27 (122) 2016
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Real Estate & Construction

Warsaw’s filters – the British connection

By Hanna Kurlanda-Witek, consultant, Mott MacDonald
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Few tourists are aware that a notable example of Victorian-era British architecture lies in the centre of Warsaw.

Most passersby probably wouldn’t even notice the large green expanse tucked away behind ul. Koszykowa, except for the brick pressure tower at the entrance gate. Yet the Warsaw Waterworks, also known as the Warsaw Filters, are a valuable part of the city’s history, not to mention a prime reason why Warsaw was able to support a growing population.

The construction of the waterworks in Warsaw was part of a European-wide movement of improving sanitation in large cities. London was one of the first cities to build a sewer system, and although the foul-smelling river Thames had been plaguing the city with outbreaks of cholera and typhoid for decades, it was difficult to secure funding for an ambitious sewerage project. The uncommonly hot summer of 1858, known as the Great Stink, changed public perception and Parliament did not hesitate to fund the works with immediate effect. Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works, was appointed to lead the project in the design and construction of 82 miles of main sewers and 1,100 miles of street sewers, most of which was completed by 1868.

Yet Bazalgette’s contemporary and designer of the Warsaw waterworks, William Lindley, is hardly known in his native country. Like Bazalgette, Lindley began work as a civil engineer in the railway industry, then gravitated towards sanitary engineering. Together with his son, William Heerlein Lindley, he was the mastermind of many of Europe’s sewer networks, among them those in  Hamburg, Prague, Moscow and Vienna. Professor Ryszard Żelichowski, a historian and author of a book on the Lindley family, describes the Lindleys as the forerunners of ‘Engineers Without Borders’.

In the second half of the 19th century, Warsaw’s public health standards were undergoing a crisis. This was propelled by the influx of new inhabitants, which caused the city’s population to double to about 400,000 by the end of the century. The water mains, designed by the architect Henryk Marconi and completed in 1855, were becoming insufficient for the city’s needs. As writer Bolesław Prus noted in his Weekly Chronicles, “Should we drink what we bathe in or bathe in what we drink?”. Change was brought about by Warsaw’s mayor, Sokrates Starynkiewicz, a former Russian general with a zeal for modernising the city. Starynkiewicz lobbied with the Imperial Russian authorities in St Petersburg for permission to build the waterworks, initially by delegating responsibility for the project to a committee of wealthy businessmen and landowners, the Społeczny komitet budowy wodociągów i kanalizacji miasta Warszawy (Joint committee for construction of the waterworks and sewer system of the city of Warsaw). After having visited the waterworks in Hamburg and Frankfurt am Main, the committee commissioned the design of Warsaw’s waterworks to William Lindley in 1876, and works commenced seven years later, after signing a contract with William Heerlein Lindley, who supervised the project on behalf of his father. The waterworks became partly operational only three years later, and still form the base of the modern-day waterworks, despite upgrades throughout the 20th century. The Filters were out of operation only once in their history, during World War II.

Water is pumped from beneath the bed of the Vistula river and transferred via pipes to the Filters. At the time of its official opening, the river water used to be filtered primarily through the slow filters, a series of underground arched caverns, where the water slowly filters through sand beds. The intricate brickwork is reminiscent of underground London, particularly to anyone who has travelled on the Circle Line of the London Underground. The original buildings of the Filters, including the pressure tower, are leading examples of 19th century industrial architecture, which was built to last. Building materials were carefully chosen despite higher costs, and capacity of the works was calculated to a maximum, which is why many pipes and sewer mains designed by Bazalgette and Lindley are still in use today. This is a good lesson for today’s public-sector project managers – the more money spent in planning and construction, the less money needs to be spent later on maintenance, rebuilding and operational costs. And despite their strictly utilitarian nature, sewerage and waterworks were meant to impress. Visitors to the recently refurbished Crossness Pumping Station in London would agree that the decorative ironwork and painted columns resemble those of a palace or a church. With a nod to the existing buildings, the ozonation and carbon filtration plant, opened at the Warsaw Filters in 2010 and aptly named “Socrates”, have red-brick and sandstone facades. Since 2012, the Filters have been named a historic monument, however they are only open to the public several days a year; this is, after all, a functioning water treatment facility.

Sanitary engineers are inclined to point out that it is the underground construction works that are fundamental to the proper functioning of a city, rather than a city skyline punctuated by award-winning structures. Both are feats of civil engineering, but it is true that vast improvements in sanitation have made an impact on public health in general and were one of the deciding factors of the increase in life expectancy in the 20th century. That’s something to keep in mind next time you walk down ul. Lindleya in Warsaw.


Cook, G.C. (2001) Construction of London’s Victorian sewers: the vital role of Joseph Bazalgette. Postgraduate Medical Journal 77 (914).

Czarniawska, B. (2000) A City Reframed: Managing Warsaw in the 1990s. Overseas Publishers Association.

Dietz S. (2015) British Entrepreneurship in Poland. A Case Study of Bradford Mill at Marki near Warsaw, 1883 – 1939. Ashgate Publishing.

Halliday, S. (2009) The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. The History Press.

Zelichowski, R., Water – Not a Drop to Drink. How Baku Got Its Water – The British Link – William H. Lindley. Azerbaijan International, Summer, 2002 (10.2).

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