Small Scale, Big Effect: Architecture in the Provinces
In recent years, smaller Polish towns have been seeing in the emergence of new buildings, adapted to local needs and funds, which still match the quality of more famous constructions in bigger cities. Here we present ten of the most interesting examples.
Museums, cultural centres, opera houses, state-of-the-art concert halls, congress centres and sports facilities – several dozen costly and showy, but certainly essential objects have been built in large Polish cities during the country’s first decade in the European Union. We citizens have been excited with all this new headline-making architecture, especially its international recognition. The new buildings have not only radically changed the architectural landscape of Poland, but also the way we think about our surroundings. They have sparked discussions, invited us to take a second look around ourselves and to evaluate the buildings we function in every day. In other words, it was necessary to build several impressive and head-turning buildings for us to start talking about architecture.
It is important, however, not to forget that this investment boom was strictly related to access to European funds – most of the new public utility buildings were built thanks to financial support from the European Union. The money is running out though, and in a couple of years this form of financial aid won’t be available. Does that mean that there will be no more newsworthy buildings in Poland? Not really – only a slight change of perspective is needed. While the media kept its focus on the flashy designs of museums and philharmonic halls, smaller Polish towns have seen the emergence of new buildings suited to local needs and funds, often just as impressive in quality. It is a prudent idea to take a closer look at these achievements now and learn something from them – when the wave of big public investment is over, Polish architecture will probably realise itself on a smaller scale and these constructions will be singled out as the start of a new architectural epoch.
Simplicity in Silesia
In 2003, a competition was held for the design of a paleontological pavilion in Krasiejów in the Opole region. The new building was supposed to house the Triassic fossils of amphibians and reptiles, including the oldest archosaur skeleton ever discovered: silesaurus opolensis. The first prize in the competition was granted to a joint proposal by two architectural studios: Goczołowie Architekci and Ovo Grąbczewscy Architekci. Oskar Grąbczewski recalled the construction process in Architektura Murator magazine:
We were planning to build a simple, glass pavilion – but it turned out completely different. The municipality wasn’t able to buy the fragment of the land that would allow for an appropriate shaping of the hill, so we had to add a strong retaining wall, and in the end the building was constructed from reinforced concrete. Actually, the additional land would’ve made it much cheaper, but due to this obstacle we did end up with a unique object.
The paleontological pavilion was built in 2009. Two years earlier, Barbara Grąbczewska and Oskar Grąbczewski designed the centre for health and social care in Gierałtowice. The local council governing its 3,500 inhabitants announced a competition for the design of the building, allowing them to choose an original project that could best serve local needs. The architect couple also designed the Museum of Fire, which opened in 2015 in Żory.
The idea here was different – the building, though small, was supposed to stand out. It was constructed next to a busy highway, so to make it more eye-catching the architects covered the expressive façade with shiny fire-coloured copper, creating a flame-like structure. Oskar Grąbczewski commented on the process of designing buildings far from big cities:
It seems that architects can find context as well as guidelines and inspiration anywhere. It's just a matter of their internal work.
Containers and crates
The idea that improvements in the quality of our surroundings doesn't necessarily stem from big investments is best demonstrated by two projects from Poznań. In 2014, Łukasz Nowak and Katarzyna Stawarz-Nowak of trabendo studio had an idea to turn a dishevelled local shop in a brass container into a place adapted to the needs of the neighbourhood. The change may seem insignificant – one metal pavilion was exchanged for another one. However, thanks to the architects, the new blaszak (‘brass-ie’) is a much better fit for this space between blocks of flats in the Grunwald district in Poznań. The glass façade, topped with simple neon, opens the pavilion up to its surroundings, while also creating a much more attractive presentation of the shop's offerings. This simple, almost minimalistic pavilion doesn't interrupt the urban plan of the neighbourhood.
A slightly different makeover idea for a small commercial object was proposed by the architects from mode:lina studio. They adapted the unlikely material of wooden pallets, typically used for transportation, to serve as the basis for the façades and interiors of a wine shop and bar in Poznań. The pallets, painted white and black, turned the 120-square-metre pavilion into a novel edifice that stands out amongst the chaos of the neighbouring buildings.
Pavilions of the province
Trying to fit the local context never makes designing a new object easy. The Yeti advertising agency has its headquarters in Kryspinów near Kraków. Its surroundings are frankly dull – the neighbouring chaotic suburbs are intersected by a motorway junction. Jace Krych, who designed the small building to meet the needs of the agency, decided not to compete with these surroundings. Instead, he created a subtle, almost ethereal form with rounded quoins and a lighted façade made of semi-transparent polycarbonate. Within this minimalistic building, the architect fitted out both the office spaces and a production hall. These two different spaces were given a consistent character through the use of a steel construction and lighting: the building is flooded with soft, dispersed light, entering through semi-transparent façades. At the same time, the colours of the façade were used to differentiate them: office spaces use white polycarbonate and the production hall a grey sheen.
Several years earlier in 2010, Jacek Krych and Dariusz Gajewski designed a small gas station in Siercza near Wieliczka. Here again minimalism dominates, serving as a perfect ‘cure’ for the architectural ills of the surroundings (nearby is a former PGR – a state-controlled agricultural farm) and the conventional ugliness of gas stations. The building of the station, absolutely devoid of details, was designed using contrast: the heavy platform of reinforced concrete holds a light glass pavilion, which in turn is topped off with a ‘cap’ on the tall and flat roof.
Tradition and modernity
In 2014, the municipality of Zduńska Wola opened its Town Hall Integration Centre, built on the site of the old cloth hall, which was historically known among locals as the ‘town hall’ and destroyed during World War II. The architects invoked local history by creating an elegant building with elements characteristic for a town hall, such as a clock tower. Managed by the local cultural centre, the building was designed by 90 Architekci studio. The architects gave it a simple and clear form, with echoes of the geometric architecture of the interwar period and even art deco (elements of which are visible in the form of the open-work tower, coated with milk glass). The building holds two concert halls, lounges, gyms and art studios. The construction of the ‘town hall’ is part of a revitalisation of the old market square (today known as Freedom Square): the simple and elegant building wonderfully complements the square's frontage.
The organically beautiful church
Among contemporary Polish architecture, there aren't many good examples of sacred architecture: new churches are rarely built and the ones that do (usually in the new housing developments) are marked by historicist and unoriginal forms. That made the construction of a tiny riverside chapel-church in Tarnów all the more interesting. Sponsored by a private investor, the construction was completed in 2011. However, due to multiple complications, the church still hasn’t been consecrated yet, so its only attendees are fans of good architecture. Marta Rowińska and Lech Rowiński, architects of the Beton studio, made the most of the unique location – a cliff edge on the wild Vistula river, surrounded by nature. Measuring just 12 metres in height, 9 metres in length and less than 5 metres in width, the church is a wooden construction – its gable roof and side elevations are covered with aspen-wood shingles, while the primary façade is made of wooden boards. The only exception is the gable wall behind the altar – constructed out of a transparent material, it not only allows the light to fill the nave, but also opens up to a view of the picturesque river bend and banks. The project is complemented by its uncovered, visible wooden construction and wooden furniture. Its modest, simple and raw form fits in perfectly with the surrounding landscape.
The architects explained their concept:
The design concept was really simple, almost organic. We wanted to create an unpretentious sacred building that would be inviting to the locals, but also to the nearby Vistula river, the pine forests, birds, foxes and country dogs.
A study in red
Expressive, striking and almost extravagant is the building of the Racibórz Regional Blood Centre, built between 2007 and 2013 following a design by FAAB Architekci. The building, erected during the modernisation of an already existing smaller construction, houses state-of-the-art laboratories with cold storage for biological material, as well as office and conference spaces.
The architects explain:
Inspiration for the design came from the essence of the centre's activity, that is the intersection of biology and technology.
Rounded quoins, ovoid shapes and the characteristic colour are supposed to invoke associations with the biological part of the institution's work. The Racibórz Blood Centre is the first building in Poland to use large-format glazed ceramic panels on such a scale. The façades are covered with over two thousand shiny tiles of different sizes and hues.
Tiny architecture for the tiny ones
Architecture doesn't only mean houses, offices, shops and factories. It is also the small elements of urban infrastructure that make everyday life more pleasant and convenient. Robert Skitek, together with his RS+ team, has made the lives of Tychy’s inhabitants more pleasant through their designs for excellently equipped public spaces. In 2011, a water playground was constructed near Paprocański Lake, resulting in a colourful space for children, consisting of shallow pools with fountains. Today, it is included in every list of the most beautiful playgrounds found worldwide. Between 2012 and 2014, the eastern bank of the same lake was redeveloped to create a recreational walking route, equipped with resting, picnic and sports areas. RS+ studio designed a multi-purpose boardwalk, complete with bespoke furniture and planned in a way that would allow the space to be shared by fans of active recreation and lazing back alike.
A colourful kindergarten
Dorota Sibińska, Filip Domaszczyński, Marta Nowosielska, Natalia Komsta and Anna Prałat, the team of the xystudio designed a pre-school called Yellow Little Elephant on the property of the Forte furniture factory in Ostrów Mazowiecka. The project, finished in 2015, is unique for at least two reasons. Firstly, it's a kindergarten for the children of the factory employees, based upon the initiative of its director (rumour has it that his daughters had something to say about the concept). Even though companies provide care to their employees' children as standard in many countries, in Poland it is rarely practiced.
Secondly, the director decided not only to build a kindergarten, but also to choose a project that was visually interesting. The eventual one-storey building was organised around the interior yard and designed to a child's scale with kid-friendly pastel colours. There are two spaces in the building for pre-schoolers and younger kids (including a nursery), and each of them has its own colour scheme, paired with elements made from light wood. Even though the kindergarten was designed for children specifically, the result is an attractive and aesthetic building enjoyed by adults as well.
By the lake
Olsztyn is a unique town – within the city limits are 16 lakes (14 of which are over a hectare in size). This exceptional characteristic is something the local government wants to use to their advantage. One way to do that is to develop its leisure and tourism infrastructure. In 2014 on the shores of Ukiel, the largest of Olsztyn's lakes, the All-Year-Round Sports and Leisure Centre was made a reality. Chosen through a competition, the design by Dżus GK Architekci combines many functions targeting different types of tourists, from sailing enthusiasts to avid strollers. Multiple lanes link different facilities – a beach, sports fields, playgrounds, leisure terraces, bars and restaurants. Separate routes for biking and walking have been created, along with several sports equipment rental points. All those functions have been fitted into a coherent sprawling complex where the dominating material is wood, used to construct numerous piers and pavements.
Building the readership
Can the architectural form of a library influence the development of its readership? It turns out that it can. During the last couple of years, several new libraries featuring interesting, functional and attractive forms, have appeared. The managers of each of them maintain that the number of readers has increased accordingly. A library in the former railway station in Rumia has even gained fame outside of Poland. The architects of the ISBA Grupa Projektowa designed a library building in Czarny Bór, while the Kucia Tyczyński studio worked on one in Szynwałd. All these buildings stem from two convictions: that stacking a building with books is not enough, and that libraries in smaller towns should also be a meeting place that facilitate local activities and offer people access to various forms of entertainment and cultural events. All the libraries mentioned here include these additional functions, creating attractive spaces designed for meetings, discussions, literary readings and film screenings, both inside and out.
Written by Anna Cymer, translated by Olga Korytowska, March 2016