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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » May 27, 2011
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Triggering a Hunger for Culture
May 27, 2011   
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Five Polish cities vying for the title of European Capital of Culture 2016 are anxiously waiting for the winner to be announced on June 21 by an international panel.

In their applications, four of the short-listed applicants—Gdańsk, Lublin, Katowice, and Wrocław—have justifiably cited their historical treasures as assets to exploit if they win. By contrast, Warsaw, most of whose cultural monuments were destroyed during World War II, is basing its bid on the present—and the future.

“Warsaw: New Energy for Europe,” is the prevailing theme of the capital, which May 12 was the first to file its final application with the Culture Ministry. Gdańsk, Lublin and Wrocław followed on May 13, and Katowice on May 16. “We want to trigger a hunger for culture in Warsaw, and a hunger for Warsaw in Europe,” the application reads.

Spectacular opening
To back one of its goals—bridging the physical and cultural divide between the right and left banks of the Vistula River as it slices through the city—Warsaw launched a spectacular opening May 7 of Europe’s biggest multimedia “fountain park” where the river flows past the Old Town to promote the theme “Vistula: A River That Connects.” Despite a steady rain, thousands of people walked or biked to the area—and thousands more drivers crawled by helplessly, creating one of the biggest gridlocks on the Wisłostrada expressway in years—to watch a three-hour display that included water jets shooting illuminated water 25 meters into the air and laser and film projections. Other independent but coordinated projects to attract residents to the riverside include more benches, a new bicycle trail and the planting of fruit trees.

More cash for arts
It some ways, the bid mirrors the excitement of the early Solidarity period. On May 14, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Culture Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski and Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz signed an agreement with the 100,000-strong Obywatele Kultury social initiative to designate at least 1 percent of the money in the national budget for culture, an increase from 0.36 percent. It was described as the first such social agreement between the government and its citizens since the 1980s.

More than 40 prominent Polish artists, ranging from such luminaries as film director Agnieszka Holland and actress Krystyna Janda to the punk-rock band Pustki, have signed on as “honorary ambassadors” and are participating in Wednesday-night discussions to promote Warsaw’s candidacy.

The key to Warsaw’s ambitious bid for a prestigious title that it says would help it transform the city through culture is Defilad Square, the largest city square in Europe (24,000 square meters), which tracks the capital’s recent history. It once hosted precisely-organized propaganda rallies and then, after the fall of communism, became a disorderly, bustling giant marketplace. It is dominated by the Stalin-era Palace of Culture and Science, but there are ambitious plans to revitalize the area around the huge edifice and reclaim the city center for its inhabitants. The linchpin will be a new, permanent home for the six-year-old Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Warsaw—now housed in temporary quarters nearby—directly in front of the formal controversial symbol of Soviet power.

The MoMA Warsaw design, by Swiss architect Christian Kerez, consists of a vast glass-walled ground floor and an upper floor of open space covered by a canopy roof. Estimated to cost zl.480 million, it will include a theater, two restaurants, a café, a bar—and 10 entrances to make it approachable day or night. The rest of the square will gradually be transformed by commercial and residential projects.

Some Warsaw residents worry the Defilad Square project may be edging away from its goal of revitalizing the city center. “We are a little concerned the streets will not be as functional and as alive as they are supposed to be,” says Witold Weszczak of M20, a nongovernmental organization. “We are afraid this area may be changed into a giant shopping mall, and won’t be functioning as a High Street.”

The museum project is essential because it reflects Poland’s emerging cultural transformation, says its deputy director, Marcel Andino Velez. “Polish history is full of traumas,” he said in an interview. “We find ourselves [acting as] a counterbalance that presents the world as it is today, without looking back into history.”

World-class acoustics
Warsaw’s second flagship project will be a major new cultural attraction on the city’s right bank: a 100-million-euro center for the Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra on the site of a former veterinary school in the Praga district. Designed by Austrian architect Thomas Pucher, it would include an 1,800-seat terraced “vineyard” concert hall with world-class acoustics, rehearsal halls, education and workshop facilities and a small hotel for artists in residence and music lovers on vacation. The project still needs final approval from city authorities, but its director, Janusz Marynowski, said, “If Warsaw wins the title, I cannot see how they would not build this concert hall. It would kick-start the cultural revolution.”

Patricia Koza
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