- Associated Press - Thursday, June 7, 2012

WARSAW, POLAND (AP) - The National Stadium in Poland, built for the 2012 European Championship, rises in the shape of a wicker basket over one of Warsaw’s most popular neighborhoods: Saska Kepa, an enclave of towering trees and architectural gems dating back to the 1920s.

To some, the colossal stadium _ with a retractable fiberglass roof and a shimmery red-and-white facade in the colors of the national flag _ is a source of pride, a symbol of a capitalist surge that has remade the country since it threw off communism in 1989.

To others, the 58,000-seat arena is an eyesore and the latest affront to a unique neighborhood already threatened by a rising class of entrepreneurs and developers. Proof, if any more was needed, of how breakneck economic growth can jeopardize a vulnerable architectural heritage.

“It’s like a big giant UFO that landed nearby,” complains Marcin Eckert, a 40-year-old tax lawyer whose view at breakfast is now dominated by the stadium. Says his wife, Dorota Jurkiewicz-Eckert: “We feel we have been squashed by an elephant.”

Any change to historic areas in Warsaw provokes strong emotions because of how little survived World War II. Saska Kepa, an exclusive area before the war that was home to doctors and lawyers and other upper middle-class professionals, has the unique distinction of being the city’s only prestigious neighborhood to survive in its entirety.

But it’s been under attack ever since.

During communism, several unsightly apartment blocks went up across the neighborhood, built by people who “did not understand the meaning and beauty of the place,” said Marta Lesniakowska, a historian of architecture with the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Capitalism hasn’t been kind either. A spectacular modernist villa built in 1929 was torn down to widen a road. A square, Plac Przymierza, disappeared under a complex of apartments and shops that dwarf surrounding homes. Now developers are busy dismantling or radically restructuring prewar homes to build much larger structures _ changes that erode their historic look and swallow up leafy plots that long gave the area a distinctive garden city feel.

“This is not the Saska Kepa of my childhood,” says Jurkiewicz-Eckert, a 40-year-old art historian. She and her husband are members of a group trying to preserve the neighborhood, Zielona Saska Kepa _ meaning Green Saska Kepa. “We are on the way to losing the old-fashioned atmosphere of the place. And it’s because of the greed of the developers.”

Saska Kepa _ where maple, ash and linden trees give shade to prewar homes and trendy restaurants _ has the unusual distinction of surviving the war in its entirety because of its location on the eastern bank of the Vistula River, where Soviet troops sat idly during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the occupying German forces. Polish insurgents hoped for the support of the Red Army, which by that time had made it to Warsaw in its westward push that defeated Hitler. But Soviet leader Joseph Stalin preferred to let the Germans destroy the city and its people, knowing they would have also become a democratic opposition to Moscow’s postwar domination.

Hitler’s forces, in retribution for the revolt, razed most of the city to the ground. During the decades of Soviet control that followed, the capital was rebuilt in a gray and heavy Stalinist style that is still predominant. Over the past two decades the city has been transformed again by glass-skinned skyscrapers.

Despite its architectural decline, Saska Kepa boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the city of 1.7 million people. The city center is only a couple of tram stops away across the river, yet a small-town residential stillness reigns over its smaller streets, quiet but for the sound of birds and dogs, the air in spring fragrant with lilacs.

Streets are lined with embassies and family homes, some built in the style of classical Polish manor houses and others in the modernist Bauhaus style pioneered by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. It is one that is simple, boxy and restrained but for the odd bit of whimsy: a curved outdoor staircase here, circular submarine-style windows there.

Elsewhere the style is celebrated: in Germany, where it arose in 1919; in Tel Aviv, where Jews who fled Europe in the 1930s made their architectural mark; in the Czech city of Brno, where the recently renovated Villa Tugendhat of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is an iconic example of modernism. The villa and Tel Aviv’s modernist buildings have been declared world heritage sites by UNESCO.

Yet the simple modernist style of usually white or gray homes isn’t always valued in Poland. Sometimes their understated beauty doesn’t come through because they are rundown, their owners unable to afford restoration work. It also doesn’t help that the modernist buildings have an architectural austerity that reminds some of the also simple but bleaker style favored by the communists.

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