Za Żelazną Bramą (Behind the Iron Gate)

In her documentary film, Heidrun Holzfeind portrays a central Warsaw city district that was once considered a showcase neighborhood of Polish communist architecture. The nineteen, fifteen-story tower blocks of the residential complex Za Żelazną Bramą were built from 1965 to 1972 for a total of 25,000 residents. However, time has long overtaken the former modernism of the tower blocks. A resident explains that the apartments were popular for their central location, comforts, and the extraordinary view enjoyed by those on the upper floors. Some of these benefits have meanwhile been diminished through recent brisk building activity, which has seen the construction of even higher buildings all around them. Holzfeind tracks down such paths through history by tracing the heritage of functionalist architecture and its current role within Warsaw´s social fabric. In doing so, a diverse group of residents are given a voice, mediating the spectrum of the residential development´s population structure in an anonymous, journalistic, investigative style. Several interviews provide evidence of a differentiated ethnographic perspective: some present residents are critical of current living conditions while others, on the contrary, recall the luxury that a new apartment with a kitchen presented in a war-ravished, post-war Poland. The artist visits the residents in their private environments or speaks with them in the forecourts of the complex.
Za Żelazną Bramą was built on the ruins of the former ghetto. There is even a synagogue located between the buildings, which is one of the reasons that several Jewish families have moved back again in recent years. But the documentary also focuses on other current migratory movements, for example, Vietnamese youth are asked about their experiences in the buildings, where the majority of the residents are Polish.
The film thus lets emerge a picture of everyday reality in today´s Poland that is not necessarily a socially-aware one, in that residents´ racist and anti-Semitic slurs are documented as is the brazen confrontation of a young rapper with a world war veteran.

(Patricia Grzonka)

Translation: Lisa Rosenblatt

In her documentary, Heidrun Holzfeind portrays the Za Zelazna Brama residential complex in central Warsaw. Built on the ruins of the former ghetto, this was once considered the epitome of communist architecture, a luxurious and desirable place to live. The artist interviews various inhabitants of the apartment block, either in their homes or on the building’s forecourt. She herself remains anonymous and does not interrupt the narration, making her more a journalist than an artist. In the spatial confinement meet isolation and proximity, lack of prospects and future and frustration and contentment. Throughout the years, the exterior architecture has not changed, but the inhabitants have organized themselves into their own social community and have fitted out the apartments according to their own needs. Holzfeind draws a comprehensive picture of the inhabitants’ everyday life as a community in this residential complex that seems itself to be a small town, trying to assert itself against Warsaw’s new skyscrapers: all the residents see their future in Za Zelazna Brama where, for some people, a balcony is the only thing that seems to be missing.

(Annette Block)

The film portrays everyday life in the communist era housing estate built 1965–1972 in the very center of Warsaw on the ruins of the so-called “small Jewish ghetto”. The estate consists of 19 blocks, each 16 floors high, based on modern rational principles. In the 1970ies the housing estate was considered a symbol of Polish socialist prosperity and technological progress. Today the blocks with their small apartments are regarded by many as substandard and an unpleasant reminder of the communist era. Of the 25.000 inhabitants many are students, pensioners or childless couples, but also a growing Vietnamese and Jewish community have settled there recently.

(Heidrund Holzfeind)

More Texts

Za Zelazna Brama

Za Zelazna Brama, Grzegorz Piatek

Just as it is hard to write a text about the Church without referring to the teachings of Jesus Christ, it is difficult to write about architecture of the last hundred years and overlook Le Corbusier. The true significance of his views - strengthened effectively by cultivating his own image and by the zeal of his associates, students and believers spread all over the world - divides the history of construction into “before” and “after” Le Corbusier (just as before and after Christ).

Popular compendiums regarding 20th century architecture often ignore that which cannot somehow be related to the thoughts of Corbu, and marginal matters such as Socrealism or Nazi architecture hold interest primarily as schisms. Similarly, it is impossible to escape from Le Corbusier in this instance. Zelazna Brama (The Iron Gate) seems (almost) like a dream fulfilled for the high priest of modernity. The task put before the participants of the 1961 competition – designing from scratch 69 hectares in the centre of Warsaw – was like a modernist’s wet dream: a tabula rasa onto which the template of a more modern, better life could be placed with a sense of superiority ignoring the layout of former streets and the scale of the old houses. The cover of the brochure The Defence of Warsaw, published in New York during the war, depicts a collage by Teresa Zarnowerowna showing terrified faces, mostly of young people, their eyes gazing at approaching bombers. Colonnades, crashing to the ground can be seen in the background. The old world was collapsing but people in Warsaw, despite the devastation inflicted on their lives by the war, were already making plans for a great new world. Szymon Syrkus who led the Architectural Urban Workshop (PAU), established in Zoliborz in 1940 wrote, “Designing is not the aim of PAU – it is only a means leading to the ultimate aim, which is construction. Construction, not only in the common sense of the word meaning to raise specific new buildings, but the planned construction for a new material and spiritual environment, the construction of new economic, social, demographic and physiographic conditions .” Commenting on their plans for the northern districts of Warsaw, Halina and Zbigniew Skibniewscy wrote, “We take a consciously negative approach to the existing buildings, even though some of them surely could survive for a considerable amount of time .” Most of them probably did not survive. In two waves, in 1943 and 1944, destruction/cleansing came. Thanks to this, at the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945, Maciej Nowcki was able to re-draw the city centre, west of Marsza?kowska Street, as a loose cluster of quite high buildings surrounded by greenery and have faith in the fulfilment of this vision, in the transformation of the organically expanding city into a “boundless Cartesian space ”. The plan for the estate Za Zelazna Brama (Behind The Iron Gate) was a utopia with a chance of fulfilment – nineteen 16-storey residential units surrounded by greenery, orientated according to the points of the compass, following the everlasting sun rather than the discredited past.

Similar concepts were drawn up by Le Corbusier for Paris between 1922 and 1929, but he could not even dream of them being realised. In his “Plan Voisin” he proposed to bulldoze a portion of the Haussmann section of the city (still relatively new at the time) and replace it with a fleet of apartment blocks surrounded by an ocean of greenery. Above: viaducts for cars, below: parks and promenades. Between the blocks and trees, like antique trinkets in a modern apartment: a few surviving historical buildings. Modernists did not avoid such combinations – a Hutsul stove and a folk tapestry in Brukalskis’ functionalistic house is no coincidence. Likewise, some things escaped the architectural surgeon’s lancet in Za ?elazn? Bram?: the barracks, Mirowskie market, the synagogue, the former Lubomiskich palace, St. Charles‘ Church on Chlodna Street and the tenement houses at Grzybowski Square.

Le Corbusier named his most famous architectural vision Ville Radieuse – a city that is radiant, luminous, joyous. However, the Za Zelazna Brama housing estate lost its radiance and turned into a place more to be associated with the gloomy reality of the cold war era. 1961-1972, from the outcome of the competition to the final realisation of the project, was the decade in which modernism passed away. In post-war Europe, the well-intentioned Athens Charter became, in the hands of technocrats, a tool for the soulless production of space. At stake, also in Warsaw, was the necessity to quickly satisfy the hunger for housing in ruined cities and the need to provide a roof over the heads of the vast numbers of those who migrated from villages into cities. Elsewhere, the needs of immigrants had to be taken into consideration as well as (in France, for instance) ex-patriots returning from the colonies (with 1960 being the symbolic year of the end of colonialism, the so called Year of Africa). Le Corbusier’s ideals under the pressures of efficiency were becoming distorted, turning into their own caricature. Opposition towards modernistic town planning was beginning to form. Jane Jacobs published a merciless pamphlet entitled “The Death and Life of American Cities.” Also in Poland the alliance that was formed after the Thaw of 1956 between architects and the authorities, was beginning to crumble. The expanse of Polish housing estates had less and less in common with the modernistic ethos of the housing environment – both designed and realised coherently. The absurd cuts in materials and space and the lack of access to advanced technologies turned architecture into an extension of soulless bureaucracy. The joyous dance on the ruins of old houses (a sight that must have quickened the heartbeats of true modernists) - performed by Bogus?aw Kobiela while watching the construction of the blocks at Zelazna Brama, in the comedy Czlowiek z M-3/The Man from M-3 (1969) - does not express happiness caused by the creation of a great new world, but rather joy at the prospect of acquiring any apartment whatsoever. In accordance with the technocratic scheme, the apartment blocks were built first at Za Zelazna Brama. The infrastructural centre of the district, however, which was planned along Marchlewskiego Street (currently Jana Paw?a II Avenue), remained forever on paper. In consecutive versions of the project, the standard of the apartments was trimmed according to the increasingly acute requirements. Even the authors of a Warsaw guide book, published in Communist Poland, could not refrain from the comment that “the estate has the substantial error of windowless kitchens in almost 90 percent of the apartments .” The greenery, which was to compensate for the tightness of the apartments and create a framework for social life, needed time to grow.
Jerzy Czyz, Jan Furman and Andrzej Skopinski who designed this and several other Warsaw housing estates, represent the tragic generation of Polish architects who were educated by the old bearers of the modernistic ethos for the purpose of fulfilling their vision, but instead became witnesses to the disrepute and collapse of those ideas. Criticism of this new town planning, justified in many instances, began before the plaster even set at Za Zelazna Brama.

The triumphant march of postmodernism in Communist Poland was slowed down by central planning, which firmly clung on to standardization and categorization. However, as early as 1986, during the 6th Warsaw Architectural Confrontations, over a dozen teams from countries in the Eastern Block and Scandinavia pondered the issue of how to cure the fabric of Zelazna Brama. Increasing the density of the built-up area was usually the solution, introducing new shops, hotels, office buildings, reconstructing the pre-war layout and scale of the area. Head of the jury, Jerzy Szczepanik-Dzikowski wrote, “Nevertheless, the city must be reborn! Public rejection of the “Zelazna Brama” estate regards not only the standard of the apartments and the residential environment. The public rejection also points out there is a gap that needs to be filled in the city, (…) somewhere in the subconscious there is a longing for history. For Warsaw as it used to be .” The trinkets – mercifully retained by the architects in between the blocks, like a Trojan horse of history arousing nostalgia for “returning to the city” – strengthened the myth of beautiful pre-war Warsaw.
It is not surprising that designers of the estate now appearing in Heidrun Holzfeind’s film are distanced in their regard for their work. But is that right? Zelazna Brama, which still functions in public consciousness as a symbol of the crimes committed on the city by communists and modernists, is now a completely different place. We see in the film how the modernistic template is filled in with new substance, and the quality of life offered by it is not that bad after all.

Liberal capitalism that breathed new life into the old structure turned out to be a double agent. The free market sale of land resulted in the building up of the spaces between the blocks. In many places, the new lines of development run where the participants of the Architectural Confrontations, from the Communist times, wanted them to be. The invasion of developers distorted the composition of the estate, but at the same time connected it with the rest of the city centre and raised its functional diversity. Office buildings, hotels and restaurants appeared next to blocks, schools and local shops. All this caused Zelazna Brama to become a place, maybe not as quiet as before, but definitely more interesting to live in. Also, the sales of real estate in micro-scale and demographic transformation led to a limited, gradual social metamorphosis of the estate. Instead of families that were cramped into 50 square metres, there are now couples or single pensioners.
A new group of young people appeared – students and young professionals (or non-professionals) who are happy to rent the tiny apartments because of their central location. In the film, Edyta Herbus represents this group – a dancer who, as readers of gossip websites know, came from Kielce a few years ago to storm the capital’s showbiz scene. She also represents the expansion of one-person households and the phenomenon of big-city singles. The opening up of Poland and Warsaw to the world is exemplified by the numerous Vietnamese inhabitants of Zelazna Brama, and also Jews who settle there due to the proximity of the synagogue. One can say that, as an effect of these changes, the spaces designed 40 years ago have found appropriate inhabitants.

When questioned by Heidrun Holzfeind, the inhabitants mention greenery as one of the assets of Zelazna Brama. The greenery, which used to be a frail promise fouled by dogs, now tightly fills in the space between the blocks - space that has still not been devoured by developers.
“A battle of giants?” – Corbu asked rhetorically in “Plan Voisin” – “No! The magic of trees and parks restores human scale.” Haste and coffee in paper cups rule along the main streets but Mirowski Park still belongs to the natives and the passage of time is slower there. Children frolic in playgrounds and old ladies, sitting on benches, lecture to one another about medicine and politics.
Rem Koolhaas sharply compared Le Corbusier – who ineffectively searched all over the world for acceptance for his ideas among mayors, dictators and businessmen – to the Prince who travelled with a slipper in search of Cinderella. Maybe Le Corbusier’s Cinderella, scorned by her nasty stepsisters (their names: Radisson, Westin and Mercure) lives in Warsaw, in Za Zelazna Brama?

Grzegorz Piatek, 2009

A Portrait of an Estate

A Portrait of an Estate, Gabriela Switek

In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and with it the existing political and economic system. In countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain socialistic architecture remained, estates made up of huge blocks, now referred to as “unwanted heritage.” The Warsaw Za Zelazna Brama estate is an example. It was designed for 25,000 inhabitants in 1961 by Jan Furman, Jerzy Czyz, Jerzy Jozefowicz and Andrzej Skopinski (constructed: 1965-1972). Nineteen massive blocks are situated in equal distances from each other, perpendicularly to the Saska Axis laid out during the reign of King August II the Strong. The name of the estate refers to the Zelazna Brama Square and the non-existent gate that once was the western entrance to the Saski Garden. Neither the lay-out of the estate, nor its name, indicate directly that the settlement was the last urban project of the post-war reconstruction scheme on the grounds of the former ghetto.

In the early seventies the estate was a symbol of socialistic prosperity, social promotion and technological progress. It well matched the Polish road to socialism under Chairman Gomulka. In 1971 the Polish Film Chronicle immortalized the moment of moving into Za Zelazna Brama. The estate also served as a backdrop in Polish feature films such as Andrzej Wajda’s Hunting Flies (1969) and Stanislaw Bareja’s cult comedy Man – Woman Wanted (1971). Since 1989, the Za Zelazna Brama estate has been one of the busiest building sites, attracting western investors and has gradually been transformed into a Warsaw Manhattan. Planners have been observing a “spontaneous expansion of a business centre” west of Jana Paw?a II Avenue. Apart from office buildings, premises of insurance companies and exclusive hotels, enclaves of luxurious housing are being constructed. However, the days of glory of the blocks of communist Poland era are over. The buildings hardly ever undergo thorough revitalization and playgrounds have been taken over by estate car parks. However real estate agents still see good business in the sale of the low, cramped apartments with windowless kitchens and French windows instead of balconies. For them the Za Zelazna Brama Estate is like a Warsaw “China Town” due to a vast population of Vietnamese that resides there.

“The size and sameness of the estates have become their greatest faults – identical stairwells, identical corridors leading to hundreds of identical apartments fill the anonymous ‘ant-houses.’” The architect Andrzej Basista noted that the Polish tower block estates had led to “triple anonymity: estates in a city, buildings in estates and apartments in buildings. […] the space with which the tenants identify themselves ends at the doors of their apartments, they are however aware that they have no influence on what everything beyond their doors looks like” (Architecture. Why it is what it is, Krakow 2000). It is no coincidence that tower block estates have become the object of sociological research. From September to December 2009 a survey regarding day-to-day relations between neighbors was carried out. The project entitled We and Our Neighbors was initiated by the Centre for Migration Studies of the Warsaw University.

Heidrun Holzfeind’s film Za Zelazna Brama/Behind The Iron Gate (2009) falls into the artist’s interest in the history of modernistic architecture, typically blocks and tower block estates and social relations that are determined by the place of residence. The film Corviale, il serpentone (2001) is Holzfeind’s similar project. It is the story of a one kilometer long apartment block on the outskirts of Rome, housing 9,500 people, designed in 1972 and completed in 1983. Breaking the anonymity of the Za Zelazna Brama estate, the artist carried out conversations with the tenants who tell the story of their residence on the estate, she interviews caretakers, kiosk proprietors, porters, members of residents’ committees and ladies who clean the corridors in the blocks. Heidrun adopted the attitude not of an artist-ethnographer or sociologist, but rather that of an observer of daily life. She does not impose a ready-made set of questions or scientific methodology on her interlocutors. “Do you like these blocks”? – she asks some boys at a playground. “They’re ok” - says one boy. “I feel like in a cage; the apartments are small” – says another. The older residents of the estate reminisce that the apartments were the “luxury of their youth,” at one time the most expensive apartments in Warsaw, “palaces” in comparison with apartments in which people lived straight after the war. “I need nothing more, apart from a balcony” – says a lady who lives on her own.

A kiosk proprietor reminds us that many famous actors and intellectuals used to live on the estate. Nota bene - the kiosk and the main hall are the substitute for public space in the Za Zelazna Brama blocks – the only place where inhabitants get to know one another. The tenants often do not know their neighbors but instead the porter knows everyone: “one old lady brings me tripe soup and dumplings, I feel at home here.” Many tenants complain however that their block is a monstrosity, hotel, dormitory, that no one knows anyone, that the rooms are small and hard to arrange and that when it is hot outside, cooking in the windowless kitchens is a nightmare. One of the tenants points out that it is hard to bring up children here because the limited space causes aggression. Seeing the estate cannot be knocked down, maybe at least families with children could be prohibited and an estate for singles could be created.

From the outer world of panoramic views of the estate, the playgrounds, car parks, halls and corridors, Heidrun Holzfeind leads us into the interiors, uncovering the diversity of the private apartments that in an amazing way is in contrast to the uniform exteriors of the blocks. An elderly couple shows us around an interior that resembles a XIX century drawing-room or a museum chamber – portraits of Polish leaders hang among a huge collection of historical weaponry. As the owners put it the home was arranged to have “a Polish atmosphere.” A young couple talks about the thorough reconstruction their apartment underwent to receive a universal, minimalistic style. A boy from a Vietnamese family shows us his room and Vietnamese teenage girls talk about a neighbor who lacks a friendly attitude towards them. We also view an apartment of a Jewish family that stresses that it is convenient to live 15 minutes away from the Nozyki Synagogue (at 6 Twarda Street, built in the years 1898-1902 and renovated 1977-1983). We learn that many people come here in search of Isaak Bashevis Singer’s Krochmalna Street, only “that Krochmalna Street is gone.” A representative of the Jewish community praises the tranquility and calm of the estate and when asked about the remembrance associated with the place, he says that "the scar is there but you must not scratch because then it hurts.” Heidrun Holzfeind presents the estate through the stories told by its inhabitants and employees. She couples the panorama of the monumental tower block complex with the interiors that reflect the characters of the people living in them, she creates a collective portrait of a non-homogeneous community, the daily life of which is defined by the monotony of the blocks.

A home is not only the place we experience in the practice of everyday life or where we want to feel at ease and safe. A home is also the place that forms our desires and views, family and social ties. One of the aims adopted by architects of modernistic estates – although now this seems far from reality – was providing a safe and dignified shelter. Heidrun Holzfeind’s film Za Zelazna Brama raises however a new question regarding inhabitance: can one feel at home in a post-socialistic architectural environment defined by unfamiliar buildings.

Dr. Gabriela Switek

Abgetragene Wohnungen, obszöne Prozessionen

Der Filmtitel ist auch Name einer städtebaulichen Wohnutopie: Behind the Iron Gate besteht aus nicht weniger als 19 Wohnblocks, die nach dem Ende des Zweiten Weltkriegs im Zentrum von Warschau errichtet wurden - auf dem Areal, wo sich einmal das "Kleine Ghetto" befunden hat. Die kommunistische Variante einer Le Corbusierschen Cité radieuse hatte eine exklusive Note, obgleich Balkone nur angedeutet blieben.
Die Filmemacherin Heidrun Holzfeind schaut in ihrem knapp einstündigen Dokumentarfilm nach, wie es heute um das Projekt bestellt ist. Sie ist weniger an der Architektur per se interessiert als daran, welchen Gebrauch Menschen aus ihr machen - eine Wohnanlage dieser Größe ist auch Miniaturmodell einer Gesellschaft. Schnell wird deutlich, wie sich Altes an Neuem reibt: Vietnamesen und Juden seien hinzugezogen, raunzen Langzeitmieter. Tatsächlich schätzen Juden den historischen Ort aufgrund der Nähe zu einer Synagoge.
Ins Schwärmen geraten dennoch die wenigsten. Die Jugendlichen hängen wie überall in den Parkanlagen zwischen den Häusern ab - in den Wohnungen ist viel zu wenig Platz. Holzfeind sucht einige davon auf, und die Unterschiede sind verblüffend - sosehr die Anlage äußerlich das Gemeinsame betont, so sehr scheint sie innen in vielerlei Identitäten zu zerfallen: Von einer Tapetenoase über die neospießige Mittelschichtsidylle bis zum Waffenmuseum ist hier alles möglich.

Dominik Kamalzadeh, In: DER STANDARD, vom 15. März 2010
Orig. Title
Za Zelazna Brama (Behind the Iron Gate)
Austria, Poland, USA
55 min
Orig. Language
Heidrun Holzfeind
Concept & Realization
Heidrun Holzfeind
Heidrun Holzfeind
Heidrun Holzfeind
Pijani Powietrzem, Zelazna Brama, Aphonia, Cluster
Heidrun Holzfeind, Radek Chrzescianski
Editing Assistant
David Gray
Ika Sienkiewicz-Nowacka, CCA/Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, airlab
Patrycia Stefanek, Magda Grabowska
Magda Grabowska, Patrycia Stefanek
Supported by
bm:ukk, Austrian Cultural Forum Warsaw, Trust for Mutual Understanding, City of Warsaw
Available Formats
Digital File (prores, h264) (Distribution Copy)
Blu-ray (Distribution Copy)
Aspect Ratio
Sound Format
Color Format
Festivals (Selection)
Graz - Diagonale, Festival des österreichischen Films
Milano International Film Festival
Bonn Videonale
Linz - Crossing Europe Film Festival