As with all culture, heritage as a cultural creation of the present, is fashion driven: new presents will constantly imagine new pasts to satisfy changing needs.
Changes from the period of political transformation of 1989/1990 coincided with the end of modernism and the beginning of postmodernism in architecture. The launch of capitalism and the change in the economic model brought more colour, unconventional details, and something that the postmodernism movement theorist Charles Jencks calls ‘irony and playing with the viewer’. At the same time, the value of the architecture of the 1990s and beyond remains unrecognised outside a narrow circle of researchers and specialists – and it’s certainly ignored as heritage.
American Dream by the Vistula River
These were times that some would prefer to forget, while in others they provoke a growing sentimentality. Crazy colour combinations and a scarcity of resources and materials often translated into inferior workmanship, a powerful fascination with Western consumerism and the first shopping malls. In contrast to the subdued whites of the modernist era (or, as it was more commonly known, the sad greyness of the decline of the Polish People’s Republic), a new world was emerging with two main reference points, namely globalisation and orientation towards success.
A walk through Krakow of the 1990s and beyond is an exercise in architectural imagination. For individual aesthetic feelings are far less important here than the chronicle of an era with its own history, a history that in a few decades will already be defined – like every other before it – in terms of heritage. History by no means ended in 1989, as it was claimed by Francis Fukuyama. The loud dispute that accompanied the demolition of the Solpol department store building in Wroclaw in 2022, which many city residents considered as iconic, best reflects the ever-changing trends and perspectives.
On the trail of post-modern architecture in Krakow
There are at least a few Krakow buildings constructed in the last years of the Polish People’s Republic and the early 1990s that will enter the canon of the Polish postmodern architecture. These include, for example, the building of the Theological Seminary of the Resurrectionist Fathers in Dębniki, charged with complex religious symbolism, presenting a characteristic main façade torn through with a crack and arched window openings, which, according to the architects’ intention, refer to … caves inhabited by the first Christians. Let’s add also the Centrum E housing estate in Nowa Huta, built between 1985 and 1995 and designed by Romuald Loegler, which fills the gap left by the part of the ‘Old’ Nowa Huta that wasn’t realised in the original post-war layout and which enters into an interesting dialogue with it.
Another example of valuable ecclesiastical and residential architecture of this period is the housing estate at Św. Wojciecha Street with the parish church of St Adalbert in the Bronowice district. Architecture of the 1990s is represented also by an important public building: the headquarters of Radio Krakow (sometimes referred to affectionately by the locals as the ‘Krakow Bucket’), completing the inter-war layout of the Trzech Wieszczów Avenues.
Krakow’s first experience with shopping centre architecture also deserves an entry into the chronicle. The retail complex of the French chain Géant with the adjacent Water Park building and Multikino complex at the Dobrego Pasterza Street symbolises the era in which Poland was overwhelmed with the American dream.
Architecture for culture
A very important aspect of the change brought about by the new era was the architecture of cultural institutions. Krakow can boast a pioneering investment in this area that set the standard for similar developments throughout Poland. In 1994, the characteristic wavy roof of the building designed by Arata Isozaki covered the new seat of the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology, created on the initiative of Andrzej Wajda and Krystyna Zachwatowicz. This building created a new quality in public architecture in Poland and started the process of Krakow’s turntowards the river.
The following years were marked by the unconventional realisations of Ingarden & Ewý Architekci studio, which fit into the context of Krakow’s historic centre. The celebrations of the European Capital of Culture programme in 2000 was marked by the opening of a small pavilion, enclosing the space of Wszystkich Świętych Square by Grodzka Street and named after Stanisław Wyspiański, an outstanding Polish artist of the Art Nouveau period. The idea for this facility was also launched by the famous film director Andrzej Wajda.
Wyspiański Pavilion is adorned with three stained glass windows of his design, not realised during his lifetime, featuring images of important figures of Polish history. In 2013, opposite the former Austrian barracks building at the Rajska Street, which had functioned as a library for many years, the Małopolska Garden of the Arts, a multifunctional cultural space with a distinctive covered patio that serves as the main entrance, was created.
Ring of cultural institutions
The ring of cultural institutions on the right bank of the Vistula was completed in the following years by at least two valuable buildings. The MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow was established in 2011 on part of the grounds of Oskar Schindler’s Enamelware Factory in the post-industrial Zabłocie district. The building, designed by Claudio Nordi, was covered with an industrial shed roof that has become a symbol of this important Krakow’s cultural institution.
In turn, in 2014, the former power station building in the Podgórze district, located at Nadwiślańska Street was ‘topped’ by the abstract lump designed by the IQ2 Konsorcjum, transforming itself into Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor Cricoteka. A visionary of 20th century theatre, he was thus honoured with a permanent commemoration in the representative space of the Vistula Boulevards. In the nearest future, the revitalisation strategy for Krakow’s right bank of the Vistula will be rounded off by the seat of Planeta Lem: Literature and Language Centre adapted in the former salt depot at Na Zjeździe Street and named after Stanisław Lem, an eminent writer, philosopher and futurologist who was associated with Krakow for most of his life.
The most interesting objects of cultural institutions in Poland realised in recent years, including selected examples from Krakow, are collected in the album Form Follows Freedom. Architecture for Culture in Poland 2000+ published by the International Cultural Centre.
Greenery and landscape approach
The challenges of climate change are counteracted by the growing concern and attention to the quality of green spaces in the city. A specialised municipal unit, the Urban Greenery Department, is by default involved in the revalorisation of subsequent parks and in efforts to acquire new green spaces for the city. In recent years, Krakowski Park by the Trzech Wieszczów Avenues was renovated; new green areas were created in the south of the city, forming the future Podgórze Planty Park. The city also faces the challenge of developing the strategically located area of the former Zakrzówek quarry, which following the end of limestone extraction in the 1990s became a water reservoir of rare beauty, with clear blue water.
Attention paid to green areas coincides with the development of a heritage approach emphasising the landscape aspect. The UNESCO 2011 recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape considers urban heritage holistically as the ‘layering of values that have been produced by successive and existing cultures and an accumulation of traditions and experiences, recognized as such in their diversity’. These traditions include not only the intangible heritage in the broadest sense of the term, but also parks or areas of landscaped greenery – an integral part of the city’s landscape – embedded in the urban history.
Heritage of the future
Krakow has been experiencing dynamic urban development in recent years. It’s one of the few cities in Poland with a steadily growing population, despite negative indicators and demographic forecasts for the country as a whole. It’s still too early to say what part of the achievements of the current generations of Cracovians will be recognised as heritage in the future. One thing is certain – our responsibility for shaping the cityscape and its sustainability is even greater today than it used to be.
The text is partly based on material collected on the Krakow Modernism Route web portal. Follow this link to find ’Pomoszlak’ – a route along the post-1989 architecture in Krakow.