Relations with the constructors got off to a very bad start. They totally disregard the building regulations, they work all hours of the day and night and the police seem powerless or unwilling to prevent them. My neighbour, a senior foreign diplomat, lamented the fact that Poland hasn’t got any building regulations. I explained that it has, which surprised him. I wonder what else about Poland might surprise him. Of course, our builders don’t give a damn that their lawlessness is keeping the diplomat’s infant offspring awake and even endangering our lives. Yes, I mean endangering.
One afternoon I came home and went into my bedroom. The double glazed window which overlooks the building site was shattered. Something had hit it with great force. It looked like a bullet had been fired in the direction of my bed. A shot across the bows for the complaints I had made about the builders’ timekeeping? On further investigation I discovered that I was not alone. Somehow, someone had managed to smash other windows in the building.
I rang my landlord. He rang me back. I could rest assured. It was not an attempt to silence me. There was an easy explanation. The builders had been loading a lorry underneath my window. They had overloaded it and the tyres had exploded throwing stones and gravel thirty metres into the air.
You might have thought that someone from the building site would have come to check on the damage. But, these are not civil people and this is not a civil society.
Something good did come of this incident. A few days later a couple of glaziers came to replace the glass and repair the frame. I offered them a glass of M and S ginger ale which they appreciated. As they worked I put on a Rameau CD. One of the men who remarkably spoke passable English, said that he had never heard such marvelous music. What was it? I gave him the CD.
One idea was to move the house thirty metres forward. The communists did this with a 19th century “palac” in the centre. Having patched it up from its war damage they then decided it was facing the wrong way. To put it where they wanted it meant turning it on a 90 degree axis. Photographs testify to this enormous undertaking which required the excavation of the foundations, sticking the whole place on a platform and turning it. Hugely costly and, given that little remained of the original building, not the obvious option. It might have been better simply to demolish what was left and rebuild in the style. This, however, would have required forethought. In those days, manpower was cheap and cost was not the issue. Today, a fraction of the workforce is required to construct a steel framed building, the man power is neither available nor financially feasible. Thus, the architect came up with the idea of wrapping his new building around two sides of the old.
One morning I met my landlord looking out of the landing window. He oozed disapproval. “I would not have built there, you know?” And he should know. He is a developer.
The site is in the middle of Al.Szucha, the Whitehall of Warsaw. One flank faces the modern extension wing of the Foreign Ministry and across the road stands the Constitutional Court, which the new government has made a magnet for a few vociferous troopers for democracy who exercise their lungs mostly when I am trying to take my siesta. The Embassy to the Holy See shares a garden wall. A little further down is the Ministry of Education, with its memorial to the outrages perpetrated by the SS during their tenancy of the building. It is a faintly sinister assortment if you think about it.
That aside, the developer’s dollar-crested vision for the site is tempered by just one consideration and I hope the frustration of it keeps them as awake at night as much as their drilling and cement mixing do me. The site is not ideal for development. The old house sits bang in the middle which means that neither the land behind nor the space in front can be well utilised. Far better to demolish everything and start again, a thought which, no doubt, crossed their minds except they can’t. The house itself is not very interersting but since the Germans and the Russians and the Poles themselves have left so little of the original pre-War city centre, anything that has survived the war and the post war cleansing of the decadent post 1850 architecture is vigourously and rightly protected. A pity the same cannot be said for the better examples of social realism. The present city administration seems hell bent on eliminating this swathe of the architectural memory through neglect or the maligne enforcement of planning regulations. They’d pull down the Palace of Culture if they could, a fine building by any standards even if you don’t like the doctrine it embodies.