian Cemetery Park and Pole Mokotowskie.

The allotments (Ogrodki dzialkowe) of Warsaw have a long and colourful history, and are one of the city’s more redeeming features. Almost 5% (1,700 hectares) of Warsaw's city surface is given over to allotments. The first ‘dzialki’ were set up before the war when the Polish Socialist Party put forwards an initiative to form ‘special workers’ oases of peace’. Where the likes of London gradually lost hers to property developers (inner city London was covered with them following WWII) Warsaw has retained hers most emphatically, governed by an allotment cooperative to protect and conserve them.

The district of Mokotow is particularly blessed with these green areas which teem with all manner of life be it animal, vegetable or mineral. During the Communist era, and as part of a remit to have people ‘grow their own’, most of the ‘dzialki’ were allocated to professional groups such as teachers, railway workers or miners. An allotment ‘parcel’ was a symbol of a certain status. More importantly, it was a gurantee of a regular food supply since buying certain foods at stores was not always possible. In effect, it was a form of collective and responsible living which is still vigorously continued to this day.

Sadly, most allotment gardens are closed to the public. However, there are certain gardens which have public throughways like this one. Personally, I have never found it a problem to gain entry to these places. With a little patience and a well-aimed smile (and some very bad Polish), you can be surprised at what you can gain access to!