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.
"People were starved through the communist period of detail and color," said Lidia Polubiec, an art historian and local resident trying to protect the neighborhood. "Often they don't understand the value of simplicity."
Polubiec has witnessed residents throwing away decades-old oak doors and beautiful brass door handles that are in bad shape, replacing them with cheap modern fixtures rather than trying to salvage the old ones. She is also fighting a wave of homes being repainted in "fruit- and yogurt-colored pinks, buttery yellows, greens — colors totally unsuited to the area and style of the buildings."
Barbara Jezierska, a conservation official in the Warsaw region until last year, says the devastation of historic homes is happening across the city and beyond.
She has witnessed wealthy Poles buying historic homes in older neighborhoods and then tearing them down to build larger modern homes. Sometimes homes burn down mysteriously after owners are denied permission to alter historically protected structures — leaving them then free to proceed.
"Hitler began ruining this city, then Stalin took over and now the Poles are doing it," Jezierska said bitterly.
Lesniakowska said part of the problem, aside from a general lack of respect for "refined" architecture, is that although Saska Kepa has been designated a historic district, not all individual buildings are protected.
Warsaw's modernist homes are a testament to a Jewish world that was wiped out during the Holocaust. Many of the original owners and their architects were Jewish. One, Maksymilian Goldberg, designed several family homes in Saska Kepa before he perished in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Another, Lucjan Korngold, fled early enough and ended up in Brazil, where he designed buildings in Sao Paolo.
"By destroying Saska Kepa, the developers are also destroying a part of Poland's Jewish history," said Katarzyna Shannon, 44, a resident and a co-founder of Zielona Saska Kepa. She walks her dog regularly along its streets, keeping her eye out for signs of construction work — vigilance that has helped stop the transformation of a couple of homes.
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