Waliców Project • Spolia

Form and transformation: a Memorial of the present between former Warsaw Ghetto's ruins


The project environment • Fundamentals


The European city has a kind of sad primacy of the origin of forced separation between ethnic and religious groups, although they represent the same components that have contributed to the very identity of Europe as an inherently multicultural archipelago.

In its problematic extension, the spatial principle that polarizes the ghetto institution has been declined in a variety of occasions over the time, as a sequence of fences imposed to defend privileges and racial or national identity supposed to separate community and linguistic groups.


The 'tradition of the ghetto' as a spatial fact has today the disturbing characters of a specific urban phenomenon, which is further expanding in the form of enclaves inside the body of the European city, affecting deeply its identity and its future on the very meaning of our living space,  like a sum of impenetrable enclosures, marked by a deep social and ethnic gap, no longer limited to the grainy physical fragmentation of the suburbs.

The contemporary history of the so-called 'divided city' -Belfast, Beirut, Berlin, Jerusalem, Mostar and Nicosia- constituting the most radical and extreme version, along with the recent uprisings of the Parisian banlieues and the riots in the suburbs of London, is the closer declination to the 'tradition of the ghetto' characterized by violence, socio-cultural barriers and physical segregation.

So the theme of the ghetto is central in the current debates on the present of our cities, making it urgent to understand the social conflicts phenomena, increasingly spatially developed. Every great city is in the balance between the possibilities of integration and the uncritical acceptance  of a separate co-existence of its ethnic and social components, highlighting the need for action before tensions and conflicts make it inevitable new fences, divisions and forms of apartheid. So it's necessary to act also through the architectural project, anticipating the possible tipping points. But how?

The 'tradition of the ghetto' constantly re-edited in the history of modern Europe, precisely represents the field of study for a critical recognition of the phenomenon, the urgency of which seems not to be sensed not only by administrators but also by architects and planners of our cities.


The design theme • Foundations


Tracing the dramatic story of the urban division in the development of European cities, from its first medieval appearance until today, the case of the Warsaw Ghetto, established by the Nazis between 1940 and 1943 -year of its final settlement together with other 35 cases in Poland-  is a matrix for a review of the urban divisions that mark our present, a structured phenomenon on the basis of defensive ideologies to justify racism.

The Warsaw Ghetto is a very special case, because it generated a special form of vital response, both in terms of a specific cultural production, and through an uprising carried out by young civilians.

The cultural importance of this event as an introduction to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 organized by the Polish resistance, resulted -as known- in the almost total destruction of the city by the Nazis, building by building, with the annihilation of its population, its human, historical, cultural, architectural, urban and artistic heritage.


Despite the Nazi destruction, the subsequent cancellations made during the reconstruction of Warsaw by the communist regime after the war, and the demolitions carried out in recent years as a result of the incessant development of the contemporary city, the last vestiges of the old Ghetto survive. These testimonies of an entire culture and of the resistance to  annihilation are now in danger, as they permanently risk to be removed from the city and from the European collective consciousness as well, because of the rapid urban transformations triggered by aggressive and forgetful construction activity. These places are heritage for humanity; they represent a testimony, a warning and at the same time an extraordinary building material for a future of dialogue and civil consciousness, a value to be protected and regenerated by a careful museum project, both architectural and urban, before it is too late.

Some areas of the former Ghetto eloquently communicate the sense of time, the size of the Memory, the documentary power of History. Among them, a particularly significant case-study is represented by the southern block of ulica Waliców, inhabited by intellectuals during the occupation and a scene of battles whose signs are still visible. In the southwest corner of the old Ghetto, together with the former factory that was the western border of the enclosure, a fragment of a block of tenements buildings with inner courtyards that characterized the whole area of expansion of the city until 1943 partially resists. Of the four original buildings, only three survive, two in a severely degraded condition, yet still inhabited, and one reduced in ruin. They have retained their original appearance, representing with a specific and dramatic eloquence their status of "findings" of an archaeology of the modern age.

The northern part of the block, razed to the ground -even though the basements of the historical buildings probably still exist- it is an open area, used as a car parking.


The design principle is based on the idea of a Transformative Urban Architecture, able to propose contents through the visibility and usability of the Ghetto ruins. This special urban "micro-history", from the conservation of the three surviving buildings as 'findings', immediately establishes a form of self-museum display. The abandoned building can be made partially penetrable with a system of exhibition paths, also raised from the ground through a supporting structure. It is also assumed that the open area could be excavated in order to bring to light the traces of the foundations of the demolished buildings to constitute a sort of 'archaeological' field, able to enact new forms of relationship between history and the present.

More in detail, the project also endows this part of the block of a Memorial and Documentation Center, in which to collect the clues to reconstruct the story of this part of the so-called 'Small Ghetto', alongside a 'Laboratory of the Present'.

The project of the new building, together with the re-activation of the existing ones and the landscape design, aims to shape an equipped museum system, extended to the adjoining blocks, able to reveal the traces of history and enhance their civil, memorialistic, cultural and ethical meaning.

The workshop is in its second edition. The results of the activities developed during the past Academic Year are documented on the official website of the Politecnico di Milano.

The site will be implemented during the semester to document the work in progress.