Emerging from the entrance hall of Warszawa Centralna, Warsaw’s central train station, the first thing anyone sees is the Palace of Culture and Science. The 237 metre tall building towers above the surrounding Defilad Square, dominating the skyline. Its façade, a light coloured limestone, stands out against the multitude of glass, commercial skyscrapers that surround it. The shiny, corporate towers were built in a flurry following the collapse of communism, yet the palace – a permanent reminder of Poland’s communist past – towers above them all, remaining to this day Poland’s tallest building.
Originally known as the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science, it is, appropriately, Stalinist in style. It was Stalin himself who had ordered its construction, putting the Russian architect L. W. Rudniew in charge of its design. It was to be ‘a gift’ from the Soviet Union to the Polish people. The Soviets were deeply unpopular in Poland, given the 1939 invasion and the war crimes that had taken place during the occupation. Stalin was aware of this, but he needed Poland as a puppet state to serve as a buffer between the Soviet Union and Germany. It was not an apology, nor was it an admission of guilt, just ‘a gift’.
It was not just the Soviets who were unpopular in Poland, but the Germans too. Much of Warsaw still lay in utter ruins, having been deliberately and wantonly destroyed by the Nazis as they retreated back westwards during the later stages of the war (see uprising). Many people were suspicious of the need for such a large, dominant tower when so much of Warsaw was still uninhabitable rubble. Nevertheless, construction on the palace began in 1952.
3,500 Russian construction workers arrived in Warsaw especially to start on the the palace. The design had been finalised by Rudniew, and it was clear that the Palace of Culture and Science would, in style, be much like the Moscow State University, one of Moscow’s Seven Sisters and a building also designed by Rudniew. That said, the soviet design philosophy at the time was: socialist in content, but national in form. Rudniew had therefore toured the Poland, studying the country’s architectural heritage, and incorporated elements of it into the design of the palace.
The building took three years to construct, and by the time it opened in 1955 Stalin had died and an effort of de-stalinization had begun. Nikita Khrushchev regarded Stalin’s legacy as toxic, and much was done to remove Stalin’s name from streets and buildings. The Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science became simply the Palace of Culture and Science. But, regardless of its official name, it would always be known to Varsovians as the Russian Wedding Cake.
During the communist period the building was used as meeting place for the Polish Communist Party, as well as a venue to host official state guests. The Shah of Iran, Ho Chi Minh the leader of Vietnam, and Kim Il-sung the leader of North Korea all stayed at the palace.
Following the collapse of communism, there were many calls for the palace to be demolished, such was its connection to the recent, oppressive past. How could something of such scale, and something so representative of Soviet domination remain the central building in Poland’s capital city? In the end, though, the palace was retained and instead converted to a more varied use. Today it houses three theatres, eight cinemas, a museum and a conference space. The upper floors are used as office space for large, private companies, something which would have been anathema to Stalin, the man whose name the building once bore.