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A city re-written, or The Krakow Modernism Route

by Krzysztof Żwirski
27.06.2023
A city re-written, or The Krakow Modernism Route A city re-written, or The Krakow Modernism Route
“A Guide to the Architecture of 20th Century Krakow” can be understood as an invitation to discover “our own” Krakow. The one outside the tourist brochures, where the daily life of its inhabitants actually takes place.

In 2014, on the initiative of the Architecture Institute Foundation and the Space – People – City association, The Krakow Modernism Route was created. The impressive online portal gathering knowledge about the wealth of Krakow’s architectural heritage of the 20th century last year reached book form. It is worth picking up the book to see – as Polish reporter Filip Springer wrote on the back of the book – the Krakow we never knew existed!

Heritologists, or heritage researchers, like to emphasise that the past is never a single concept, frozen in form. Its understanding is constantly changing, and successive generations find new phenomena valuable. Even Krakow, a city whose symbols are the Gothic St. Mary’s Basilica and the Renaissance Wawel Castle, is no exception. This is well demonstrated by the long road that architecture of the modern and post-modern era has travelled to be fully recognised and appreciated as heritage.

AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY

Krakow had a difficult start into the modern age. At the turn of the 20th century, it was one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, with almost 100,000 people living in an area of just 5.7 square kilometres. The reason for this was prosaic and lay in the Austro-Russian border, which ran only a few kilometres to the north. On the orders of Emperor Franz Joseph, the city became a fortress, surrounded by rings of fortifications that had been built up over the years. No new buildings could be erected in their field of fire, and no trees could be planted. The now-forested St Bronisława Hill, on which the Kościuszko Mound stands, was a bare, empty space.

Deprived of any major industrial significance, the city suffocated in a tight corset, serving primarily as a symbolic capital for a country that did not exist and was divided by partition borders.

The paradox of this difficult situation was Krakow’s incredible good fortune in attracting and shaping outstanding individuals who stood above their times. Presidents played their part: above all Józef Dietl, famous for his decision to fill in the Vistula riverbed between the Old Town and Kazimierz, or the ambitious lawyer Juliusz Leo, to whom we are indebted for enlarging the city’s area several times between 1907 and 1915.

However, the local architectural community, educated in Vienna, Zurich, Berlin, St. Petersburg or Lviv, among others, played an equally great role in the awakening of the city.

A TURN TOWARDS THE FUTURE

It is difficult to overestimate the significance for Krakow of the creation of the Aleje Trzech Wieszczów (The Three Bards Avenue) in place of the former ring railway – a representative city boulevard modelled on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, later lined with first-class public buildings, such as the Main Building of the National Museum (1934-1989, designed by Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz), the Jagiellonian Library (1939, designed by Wacław Krzyżanowski) or the post-war modernist complex of the Cracovia Hotel and the Kijów Cinema (1960-1965, designed by Witold Cęckiewicz), or the post-war modernist complex of the Cracovia Hotel and the Kijów Cinema (1960-1965, designed by Witold Cęckiewicz).

It is true that after the idea of the motor city became widespread on the Vistula, the route lost some of its symbolic significance, becoming primarily the main north-south thoroughfare, but the class and coherence of the most important urban creation of Krakow in the first decades of the 20th century will strike anyone who looks carefully at urban space.

And this is only one of the possible beginnings of the non-obvious walks around Krakow to which the team from the Institute of Architecture invites you in their guide.

A WALK THROUGH MODERNIST CRACOW

These routes include the most famous buildings of Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, known in his time with a sneer as “Wszystko-Bohusz/Everything-Bohusz” (Polish word for everything” – “Wszystko” rhythms with a part of architects’ surname), renowned for, among other things, his scandalous design of the “Feniks” Insurance Company House on the Main Square (1928-1932) or the impressive colonnaded edifice of the Postal Savings Bank (1922-1925). There are examples of New York-inspired office buildings, such as the Palace of the Press – former home of the largest Polish newspaper of the inter-war period, the Illustrated Daily Courier (1920-1921, designed by Tadeusz Stryjeński, Franciszek Mączyński) or the bold, 7-storey building of the Municipal Savings Bank at Plac Szczepański (1936, designed by Fryderyk Tadanier, Stefan Strojek).

It is full of modernist townhouses tucked away in the centre of Krakow with characteristic emblems (who knows over which of Krakow’s gates one can find a Chinese dragon, rabbit, wrestler or owl?) and beautiful, spacious and well-lit staircases. There are villa estates designed with care for functionality, such as Cichy Kącik, (1936-1937, designed by Wacław Nowakowski), Osiedle Oficerskie (1930-1939) or the beautiful colony at Sienkiewicza and Wyspiańskiego streets, which was built earlier.

SIDEWAYS BRANCHES OF TIME

What is even more interesting in all this is not what was created, but what could have been created. What emerges from the works submitted to the urban planning competition of 1910-1912 is a picture of an environment that willingly experimented with the vision of a garden city popular at the time. A city for which the rich heritage of earlier eras was not ballast, but potential to be creatively developed.

Many of these ideas were already controversial in their time. They would not occur to us today. Suffice it to say that before the war there were ideas to pierce… the tramway tunnel under Wawel Hill! Regardless of what emotions may be aroused by such bold experimentation with the heritage resource, what draws our attention is the extraordinary city-creating energy that hovered over Krakow of those years.

A (NOT SO) SHORT CENTURY

It is customary to speak of the 20th century (following the title of a well-known work by Eric Hobsbawm) as a “short century”. Reading A Guide to the Architecture of Twentieth-Century Krakow, one gets quite the opposite impression. For after the catastrophe of the Second World War and the loss of a large part of the population, there came a time of equally interesting architectural transformations. Around the neglected and abandoned city centre, the new communist authorities decided to create districts in which the majority of Krakow’s inhabitants live today.

These are not only the model socialist city of Nowa Huta, today experiencing a renaissance as one of the most popular places to live (1949-1952, designed by the “Miastoprojekt” team led by Tadeusz Ptaszycki), but also Mistrzejowice, built on a tree-like plan (1963-1983, designed by Witold Cęckiewicz), or the calm, airy Osiedle Podwawelskie with low blocks of flats separated by greenery and numerous public infrastructure facilities (1965-1972, designed by Witold Cęckiewicz). Despite the top-down imposition of socialist realist models, many of the above-mentioned projects also creatively developed the concepts of domestic, pre-war modernism.

The years of political oppression, the inefficiency of the centrally controlled economy, the subsequent abandonment of quality for quantity and the general greyness of life in People’s Poland obscured the architectural quality of many of these projects for many years. What is worst associated with the older generations is increasingly gaining ground in the eyes of subsequent generations, who appreciate the comfort and functionality of the original designs.

HERITAGE ALL AROUND US

A guide to the architecture of 20th century Krakow can also be understood as an invitation to discover “our own” Krakow. The one outside the tourist brochures, where the daily life of its inhabitants actually takes place. Many of us will find a place close to us in this publication – it may be the primary school we attended or a church from the housing estate where we grew up. On one page we can read about the founding principles of the ultra-modern Forum Hotel (1973-1989, designed by Janusz Ingarden). At others, we can talk about a neighbourhood building that we would not even think of as being of any architectural value.

It is precisely this kind of work with heritage that the Institute of Architecture’s major project, which was published in book form last year, invites us to do.

Link to the Krakow Modernism Route portal (Polish)

Guide to the architecture of Krakow in the 20th century

Institute of Architecture, Krakow 2022

The book was prepared by a team consisting of: Katarzyna Barańska, Dr Aneta Borowik, Dr Dorota Jędruch, Marta Karpińska, Piotr Knapik, Dr Dorota Leśniak-Rychlak, Magdalena Smaga, Dr Barbara Stec, Dr Kamila Twardowska, Dr Michał Wiśniewski.

Project co-financed by the City of Kraków.

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Kraków

No, this is not all there is to say about Krakow. Heritage is an open-ended collection – it’s up to us to fill it with meaning!

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