Communist Architecture and Early Christianity





The second leg of your flight gets cancelled in a country where you can’t read or speak the language.

You have $24 (in US currency) with you.

You have no cell phone data plan, nor other way to immediately contact your group that’s waiting on you.  

It’s your first time out of the United States, and you’re alone.  What do you do?  Go.

I found out that my flight from Warsaw to Frankfurt was cancelled after waiting at the gate for almost four hours.  Warsaw was supposed to be relatively short layover, but a storm in Frankfurt cancelled all incoming and outgoing flights for the remainder of the day.  One of my friends, who had come on the same flight from Chicago to Warsaw with me, was lucky and had taken an outgoing flight two hours earlier.

The airline arranged a hotel stay for all of the delayed passengers in downtown Warsaw, including vouchers for the taxi to and from the hotel to the airport.  My rescheduled flight to Frankfurt was for noon the following day, with a forty minute layover in Vienna.

Warsaw was, in retrospect, a very fortunate opportunity to see the impact that the second world’s communist sphere of influence continues to have on a country in the twenty-first century.  The city is interspersed with two main architectural styles. One is “old-world style” eighteenth and nineteenth century European mannerist architecture, and the other is lovingly referred to as in the art and architectural history community as a form of “Puritt-Igoe.”  Puritt-Igoe was an apartment housing complex in the United States constructed during the 1950s that was heralded around the world for its structural simplicity — mostly symmetrical concrete structures with a perfectly even placement of rooms and windows.

These buildings grew up in groups and clusters (called “housing complexes”), like a mushroom fungus feeding on the dead pavement underneath. Very soon, that complex became the model for other “modern living” apartment buildings in the United States and began to develop somewhat independently in other parts of the world.  These building complexes, however, were considered ugly by the new post-postmodern children of the baby-boomers, and they quickly became a symbol for poverty and economic despair.

In the communist’s sphere of influence, this type of housing was constructed en masse quickly, cheaply, and poorly.  By the 1970s, most of these buildings had fallen into disrepair and was starting to collapse. (The original Puritt-Igoe complex was completely demolished with explosives during the mid-70s.)  

Today, the skyline in Warsaw mirrors its history under Soviet control through architecture that remains from that period.  Coming from the United States, it is incredibly powerful to see a city where the surrounding architecture recalls a history of conflict and oppression.  I was told by one Polish native I met that the city of Warsaw was so thoroughly destroyed during the Second World War that even the old, European mannerist style architecture is a facade — that is, it’s built to resemble the old-world period, but was in fact all constructed after 1945.

View of downtown Warsaw from my hotel.

The city of Mainz, Germany (just a few kilometers outside Frankfurt), while it is a “modern” German city, still has deep ties to a tradition much different than that of Warsaw.  Mainz bore witness to the rise of the Christian Church during its early centuries — it was a city that grew up near the seat of what would eventually become the Holy Roman Empire — and the architecture that tradition produces is absolutely stunning!  I was visiting a church built there on a hill during the 14th or 15th century, and I noticed while walking around the courtyard an unearthed, empty sarcophagus. Interestingly, the top of the lid bore a cross — indicating an evolution from the earlier symbols as the Christian faith became more powerful and political.

Fourteenth Century       Christian Sarcophagus.


Stained glass windows crafted by Marc Chagall

In churches and cathedrals all around that city were remarkable features — stained glass windows crafted by Chagall inside a reconstructed cathedral, a tromp-l’oeil painting on the ceiling of a Baroque/Rococo style small church.  But by far the most interesting experience I had with architecture and space was inside the main cathedral in the center of the town. It was a dark, hodgepodge collection of sculptures commemorating various archbishops.

But the feeling I got inside was slightly uncomfortable and almost oppressive.  That was due, partly I think, to the high windows around gray walls, but it served as a good reminder of what the congregation of medieval Mainz would have felt walking into Mass on Sunday morning.  The medium of that cathedral, just like the medium of the Puritt-Igoe style architecture in Warsaw, both send messages about the history of the political, social, and historical environment that led to their construction.  I am beginning to learn how to read those messages, and the effect is invigorating.