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Top view of the old city in Warsaw.
© fotorince / Shutterstock

Historic Centre of Warsaw, Poland

Poland
During the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, more than 85% of Warsaw's historic centre was destroyed by Nazi troops. After the war, a five-year reconstruction campaign by its citizens resulted in today's meticulous restoration of the Old Town, with its churches, palaces and market-place. It is an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.

Warsaw was deliberately annihilated in 1944 as a repression of the Polish resistance to the Nazi German occupation. The capital city was reduced to ruins with the intention of obliterating the centuries-old tradition of Polish statehood. The rebuilding of the historic city, 85% of which was destroyed, was the result of the determination of the inhabitants and the support of the whole nation. The reconstruction of the Old Town in its historic urban and architectural form was the manifestation of the care and attention taken to assure the survival of one of the most important testimonials of Polish culture. The city was rebuilt as a symbol of elective authority and tolerance, where the first democratic European constitution, the Constitution of 3 May 1791, was adopted. The reconstruction included the holistic recreation of the urban plan, together with the Old Town Market, townhouses, the circuit of the city walls, the Royal Castle, and important religious buildings.

The reconstruction of Warsaw’s historic centre was a major contribution to the changes in the doctrines related to urbanisation and conservation of cities in most of the European countries after the destructions of World War II. Simultaneously, this example illustrates the effectiveness of conservation activities in the second half of the 20th century, which permitted the integral reconstruction of the complex urban ensemble.

The reconstruction of the Old Town was a coherent and consistently implemented project devised at the Warsaw Reconstruction Office in the years 1945-1951. The reconstruction project utilised any extant, undamaged structures built between the 14th and 18th centuries, together with the late-medieval network of streets, squares, and the main market square, as well as the circuit of city walls. Two guiding principles were followed: firstly, to use reliable archival documents where available, and secondly, to aim at recreating the historic city’s late 18th-century appearance. The latter was dictated by the availability of detailed iconographic and documentary historical records from that period. Additionally, conservation inventories compiled before 1939 and after 1944 were used, along with the scientific knowledge and expertise of art historians, architects, and conservators. The Archive of the Warsaw Reconstruction Office, housing documentation of both the post-war damage and the reconstruction projects, was inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2011.

The rebuilding of the Old Town continued until the mid-1960s. The entire process was completed with the reconstruction of the Royal Castle (opened to visitors in 1984). The reconstruction of individual buildings and their surroundings, in the adopted format of residential housing, featuring public functions dedicated to culture and science, as well as services, carried with it numerous challenges posed by the need to adapt to the social norms and demands of the time. In order to accentuate the defensive walls and the city panorama as viewed from the Vistula, the reconstruction of some buildings was deliberately foregone. The urban layout was retained, along with the division of the street frontages into historic building plots; however, the properties within these quarters were not rebuilt, thus creating communal open areas for residents. The interior layout of buildings and residential flats was revised to meet the standards in force at the time. However, both historical room plans and interior designs were recreated in many of the buildings intended for public use. A highly regarded feature was the decoration of exterior elevations carried out by a team of renowned artists, who drew in part on designs from the interwar period. Polychrome decoration was executed using traditional techniques, including sgraffito. In spite of the adaptations and the changes introduced, the site, along with the city panorama as seen from the Vistula (which has become a symbol of Warsaw), presents a cohesive picture of the oldest part of the city.

Combining extant features with those parts of the Old Town reconstructed as a result of the conservation programme led to the creation of an urban space unique in terms of its material dimension (the form of the oldest part of the city), its functional dimension (as a residential quarter and venue for important historical, social, and spiritual events), and its symbolic dimension (an invincible city).

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Historic Centre of Warsaw, Poland