Friday 31 July 2009

Return of the Red Menace: More Communist-Era Relics

Last week I began counting down the the top ten communist relics I've visited in my travels through Central and Eastern Europe, complete with images (and bonus silly captions!).

We're up to the really big structures now. Who will come in at number one? Let the gender-bending drug-enhanced socialist games commence!

5. New Bridge, Bratislava, Slovakia. When Czechoslovakia's communist regime decided the Slovak capital needed a new bridge across the Danube in the 1970s, they didn't stop at mere functionality. "No," they said, "Let's build a bridge - and place a huge observation platform on an angled steel pylon above it, and make it look like a flying saucer!" And so it came to pass, an awkwardly located observation bubble immediately nicknamed 'UFO on a stick'. Nowadays it's been renovated and transformed into a restaurant and nightclub 85 metres above the Danube.

The Politburo had finally found the perfect place to hold their secret Coca-Cola tasting sessions.

4. Nowa Huta, Kraków, Poland. In the 1950s, Poland's new communist government came up with a bright idea to counter the traditional religious and intellectual elites of the former royal capital, Kraków. They would build a vast new steelworks next to the city, and a huge town to house the workers. But not just any workers' town, oh no, this would be a workers' paradise!

The finest socialist realist architects were called in, huge quanitites of concrete were ordered, and Nowa Huta (New Steelworks) was born. Today, it's missing the statue of Lenin that was the charming centrepiece of its main square, but Nowa Huta is well worth the tram ride from central Kraków for its razor-sharp streets, its enormous grey public buildings, and its sprawling residential blocks. Despite new monuments and steeet signs referencing John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Solidarity, it's a corner of Poland that will be forever 1954.

Janek wondered when socialist realist concrete structures would score a sexy treatment in Wallpaper* magazine.

3. Warszawa Centralna, Warsaw, Poland. Opened in 1975, Warsaw's main train station (see video here) was emblematic of the dynamic future of socialist transport. It even - so I’ve read - had hostesses in slick modernist outfits assisting visitors through the new rail hub. From outside, the station seems to squat like a gigantic metallic insect, suggesting a spaceship of insectoid invaders who will soon swarm out to wreak havoc.

Curiously, it's not approachable directly from the street, but only via a completely disorientating labyrinth of claustrophobic pedestrian tunnels crammed with shops and ticket offices. Hardly anyone actually reaches the lofty main hall above, and the hostesses are, unfortunately, long gone.

The secret police had discovered how to dissuade people from fleeing Poland by train.

2. Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava, Slovakia. Let's face it, communist regimes only had two aesthetic settings - 'bland' or 'weird'. The Slovak Radio HQ, completed in 1983, is a gigantic, rust-coloured, inverted pyramid just outside the city's attractive Old Town, and falls firmly into the latter category.

For the thousandth time, Pavel wondered wherever the blueprints really had been drawn the right way up.

1. Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, Poland. Yes, we have a winner! For its sheer enormity and visual scariness, this immense socialist realist structure is the one to beat. When I first came to Warsaw I couldn’t keep my eyes off it, so totally did it dominate the skyline. Even now, with added clock faces, and capitalist-era tall buildings as company on the skyline, it’s enthralling.

The Palac Kultur i Nauki was a gift from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the 1950s - the kind of gift you can’t politely refuse. It was built across an entire block of the city centre, which had been devastated in WWII. It's an immense skyscraper 237 metres tall (still one of Europe’s ten tallest buildings), and completely inconsistent with the city’s low-rise character. Strangely, the giant Renaissance-inspired concrete decorative flourishes added by Soviet architect Led Rudnev help not a jot in diminishing its inherent alienating vastness. But you know what? I love it. It terrifies me, but I love it.

Critics of the Palace's architectural merit were invited to discuss the matter in Room 101.

And a special mention... Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany. This square was at the heart of East Berlin, and was redecorated in the 1960s in a thoroughly socialist manner. As I haven't been there for 15 years I have no idea how it looks now, but here's a snap we took of its World Time Clock in 1994.

Günther was impressed by the DDR's advanced sundial technology.

And that's it for our communist relic countdown! Try to visit some of these if you can, and let me know what more you'd add to the list. If you'd like to email me an image of a Cold War gem and a few sentences about when you encountered it and what you thought of it, I'll feature it in a future posting!

Until then... keep striving to achieve the five year plan!


  1. I think, the most weird building in former Soviet bloc is georgian ministry of transport in Tbilisi -

  2. Great topic - I live in Bratislava and walk past the National Radio pyramid building every day. It's quite a lot nicer on the inside, with such a vast space soaring above you and sunlight coming in through the many windows on each level. Other buildings from the CEE region I'd nominate for the list include the post office building in Skopje, Macedonia (like something out of a sci-fi film), the ring of abandoned factories and steel mills surrounding Corvin castle in Hunedoara, Romania (and the fantastic socialist-realist murals in the train station there), and the amazingly ugly socialist shopping centre plonked down in the centre of the beautiful medieval square in Jihlava, Czech Republic.


    Geoff Brown

  3. Thanks jasvat and Wildroo. I get a lot of mileage out of amazing communist-era leftovers, as far as writing travel articles goes - check out this piece from November 2009:

  4. One good addition to your list would have been "Gruto Parkas" nearby town of Druskininkai, Lithuania. The park houses vast amount of statues portraying former Soviet leaders collected from all over the baltics.

  5. I live in Warsaw and pass everyday by the Palace of Culture and by Warszawa Centralan (Train Station). The Station has nothing to defend itself with. It is ugly, poorly kept and quite simply a FUBAR situation. There are talks of demolishing it to build a proper one, but its all talk, no act. Regarding the Palace of Culture, I just love it. Being hated by some (mostly the elderly who still remember the pearls of the Soviet times) and liked by many (mostly the young) it is unarguably the main Landmark of Warsaw, a city that by itself lacks many such monuments. Maybe cos I grew up in the west and harbour no particular grudge against communism, I find such relics rather charming.

  6. I don't know Adrian, I think Warszawa Centralna still has potential to be redeemed. Those labyrinthine corridors beneath it are quite horrible, but the main hall (which hardly anyone ever goes up into) is big and airy. I'd like to see it kept, but renovated and improved.

  7. Memento park just outside Budapest is a bizarre collection of Soviet statues and icons, from all over Hungary after the collapse of the USSR. It's one freaky theme park.