In the Polish People’s Republic
‘Ill born’ is what in his album the reporter Filip Springer called the most valuable buildings constructed in Poland during the communist period. The years 1945–1989 were a period of incredible growth in Krakow and a time of many architecturally valuable realisations, which, due to the oppressive nature of the state but also to the mass scale and lower quality of the structures of the later 1970s and 1980s, still evoke mixed feelings today, fitting into the concept of a ‘dissonant heritage’. Regardless of the difficult experiences of the older generations, however, the functionality of the architecture and the quality of the design of that period is gaining more and more adherents.
New society, new architecture
The post-war, Soviet-dependent authorities of the Polish People’s Republic completely changed the structure of society. On the one hand, mass industrialisation and the migration of people from the countryside to the cities brought social advancement to millions of the country’s citizens, and on the other, it irrevocably changed the character of the large urban centres. The construction of a ‘new society’ was also accompanied by interesting, bold ideas of modernism and later postmodernism in architecture, prioritising functionality, access to light, greenery and basic services.
Krakow, the former capital of Poland, a city immersed in its bourgeois ethos, saved from the ravages of war by different turns of fate, embodied from the very beginning all the ‘bourgeois concepts with which the ‘people’s’ authorities were fighting by default. The political decision taken in 1947 to create a metallurgical complex and a model workers’ city of Nowa Huta to the east of the city was intended to create a kind of counterbalance to Krakow. Political enthusiasm – and resources – soon ran out, and the city, built from scratch on the site of the former villages of Bieńczyce, Krzesławice and Mogiła, was quickly annexed to Krakow, turning into its largest district. This can be understood as a paradox – or as another stage in the history of a place whose identity includes the relationship between tradition and modernity.
The original plan for Nowa Huta was based on Renaissance concepts of the ideal city and British garden cities. Built on a hexagonal plan, the district with sectors marked A to D (supplemented between 1986 and 1995 by the Centre E estate) is criss-crossed by wide, spacious avenues, radiating out from the Central Square. These assumptions, modernist in spirit, were overlaid by the politically motivated influence of socialist realism as the dominant trend during the darkest Stalinist period of 1949–1956. Nowa Huta owes to them the peculiar references to Renaissance and Baroque architecture : attics, balusters, arcades and projecting cornices.
The most characteristic buildings constructed during this period are the Administrative Centre of the former Lenin Steelworks (today the Sendzimir Steelworks) – the ‘Doge’s Palace’ with an attic inspired by the Cloth Hall, as well as infrastructure designed for cultural functions: the buildings of the People’s Theatre or the former cinemas Świt and Światowid. The recent years saw a new, separate attraction: visits to the system of bunkers created underneath Nowa Huta, including a nuclear bunker beneath the ‘Doge’s Palace’ and bunkers underneath the residential buildings, which can be seen as part of the Nowa Huta Underground tour prepared by the Nowa Huta Museum – a branch of the Krakow Museum.
Today’s Nowa Huta is one of the greenest and most popular parts of the city. The functionality of the architecture from the early decades of the Polish People’s Republic proved to be more enduring than its political context, and the district is regularly mentioned in the lists of the most attractive places to live, including in the 2020 ranking by the British daily The Guardian.
Post-war Krakow more than doubled its population, which resulted in a huge demand for housing. However, interesting urban visions often lost the conflict with the reality of a centrally planned economy, and the later introduction of the so-called prefabricated building industry completely changed the originally intimate character of the former Krakow. Next to the ‘old’ part of Nowa Huta, huge housing estates soon sprang up in Bieńczyce and Mistrzejowice, with an original tree-plan layout and housing estates originally bearing the names of successive seasons, which was never fully implemented.
A successful example of an urban layout from later years is the Podwawelskie Estate, built between 1965 and 1976 on the basis of a project by Witold Cęckiewicz. The low-rise, four-storey blocks of flats were erected in an east-west alignment, taking into account the context of air circulation in the city, where winds usually blow along this axis. Situated in close proximity to the historic city centre, the estate was created within the preparations for the celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of the Polish state in 1966, during which the communist authorities competed with the Catholic Church, which was gaining importance as a viable opposition force, to ‘rule the souls’ of the nation,.
Breaches and interjections
From the 1960s onwards, the attention of policy makers and architects slowly turned towards old Krakow, neglected in the post-war years as a child of the ancien régime. The characteristic gargoyles on the attic of the Cloth Hall were being destroyed by the famous acid rain from the clouds absorbing pollution from the Nowa Huta steelworks, and the condition of many tenement houses in the centre was tragic, but these were no longer times when the communist authorities seriously considered demolishing the old ‘worthless’ Kazimierz district, and building a housing estate on its site – and there were such ideas!
Projects such as the brutalist building of the Bunkier Sztuki art gallery, which convincingly imitates a defensive structure, or the characteristic ‘House of a Hundred Balconies’ , which is part of a quarter of bourgeois tenement houses from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are interesting examples of the coexistence of old and new and a creative reinterpretation of Krakow’s centuries-old architectural heritage.
The development of tourism
Interest in the old Krakow grew, which brought the first challenges of providing hotel facilities for tourists. Architecture of the time of the political ‘thaw’ and the partial reckoning with the follies of Stalinism after 1956 is represented, for example, by the multifunctional complex consisting of the Cracovia Hotel and the Kijów Cinema, built in 1960–1967 and beautifully enclosing the representative urban arrangement of the Trzech Wieszczów Avenues from the inter-war period. In 2016, the disused hotel building was purchased by the National Museum opposite and will eventually be transformed into a branch documenting the achievements of Polish applied arts of the period of the People’s Republic. It currently houses the Forum of Design – a conglomerate of shops selling the works of Polish designers.
The Kijów Cinema, with its characteristic curved roof and mosaics in the hall and side wall, continues its cultural functions today, serving as a venue for major cinema premières and festival events. Colourful mosaics are, by the way, one of the hallmarks of modernist architecture in Krakow: another example of this kind of decoration is Celina Styrylska-Taranczewska’s huge mosaic on the side wall of the Biprostal skyscraper, which has become one of the hallmarks of the Krowodrza district.
New residents, new needs
Kraków in the era of the Polish People’s Republic was also developing as a student centre. The Student Village complexes of the AGH University of Science and Technology, the Academy of Physical Education and the emblematic building of the Faculty of Horticulture at the University of Agriculture with its three stripes of coloured circles on the facade are just a few examples of noteworthy projects from this time.
Yet another direction in the architecture of later years that was gaining importance were churches. The election of the Krakow bishop Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II was combined with a growing desire for change in the political system, and the Catholic Church focused the movement for political transformation. The most remarkable piece of religious architecture from the communist era is the Ark of the Lord church, erected between 1967 and 1977 thanks to the long-standing efforts of the inhabitants of Nowa Huta, i.e., the district whose original plan didn’t envisage the construction of a single religious building. The fanciful edifice, inspired by the achievements of Le Corbusier, can accommodate up to 6,000 people.
A walk touring the post-war Krakow is best completed under the monumental Hotel Forum building. In 1978, the historic centre of Krakow was one of the first eight sites in the world to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Thanks to the efforts of non-governmental circles, the Social Committee for the Restoration of Krakow’s Monuments was established, and the treasures of the city’s centuries-old heritage, neglected for years, slowly began to be returned to their former splendour. At the same time, more and more tourists were arriving in Krakow. Prestigiously located on the river, the hotel was designed as a luxury site with 278 rooms.
The place beneath the hotel’s iconic retreating balconies suspended from two reinforced concrete pillars, offer a view of the Vistula bend and the churches of the historic city centre. Designed by Janusz Ingarden and built between 1973 and 1989, the building embodies the heritage of late modernism and the dreams of late communist Polish People’s Republic. After opening, it hosted Mikhail Gorbachev, while today the former hall and reception house popular clubs, design fairs and the Unsound contemporary music festival. The hotel, which was actually not functional and outdated at the very time of its construction, was thus given a second life.
Heritage in process
This is the best moment to conclude the story of the Krakow’s architecture in the years 1945–1989. It’s a heritage that evokes a full spectrum of emotions – some associate it with difficult times of deprivation and political oppression, others are captivated by its functional simplicity, the comfort of the housing, the access to greenery and basic infrastructure envisaged by the designers. It’s a heritage experiencing a perpetual process of receiving new meanings and values.
An impressive compendium of knowledge about the architecture of 20th century Krakow is offered by the Krakow Modernism Route. The interactive portal realised by the Institute of Architecture is the fruit of the passion of various circles interested in the ideas of inter-war modernism, socialist realism, socialist modernism and postmodernism.
Read more at: www.szlakmodernizmu.pl
The text is based on material collected on the Krakow Modernism Route web portal.