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Waliców Project • Spolia

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


























The scope of the project • Fundamentals

What is Memory in architecture for? How does it intervene in forms?

The European city holds a sort of primacy over the origin of the forced separation between ethnic groups and religions, which represent the same founding components of the very identity of Europe as an intrinsically multicultural archipelago.

In its problematic extension, the figure that polarizes this principle is the ghetto. Declined in many variations throughout European history, as a sequence of enclosures imposed to defend privileges and supposed racial identities, it separates community and linguistic groups.

The 'ghetto tradition' today assumes the disturbing features of a specific urban phenomenon, which is further expanding in the form of enclaves inside the body of the European city, deeply affecting the future identity and the meaning of our living space, more and more similar to a sum of impermeable enclosures, marked by a profound social and ethnic laceration, no longer limited to the grainy physical fragmentation of the suburbs.

The contemporary history of the so-called 'divided cities' - Belfast, Beirut, Berlin, Jerusalem, Mostar and Nicosia - constitutes a contemporary variation but also a form of radical extremism and, together with the recent revolts of the Parisian banlieues and riots in the London suburbs, represents for us the closest version of the 'ghetto tradition' characterized by violence and socio-cultural and physical barriers.

The theme of the ghetto as an urban form of institutionalization of difference is therefore of central relevance in the debate on the present of our cities. It's urgent to understand the development of the polarization phenomena of social conflicts, which are increasingly specialized on a spatial level. In fact, every large city is in the balance between the possibilities of integration and the uncritical and indifferent acceptance of a separate coexistence of its ethnic components, highlighting the need to intervene before tensions and conflicts make inevitable new fences, divisions and forms of urban apartheid. Therefore it's necessary to act also through the architectural project, anticipating the possible points of no return. But how?

It is precisely the 'tradition of the ghetto' as an urban practice of segregation, re-edited in modern history in particular during the Nazi occupation of Eastern European cities, to represent the field of study from which to start again in order to start an action of critical recognition of the phenomenon, the urgency of which seems to elude not only the administrators, but also the architects and planners of our cities.


The design theme • Foundations

Retracing the dramatic story of the urban division in the development of the European city, the case of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw established by the Nazis between 1940 and 1943 - the year of its definitive liquidation together with 35 other cases only in Poland - represents a basic matrix to reread the urban divisions that mark our present, as a phenomenon structured on the basis of defensive and chauvinistic ideologies to justify racism and segregation.

The Warsaw Ghetto represents a very special case, as a special form of vital response arose from this wounded city, both in terms of a specific cultural production and through a revolt carried out by young people.

The cultural importance of this event, an anticipation to the 1944 Warsaw uprising organized by the Polish resistance, as known, ended with the almost total destruction of the city by the Nazis, building by building; with the annihilation of its population, its human, multicultural, architectural, urban and artistic heritage.

But despite the Nazi destruction, the subsequent cancellations that took place during the reconstruction of Warsaw in the post-war period, and above all the demolitions carried out in recent years following the incessant development of contemporary Warsaw, the last fragments of the old Ghetto survive in the southern district of the city. These testimonies of an entire culture and resistance to annihilation are in danger today, as they risk to be definitively removed from the city and the European collective conscience, due to the rapid urban transformations triggered by aggressive and forgetful building activity. These places belongs to the world heritage as they represent a testimony, a warning and at the same time an extraordinary building material for a future of dialogue and civil coexistence aware of its past; a value to be protected and regenerated by a careful museum project, therefore architectural and urban, before it is too late.

Some areas of the southern district of Mirów polarize the sense of time, the size of the Memory, the documentary depth of the History of the former Warsaw Ghetto in an especially eloquent way. Among them, a particularly significant case study is represented by the southern block of  Waliców street, inhabited during the occupation by intellectuals and the theater of battles whose signs are still visible. In the southwest corner of the old Ghetto, together with the former factory that constituted a part of the western wall of the fence, there is still a partial survival of the internal courtyard rental buildings, which characterized the central area of the city until 1943. Three out of the four original buildings remain, two of which are by now uninhabited and in conditions of severe degradation and one, abandoned, reduced to the state of ruin. They have retained their original appearance, representing their status as "finds of an archeology of the contemporary era" with a specific and dramatic eloquence. The northern part of the block, razed to the ground even if the basements of the buildings are probably still existing, is a free area, partially privately owned.

The project is based on a physical and conceptual excavation in the foundations of the city, activating a form of "critical archeology" that strengthens the identity of the places of Memory and their deep meanings, suggesting an innovative museum structure: a "museum of the present" based on an ethical and responsible architecture, offering a transformative and proactive idea of innovative uses and meanings through the visibility and usability of the remains of the Ghetto. This special urban "micro-history", starting from the conservation of the three buildings still present as "spolia", immediately establishes a form of self-musealization.

The project experimentation proposed by the Thematic Studio is focused in particular on the application of the orientation document for the future public use of the site, represented by the "Preliminary Architectural Guidelines for the preservation and regeneration of the memorialistic site of Waliców street" introduced in March 2019 at the Polin Museum - one of the main cultural institutions of the city, former partner of the Waliców Project - as part of the seminar "Waliców: DNA of Warsaw - Europe's heritage" promoted on the basis of the projects carried out by the students of the AUIC School of the Milan Polytechnic in the fourth previous editions of the Waliców Project and its effects in the citizen debate on the future of the area. The process led to the assignment of a protection obligation by the Superintendency of Monuments of the Mazovia Region on the three surviving buildings.

The design program foresees for the ruined double court building 'Waliców 14' the institution of a Ghetto Memorial-Documentation Center which could include the central strip in common with the other two buildings. The Memorial building will be crossable with a system of paths and exhibition spaces.

It is also assumed that the spare area in the north of the first building is partly excavated in order to bring to light the traces of the buildings' foundations destroyed between 1943 and 44, to constitute a sort of "archaeological park", in order to activate a public space capable of establishing new forms of relationship between history and present.

The recovery of the two surviving single-court buildings 'Waliców 10' and 'Waliców 12' is also planned to reorganize the original housing structure with temporary residences, studios and ateliers for young researchers and artists.

Together with the reactivation of the existing buildings and the design of the open space, enhancing their civil significance and their memorial, cultural and ethical dimension, the project foresees the construction of a new building on the grounds of the fourth double courtyard block demolished after the war, to be used a multipurpose space (Ringelblum Archive, Specialized Library and a small auditorium) capable of regenerating the traces of history still present in the subsoil.

All this with the objective to make this site of historical and documentary value not just a museum of itself, but a vital place, a new center of collective activities for the preservation of Memory and for the production of culture and information, both locally and internationally, activated by the projects of young students for an ethical architecture, responsible for the past and present of the European city.

Tis is the fifth edition of the Thematic Laboratory. The results of the activities carried out during the last Academic Years, the exhibitions and seminars organized in Warsaw and Milan are documented on the official website of the Politecnico di Milano www.walicowproject.polimi.it

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