Dan Cruickshank is a writer, art historian, architectural consultant and broadcaster who’s made numerous history and culture programmes for the BBC including Around the World in Eighty Treasures; Under Fire: Culture and Conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq; The Country House Revealed, and Warsaw: Resurrecting History.
In London on February 16th, he descended on Ognisko Polskie’s majestic halls with obvious pleasure and trademark enthusiasm for the screening of his BBC documentary Resurrecting History: Warsaw. ‘I’ve just come back from a screening at the Uprising Museum in Warsaw. It was really well received!’ he said, beaming and flourishing the machine-gun key-ring they’d given him as a souvenir.
Nicholas Kelsey, Ognisko’s director, introduced him to an already admiring audience, pointing out that, as art historian and BBC presenter, Cruickshank clearly has a special love of architecture. An Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, he was also editor on both the Architects’ Journal and The Architectural Review, and visiting Professor of the subject at the University of Sheffield. On top of these roles, he’s President of Subterranea Britannica, a society devoted to the study of underground places, and his Georgian house in Spitalfields was first inhabited in 1727 – said Kelsey – by ‘a man of some wealth and some taste’. Cruickshank took his cue: ‘That’s me!’ We all laughed, and the tape started rolling.
When Dan Cruickshank returns to his childhood home of Warsaw, he paints a rousing picture of a city reborn from utter devastation. On 1st September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland – kicking off World War Two – Hitler pledged to eliminate Warsaw, and almost did.
17 years later, when journalist Gordon Cruickshank went to Warsaw with communist newspaper The London Daily Worker, his seven-year-old son Dan found himself behind the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War. He still returns to Warsaw, he says, in his imagination and remembers ‘a smoking ruin from the war, a city still mourning the dead’.
Black and white re-enactments of 1950s Warsaw, where a Polish boy plays a small Cruickshank, pepper the film just enough for us too to be transported in bursts to ‘the recesses of [his] mind’.
Cruickshank explores the notion of rebuilding a city as curative: how reconstructing Warsaw signified moving on and forgetting, a cathartic rising from the ashes. Yet, his ‘laser-sharp memories’ from childhood also remind us that we never forget: a biting truth which makes Warsaw’s destruction and ‘resurrection’ all the more affecting.
One memory stands out: the biggest bomb site of all on the Cruickshanks’ street, where the castle had stood before the Germans blew it up. A panorama shows the castle today, rebuilt after what Cruickshank romantically describes as ‘one of the most heroic stories in the city of heroes’. Curators and architects had risked their lives carrying off any bits of rubble from the castle, even entire doors. These fragments were all reused in the reconstruction, the remainder recreated from old photographs and paintings.
Pictures show the extent of the operation: the whole city set to work. A woman called Irena was a small girl at the time and tells us what a joy it was to help her mother dig each Sunday: ‘People sung and were happy,’ she says. ‘We waited all week as though we were about to go to a theme park.’
It isn’t hard to imagine the young Cruickshank as he bounds up the stairs to his old flat. Looking out onto the market square, he produces sketches done as a boy from the same window-sill. The ‘charming details’ and ‘exotic colours’ of Warsaw awakened his passion for architecture: ‘It’s as though the city was built for children!’
Cruickshank’s passion is clear. ‘When I see scaffolding my spirits soar,’ he says, clambering up a ladder in his hard hat to show us the detail on the baroque buildings in Warsaw’s old town. ‘Look at the soft undulating sensuous surface, lovely to touch.’
Cruickshank’s Warsaw is a joy and a tragedy. He shows us round with the lively enthusiasm of a young boy and the erudition of a historian. Warsaw, he says, should be taken as a symbol of hope – history once again being under attack from modern extremism – with ‘a revived confidence in the future expressed through new architecture’. ‘Is it possible to bring back the dead?’ Cruickshank asks. ‘Yes,’ he declares, ‘with commitment, determination and love.’
Dan Cruickshank’s Warsaw: Resurrecting History was screened as part of the ongoing programme of events at South Kensington’s Ognisko Polskie. Please click on logo below for further details.