A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Architecture
The accounts of Polish architecture are just as tumultuous and complex as the political fate of this part of Europe. Poland’s borders moved on multiple occasions, the partitions and loss of independence, wartime destruction, and finally, European funds now stimulating the construction market – all of these factors contribute to the image of Polish architecture. It is versatile and surprising, modern, but frequently also very traditional. It is surely a phenomenon worth studying.
Here are a few indicators to help orient yourselves across more than a millennium of Polish architecture.
Egyptians have pyramids, Romans have the Colosseum, and the British have Stonehenge. So, what are the oldest monuments in Poland?
According to historians, the beginnings of the Polish state date back to the 10th century AD. The state began forming after the union of two neighbouring tribes – the Wiślanie (Vistulans), who dwelled in the area of modern-day Kraków, and the Polanie, who lived to their north-west, around present-day Poznań. These are the regions which have preserved remains of the oldest Polish buildings. They are mainly shrines. This is due to the fact that homes were made of wood and clay, which did not survive the test of time, while churches were raised in stone.
The Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków preserves fragments of a church from the second half of the 10th century. Relics of religious constructions can also be found in Poznań and Gniezno. The oldest buildings that have been preserved in their entirety were raised in the 12th century. The Church of St. Prokop, a stone rotunda construction built in the Roman style was raised in around 1160 in Strzelno. It is composed of a tower shaped like a horseshoe, and is also the only Roman shrine in the world with a rectangular presbytery.
An exquisite treasure of the Polish Middle Ages was raised in the same epoch, in the Mazovian town of Tuma near Łęczyca. A stone three-nave collegiate with two towers, decorated with sculptures (including a 12th century portico, still preserved today), with a simple, even raw, character. Built with basic geometric forms, it resembles a fortress. All of this is due to the fact that when large-scale buildings were raised in Poland at the time, German masons were employed. This resulted in an import of the style that was popular among Poland's western neighbours.
Many of the architectural monuments from the Roman and Gothic periods preserved to this day were once part of monasteries. The first orders to settle in Poland in the 10th century were the Benedictine and the Cistercian monks. Benedictine abbeys in Tyniec, Mogilno, and Łysa Góra, and Cistercian abbeys in Jędrzejów, Koprzywnica, Wąchock, and Sulejów underwent subsequent architectural modifications and expansions. However, hints of the ancient, medieval walls can still be observed in them.
Santi Gucci, Tylman van Gameren, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Rainer Mahlamäki – were Polish buildings ever built by Poles?
In the 21st century, it comes as no wonder that significant buildings for public use are designed after an international competition selects a winning project from the many proposals submitted by architects from across the entire globe. Thus, Dutch architects build in the Middle East, the English – in China, and Americans in Spain. Thanks to these processes and the competition procedure, Poland also boasts an array of excellent buildings designed by non-Polish architects.
One of the most interesting recent architectural works in Warsaw, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, was designed by the studio of Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki. The light glass chest of its exterior form, which perfectly fits the modernist surroundings, embraces a wavy, expressive interior.
The Austrian Riegler Riewe Architekten team proposed hiding the Silesian Museum underground, allowing for a good exposition of the historic structures of the Katowice coal mine.
In 2007, the Italian duo Claudio Nardi and Leonard Maria Proli won the contest for a design which placed the Kraków Museum of Contemporary Art within the former Schindler Factory. The Italian-Spanish Estudio Barozzi Veiga studio created a visionary "iceberg" – the shooting white form of the the new Szczecin Philharmonic's headquarters. Another Italian, Renato Rizzi also recently designed the Shakespearian Theatre in Gdańsk, enclosed within a black brick windowless "box", and equipped with an retractable roof. The theatre was officially opened in 2014.
But foreign architects began working on Polish territory many centuries ago. In the Middle Ages, they travelled to Poland as they were employed in constructing important monuments for which Poles lacked expertise. Later on, kings and princes brought over architects from countries considered as the most culturally developed. This is how the Florentine Santi Gucci made it to the Royal Castle of Wawel in the mid-16th century. He authored a couple of mannerist masterpieces. Using light and easily-formed limestone, the Italian sculpted decorative and expressive tombstones, filled with extravagant detail. In 1574-5, he carved the Wawel graves of King Zygmunt August and Queen Anna Jagiellonka. In 1595, he made the tombstone for Stefan Batory, and in 1586 – the memorials for Barbara and Andrzej Firlej in the church in Janowiec. At the same time, Santi Gucci also designed many buildings. The castles in Książ Wielki and Baranów Sandomierski in the south-west of Poland are true gems of the mannerist style. They playfully trick the perception, filled with architectural surprises, and yet they are elegant and full of style.
In the second half of the 17th century, the Dutchman Tylman van Gameren often worked for Polish aristocrats. Although he was a representative of the baroque, his works are temperate and elegant. Toned-down forms typical of van Gameren were given to palaces in Warsaw – the Krasiński family Palace and the Gniński-Ostrogski Palace – residences in Nieborów and Białystok, as well as St. Anna’s Church in Kraków and the convents Church of St. Bernardine and Church of the Holy Sacrament in Warsaw.
Because of its tumultuous history and the geographical location between two empires, the borders of Poland were moved numerous times. Thus, present day Polish cities have many works by Dutch and German architects. A souvenir of the past political and economic significance of Gdańsk are the works of Willen van den Blocke, and his son, Abraham van den Blocke. 17th-century Dutch architects and sculptors also worked in Gdańsk during the construction of the Wyżynna (Highland) and Złota (Golden) Gates, the Manor of Artus, the Fountain of Neptune, the Wielka Zbrojownia (Great Armory), as well as numerous tombstones and epitaphs.
Kamieniec Ząbkowicki in Lower Silesia, Kórnik, Antonin, and Buk – all of these are sites which have preserved the works of an important 19th-century classicist, Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Another Silesian city, Wrocław, is home to the Centennial Hall recently made a UNESCO World Heritage site, and designed by Max Berg in the early 20th century. Wrocław is also home to WUWA, an experimental modernist housing area, the work of German modernists, whose research would influence European house-building of the subsequent decades.
In the 20th century, Poland regained its independence twice. The first time was in 1918, following 124 years of existence under the partitions. The second came in 1989, when the communist regime was successfully overthrown without any bloodshed. Both of these events were extraordinarily important and also impacted the development of architecture.
The two decades of the interwar period 1918-1939 proved to be an unprecedented time of blossoming artistic life. The regained independence influenced architects, some of whom began to design elegant and stylish venues for public use, which were to also become symbols of power for the reborn state (some of these architects include Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, Marian Lalewicz and Bohdan Pniewski).
Others, infatuated with the avant-garde, and keeping contact with Le Corbusier, as well as German and Dutch modernists, designed modern minimalist homes for new citizens. Helena and Szymon Syrkus played an important role among the avant-garde architects, as well as the duo of Bohdan Lachert and Józef Szanajca. These twenty years saw a true explosion of Polish architecture, which rushed to make up for the years lost under the partitions. Architectural schools developed, and many new styles were shaped – from the Zakopane style, inspired by the folk traditions of the Górale highlanders, through to the ultra-contemporary functionalist style.
After the political transformation of 1989, many designers and investors dreamt of catching up with the West. This ambition resulted in constructions which deliberately alluded to a capitalist lifestyle.
High-rise business buildings were built, such as the Curtis Plaza in Warsaw (1992, designed by Romuald Welder and Mirosław Karpowicz), hotels (Hotel Sobieski, 1992, designed by Wolfgang Triessing and Maciej Nowicki), and housing areas whose new, surprising forms were meant to provide an alternative to the pre-fabricated blocks of the past (such as the 1989 post-modern Osiedle Centrum E in Nowa Huta, designed by Romuald Loegler). Post-modern forms can be traced among many of the buildings of this era. In Polish architecture, this style was seen as a breath of freedom with respect to the previous dominance of socialist realism. Its prominent representative is Wojciech Jarząbek, the author of a controversial but audacious housing building in Wrocław, and the very original form of the Solopol shopping centre.
The liquidation of state-controlled normatives and constraining laws resulted in an abundance of buildings which continue to be appreciated to this day. In 1994, the Manggha Centre of Japanese Art and Technology opened in Kraków. The expressive building was designed by the Japanese Arata Isozaki, and the Polish Krzysztof Ingarden and Jacek Ewý
In the second half of the 1990s, two designs by Marek Budzyński were also realised in Warsaw – the new headquarters of the Warsaw University Library, and the headquarters of the Supreme Court. Both buildings are works that border on ecological and post-modernist architecture, and they have proven to be milestones in the development of Polish architecture in the new conditions of the free market.
Contemporary housing architecture of Poland does not enjoy the highest renown. Some say that Poles have bad taste and insufficient knowledge to be able to choose houses of aesthetic value. There is also the omnipresent rule that "a man’s home is his castle" – and in Poland this idiomatic expression accentuates the liberty a houseowner ought to have. This is meant to also signify a distaste for looking towards one's neighbours, or adapting the form of one’s home to given surroundings. "Catalogue" buildings are dominant – these are mass-produced house designs, which are also often stylised to resemble historic forms. The form of the gentry manor is especially popular, with a white-plastered walls, double-gable roof, and a front veranda supported by two pillars. This shape is evocative of a period when Poland was a superpower (from the 17th- to the mid-18th centuries). Another frequently encountered form is the so-called mazovian cuboid – a simple house made of bricks, devoid of any detail whatsoever, and frequently not even finished, lacking a plaster covering. This form also meets with severe criticism as something that spoils the Polish landscape
Luckily, a growing number of Poles appreciate the advantages of hiring an architect, and intriguing, well-designed buildings are increasingly being raised in modern Poland. Robert Konieczny is an architect known for designing houses, not only in Poland but also abroad. Konieczny made the famous Dom Bezpieczny (Safe House), in which panels can be slid over the windows, turning the home into a fortress. His other works include the pre-fabricated Dom TypOwy (Typical House), in the form of a cut cylinder, and the controversial Dom Autorodzinny, (Auto-family House), in which the garage space is just as significant as the bedroom and living room.
Roman Rutkowski, the Katowice-based jojko+nawrocki studio, and Ultra Architects from Poznań have also designed original houses. They did not shy from using imaginative materials, such as cork (Rutkowski), or blending different elements (wood, concrete, bricks, green roofs). In 2013, the Fundacja Centrum Architektury (Centre of Architecture Foundation) prepared an exhibition presenting the most intriguing Polish houses – a small selection which nonetheless already indicates the variety of form found in contemporary Polish housing architecture – from ecologically-minded buildings, through minimalist design to forms reflecting the needs and lifestyle of their owners. To date, the most famous Polish house is the 2003 Bolko Loft. It was created by adapting a former Orzeł Biały coal mine lamp factory in Bytom into an apartment. Przemo Łukasik, co-creator of the Medusa Group created this home for his own family.
Warsaw is the administrative capital of Poland, Kraków is its tourist capital, but there is also a city which is the Polish architectural capital
Tracing the development of Polish architecture in the 20th and 21st centuries, one can easily notice that it is neither the Warsaw nor the Kraków area that boasts the most interesting endeavours, but the southwestern region of Silesia. This is where the architectural heart of Poland beats the quickest. It is the home of some of the best Polish talents in the field, and a region where numerous projects by renowned architects were also realised.
The Architecture Department of the Silesian Polytechnic was founded in 1945, with its headquarters in the city of Gliwice. For years, the school in Gliwice has been known to educate the most talented among Polish architects, always employing the most modern and innovative trends in its programme. But a good school will not suffice. The sensitivity of future architects is also formed by their surroundings, and Silesia is exceptionally diverse and rich when it comes to architectural solutions. On the one hand, it comprises the great post-industrial heritage, historic mines, factories, and housing complexes. A famous example of the latter is the so-called Nikiszowiec, the most original mine workers’ housing complex built before the first World War (1908-18), designed by Georg and Emil Zillmann.
Some Silesian cities, such as Gliwice, Zabrze and Bytom, preserved much of the bourgeois architecture from the 19th and early 20th centuries, destroyed during World War II in the majority of Polish cities.
Earlier, when Silesia was divided up between Germany and Poland after World War I, cities on either side of the border began competing with each other in the field of architecture. It was a very creative period. The urban planning of the southern city centre in Katowice, an endeavour unique on a European scale, is a fruit of this period, with many elegant and very contemporary apartment houses. After World War II, the communist authorities invested significant resources in the area. It was meant to become the representative industrial region of the People’s Republic.
Thanks to this, throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the city of Katowice became the site of numerous atypical and even experimental projects. The famous Spodek (Saucer) arena was built during this epoch, as well as the monumental apartment block, Superjednostka (Superunit), designed by Mieczysław Król and inspired by the oeuvre of Le Corbusier. There was also the Osiedle Tysiąclecia (Millenial Settlement) – an extraordinary complex of apartment blocks, which Aleksander Frant and Henryk Budzko designed as if it were a park. Stanisław Kwaśniewicz implemented new construction technologies, inaugurating the first high-rise buildings. He designed the Ślizgowiec office building and the Separator housing block.
From 1951, the socialist, modernist town of Tychy had also been growing near Katowice. At present, Tychy is both home and working address of one of the most original among Polish architects, Stanisław Niemczyk. Known first and foremost for his original church projects, Niemczyk proclaims a style of his own, blending philosophical and theological symbols with familial and friendly forms.
The Church of the Holy Spirit in Tychy is shaped like a tent, offering a safe hideaway for everyone. The small, red-brick Church of Christ the Redeemer in Czechowice Dziedzice is equipped with three different towers, and the area surrounding the Church of Divine Charity in Kraków also encompasses a market passage. Niemczyk’s intention was to make the shrine a central element of the life of the local community.
The architects which presently work in Silesia all show a great understanding of local heritage and its value. Tomasz Konior frequently paraphrases Silesian red brick constructions in new sites. This can be seen in his designs of the Music Academy in Katowice, the new headquarters of the National Symphonic Orchestra of the Polish Radio, and the expansion of a historic brewery in Tychy which forms part of the Museum of Brewing. The famous Medusa Group Architects often adapt post-industrial spaces into apartments, lofts, and offices, breathing new life into relics of the industrial revolution while preserving their original character. Robert Konieczny, an architect famous for his housing projects, is also a native of Silesia, where he lives and works to this day. This is also where he realised his first projects such as the Dom z Ziemi Śląskiej (House of Silesian Earth), whose shape is a result of adapting to land deformed by mining damage.
One doesn’t need to be a Silesian to appreciate the region’s architectural heritage. The HS99 studio team, who came from the western Pomerania area to the south of the Polish coast, also knew how to converse with this tradition. Their design for the Scientific Information Centre and Academic Library in Katowice is one of the most frequently awarded and commented on buildings of recent years. The 2003 design enters into clear dialogue with traditions of the region, through a rhythmical red brick-coloured facade.
And foreign architects from the Austrian Riegler Riewe Architekten studio had so much respect for the architectural scheme of the former Katowice mine that they simply hid their building for the Silesian Museum underground.
The ideal city, one planned out on a geometric and ordered scheme, with skilfully distributed areas for all of the necessary functions (the authorities’ headquarters, trade, education, housing, etc) was a dream of the Renaissance period. The city of Zamość was officially granted city rights in 1589. The name of the city came from its founder, the chancellor and grand hetman Jan Zamoyski, who decided to build it in accordance with the Renaissance principles for an ideal city. The market and town hall – equipped with towers and a representative staircase – were made the heart of the settlement, surrounded by houses. A perpendicular network of streets facilitated communication and gave order to the city. Zamość, which stands in its original shape to this day, is also filled with smaller squares. One can easily find one’s way to the cathedral, the palace, and onto the campus of the Zamoyska Academy.
Another example of a town which was built from scratch is Gdynia, which received city rights in 1926. It was a huge investment of the state, meant as a manifestation of its economic power. Raising an ultra-modern port city seemed to be the perfect way to do show off a newly independent Poland. Apart from the construction of a huge harbour, the city was also filled with new buildings in the modernist style, then considered to be at the forefront of architecture and design.
New, elegant, and monumental buildings were raised along wide the city's alleys which lead onto the sea. The setting inspired the form of these houses, which, with their tall heights, horizontal lines of windows, white facades, and rounded corners, very much resembled ships.
The architects Hanna Adamczewska-Wejchert and Kazimierz Wejchert, on the other hand, had an entirely different concept of urban planning when they were working on the scheme of Tychy. Inspired by modernist visions, they created a city composed of small housing complexes, distributed along two major intersecting streets.
And lastly, Oskar Hansen – the true visionary of urban planning. Throughout the 1960s, together with his wife Zofia, he created a utopian theory, which they called the Linearny System Ciągły (The Linear Consecutive System). It was meant to give order not only to the way of planning cities, but also entire regions. Two apartment block complexes were based on the Hansen principles – the Słowackiego complex in Lublin (1961), and the Przyczółek Grochowski complex in Warsaw (1963). The latter is especially original, comprising 1800 apartments, enclosed within one long and twisted building block, 1.5 km long in total.
There are as many windows are there are days in the year, as many chambers as there are weeks, the 12 great auditoriums are like the 12 months of the year, and for the four seasons, there are the four towers. All of this hides beneath thick walls which resemble a defensive fortress.
This was the Krzysztopór castle in Ujazd, in the Świętokrzyskie voivodeship, built by the magnate Krzysztof Ossoliński between 1620 and 1644. It is said that a huge aquarium was once set in place of a ceiling, and horses in the stalls ate from marble mangers. Unfortunately, only 20 years after the completion of Krzysztopór, the great fortress palace was destroyed by Swedish forces. It was not spared by the subsequent wars, either. Today, Krzysztopór survives in the form of a ruin, but one can still discern the visionary scale of this construction.
The Palace of Culture and Science, raised in the centre of Warsaw in 1955, hardly stirred any smiles among Poles for decades. After all, it was a "gift" from the USSR, an all-too-direct symbol of Soviet dominance over Poland. 25 years after the political transformation of Poland, this 237-metre tall building no longer evokes such negative associations. In 2007, it was even listed as a monument of national heritage. Thanks to its multiple functions (it houses a cinema, theatres, museums, galleries, clubs, administrative offices, and even schools), it is a place that buzzes with life. Its original form, impossible to overlook, has made it a symbol of Warsaw. This skyscraper is a example of the doctrine of socialist realism which reigned in Poland in 1948-56. The doctrine announced that buildings are to be "socialist in their content, and national in their form". The Palace of Culture, at times monikered the "dream of a crazy confectioner", stands out against other buildings in Warsaw with the amount of decoration and detail, and its glamorous, grand interiors are especially worth seeing.
At a time which was difficult for Polish architecture, the 1970s, Edward Modrzejewski displayed an unparalleled imagination. The architect designed a bus station in Kielce, and succeeded in combining functional solutions (the station served as many as 24 thousand passengers each day), with a somewhat fantastic form, identical to the shape of a… UFO. The cash desks are hidden within a double-level rotunda, the interior of which was lit up with convex skylights. The rotunda is embraced by a roof, resembling a planet circumscribed by a ring of asteroids, while providing its visitors and travelling passengers shelter from rain.
Futuristic and cosmic associations are also evoked by one of the most famous Polish buildings, the Spodek (Saucer) arena in Katowice. Raised between 1965 and 1971 according to a design by Maciej Gintowt and Maciej Krasiński, it has a unique, modern construction, and the shape of a slightly tilted cone, crowned with a small, pointy copula. The "Flying Saucer" was built using reinforced concrete and steel, and the facade was plated with metal scales.
In 2006, the city of Toruń also saw a completion of the project which expanded the Baj Pomorski children’s theatre headquarters. Upon its expansion, the theatre building was enclosed by architects Elżbieta and Mateusz Grochocki within a… wardrobe. The facade of the building is made of the wide-open doors of a wardrobe, filled with little drawers and corners that hide surprises for children.
The year 2004, which was the moment of Poland’s official entry into the European Union, also marks a breakthrough for architecture. Access to EU funds and the possibility of obtaining subsidies for construction – hitherto impossible to finance by public investors – resulted in a real building boom. Never before in its history had Poland seen such an amount of public-use buildings built in such a short time. Among them there are numerous cultural venues, concert halls, museums, and buildings of higher education.
The amount of the latter is impressive, indeed, it would even be difficult to name a Polish university which has not recently raised new venues for itself. The forms of these buildings differ greatly from each other. There are examples of paraphrasing the local tradition (the Białystok Polytechnic Library has folk cut-outs in concrete instead of a regular facade, and the colours of one site at the Łódź Academy of Fine Arts evoke works by Katarzyna Kobro). There are also contemporary dynamic forms of glass construction (such as the headquarters of Marie Curie Institute of Computer Engineering in Lublin, the University Library in Zielona Góra, and the Neophilology Department of the Warsaw University). Many of the new buildings which were raised thanks to European funds have permanently altered the character of Polish cities. The building of the Szczecin Philharmonic, evocative of an abstract sculpture, has breathed fresh air into the historic surroundings of Szczecin. The Tadeusz Kantor Museum in Kraków, shaped like a rusty iron bridge stretching over an old electric plant has the same effect on the district of Podgórze. Similar rusty metal sheets were also used for the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk, and, drawing inspiration from the dynamic shape of a ship’s body, the building is supposed to promote knowledge about the activity and merits of the Solidarity movement. The Służewski Dom Kultury (Służew Culture House) has yet a different character and aesthetics.
Opened in the spring of 2014, this small-scale, cosy structure is submerged in the surrounding greenery and, in spite of its modern form, draws inspiration from a country cottage, with wooden houses, fences, and terraces.
Translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 5/12/2014