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Wydział Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego
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Nowa Huta. Lesson of the ‘short century’

by Kraków Heritage team
Nowa Huta. Lesson of the ‘short century’ Nowa Huta. Lesson of the ‘short century’
Nowa Huta, called ‘the youngest sister of Krakow’, is a monument to 20th century architecture. Despised for a long time due to its communist burden, today it’s one of Krakow’s flourishing districts and is considered one of the most attractive to live in.

Called the ‘youngest sister of Krakow’, Nowa Huta is today the largest and most populous part of the city. It was built just after World War II as a model workers’ town and flagship project of communist Poland together with a powerful metallurgical combine, squeezing in between the buildings of the former suburban villages of Krakow. The edifices of Nowa Huta represent a comprehensive overview of styles and trends of the 20th-century architecture; they constitute a kind of story about this difficult, albeit ‘short’ (referring to the title of Eric Hobsbawm’s well-known work) century.

Nowa Huta, so different in style and character from the old Kraków, has also its own dedicated fan club, made up of generations of residents brought up there, as well as young people who are keen to move to this district, appreciating the functionality of the architecture, the wide and comfortable streets, the proximity of numerous small shops and craftsmen’s establishments catering to various needs, and the abundance of green spaces.

A few years ago, the district was listed as one of the best places to live in Europe in a list created by the British daily The Guardian. Moreover, in 2023, the efforts of local heritage enthusiasts led to Nowa Huta being awarded the title of Historical Monument.


The history of Nowa Huta begins long before it was built. The numerous remnants found there of caves in which people had dwelt suggest that human settlement in this area date back to Neolithic times. The local Wanda Mound, a mysterious hill named after the mythical daughter of Krakow’s founder, Krakus, and one of Krakow’s four most important mounds, dates to the 7th or 8th century.

The area was blessed by particularly fertile soil and favourable conditions for farming as was was practised by the inhabitants of the villages of Mogiła, Bieńczyce, Krzesławice and Pleszów. A peculiarity of Nowa Huta is that, despite the construction of the industrial combine and the subsequent workers’ housing estates, some of the original village layouts have survived to this day. Walking through the district, we thus take a kind of space travel between the pre-industrial era and the heritage of the post-war period.

The most valuable monument of the period before the actual Nowa Huta was built is undoubtedly the 13th century abbey at Mogiła. Known for the relics of the Holy Cross of the Lord Jesus of Mogiła, the monastery was founded as a result of the expansion of the Cistercian Order, which spread across Europe and, in many of its places, contributed to a significant civilisational development. In the original, predominantly Romanesque-Gothic building, your attention will be drawn to the stunning polychromies painted by the Cistercian monk Stanisław Samostrzelnik in the 16th century. Right next to the monastery, we can also find the 15th-century larch Church of St Bartholomew, supervised by monks.

The abbey is particularly worth visiting in September during the celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, when a colourful fair takes place in the neighbouring streets. More recently, the monastery complex was enriched with a museum offering a permanent exhibition and a display of old Mogiła village buildings.

Another Nowa Huta neighbourhood that has retained its original rural character is the remains of the former village of Krzesławice. The local manor houses were owned by, among others, Hugo Kołłątaj, a leading reformer of the Enlightenment, and Jan Matejko, a painter from Krakow who shaped the historical imagination of Poles in the 19th century. One of his best-known paintings, Kościuszko at Racławice, depicting the victorious battle against the Russian army, was created precisely in the intimate manor house in Krzesławice. Matejko made the local villagers pose for the painting. The building now houses a branch of the Krakow Museum.


Following the expulsion of the Nazi occupiers and the occupation of Poland by the Red Army in 1945 , a Moscow-backed local communist government took power in the country. It faced the task of completely transforming Polish society and building a new ‘socialist’ one centred around intense industrial development. The communists encouraged the first generations, who broke out of what then was the mostly poor Polish countryside to move to the cities and experience something that history would later call social climbing. The main price to pay for that was adopting the communist world-view and eliminating political freedom.

The construction of Nowa Huta, a city designed from the scratch to serve the Lenin steelworks located right next to it, was a flagship project of this era.  The decision regarding the location was by no means a coincidence. The city of Nowa Huta was created, among other things, as a counterbalance to what was seen as bourgeois and conservative Krakow, as a place where the spirit of the new era was to be expressed. By an interesting intervention of fate, Nowa Huta became at the same time the third urban centre in history, after Kazimierz and Podgórze, that was to create competition for the ‘old’ Krakow.

Although the motivations behind the creation of Nowa Huta were political, the founding of the town was based on classical Renaissance concepts of ideal cities – self-contained and self-sufficient, which enables satisfying all of the living needs in the shortest possible time. The architects, led by Tadeusz Ptaszycki, who headed the Miastoprojekt Nowa Huta team, drew from the tradition of Polish Modernism of the 1920s, C.A. Perry’s American idea of the neighbourhood unit, and the vision of the garden-city launched in Great Britain by E. Howard.

This places Nowa Huta among the most interesting realisations of cities and workers’ housing estates in Europe, such as Katowice’s Nikiszowiec, the housing estate next to the Krupp factory in Essen or next to the famous Bata shoe factory in Zlin. Apart from Ptaszycki, the Miastoprojekt team included such architects as Marta and Janusz Ingarden (in later years the authors of, among other things, the project of Hotel Forum), Tadeusz Rembies and Janina Lenczewska.


We start our walk around Nowa Huta at Centralny Square, where these original assumptions are best seen. It’s true that the first Nowa Huta housing complex was the Wandy Estate, located in the western part of the district, but it is the establishment of the Centralny (Central) Square and the surrounding housing estates that is emblematic of the Miastoprojekt’s project from the early period of Nowa Huta.

The square was created at the junction of five avenues branching radially in different directions, marking the centre of the part of the district now known as the ‘Old Nowa Huta’ to emphasise the chronology of the creation of the whole district. The earliest completed housing estates, surrounding the square, were named with successive letters of the alphabet, from ‘Centrum A’ to ‘Centrum D’.

Strolling under the characteristic arcades, we can admire all the most important features of the Nowa Huta architecture. These consist of the original assumptions of domestic modernism combined with the quickly imposed political patterns that went down in history under the name of socialist realism. The buildings are therefore, on the one hand, proportionate, simple and economical in form. On the other hand, we can clearly see Renaissance- and Baroque-inspired ornamental elements, such as attics, balusters, arcades and projecting cornices, which were intended to give the whole a more ‘classical’ character, in keeping with the ideological tenets of the system, which set itself the task of creating a ‘new human’.

The ideological climate surrounding the creation of Nowa Huta was brilliantly captured by the Oscar-winning film director Andrzej Wajda in his acclaimed 1976 film Man of Marble. The construction of Nowa Huta was by also used by writers Tadeusz Konwicki, Sławomir Mrożek and the great reporter Ryszard Kapuściński to present contradictory images of a system which, using noble slogans, drove Central Europe into the darkness of totalitarian enslavement.

On the eastern frontage of the Centralny Square, the original neon sign of the former Markiza confectionery stands out. In the 1960s and 1970s, as a compromise with changing realities, the authorities allowed outdoor advertising in strictly defined forms. One of the ‘allowed’ means turned out to be neon technology, which was then experiencing its golden years in Poland. On the northern wall of the square, it is worth taking a look at the Cepelix shop (1 Centrum B Estate), whose original furnishings are reminiscent of the heritage of Cepelia a centrally-controlled organisation which, at its peak, brought together 200,000 folk craftsmen from all over Poland.


To the north, Rose (Róż) Avenue, the representative pedestrian precinct of Nowa Huta, once dominated by the monument of Lenin demolished in 1989, emerges from the Centralny Square. From time to time, the avenue hosts outdoor concerts, galas and other artistic events.

From there, it’s only a step to the Town Hall Park. The designers of Nowa Huta planned a never-realised municipal authority building with a soaring tower in the centre of this green area. After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the relative loosening of political oppression, the communist authorities’ enthusiasm to continue the ‘ideal city’ project faded, while the change in doctrine and investment restrictions meant that the original plan was never completed. Back in 1951 Nowa Huta was incorporated into Krakow, which made the joint urban organism face the challenge of integrating its old and new parts.

Today, the Town Hall Park is a favourite spot for… local chess players, playing subsequent games at special tables. On the western frontage of the park, in a shopping row at 7 Zgody Estate, we can find the Zgody 7 City Information Point and Café Nowa Księgarnia, popular with locals, where you can sit down for a coffee and browse through the many publications related to Nowa Huta.


It was a truly glorious idea on the part of designers of Nowa Huta to include facilities dedicated to cultural functions, when creating the district assumptions. The cultural offer was, of course, primarily aimed at spreading a message in line with the ideology of the communist authorities, which doesn’t change the fact that several architecturally interesting and functional facilities were realised this way. These include the buildings of the former Świt (10 Teatralne Estate) and Światowid (1 Centrum E Estate) cinemas with façades stylised to look Classicist.

The latter now houses the Nowa Huta Museum, a branch of the Krakow Museum with an exhibition dedicated to the history of the district. Another institution worth mentioning is the People’s Theatre (34 Teatralne Estate) with its building standing out by the characteristic low domes at the corners of the façade.

Cultural life in the contemporary Nowa Huta is just as vivid as it used to, ore even more blooming. Not far from the People’s Theatre, at 5 Górali Estate operates the Cyprian Kamil Norwid Cultural Centre running its own art-house cinema called Sfinks. This resiliently managed centre has recently been enriched with the Nowa Huta Heritage Laboratory.

The former Mechanical School Complex at 25 Szkolne Estate now houses the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre offering an ambitious repertoire. The theatre organises the critically and audience-acclaimed international Divine Comedy Festival, which includes a competition of performances, a showcase and a preview of premières. The Utopia House facility adjacent to the theatre houses an education centre with rooms and studios for artists. Let’s also mentioned the Nowa Huta Cultural Centre located at Jana Pawła II Avenue, which, in turn, is known for example for its large collection of disturbing works by the famous Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński.


Another equally important reason why the politically motivated design of Nowa Huta works well in the 21st century is the abundance of green areas. The spacious spaces between the blocks are filled with mature trees, while numerous schools and playgrounds create a convenient living environment for families with children. At weekends, residents enjoy spending time at the Nowa Huta Reservoir: a 7-hectare artificial water reservoir where picnics and concerts are held in the summer. And this site is already quite close to the Jan Matejko Manor House in Krzesławice. Another interesting element of the space of Nowa Huta are the numerous original outdoor sculptures.

Walking further in the easterly direction along the wide Solidarności Avenue, we reach the main entrance to the Tadeusz Sendzimir Steelworks.  The distinctive inscription on the W-shaped structure stands on a square adjacent on either side to the original ‘S’ and ‘Z’ buildings of the administrative centre of the industrial combine. Crowned by a pseudo-Renaissance attic reminiscent of the Cloth Hall, it used to be called, a bit ironically, the ‘Doge’s Palace’. In the inside we can admire lavish halls with golden chandeliers where the communist dignitaries used to meet in the past. A marble spiral staircase traverses the successive floors of the building, which also has an underground tunnel that houses a fully equipped bomb shelter.

The Cold War paranoia of the communist regime was also evident in Nowa Huta, which is reflected not only in the extraordinary underground of the ‘Doge’s Palace’, but also in the system of shelters planned for the civilian population under the district’s various housing estates. The shelter underneath the current Mechanical School Complex at 37 Szkolne Estate is made available to the public by the Museum of Krakow as part of the Nowa Huta Underground tour.


After the fall of communism, the mighty metallurgical combine, which was originally named after Vladimir Lenin, was renamed in honour of Tadeusz Sendzimir – a Polish engineer who became famous in the industrial world for his invention of the continuous hot-dip galvanising method. In the second half of the 20th century, the plant emitted pollutants that destroyed the gargoyles of the Cloth Hall and the façades of the townhouses, falling as acid rain on the Old Town. The steelworks, which extends over a 10 km² area, is well past its prime, but is still operating today, although to a limited extent and in keeping with much higher environmental standards. The gigantic Tinning Hall once hosted concerts of the leading Krakow festivals, and the whole combine was also the setting for a film adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov by the Czech film director Petr Zelenka. The last blast furnace at the combine was pulled down in 2019.


On the north-east from the Old Nowa Huta, we can see the later developments of the Bieńczyce and Mistrzejowice districts. The original coherent layout, modelled on a garden, soon showed up the shortcomings of a centrally controlled economy, and gave way to later encroachments, and the mass housing of the 1970s, so ultimately this part of Krakow lost its novel architectural qualities. The landscape of Nowa Huta, after its main part was built, also saw new, discernible elements of socialist modernism (or post-1956 modernism), such as the French Block, the Swedish Block, and the so-called ‘Helicopter’ Block at the Centrum D Estate.

It’s worth walking up to the Ark of the Lord Church and admire this fancy religious building capable of holding as many as 6,000 people and realised in the 1960s and 1970s based on a design influenced by the modernist ideas of Le Corbusier. The church was the result of a long effort undertaken by the residents of Nowa Huta, which the communist authorities had intended to be a town without religion. In the wave of the post-1956 ‘thaw’, the authorities allowed the construction of one church in Bieńczyce, but they later reversed this decision. In 1960, there was a riot with the police at the site of a wooden cross erected where the current church stands. Seven years later, the residents got their way and the construction of the ‘Ark’ began.


The following years of the Polish People’s Republic were marked in Nowa Huta, as in the rest of the country, by growing social discontent and protests. In the 1980s, the neighbourhood had a thriving unit of the Solidarity movement, and the bloodily suppressed strike of 1988 directly contributed to the eventual political changes. A year later, the Lenin statue on the Rose Avenue was demolished and two years later, the patron of the steelworks combine was changed. During this period, the original assumptions of the area around Centralny Square was complemented by the post-modern Centrum E Estate completed between 1985 and 1995.


We end our walk around Nowa Huta at the Nowa Huta Meadows – a vast green area, included in the Natura 2000 areas, stretching on the south side of the Centralny Square. It’s a popular place for residents to have a walk and a specific piece of wilderness in the close vicinity of Nowa Huta.

Following the years of stagnation after 1989, when this neighbourhood had the unfair reputation of being a dangerous and degraded place, it’s now clearly felt that trends have changed. The fashion for Nowa Huta is only just beginning, with new residents of the district joining the ranks of previous generations attached to the area, appreciating the comfort of living and access to services. Nowa Huta brilliantly embodies the now cherished idea of a 15-minute city, where all the daily needs can be satisfied without the burdensome need to commute. Cafés are popping up, and there are plenty of small shops and craft businesses.


The process of the revalorisation of Nowa Huta is followed by implementing different forms of heritage protection. The urban layout of the district was entered in the register of historical monuments in 2004. As of 2019, the oldest part of the district is encompassed by the Nowa Huta Cultural Park, which aims to preserve and shape the cultural landscape and the historical character of the space, including through the regulation of outdoor advertising. Efforts to have the district (together with the Cistercian abbey and the landscape of the villages of Mogiła and Krzesławice) recognised as a historical monument have been ongoing for many years, and were successfully concluded in 2023.

This allows us to launch further efforts to inscribe Nowa Huta on the UNESCO World Heritage List as an example of 20th century urban planning at its best.

Above all, however, the example of Nowa Huta shows how to draw strength from a difficult heritage and find in it values that are important for the modern world. It’s a lesson about the complexity and ambiguity of life, written in the city walls. Nowa Huta both complements Krakow and its history as well as constitutes a separate, intriguing story within it.

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