Monday, May 31, 2010

Poland’s flying universities

The Poles have had a particularly hard time of it the past couple of centuries. They have suffered much at the hands of foreigners. But in reading about their brave underground efforts to educate themselves and resist the efforts of their occupiers to rob them of their identity, I’ve come to admire them for their fighting spirit.

The flying universities were underground educational programmes begun by Polish scholars in the late 1800s to create greater educational opportunities and to resist the suppression of their culture. Meetings were small and were held in private homes and apartments. They were called “flying” universities because the meetings had to constantly be moved from one location to another in order to avoid detection by the authorities. The Polish term can also be translated as “floating universities”.

In the second half of the C18th the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned among its more powerful neighbours. The bulk of the territory – the eastern half – was taken over by the Russians. The Prussians controlled the portion to the northwest and the Austro-Hungarians took control of the southwest portion. It became increasingly difficult for Poles to receive a higher education. Educational institutions were germanised or russified according to the area; the language and culture of the Poles was suppressed, as were studies in Roman Catholicism.

The first flying university was begun in Warsaw in 1882/3 by women. The 1870s had seen an increase in the educational opportunities available to women. But women were still not allowed to enter into universities in the Prussian and Russian parts of Poland and so they began to organise their own courses. One of the most famous students of the flying university was Marie Sklodowska, who later became Marie Curie (to the right). Curie was the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes, which she was awarded for her work in physics and chemistry.

Men only joined the flying university from 1890. In 1890, the number of registered students was 1,000. Programmes involved humanities, natural and social sciences, mathematics and pedagogy. There were many highly renowned academics serving as lecturers and the standard of education was very high.

The flying university was, of course, an illegal venture. Not many primary sources therefore exist as most documents were destroyed or not even created in order to avoid detection by the authorities. Students’ fees did, however, make it possible to establish a secret library.

The university lasted until 1905. In 1905 greater liberty was afforded to Poland and the flying university became an official association of academic courses. In 1920 it became the Free Polish University.

Under Nazi occupation, however, which began in 1939, Poland’s universities were closed and Poles were kept from receiving any form of higher education. The Germans wanted the Polish people to be a subordinate, servant race, trained only in manual, certain technical and menial occupations. Polish efforts to provide higher education opportunities were once again forced underground.

Underground high schools were established, and these schools provided students for the underground universities. Underground publishing houses were set up to provide teaching materials and textbooks. The subjects taught by the flying universities were extensive, including law, the humanities, economics, biology, mathematics and medicine. Pope John Paul II was trained at an underground seminary.

Well over 100,000 people received some form of underground secondary or tertiary education during the war, and vastly more than that received a primary level education. Nowhere else in Europe did underground teaching educate as many people as it did in Poland.

Ninety percent of the underground activities were located in Warsaw, but teaching, learning and research also took place in other major cities. Little happened in Kraków as most of the professors there had been sent to concentration camps. In fact, everyone involved in underground education was risking deportation or death. Between 1939 and 1940 approximately 9,000 teachers and over 600 professors were murdered by the Nazis.

At the controversial Yalta Conference held by the Allied victors in the Crimea at the end of the war, it was agreed that the Soviet Union should be given control of Poland. It soon became clear, however, that Stalin was not going to allow free elections to take place in Poland, as he had promised. Poland became a satellite state of the Soviet Union; a communist regime was officially established there in 1949.

Churchill, Roosevelt & Stalin, February 1945.

The Communists ruled through a reign of terror, and little underground academic acitvity could take place. Official Polish universities were allowed to operate under the Communists, but the state-sanctioned syllabi were used as vehicles for communist propaganda. Members of the Communist Party were made directors of education so as to ensure that the various curricula were in keeping with the interests of the Soviet government.

Stalin died in 1953. By 1956 the political situation in Poland had eased up just enough to allow flying universities to begin operating again. Much focus was given to history and philosophy, subjects that had been heavily censored over the past decade.

The safety with which flying universities could meet fluctuated over the decades. Meetings were often stormed by the police, and students and lecturers alike were frequently beaten. Incredibly, the suppression of intellectual freedom in Poland lasted well into the 1980s. In 1981 martial law was imposed and the flying universities ceased. It was only in 1989, when peaceful elections finally brought democracy to Poland, that the need for flying universities was finally at an end.

Main sources:
- De Haan, F., Daskalova, K. and Loutfi, A. (2006). Biographical dictionary of women’s movements and feminisms in Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe: 19th and 20th centuries. Central European University Press.
- Genell, K. and Kostera, M (1996). The Flying University: institutional transformation in Poland, in Management Education in New Europe, M. Lee (ed.), 231-5.

- Partitions of Poland, by Halibutt. GNU Free Documentation License.
- Marie Curie. Public domain.
- Yalta Conference, February 1945. Public domain.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Empire State Building

One of the nicknames for New York State used to be Empire State. Hence we have the name Empire State Building.

The Empire State Building is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Its construction during the Depression years was a marvel of ingenuity and efficiency. In many ways it was ahead of its time and it remained the world’s tallest skyscraper for a staggering 42 years. We all recognise it. It is truly iconic. And since the World Trade Towers are no longer standing, it once again dominates New York’s skyline.

The site of the Empire State Building – at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street in Manhattan – used to be part of Native American territory before white settlers muscled them off the island. It was a pretty, untilled piece of land, with a stream running across it. In the late C18th the area became the John Thompson farm. It was in a rural area, with the city of New York developing to the south. Fighting between the Americans and British took place there during the War of Independence.

In 1893 the Waldorf Hotel (to the right), the predecessor of today’s Waldorf-Astoria, opened on the site. The Waldorf was the embodiment of class and elegance. It did away with the idea of a hotel being merely a resting place for people in transit. It popularised the habit of “dining out” and was the favourite meeting place of New York’s social elite, known as The Four Hundred.

In the early C20th there was an intense race in New York to build the world’s tallest building. When John Jakob Raskob, a former VP of General Motors, decided to build the Empire State Building, 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building were already under construction. Chrysler was keeping the height of his building a secret. Weber, the original rental manager for the Empire State Building, wrote:

"We thought we would be the tallest at 80 stories. Then the Chrysler went higher, so we lifted the Empire State to 85 stories, but only four feet higher than the Chrysler. Raskob was worried that Chrysler would pull a trick – like hiding a rod and then sticking it up at the last minute." *

So Raskob asked William Lamb, his designer, to design the tallest building that was possible without it falling down. It was to become the first building to have over 100 floors.

The entire building was constructed in just over 13 months, well ahead of schedule. And because America was in the throes of the Great Depression, labour fees could be kept low and the building came in millions of dollars under budget.

The workforce was 3,400 strong, and consisted mainly of European immigrants. Hundreds of Mohawk ironworkers were also employed as it was discovered that they are undaunted by heights and are just generally fearless. The men worked around the clock, including on Sundays and public holidays. A railway was built at the site to expedite matters. Plumbers and electricians began work on the interior before the exterior was complete.

Safety measures were almost non-existent. Many who have seen the famous photographs by Lewis Hine have marvelled over the absence of safety harnesses. Hine was himself swung out in a basket to obtain many of his photos. There were five recorded deaths during the construction of the building, though only one man died because he fell off the scaffolding (an impressive number, all things considered).

On completion, the Empire State Building was the tallest building by far, outdoing the Chrysler Building, which had held the title of tallest building for less than a year. It was ceremoniously opened on May 1, 1931 by President Hoover who, sitting in his office in Washington D.C., pressed a button that lit up the building.

The building was designed in the art deco style that was popular in the 1920s. It was modelled, in large part, on the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The staff of the Empire State Building sends the staff of the Winston-Salem a Father’s Day card every year as a way of honouring their architectural ancestor.

The scale of the building is astounding. The entire structure, including the antenna, is 443 metres. There are 102 floors, 69 elevators and 6,500 windows. The building even has its own zip code. Visitors to the Empire State Building can have a 360-degree view of the city from its observation deck on the 86th floor. There is a further, smaller observation deck on the 102nd floor.

The building’s spire was originally intended to be a mooring mast for dirigibles (airships). The 102nd floor was to be the landing platform. However, the powerful winds and updrafts made it impractical and even dangerous and the idea was soon abandoned.

The top of the Empire State Building was subsequently put to use to transmit almost all the city’s commercial TV and radio broadcasts. But in 1972 the World Trade Centre overtook the Empire State Building in height and interfered with transmissions from the latter. Much broadcasting was therefore moved to the Twin Towers, but after the terrorist attacks of 2001 the Empire State Building had to reorganise and is once again the main transmitter in NYC. The lightning rod at the top of the building is struck by lightning roughly 100 times a year.

The Empire State Building proved unprofitable for the first two decades. It was too far from the main transport links and so was unable to find enough tenants. It was dubbed the Empty State Building. Things only changed in 1951 when the building was sold to Roger Stevens for $51 million, then the largest sale in real estate history. Today roughly 21,000 people work in the Empire State Building on a daily basis, making it the most populated workspace after the Pentagon.

The building is a popular venue for the sport of tower running. The Empire State Building Run-Up is a foot race that has been held annually since 1978. The record time for running up all 1,576 steps to the 86th floor is 9 minutes and 33 seconds.

The Empire State Building has seen its share of tragedies. In 1947 a fence had to be erected around the observation terrace when 5 people attempted to commit suicide in a 3-week period. One lady who jumped off the 86th floor was blown back onto the 85th floor, incurring only a broken hip, which further illustrates how strong the winds near the top are. The most infamous suicide, however, was that of Evelyn McHale who, in 1947, jumped from the observation deck. She crushed a limousine below but landed in such a restful pose that she was called, paradoxically, The Most Beautiful Suicide.

In 1945, at the end of WWII, a US Army B-25 Bomber accidentally flew into the Empire State Building during heavy fog. Some who heard or felt the impact initially thought that the war had been brought to New York. The bomber crashed into the 79th and 80th floors, into the offices of the National Catholic Welfare Council. One engine shot straight through the building and fell out the other side. The other engine fell down an elevator shaft, severing the cables. Incredibly, a woman named Betty Oliver, who was in the damaged elevator, survived a plummet of 75 floors. She still retains the record for the longest survived elevator fall. Fourteen people died in the crash.

The 1997 Empire State Building shootings could be seen as a precursor to the type of terrorism that was to come to America in later years. A Palestinian named Ali Kamal shot seven people on the observation deck and then himself. Only one of his victims was fatally wounded. Ten years later his family admitted that they had been coerced into covering up his motives, but a note on his body and his diary entries both made it plain that he was angry with America for supporting Israel and so wanted to make ‘a statement’ at a place where people would take notice of his actions.

Since 1964 different coloured floodlights, representative of various important or popular events, have illuminated the top of the building. For example, red and green lights are used at Christmas. When Buckingham Palace played the Star Spangled Banner during the Changing of the Guard on September 12, 2001, the Empire State Building was lit up in gold and purple (the royal colours of Elizabeth II) as a way of showing America’s appreciation for the supportive gesture.

The Empire State Building is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. It has played a major role in over 600 movies, including An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle. In King Kong (the 1933 and 2005 versions) the Empire State Building was the scene of the showdown between King Kong and his pursuers. But in the 1976 remake, which was set in a contemporary NYC, the scene was shot on the Twin Towers.

The One World Trade Centre, or Freedom Tower, which is being built on the site of the previous World Trade Centre, is set to once again usurp the title of tallest building in NYC. It is due to be completed in 2013. It will be an incredible 541 metres – almost 100 metres taller than the Empire State Building – and will be the tallest building in the United States.

* Hamilton Weber as quoted in Goldman, Book 31-32.

1) The Empire State Building, by Michael Slonecker. Free use.
2) The Waldorf, circa 1904-1908, by Joseph Pennell. Public domain.
3) Photograph of a Workman on the Framework of the Empire State Building, by Lewis Hine. Public domain.
4) Empire State Building, Psongco. GNU Free Documentation License.
5) Ernie Sisto (New York Times).
6) David Shankbone. GNU Free Documentation License.