Poland has long been prey contested by powerful neighbors. The division of its territory between Prussia, Austria and Russia at the end of the eighteenth century was a major collective trauma. When the country regained its independence in 1918, the Second Polish Republic sought to erase these humiliating memories. Here architecture served as a tool to reaffirm national identity, inscribing also Warsaw in twentieth century modernity. Then, the Nazi occupation brought heavy destruction to the old city center. Insurgencies led by ghetto Jews and the Polish resistance infuriated Hitler, who was already eager to wipe the hated Polish capital off the map. Then the new communist regime had an ambiguous attitude towards Warsaw. On the one hand, Party dignitaries agreed to the reconstruction of most of the historical monuments – to satisfy the people will. On the other hand, they wanted to build facilities symbolizing their power under the Marxist banner.
Among all these historical upheavals, one architect stood out for his ability to respond with as much efficiency as talent to the changing context: Bohdan Pniewski (1897-1965). From the outset he had proved his commitment as a citizen: interrupting his studies, he took part in the battles of the Soviet-Polish conflict in 1920. His bravery earned him the Cross of Valor and the favor of the military circles surrounding Marshal Pilsudski. Thus he was commissioned during the 1930s to remodel the Brühl Palace to make it the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The architect retained most of this beautiful testimony of the city's Baroque past, adding internal fittings and a residential wing in an Art Deco style in its Polish variant. The palace was destroyed by the Nazis in 1944 – and never rebuilt.
After 1945, the Communists were ambivalent about Pniewski: firstly they mocked him as a court architect in the late republic, undermining his teaching career. However, they also understood how the architect great professional capacities would be useful to them, so they filled him with commissions. All strategic, intended to impose on the urban landscape strong markers of their authority.
This began in 1949 with the abstract volumes of the Ministry of Communications. A high tower, a low wing, and between the two an entrance rotunda. This shelters a suspended staircase turning along the walls: its visual lightness attests to the technical and formal brilliance of its creator. On the floor, a star mosaic gives almost a religious dimension to this sanctuary of modern efficiency. If Pniewski was freely inspired by the stripped volumes of Polish Romanesque churches, his daring use of concrete connects him to the technological modernity of his time. His colleague Marek Leykam (1908-1983) used a similar step in 1952, in the equally impressive concrete dome of the seat of government administration.
This alliance between discrete historical evocations and energetic structural affirmation was continued in 1952 in the Senate extension. Here Pniewski kept the original assembly hall – designed by his own teacher, Kazimierz Skorewicz (1866-1950), in a modernized classicism during the interwar years – adding a hall and several office wings. This hall functions as a theatrical space of circulation, the staircase connecting the access and the hemicycle upper gallery. Device derived from that of the Palace of Versailles Ambassadors' Staircase... A rather tasty monarchical reference, satisfying the Stalinized senators appetite for representation! However, no doubt not fooled by the Communist leaders maneuvers, Pniewski slipped in some critical allusions. The handrails of the lobby staircase feature two supple snakes: implying the potential poisonous viscosity of the political milieu? Aside from these various double meanings, the architect was careful not to let himself be imprisoned by the building institutional role and sink into heavy academic decorum. On the contrary, joining a contemporary genealogy, this hall recalls Auguste Perret’s (1874-1954) work at the Parisian Theater of the Champs-Elysées – already balancing classicism and formal modernization in 1913.
The other grand staircase of the Senate extended these French winks, mixing the spatial arrangement of the disturbing double-spiral staircase of the Château de Chambord with the delicacy of the helical staircase of the Villa Farnese in Caprarola. By this way Pniewski's real European culture succeeded in assimilating the sources between France and Italy, endowing Poland with a new infrastructure capturing prestigious precedents not without finesse. This vertiginous stairwell, with a powerful ascending helical effect, is distinguished by the structural slenderness of its rotating concrete ramp. Technically daring and visually delicate, this achievement aroused the admiration of the Warsaw Polytechnic students, for whom their teacher deserved the flattering nickname of Prince of Architects!
Pniewski also took part in two competitions for the reconstruction of essential monuments, in 1952 for the Opera, and in 1954 for the Royal castle. He won the first. His clever project kept the neoclassical facade of the old theater and added equipment of a much larger volume behind. He paid particular attention to the reception areas, with a majestic grand staircase using lavish materials in profusion. Marble and granite combine with bronzes and aluminum, juxtaposing classic reminiscences with modern elements. The whole thing achieves a fragile balance between ostentatious splendor and refined elegance. His perfectionism prompted the architect to even take care of the functional spaces, which also have finely designed staircases. The Teatr Wielki is therefore not just a musical temple built to satisfy the rulers pride; everywhere the building affirms the unspoiled energy of Polish culture.
As for the castle, while reconstructing the vanished monument main lines, he was planning some major modifications. Pniewski envisioned the addition of corner towers, with external straight stairs leading to the upper floor. The Roman Capitol as remodeled by Michelangelo is the obvious model for this project. By this way he would have linked the emblem of Polish royalty with an illustrious pontifical reference from the Renaissance. These steps animating the facade would have continued in the internal spaces: the left side wing would have been gutted, to accommodate a solemn double staircase suspended from the columns of a rotunda. Staircase very close to that of the Ministry of Communications, whose designer visibly wanted to reiterate the technical and aesthetic feat with even more majesty.
However, this selection of projects remained a masquerade engineered by the regime, to make people believe in the imminent restoration of the castle. In truth, the Communists preferred not to reconstruct this monument, symbolizing too much of the country's monarchical past ... Other leading builders hesitated between faithful restoration and architectural metamorphosis. Some even seem to have sensed the duplicity of the operation. For example, former students of Pniewski, Barbara and Stanislaw Brukalski (1899-1980 and 1894-1967 respectively) sent an astonishing design adding a colossal tower inspired by the Giralda in Seville! Finally, thanks to political changes, the Castle of Discord was rebuilt in the 1970s. Trompe-l'œil winner of the first competition – and Pniewski's unhappy competitor for the new Teatr Wielki – Jan Boguslawski (1910-1982) opted for a synthetic restitution of the site as it existed in the eighteenth century.
The prolific Pniewski built a number of other institutional buildings, some completed and modified after his death, including the new National Bank. Here he attempted a third way between Stalinist historicism and national modernity. Growing aesthetic coercions forced him to do an almost mannerist design, with octagonal turrets crowning the planned stairs. Choice dependent on Italian baroque domes, already tested in the Senate. All this between assumed quotation and compromise with the oppressive climate of a country under Stalinist influence ... One of his latest creations, the Archives Center, succeeds better in imposing pure geometric volumes and efficient staircases – where formal abstraction finds more harmony.
In fact, Pniewski belonged to this category of creators who were making their way despite a paradoxical position. Acclaimed under the republic, contested by the Communists, favored or marginalized, attentive to current affairs or facing pressure, he nevertheless remained faithful to his own architectural choices. While he always served power, he was never a servile courtier. Precarious balance, between Charybdis and Scylla. In all his works the architect imagined virtuoso staircases, often on similar spatial devices, visibly seeking to refine a series of closely related creative ideas.
Here is even seemingly obsessive, almost the stone and concrete equivalent of the French expression l’esprit de l’escalier, "the spirit of the staircase". In other words: to continue a dialogue initiated earlier, searching new and more imaginative cues. Probably this is the deep essence of architectural work: digging into existing or personal designs, to ultimately give them a perfect reinvented form. Approach of which the Pniewski steps would be the quintessence.