Heaven’s Gate Heaven’s Gate

The concrete sprawl that is the Żelazna Brama (Iron Gate ) housing estate has detractors aplenty, but there’s a deeper story behind the carbuncles…

By Stuart Dowell

Anyone who has ever looked for a cheap flat to rent in the centre of Warsaw, gone shopping in and around Hala Mirowska or just gazed curiously at a map and wondered about the alphabet-soup of names printed on it will no doubt have heard of Żelazna Brama (the Iron Gate) and its grammatical cousin Za Żelazną Bramą (Behind the Iron Gate). But what was this gate and what was behind it?

The original Iron Gate was simply the western gate to the Saxon Gardens, opened in 1727 and one of the first parks in the world to be open to the public. The gate separated the park from the area behind it, which became known as za Żelazną Bramą or behind the Iron Gate. The iron entrance way, taken down in 1818, stood on what is today the patch of grass in the middle of Marszałkowska between the Saxon Gardens and Plac Żelaznej Bramy.

The area behind the Iron Gate has always been a major market and in the past it offered Varsovians who were prepared to tolerate the noise, filth, vermin and squalor a wide range of goods at prices cheaper than elsewhere in the city. The market area took on a form that is more recognisable to people today in 1901 when the two Hala Mirowska market halls were opened, and this process was completed when the Lubomirski Palace was spun by 74 degrees in 1970 in a pioneering feat of engineering to close off Plac Żelaznej Bramy to the west and separate the square from the market area.

The square has little going on around it and few visitors, although those who do make the short walk from the earthy pleasures of Hala Mirowska can spend a solitary moment with the towering statue of Tadeusz Kościuszko, a copy of the one in Washington.

The Żelazna Brama epitaph is probably most often associated with the walloping housing estate of nineteen 15-storey high rise blocks built in 1965-72 over 63-hectares known as Osiedle Za Żelazną Bramą. In the 1960s, people throughout the world were announcing the death of Corbusier-inspired Modernism. Poland, though, had yet to grow out of short trousers. The estate was a bold attempt on a vast scale to mould the socialist man through his environment, something made possible by the wartime devastation of the German-created Small Ghetto. However, the best ideas of the architects, such as roof-top gardens and cafes, as well as shops for residents filling the first two storeys, were thwarted by communist planners, who even objected to kitchens having windows.

Hated, adored, but never ignored. This marmite housing estate is undergoing reassessment. With the rapid pace of construction that has taken place since the transformation, the estate has been sucked into the centre and has lost a lot of its character. On the other hand, it answers the needs of many groups of inhabitants, who want affordable accommodation near colleges, office centres, nightlife and the city’s many other attractions.

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