You Light Up My Life!

26 Sep 2017

Stop for a moment and think about your perceptions of Poland during the communist years - the so called “PRL” era. Chances are your mind will conjure up visions of bleak and colourless concrete heavy cityscapes with miserable old grannies and drunks trudging through the mud and snow pulling trolleys laden with potatoes and toilet paper behind them. That vision may be partly true, however, hold your horses now, the reality was actually brighter and more exciting than our history teachers and the western media led us to believe.

After the death of Stalin in 1953 Poland's authorities were well aware of the opportunity to break free from the shackles of the Socialist Realist urban vision and a less restrictive and artistically creative period for architects, designers and city planners ensued.

One of the more interesting state endorsed projects of the time was to encourage the installation of neon signage. Although the popularity of neons in Poland continued into the 1970's the high point lasted from the late 1950's to the mid 1960's, with the programme employing 1000's of people in the designing, production, installation and maintenance of these "liquid fire" signs. Almost every application from state-run companies, cinemas, restaurants, cafes and theatres was quickly rubber-stamped, signed and given the go-ahead. Warsaw saw the installation of the most neons in the country but was closely followed by Katowice, as the state wished to emphasise the economic success of its industrial heartland.

First shown at the Paris Motor Show in 1910, neon lighting rapidly became the medium for advertising. Soon after, cities like Paris, Berlin and New York were ablaze with colour by night, the signs were seen as symbols of modernity, progress, energy and the cultural high-life. Even today, it would be hard to imagine a sight which says more about financial success and a happy-go-lucky approach to leisure time than a photo of Las Vegas at night.

One important cultural difference is the fact that in Poland the signs were, more often than not, designed by some of the country's top artists and graphic designers who were drafted in to add contemporary and creative flair to the projects.

In Warsaw, the neons certainly brightened up the city, but in reality they also served as a convenient veneer, covering over the fact that behind the modernist façades and bright lights, the shelves of shops were regularly empty or that the glamorously advertised restaurants and cafes could rarely sell you a beer or a bite to eat.

As the country drifted into the economic despair of the 1970's the last thing on people's minds was fancy energy wasting advertising, proclaiming non-existent lifestyles and goods. The lights started going out and due to the lack of maintenance and general apathy the neons were quickly forgotten about. The collapse of communism and the hatred of anything to do with that era saw many important architectural buildings torn down and neons tossed into the dustbin of history, or simply left to fall into further states of disrepair and neglect.

Today's interest in all things retro and the burgeoning contemporary arts scene in Warsaw means that the importance and preservation of the city's neons has become a matter of urgency and necessity. A new generation of Varsovians see these iconic works as part of a cultural legacy and a unique part of the city's heritage, rather than simply a by-product of a much despised totalitarian system.


Connect via social media
Leave a comment using your email This e-mail address is not valid
Please enter your name*

Please share your location

Enter your message*
Take your guide with you Download a pdf or order a printed issue Browse our collection of guides
Put our app in your pocket
City Essentials

Download our new City Essentials app

download 4.5